Peace Be With You: Following the Way of Forgiveness – The Rev. Shannon Preston – Church Building

Text and audio available

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. [1]

Peace be with you. [2]

On 38th Street in Austin, and I’m sure there are other places like this, there is a series of intersections where there is a sign posted next to the stoplights that has an arrow pointing left with a diagonal line over it.  I recognize my understanding is limited, but I the conclusion I return to again and again is that this sign signals there is no left turning at this intersection. This week, along with a few other times, I found myself stopped behind a line of cars as one car ahead waits to turn left.  The sign suddenly makes sense to me and sticks out vividly.  However, the words running through my mind, and sometimes my lips, are often different than those I think our gospel passage prescribes.  The words of Jesus: Peace be with you.

When Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection he finds them locked in a room afraid of those who had killed their Lord and, perhaps for good reason, concerned for their own life.  The first words Jesus speaks are not “oh how great is your faith” or “you all, I’ve risen!”  It is not an answer to questions the disciples may have had like “What happened? What do we do next?” Rather when he appears two days after his crucifixion he says, ‘Peace be with you.”  Indeed, these words may speak to the surprise and fear the disciples may have had at that moment but, perhaps, they also speak to the response, the reality of Jesus two days after being put to death—he does not return seeking retaliation but first utters these words of peace.  Two days after being put to death, Jesus blesses those around him with an offering of peace. And soon after– a message about forgiveness.

What might open their locked doors? The literal doors around the disciples and those of their heart?

Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in The Book of Forgiving co-authored with his daughter Mpho writes, “Forgiveness opens the door to peace between people and opens the space for peace within each person.”[3]

In Xhosa, the Tutu’s native dialect, peace and forgiveness are woven tightly together– how one asks for forgiveness is by saying the equivalent of “I ask for peace.” [4]

And In their book, the Tutu’s share two “simple” truths:

  • there is nothing that cannot be forgiven and
  • there is no one underserving of forgiveness.[5]

In this book, they mix stories, sharing and instruction/practices of how to forgive anyone, for anything.  They declare every small and large act of forgiveness leads to peace. And the stories they share involve parents forgiving those who have murdered their children, blacks in apartheid Africa forgiving a racist country, and general references to forgiving those who have hurt, angered, or betrayed us and our dignity in some way.  They map out what forgiveness is not: not easy, not weak, not a subversion of justice, not forgetting and not quick[6]—Jesus, God made man, did not rise the next day.

And they share a fourfold path to forgive: telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship.  It is not an easy book to read as it requires the one granting forgiveness to enter the pain of the hurt, the anger of feeling betrayed etc.—it asks us to go through the pain to come out freed forgiving those who have harmed us or who we have harmed.  Our gospel names this truth, Thomas does not at first believe—so Jesus has him touch the wounds.  Truth matters.  The wounds do not disappear, they are not numbed away or covered up.  The scar remains in some form but rather than continuing to hurt as it initially did, it is transformed into a part of who he is now.  Pretending there was not hurt is not one of the options for true forgiveness. [7]

It is a discipline of following Jesus to choose forgiveness and not retaliation and it is what we are welcomed into as followers of Christ.  It is not an easy path, but it is the path of life.

In the Christian faith we mark the beginning of this Christ-like life with baptism.  We say each week in our creed our belief in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

While living in London in 2015, I was able to attend the baptism on one of our community members.  Rebecca was baptized at a more charismatic Church of England housed in what was once a Baptist church.  It had a baptistry that remained from the earlier manifestation. In other words, they had a pool on one side of their church. At the time of baptism we all processed over to the baptismal pool and watched as Rebecca and the priest stepped down into this pool with water coming up to their waist.  Then the priest held Rebecca, supporting her head as he dipped her backwards, pushing her under the water so that she was submerged.  When he was ready he brought her back up out of the water and she emerged baptized.  Totally drenched but baptized.  At Good Shepherd, our font has a somewhat tamer form of being covered in the water of the Holy Spirit.  Nonetheless, while lovely and so cute and joyful, baptism in not sweet or nice.  I think perhaps part of the adrenaline; the excitement of baptism comes from the recognition that I think most all of us would be slightly scared being dipped backwards into a pool by someone else. (Crying is totally understandable even though this is a happy occasion!)  The wonder of new life with and in Christ in baptism always holds with it the moment of being underwater and with that the reality of, not to put a damper on it (I use damper intentionally), a reality of drowning—death.  We enter the water and in it we enter a life with Christ that involves dying to ways that do not belong to Christ.  Our God, Christ, in today’s gospel shows us the way to new life, the way of life is through forgiveness.  “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.”  In our prayers for the baptismal candidates we pray: “Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit.”[8]

In The Book of Forgiving we are told “Each time we are injured, we stand at the same fork in the road and choose to travel either the path of forgiveness or the path of retaliation.” [9]   The way of forgiveness—the way of the Holy Spirit– opens us to compassion for others, love for others and compassion and love for ourselves—all necessary components of happiness. Choose the path of forgiveness, choose peace, if not for others, for your own sake.  And Christ will walk through the pain with you.  Into life.  This is our baptism.  This is our story.

In Archbishop Tutu’s native dialect to ask for forgiveness is the same as saying, “I ask for peace.”  We follow Christ in the way of forgiveness and ultimately the way of life.

May we join Christ in saying to ourselves and to one another: Peace be with you.

[1] John 20:22, NRSV
[2] John 20:19, 21, 26
[3] Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving. New York: HarperOne, 2014.  p25
[4] Tutu, 24
[5] Tutu, 3
[6] Chapter 2 in the Book of Forgiving, “What Forgiving is Not” addresses these points individually.
[7] The chapter “Naming the Hurt” in the Book of Forgiving addresses the need for truth and recognizing pain on the road to forgiveness.
[8] Book of Common Prayer, 305
[9] Tutu, 71