Don't Hold Your Breath
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 20:19-23
This morning’s scripture is a story of Jesus appearing to his disciples in the span of time between his resurrection and his return to heaven. As I said last week, these “appearance stories” were of critical importance in the early Church. After all, Jesus made some pretty lofty claims about himself – especially in John’s gospel – and if he hadn’t risen from the dead, he’d have been nothing more than a wise teacher (at best) or a delusional crackpot (at worst). But this morning’s scripture goes beyond testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. It is also a story about the Church; the Church as the locus of Jesus’ ongoing presence and authority here on earth; an authority that includes the forgiveness or retention of sin.
Now it might make us uncomfortable to hear Jesus tell his disciples that they have the authority to forgive or retain people’s sins. After all, we have other gospel passages – say the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew – which sound quite different. In that Sermon, Jesus warns against judging others[i] and promotes an indiscriminate forgiveness saying, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”[ii] So how are we to interpret this morning’s troubling statement by our resurrected Lord that his disciples have been granted the authority to either forgive or retain the sins of others? Well, in order to understand what Jesus is saying, we need first to understand how sin is defined in the gospel of John. In John, sin is all about our responsiveness to Jesus.
Nowhere in the gospel is this made clearer than in the story of Jesus healing the man born blind.[iii] That story begins with Jesus’ disciples inquiring if sin was the cause of the man’s blindness. Jesus refutes that popular assumption. The story continues to explore the topic of sin when the man healed is brought before the religious leaders for interrogation. Some Pharisees see this as an open and shut case; Jesus must be a sinner because he performed the work of healing on a Sabbath. Initially, the Pharisees are divided in their assessment of the situation. But ultimately, they chose to condemn Jesus and the man as sinners and the man formerly blind is excommunicated from the synagogue. The story concludes with Jesus finding the man, and within earshot of the Pharisees, pronouncing that their unwillingness to accept the sign of this man’s healing as proof of who Jesus is; well, their hardened hearts, their spiritual blindness, that is sin; a sin that will be retained. They have made an informed and purposeful decision to reject Jesus. And that, in John, is the meaning of sin. Sin in John’s gospel isn’t about breaking an Old Testament commandment; after all, Jesus did do work on the Sabbath; a clear “no no.” But sin, according to John, is about our response to the revelation of Jesus because Jesus is the revelation of God. He is God’s eternal Word.[iv] He and the heavenly Father are one in the same.[v] God sent Jesus, his Son, into the world so that we might see and understand God and God’s love for us. If we are blessed with the opportunity to experience Jesus for ourselves and, having done so, we choose to reject Jesus, then we have chosen to live in sin and darkness. Out of love, God sent his Son into the world – not because God wanted to judge and condemn us; but because God wanted to save us and offer us eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”[vi]
In this morning’s scripture, it is now Jesus who is doing the sending; yet the mission of his disciples is exactly like his own. And that should come as no surprise to the disciples. On the night before Jesus’ death, as they broke bread with one another around the table, Jesus had prayed to the heavenly Father on their behalf, saying: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world… As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”[vii] Now, post-resurrection, Jesus says it again; this time not as a prayer, but as a direct address: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”[viii] Folks: our mission, our work in the world, is the same as Jesus’ mission. We are sent to do what Jesus did. And, it is not just a job for those first century disciples. Jesus casts a vision that spans the millennia when he prays to the heavenly Father, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”[ix] That, my friends, includes us: you and me. Jesus prays for those original disciples and for us as he sends us out into the world to do his work.
I came across an interesting news story Friday morning. The story, by Tom Gjelten, was entitled Why Religion is More Durable Than We Thought in Modern Society.[x] I read the title and thought, “This will be good news.” But not so much. It reiterated that, while church attendance in America continues to decline, about 70% of Americans still self-identify as Christian. It further considered the differences between Christianity here in the States and abroad in Europe (where many churches receive government support). As we know, church attendance in Western Europe is dismal at best. The journalist identified one potential reason, citing research by Philip Schwadel who wrote: “When a state creates a relationship with a religion, religious leaders no longer have the same impetus to go out and get people excited. They get money from the state through taxes, so they don’t have to collect money from their congregants.’ In the United States, religious leaders have to ‘hustle’ more. They need to get more congregants if their church is going to survive.”
Now, I hope you can see why this story bothered me. Its implication is that the Church is like a club that collects dues to benefit its members and that’s not what a Church, biblically, is about. Church, as the saying goes, is one of the only organizations that exist to benefit those who do not yet belong to it.
On that resurrection evening so long ago, it was the gut response of those disciples of Jesus to lock the door and hunker down. They were fearful; withdrawing from the world. But Jesus would have none of that. He comes to them and greets them, saying “Peace be with you.” Peace and fear, my friends, are polar opposites. Fear fills us with anxiety and suspicion; it divides us; it inspires a fortress mentality, a cautious guarding of our personal interests. But peace drives out fear and opens up our hearts and minds; it creates a posture of hospitality and receptivity. So Jesus pronounces peace over his disciples and then he reiterates the commission he announced on that night before his crucifixion: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then, Jesus breathes his Spirit into his disciples; this Spirit he had promised them. Again, on the last night of his life, he promised them that he wasn’t abandoning them. In fact, his physical departure was necessary in order for the Holy Spirit to come to them.[xi] Jesus promised them that this Spirit would be like him; they would, essentially, be carrying Jesus inside of them wherever they went. The Spirit would help them and comfort them; teach them and remind them of the things Jesus had said to them.[xii] It would turn their sorrow into joy; their turmoil into peace; their fear into courage.[xiii]
On that resurrection evening long ago, it was the gut response of those disciples to lock the door and hunker down. But Jesus would have none of that because the Church isn’t a club or a society and it certainly isn’t a building that people pay dues to maintain. The Church is Jesus’ gracious and reconciling presence in the world; a world that seems to be increasingly succumbing to fear and anxiety and suspicion. And in the thick of that Jesus says to us, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” and he breathes his Spirit into us. Friends, conservative and liberal media, social media and talk radio caution us to defend ourselves; to erect physical and mental barriers to protect ourselves from the dangerous “other.” The disciples had only the Jewish establishment to fear. But we, it seems, have a world filled with enemies and opponents; perhaps some lurking in the shadows we’ve not yet even identified. But Jesus says to us, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And why is it so important that we go; because post-resurrection, the Holy Spirit has been breathed out upon us and WE carry the Spirit of the risen Jesus inside us; we carry Jesus wherever we go. We are how people encounter Jesus today. And how we treat others, how we respond to them, how we live in our communities and how we engage with the world will make all the difference in the world as to whether or not they receive, accept and believe in the Jesus we present to them. Will we present a Jesus that will draw them irresistibly near with grace and truth; with peace and joy? The responsibility we have been given is huge because the way we live determines how others respond to Jesus.
It is as St. Teresa of Avila wrote centuries ago, “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, not feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out at the earth. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands; yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes; you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
In the years immediately following World War II, Murat Yagan spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey where he became friends with an elderly couple. Their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to work in Istanbul.
One day when Murat visited them, the old couple was bursting with pride, eager to show a new tea cupboard their son had shipped from Istanbul. It was a handsome piece of furniture and the woman had already arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. But Murat was puzzled. Why would their son go through such an expense to send them a tea cupboard? And why did it not have any drawers? Finally, just before leaving, he said, “Do you mind if I have a look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned it around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal a fully operative ham radio set.[xiv]
Inside that cupboard was a great treasure: the opportunity, the means by which that couple could be connected to their son. But they’d been using it simply to display china.
Friends, Christ has given us a great treasure: his Spirit. Residing within us; through his Holy Spirit we have the opportunity to connect people to the love of God. But some of us seem to not even know that power that resides within us and we have not yet put it use. Let’s not waste that opportunity to connect people to God through the gift of his Spirit that he has breathed into us. Don’t hold your breath; let it out; let it out for if you understand who it is that dwells within you, you will not want to miss the opportunity to present Christ to others because Christ has no body now on earth but yours. Yours are the hands; yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes; you are the body within which his Spirit dwells. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
[i] See Matthew 7:1-5
[ii] Matthew 6:14-15
[iii] See John, chapter 9
[iv] See John 1:1-2
[v] See John 14:9
[vi] John 3:16-17
[vii] John 17:18, 21
[viii] John 20:21
[ix] John 17:20
[xi] See John 16:5-7
[xii] See John 14:25-27; John 16:12
[xiii] See John 16:33
[xiv] Taken from the Center for Action and Contemplation; The Tea Cupboard; March 13, 2017
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