Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:36b-48
Isaac S. Villegas
April 22, 2012
When I was a teenager, I’d say that my grudges, my resentments, were based solely on soccer rivalries. I would look, at disgust, at the players from Cyrus, a team from Phoenix, with their choreographed warm up routine, and every player wearing the same soccer shoes. They were our only true competitors in all of Arizona, and they beat us every year in the state tournament. Even though it was so long ago, fifteen years, I still have feelings of resentment when I think about that team.
Now that I’ve grown up, I’d say that my grudges have matured. As the years go by, it seems like I can’t help but add names to a list, a list of people who have wronged me or the people I care about, friends and family. It feels like I can’t help but remember them, to carry around in my head a list of grudges, of resentments, memories of betrayals.
Why would Jesus be any different? If anyone would be justified in keeping a list of grudges, it would be Jesus. He was betrayed by a friend, by Judas. His followers deserted him in his hour of need. Jesus watched as the crowds turned on him and called for his death. Even his friends denied knowing him. Jesus had every reason to be resentful and to seek revenge. So, after his death, when Jesus shows up in our passage from Luke 24, the disciples are terrified. It says, in verse 37, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”
Now, to see a ghost, for first-century Jews to see a ghost, isn’t a good thing. Ghosts are remnants of the dead, sneaking their way into the living. Ghosts were signs of death, of death’s claim on people’s lives. For the disciples, the appearance of a ghost could mean that death wanted to claim another life, in the name of revenge, Jesus’ unfinished business. Was the ghost of Jesus there to settle the score with the disciples, the so-called friends of Jesus, the ones who deserted him? On that first Easter, in the evening, in the city where Jesus was killed, the disciples find themselves with the presence of Jesus, and they are terrified.
“Jesus stood among them,” it says, “and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (v. 36). Jesus made sure, from the moment he appeared, to let them know that he came in peace — with peace, not with a grudge. But the disciples needed more convincing: “Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus says, “see that it is I myself. For a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (v. 39). The disciples could see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, the scars from his crucifixion. But they were still a little worried, so Jesus ate a fish, and somehow that settled it.
Jesus does all that he can to convince his friends that he is not a ghost, and that he is not holding a grudge, that he isn’t a presence of resentment, of vengeance. Instead, he has come in the name of peace; he has come to offer forgiveness, which is the opposite of revenge — “repentance and forgiveness,” he says, for all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem, the place where he was killed, the city where the crowds turned on him and his friends left him alone (v. 48). This is the where Jesus came to announce forgiveness and peace.
Two people come to my mind, when I think about the grudges I hold onto. I have plenty of other petty grudges, not worth anything, but the memories of these two people fill me with resentment. When their faces flash across my mind, I don’t really think about how to seek revenge; that’s not my personality, I guess. Instead, I’m glad that I don’t have to see them regularly, and I hope that I don’t ever have to run into them again.
This is where the Easter story bothers me, because, for Jesus, resurrection doesn’t mean he gets to escape from the people who have wronged him, the people who have let him down. Instead, the Easter gospel is about the power to come back to the place where he was wronged, and to invite people into forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t come back as a sign of death, as a ghostly presence that reinforces the divisions between us. Instead, the resurrection, the Easter presence of Jesus, is a force of transgression between the divisions that we thought were permanent, that we thought were just part of life, the divisions we thought were natural: Jesus crosses them, he transgresses the chasm of mortality, the division between the living and the dead, that’s the great divide that rules over our lives. And, when Jesus crosses that separation, he also breaks through a multitude of other divisions, the signs of death that surround us and pass through us, all the little deaths that take hold of us as relationships are severed — social deaths, where relationships are broken and that brokenness leads to building walls of separation, keeping us away from them, keeping you away from him, her away from you.
We organize our world, our lives, by figuring out who are our friends and who are our enemies, and former friends who have become enemies. But the gospel messes with these categories because Jesus comes back from the dead in order to be with the people who have wronged him. Jesus won’t let the forces of alienation, of death, govern his life. And he commissions his disciples to bear witness to this gospel, to seek out enemies and invite them into communion, to invite them into a common life, a shared life.
That’s what we see happening again and again in the story of Acts: followers of Jesus refusing to live without the enemies of Jesus. “You killed Jesus, the author of life,” they announce, “and we’re here to tell you that this same Jesus forgives you and want you to be part of his life.” It’s a radical announcement, something unheard of, a strange message, so strange that it’s hard sometimes to see how this can be good news, because we hold onto our resentment so tightly that it would be hard to imagine life without it, without our grudges. How could it be good for us to share a common life with her, with him, with them?
Easter is an invitation into a new world, happening here and now, where forgiveness is made possible, where the power of Christ’s forgiveness can flow through us. Jesus came back to offer the possibility of communion, of restoration, not alienation, not separation. We are forgiven, yes, but forgiveness is not merely a status we can hold onto, that we can claim as our own. Instead, forgiveness is the presence of God’s grace, God’s life, flowing through us, inviting us to reconsider our resentments.
Yes, forgiveness washes over us, making us clean, but as it washes over us it also soaks through all of our lists, our lists of grudges, of friends who have become enemies, our lists of betrayals; and as this forgiveness washes over us, it may feel like our very selves, our identities, are being washed away, because the powers of resentment have become internal to us, inside of us, telling us who we are, telling us how we think, and to be set free from them would be to live an unimaginable life. Who would we be without our record of wrongs? How would we protect ourselves from being wounded again?
The Easter gospel, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, is about the undoing of resentment, the hope that is born in us as we learn how to forgive, to open ourselves to the possibility of communion with the people we never want to see again, in this life or the next.
 See Herbert McCabe, “Ghosts, Burial and Resurrection,” pp. 99-101 in God, Christ, and Us (London, UK: Continuum, 2003).