2023 05 28: Pentecost 2023

Posted on 30 May 2023

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus  Christ. Amen.

One Sunday, the Baptist preacher in town preached on the theme, “Forgive Your Enemies.” After a long sermon, he asked how many were willing to forgive their enemies. About half held up their hands. Not satisfied by that response, he preached for another twenty minutes and repeated his question. This time he received a response of about 80 percent. Still unsatisfied, he spoke for another 15 minutes.  With all thoughts now on Sunday dinner, the entire congregation raised their hands, except for one elderly lady in the rear. “Mrs. Jones, are you not willing to forgive your enemies?” She answered “I don’t have any enemies” The pastor asked, “Mrs. Jones, that is very unusual. How old are you?” She sighed, “Ninety-three.” Everybody applauded, “My oh, my, Mrs. Jones, please come down in front and tell the congregation how a person can live to be ninety-three, and not have an enemy in the world.” The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, very slowly turned around and said: “It’s easy, I just outlived the old buzzards.”

Truthfully, forgiveness may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Most of us recall the Day of Pentecost from the perspective of the Book of Acts. We see the disciples gathered in the upper room, and we hear the sound of the spirit like the rush of a violent wind.  We recall the tongues of fire appearing and resting on each disciple and we imagine the noisy chaos of people speaking at the same time in strange new languages. That is Pentecost.

St. John, however, offers another more intimate Pentecost moment.  We read in St. John’s gospel that the disciples were in Jerusalem hiding behind closed doors on that first Easter evening, and there Jesus appeared to them and offered them the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Most striking, though, is that he commanded the saying, “That if they forgive the sins of any, they would be forgiven, and if they retained the sins of any, they would be retained.”  For St. John, Pentecost is all about the forgiveness of sins.

My friends, on this Pentecost morning I would like us to meditate on less familiar Pentecost -like moment.  It may not fit our liturgical practice of 50 days of Easter, or wearing the color of red, so remind us of the flames of fire, but I believe that if we are to be true to Pentecost and to the celebration of the birth of the church, we must always begin with a word of forgiveness.

St. John writes that the disciples were in Jerusalem hiding behind closed doors out of fear of the Temple authorities.  Truthfully, I think that description only touches the surface of their fear. Not one of Jesus’ disciples was proud of how they had acted in their master’s final days and hours. They all denied and deserted him on that long Good Friday afternoon.  Their voices were silent before the crowds.  The doors were locked out of fear for what could happen to them, and then suddenly Jesus stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”

The beautiful part of this story was that greeting. “Peace be with you”  frames the wonder and graciousness of his word of forgiveness.. He showed them his wounded hands and sided that their betrayal and denial had no power over him. Then a second time Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.”

Comforted by Jesus’ words of forgiveness, the disciples took heart. But they also recognized that forgiveness is the hardest action that we as Christians are called to perform was just beginning. Proclaiming Jesus as our Lord and Savior is easy compared to forgiving.  Worshiping together with like-minded believers is simple compared to an act of forgiveness which may truly change the life of somewhat who has hurt you. Yes, we prefer to hold on to the regrets, mistakes, errors, misjudgments, and the sins of others, long after God has forgiven them. Jesus never said that forgiveness was going to be easy, but he did say, that for his followers, forgiveness must become as common place as breathing itself.

When we look at our world today, we don’t often see much peace, in part because we don’t see much forgiveness- even from Jesus’s own disciples. Regretfully, churches themselves who should know about forgiveness are not spared from disagreements.  Denominations have debated the meaning of forgiveness for centuries, and who has the authority to forgive. Some Roman Catholics will point to these very words to defend the practice of sacramental confession: according to them, this passage authorizes the priest alone to pronounce forgiveness to those who confess their sins and request absolution.  While Protestants will say that this is little more than authorization to preach the Gospel so that people may receive forgiveness by believing in Jesus.

So how do we, as ordinary, contemporary Christians exercise this gift of forgiveness that Jesus invites us to receive and share as commonplace as breathing itself?  Let me offer three suggestions.

First, we need to live the message of forgiveness in our own lives. We need to live, think, and speak as people who know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but who have been fully forgiven of our sins through faith in Jesus. We must live as forgiven people. Yet, how many times have you and I fallen, and gotten up, and then pretended that it wasn’t our fault or that we hadn’t really fallen at all. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost allows us to confess our sin and simultaneously to hear Christ’s gentle breath of forgiveness, so that you can truly move on.

Second, you and I need to learn to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. Instead of harboring bitterness and resentment, we should forgive. Instead of gossiping about the sins and indiscretions of others, we should pray for them, with a heart of forgiveness, seeking God’s mercy in their lives. Instead of looking down on those who sin differently than we do, we should forgive and love them, looking on them with mercy and compassion.

That is hard, but that is the task that you and I have been called to do. We know we should forgive. It is the right thing to do. It is the Christian thing to do. It’s what Jesus would have us do. But surprisingly, more difficult than forgiving others is to forgive yourself, and to let yourself be free to return to the likeness and image of God.  That is what the Holy Spirit is empowering you to do.  It is empowering you to forgive so that one you forgive may see the face of Jesus in you.

Finally, we must proclaim a message of forgiveness through words and actions- even for those whose sin is not their own. We all know friends, neighbors and strangers who are hiding in their upper rooms behind closed doors. They are hiding out of fear of being found and being found out.  They deny what’s really going on and pretend everything is all right leaving no room for the Spirit of Truth to enter in, and to inspire and restore them.  It is precisely when the Holy Spirit is most needed.

I still remember a story from my childhood.  Late in the fall, a kindergarten teacher said to the class, “Would any of you like to make something for your parents as a Christmas present?”  A little 5 year-old boy held up his hand: “My dad smokes a pipe! I would love to make him an ashtray.”  So the teacher got some clay and helped guide his fingers until they roughly shaped it into the likeness of an ashtray.  She asked him about his father’s favorite color and they painted it blue, and then put the ashtray into a little kiln.  The boy was amazed at work of his hands glistening with the bright color.

The school Christmas party was always held on the last day before the holiday break.  During the party, the little boy went to his classroom and picked up the carefully wrapped gift, but in his haste to run down the hall and put on his coat and wave good-bye to his friends all at once, the boy tripped and the precious package went up in the air and came down hitting the floor with a terrible cracking sound.  When he realized that all the work of the fall and all his hopes for Christmas morning were dashed, the child began to cry as if his heart would break.

The father who came from a strong military background was very uncomfortable seeing his son showing his emotions in public by crying.  “Don’t cry, son, don’t cry,” he said as he walked over to the little boy.  “It doesn’t make any difference.”  But the boy’s mother was much wiser.  She came right behind him and said, “Of course it matters!”  And with that, she swept up the weeping child in her arms and began to weep with him.  Her husband watched with wonder as she reached into her purse and got out her handkerchief to wipe the tears very gently from her own eyes and from the face of her son.  Then she said resolutely, “Come, let’s pick up the pieces and take them home and see what we can make of what is left.”

That is what Pentecost invites us to do in trying to be more like the forgiving and renewing spirit of Christ.  We all walk with broken hearts, broken lives, broken relationships, sometimes having lost our hearts over to the brokenness of our lives.  We all come with the hope that life can be different.  We all have tripped along life’s pathway and our hearts have fallen to the ground, shattering into pieces.  But Jesus knows what pain is like and he also knows  what are the possibilities for life.  Even now he is whispering into your heart to turn around, and let go of the past.  “Peace be with you,” and “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  This day your life has been renewed, restored and forgiven.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.