Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
April 22, 2001
The Second Sunday of Easter

The Gifts of Doubt and Forgiving
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

John 20: 19-31
(This sermon is also available in audio.)

It seems very significant to me - or perhaps even more than that - it seems very real and human, that on this Sunday only one short week after the remarkable Easter event of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, this is the scripture which each year is appointed to be read in the churches. I think there are two things significant about it. First, it is only in these verses from the Gospel of John that we hear the story of the encounter of the risen Jesus with the man whom we've come to know as Doubting Thomas, the Patron Saint of Doubting. And it's not too hard to recognize that it's a story that's pointing directly at us and telling the truth about you and about me and about the doubt, all too human, that we confront as well.

The other equally significant emphasis of this reading is the commission given by the risen Christ to his disciples to go out into the world, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to forgive. It's stunning, really, that he who has been so deeply wronged is asking us, the transgressors, to forgive others, even as we ourselves have been forgiven. And again, Jesus speaks not only to his disciples gathered there together behind locked doors, but he is speaking to us, to you and me, as well.

So it's these two remarkable events, which occurred one week after the Resurrection of Christ, that I invite you to hear again and to enter into with your mind and your heart. For they are both gifts to us - the gift of doubt and the gift of forgiving others.

First let's look at doubt. And I want to begin by emphasizing that doubt is not something to hide or to be ashamed of or to run away from, but rather it is something to be honored, something to take notice of and to enter into fully. Doubt is the condition of a fractured heart and mind, a heart and mind that want to believe but aren't able to, that want to hope but instead are hopeless, that want to trust but are unable to give of themselves as trust requires. Also, doubt is not the opposite or the enemy of faith, but quite the contrary. For whenever they are duly respected and acknowledged, the doubts themselves can become the very birthplace of a greater faith and the fertile soil of its nurture. Look at Thomas, for example. He dared to proclaim right out loud that he wasn't so sure about a Jesus raised from the dead. And it was then that Jesus could reach out to him - in response to both the emptiness and honesty in his soul. Jesus didn't criticize Thomas or condemn him. Rather he led old Doubting Thomas into a new depth of believing.

Well, it's the same for you and me. Like Thomas, we also risk what I'd call a profound stagnation of our faith if we ignore or refuse to confront the reality of the doubt in our own hearts and minds. I'm afraid that all too often we tend to think of Resurrection as an event of the past, one to be read about, studied and challenged - or as an event of the distant future, to be anticipated with a questioning expectation. In his book True Resurrection, author H.A. Williams puts it this way: "When resurrection is considered [in this way, only] in terms of past and future, it is robbed of its impact on the present...." What seeing it only from those two perspectives does is give to us perhaps an easy but an all too deadly immunity from what Williams calls "the threatening glory of resurrection." Then he goes on to say that the real death must be to our "familiar and childish certainties" in order that we too might be raised "to a first and fleeting glance of unmanageable mystery." Following that line of thought, doubt is no longer the opposite of faith but rather its birth place, both its place of origin and the food which nurtures it. Again in the words of H.A.Williams:

Resurrection as our final and ultimate future can be known
only by those who perceive resurrection with us now,
encompassing all we are and do. For only then will it be recognized
as a country we have already entered and in whose light and
warmth we have already lived.

Where have you experienced resurrection in your life? In a mended relationship? In a lost hope restored? In being healed of an illness or of a broken heart? In being forgiven?

So let's turn then to forgiveness, the other central point that is emphasized in today's Gospel. It's important to notice, I believe, that in this very important encounter of the risen Christ with his disciples, what he said to them was probably not what they expected or wanted most to hear. But what he did say somehow seemed to encompass all that, and it was much more significant. For he breathed on them and then said this:

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.

So what does such forgiveness really mean, we may wonder, and what does it accomplish? What does it accomplish, not just in the heart of the one forgiven but in the heart of the one who offers it as well? We've all heard the old adage of "forgive and forget," but I'm not sure it's so simple as that or that it should be. For true forgiveness needs to be remembered and never forgotten. It needs to be honored and respected for the exceptional power that it has. Because it's a resurrection power that calls forth new life out of the death of the old. When you or I have been forgiven, we have been given nothing less than the gift of new life, we have received what is probably love's greatest gift of all. A broken relationship - between ourselves and another, or perhaps within our own fractured, divided selves - a broken relationship has been restored, one based on truth and the courage to confess.

Anne Lamott, a young, contemporary author whose writing has touched the hearts of so many, has said this, that "Forgiveness is giving up any hope of having a different past." Think about it ... All those things we have done can't be un-done now, now matter how great our regret. And all those things that we failed to do when the opportunity presented itself can't be done once the opportunity is gone. We can't erase these mistakes or mis-judgments. We can't change the effects they have had or the hurts they have caused, the pathways they have shut down or the chain of events they have put into action. I imagine that we all know that feeling of persistent and wrenching remorse that fills us whenever we remember these things, and that we've all experienced the way that such things can eat away at us and corrode us. So how important it is, then, for us to know and to trust that forgiveness, only forgiveness - given, accepted and integrated into our very being - only forgiveness can save us and give us new life. The words of the nighttime prayer in the New Zealand Prayer Book come to mind:

Lord, it is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
What has not been done has not been done;
let it be. ......Let it be.

So these two related events, then, occurred on that week following the Resurrection, events in which two remarkable gifts were given - the gift of doubt and the gift of forgiveness. And I believe that in a very powerful way these two are bound inseparably together. For, you see, I don't believe that we can forgive another or accept forgiveness ourselves without also believing in the extraordinary power of love and resurrection. And, in the same way, I don't believe that we can overcome the great barrier of doubt in our lives, or ever know that our fractured minds and souls are healed, unless we can accept the incredible blessings of forgiveness.

The Risen Christ asks us to believe and to forgive. And in our complying with these, his requests, we are given the great gift of his presence with us forever.

.Copyright 2001 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: John 20: 19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had 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."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. NRSV

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