2nd Sunday of easter
Homily for 27 April 2003
Rev. Jim Ryan
Today, I would like to offer for your consideration thoughts on two of the Risen Christ's gifts – Love and Forgiveness.
St. John, in both his letter and his Gospel, is characteristically eloquent today:
“We can be sure that we love God’s children when we love God and do what God has commanded.” 1John 5:2
Jesus breathed on them and said…”If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” John 20:23
We easily accept that the challenge to love God’s children must be embraced. The innocent ones who listen to the stories of Jesus, and who so simply and directly accept them must be loved, protected, nourished and encouraged into life.
Children respond, as we know, to such love and acceptance. The British actor, Sir Alec Guinness, accepted the Roman Catholic Church late in his life. When asked by an interviewer why he did so, Guinness related this incident.
He had been shooting a movie in a rural town in Europe and his role was as a priest. At the end of a very long day he decided to keep on his costume (a black cassock that priests wear) and to walk into the town to where he was staying. As he walked, without words and barely a sound, a small child came up from behind him and took his hand. They walked hand in hand for a while until the child turned into his street. Still no words, and the child withdrew his hand from Sir Alec’s and walked on.
Guinness said, “It occurred to me that any faith that engenders such trust was worth my commitment.”
Of course, the love we are commanded to show children is a lifelong and never ending challenge. In John’s theology and writing we know that when he speaks of God’s children he means all of us.
And here is where our call to forgiveness enters. We cannot try to love without also realizing that this is difficult. Often, we miss the mark. We forgive because Christ shows us that someone must make the first step.
The Old Testament advice of “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” followed to its logical conclusion means that at some point we will all be blind and toothless.
Forgiveness means something ultimately and immediately when we realize that it is the unforgivable that must be forgiven. We so often are able to forgive each other because we trust in an underlying love between and among us. But true forgiveness, as one of those first gifts the Risen Christ gives to his disciples, means forgiving those who participated in the murder of Jesus only two days before.
The new government of South Africa that followed the white rule of apartheid was compelled to have all people participate in the new South Africa. Someone had to take the first step of reconciliation after years and years of killing and mayhem on all sides. Noone was innocent.
That desire for a new day and a new way inspired the founding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People were invited to come and tell their stories – ugly and yes, unforgivable as they were – with the assurance that they themselves would not be killed.
Pumla Goboda-Madikizela, a member of the Commission, wrote a book about her interviews of a most notorious killer, Eugene deKock. Her challenge was to encourage this officially authorized assassin to appear before the Commission. She acted in the name of the Commission, headed by Archbishop Tutu, to take the first step in forgiveness to rehumanize a man who for a long period of his life was by all standards inhuman.
She confused deKock with her probing and encouragement. At one point in their interviews, as if convinced that her invitation was somehow a perverse torture in itself, he asked, “Pumla, did I kill any of your family members?”
The language and actions of forgiveness can be so unnerving and offputting, so contrary to the “usual” way we do things that it truly is a new step, a fresh start.
This is one of the first gifts of Christ to his fearful followers on that first Easter Sunday evening. Forgiveness is s source of New Life, so much so that one could almost consider that Resurrection actually began when Jesus, from the cross we’re told, said, “Father, forgive them.”
In order to love all God’s children we must forgive and accept forgiveness. This first step in Resurrection is what we celebrate today.