1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Locked rooms, doors locked for fear, fear of what’s out there, fear of the future. We all know them. We’ve all been there. Fourteen years ago, I made my way down the steep, crooked stairway of the old Holy Cross building. I was wounded, bruised by experiences in my last parish, uncertain whether I had a future in parish ministry. A kind warden at that last parish, an executive placement professional, had given me her company’s battery of outplacement tests and interviews. “Give it up,” she suggested. “Find something else to do.” Would a parish have me?
At the bottom of the steps a little group awaited: Terry Knowles, Peter Ashworth, Nancy Stehno, Laura Starr-Houghton, Diane Beland, two or three others. The vestry/search committee. They too were wounded, bruised. Bishop Theuner was about to shut Holy Cross down, lock the doors for the last time. “Give it up,” he’d said. Could they find a priest to serve them? Fear. Fear of what’s out there, fear of the future.
Here we are, fourteen years later. My wife Anne gave me a word of advice for this last sermon. Find a way, she said, to tell them that they loved you back to health and wholeness, and you loved them back to health and wholeness too. And that’s the heart of it. You and I, this congregation and Anne and me, started with our wounds, our need for each other. Everything in the last fourteen years has grown out of that.
So it was too, wasn’t it, that first Pentecost, two thousand years ago. St. John paints the picture: evening of Easter Day, the disciples locked in their failure, their hopes gone, their leader dead, unknown enemy forces outside the doors, no future. But into that very place of fear comes Jesus, and stands among them. In a word, with a word, he counters the fear they do not even dare to name, saying, “Peace be with you.” It is the same Peace we exchange in this Holy Eucharist: not a social greeting, but this Peace that touches hear to heart, soul to soul; this Peace that passes understanding, this Peace that the world cannot give, this Peace sealed on the Cross and in the Resurrection, this Peace passed down to us through two thousand Pentecosts. “Peace, be with you,” Jesus says.
Then – crucially important – he shows the disciples his hands and his feet, the wounds of the nails, the marks of the Cross on his very body. (When we make the sign of the Cross, do we think that each touch of our hand is a remembrance of a wound?) You know, we casually ask each other how we are, and the answer is always “fine” – peace as the world gives. In job and search interviews, college admission essays and scholarship applications, we talk about our strengths and our successes. But really if we want to find the Jesus in each other, in ourselves, in life, we should ask about our wounds, our failures. It is in our wounds that we meet each other most deeply, in our wounds that healing love is born, in our wounds that Jesus comes to us – comes to us as crucified and risen Lord.
So vestry, search committee, just a word of advice: ask your candidates about their wounds; share your own wounds. We have lots of wonderful stories here at Holy Cross, and one of them is about the paint job on the interior of this building. We did it by ourselves, volunteers with brushes and rollers climbing ladders and scaffolds. And so if you look carefully you will see that sometimes the stain on the beams slops over onto the Navaho white paint on the plaster. It’s not perfect, not professional. And that’s a sign, we say: a sign of who we are, and who we’re not, a sign that this congregation lives under the dispensation of the Holy Cross, that we offer a Peace that the world does not give.
So, Jesus gives us the Peace of woundedness, this gift of Pentecost. But he does not give this Peace to us just to hold onto like a warm blanket. For immediately he says to us, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. 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.” This Peace of born of woundedness must be lived out in mission, carried forth into everything we do in life. The Holy Spirit of God is none other than the Spirit of forgiveness; forgiveness which sets the future free, which opens a future of possibility, which brings new life where without forgiveness there is only death.
I don’t think I ever really understood forgiveness until I came here to Holy Cross. There wasn’t forgiveness in the world I knew; only success and failure. Here there has been forgiveness, over and over. I have forgiven others; they have forgiven me. Because we practice forgiveness, we have not been afraid to try new things: build a new building, put the chairs in a circle around the altar, play guitar songs as well as organ hymns, dramatize Scripture readings, welcome a gay bishop, give children and teens a central place in our life. Not everything works out. But you almost never hear around Holy Cross, “oh, we can’t do that” or “don’t let her try that” or “he failed.”
And as I have learned about forgiveness in these fourteen years, I have realized that forgiveness is not just a part of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but the essence of the Good News. Suppose Jesus had entered that locked room, displayed his wounds, and commanded his disciples to avenge him: decreed a kind of jihad on the world that had done him such an injustice. That is the way we often respond, isn’t it? The never-ending cycle of reprisal, recrimination, violence, anger, self-righteousness that underlies the world’s fears. “If you retain the sins of any,” Jesus warns, “they are retained.” It works both ways, forgiveness and unforgiveness. But Jesus broke that cycle, by commanding a future based on forgiveness. A future he bequeaths to us, on this Day of Pentecost.
So here we are, dear friends: an end after fourteen years, but also – and more important – a new beginning. That is the pattern of Christian life: every end a new beginning, because of the power of forgiveness, the power of the Spirit. Go forth with my heartfelt thanks and blessing, as Anne and I go forth with yours. Do Peace, live forgiveness. As that song goes that Jim Sims has taught us to sing: “Everywhere we go, the Lord goes with us.”