The Breath of Forgiveness, the Face of God

An Eastertide sermon based on John 20:19 -23
given at Mount Vernon, OH on April 8, 2018 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

VOICE 1: Jesus was born and raised in a religious tradition – Judaism– which long regarded forgiveness not just as an act reserved for God . . .

VOICE 2: But, as a natural human act arising out of love and relationship with God and others.

VOICE 3: When we forgive we are acting as an instrument of God.

VOICE 2: The Bible is laced with stories of God’s forgiveness . . .

VOICE 3: And human forgiveness as an instrument of God.

VOICE 1: And not just in the New Testament. The story of Noah begins with images of an angry unforgiving God who destroys.

VOICE 3: But it ends with a loving forgiving God who hangs his warrior bow up in the sky for all to see as a reminder . . .

VOICE 1: God from that day forward is no longer understood as the God who responds to humankind’s sins with destructive anger.

VOICE 1, 2, 3: God is understood as loving and forgiving.

VOICE 2: Psalm 65 puts it like this “O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come. When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions. . . O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.”

VOICE 3: Nehemiah sums it up saying: “God [is] ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love . . .” (Neh 9:17)

VOICE 1: And the frail humans God chooses to work through, find through love (God), beautiful acts of forgiveness in the Bible that resonate for all time with love.

VOICE 2: The Book of Genesis begins with God forgiving humans in the Garden of Eden, they do not die for their transgression as was expected, but instead suffer the consequences of their actions, expulsion from the Garden.

VOICE 1: And even as they live outside of Eden, God is forgiving of the worse crime.

VOICE 3: When Cain kills Abel the punishment is not death, rather care and justice is meted out so that the murderer Cain, while banished is protected from retaliation.

VOICE 1: God acts forgivingly at the beginning of Genesis; and by the end of Genesis God’s people learn to act forgivingly too.

VOICE 2: Jacob and Esau are twin brothers who so mistreat and connive one another in their youth that one, Jacob, defrauds their father in order to rip-off the other, Esau. There is no nice way to put this, plain and simple Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance.

VOICE 1: This inheritance rip-off went over like it would today, the family becomes embroiled in turmoil, so much so Jacob fled for his life to another country.

VOICE 2: Years later Jacob decided to return with a caravan of his family, servants and livestock – all he had– to his native land. Once back home Jacob learned Esau was looking for him.

VOICE 3: And Esau by earthly standards had every right to be angry and to seek retribution.

VOICE 2: And Jacob had every right to be scared . . . and he was– very.

VOICE 3: But when Esau finally finds Jacob there is an amazing scene of forgiveness.

VOICE 1: Instead of ending in murder like the first brotherly dispute in Genesis between Cain and Abel, with Jacob and Esau there is peace and love.

VOICES 1, 2 & 3: Peace and Love!

VOICE 2: Jacob approaches Esau bowing to the ground in submission and respect . . .

VOICE 3: Esau does not charge with his superior troops to finally gain revenge and retribution. Instead he charges with love and open arms.

VOICE 1: We are told “Esau ran to meet [Jacob], and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

VOICES 2 & 3: They wept.

VOICE 2: And then Jacob offered much of his wealth to Esau.

VOICE 3: Esau respectfully declined saying “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”

VOICE 2: But Jacob persisted saying “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God– since you have received me with such favor.” (Gen 33: 3-10)

VOICE 1: Did you hear that? Jacob experienced the face of God in Esau’s forgiveness!

VOICE 3: Our acts of forgiveness . . .

VOICE 2: Like Esau’s . . .

VOICE 1, 2 &3: Show us the face of God.

VOICE 1: And the experience gets passed down to the next generation.

VOICE 3: At least that is the hope.

VOICE 1: It is no accident that Genesis ends with Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, providing forgiveness to not just one of his brothers, but ten of them.

VOICE 3: Remember the story? Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers, who acting only a little less like Cain, sell him off and tell their father Jacob that Joseph was killed by an animal.

VOICE 2: Joseph’s enslavement eventually leads to him becoming a very powerful man in Egypt.

VOICE 3: And twenty years after selling Joseph his brothers end up before him; not knowing it is Joseph they plead for food from him as a powerful man.

VOICE 2: Joseph for awhile toys with them seeking a bit of revenge. But eventually love overwhelms him and he reveals his true identity to them.

VOICE 3: The ten brothers expect a terrible earthly power’s way of retribution from this powerful man, the brother, they betrayed.

VOICE 1: But instead of acting with earthly power, Joseph acts with heavenly power . . .

VOICE 1, 2 &3: Peace and Love.

VOICE 3: The brothers receive kindness, care and forgiveness.

VOICE 1: This amazing story of forgiveness culminates with these words:

VOICE 2: “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said . . .

VOICE 3: “’What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’

VOICE 1: “So they approached Joseph, saying . . .

VOICE 3: “‘Your father gave this instruction before he died,’ “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

VOICE 1: “Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said

VOICE 3: “‘We are here as your slaves.’”. . .

VOICE 2: “But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’” (Gen 50:15-21 NRS).

VOICE 3: Joseph forgives. He too shows the face of God to those who wronged him.

VOICE 1: We can hear that Genesis begins with God forgiving and ends with humans acting as God’s agent by

VOICE 1, 2 &3: Forgiving others.

VOICE 1: Jesus teaches forgiveness. His amazing parable of the prodigal son in Luke is a great example of this teaching.

VOICE 2: Remember the story?

VOICE 1: Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ ”

VOICE 3: So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.

VOICE 2: He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘

VOICE 3: So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

VOICE 2: Then the son said to him ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

VOICE 3: But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe– the best one– and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

VOICE 1: And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in.

VOICE 3: His father came out and began to plead with him.

VOICE 1: But he answered his father ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

VOICE 3: Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'” (Luk 15:11-1 NRS).

VOICE 2: The Father has unconditional love.

VOICE 1: It’s so unconditional it’s disturbing.

VOICE 2: We sympathize with the brother. It’s not fair by our earthly standards.

VOICE 1: But boy when we mess up we want the forgiveness of the Father, don’t we?

VOICE 3: It’s heavenly.

VOICE 1 It’s love (God) in action . . .

VOICE 2: Through us . . .

VOICE 1, 2 &3: Through forgiveness.

VOICE 1: Jesus does not just tell stories about forgiveness. He forgives.

VOICE 2: Remember the woman who was caught in the act of adultery?

VOICE 3: And how Jesus stepped in and saved her life forgiving her of a capital crime and stopping her death sentence?

VOICE 1: The Bible reports that “The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’

VOICE 2: “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

VOICE 3: “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

VOICE 1: “‘Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

VOICE 2: “She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ (Joh 8:3-11 NRS)

VOICE 1: As we heard in the scripture reading this morning the Gospel of John reports that in the evening of the very first Easter the risen Christ appeared to his disciples and said

VOICE 2: “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

VOICE 3: When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,

VOICE 2: “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.’” (20:21-23).

VOICE 1: All the Gospels report that even before his crucifixion Jesus did not mince words about forgiveness. He expected his followers to forgive. We hear in the Lord’s prayer that our sins are forgiven as we forgive sins, that’s in line with the Easter teaching from the Gospel of John that we heard.

VOICE 3: “Forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

VOICE 1: In The Gospel of Mark Jesus makes it clear that we don’t just offer the grace of forgiveness once or twice, he instructs that: . . .

VOICE 3: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mar 11:25 NRS).

VOICE 1: And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus commands that we not only forgive all trespasses against us, but that we are to . . .

VOICE 2: Love our neighbors . . .

VOICE 1: And don’t think there’s some sort of geographic limit on that neighbor language, not only does neighbor mean everyone, Jesus closes all the escape routes to hate by commanding us to Love our enemies . . .

VOICE 3: “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luk 6:27-28 NRS)

VOICE 1: There is no “out” to the fact Jesus’ commands us to love and forgive.

VOICES 1, 2 & 3: The only “out” is choosing not to love and forgive.

VOICE 1: Which, of course, we often do.

VOICE 2: From political campaigns to religious differences

VOICE 3: To crimes and acts against us as individuals and as a nation, we get angry.

VOICE 1: We think of our opponents as evil and treat them as such.

VOICE 2: They are enemies and by God we feel entitled to scoff,

VOICE 3: Ridicule,

VOICE 2: Humiliate,

VOICE 1: Bully,

VOICE 3: And harm them.

VOICE 1: That is, of course, what the Romans did to Jesus.

VOICE 3: The earthly empire’s way of doing things entitled the Roman elite to scoff, ridicule, humiliate, bully, and harm enemies.

VOICE 1: And do you know what Jesus did in response?

VOICE 2: He did an amazing thing.

VOICE 3: It’s the thing he tells his disciples to do that first Easter . . .

VOICES 1, 2 & 3: Forgive.

VOICE 1: After he was hung on the cross, scoffed, ridiculed, humiliated, bullied and harmed– as he was dying– Jesus said of those who did all that and more to him . . .

VOICE 2: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” . . .

VOICE 1: Easter is about dying to life as it was and living on to life as it should be.

VOICE 3: Jesus did this metaphorically before the crucifixion.

VOICE 2: Alive Jesus rejected life as it was and lived toward life as it should be. Living – and calling his followers– to live toward peace and love.

VOICES 1,2 &3: Forgiving wrongs.

VOICE 1: Crucified, Jesus rose again and lives on in us now toward life as it should be. Living toward peace and love.

VOICES 1,2 &3: Forgiving wrongs . . .

VOICE 2: Peace be with you . . .

VOICE 1: As the Father sent Jesus . . .

VOICE 3: So Jesus sends us . . .

VOICE 1: Jesus breathes on us even now saying . . .

VOICE 3: “Receive the Holy Spirit . . .

VOICE 2: If you forgive the sins of any. . .

VOICE 1: They are forgiven them . . .

VOICE 3: If you retain the sins of any. . .

VOICE 2: They are retained.’” . . .

VOICE 1, 2 & 3: Forgiveness is a gift from Christ

VOICE 2: Give and

VOICE 3: Receive it.


* Based on a sermon reading for three voices that I drafted under a Lilly Grant in 2012.