“Even Those Who Pierced Him ”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the friends of Jesus in the aftermath of his arrest, unjust trial, and execution. The Gospel text this morning tells us that on the evening of the day of the resurrection, they had locked themselves in a house because they were afraid. But I expect that there were a lot more feelings going on than just fear.
Certainly, some of them must have felt some guilt about how it all went down, and some regret for the way they had abandoned and denied Jesus. I have no doubt that there was some confusion in their minds and questions in their hearts. Was Jesus dead or was he alive? Some had seen an empty tomb, but what did that really mean?
But if I was in their place, I also would have been angry. And I probably would have been deflecting my anger at myself by putting the blame on others. I would have been railing against the religious leaders – calling them corrupt, cowardly, and downright evil.
I would have been really critical of Pilate and Herod. They were the ones with the power to stop this, and they couldn’t be bothered. They washed their hands of the whole thing, and allowed an innocent man to be tortured and killed.
I might have even been a little bit angry at Jesus too. Why did he let this happen to himself? At the very least, he could have spoken up for himself, giving some kind of defense when they accused him. With his power, couldn’t he have gotten himself away?
If it had been me and my ministry colleagues in that locked room, I am sure we would have been going over all the events of the previous days – debating, discussing, and analyzing what had happened to Jesus. We would have been ranting about all the things everyone had done wrong, and predicting the implications for us going forward.
And if, in that moment, Jesus came and stood among us, his greeting of “Peace be with you” might have been expressed more like, “Okay everyone, calm down! Take a deep breath!”
Usually when we read this story about one of Jesus’ first resurrection appearances, the focus is on how the disciples come to believe that Christ is truly risen and alive. There’s the whole bit about Thomas struggling to believe that his friend is really resurrected, and asking to see and touch for himself.
But I think it’s quite remarkable that belief is not the first thing Jesus talks about when he appears among his friends. He doesn’t begin by proving it’s really him or telling them that they must be convinced of the miracle that has taken place.
Instead, Jesus greets them with peace and breathes onto them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then he sends them on a mission of forgiveness.
Imagine if Peter had just been saying something like this: “I know I messed up, but did you hear what those members of the council were saying to Pilate about Jesus? Lies, pure lies! I can’t believe we ever worshipped at the temple with those guys! Jesus’ blood is on their hands.”
Perhaps one of the others chimed in, “You’re right, Peter. But they weren’t alone in this travesty. Did you hear the crowds chanting, ‘Crucify him!’? They turned into an angry mob, and they’re responsible too.”
“And then there’s Pilate,” another one added. “He should be removed for this injustice. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did it anyway.”
And then Jesus says to them all: “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.”
This is not just a theological point Jesus is making, or a theoretical principle he is teaching. Jesus is telling his friends that they can’t stay locked up in that room, ranting and raving, and criticizing and blaming. If they hold on to that anger and that resentment, it will consume them. If they forgive, then healing will be possible, as well as hope for the future.
Our first reading this morning from Acts 5 jumps us forward in time by a few weeks. The same friends of Jesus who were locked in a house on Easter evening, are now out-and-about in Jerusalem. The transformation of the disciples, now called apostles because Jesus has sent them out in his name, is remarkable.
The same council of religious leaders that advocated for Jesus’ execution is now causing trouble for his followers because they refuse to stop preaching and teaching in his name. The council has tried to silence them, and even thrown them in jail. But an angel sets the apostles free, and they are caught once again teaching in the temple.
It is striking how courageous they have become. After abandoning Jesus when things got dangerous before, these followers have finally stepped up and followed his lead. That gift of the Holy Spirit has empowered them to do what they were too scared to do before.
And it’s not just the power to preach without fear of arrest, persecution, or even death. It’s also the power to forgive.
I noticed that the High Priest complains that the apostles are “determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” In other words, the religious leaders are being called out for their part in the unjust execution of an innocent man. And Peter does name their responsibility by saying they killed him by hanging him on a tree.
But the apostles don’t get stuck in blaming those leaders. They don’t go on and on about what could have been done differently, calling for their resignations, or for some kind of severe consequences.
Instead, they preach the good news to the council members. What they have been preaching in the streets and in the temple, what they have been telling to the poor and to the outcasts, they proclaim also to the proud, the powerful, and to those who do have blood on their hands.
Perhaps an awareness of their own failings encourages them to show mercy to those who yelled out “Crucify him!” just a few weeks ago. Or maybe they really took to heart the first thing Jesus told them when he appeared to them – when he sent them out with the power to forgive.
So, the apostles told the council: “God exalted Jesus at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
The forgiveness of sins that is promised is good news for the apostles themselves, who abandoned, denied, and betrayed Jesus. It’s good news for the leaders, who accused him of blasphemy and called for his death. It’s good news for the crowd that turned into an angry mob, and for the people with power who could have stopped it, but didn’t.
And it’s good news for us, who because of our indifference, our fear, or our greed, continue to do harm to others or stand by as injustice, oppression, or violence continue in our communities and throughout the world.
It seems to me that in our very divided and conflicted societies today, we sometimes spend more time and energy on feeling angry and frustrated. We criticize and complain, and we denounce those powers we see doing wrong. We may do that with our governments, with our bosses at work, with our church leadership, or leaders in community organizations. We have lots to say, and little patience, even with those who are trying hard and doing their best.
The Holy Spirit-filled apostles in the Scriptures today give us a better example to follow. First, there’s the fact that they are not afraid to speak. They tell it like it is, and acknowledge the mistakes and misdeeds of the leadership.
And then they preach forgiveness. They follow in the footsteps of Jesus who prayed from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they remember that Jesus offered that forgiveness to all – like the Father in the parable of a few weeks ago, welcoming the prodigal son home.
Can you imagine how much courage it took for those apostles to say that God loves and forgives even those people who have been trying to silence them and keep them in jail? Can you imagine how much generosity it took for Jesus’ friends to admit that God loves and forgives even those who killed their Teacher. As the reading from Revelation this morning puts it, “even those who pierced him”?
I went online the other day to look for examples of forgiveness, and there are many:
A father forgiving the boy who accidentally shot his daughter at school, after bringing a gun to show off to his friends. Astonishing the judge and community, the man forgave the boy, asked for a lighter sentence for him, built a relationship with him, and the two visited schools together to warn other kids about the dangers of guns.
A woman forgiving her mother who had abused her as a child. She didn’t think it was possible, but when her mother suffered several strokes later in life and there was no one to care for her, the adult daughter went to help. As she sat by the beside and read to her mother, she said the hate she felt for so long dissipated into forgiveness and love.
On a larger scale, a New York Times photographer demonstrates the forgiveness between the Hutus and Tutsis – the two cultures involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that took millions of lives. In his photos, members from both cultures stand side-by-side, illustrating a story of forgiveness that was taking place between individuals, families, and communities.
I wonder… is there someone, or a group of people, or a power or authority that is difficult for you to forgive?
You are invited today to breathe in and receive the Holy Spirit. Hear Jesus’ voice greeting you with the blessing, “Peace be with you.” And take courage both to speak up and call out injustice, and then to forgive as Jesus forgives.