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John R. DonahueApril 29, 2000

The readings continue to proclaim the reality and saving power of Christ’s resurrection, while the Gospel is the Lukan sequel to the meal of the risen Christ with the two travelers on the way to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-34). As in the Johannine upper room appearances, Jesus proclaims peace, shows his wounds, and the reality of bodily resurrection is affirmed by the meal he shares with his disciples (Jn. 21:1-14), symbolizing that the church will continue to experience Jesus’ presence in its Eucharistic gatherings.

Together with peace, forgiveness is one of the prime gifts of the risen Christ in both John and Luke. The Old Testament expressions for forgiveness image the removal or wiping away of an offense, with the added New Testament overtones of sending away the offense or release from a debt. The Bible stresses both divine and human forgiveness, epitomized in the Lord’s Prayer, Forgive us our debts (Lk. 11:4, sins) as we forgive our debtors (Mt 6:12).

Years ago Edward Schillebeeckx suggested that the appearances of the risen Jesus brought to the disciples a profound experience of forgiveness. All the Gospels depict the flight of the disciples and the denial of Peter. Paul was changed from persecutor to apostle by the grace of the risen Christ, and James the brother of the Lord, who was not a follower of the earthly Jesus (Mk. 3:20; 6:1-6), became a leader of the Jerusalem church. The peace that the risen Jesus brought was a release from the shame and failure of Jesus’ first followers, which transformed them into missionaries and martyrs.

The Gospel stresses that the disciples are to preach and to witness repentance and forgiveness to all the nations. Zachariah had promised that the coming of Jesus would give his people knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of their sins (Lk. 1:77); the dying Jesus prays for forgiveness for his crucifiers (Lk. 23:34); the mission of the risen Christ to his followers extends this forgiveness to all people.

Today forgiveness to all nations has moved from the religious and individual to the global political sphere. The pope and bishops’ conferences throughout the world call for forgiveness of international debts (Am., 3/25); Archbishop Desmond Tutu, after reviewing the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, calls forgiveness absolutely necessary for continued human existence (No Future Without Forgiveness, 1999). After the breakup of the Soviet Union during the early stages of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the novelist Mary Gordon wrote that the heavy topsoil of repressed injustice breeds anger better than any other medium, and that anger rolls and rolls like a flaming boulder down a hill gathering mass and speed, even when the original causes of the anger are forgotten. The only way to stop this kind of irrational anger, she writes, is by an act of equally irrational forgiveness (The New York Times Book Review, 6/13/93).

Recently the church has moved from proclaiming the necessity of forgiveness to asking others to forgive those sufferings perpetrated by the very community that strives to embody the presence of the risen Christ. A frail and aging pope kissing the feet of the crucifix or placing an apology in the Western Wall of the destroyed temple symbolizes a sea change in the church’s witness to the nations.

Forgiveness permeates the other readings. Though God willed the rejection of the righteous one, God will wipe away sin (Acts 3:19), and 1 John states that we have an advocate, Jesus, who is expiation for our sin. Denial, rejection, sin are not the final word. The resurrection is victory over these deadly elements in life. Karl Rahner once wrote: we are always tempted to stay in sin because we do not dare to believe in the magnificent love of God, and because we do not want to believe that God will forgive us our sins (The Content of Faith, p. 306). The experience of such love and irrational forgiveness touched the denying Peter, the doubting Thomas and the fleeing disciples, and remains the enduring gift of the risen Christ to his followers.

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