Easter 2 C: Peace in Action: Forgiving and Not Forgiving

The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter are:

First Reading         Acts 5:27–32

Psalm                    Psalm 118:14–29 or Psalm 150

New Testament     Revelation 1:4–8

Gospel                   John 20:19–31

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus was right when he insisted that things are not—they are becoming. They are in a constant state of flux, the only constant is change, and, “No one ever steps in the same river twice.”

This is why we are always disappointed when we seek status quo “peace.” Wishing that things would go back to the “good ole days” before the pandemic, before the culture wars, and before the war of annihilation of Ukraine that Putin calls “liberation,” will definitely not make it so. That status quo never existed. Real life is always dynamic.

And so, Jesus is insistent, in John 14:27, that he does not give the peace the world gives. That peace is an illusion of golden age stasis—an illusion that peace is a warm and cozy cocoon of changelessness. True peace is in motion, and we must take our part in it or it will not be a reality in our lives.

Just so the Resurrection Life that Jesus bequeaths to the disciples is a living, ever moving thing. It is peace in action with several moving parts: the proof of wounds, the sending, the breathing, the Holy Spirit, the mission of forgiving and not forgiving.

Our world today is greatly in need of all of these moving parts.

One sign of the anemia of atheism and skepticism is the perennial scandal taken over the incarnation, and the truth of a suffering God. Jesus insists on cross and wounds as the core of all meaning. It is the thing all of us must actively focus on if we are to understand and accept the true God and the true nature of human existence. The hour of glory is the hour of the cross because it makes God real. It reveals to us a God who actually cares enough to be wounded and even die for the sake of compassion. Atheists consistently reject theism as belief in wishful thinking for a way around suffering. The divine Jesus insists we take suffering absolutely seriously and work though it by keeping our eyes on his cross. 

The peace the Risen One gives is a peace in action. As Jesus is divine love in action (for God so loved the world), just so is each believer who is sent along the path Jesus pioneered. We cannot be believers without mission and purpose. Any fight for the freedom of religion as a freedom to simply accept concepts of faith, to win arguments, or to stubbornly stay put in the past, is an exercise in futility.  

As in chapter 14 of John, the peace Jesus gives is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the teacher. We recognize spirit in ourselves when we are excited—when we are pleased to overcome our inertia and move in a different way. But it is the Holy Spirit that moves us to not only a higher dimension of value in our lives, but The Highest Value.

That highest dimension of value comes into focus when Jesus adds finally that our peace comes as we forgive and retain sin. That is, we forgive, and we pronounce some things as unforgiven:

Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

My first impulse, when reading this was to think peace-in-action is all about forgiveness. After all, I’m a compassionate Christian, aren’t I? And compassion is all about bringing love, not hate—acceptance, not judgment.

What’s more, I can’t help but be influenced by centuries of ethical relativism that has taught us that morality is a matter of taste; and if there are such things as objective values that are shared by the culture and community we happen to live in, those  values are absolutely relative. And recent events have proven the case of relativism. Whether vaccines are life saving or a threat to freedom depends entirely on your religion and politics. The same holds true now for the benefits of fostering social and emotional maturity in schools. Democrats are for it, and Republicans deadly opposed.

But thinking only in terms of forgiveness can well be an expression of relativism. We are relativists if we believe all must be forgiven, since the whole matter of the dignity of all people, and the value of promoting respect for that dignity, is ultimately just a matter of political and cultural identity.

But Jesus says the living peace that the Holy Spirit gives us is an active thing. We must be the people who forgive, but also refuse to forgive those who deny to others what values they cherish for themselves.

Here is where the wounds of Christ come back into the scene. Here is where the Holy Spirit comes back in, because she is the one who forces us to focus on the sacrificial giving of God—the cross and blood of Christ.

The ultimate value of knowing what we need to flourish, and sacrificially working to guarantee those things to others, is what cross and wounding is all about. These things are neither subjective nor relative. This is not a matter of taste or of political persuasion, or culture. It is a divine and ultimate absolute. So we know peace when we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit that confirms this value in us at the cross–when we forgive sins, but refuse to forgive the lack of respect and compassion for all.

Finally, I feel it is my responsibility, as a follower of Christ, to renounce and refuse to forgive the way so many Republican politicians are today trying to amass power for themselves by smearing Democrats. They have fallen under the spell of yet another power-at-any-price, satan of smear–this time, Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute. They are “bearing false witness” in hyper drive by calling all appeals to take responsibility to make amends for America’s history of racism racism itself. They are now digging their “false witness” hole deeper still by coming out against character formation in schools that emphasize cooperation, respect, and emotional self-awareness. They are committing slander on a grand scale when they label any teaching of  respect of all people “grooming.”  This cannot be forgiven as it is a denial of the absolute good Christ died for. Such respect is not relative to political persuasion. It is a universal value.

Christ died for all, regardless of race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, or political party. Christ rose again and gives the Holy Spirit that we might be in mission, and so live in peace with this truth.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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