Sermon: The Power of Forgiveness
The Power of Forgiveness
April 19, 2020

Within the first few days of staying at home because of the pandemic, I noticed something about myself that surprised me.  And not in a good way.

I’m not sure whether it was because of my fear of Coronavirus or fear of its economic consequences for our country; or if it was because of an overwhelming sense of uncertainty; or if it was my reaction to my husband’s feelings about what’s been happening; or if it could be all of the above…but I became very aware that some of my old, unskillful patterns of responding to trauma, to my inner wounds, were getting kicked up. 

It’s not uncommon that when we are under a great deal of stress, as all of us have been since the public health crisis started, that we default to old habits for coping. Perhaps some of you can relate.  In the face of intense distress, we often rely on coping mechanisms that can help us in the short term, but that over time don’t serve us so well. Also, we may have ways of responding to stress that we aren’t fully aware of on a conscious level.  We might have created a narrative about the causes of our past distress or we may begin to create a narrative about why we feel distressed that in the moment makes sense, but is not actually accurate or helpful and in fact can cause even greater problems for us in the moment      and in the future.

All of us carry wounds in one way or another.  Some are physical; some, emotional; some spiritual.  Sometimes, all of the above. Our wounds tell part of the story of who we are. How we understand our wounds can have a huge impact on how we see ourselves, others and God. Our understanding of our wounds can bring us closer to God and other people or can distance us from God and others.  The stories we tell ourselves about our own painful experiences can be the difference between inner darkness and inner freedom. 

In today’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples.  One week ago, when he greeted Mary Magdalene, there is no specific mention of his physicality, of his wounds.  But, today, Jesus makes a point of showing the disciples his wounded hands and side. Thomas, who was not with the other disciples the first time Jesus appears to them, demands to see his wounds: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” and Jesus responds “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

 The wounds of Jesus do not disappear in his resurrected state!

During Holy Week, my husband, David, and I, watched Franco Zefferelli’s movie, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Though there are many inaccuracies and questionable dramatizations, watching the movie (seeing the story of Jesus, not just reading it) reminded me of Jesus’ humanity: that a very human Jesus asked his friends for something  simple – for them to stay awake with him in the garden before he died and they were not able to do it. A very human Jesus knew that Peter would not be able to withstand the intimidation of the authorities or the questions of onlookers, and would deny even knowing him. A very human Jesus was beaten by guards and had nails pounded through his hands as he was crucified.

The pain, the trauma, that Jesus endured – emotional, spiritual, and physical – is beyond what most of us have ever experienced or will likely, I hope and pray, ever experience.  

One of the miracles of Jesus’ resurrection is that even as his wounds and scars persist, the spirit of love, the spirit of forgiveness frees him from their power.  Through the power of love and forgiveness Jesus is able to see the disciples not as worthless, spineless failures, but as brothers, which is how he identifies them to Mary Magdalene.  The Risen Christ, though denied by the disciples, does not deny them from getting what they need in order to see that he is, in fact, raised from the dead.

The resurrected Jesus carries his wounds, but is not defined by them and does not define others by them.

The resurrected Jesus shares his wounds, so that his disciples would not be defined by the trauma of the wounds that came from witnessing his crucifixion or the potentially deeper wounds could have come from betraying him.

And how does he do this? Through forgiveness.  

The power of forgiveness allows Jesus to come through the trauma of his own crucifixion and still see those who let him down and even those who betrayed him and hurt him, with love. The resurrected Jesus does not allow the way his dearest friends treated him at the hour of his greatest need to define their relationship.  

Perhaps the most unhappy people I have met in my life, are those who have not found a way to heal from their wounds; folks who look back on the pain in their life and are not able to forgive others or themselves for what happened. They remain attached to a story about what happened that is so small that it keeps their hearts locked behind closed doors. 

I think of one man I know, Harry,  whose father, Ron, made some pretty big mistakes as a Dad, but simply did not have the insight, guidance or support to do things differently.  His Dad would tell you that he did the best he could under incredibly stressful circumstances of trying to provide for a large family on meager wages. Even though Ron changed and has softened over the years, becoming someone who went out of his way to help a disabled brother and volunteered countless hours to help people going through a bad time in his community, and is now quite aged and vulnerable himself, Harry can still only see him through the narrow lens of his mistakes as a young father.  Because of this, Harry refuses to have anything to do with his Dad. Without forgiveness, Harry and his Dad will remain estranged, not at peace. 

I think of another friend, a nurse, Sheila, whose mother, Carol, physically abused her as a child, burning cigarettes into her skin. When Sheila became a mother, she developed a new appreciation for her mother’s own struggles. Even though they had been estranged for over 20 years, when Sheila found out that Carol was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, Sheila reached out to her and offered to help.  This opened the door to a renewed relationship. They were able to get to know each other as imperfect adults. Carol was able to ask for forgiveness for the ways she had fallen short as a mother. By the time of her death, both Sheila and Carol were at peace with each other, each freer in spirit. 

It’s quite likely that there will be many people deeply wounded, even traumatized, by their experience of this pandemic: doctors who have to choose who does and who does not get a ventilator; nurses who recognized that their patients were dying without family members nearby, but didn’t have time to sit with them either; individuals who tested positive for the Coronavirus and unwittingly passed it on to their loved ones, some of whom have died; those who lost loved ones and were not able to say goodbye; those who have lost jobs and are unable to pay their bills; those whose mental health issues have been exacerbated and more. There will be an immense need for healing when we get to the other side of this pandemic. 

How can we have the courage of Thomas to look at and touch with compassion the wounds of the risen Christ as they appear to us  in those who are being scarred by this pandemic? 

Spiritual master Henri Nouwen writes, “The situation which brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering.  Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity. Paradoxically, therefore, healing means moving from your pain to the pain. When you keep focusing on the specific circumstances of your pain, you easily become angry, resentful, even vindictive…. Real healing comes from realizing that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain.  That realization allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.”

The one who is no stranger to pain made a promise at the Last Supper to his disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” and that is exactly what he does for his disciples, for Thomas, and for us. It is the Risen Jesus who walks through the locked doors of our homes, hospitals, and most especially our hearts, bearing his own wounds, that says “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you. “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.”

The peace that Jesus offers us today comes from forgiveness; from the ways he forgives us and the ways we are empowered to forgive others. The times we find ourselves in “a deeply triggered state,” like I did as this pandemic began, is often because of some unhealed wound in our past. 

It  can be useful to try to understand why we are so upset, to gently allow ourselves to return to the wound and the story we carry with it. Praying earnestly to be able to see things differently, especially to see differently those people that we perceive had hurt us, we can begin with God’s grace to peel a layer on the onion of forgiveness. By doing so, we can experience a radical shift in the way we think and feel about what is upsetting us in the present moment. We can find a peace that surpasses understanding.

As Henri Nouwen so wisely says, “Your future depends upon how you choose to remember your past.” The Risen Christ comes to us bearing his wounds, forgiving and freeing those who have hurt him. He allows Thomas – and us – to touch his pain, to touch his wounds that we might be free from ours. Through the power of forgiveness, we can have new life in his name.  Amen!