When Thomas the twin was born, I refuse to believe his mother called him “doubting Thomas”. I even hesitate to believe that immediately after the exchange with Jesus in the Upper Room, this became his nickname. But as the story was told, over and over and over again, the epitaph stuck and we never refer to Thomas as “the twin” anymore. And that is a shame. With our eyes and hearts so focused on the missteps of the twin, I fear we have overlooked a powerful verse in the story. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I was listening to NPR the other day and an astounding story was shared. As you are aware, when South Africa elected Nelson Mandela to be their president, the world held its breath. Violence against blacks was rapidly shifting to violence against whites as decades of revenge were being enacted against a suddenly helpless oppressor. Understanding such violence would destroy his country Mandela sought the wisdom of Anglican Bishop Desmond TuTu. After much prayer Bishop TuTu approached Mandela with the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The concept was fairly simple but no sane person could imagine it had any chance of success. Afrikaners who had brutalized the black population were put on trial. The process demanded the guilty to describe their crime and then ask the victims for forgiveness. Once the victims heard the apology, they were given the opportunity to ask the court for leniency when the accused was sentenced.
I have heard Bishop Tu Tu speak many times on the success of the Commission but I was unaware of the story shared on NPR. More than twenty years ago a woman faced a man who had both beaten and burned her husband and only son. She stood and listened as the man spoke of his inability to conceive that a black man could be human. He said his actions were not those of rage but preservation of his misguided beliefs. The court was horrified by the story and condemned the man to death. But the woman asked the man’s punishment be changed to life imprisonment. Her plea to the court was this. “Because of this man I have no husband or son. But if you let him live, I promise to visit him every week. My hope is one day we will eat together and eventually I can help him rediscover his humanity.” The sentence was reversed and the man is now serving a life sentence with no parole. The widow has kept her promise. She visits him each week. They talk, pray together, and then share a meal.
What on earth does this have to do with the story of “Doubting Thomas?” Look no further than verse 29. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”
The purpose of each gospel is to do more than share the story of Jesus. The gospel of Matthew was written to inspire a particular community to be about building the kingdom of God on earth. Luke wrote to a community of slaves and women who felt invisible. This gospel declared that they were precious children of God. John’s gospel begins with the Baptizer declaring that Jesus was, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Every move that Jesus makes in John’s gospel leads toward forgiveness. Nicodemus must be born again. The Samaritan women must begin a new life. The blind man must be recognized by others as a human being. In order for this happen, forgiveness is required. Then the forgiven must be willing to emulate the forgiving Lamb of God.
Jesus appears in the Upper Room and the disciples are astounded. The women had told them he was alive but they didn’t believe. Now rumor materializes into truth. The disciples are astounded and wanted to know what would happen next. Jesus responded, “You will receive the Holy Spirit and everything will be made clear. But first, you must be willing to forgive as I have forgiven you. Who will believe your words of truth if you cannot forgive?”
Have you ever had a serious talk with anyone about the power of forgiveness? It’s kind of a one-way street. It is easy to talk about forgiveness if you are not the person who has been hurt. But if you are the victim, Katy bar the door!
I love the 10:00 Sunday School class. They have followed me down some interesting paths and come out the other side bruised but wiser for the journey. But I can guarantee you any conversation on forgiveness goes in circles until someone will bravely conclude with the time worn phrase, “OK, maybe I can forgive, but I WILL NOT FORGET.” Note the choice of words. “Maybe” means, “perhaps”, “not likely”, “if hell freezes over”. But regardless what I decide, I will not forget.
Everyone knows the guilty party is going to repeat the wrongdoing. Forgiveness gives the guilty permission to go astray again. Since the guilty can never to be trusted, our only choice is not be fooled again. This is very smart and practical. But I am not really sure it is what Jesus had in mind. I can promise you one thing. Those disciples, burning with the desire to follow Jesus, stopped dead in their tracks when his first request was a new attitude toward forgiveness. Thankfully Thomas missed the meeting, setting the scene for one last object lesson.
We can hear the poor guy ranting. “I will not believe until I see the holes in his hands.” No sooner than the words were out of his mouth, Jesus appeared. Thomas was flabbergasted and begged to be forgiven for his foolish words. Jesus, as always, was ready to forgive. Of course as we all know, with forgiveness comes, “the talk”. You know what I mean. We know the guilty party is only asking for forgiveness because they were caught. Furthermore we know the guilty party doesn’t feel all that guilty. The only satisfaction we have is “the talk”, the lecture, the pithy words based on the guilt we administer before forgiveness is given. Only Jesus doesn’t do that.
Thomas said, “Forgive me that I didn’t believe.”
Jesus responded, “Blessed are those who do not see but believe.”
The disciples shouted, “How is that possible?”
Jesus just smiled, “They will know me through you.”
All of the disciples jumped to their feet and proclaimed, “Yes Lord, we will faithfully tell your story.”
Jesus, knowing they misunderstood replied, “Telling the story is not enough. You have to live it. You can start by practicing forgiveness.”
That unnamed woman who visits the prison to eat with the man who killed her husband and son is probably still trying to forgive him. In her heart it may never happen. But each week she goes. Each week he waits for her. Each week he sees something in her that makes no sense. But because she comes, he knows there is a forgiving God.
So who do you need to forgive? Could their crime be any worse than those done to this faithful widow? No one doubts God’s desire is to forgive. But will you? Amen.