The following homily was delivered by Colleen Hartung at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on June 12, 2011.
Today’s gospel takes us back to the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It is evening and the followers of Jesus are huddled behind locked doors. They are afraid for their lives. They are confused by Mary Magdalene’s claims to have seen her teacher. And many, like Peter, are guilt ridden for various acts of betrayal and abandonment. Not peace but bottomless sorrow, gripping fear, overwhelming guilt and growing confusion fill the room. And then, so the story goes, there is an unexpected arrival. Jesus comes and stands among them. “Peace be with you.” And he shows them his hands and his side. We can imagine that in their amazement the disciples rejoice and fall into his welcoming arms. And again Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.” And he breaths on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.
“Peace be with you”. These are familiar words and familiar gestures. Each week, as part of SA worship, we reenact this moment. The homilist brings the Liturgy of the Word to a close by saying, “Let us offer one another a sign of peace.” And then the Assembly shifts its attention from the Word to the Body. We expose our hands and our sides. We look into one another’s eyes. We connect face to face, hand to hand, arm around arm, body against body. The Spirit comes to us, again and again, in the welcoming witness of open arms and affirming eyes that gauge our comfort level, tend to our personal need and speak a language of love that is particular to each of our circumstances. In the context of the SA this is hospitality at its best.
This language of the body is so powerful that even before we hear the words, we find ourselves “amazed and astonished” by this welcome as a manifestation of “God’s deeds of power”. The words “Peace be with you”, if they are worth anything, announce and confirm this surprising arrival of a gift, the gift of hospitality, given as a gift of the Spirit. And so, like the followers of Jesus in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostle’s, we, the assembled, strive to speak a language of love, particular to the gifts of the Spirit bestowed on us. And we, the assembled, lean into our longing and desire to receive that gift of love in our native language.
I could end my homily here. It sounds good and feels good. It ties today’s lectionary manifesto on the Pentecostal gifts of the Spirit up into a neat little package; a package that we can open again and again each Sunday during our weekly worship. This gift and sending are a difficult commission, to be sure, but something we can strive for, bend ourselves toward and realize if we but mold our lives to the example of Jesus. It sounds simple enough. But it leaves a few things out and besides after writing a number of homilies I have come to believe that nothing is ever really quite that simple or straightforward when it comes to the gospel teachings of Jesus.
And so back to the Gospel of John: Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. But then he goes on. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This sounds like a shocking bestowal of power. Could the author of the Gospel of John really intend a gift of the Spirit that would be the power of judgment? You are forgiven. You are not. Who among us would be qualified to pass such judgment? This interpretation seems harsh and dissonant, especially in relation to John, Chapter 13, verses 34 and 35 where Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples….” Keeping in mind this new commandment, perhaps the author of the Gospel of John intends something a little different; something more complicated and maybe even more surprising than a legacy of forgiveness as righteous judgment.
Jacques Derrida is a French philosopher who spent much of his life musing over the complexities of hospitality and forgiveness. He describes forgiving as “opening for and smiling to the other, whatever his or her fault or indignity, whatever the offence or even the threat.” For Derrida forgiveness is infinite or it is nothing.” And there is the rub in his definition of forgiveness. Welcomers themselves are always failing, lacking and never able to give enough in the face of this infinite demand. Derrida sees our dilemma as two fold. First of all he identifies that hospitality does not only consist in welcoming a guest according to the invitation—something we can plan and prepare for— but also following the visitation; according to the surprise that visitor is: unforeseen and unpredictable. Secondly, Derrida understands hospitality in a way that resonates with the Benedictine tradition; the welcome of the guest is the welcome of the infinite. And so, for Derrida, we are always welcoming beyond our capacity to welcome. Twice over, we are stuck, bound by the human condition to be unprepared. Welcomers themselves are in need of forgiveness.
So let us return again to our scene of welcome par excellence; the SA sign of peace. The reality is that even in the SA sometimes we miss read the moment. In our desire to pass the peace as genuinely and hospitably as possible, we thoughtlessly invade someone’s personal space by pulling them into a bear hug when they would definitely be more comfortable with a warm handshake and a few words of welcome. Or we make a beeline to reconnect with an old friend, someone who hasn’t been to the SA for a long time, and unknowingly, we pass by a confused visitor. Or we offer peace to the person standing right next to us who just happens to be a loved one, a spouse, a child, a significant other or a roommate. Yet, in our hearts, we harbor some secret or not so secret annoyance or hurt that we just cannot quite forgive.
In these and in a myriad of other trivial and not so trivial ways we reduce the offering of the peace to something expected. We neglect and ignore the unforeseeable arrival of the Spirit. We let the surprising visitation, which might be the stranger in our midst or the loved one by our side, pass us by. So what to do about this ever so human binding that seems to condemn us to failure? Is my earlier description of the SA sharing of peace confined to ideal? Is it an impossibility in the midst of ordinary life?
Derrida struggles with this heart wrenching question by sharing a little joke about forgiveness that I pass on to you. “Two Jews, long time enemies, meet at the synagogue, on the Day of Atonement. One says to the other, as a gesture of forgiveness: ‘I wish for you what you wish for me.’ The other immediately retorts: ‘already you start again’.”
Derrida calls this a story for laughs but he wonders what it is that makes us laugh. He imagines the second Jew thinking…in his head… “You see, you start again, you don’t want to forgive me, even on the Day of Atonement, but you know what, me neither, we agree, we will forgive each other nothing, it’s impossible, let us not forgive each other, agreed.” And then, Derrida imagines, comes a complicitous burst of laughter; and in the laughter, a recognition of their mutual fault. They find each other, if only for the moment, in the sound laughter and in the midst of struggle. This is an unforeseeable realization of compassion, of their love for one another. Here, Derrida suggests is the surprising, unexpected arrival of peace. And in the context of today’s gospel, we can imagine it as an unforeseen visitation of a Holy Spirit.
Peace—the gift of the Spirit—is not some idealized absence of fear, confusion, guilt or fault. I imagine that the disciples, gathered in that shuttered room, remained fearful, confused and guilt ridden even after their encounter with the risen Jesus. Nor is peace only or necessarily a connecting that would be a spiritual aligning that makes us feel good about ourselves and one another. Rather peace is also and most surprisingly, the recognition of and compassion for our mutual struggle to love one another. Every Sunday, we offer each other a sign of peace. We reach out to our loved ones, to our neighbors, to the stranger in our midst. We embrace each other and in doing so we embrace the struggle to love. And so it is that Jesus comes to stand among us in our sorrow, our fear, our guilt, our confusion, in our inconsiderate approach of the neighbor, in our neglect of the visitor, and in our inability to forgive. We say, “Peace be with you.” We commission and send each other for this unpredictable struggle. There, in that moment, hospitality, forgiveness and peace, as gifts of the Spirit, land on us like tongues of fire, unexpectedly or not at all.