At the start of his short story, “The Capitol of the World,” Ernest Hemingway tells the tale of a Spanish father and his teenage son. The relationship between father and son became strained as the boy grew older and more independent, more rebellious and reckless, and finally the relationship was broken. The rebellious son – whose name was Paco, an especially common name among boys in Spain at that time – ran away from home. This further shattered his father, who began a long, exhaustive search to find him, going everywhere, asking everyone, doing everything he could think to do, until finally, the desperate father placed an ad in a Madrid newspaper, hoping that his son might see it and respond.
The ad read: Dear Paco, Meet me at Hotel Montana. Noon Tuesday. All is forgiven. Papa
The father prayed the boy would see the ad, would make it to the hotel, and as Hemingway tells it, Tuesday around noon, the father went to the Hotel Montana and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a mass of people and a police squadron trying to control the crowd, as 800 young boys named “Paco” had come to the Hotel Montana, hoping to meet their father. (1)
No matter our name, we know this need, this longing, to know that all is forgiven.
This Lenten season, we’re reflecting together on faithful, historic practices of our faith – how we move beyond professing faith in Christ with our mouths, to practicing our faith with our whole bodies, that we might, as in our passage today, step into the light of God’s love, and live out our faith with commitment and clarity for all to see.
Today we come to a practice – forgiveness – that might be most difficult of all. It’s so often shrouded in the darkness that surrounds the scene of this gospel passage, as Nicodemus has come to Jesus right in the middle of the night. John is a master of dramatic settings, symbolism and imagery. You can contrast this midnight setting to the Samaritan woman at the well in Chapter 4, who comes in the middle of the day. But Nicodemus ventures into the night, and it tells us something about him. It signals unbelief, challenge, shadows in his own understanding. He was a student of the Scriptures, who had his own outlook on God’s activity in the world and the meaning of salvation. But the verses prior to what we have read today show the limits of Nicodemus’ perspective. Jesus says he’s fixed on earthly things. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks, even his questions lacking.
And then Jesus shares with him these words around which we have gathered throughout our lives of faith. Words of God’s unconditional love for the world, and how God in every way could have condemned the world, could have withheld this promise of new life in favor of the death the world had given to itself. But instead God sent the Son, so that through him we might be born again, renewed, saved, forgiven.
Nicodemus came looking for judgment, and instead Jesus tells of such unconditional love. That means that Nicodemus and all of us listening in don’t get a say. God has already loved us – completely and unconditionally. God’s love for us will not condemn, or seek retribution. God in Christ is even going to die for us. And then even in death, the cry will be “Forgive them, for they know not what they do…”
Throughout the season of Lent, we drape the cross in purple. It’s the color of forgiveness. For that’s what leads us, finally, to Easter.
“Forgive each other” the book of Ephesians says, “as God in Christ has forgiven you…”
For most of us, it’s the most difficult of spiritual practices, because before forgiveness comes injury, compromise of a relationship, fracture, rupture, to the point that maybe we think we could never do it. We could never forgive as we have been forgiven.
Last Sunday, our children and their families gathered for a Lenten Workshop, which has been offered in recent years to give opportunity to reflect on the themes of Lent, and prepare ourselves in this season as we move toward Easter.
This year’s theme was “Love is…”, as children and families passed through eight stations of activities and prayer, all helping us know more the qualities that characterize the love of God. Love is big. Love is patient. Love is kind. And Love is forgiving, one station reminded. It was outfitted with markers and a basin of soapy water, and we were invited to think of one person we needed to forgive, to write that person’s name on our hands in washable marker, and then to say a prayer as we dipped our hands and scrubbed the name, releasing that person to God. The instructions were easier than the act itself. I found myself thinking for a while about who I actually wanted to forgive, who I felt able to forgive. It was challenging. In fact, a certain 5 yr old in my family never got there. She walked out with a hand still smudged in pink marker, unable to come clean.
Which reminds us of what retribution can do. What resentment and anger can do. They mark us, in ways profound and lasting. And often those feelings of resentment, anger or bitterness define us, consume us, even to our own injury.
The midrashic tale of two shopkeepers is told as a reminder of this. Two rival shopkeepers were across the street from one another, and whatever one did, the other would try to match and, if possible, exceed. This led to years of tension and outright feuding, until one night, an angel of the Lord visited the first. “The Lord has sent me to you with the promise that you will receive one wish, no matter how extravagant. There is but one condition: whatever you receive, your rival will receive twofold. What is it you wish?”
So the first shopkeeper, thinking of his rival, responded, “My wish is that you would strike me blind in one eye.”
So often retribution creates that cycle, leaving injury and damage, when forgiveness has the power to free us toward the light and life that Jesus offers to Nicodemus.
That’s not to say that forgiveness erases all boundaries or limits. Forgiveness does not mean staying in a place, or in a relationship, where your flourishing is threatened, or where you are exposed to further injury, especially if you have been vulnerable to abuse or injustice. Forgiveness does not mean that a relationship is restored to what it was before the brokenness. Forgiveness does not mean staying silent about injustice, or acquiescing to the status quo in favor of unity or in fear of division.
Forgiveness might not even seem possible, given what you’ve been through, what you’ve endured. But even if you can’t forgive, as a start, could you come to a place where you imagine the love of God is large enough to forgive? That Christ died even for the one who has wronged, hurt, injured you? And if you can imagine that, you can start to understand that word from Ephesians, “Forgive as God in Christ has forgiven…”
Theologian Greg Jones has said it this way: “Crucial in forgiveness is the connection between receiving forgiveness from God, and giving forgiveness to another. And one is not possible without the other. Forgiveness starts with being forgiven.” (2)
Yes, forgiveness is hard, for many reasons. But one might be that we sometimes start in the wrong place. “How can I forgive?” we ask, thinking of ourselves as the ones who must generate the power to forgive, when in fact, true forgiveness resides already in the heart of the God. We make peace, at least in our hearts, because we know God has first made peace with us – the God who so loved the world, that God sent Jesus to live with such compelling mercy, to die for his commitment that the world might know it, and to say even in that moment of forsakenness, “Forgive.”
In Eastern Orthodox churches, there is an ancient tradition about Jesus’ death and Good Friday that the blood of Jesus on the cross soaked into the ground and down to the depths of the earth, finally even reaching the bones of Adam and Eve and healing and forgiving them and all of those in between. Even us.
Which is to say, what happens at the cross can take form in our lives. And we see it in the life that flows from there – in Acts, as Luke writes about the birth of the church after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, at the end of his trial says he sees Jesus at the right hand of God, and then as people set upon stoning him to death, his last words were “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them…” “Father, forgive them…” he was somehow able to say. And nearby a young Pharisee stood watch and held the coats. He saw. He heard. And it must have passed through his mind when, sometime later struck blind on the Damascus Road, God’s servant Ananias would greet him with the word “Brother,” and help him to see again. Eyes open. Name changed. With all he had seen and heard, that apostle Paul went on to pen an exquisite hymn of love in a letter to the
Corinthians, with the words, “Love forgives all things,” and in his name we hear those words to the church at Ephesus, “Forgive as Christ has forgiven you.”
See the forgiveness that God sent to the world, that Jesus spoke on the cross, permeates all the way down to us.
Some years ago, as part of my education at Vanderbilt, I was in a class at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, reading the NT with ten prisoners serving sentences for capital crimes. It was mazing to sit with prisoners and read letters written from prison, to listen as they reflected on what the mercy and grace of the story of Jesus meant to them. Like one Monday evening, as we spoke about the cross, the last words of Jesus that reflected so much of the mercy of his life. Fred spoke up. He was in prison for a violent crime, convicted of murder and a convenience store robbery some twenty years earlier. Now middle-aged, Fred reflected back on his life, how he never could have imagined life after that mistake, but how he had entered a program of restorative justice. Different from “eye for an eye,” the restorative model is based on radical mercy and rehabilitation and the belief that no person is defined by the worst thing they have done.
Fred was particularly moved this night by the cross, and he held a small cross as he spoke, finally holding it up and saying, “This reminds me that in this old world, someone actually forgave me.”
This is the message we hear again this morning, from the cross of Christ with its purple drape, marked in forgiveness to remind us how we emerge from darkness into light. Easter comes when God’s people are forgiven, and Easter also comes when God’s people forgive.
I’ve never experienced this any more clearly or powerfully in my life than when I traveled to Israel, and stood at the site of Jesus’ cross – the traditional place of the skull, where pilgrims and tourists stream to this day. I’ve shared with some of your about this trip before. I was in 8th grade, traveling with my father – the pastor and trip leader – and a group of older adults from our church. It’s a trip that made me love the Bible, and helped me love God’s people we call “church,” including all the personalities on our trip, like Hugh Johnson the retired pediatrician that whistled to himself for what seemed about half of the transatlantic flight, or Sam Averett, the septic engineer who at Masada became frustrated with a pushy Texan and asked him if he wanted to step outside. And then, a dear woman in my life of faith, Elise Yakoubian. “Grandma Elise” she insisted I call her. She had waited for this trip for years of her long life, and at the end there was some question of whether she would be able to go. But nothing would stop her. She had known too much suffering herself. Grandma Elise, was born in Armenia, in a period after World War I known as the Armenian Massacre – or the Great Calamity – a period of genocide in which up to 1 and a half million Armenian people lost their lives in the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects.
Grandma Elise’s father was among this mass. A Christian minister, he had been taken from their home when she was a young girl, ultimately dying with so many others.
She and her mother were forced to march, passing into modern day Syria, refugees to a place so thick with death and suffering today.
Even as she eventually moved to safety and a new start, she never knew her father. She had carried this all her days. It was part of what she carried to that place of Jesus’ own suffering. When we arrived, she was so moved that she began to weep. I remember she was inconsolable, steadying herself against those around her and then falling silent, reflective. Until later that day. We were celebrating communion in the garden, as pilgrims do, just down from the traditional site of the cross. And Grandma Elise stood up. I’ll never forget it. She said to us, “I need you all to know something. Today, here, I forgave the men who killed my father.”
I don’t know really know how this profound moment happened. It seems impossible to me. But it happened.
And it happened in a particular place. That place where she heard the echo, “Father, forgive them..” That place where she stepped into the light of the one who could have condemned us, but instead sent the Son to show us another way. I think she remembered there, how in this old world, someone had forgiven her. I think she experienced there the one who so loved the world and sent us that message that stands in the center of our lives even now, “My children: All is forgiven.”
1. With thanks to dear friend, Emily Hull McGee, for making me aware of this story.
2. From “Forgiveness” in Practicing our Faith, Dorothy Bass, ed.