April 12, 2015 – Our First Superpower
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Today is traditionally called Thomas Sunday, because every year on the Sunday after Easter we read the story of Thomas the apostle, who was late to the party, and who wouldn’t or couldn’t believe the truth of the Resurrection until he had proof – until he had actually touched the scars on Jesus’ hands where the nails had pierced his flesh, until he had put his hand in the wound made by the soldier’s spear, when he was assuring himself that Jesus was really and truly dead. The story of Thomas is one that I love, because Jesus is so gracious. He doesn’t condemn Thomas for being a doubter – though he does chide him just a little, very gently. His story, like all the stories of the gospels, is written for us, just as John tells us, so that our faith may be strengthened in our own times of doubt. Because we are all of us just like Thomas at one time or another, and God is always gracious to us. It’s a story well worth repeating year after year.
But today, I want to pay attention to a different part of this story. I want to look at what happened before Thomas’s meeting with Jesus. The reading actually begins on Easter day itself, the very same day the women had come to the tomb and found it empty, the day that was so full of running and weeping and rumors and questions. All those things had been going on all day long, and here at the close of that very confusing day the disciples were gathered together in a house in or near Jerusalem. It may even have been the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, where they had often stayed when they came to Jerusalem with Jesus. And they were huddled together in the house, with the doors locked, fearful and exhausted, wondering what the Jews were going to do to them now that Jesus’ body had gone missing and stories were circulating that he had been seen alive. The authorities had had Jesus put to death in the most horrible way possible – what might they do now to put an end to the rumors of his return?
We don’t know what it was like in that house: whether they sat around talking quietly with one another, or ate their evening meal in brooding silence, or just sat apart from one another, each one wrapped up in his or her own anxious thoughts. However it was, all of a sudden Jesus was there with them, not knocking on the door asking to be let in, but just there, standing in their midst. They must have been terrified, and no wonder, so Jesus calmed their fear and astonishment by saying, “Peace be with you!” And in defense of poor Thomas, they must all have been just as doubting as he was, even though he gets the bad reputation, because John says that Jesus showed them his hands and his side, the scars of his crucifixion, and THEN, he says, THEN they rejoiced to know it was really the Lord.
And then Jesus, without explanation, without a parable or a sermon, without any reproach for these friends who had deserted him in his greatest need, Jesus got right down to business, it would seem. This was the moment he had been preparing them for all those years of his ministry. He had declared on the cross that his work was finished. Jesus had done what he had come to do. But now he came to his disciples for the purpose of commissioning them for what still needed to be done. “Peace be with you!” he told them. “You know that the Father sent me into the world to do his work. Now I am sending you.”
And then John tells us in one brief sentence that Jesus did two enormously important things. First of all, he breathed on them, imparting his Holy Spirit to them. It is a foretaste of the cataclysmic outpouring of the Spirit that would happen just a few weeks later on the day of Pentecost: that day when the Church was born and began to grow by leaps and bounds.
But in that shuttered house, on that first Easter night, Jesus breathed the first breath of his Spirit into his fearful, weary disciples. It wasn’t just a symbolic act; it was a real gift of his power, and the disciples needed it desperately that day. And then Jesus did something more. “If you forgive anyone’s sins,” he told them, “it’s done – they are forgiven. If you hold onto anyone’s sins they are still held fast.” Jesus was revealing the first superpower that belongs to the children of God, and it was this: that we hold in our hands the power to release our fellow human beings from the sins that bind them. It is an awesome thing, and all the more so if you remember a conversation that Jesus once had with the Pharisees one day, when a paralyzed man was lowered through the roof by some of his friends. Jesus had turned to the young man, helpless and unmoving and maybe a little terrified, and he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
If you remember, that caused quite an uproar at the time because the Pharisees, who were there to keep an eye on Jesus, said, “Just who do you think you are? You can’t talk like that! Only God can forgive sins.” And Jesus proved to them right then and there that he had every right to forgive sins by turning around and saying, “Oh, and by the way, you can get up and walk, too.” And the man, who had been paralyzed moments before, got up and walked away. It silenced the Pharisees for the time being, but there was actually truth in what they said – forgiveness is a God-thing, a divine act.
To set a person free from the burden of shame, to break the chains of guilt that bind and weigh them down, is a divine thing. It is exactly what God has done for us. And it is the very first thing Jesus empowered his followers to do.
I think we’ve all seen the news coverage of the man, Walter Scott, who was shot and killed by a policeman in Charleston, South Carolina this past week. The video clip of the murder has been shown on TV and on the internet thousands of times by now, and it is a horrible thing to watch. But yesterday I listened to an interview with Mr. Scott’s mother. She talked very openly and honestly about her grief. She said that what had been done was wrong. But then she said, “I’m supposed to be really angry and upset and raging and all that. But because of the love of God in me I can’t be like that. I feel forgiveness in my heart – even for the guy that shot and killed my son.”
The state has the God-given authority and responsibility to bring about justice in a situation like that. Law and judgment are necessary things in a society of sinful human beings, and God has authorized governments for the purpose of restraining evil and protecting the innocent. But we, the followers of Jesus Christ and citizens of his kingdom, have a different calling. We have been authorized with the divine power to forgive. It is the first charge Jesus gave us; the very first step of his mission that he has handed on to us, who are what Paul called God’s ‘ambassadors of reconciliation.’ Forgiveness is a heavenly superpower, one we as Christians need to wield with all our hearts and all our minds and all our strength because the kingdom of God advances in the world when his children forgive. Anyone from the world of human power can pronounce judgment, or cry out for vengeance, or take a stand on morality. Law is something the world can understand. Fairness is big favorite. But forgiveness, mercy, compassion, grace – these are God things. These are our Spirit-driven superpowers, and this world, full of shame and guilt and hurt as it is, is in desperate need of them.
It is very easy to get swept along with our culture, which has every appearance of righteousness and godliness sometimes. The Church gets sidetracked by politics; we as individuals get distracted or discouraged by the injustice and immorality in the world around us. We often feel powerless in the face of all this evil. But the powers of the Holy Spirit, grace, and love, and mercy and forgiveness, these are immensely powerful; and more, they are our divine responsibility. And they did not come cheap. Our Lord breathed his Spirit into his disciples after he had given himself over to abuse and torture and death – and then come forth, alive forever. Jesus’ Resurrection is the sure sign that the way of forgiveness is the one and only power that can cure what ails our world. Life wins a victory in each act of forgiveness – the forgiveness of Corrie ten Boom for the Nazi soldiers who killed her sister, the forgiveness of Amish parents for the man that came into their schoolhouse and killed their children, the forgiveness of Judy Scott for the policeman who shot her son in the back. The superpower of forgiveness is in the hands of God’s children – in our own hands – and it is the only way to real life and healing, not just for us, but for the whole world.