Homily, Forgiveness
Second Sunday of Easter, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever been hurt by someone and then afterwards felt stuck? Like you couldn’t move on? You kept playing the incident over and over again in your head? It could have been a big thing or a little thing, intentional or unintentional, but whatever it was, it left a mark on you that felt hard to get past.

Such was the case of the disciples in our gospel passage today. In it we encounter a group of people broken by the experience of trauma and death. One of their closest friends had betrayed them. The religious leaders that were supposed to be there to support them, instead were seeking their lives. And their beloved teacher who had promised them so much had been taken from them and executed like a common criminal. It is no wonder our passage describes them huddled behind locked doors in fear.

But it was in the midst of this experience of brokenness that the risen Jesus appeared to them. And upon his appearance he offered them the things you might expect to be offered to those who have experienced pain and fear. In his greeting he offers them peace. In his bodily presence he offers them joy. In his breath he offers them new life. And in his commissioning he offers them purpose. Just the things they needed in that moment of despair.

But Jesus offered them another thing that perhaps at first may have shocked them. He offered them the work of forgiveness. Forgiveness. Can you imagine how hard it would have been for them to think about forgiveness after all they had been through? And yet Jesus calls them to the work of forgiveness. 

In our passage he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” And what does he mean by that? We might think these words give the disciples the prerogative to choose who they want and do not want to forgive, but before we make that assumption, we should take note what Jesus has said about forgiveness in other places. We should remember the Lord’s prayer which says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We should remember what he says to Peter in Mt. 18, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times you should forgive your neighbor.” And we should remember what he says in Mt. 6, “if you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive you.” 

Jesus is not giving his disciples the prerogative to choose who they forgive, Jesus is laying out for them the responsibility to forgive. In other words he says, “if you forgive, you’re doing the work, but if you retain sins, the work is left undone. It’s your responsibility. It’s up to you to make sure forgiveness happens.”

But what does it mean to forgive when you’ve been so brutally hurt by others? What does it mean to forgive when those who’ve wronged you haven’t even apologized or repented? What does mean to forgive when those who caused you pain are still actively seeking your harm? Wouldn’t offering forgiveness in such a circumstance be a pointless exercise in casting pearls before swine?

Well, it depends upon what you mean when you say forgive. When we say forgive we most often mean to pardon or to remove guilt. But in this passage another translation of the Greek word here is “to let go.” Which has many more interpretive possibilities than simply “pardon.” Because while pardoning is normally for someone else’s good, to let go can be just as much about your own good as someone else’s. 

To forgive in this context is to let go of that which is hurting you. It is to let go of that which is preventing you from healing. It is to let go of the power of someone’s else’s actions over you. When we harbor anger or fear or ill-will towards our neighbors, it eats us up. But when we forgive we not only offer new life to our neighbor, we offer it to ourselves. That is practicing resurrection. 

I’m reminded of the tragedy at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC in 2015 in which a white supremacist killed nine people at a bible study. I can only imagine the pain and grief that community experienced in the days and weeks following the incident. I imagine it was similar to what the disciples were going through after the death of Jesus. But two days later, three of the victim’s family members offered forgiveness to the killer. At the time it received a lot of controversy because this person did not deserve forgiveness. But when asked why she forgave him, Polly Sheppard, one of the survivors, said about forgiveness, “You think you’re letting someone else off the hook, but you’re letting yourself off the hook. Because if you don’t have that forgiveness, you’re not gonna heal.” 

In these 50 days of Easter, we celebrate healing. We celebrate resurrection. We celebrate that God is able to take something from death and bring it to life. And forgiveness is a way we participate in that work. In this life we will experience hurt. We will experience betrayal. We will experience death. But the good news of the resurrection is that death does not have to be the end. New life can come out of it. And forgiveness is a means by which resurrection can happen in our lives.

So where in your life do you need healing from a past hurt? Where in your life do you need freedom from the bondage of resentment? Where in your life do you need resurrection? Take up the invitation of Jesus, and forgive. Amen.