The Ministry of Forgiveness (Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 20:19-29)
If we’re following the Revised Common Lectionary, each year on the Sunday after Easter, we read the Lesson about Thomas from John’s Gospel. This can get kind of tedious, but it also may be a salutary reminder that, even in the midst of the most faithful group of people there are those who are willing to have a robust faith without having ever seen a first-hand demonstration of Jesus power, and those who aren’t, but who demand to have an immediate experience for themselves. And, while the story calls the former kind of disciples “blessed,” it does not say the latter are not equally part of the family of God, in spite of what some sermons have made of what Jesus said. I have to tell you that I am related more to the type who “doubt” if that’s the right word, like Thomas, who need to see to see things for themselves, rather than to swallow wholly the word of others.
In what may pass for a little defense of Thomas, the story clearly says that he said what he about needing a first-hand experience of the risen Jesus, not to God or Jesus, and not even in Jesus’ presence, but to his colleagues in response to what had to be some of the unlikeliest news he (or anyone else) had ever heard. His colleagues said that they’d seen Jesus alive, though bearing the scars of his death-struggle. Thomas had the misfortune to miss that gathering. Maybe that’s a good argument for regular attendance, you never know when Jesus is going to show up alive!
Now the story doesn’t say, “Well, bad luck, that!”” I’m one of those people that can’t be spiritual and has to have physical proof.” As I say that’s not what Thomas said or meant. And the story itself does not demean him, whatever some may make of it. What Thomas meant was, “It isn’t fair! “I want the same privilege that you, Peter, and you, James, and you John, etc., have had.” “I just can’t believe it’s true.” “We all saw him die.” “The dead don’t come back to life (except maybe what’s-his-name, Lazarus).” “I have to see this for myself.” That’s what he meant. He wasn’t going to trade somebody else’s story (even that of his best friends) for seeing with his own eyes. So we need to get down off our churchy high-horses and give Thomas a break. I say this to clear away some foolish prattle that still clings to Thomas’s reputation. Indeed, after it was all over, it’s hard to beat Thomas’s confession of the Risen Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” No second class Christian here.
Now, by the time John’s Gospel told this story it was 50 or 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This Gospel well may have roots in John the Apostle’s materials, but it was, most likely, carried on to completion by others before it was published. Those who heard and read John’s story were looking at Jesus much as we do, as the risen Lord of the Church, in smaller communities of various types. These readers and hearers were looking to the Gospel material, again, much as we do, to enrich them and guide them in their lives, not just as so much data for Bible quizzes. For the first readers and hearers of the Gospel, the disciples such as Thomas were the church. How did this story intend to shape the church? This is the same question we might ask now.
This text unfolds in two roughly parallel scenes, one where the risen Jesus appears to the disciples without Thomas, and the second where he appeared to them a week later with him. We have already commented on that second scene. I want to zero in on the first one. It happened on the first Easter evening as the disciples are gathered behind locked doors because they were afraid.. Jesus comes in anyway (showing that he’s not just like other humans). He speaks the traditional greeting, shalom and showed them his hands and side, which had been riven with nails and a spear. This was a painful reminder of what had been, and that the risen Jesus, far from having been raised to perfection, still carried the marks of a death struggle. These wounds, it seems, convinced the disciples that it was Jesus and they were filled with joy both that he was alive and to see him so. He then greeted them, again, “Shalom,” and charged them to go into the world with John’s equivalent of Matthew’s Great Commission: “Just as the Father has sent me, just so I sent you.” The community of faith isn’t to spend it’s time huddled in fear, but to go into the world with and for God in Christ.
Then Jesus endows them for the journey with the Spirit, the active presence of God in the world. This is equivalent to Luke’s story of the Day of Pentecost from Acts chapter 2. John tells this as all occurring on Easter Day. Having been so clothed with power from on high (in Luke’s words), Jesus gave the disciples (which, again, remember, John’s readers saw as the church, including them) their mission. Here it is: “If you release the sins of any, they are (and remain) released, if you let the sins of any stay, they stay (and remain so).” This line gives many people a good deal of trouble. First, does it mean that some group in the church have the power to forgive some sins of some people and not forgive others? If so, who are they? By about the 4th or 5th century CE or so, when church leaders came to claim to stand in apostolic succession by some kind of church rite, that these claimed for themselves the right of forgiveness or non-forgiveness. This is still held by some traditions of the Church that see releasing of sins in the sacraments of confession and penance. Some others who believe that the act of baptism is what gives one eternal life see releasing sin as referring to admitting some to baptism, while allowing sin to stand refers to denying baptism to others. As a Baptist, I don’t hold either view, but if not that, then what does it mean? Can some group keep God from forgiving sins? That’s a problem.
Second, of all the ministries Jesus could have named (preaching, teaching, healing, helping the poor, etc.), why would or should he have chosen “forgiveness”? It seems odd, when there are so many other more visible things to do. It seems like a minor ministry that Jesus names here. Is it?
I don’t think so, and here is where our Old Testament Lesson comes into the picture. It is one of my favourite Old Testament passages and deals with a New Covenant. If this one is new there must have been at least one that was old. We can name three: The covenant with Noah for the world, the covenant with Abraham for the larger group that would contain Israel, and the covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai. We could also name the covenant with David, though that is a bit different.
The tradition about covenant had been interpreted as a very specific set of commands to follow certain prescriptions; a list. Very able religious folk had thought that they could “fix” themselves and everybody else if they just did “the right” things on the list. They had turned what were intended to be relationships with one another and God into rules. For Jeremiah, that meant that the former covenants – never intended to be rules – had been so misunderstood as to lie broken. God’s people needed a New Covenant. This passage is tied to our Gospel Lesson by what lies at its heart. The most common translation of this is: “…I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” These words are too churchy for me, and I avoid them if possible. That first word, iniquity, comes from a word that means “to twist.” It is our twistedness, our intentional harmful action against others. The second word means a mistake. By using these two words the writer meant to include everything in between. God’s erasure and carrying away of our multi-faceted inclination to violence and harm is at the heart of God’s work to establish family relationship with people. So, what is in the divine heart for the people of God, forgiveness and forgetfulness, is what becomes the mission given to the people of God in John’s Gospel: The Ministry of Forgiveness. It is neither odd nor minor, but is the enabling of the New Covenant.
Now, we must figure out what John meant by “release/retain sins.” And we must find it by reading John rather than reading other places in the Bible (even Jeremiah). To do otherwise would be like assuming that the English usage of Mark Twain may be clarified by how Charles Dickens uses the same words. Can’t be done. No one would take such a thing seriously, and we shouldn’t define what John said by what Paul, or James, or Jeremiah, or Peter, etc., said.
Now, the fact is that this is the only place in John’s Gospel that deals with the forgiveness of sins. But “sin” itself is dealt with a good many times, and, in John, it does not mean a list of morally rotten things we have done. I don’t have time to demonstrate that this morning, but trust me. The word John used for sins means “mistakes,” and the particular mistake he calls “sin” is refusing to see God’s work and values in Jesus’ work and values, or to put it more broadly, that Jesus reveals God and God’s mission in the world. Jesus here says his disciples (communities of faith), by what they do and say either release people to discover and practice Jesus’ values (which are God’s values), or keep them from it. If they choose to give the gift, it is given. If they refuse to give it, it is withheld. This is another way of saying that we are a conduit through which God in Jesus blesses the world. Discerning what methods to use is a sub-task of the mission and depends on our time, place, and circumstance. It takes wisdom and discipline to find and enact such methods in our time. The easiest way to retain the sins of any, (or, as we’ve said to keep them from discovering and practicing Jesus’ values), is simply to do nothing but meet behind closed doors because we’re afraid of those who are different, and do the same old same old for the frozen chosen, and them alone. May it never be so.
All of us, including those who need to thrust their hands into the nail prints and need things to be pretty concrete, those who gladly grasp things spiritually, those who are fearful, those who are brave, all of us have this ministry of forgiveness together. Let us pray for the strength to get into this ministry, let it get into us, and carry it forward as urgently and as long as may be.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.