Life in all its fullness
Week of May 1: Easter 2
Gospel: John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Let’s experiment with John's gospel. It begins like Genesis.
In the beginning was the Word...
In the beginning when God created... God said...
John is paralleling the book of Genesis, telling us again of a God who speaks, and of a God who speaks the Word.
Now we go to today's reading in John 20:19-31. The context of this reading is that it is at the end of the gospel. It’s not the end of the gospel which is printed in our bibles, but there is a fair scholarly consensus that the first edition, so to speak, ended here.
The norms of literature and rhetoric mean we ought to find the whole gospel in this summary. We should get the guts of it; the key sound bite.
There has been a report of resurrection by the time of this reading. It begins on the first day of the week, when the disciples are gathered together. This suggests weekly worship, especially since it happens again “a week later.” (Verse 26) The first message we might see is that the risen Jesus appears when the disciples, the church, are gathered together.
In the Greek it says the disciples were again in the house "after eight days." NRSV re-translates the Revised Standard Version as "a week later,” which I think hides more than it shows. The "eighth day” has associations with worship on the eighth day, which some suggest is that very early time on Sunday when the slaves made their worship before they had to begin the work of the Roman household.
The eighth day also harks back to Genesis. On the eighth day.... On the day of a new creation, the day after the seventh day, the Word is still speaking. John is not simply paralleling the genesis creation story, he is speaking of an advance on that; even a completion. What might this completion, this Word for the eighth day, be?
In the reading, Jesus says "peace be with you," three times. (19, 21, 26) It is the first thing he says both times he appears. It must be a candidate for the “word” of the eighth day.
Peace does not mean no persecution. (cf. 16.33) Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is at least the more wholistic Shalom. Neither is the meaning of Peace exhausted by some notion of "inner peace."
Jesus’ peace includes “inner peace.” What kind of peace would I have if I remained in inner torment and turmoil and claimed I had peace? But this does not exhaust the meaning of "peace be with you." “Peace” is not an individualistic thing we get, or own. Brian Stoffregen says “the peace of the kingdom is not primarily a personal, inner tranquility, but the way people and all creation and God will relate to each other.”
Even a deeply introverted and solitary person like me, has discovered that some of the greatest inner tranquility comes when l am in community in my church. It is not mere diversion, like watching a TV show which distracts me from my inner confliction. It removes it from me for a time. At its best, the house of the disciples heals my inner conflict. But the healing and the peace is far more than just for me. It is for all people and the Cosmos itself. It is the word of the eighth day.
In this house there is a disciple who does not believe. We should constantly remind people that Thomas did not doubt. He was a-pistos. Un-trusting, not- believing. What Jesus says, well translated in NRSV, is blessed are those who have trusted.
We are not forbidden to doubt. Doubt is a means growing and maturing. There would be something odd about a person who really did not doubt; something in their observation of the world would be "turned off!" At best, their apprehension of reality might still be very naive and childish.
The question is whether, despite our inevitable and healthy doubts, we will trust. Will we trust God enough to act upon what we understand to be true? Will we trust God that that even in this desperate, and crisis ridden world, there can still be harmony and good? Will we act to live out “Peace be with you”?
The first edition of the gospel ends like this: “…so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." Jesus says in John 10:10, “I have come that you may have life in all its fullness.” Will we believe this? Will we trust that “in all its fullness” means harmony between all people, and between people and the biosphere itself? Will we trust enough to act on this and pay the cost of it? Or, to paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, would we rather have the peace of personal affluence at any cost?
Contrary to what we sometimes say, we know what it is to do good. Finding what is good is actually not much of a problem for us.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:6-8
Stoffregen quotes Robot Capon.
...The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness.
Lewis and Capon are correct. Listen to any politician in their better moments, and their aspirations will be remarkably similar. They want "the good." What separates them into opposing parties, and also us, I think, is a lack of trust. True, the rich don't want to lose their comforts, the poor want to have some comfort, and many people lust after power. But it all comes down, in the end, to trust. It’s not that I don’t want to do the right thing. I just don’t trust that I will not end up in a bad place if I give you more, and I take less.
How much politics is fuelled by lack of trust, instead of seeking the common good? How much of what we call greed, is an inability to trust God to provide? How much conflict would lose its impetus if we really had a decent relationship with the person concerned? If I trusted God, and if I trusted you, and all the other people, I would not fear the future. I would not need to acquire and hoard, or to control, because I would know there would be sufficient. I would be “at peace.” I would know I need not fear you.
Because I do not trust you, I cannot achieve community with you. Because I have no community with you, I cannot trust you. I am reduced to some common ground in my own poor tribe, and I’m not too sure about them, either.
On Late Night Live this week Phillip Adams interviewed David Reiff about his book Against Remembrance. Reiff argued that what stops much political healing in the world is the refusal to let go of the memory of wrongs; in short, the refusal to forgive. Reiff recalled Conner Cruise O'Brien saying that in the Irish Troubles they would almost reach an agreement, time and again, "and then someone would remember one of those old songs.” Someone would bring up the old grievances, perhaps centuries old, and forgiveness and forgetting would stop, and peace would be lost. I find this an accurate summation of many of my own more local troubles!
Stoffregen uses the work of Gail O’Day in her commentary The Gospel of John.
I found O'Day's (John, New Interpreters Bible) comments on vv. 21-23 intriguing:
First, Jesus' words in v. 23 are addressed to the entire faith community, not to its apostolic leaders. Any discussion of this verse, therefore, must be grounded in an understanding of forgiveness of sins as the work of the entire community.
Second, the community's enactment of Jesus' words in v. 23 depends on both Jesus' words of sending in v. 21 and the gift of the Holy Spirit in v. 22. The forgiveness of sins must be understood as the Spirit-empowered mission of continuing Jesus' work in the world.
In other words, the letting go of grievance is not to let the other person off. The forgiveness of sins is te enable community and the building of relationship. For that to happen, we sometimes simply have to "get over ourselves", as Reiff put it. (There is a distinction between remembering what happened, and holding onto a grievance.)
Both O’Day and John Petty make clear that whatever Matthew was saying about “retaining sins”, John is different:
"If you release the sins of any, they are released," says Jesus, and "if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This is not a parallel for a similar saying in Matthew. There is nothing here about eternal "binding and loosing." Rather, the New Community is to be characterized by the forgiveness of sins. Conversely, if sins are not forgiven, they are "retained" within the community, thereby threatening the community's life.
This is critical. It suggests that what harms the community, and prevents my inner peace is, in the end, not what you did to me, but my refusal to let it go!
Putting it together:
O'Day continues by saying
Perhaps the most difficult part of this Easter/Pentecost story concerns precisely what Jesus commissions the faith community to do. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father, so also he sends the community (v. 21), but the content of the church's work is only alluded to.
To arrive at the “content”, we often simply inject a notion of evangelism from our tradition, or one of, the other gospel s. I have parroted the Great Commission in Matthew. That is; I have assumed I understand what it means, and repeated it without thought or criticism.
O’Day highlights what is in John’s “Great Commission,” which I take to be this.
‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
It is in doing this that we have “life in his name.” (Verse 31)
By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love. It is in choosing or rejecting this relationship with God that sins are forgiven or retained. The faith community's mission, therefore, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong, but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus. [ O’Day p. 848]
I need to put the flesh of practical example on those words “bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus," or I will do what the church seems to do best, which is make them into another “motherhood "statement and forget what they mean. They will become empty words about God. So I ask, how will we love each other in the church as Jesus loves?
Let me talk about where I live. We have three numerically significant racial groups (there are other less numerous ethnicities as well) at our church site, which are slowly beginning to meet each other. It’s happening on an organizational level, and it’s happening at a personal level. A few of us have even worshipped together and eaten together.
In our divided world, and in the growing, or reawakened, racial anxieties of Australia, our formal organized sharing of property is itself already a witness. But it is not much more of a witness than the unity of the Labor party, or the Liberals.
In my congregation, for example, how will we manage the un-loving gap between those whose white anglo culture is intrinsically superior, and those who have begun to see we are all equal before God, and all bear witness to God? This is not an easy question. Even those of us who "see," have discovered we have many layers of superiority and racism, laid deep down in our formation as human beings. But as long as this division remains among us we are "retaining the sin." It hurts us all, fracturing our attempt at community.
Understand here that I do not think the key issue is those who are less aware of their racism. Racism is a problem inherent in us all. The problem, the besetting sin in John’s eyes, is the separation between us.
It is a long process to address the issue. Some of us have not yet understood the “location” of the issue. The minister, or something else, is the cause of the pain we are having. Suggestions to these folk that they are being racist would be greeted with denial and rationalisation. But we have barely started when we broach the issue of racism. The racism is perhaps just a carrier or vector for our fear of losing ownership of our church. We do not trust these new comers and new ideas. And even then, that is only part of the issue. There is also the issue of separation; we are afraid to talk over the issue. We talk behind each other’s back. We are like any other congregation. And this, according to John, is the sin which remains.
Why is it taking so long to come to terms with this particular issue? Partly it’s because as people we change slowly. But it is also the case that trusting each other enough to work through the issue of race is a huge challenge. It is the challenge, not the issue of race.
In microcosm we are dealing with the same dynamic faced by the Parliament of the Land, and in international relations. Will we trust, or will we play it safe, and look after ourselves?
It is far easier in my congregation, or any congregation, to take another path and avoid the dangers and risks of trust. Some clergy bully their way towards what they want; the ends justify the means. Some give up. Others quietly work to build up the numbers, so that the resistance is finally defeated by the votes.
But does even that “democracy” achieve trust and forgiveness, or just build up more memories of wrongs done, in the minds of some people? The final answer, according to John, is whether we will trust the God revealed in Jesus enough to seek community, and live it out. Will I trust God's healing and protection enough to risk betrayal by my fellow Christians? Will I seek to be transformed and to help others find transformation?
Only when we are all transformed, will there be a real unity. Not only when we stop categorizing and criticizing according to race, but when there is trust, and forgiveness, and letting go, by all of us. It includes the fact that I will have to trust enough, and have my relationships sufficiently renewed, to let go of the way I characterise some with whom I disagree. If that kind of community happens, there will be a much more powerful witness. We will feel the wind of the Spirit among us! The world will have something to look at!
On the eighth day will we live in the world God has given us in the way God has commissioned us? Will we bear unceasing witness to that community and relationship which makes the world Good and a place of Life, by living it out among ourselves? It remains to us to decide whether we will trust God enough to step out of the world of Genesis and into the world described by John.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.