By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 20:19-23
Just to be clear: don’t worry; I am aware that I have preached this morning’s bible story here at Trinity before. In fact, these verses from John’s gospel are one of the most frequently preached scripture passages of my two and half decades in ministry. That’s for two reasons.
One, it is a common text in the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost since it is a story of Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection and before his return to heaven. But I’ve also preached this scripture frequently because, if wrongly interpreted, it can be one of the most hurtful and destructive scriptures in the Bible. Conversely, if properly understood and applied, it can be one of the most liberating and life-giving scriptures in the Bible.
Forgiveness is a big deal and we all know it. As a pastor, I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years. Now, doing funerals for children; those are, for sure, the most difficult. But among adults, the most difficult funerals to conduct revolve around this theme of forgiveness. In instances where forgiveness was needed and never granted, people are devastated. They can become despondent, stuck in a destructive loop or mantra; heard saying over and over, “She was never sorry for what she did to me”…” or “I never told him I was sorry and now I never can.” Forgiveness is the foundation of relationship. It’s what grace is all about. Certainly, it is important when we sin or commit a wrong to change behavior and to make amends. Yet, in reality, forgiveness is never something that can be earned. It can only be given as a gift. Through Christ, God has offered us forgiveness as a free gift. When we’re offered forgiveness, we’re offered life. When we’re denied forgiveness, we are sentenced to death.
So how can it be that this scripture can be interpreted in ways that are destructive and restorative? Well, it comes down to our understanding – really, I should say, to the gospel’s understanding – of sin. In the gospel of John, sin is not about a moral infraction, a list of moral or ethical do’s and don’t’s. In John, sin is all about how we choose to respond to Jesus as the expression of God’s love for us. Jesus, John’s introduction tells us, is the manifestation of God’s grace and the revelation of who God is. John 1:16-18 says, “From Jesus… we have all received grace upon grace… [God’s] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son… who has made him known.”
John’s unique understanding of sin is made most clear in chapter 9. Jesus heals a man born blind and because it is the Sabbath that gets him and the man into trouble with the religious authorities. At the end of the chapter, Jesus speaks of blindness in the metaphorical sense when he says that he came into the world so that the blind might see. The religious authorities overhear Jesus and are quick to defend themselves, “Well, we’re not blind, are we?” they ask indignantly. And Jesus says this, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”[i] In other words, if you really weren’t able to see, really didn’t have the opportunity to see, then you wouldn’t be judged on that. But the religious leaders have had plenty of encounters with Jesus, plenty of opportunities to see God’s grace working through him. But they’ve been more focused on religious rules. They’ve chosen not to see what is staring them in the face. Jesus came so that we might “see” God – the love of God and the grace of God made manifest in our world and in our lives. And if God’s love and grace is presented to us and we choose to reject it or ignore it; that is sin.
So how on earth do we connect that to this morning’s statement by Jesus to the disciples – one that might make us very uncomfortable – when Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain [or hold onto] the sins of any, they are retained.” It might make us very uncomfortable to consider that another human being could play such a critical role in someone’s sins being forgiven or not being forgiven. That is a huge responsibility. But here’s the thing and here is why this scripture, when properly understood, can be liberating and life-giving; because sin and forgiveness are relational concepts. Remember what I always say to you: Christianity is not a belief system; it is a relational system. Sin and forgiveness can never be understood in the abstract. Jesus was God’s grace and forgiveness enfleshed. Jesus embodied the love and grace of God the Father. And because Jesus places within us his Holy Spirit (his ongoing presence), we too embody the love and grace of God. The love and grace of God are now to be enfleshed in us. WE are how the forgiveness of God is related or conveyed to other people. People ought to see in us exactly what they saw in Jesus. And, if that’s not what we’re showing people, then that’s not on them; that’s on us. It’s on us!
You know, genuine love and sincere forgiveness are awfully hard to resist. But when love is not genuine and forgiveness is not sincere – when our experiences of “love” and “forgiveness” are skewed and distorted, we withdraw and retreat and lose the ability to trust; we lose faith because that’s what faith is about. Faith is about trust; trust in God because of what Jesus revealed. Now we carry his Spirit in us and the way we engage with people will either cultivate trust or fear; a trust that will draw them into a relationship with God or a judgment and fear that will drive them away.
Bible scholar and priest Francis Moloney says of this passage from John’s gospel that Jesus bestows his Holy Spirit on his disciples so that they may be to the world what he has been. Father Moloney writes, Jesus “gifts his disciples with the Spirit that they may be to the world what he has been.”[ii] Friends, that’s what Trinity’s vision statement is all about. Our commitment to building relationships with others isn’t simply about being polite and saying “Good morning” to the people you meet… although that’s obviously a good thing to do. But if that’s the extent of our investment in those around us, we are failing to be the Church; we are failing to carry out the work Jesus has entrusted to us. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples (in the 1st century and still today), “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
I know I have shared before the story of well-known southern preacher and professor Fred Craddock and his experience as a young pastor. He writes:
I remember the first church I served as a student. They had a fund called the Emergency Fund and it had about $100 in it. They told me I could use it at my discretion, provided I dispensed the money according to the conditions. So I said, “What are the conditions?”
The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness or poor management.”
I said, “Well, what else is there?” As far as I know, they still have that money.[iii]
Friends, in that story, it is clear that that church was deeply invested in retaining sin; in judging whether or not others were worthy of grace. Over the course of history, far too often in the face of sin and suffering and despair, the Church has pronounced judgment. We have distorted this morning’s scripture and turned it into something deadly. We have retained people’s sins rather than setting them free. Yet most of us, as vulnerable, flawed human creatures, are well aware of our short-comings; far too many people are being eaten up by resentments and regrets and guilt festering within their souls like an abscess. We have been enculturated to live in fear and dread.
But this is the season of Easter and we are only a few days out from Holy Week; from Jesus’ decision to embrace all the things we fear the most: failure, rejection, betrayal, insignificance, suffering and death. At the end of his life, his friends and fans ditched him; it looked as if all the work he did was being undone – certainly it had been misunderstood; he was facing unimaginable physical suffering; and he was standing on the brink of death. Yet even so, Jesus took the leap of faith; he entered in to all that awful stuff. And because he did, he defeated its power for all of us. Victorious over sin and death and fear, he pronounced peace upon all those who trust in him. He placed his peace inside of us through the gift of his Spirit. And if we withhold that from others, we are contributing to their suffering – to the world’s suffering. So Jesus invites – Jesus empowers and equips us – to pronounce forgiveness by proclaiming the good news that people can live in the light and the peace of God’s grace and not live as slaves to fear and resentment and guilt. Bible scholar Gail O’Day writes that “forgiveness of sins is the [church’s] Spirit-empowered mission to continue Jesus’ work of making God known in the world.”[iv]
Friends: that is what Trinity’s Vision and our Ready Set Grow initiatives[v] are all about. It is not enough for us to come here on Sundays and enjoy one another’s company and hope for the best for the world. Through our community partnerships, through our work with families in need, through our community garden and our grill meals, through our Caring Fund, through our small group ministries, we are reaching out beyond our walls to proclaim the love and grace and forgiveness of God to others; not only in word but in deed; not only through polite gestures but through authentic relationships. When I encourage you to commit to offering Trinity your time, your talents and your money, this is what it’s about. When we only give the bare minimum of our time, our talents, and our money, it is as if we are withholding the grace and forgiveness of God because, I can tell you, I have seen with my own eyes the difference this church has made in people’s lives. I have seen with my own eyes people bathed in the grace and forgiveness of Jesus – transformed by that grace – because of how we engage with them. I hope that we all recognize this morning how important the task of the Church is because Jesus has spelled it out for us: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”[vi]
Centuries ago St Teresa of Avila put it in these words: “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no 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.”
Jesus gifts his disciples with the Spirit that they may be to the world what he has been.
[i] John 9:41. NRSV
[ii] Glory not Dishonor: Reading John 13-21 by Francis Moloney, SDB, Fortress Press, pp. 171-172
[iii] Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock, ed. Graves and Ward; Chalice Press; p. 48
[iv] John: Westminster Bible Companion; Gail O’Day and Susan Hylen; Westminster John Knox Press; p. 195
[v] To view our community initiatives, go to http://www.trinitylafayette.org/community.html
[vi] John 20:23
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