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If You Forgive...
By Dr. Samuel M. Cooper
04/15/12

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. SAMUEL M. COOPER
APRIL 15, 2012

If You Forgive…
John 20:19-29

Several years ago I had the pleasure of spending about a week at a monastery in a very remote area in the South Indian state of Kerala. It is run by Mar Thoma, or St. Thomas Christians, a strong and vital community of believers who proudly trace their church's origins to the Apostle Thomas. Doubting Thomas is how we know him, but he was Believing Thomas by the time he arrived along the southwest coast and until his martyrdom near Chennai, on the southeast coast. By the time I got there from the opposite coast, I rode a train, hopped several buses, hired those wonderful little three-wheeled taxis, accepted rides on a couple of motorcycles and even walked — which is probably when I was the safest!

Travel in India is such an adventure. Along the roads you find dogs, goats, pigs, chickens and the cows, of course. There are bicycles, piled higher than I can reach with wares being peddled. There are trucks with people in back and trucks with cattle in back, rumbling along beside carts pulled by cows, or bulls, actually. There are rickshaws and pedal rickshaws and motorcycles. For some reason, women don't drive cars but they drive motorcycles, or ride on back with saris flowing. Whole families, five people from daddy to a babe in arms can be seen on motorcycles. Buses, many seeming as if they may fall apart, roar past one another.
 
The fun really begins after dark. I knew I was in a different world when one night, the driver in a car some friends had hired, turned off his headlights and turned on the lights on his ganesha on the dash! Very rarely do you see a stoplight and I have never seen a stop sign. You can look both ways at an intersection if you want, but you can't usually wait for the coast to clear since the coast is never really clear.,It seems that all the conveyances pretty much fling themselves into the intersection and sort it out there. The right of way always goes to the largest vehicle, unless there is an animal involved, especially a bovine.
 
Near misses are common and it is not unusual at all to bump handlebars or fenders. The only piece of equipment that is mandatory is the horn. I never did learn the language of the horn, but I did learn that if you are going to put yourself on the road, you'd better leave your temper at the curb. In fact, after about a week of travel in India, I commented to a friend: "You know, if India ever discovers road rage, the whole country will be dead in two weeks." Road rage incidents are usually brought on by two troubled souls. The one who thinks he's at Daytona or Bristol and the other who just can't let the offense go.
 
Have you ever noticed that some people have a whole lot easier time letting things go than others? And have you ever noticed that the people who are able to let things go are happier than those who aren't? Have you ever noticed that some people seem predisposed to forgive and that others seem predisposed to hang onto offenses? And have you ever noticed that those who are predisposed to forgive – not overlook or tolerate, but forgive. Have you ever noticed that those who are predisposed to truly forgive others have an easier time forgiving – not excusing, but truly forgiving – themselves? Have you ever noticed that forgiving people are not likely to be angry people and that angry people are not likely to be forgiving people? Have you ever pondered which kind you would like to be?
 
So very often the anger that builds up behind the damn of unforgiveness, like so much static electricity, rumbles like thunder and suddenly strikes like lightening as it discharges itself, either on ourselves or on others. Sometimes we manage to channel our self-loathing into good works that benefit others, or even the kingdom of God. But the pleasure is often fleeting. And usually prideful. While at the core of our being is still a hollowness and not the peace, the joy, the bliss, that God intends. Sometimes, we have all we can take of that of the offending log or speck, in our brother's eye or in our own eye, and we call down the wrath of God to make it all right.
 
Fortunately for us, the great good God of the universe doesn't always take us as seriously as we take ourselves, and leaves us stewing while he waits for us. We learn that it is God who is judge, and not us. While we just stew and stew. And where God intends that there be peace and joy and bliss, there is just — stew! If there is anything to learn from the birth, the life, the teachings, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, it is that forgiveness matters. Forgiveness is the life force of the Church's ministry. And it flows as naturally as the breath, from God's mighty acts in Christ Jesus, into the hearts of his followers.
 
When Jesus appeared to the disciples in the locked room, he said: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And then he breathed on them. And he said to them receive a holy spirit. Most translations read the Holy Spirit but there is no definite article here. We could render it "receive a holy spirit" but how might it have sounded when they first heard it? "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and he said to them: "Receive holy spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
 
I don't think Jesus is making a Trinitarian theological point. I don't think he is making an ecclesiastical rule about who has the right to decide what is right and what is wrong. Jesus is breathing into his disciples the essence, the life-force, of the Gospel. Or trying to, anyway.
 
Thomas gets grief for being there and refusing to believe what he cannot see himself. But the truth is, the others disciples don't really get it either. Think about it. One week later, the doors are still shut and they are hardly acting like sent people. So Jesus returns and this time, from the lips of Thomas, the doubter, come the words that are, in a way, the climax of the whole Gospel of John. When Jesus offers Thomas the chance.
 
"My Lord and my God." The Gospel of John is chocked full of irony and Raymond Brown, whose commentary on John's Gospel is the gold standard by which other commentaries on John are measured says: "The final irony of the Gospel is that the disciple who doubted the most gives expression to the highest evaluation of Jesus uttered in any Gospel" My Lord and my God. "Have you believed me because you have seen me?" Jesus asks Thomas. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." He says to us. We cannot see God the way we can see a hole in a man's side. But we can know the truth. And the truth can set us free.
 
Miss Boozer was my first grade teacher. She resembled anything but a Boozer with the pleats of her dress all the way down to her heels, and the lenses of her glasses thick as the bottom of Coke bottles, held in place as much by the ample flesh of her cheeks as by the thin metal rims. I liked Miss Boozer, but I didn't much get the idea that she liked me. She never called on me, even when I raised my hand. I figured it had something to do with the fact that I had lost my recess for talking during the prayer. It seemed to me that everyone in the class had been chosen to be room monitor, but me. And I doubted my day would ever come.
 
But my day did finally come. I had the special pad. I took the job very seriously. With a few strokes of the pencil I could change a destiny. On this my day, it appeared that Troy Cox's destiny would change since he had taken it on himself to lean his chair back on its hind legs and push it around the room. Looking back, it may have been better to simply write his name, let his frolic run its course and watch him go on to meet his destiny. But I had waited a long time to be monitor and I wanted to be the best monitor ever.
 
I was in charge of this classroom and I would not stand for the fact that he was being a threat to the health and safety of the classroom. Besides, he had the full attention of a whole table of little girls who squealed more loudly with each circuit of his chair around their table. With purpose, I marched to the table of girls and planted myself in the pathway of his chair. He slowed, but did not stop. My right fist landed squarely on his nose, and he slumped to the floor. There was silence. Then the squeals grew louder than ever. Kids were climbing on chairs and even on the table to get a look at Troy, curled up there with blood beading up on the thickly waxed floor. I froze, unsure what a monitor was supposed to do in a situation like this. Miss Boozer, her blue dress swishing, cleared the crowd for a peek. One of the girls announced: "Sammy hit him, Miss Boozer." Another chimed in: "I think he is dead." So much for missing recess. This was sounding like hard time. Miss Boozer leaned over Troy, looked up at me and said, simply, "I want you to help Troy up, take him to the restroom, and get him cleaned up." I still don't know, even after all these years, if she had omniscience you would never expect from someone with Coke bottle implants on her face or was simply daft. But I still remember, more than fifty years later, standing with Troy, holding his head back and pinching his nose. Then wiping with all the gentleness I could muster, every drop and every flake of blood I could find.
 
I know I understand it now and I think I understood it then that what happened was a lot more than simply catching a break that kept me out of prison. My idea of what is good and right and true had been shattered and a new awareness of what really matters was being marked into my soul with every wipe of toilet paper. The universe presided over by Miss Boozer was now a different universe, calling for a different kind of behavior on my part. Nothing in all creation mattered more, or was more filled with meaning, than wiping off that blood. It seemed nothing short of a miracle that it all came off.
 
Here we are, one week from the big resurrection day, with a much smaller crowd. But we are here to remember and to receive the very life-force of the Gospel. Just as surely as God has breathed into our nostrils the breath of life, Jesus has breathed into our nostrils, holy spirit, his own holy spirit, the spirit of peace, the spirit of joy, the spirit of forgiveness, the spirit of knowing we live a life that will never run out. Surely he means it when he says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. And if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." He means it, even if those sins are our own sins. Thomas, hearing Jesus' invitation said: "My Lord and my God." Jesus, hearing Thomas' affirmation said: "Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed." And I say: This news is news too good, not to be true.
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