Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed.You may notice from the Scripture reading from John that we haven’t moved very far from last week. It’s still the first day of the week. Only now it’s evening instead of morning. What happens today goes hand in hand with what happened last week. And the church has seen fit to make Easter not just a day, but an entire season, stretching from now until Pentecost, this year being May 27th. I think the thought is that the meaning and significance of resurrection is so dense that we have to stay with it for a long while so we can start to unpack it and see what it is that we’re looking at. So we’ve got a number of weeks here to focus on the risen Christ. Each of us probably has in our heads a top five or top ten list of our all time favorite movies. The ones that we’ve seen multiple times and have loved every time, sometimes being able to quote whole chunks of dialogue along with the characters. Toward the top of my list would have to be The Princess Bride. This is the kind of movie that gets funnier each time and after you’ve seen it enough you actually start laughing before the characters deliver their lines. One of these characters is a Spaniard named Inigo Montoya. He’s a great sword fighter and his sole mission in life is to find the six fingered man who killed his father and avenge his father’s death. Throughout the movie he rehearses the line he will say when he finally finds the six fingered man. He will say, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Some of you are smiling and may have heard this line before. Eventually he does encounter the man he’s been searching for and repeats this greeting over and over again as they are sword fighting to the death. “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.”This movie is so great and extraordinary that I hate to critique any of its characters, but unfortunately Inigo Montoya is living within the ordinary, standard version of the human story, albeit rather humorously. The standard version of the human story is that each of us has been wronged in some way and we are in the process of somehow getting back at whomever or whatever has wronged us. Avenging the murder of a family member is a common version of this story. In the ancient world this often involved taking a sevenfold vengeance. The murder of one of ours calls for the killing of seven of theirs. Or 10, or 20. Many scholars think that the Old Testament command of taking an “eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth, life for life” was actually intended as a limitation on this seven fold vengeance and a way of keeping it from spiraling out of control. But this standard story of being wronged and seeking to get even or get back can be much more mundane than avenging a murder. I don’t remember the source, but I’ve read that many people spend their adult lives trying to overcome the way they were classified in high school by their classmates. The geek who was bullied around by the jocks gets the high powered corporate job and becomes the bully to those in lower positions than him or her. The girl that none of the guys paid attention to goes through various relationships in a search for acceptance and self-worth. People carry around with them the bitterness of having been wronged and are, in their own ways, avenging their losses. No matter what the details of the violation or the harm done, the structure of the story is the same – the desire and need to get back and avenge this loss becomes the ordering principle of life. Everything else falls in line around this controlling factor.With where we are at in the gospel story, we must remember that we have just witnessed a murder. It was carried out under the guise of an act of national security, capital punishment on a cross in order to secure the city and appease the local leaders. But it was a killing nonetheless with the dead victim sealed up in a grave. This appears to be the end of the story. Jesus is dead and his followers have fled the scene.But the story does continue with these strange appearances of Jesus to the people he knew before his death. In today’s passage from John, Jesus appears to a number of the disciples who have locked themselves away in a house for fear that the same people who killed Jesus would be coming after them. And so the standard story would go that Jesus is back for vengeance, back to make things even. Back to punish his friends who abandoned him, or perhaps try to persuade and enlist them in a campaign to get back at the bad guys who killed him. This would be the expected scenario, the one that has been played out across the entire scope of human history. The story that many people and nations continue to live under.So we may expect something akin to the spirit of Inigo Montoya speaking to the disciples with his famous greeting all planned out and ready to go. Maybe not telling them to prepare to die, but signing them up for the revenge business. Jesus does have a greeting. A phrase he says three times. Twice in a row at the beginning and then once again when he appears later when Thomas is present. The greeting is “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” I mentioned last week that John very intentionally places the resurrection story in a garden as a way of talking about a new kind of creation that is happening here. In the Bible, the garden is a place of beginnings. In case we need backup assurance of what John is trying to teach us, he mentions again that this is the first day of the week. John who began his gospel with the Genesis/ creation like phrase “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” Is now ending his gospel by letting us know that we have arrived back at the Genesis moment of creation, the first day. The beginning of a new story. The creation that was snarled up from the beginning now being released so it can flow as it was intended. Jesus does seek to enlist them in a mission. After repeating his greeting “Peace be with you” he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new story. And this mission has a very specific theme. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Forgiveness is what opens up the possibility of living out a different sort of human story. For the disciples, the experience of being visited by the resurrected Jesus and the experience of forgiveness happen simultaneously. In the standard story of revenge and getting even, one death calls for another death. One loss calls for another loss. Death leads to death and we’re all caught up in it and controlled by it. But in resurrection, death and loss are contained within the care of a God who is eternally alive and offers back life. And so resurrection and forgiveness go hand in hand.
As Jesus has been sent, so we have been sent. The tired human story cloaked in death is made new by those who begin to live out the mission of forgiveness. The pervasive spirit of getting even is replaced with the spirit Jesus offers. As the text says, “He breathed on them and said to them, receive the Holy Spirit.” It’s worthwhile noting here that in Greek there is one word pneuma which means breath, spirit and wind. So this isn’t just Jesus getting in the disciples’ personal space by breathing on them, but sharing this holy breath of forgiveness in place of the unholy breath of the life of revenge. The presence of this spirit, wind, breath here is yet another allusion to the Spirit of God that was hovering over the waters in Genesis. The creation of our social world is happening anew.
One of the best examples of forgiveness we have had recently has been the Amish in Nickel Mines, PA after a man entered their schoolhouse and shot and killed several girls and himself. We can imagine a fictional scenario that matches up with this scripture. Imagine the widow of the killer soon after the shootings happened. She’s aware of what her husband has done and aware that a number of innocent girls have been killed. She’s at home with her kids still in shock and confusion. She has just locked her door, but now there is a knock. She can tell there’s not just one person outside, but a group of people. Maybe it’s the police wanting to interrogate her. Did she know anything about this ahead of time? Did she have any part in planning or organizing this? Maybe it’s the press wanting to drag her out into the cameras and make a story of her in front of the country. Worse yet, maybe it’s the parents of the girls who have been killed – ready to curse her and demand punishment and maybe even, in an act of rage, hurt her own children. Well, eventually she does open the door. And she finds herself trembling in front of a number of elders from the Amish community. And they could say anything to her. They could do anything to her. These who have just lost their daughters. But they say this: “Peace be with you.” It might not have unfolded just like that, but that essentially sums up what happened. And that essentially sums up what has happened to the disciples.It’s unfortunate that forgiveness itself has been twisted out of shape many times in how it gets taught. There is the common phrase, “forgive and forget.” As if it is necessary or even possible to forget the harm that is done to us. This advice is especially distressing for those who have undergone different forms of abuse. Forgiveness has very little to do with forgetting the pain or forgetting that a particular person has hurt you. Notice again the scripture, after Jesus first says “Peace be with you.” “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” The presence of scars is made known. This is not a sparkly clean Jesus. This is a victim of crucifixion. He essentially says, ‘I’d like to show you the marks of death I carry around with me that continue to remain with me.’ Living in resurrection doesn’t mean that the marks of death are forgotten, they’re simply contained within a larger reality – the reality of a God who is fully alive and giving of life. For those who have suffered deeply at the hands of another, the process of forgiveness may take decades, perhaps a lifetime. But within a person’s own spirit, the breath of God slowly works to clear out the poisonous air of hatred and self-destruction and desire for revenge, so that the breath of these words can begin to give new life. “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” And at some point forgiveness can blossom – being able to acknowledge that the scars are still present while being able to wish peace toward the perpetrator. Thomas is a late comer in this passage and he introduces the element of doubt that is always present when we speak of resurrection. How in the world do you ever become convinced of resurrection? What is it that produces belief in resurrection? In John’s gospel, the best answer is given in one word – forgiveness, the presence of forgiveness. Thomas hears the words spoken to him, “Peace be with you,” he places his hands in the very wounds of the person who has just wished him peace and not harm, and he believes. Belief in resurrection and experiencing forgiveness go hand in hand. Imagine what kind of belief is created when a community like the Amish who has suffered great loss acts out of a reflex for forgiveness, despite their gaping wounds that haven’t even had time to develop scar tissue. Imagine what kind of belief may be created when Inigo Montoya encounters his six fingered enemy, and slightly changes his greeting to say: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to live.” Such acts like this would be hard for someone like Thomas to argue with. They are signs that death is being overcome with life and no longer holds power over us. In John, the reality of resurrection is directly tied to the reality of forgiveness. If the disciples choose the path of withholding forgiveness of others, they are denying the power of the resurrection. If they choose the path of forgiveness, they become witnesses to the resurrection and the new creation of Christ. In closing, hear these words from Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury: “There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.” Whenever we experience or give forgiveness we are able to say, “Christ is risen indeed”