Sunday, June 4, 2017

Forgiveness and Peace

Pentecost, June 4, 2017
The Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

There are three major feast days in our liturgical year: Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus; Easter, when we celebrate his resurrection; and today, 50 days after Easter, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is called Pentecost. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised that he would not leave his disciples comfortless. He would not abandon them, but send an Advocate, a spirit of truth, a faithful companion to join them on their journeys. The Holy Spirit is always with us, reconciling us first to God, and then to others. And so, there you have it, the basic long arc of our New Testament story, as we celebrate this third high point in our Christian lives today.
But you and I know that life is not all high points. As much as we might like to try, we can’t stay on the mountaintop. There are plenty of low points, indeed, even bottoms in our journeys; and there is always the rising and falling in between. As we ride the roller coaster of life, we go up and feel good; we go down and feel bad. Often we just coast in the middle for long stretches of time, not really living, only just surviving, until something significant happens.
If we listen to the news, we know that there is plenty of bad “stuff” “out there.” Yesterday’s tragedy in London is a case in point. I think that sometimes we are drawn to the drama of such situations because it makes us feel less alone, or maybe not as bad about ourselves, or our own situations. It also increases our fear..
It was high drama in the lives of the disciples after their beloved leader, Jesus, was crucified. In fact, it was the evening of the Sunday after Jesus’s crucifixion, when the disciples locked themselves away in the room for fear that they too might be crucified. And then, in the middle of their fear, Jesus stepped into the room. Quite frankly, if I had just been betrayed, denied, and abandoned by my friends and followers, they wouldn’t be the first people that I visited after my resurrection. And the words “peace” and “forgiveness” wouldn’t be the first words that came out of my mouth. But then, I’m not Jesus.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace be with you” and then He showed them his hands and his side. Why, I wondered? Was this because the disciples didn’t recognize him at first. Was his resurrected body that much different from the previous one? Or was Jesus showing them that his wounds were real, and that yes, he had actually died? Maybe he needed to acknowledge that He had been harmed; and yet he was still willing to forgive.
I imagine that everyone in this room struggles with forgiveness. It’s only natural; in fact, it’s human. We have trouble forgiving people who have harmed us, and believing that we’ve been forgiven ourselves. We all have inner wounds that are spiritual, mental, and emotional. Unlike the wounds that Jesus had on his hands and side, our wounds aren’t always visible. Perhaps we’ve hidden them behind locked doors, in rooms of fear and pain, out of self-protection. Or maybe we’ve been harmed and so we feel justified, even self-righteous, when we verbally and physically lash out at others. We convince ourselves that we can’t help it, that the devil made us do it, or that others deserve our punishment.
Conflict is ever present in our human relationships. It’s only natural; in fact, it’s human. In the very first book of the Bible, we are told a story about jealousy, how Cain killed his brother Abel. This is sibling rivalry at its worst! Last week in the reading from 1 Peter, we were warned to “be sober, be watchful. Our adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.”
Conflict often begins at home, before we take it out of our doors and onto the streets. Without first pausing to reflect within ourselves, we engage people as if we are armed for battle. Fearful, we forget to put on the armor of God, as St. Paul suggested in his letter to the Ephesians: We need to put “shoes on our feet to make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Stepping out of our locked rooms, we can “take the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Individually, and together, we can pray for peace.
Our journey of healing begins with forgiveness.
An often repeated story is the one about two wolves. (Quote) “An old Indian grandfather said to his grandson who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice. ‘Let me tell you a story,’ the grandfather said. ‘I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.”
“He continued, ‘It is as if there are two wolves inside me; one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all those around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. He saves all his energy for the right fight.”
“But the other wolf, ahhh! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes it is hard to live - with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”
The boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, ‘Which one wins, Grandfather?’ The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, “‘The one I feed’.” (End quote)
First, we must forgive ourselves, knowing that we are forgiven by God. If we do not believe that we have been forgiven, we cannot forgive others in that same Spirit. And we must forgive others, for our own sakes, if not for God’s sake. “Just forgive”, Jesus said to his disciples from the cross. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the Lord’s prayer, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others who have trespassed against us. Some of us need to repeat that prayer every day of our lives; indeed sometimes every minute if necessary.
Forgiveness: ask for it, then just do it. Pray for it, until you know it. Receive the Spirit and feel the peace and power of that adrenaline rush. Today feed the good wolf!
Jesus was wounded every day of his life; in fact, He died from the wounds inflicted upon him. No longer the leader of his people, he died as an innocent man. And yet, God vindicated him, and raised him from the dead. By his blood, he reconciled us. By his wounds, we are healed. God’s mission of reconciling all people to God and to one another was accomplished through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through Him, we are a people forgiven and set free! That is our story!
In Greek, “to forgive” means to be “set free.” We are free for a purpose - to share the life-giving, liberating, forgiving love of Jesus. And through the Holy Spirit, we can say ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Stepping into the room, where the disciples had locked themselves away in fear, Jesus brought the Spirit with him. Peacefully, and personally, he breathed his Spirit on to all of them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “You are forgiven; now go, and forgive others, just as I have forgiven you.”
“Receive the Spirit,” Jesus said. Breathe it in now. Drink from the One Spirit of God, so that we, who follow Him, can become agents of peace. Together, we have a variety of gifts, but it is the same Spirit in all of us that empowers us for good. Come Holy Spirit, and help us to renew the face of the earth.
Amen.