It towers over the beautiful and picturesque city, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. If you happen to arrive there first thing in the morning with the mist still clinging to the mountain, you just might think you were seeing an Easter apparition of your own. Rio's famous statue of Christ as Redeemer, standing tall, arms wide, on Corcovado Mountain, is 98 feet high, and weighs 1145 tons.
The distance between Christ's fingertips is 91 feet and is the largest statue of Jesus in the world. It is a monument that commands attention and it is not much wonder that millions of people a year travel to see it. This Jesus is an impressive sight. With arms stretched wide, the massive-robed body appears to descend from the sky revealing a square face that resembles a devout, untroubled, if slightly demented looking, Antonio Banderas.
When our tour bus finally arrived at a point where passengers could take in the majestic figure up close and personal, many faces in our group were appropriately reverent with awe. Only one member of our party was not impressed. One of the more conservative seminary students in our tour group took one look at the statue and saw the trouble at once. "No nail holes," he said. Jesus' outstretched arms were uncut. No nails had pierced him. No thorns had scratched his brow. The face was serene and glorious and devoid of suffering, without a doubt. "It ain't my Jesus," said the student. "My Jesus was crucified."
One of the things you notice when you try to wade through these resurrection stories in Matthew, Luke and John is that the Jesus who is portrayed as risen is really different. All of these stories go to great pains to say that it was not a ghost the disciples saw but the body of their old friend and crucified Messiah. It really is the old Jesus, the stories say, but a Jesus who seems to transcend bodily limitations even while he seems to still have a body. Jesus first appears to the disciples the very next day after his resurrection. They are all huddled up in a house with all the doors locked. They were being hunted by the religious authorities who are seeking to root out and eliminate any evidence of this Jesus resistance movement. The disciples were terrified. Suddenly Jesus appears and greets them with "Peace be with you.” And then after showing his scars in his hands and side, and breathing the Holy Spirit upon them he says such a strange thing.
In verse 23 he says: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Wait. What? Forgive? Okay, sometimes that translation is a little hard to interpret in our contemporary culture. I like how the Message translation presents is: “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” Okay, that’s does not completely make sense to me either. So I looked at about 25 different translations and found that the NIV and a couple of others say it like this: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Wait. What? Does this mean that WE have the power to forgive and not forgive sins? Is Jesus really saying that if WE don’t forgive someone’s sins then they won’t be forgiven? It can’t mean that, right? But there it is in black and white. I thought that only God can forgive sins. Surely we don’t have the power to deny God’s forgiveness to someone who sins. That would give us way too much power. But if we are to take these words of Jesus at face value, what could this mean for us as people who have such power over another’s forgiveness?
I’ve been reading a great book that Angela recommended to me a few months ago. It’s called “Unoffendable” by author Brant Hansen. It’s the foundation for my sermon series over the next six weeks and is a radical, provocative idea: We are not entitled to get offended or stay angry. Hansen says that the idea of our own “righteous anger” is a myth. It is the number one problem in our societies today and most Christians have not learned differently. But the basic concept in the book, the kernel of truth is that “We can choose to be Unoffendable.” But it’s more than that really. Hansen argues that we should choose to forfeit our right to be offended. That means forfeiting our right to hold onto anger, and always offering forgiveness freely, even without being asked for it. He says when we do this; we make sacrifices that are pleasing to God.
Hansen goes on to say that the “The truth is, we like being angry. We don’t like what causes the anger, to be sure; we just like thinking we’ve “got” something on somebody. Perhaps Jesus modeled being Unoffendable better than anyone. If anyone had a reason to be angry it was him. If anyone should have had the right to use his righteous anger on his killers, it would have been him. But he teaches us in this story that anger, retribution, tit for tat, eye for an eye, make ‘em pay mentality may have been warranted, but instead he said, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The first thing he says to his disciples after the resurrection is, “If YOU don’t forgive them, then they won’t be forgiven by God.”
Now of course we are not Jesus. We don’t have that symbiotic relationship with God. We are not fully human and fully divine. We can’t be expected to be and say and do everything just like Jesus. But that’s not what the scripture says. Jesus doesn’t say, “If I don’t forgive them, they won’t be forgiven.” He says, “If you don’t forgive them, they won’t be forgiven.”
So why? Why does Jesus instruct his disciples with these first words after rising from the grave? When Jesus appears the second time to Thomas, he seems less genial. The literal Greek translation of the words is not as soft as most versions imply. It is rough. "Take your finger, here are my hands; take your fist, jam it in my side. Don't be faithless, but be faithful!" Now I could imagine that might have come across angrier than before. If anything should anger God it would be doubt, right?
But here we have Thomas questioning his own experience until he saw Jesus for himself. He needed to see the smoking gun, the evidence of his resurrection. And Jesus showed up, wearing nail holes, a spear hole, bruises, scratches and dried blood. Jesus was not a pretty sight. He was a resurrected sight. The resurrected Jesus was evidence of what God is always willing to do; bring hope back into the places of our lives that feel like death. The point of the Thomas story is not, it seems to me, the necessity of believing without seeing, but the necessity of accepting the fact that God will make Godself known to us; as God really is. Not a God that is above all of our suffering, but a God who bears the marks of our suffering. A God that suffers with us, instead of punishing others for us. A God that wears scars, and asks us to forgive those who wound us. A God that proves we are loved.
We often want a Jesus without scars. We want to worship an unruffled Christ, a majestic, serene-looking Jesus who is somehow beyond it all. We want to picture Jesus as a winner, able to conquer every adversity, on top of the world, looking down on us. So we smooth over the cuts and bruises, making Jesus look, . . ., well, like a statue. We want all our experiences of worship to be "hours of power". We want to hear "success" stories in church, about people who "made it" as a result of their faith, not about people who got crucified because of it. Whether it’s doubt or anger or injustice, we humans are experts at casting ourselves as victims and rewriting narratives that put us at the center.
But that’s the whole point of being an Unoffendable Christian: The thing that you think makes your anger “righteous” is the very thing you are called to forgive.” And that’s why the story of Doubting Thomas is real and transforming for me. When Jesus came back the first time after his death, Thomas wasn't there. All the other disciples had a physical experience of Jesus' resurrection. And when they all gathered to talk about it...and express their joy at the evidence of Jesus overcoming death...Thomas couldn't believe it. He demanded proof...just like the disciples had been given. And when Jesus came back again...he said to Thomas... touch my wounds...put your fingers in my hands and feel where the nails were hammered into me...and where the sword was pierced into my side. Touch the wounds that were given to me because I was rejected. Feel the hole in my side that injustice, and bigotry, and hatred and prejudice and homophobia put there. And know that I came back...for you. Jesus came back for Thomas. He came back to give Thomas the proof that he needed to believe.
Jesus was crucified, and then forgave his killers. His scars were a testament to the disciples that he was real. Jesus wasn’t offended by the crowd that spit on him. He wasn’t offended by the religious authorities that sentenced him to be beaten. He was offended by the disciples who abandoned him, or by Peter who denied him. He wasn’t offended by the cross, the hate, the injustice, the pain. He wasn’t offended by Thomas when he didn’t believe in the resurrection. And Jesus isn’t offended by you.
Because that same Unoffendable Jesus comes back for you too; every time you have doubts that God cares. In every moment you feel abandoned, worthless, criticized for who you are, when you’ve been a victim of abuse, neglect or wronged in deed. In every situation where your hopes and dreams are taken from you, whenever you are separated from your identity as one of God’s special creations. The faith that any of us have in the resurrected Christ is equal in status, no matter how we define it. And the very things you think should make your anger righteous is the very thing you are called to forgive. Because grace isn’t for the deserving.
I think that lots of folks don’t really question whether or not there is a God…as much as what kind of God is there? Is God angry at us? Is God disapproving of us? When we believe that about God, then we will believe that toward others. Anger is extraordinarily easy. It’s our default setting. Doubt leads to questioning, which can lead to deep faith. Forgiveness is for giving. Forgive in the big things and in the little things. Don’t take offense. What if Christians were known as the people you couldn’t offend? Love is difficult. Love is the miracle.
And in those places of doubt and disappointment that Jesus comes to us, sometimes in the warm stone of a majestic statue but most often in the cold and fearful places of our lives where hope does not seem to exist. For it’s in your doubts and fears, and uncertainties and indecisions that Jesus comes back; for you. Jesus comes back just for you. Thanks be to God!