Pastors have a frequent question when they begin to discover mimetic theory. “That’s great. But how does it preach?”
Reverend Tom Truby shows that mimetic theory is a powerful tool that enables pastors to preach the Gospel in a way that is meaningful and refreshing to the modern world. Each Week, Teaching Nonviolent Atonement will highlight his sermons as an example of preaching the Gospel through mimetic theory.
Mimetic theory teaches that we are fundamentally imitative. We imitate one another without even realizing that we imitate. Jesus calls his followers to imitate him in loving and forgiving one another. But what happens when we don’t forgive? Tom explores this question in his latest sermon reflection.
Will We Forgive?
There is a difficult passage in John’s gospel given for the second Sunday after Easter in year B. The modern English version of the Bible reads:
19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
The troubling part has Jesus breathing his spirit into them and telling them, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t.”
I think Jesus is saying God has already forgiven us. God understood us from the beginning. After all, we are his children and it is in his nature to forgive. That’s part of the message Jesus brings to us. But we don’t always forgive each other and our unforgiveness has consequences. When we don’t forgive and hold animosity the other remains unforgiven—not by God but by us. Unforgiveness hurts us and the one we don’t forgive. It hurts humankind and leads to terrible atrocities and many damaged people.
Unforgiveness builds up, gets renamed and hidden for what it is and then discharged, often on the most vulnerable. Jesus came to us and suffered the crucifixion to move us away from that. It’s as though he said, “if you must kill someone, kill me. Maybe then you will see what you do and begin that long process of finding other ways to manage your relationships.”
It seems to me the spirit Jesus breathed into the disciples that evening, the spirit he called the Holy Spirit, is the spirit of forgiveness and compassion. It’s the same spirit he had just pronounced to his terrified disciples when he said “Peace be with you” and he says it twice. They must have been very relieved and surprised that he didn’t blame them or punish them for abandoning him. They knew they were guilty and yet he says “peace be with you.” Maybe it’s only when we know we are deeply forgiven that we can forgive others with it coming from heart and not obligation, gratitude and not duty. The Spirit Jesus breathed into them was this profound awareness of being both culpable and forgiven. It was a powerful gift.
René Girard talks about culture being built on a tomb. This is the hardest part of his theory to accept, but when we know we are also forgiven, it becomes palatable and even relieving. Finally, I know who I am and can live with myself; not because I am anything great but because God is forgiving.
Having filled his disciples with this spirit he sends them out to breathe it on others; on nations, peoples, groups, everyone. It’s a breath of fresh air. We are the body of Christ and so we are the ones who must spread this message of forgiveness and compassion. It either spreads or it doesn’t depending on what we do. What we do will have consequences. Will we live forgiveness in the world or will we live like the world and divide ourselves and spread retribution that we are convinced is justified? By that logic Jesus would have said “go to hell” when he came back instead of “peace be with you.”
The Holy Spirit has been breathed into us. It is now possible to forgive. What we do from here will have real consequences in the world.
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