Easter 2, 12 April 2015
John 20:19-31 INI
The news has been full of the shooting in South Carolina this week, but there was another case that also deserves our attention. It was the case of Anthony Hinton, the man in Alabama who spent almost 30 years in prison for two killings he did not commit. He was only weakly linked to the crime by some bullets taken from the victims, but it turns out that the bullets could not have been fired by the gun he supposedly used in the crime. And though he insisted he was innocent, the state refused for many years even to perform an inexpensive new ballistics test, much less to order a new trial. He could easily have been executed.
What caught my ear were his remarks afterwards. A reporter asked him if he was bitter. He said No. He explained that God had given him joy, and he would allow no one to take his joy away. In fact, he made it his business each day to see how he could make life a bit better for his guards, much as Nelson Mandela had done for his during his unjust imprisonment. But he went on to say that those who were responsible for his situation would have to answer to God for what they had done.
The reason this caught my ear is that I have been trying to figure out what Jesus means when he tells his friends – and us – that if we forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, that is, forgiven by God, and if we retain the sins of any they are retained. The first part is fairly easy. God has amazingly given us the authority to offer his own forgiveness and pardon to the human race. When you think about it, this is like God handing us the keys to heaven and saying, Invite anyone you like, I’m good with it. We wouldn’t usually do this with a sleepover.
And we know how strongly he insists that we must be willing to forgive the wrongs others do to us. We need go no further than the Lord’s Prayer to see that we can’t expect much mercy if we aren’t prepared to show it: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And that verse is not unique. He says the same thing many ways and many times, story after story.
Jesus also seems to hold a robust notion of what genuine forgiveness is. When you and your brother fought as kids, maybe mom made you hug and say I’m sorry, but the sorry came hissing through your gritted teeth and you tried to crack some ribs with that hug, if you thought you could get away with it. What Jesus means by forgiveness seems to include dropping all desire for revenge, letting anger and hatred leak out of us, and even being willing to enter into a renewed appropriate relationship with the person who hurt you, whatever appropriate may mean.
It is not even clear that we need to hear an apology first. Jesus did not hear an apology when he forgave the men who nailed him to the cross.
Now, forgiving is a tall order for most of us. Some of it will find it taller than others. I don’t think forgiveness needs to happen instantly. It often comes slowly, as a process, and it may need to be done repeatedly for a single offense – part of what Jesus means when he talks about forgiving someone seventy times seven. I am convinced that Jesus is patient with us while we labor forward, first finding a glimmer of willingness to forgive, then deciding to, gradually letting go of the desire to roast our adversary over a slow fire, and so on. He just wants us to keep moving.
That is why it is so shocking when Jesus then talks about retaining sins. Does he mean that on some occasions we get to stay mad? Does he mean that there are some sorts of sins that are unforgivable? Does he mean that if we arbitrarily refuse to use our Get out of Jail Free card God is forced to accept our harshness? Actually I wonder if Jesus here is thinking about situations like Anthony Ray Hinton’s. He says to his jailers, What you did was terribly wrong. But you actually considered it the right thing to do. And you have steadfastly refused to be answerable to anyone. You hold yourself high above all accountability.
So I will not hate you. I will not seek revenge against you. I will even love you and pray for you. But part of my love for you includes pointing out the extreme danger you are in. There is a terribly serious wrong attached to you. It is much bigger than some particular injury you did to me. It is a wrong that is deeply rooted in your very person, in your view of life, in your basic beliefs.
You hold that certain people are just not worthy. They may be treated differently, with utter contempt for their lives and rights. It may simply be accepted that they are guilty if we think they are. They have no right to question our judgment. It is a wrong that continues to be perpetrated against many people in this country.
Not only that. It is a wrong that you have utterly refused to address or confess, a wrong you have refused to be challenged on or accountable for, a wrong you have been content to leave in the record of your life. And if it remains there when you must answer to God for your life, it will not go well with you.
We may think of sin in two ways. One is bad deeds. These may be pointed out and forgiven. But the other way to think of sin is as a state, as a form of sickness, madness or captivity in which we are held. God
alone can free us from it, and he will. But if we insist that sickness is health, that madness is sanity, and that captivity is freedom, we will fight to remain in the state from which God wishes to set us free. Anthony Hinton is trying to point this out by offering no cheap, unreal comfort. He is waiting to see whether his captors will come to see the light.