Forgiveness over Fear

04/19/20 Second Sunday of Easter service of morning prayer

Posted by St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Echo Park on Sunday, April 19, 2020

041920 Easter 2 

John 20:19-31


Why is it that the first Sunday after the greatest celebration of the Christian year, we find Jesus’ followers locked in fear? Shouldn’t the Easter season be full of courage because now the worst has happened, and God won the victory? Well, maybe we will get there. But it seems like the path always leads through fear. Maybe this year we understand that better. Fear is everywhere – even when it takes the form of denial and defiance in attempting to “liberate” states from their commitments to fight the disease. Perhaps, if we can admit that we’re afraid, we can discover the Easter gift that will pull us through to life.

I’ve found in the experience people have with Lou Gehrig’s disease a metaphor for how to walk through fearful experiences. I have only watched one person move through the stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but it showed me a lot. Gary was a former clergy colleague. The first time I saw him after being diagnosed with the disease was at his birthday party. His chest was collapsed, his thin stomach was sagging, and it was hard for him to catch his breath. At one point at the party, Gary spoke to his gathered friends and told us how he was hoping to remain strong enough to participate in an experimental treatment that involved placing electrodes on the diaphragm that can be controlled by a small box worn at the waist. The electrodes would be activated by electricity stored in the box, which would cause the diaphragm to contract, which in turn compresses and releases the lungs, which is what happens every time we breathe. The experiment basically consisted of plugging a key muscle into a new energy source.

When Jesus walked into the room where the disciples were huddled in fear, grief, confusion, guilt and anger, he found them afflicted with a spiritual version of Lou Gehrig’s disease: all their spiritual muscles had been unplugged because of the debilitating emotions they felt as a result of the threat the crucifixion signaled for their own lives. In the dark, confusing days immediately following Jesus’ execution at the hands of Roman soldiers and the instigation of the Judean authorities, they were probably asking themselves, “how long do you think we can last?” 

Some people are asking a similar question during this time of social distancing: how long do you think this can last? William Sloan Coffin spoke words to his congregation that address the apostle’s situation and our own. He said, “The primary religious task these days is to try to think straight… You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart’s a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts – either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.” (UCC lectionary webpage) I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we need straight thinking more today than ever.

So, what was the new energy source that Jesus plugged the disciples into when he arrived on the scene? He breathed on them, and spoke the words, “Peace be with you.” He plugged them into the Holy Spirit: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The disciples were seeking safety, and the truth came instead. The truth empowered them to love. It actually happened in two stages. Jesus helped the disciples connect the need for healing and the need to express their vocation. The first time he said, “Peace be with you”, it was about healing their wounds by showing them his. The second time was about calling forth their vocation. He added, “as God sent me so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

I saw a contemporary version of this when I read a book entitled, Breathing Spaces, by Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor who was pastoring a church in the Bronx. First, she describes the connection between spirituality and breathing: “Those who study the science of breath emphasize the importance of breathing from the diaphragm rather than the chest. Shallow, rapid chest breathing is related to our fight or flight response. Slow, deep breathing from the diaphragm channels fresh, energizing oxygen into the far recesses of the lungs, the blossoming tips of each branch of the bronchial tree, called alveoli.” 

Then, she shows the connection between healing wounds and discovering vocation. “My alveoli were not flowering as they should. I felt short of breath, my throat clenched, the tracheal trunk clogged and shrunk… I was crying easily, losing patience with the children, having no resistance, walking around without skin, lost to myself. Was this the beginning of burnout? It might have been, but it wasn’t. It was the beginning of this book. Writing would keep me from going over the edge again. Writing became a door to contemplation and a channel for grief.” (p 97-98) It was no coincidence that Heidi wrote a book out of her own need for healing. It was tied intimately into who she was. 

Likewise, Jesus’ followers received a calling that emerged directly from their need for the healing power of forgiveness that had been accomplished in the resurrection. Their commission was, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. Rowan Williams stated clearly why this made sense: “For the disciples, the resurrection was an experience of forgiveness. They had abandoned Jesus, becoming complicit with his murderers. The fact that the resurrection was happening to them was an experience of forgiveness for them that became a vocation of forgiveness.”

For us, this will sometimes mean standing for life as “God-breathers” in our world, exhaling hope, spiritual vitality, and relational healing. (Bruce Epperly, Process and Faith Lectionary Studies) Wendell Berry says we are called to practice resurrection by breathing God’s presence – embracing and sharing it with the life-giving power of the Easter Christ. Like the apostles, we are called to plug our wounds into the energy source of the Holy Spirit, and then be sent into the world – specifically to the world’s brokenness – because we are the Body of Christ, Jesus’ presence at work in the world. Even during this season when we are supposed to stay in our rooms, we don’t have to be locked in fear. Social distancing can’t be an excuse for sequestering ourselves from the world’s pain; because when we do, we’re hiding from ourselves and from Christ’s presence. 

Fortunately, Jesus keeps after us, breathing peace into us. And in these days, that breath must be powerful enough to break through the resistance of our logical minds. I loved Richard Rohr’s word this week about the cruciform shape to reality: “If we try too hard to understand it, we will stop the process or steer it in the wrong direction. It seems there is a cruciform shape to reality with cross purposes, paradoxes, and conflicting intentions everywhere. Jesus hangs right there amid them, not even perfectly balancing them, but just holding them.” Today’s Gospel requires us to enter the paradox of finding the truth of the story.

 We must accept Jesus’ breath to give us power to drop the masks on our souls, even as we keep literal masks over our noses and mouths; and to give us power to unlock the doors of our hearts, even as we stay behind the doors of our homes out of love for ourselves and others; and to give us power to touch the places where the Body of Christ is still suffering, even as we refrain from physical touch for a season. Each of us has a part. None of us can solve the whole mess. But the more of us who can allow the vocation that emerges out of our woundedness to be the exhale after Jesus breathes healing forgiveness into us, the more healing will be released into the world.  May God plug each of us into that power.