Method in the Madness of Forgiveness

Happy Easter! I trust you all had a powerful Holy Week and a glorious Easter Sunday. I am happy to be here with you on this Second Sunday of Easter, which is often called “Low Sunday” in contrast to the great pageantry of Easter Sunday. Although the name “Low Sunday” also seems to suggest lower attendance and a kind of post-Easter fatigue, I personally appreciate the relative calmness after all the pageantry, the calmness that offers us the opportunity to reflect perhaps more deeply and acutely on the mystery of the Resurrection. It gives us the opportunity to ask, “What does the resurrection really mean for us in our lives today?”

Today is also the birthday of perhaps the most famous Anglican in all of history. He’s not a saint and he’s not someone that we necessarily think of as an Anglican but the reason we know that today is his birthday is because of records of his baptism at an Anglican church: Church of the Holy Trinity in an English town called Stratford-upon-Avon. I am referring to the greatest writer of all time, the Bard: William Shakespeare. Because it’s his birthday, I feel invited to engage the mystery of the resurrection with Shakespeare’s greatest play Hamlet, which offers an enlightening contrast to the Gospel reading this morning.

[Hamlet was recently portrayed by the beloved Benedict Cumberbatch right before he performed as the titular hero in the movie Doctor Strange, which the Marin Episcopal Youth Group saw last November. I also saw my first live performance of Hamlet at Berkeley last year at around this same time, which was a real thrill for me, since Hamlet’s famous soliloquy’s have spoken to me ever since I was a young, sometimes “moody brooding” teenager.[1] ]

The plot of Hamlet is driven by the appearance of a ghost hell-bent on revenge, who appears to his son Hamlet and charges him to avenge his death. After learning of his father’s “most foul” murder, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with doubts, questions and indecision. He unpacks his heart with words, feigns madness and eventually kills an innocent man whom he mistakes for his father’s murderer. In the end, basically everyone ends up dead, showing that violence and revenge only lead to more violence and bloodshed.

The story of the vengeful ghost upon which Hamlet is based has its origins in ancient myths, which often depict gods and kings returning from the dead to avenge their murders or to commission others to do so. What makes the Gospel accounts of the resurrection so unique and so radically different from other resurrection stories and myths is the fact that Jesus has absolutely no interest in such vengeance and violence. The Risen Christ never once tells his disciples to “take up arms” against the Roman oppressors, who murdered him. Unlike the ghost in Hamlet, the Risen Christ never says, “Revenge my foul and most unnatural murder”[2] [1] (which he certainly would be justified in saying). Also, the Risen Christ has no interest in punishing his cowardly disciples who essentially all abandoned him at his darkest hour, including his close disciple Peter who publicly denied him three times.

According to Luke’s Gospel, the disciples were terrified and deeply afraid when they first saw the Risen Christ, not because he looked like some kind of zombie but because they thought he was a terrible ghost who would forever haunt them, reminding them of their cowardice and failure, asking them, “Why did you deny me? Why did you abandon me? Why did you betray me? Why did you leave me alone to suffer and die?”[3]

Instead, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples in the midst of their fear, terror and profound insecurity (as they are hiding behind locked doors) and says, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you! And then he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” which will empower them to do what he then commissions them to do. Not to avenge his murder, but to forgive. To forgive! And by forgiving and empowering us to forgive he throws a wrench into the whole cycle of violence and vengeance.

Now vengeance is sweet; we feel justified and righteous and even godly in punishing others whom we feel deserve it, but as Hamlet and history have shown, vengeance and violence only lead to more violence.[4] And in the Easter story, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that if we are moved and inspired by the Holy Spirit then we are not to seek vengeance, but rather offer forgiveness. Jesus knows we need the Holy Spirit’s help to do that. To avenge is human, to forgive is divine, and that is what we are called to do as followers of the Risen Christ.

The Risen Christ said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders has pointed out that in the Greek, Jesus literally says here, “If you forgive the sins of any one, they are forgiven and if you embrace anyone they are embraced.”[5] That is quite different, isn’t it? But that’s the Greek. The Greek word is krateo, which means to “hold fast” and “embrace” and the word for sin is not included in the second clause at all, it is added by the translators, erroneously.

And what Schneiders points out makes sense in light of the following verses about Thomas whom Jesus holds and embraces in all of his doubt. Jesus does not reprimand Thomas. He offers him peace and almost seems to appreciate Thomas’s honesty in expressing his doubt by inviting him to touch his wounds. Although Jesus says to him, “Do not doubt, but believe,” I do not hear Jesus scolding Thomas because of his doubts. Rather, I hear Jesus leading Thomas into a deeper faith. Again, a more accurate translation of Jesus’ words, from the Greek, is “Do not become someone who never believes, but rather become someone who is trusting and believing.” Jesus is basically saying what Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, [Thomas], then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[6] Because of Jesus’s forgiveness and all-embracing love, Thomas becomes the first disciple to confess him as his God and thus represents the model disciple, arriving at the very conclusion at which the author of John wants the reader to arrive: “This is written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

Then Jesus asks Thomas a rhetorical question, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” which he follows with a Johannine Beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” These words also seem to be admonishments for Thomas’ doubt. However, again, I do not hear admonishment, but rather commission. Whenever the Risen Christ appears to someone he gives a commission to go and share what has been witnessed.[7] Just as he commissioned his disciples to forgive others as he forgave them so too does he commission Thomas to embrace others as he embraced him, even in all of his doubt. In his personal commission to Thomas, Jesus promises that many who have not seen will come to believe. Many who have not seen will come to believe because Thomas will tell them! And Thomas will embrace them even in their struggles and doubts, inviting them into deeper faith. And according to Christian tradition, Thomas evangelized Parthia, a region that is now covered by modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan, and then traveled even further East to evangelize southern India, where churches today still boast the name “St. Thomas Christians.”

Tragically, last year on Easter Sunday, Christians around that same part of the world (even some “St. Thomas Christians”) were viciously murdered in Lahore, Pakistan, in a suicide bombing. And this year, on Palm Sunday, 45 Coptic Christians were murdered in the middle of worship by a suicide bombing in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria. Coptic Christians trace their spiritual lineage to St. Mark, who may have also been in the house with Thomas when the Risen Christ appeared. This year, I understood my participation (and our participation) in the liturgies of Holy Week as one way for us to stand in solidarity with our vulnerable and victimized Christian brothers and sisters, to mourn and pray for them, and to stand in defiance against these violent acts of terror.  And I honestly want to wreak vengeance on such evil terrorists. Certainly, we must work to protect the innocent and stomp out evil and terrorism. And at the same time, Jesus’ resurrection scandalizes me by reminding me that Jesus did not come back from a horrific death as a ghost hell-bent on vengeance (like Hamlet’s father), but as a glorified, risen body saying, “Peace, Forgive, Embrace.” I am not saying that should necessarily be the response of political leaders whose jobs are to protect the people, but I am saying that is Christ’s response: Peace, forgive, embrace. It sounds like madness. “Though this be madness,” Shakespeare, “yet there is method in’t.”[8] It was also the response of the early Christians who became martyrs and planted the seeds of the early Church. And one of those martyrs was St. Thomas, (as well as St. Mark). It is also the response of those who have practiced creative non-violent resistance: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Oscar Romero who all fought evil with what Romero called the “violence of love.”[9] Peace, forgive, embrace.

This forgiving response that risks martyrdom is not akin to the suicide that Hamlet contemplates in his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy.[10] And it is not the “conscience [that] doth make cowards of us all.”[11] It is a radical and robust courage inspired by the resurrection of one who knew that even in the darkest, most hopeless, most God-forsaken tragedies, there is still a hope at work that is far more powerful than death. It is a conviction that says with the Psalmist and with Peter (who quotes the Psalmist in his Pentecost sermon), “You, O God, will not abandon me to the grave… You will show me the path of life.” It is courage inspired by what Peter calls the living hope, the inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, that endures trial by fire and produces “an indescribable and glorious joy.” It is faith in what Shakespeare’s Hamlet calls “the divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”[12]  And it is a faith that is not bound by the power of death nor fear of death, but that dismantles all of death’s minions (vengeance, violence and hate) with a liberating and empowering love that says, “Peace, forgive, embrace.” It is a faith that sees the divine method in the apparent madness of forgiveness.

[1] The phrase “moody brooding” is borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses

[2] Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v. 25.

[3] Luke 24:37

[4] As French philosopher Jacques Ellul says, “Violence begets violence—nothing else.” Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, trans. Cecilia Gaul Kings (London: SCM, 1970), 100.

[5] Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 145-146, 179. ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς, ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.

[6] Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v. 167-168

[7] Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8; Acts 9:6; John 20:21-23.

[8] Shakespeare, Hamlet, II. ii. 207.

[9] See Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2004).

[10] Shakespeare, Hamlet, III. i. 56-89.

[11] Shakespeare, Hamlet, III. i. 83.

[12] Shakespeare, Hamlet, V. ii. 11-12.

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