Sermon for the Second Sunday in Eastertide
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In each of the three years of the lectionary cycle of readings, this second Sunday in Eastertide presents us with the story of Thomas. Thomas with his doubts; Thomas who can’t bear to risk believing unless he can see and touch the body of the risen Jesus. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” Thomas says, “[Unless I] put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Not “I can’t believe,” but “I will not,” as if he is simply unwilling to take the risk of being disappointed yet again.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
I think that the framers of the lectionary have made a brilliant move here, by always reminding us of the doubts of Thomas on this second Sunday in Eastertide. It is as if they’re saying to us that we shouldn’t be surprised or ashamed of our own moments of doubt; after all, even this disciple who had walked with Jesus wouldn’t risk believing without hard proof. Just one week after we’ve pulled out all the liturgical stops, sang countless alleluias, and popped the cork from the champagne bottle, we’re invited to acknowledge the reality of doubt and of hard questions. We can take some comfort and find some kinship with Thomas, who is not rejected but rather met in his doubt. And it is to us that Jesus speaks those words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Over the years I’ve preached on this many times, and for good reason. Yet to look only at this section on doubting Thomas is to skip by the verses that precede it; verses that include a statement that I find quite deeply perplexing: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Here’s my issue: I’m not convinced that I want anyone other than Jesus himself to have that kind of authority. Maybe I can cope with the first half of the statement—“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”—but taken straight up the second half really throws me. “[I]f you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” meaning what? Withhold forgiveness, and Jesus himself will corroborate that decision? Who among us could possibly live bearing the weight of that authority?
The other question at work here is to who is this authority given? Some, as with the commentator John Marsh, suggest that, “Jesus is said to have given this power to those present on Easter evening. More than that is hard to say.”
Others have found it not so hard to say… some taking the position that this authority is given first to the apostles and then to their heirs, and that the “heirs” are primarily the bishops and priests of the sacramental church descended from those apostles. Others, including the New Testament scholar Susan Hylen maintain that while “The passage is a commissioning scene… it is a commissioning of the church as a whole, not an elite group of leaders.” It is the Christian church as a Body, in other words, that carries this authority.
Yet I find these options equally perplexing. The apostles seem the most trustworthy option, and our reading from the Book of Acts tonight gives us this glimpse of how Peter has become a figure of considerable spiritual and personal authority. Yet not even Peter is lifted to some state of perfection, as is evidenced in the conflict he will later have with the apostle Paul over an issue related to the full inclusion of Gentile believers.
What of bishops and priests? What of the church as a whole body, even as a priesthood of all believers? Well, anyone here ever heard of someone being badly hurt by a church community? Or of a priest doing damage to those entrusted to his or her care? Or just look at the way in which the church split and then splintered at the Reformation, and at how the various groups then treated one another.
Why didn’t Jesus simply hold on to that authority for himself, and particularly the authority to “retain” sins? He’s the one I can trust.
But back up for a minute, and consider what else he says in this section. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Only then does he add his words about the forgiveness and retention of sins. “[T]he authority to act in the forgiveness of sins,” suggests John Marsh, “is governed by and conditional upon the gift of the Spirit, and the acceptance of the Lord’s commission to share his mission.” That helps, doesn’t it? Such authority is only bearable—only imaginable, in fact—in and through the presence of God’s Spirit. Apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit, to presume to speak of the granting or withholding of forgiveness is not a matter of authority at all, but instead the wielding of a kind of power in which Jesus himself took absolutely no interest. It is the kind of thing that fueled the martyrs’ fires at the Reformation, and that has torn lives to shreds through the practice of “shunning”; whether as formal church discipline or as a basic matter of condemning and judgmental moralism.
And as Marsh suggests, it is also connected to “the acceptance of the Lord’s commission to share his mission.” Ask yourself, in his mission how often do you see Jesus refusing to offer forgiveness? Of course in the Gospels some do not recognize that they have any need for forgiveness, mostly because they’re so busy finding fault in those they do consider sinful. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3) They’re also aghast at Jesus’ willingness to sit at table with those they consider sinners, outcasts, and unclean; something they themselves would never do. The thing is, in the mission of Jesus the invitation to sit down together to eat is an open one; everyone is welcome to join the meal, hear the teachings, experience the healings, and receive the grace of forgiveness. Everyone… but for some this “everyone” is a problem. Robert Capon characterizes the gospels as having an operating principle of “inclusion before exclusion;” everyone is in, but if the presence of some makes you uncomfortable or indignant, you’re quite free to leave. The only problem is that you’re going to discover that his is ultimately the only available meal in town.
And now think more specifically in terms of the Gospel according to John, in which “sin” is consistently characterized not as moral or religious failing, but rather in terms of a rejection of Jesus and his ministry; of a failure to come to terms with his being the Word made flesh and the light that has come into the world. And though in the second half of John’s gospel Jesus does speak several times of the need to keep his commandments, in the end he offers only one crystal clear mandate: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13.34) Add to this his great ethical observation that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” followed immediately by his powerful statement that “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” and those words about the authority to forgive and retain sins begins to resonate differently.
In his free translation, The Message, Eugene Peterson renders this verse in a way that I first thought was just too speculative: “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” While Peterson is much less translating here than interpreting, he may be on to something. If we are meant to carry on the mission of Jesus in the world, and to do that in the power of the Holy Spirit; if we are to love one another in the way we have been loved by Him; if we are to keep company with all who would come; and if we are to attend first to the “log” in our own eye before even dreaming of attending to the speck in the eye of another… take all of those “ifs” together, and add Peterson’s “If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” Really, what are we going to do with the “them”? “Them” meaning each other but also anyone else who happens to wander through the doors or across our various paths.
I suppose I do have to confess that at some level I really wish Jesus had held that authority to forgive entirely to himself—again, he is the one I can trust. And yet for His own inscrutable reasons, Jesus apparently believed that in and through the Spirit, this precarious people called the church could actually be his Body; enacting his gracious, live-giving and wildly inclusive mission. In spite of our own doubts and reservations, and in spite of the church’s sometimes less than stellar track record, we’d better take him at his word, and get on with the challenge of being his Body in the world. For whatever authority he has laid on our shoulders, it is in the context of that grand vision of mission, and it is only in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. So lets be about it.