Ordinary Forgiveness and the Christian Life

What if the Resurrection is Actually Just the Beginning?

Jeff Hual / 5.20.21

Some have described the Easter season as a journey. And indeed, one can’t help but notice a shift in the trajectory of the Sunday readings. From Easter Sunday to just before Pentecost, the readings slowly move out away from the initial joy of the empty tomb, and especially as we move closer to and beyond the Ascension, the readings return to the Upper Room Discourses in John’s Gospel, the place where we began our journey through the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection on Maundy Thursday.

We’ve turned from the initial Easter Joy to a consideration of what it’s like for us as we live within what Paul Zahl calls the presence of the absence of the Risen Lord. And this Gospel arc will culminate next week with Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church, the beginning of our life as Christians.

Next week is Pentecost. Yet before the Spirit comes we return to the “upper room,” to the farewell, and it may seem odd for us to do so. The end of Easter takes us back to holy week, back to the hours before Jesus’ arrest. What if that’s the point? In this time we ask what life is like for us after the resurrection.

In last teachings to the disciples, Jesus prays for them as they head out into the world, whatever that may look like. The theme of the prayer is unity, a new unity among believers. In John, such unity means relationship, a union through Christ among all believers and God. This unity will get them through the trials to come. And notice that our union with God is not something individual. It’s corporate. The modern language of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is far more complicated than it seems. This relationship is one that comes through community, through unity with one another.

This prayer that Christ prays for us, as his hour has come, is where we leave the Easter message. It seems that the whole point of Eastertide is to teach us an important lesson, that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not culminate in the resurrection. The resurrection is actually just the beginning.

If this is true, then it sends us back to John 1, where it says no one has seen the Father, but Jesus Christ has made him known. Jesus is the fullest picture we have of who God is, of God’s character. And here, in the upper room, Jesus says to the Father, “I have made your name known to those whom you have given me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me.”

A little later in the prayer, Jesus makes reference to the fact that, as a result of knowing the Father through Jesus Christ, the disciples do not belong to the world, just as Christ does not belong to the world. Eternal life is our current possession, it is here and now in this relationship with God, with Jesus Christ, and with one another.

If we start digging around in the Gospel looking for what’s at the heart of this relationship, the thing at the heart of what Christ came to do, it can be summed up in one word. Don Henley sang a song about it:

I’ve been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about
Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the one word that is the heart of the matter. It is the heart of the matter in terms of our relationship with God, and with Christ, and it is the fundamental building block of our relationship with one another.

That sheds a whole new light on the church’s mission: moving into Pentecost and beyond, what’s often called “ordinary time.” The months between Easter and Christmas, this time of the ordinary, is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation. It does not celebrate a dynamic event or story in the life of Jesus, but the essential good news of God’s grace. Our life is sustained by the ordinary: water, food, and shelter; the Christian is sustained by forgiveness. What would it look like for us to live into a world of forgiveness, a world in which we who have been forgiven through Christ live into our call to forgive others in Christ’s name? How might that change our congregations, our neighborhoods, perhaps even the world as we know it?

This, friends in Christ, is the heart of the matter.

Some years ago, a friend gave me a book by a Baltimore author: Ivan and Adolph, the Last Man in Hell. It’s a play in which Adolph Hitler and Ivan Karamazov, one a figure from history, the other from literature, are the last two people in Hell, because the purpose of Hell turns out simply to be a final path to forgiveness. These two turn out to be the toughest cases in all of human history, unable to hear and receive forgiveness: for themselves or one another, at which point the damned are taken to Heaven. The kicker in the story turns out to be the maid of hell, a woman named Sophie who tends to hell’s inhabitants.

Of course, Sophia in Greek means wisdom, and Sophie turns out to be God. That’s the twist in the plot you don’t see coming — that God is there in hell serving the damned — but you should see it, and you do in retrospect when you consider the things Sophie says to Adolph and Ivan. My favorite is this passage, which is where I want to leave you. Sophie (God) says,

Forgiveness is a gift. It’s revenge that’s predictable. Revenge is the automatic, natural reaction to being hurt. Forgiveness is an entirely creative act. It comes out of nowhere. It is completely unpredictable. For most human beings, it is incomprehensible. It is as close as human beings come to creating something out of nothing — the same way God made the universe.

What if this is the key? What if the heart of the matter is our being willing to forgive and to bear with one another, over and over again? What if this, ultimately, is the Gospel?