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Forgiveness – God’s Work and Ours

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
April 12, 2021
John 20:19–23

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

—Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948)
Indian Lawyer, Nationalist and Non-violence Activist

About 20 years ago Catholic thinker John Carroll wrote the groundbreaking book Constantine’s Sword, in which he detailed the shameful and unchristian way that the Christian church had persecuted and promoted prejudice against Jews virtually since our founding. One image from his book has stuck in my head. He talked about how the Vatican sits upon a high hill in Rome, and crouched at its feet for two thousand years, basically locked outside its gate, is the Jewish quarter of Rome, Trastevere. To him it was a disturbing symbol of the attitude of the church to the Jewish people—that they were outside, locked out and inferior, subject to and completely at the mercy of the Christian community.

Carroll criticized the Vatican because he’s a faithful Catholic himself. But this book is really an indictment of Christianity as a whole. The justification for all these centuries of Christian persecution of Jews has been, of course, the false narrative that they were Christ-killers. I have addressed this before but it’s worth noting that, a) Jesus and his disciples were themselves Jews, as were the earliest Christians; b) that the Gospel witness indicates quite clearly that the reason the Jewish leadership wanted Jesus dead was because he was SO POPULAR with the Jewish people that they were afraid he would cause a rebellion against Rome; and c) the decision to kill Jesus was in the hands of the ROMAN GENTILE procurator, Pontius Pilate.

I can’t emphasize these points enough, especially the point about Jesus’ popularity. The problem Jesus had was not that Jews hated him, but that they loved him. It was perceived as a threat to the Temple’s religious leadership and to Roman hegemony, and so he was killed—not by the people but by their oligarchs—a sadly familiar story.

This image of the Vatican perched above the Jewish quarter comes to mind as I read our gospel lesson today. I read it as “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jewish Leaders.” What it really says is “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” I read it as “Jewish leaders” because I find the real reading both offensive to friends like Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger and Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, and also inaccurate. The disciples feared arrest and possible execution from power-hungry oligarchs, not the Jewish people.

The real issue that Carroll is trying to address is the shocking Christian—meaning all of us!–persecution of Jews for two millennia, fueled by misplaced hatred but also because of fear—a fear we still hear about among those who believe that secret Jewish cabals run the government or the film industry or that there are secret Jewish space lasers in the sky.

“Fear of the Jews” has for centuries been an excuse for the inexcusable.

I thought of the Vatican perched above Trastevere because it so well illustrates that image of a Christian gated community locking itself away in false security from those whom we fear.

The Good News, of course, is that even a locked door can’t keep out the resurrected Jesus. He comes among them and says, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so now I send you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

There’s so much happening here. Jesus appears to people who feel powerless and tells them they have the power of the Holy Spirit. But then, he tells them that the extraordinary power the Spirit gives them—is FORGIVENESS.

It is as if forgiveness is the power they need to break out of their self-imposed prison. It is as if forgiveness is the power they need to overcome their fear of the OTHER. It is as if the main thing the world needs, that Jesus came to the earth to give them, as if the most important thing that the disciples are sent out to do, that you and I are sent out to do, is to FORGIVE. It is as if the most important thing that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in the world to do is to FORGIVE.

Forgiveness does open the doors of our self-imposed prisons. It is true that to forgive is to free yourself as much as it is to free anyone else. One of the biggest challenges to our acceptance of God’s gracious love and mercy is the fact that we can’t forgive ourselves. Sometimes we view ourselves as irredeemable—as so bad that even God couldn’t forgive us. Then we lock ourselves away in that self-imposed prison.

One of the hardest things for us to believe is the extent and breadth and depth of God’s limitless mercy and love—the absolute power of God’s grace. Nothing we can do can thwart God’s grace or make God turn God’s back on us. Nothing.

And that isn’t just true for us. It’s true for everyone—including those whom we hate and fear.

Sometimes for us Christians the super-emphasis on our sinfulness becomes obsessive, convincing us that God is more interested in condemning us than forgiving us. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Jesus says in John 3:17, “The Son came into the world not to condemn the world, but that through him the world would be saved.” God is not about condemnation. Forgiveness is the power of God at work in the world. Forgiveness is God’s work of healing—of ourselves, of each other, of the world, of our relationship with God. As our scripture makes clear, forgiveness is the power that God gives the Holy Spirit to facilitate God’s work in the world. Nothing can thwart God’s forgiveness.

But core to the Christian message is that this power of God’s grace is given to us, God’s people. We Christians have the power to forgive in the name of God. And that brings me back to the way Christians have treated Jews for all these centuries. Ultimately it reflected our failure to do what God requires of us—to forgive. Forgive what, you ask? Good question. As I’ve pointed out, they didn’t do anything wrong. But we imagined their guilt, and we could not forgive them for it. We locked ourselves away from them, yes—but more tellingly, we locked them into a trap of our own making. Our locked room locked them into a more terrible locked room. Only recently has the harsh reality of the Holocaust forced us to look at this with terrifying clarity.

We often hold grudges or judge people–even whole groups, classes and races of people–as guilty for sins that objectively are not actually sins at all. We refuse to forgive them for things that objectively are not actually wrong. Often it is made-up stuff, like blaming the Jews for killing Jesus. Other times we hold against others things like their race or ethnicity or their sexual orientation or their political points of view. Essentially we blame other people for being different from us. We blame them for being OTHER. They have different values, skin tones, sexual preferences, political views and we just can’t forgive them for it.

I am struck by the fact that the disciples are locked away for fear of the other and Jesus appears and tells them the answer is to FORGIVE. The answer to fear—is to forgive. It makes sense. Perhaps the thing we find hardest to forgive is how “other” other people are. Ultimately the reason we can’t forgive “otherness” is because we fear it. We fear difference.

We even demonize difference. It’s so clear in our politics today. Listen to what extremists on both sides say about “the other.” They call them evil. I have never heard one American call another American “evil” in public discourse as much as I hear it today.

When you call people evil that means you fear them.

And Jesus says the solution to fear is to forgive.

I want to be careful here. A friend of mine told me once how hurtful it was when his Fundamentalist mother told him she “forgave him for being gay.” I cannot emphasize enough how manipulative that is, or how sinful such so-called “forgiveness” is. As I have said, the fact that I am holding a grudge doesn’t mean that the person I am angry with or hurt by has done anything wrong. I am the one in the wrong, not them. I must forgive to free myself—to unbind myself from cruelties and prejudices that lock me away from others and in the process make me oppress them as well.

And so perhaps “unbinding” is a better term. A common biblical metaphor for forgiveness is “unbinding.” To forgive is to set ourselves and others free from the restraints that bind us, to make us able to love as God loves and live as Christ lives and empower us to accept and love others.

Likewise the opposite of forgiveness is “binding.” It is wrapping someone in chains from which there is no escape. The worst thing about it is that when we Christians do it, we do it in the name of God. For centuries the church has engaged in binding people up in chains that make them unable to live freely and to feel like God does not and cannot love them. It leaves them standing outside the door of the church’s locked room and no matter how hard they knock, we do not let them in.

We have done that to people of other religious backgrounds or racial backgrounds or different sexual orientations—even of different theological points of view within Christianity. This symbolic binding has had real world consequences: economic and social ostracism, enslavement, socially acceptable prejudice and intolerance, imprisonment and death—all in the name of Jesus Christ.

But the Good News is that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to unbind by giving us the power to forgive. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to overcome our fears by giving us the power to forgive. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to open the doors of the church’s locked room by giving us the power to forgive.

Throughout the Bible the power to forgive is the power of God. In the Gospel, forgiveness becomes the power God gives God’s people for the healing of the world. For instance, in the Lord’s Prayer every petition of the prayer is a petition for God to act—except one. Only one is an ethical imperative that the person who is praying must act upon. That is this: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer we pray that God’s Kingdom will come to earth, the one thing that you and I are called to do in order to bring about that Kingdom of God, the only thing we are called and expected to do, is FORGIVE.

I know that people worry that forgiveness can be over-emphasized—that God’s grace can be over-emphasized. (Think about that.) That it’s a slippery slope that can lead to the church throwing out all our values because we’re trying so hard to welcome and love and forgive everyone.

But let me humbly suggest that the church has tried judgmentalism, condemnation, intolerance and political and economic power for the last two millennia and to judge by how things stand today, those things haven’t served us well at all. We have tried binding up others for years and looks where it’s gotten us—and the world.

Maybe it’s about time the church tried unbinding. Maybe it’s about time we tried grace. Maybe it’s about time we tried forgiveness.

Maybe it’s about time we gave Jesus’ way a shot.

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