I was once a student at a small seminary college in New Jersey. We were a class of 12 that graduated two years later. We were a tight bunch of close friends. Half of us came from the same high school in Boston. And most had been together for at least 3 years before I showed up. We were a community of young men under religious vows, so it didn’t take long for me to become part of the group. We prayed together. We ate together. We worked for six sweltering weeks at summer camp together. We played sports together. I even learned to play ice hockey. We laughed and we griped and we grumbled about college seminary life together. We discussed and argued issues of life and death and faith and friendship and politics. And way too late into many a night we played that obnoxious board game Risk together. I say obnoxious because we enjoyed becoming unhinged unapologetic warmongering megalomaniacs intent on conquering the world and wiping all our opponents off the board. And that was not the obnoxious part. We would sometimes play into the wee hours on Friday nights with unbridled enthusiasm and boisterous laughter oblivious to the fact that we were depriving everyone else in the building of sleep, knowing full well we still had to be in chapel for morning prayers at 6:00 AM sharp.
One of my classmates Jed would also become one of my closest friends. After graduation we were sent to staff schools run by our religious order, I to Florida, he to New Jersey close to his mother who was not well. Eventually we would meet again in graduate school in Ohio two years later. But we kept in touch. I always admired him because he was an extremely talented guitar player. And he had a natural talent for picking up languages. While we were in theology, he worked with two different groups of young people. He was such a quick learner, that in under 4 years he was communicating with them in their own languages, in Spanish and in Korean. He had such an easygoing temperament, it was difficult to not get along with him. And since I learned to cut hair in college, I was also the house barber for the community for all those years, well the brave ones among them anyway. And my friend sat in my barber’s chair quite regularly.
One day in our final year of theology, while we were casually conversing, I must have said something. And although I have played the same conversation countless times in my head, I still couldn’t figure it out. Without warning, his right fist met my face, broke my glasses, left a bleeding gash by my left eyebrow, and gave me a pounding headache. I was stunned. He walked away fuming, and I went to recover, and lie down. A half hour later he came by apologizing profusely. I knew I could be painfully blunt sometimes, but to this day I still do not know what I said or did to set him off. And he wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me either. It took a few days, but I did forgive him eventually. But from then on, everything changed. Do you know what it’s like when a friend tells you they can’t ever trust you again, and you don’t even know what you did? Needless to say, our friendship did not survive. I’ve only seen him one other time since graduation and ordination. He tried to be friendly and warm, but this elephant was still in the room. And it wouldn’t leave.
When Jesus appeared to his friends in the upper room that same evening the women reported his body missing, they were very fearful for their lives. The instant his eyes met theirs, they all probably recalled with deep shame and guilt how they had run away and abandoned him. But Jesus said not a word about their betrayal. He did not accuse them of cowardice. He did not demand an apology. Instead he gave them his peace. It was not likely what they expected to hear, but it made all the difference. They rejoiced to see him again. And he gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the amazing power to forgive others in the future, as they had come to know his forgiveness.
Now here is something we can easily miss when we read this gospel passage. For most of us, when people we know and love betray us, we are absolutely convinced and society will tell us, there can be no forgiveness for them. Ever. Now no one can deny we have every right to be furious. No one can deny we have every right to withhold our love and friendship and forgiveness. And yet Jesus has given us an example to imitate. He forgave his own disciples for betraying him. And it was that single act of forgiveness that forever transformed them into women and men who could truly extend God’s own peace to each other, even those among them who deserved it the least, especially those among them who deserved it the least.
Throughout his short ministry, Jesus constantly challenged his listeners and his disciples to go beyond what was reasonably expected of them. “Love your enemies,” he taught them. “Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive as God has forgiven you. Offer no resistance to evil. If they strike you on one cheek, turn the other cheek as well. If they demand your coat, give them your shirt as well. If they press you into service for one mile, go two miles. Give to the one who asks. Do not turn your back on anyone who wants to borrow.” Now if we heard these teachings without knowing how he lived his life, they would sound totally absurd. But by his own example of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, Jesus challenges us to actualize in our way of life the faith we profess in him. To those of us who do not believe in Jesus’ compassion, mercy, and forgiveness for us, it would be complete lunacy to forgive our enemies, our persecutors, and our betrayers. But by our willingness to extend compassion, mercy, and forgiveness that we ourselves have received, we will perhaps begin to understand how loving God and keeping his commandments are not burdensome. Let’s face it. Forgiveness is not reasonable. In fact, it is completely absurd. But forgiveness is not a burden for the one who loves, because by its nature, love challenges the believer to expand their heart beyond the reasonable into that which makes us more like God.
So it makes sense that the community of believers in those early days of the church could be of one heart and mind. Some today would look at how they lived and accuse them of being communists. But none of them was ever forced against their will to sell their property and distribute the proceeds to everyone else. The wealthier among them who did, probably stood out. That was likely why they were mentioned. But the moral of the story is that there would be no needy person among them. The care for the needs of the community of believers was a greater good than their possessions. It appears they truly understood and showed in their way of life what it means for Jesus to forgive their offenses and their betrayal, and give them forgiveness and peace.
That first time Jesus came among them, when Thomas was not with them, they thought that locked doors could keep danger away. A week later, Thomas saw and believed. And Jesus would send them all to show the world by the way they lived their lives what it means to truly believe in him. There is a way beyond betrayal. You have known God’s forgiveness. Be willing then to forgive one another.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018