Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2022
John 20:19-31 Commentary
Comments, Questions and Observations
Often, the focus of this week’s Easter Lectionary is on Thomas. His “doubt” is rather relatable, and it seems to be what Jesus reflects directly upon when he declares a beatitude about belief. (It really is too bad for Thomas that he wasn’t there that Easter evening with the other disciples. After all, he’s only asking for what the other disciples experienced when he says he won’t believe until he is able to physically witness the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples were seemingly in the same boat—having rejected the message of the women, they are given the gift of Jesus’ presence as proof, and then they come to believe. The closing of the lectionary text is an invitation to all of us to be more like the women and less like the disciples… By the way, if you are interested in focusing on the Thomas section of the narrative, my colleague Scott wrote about it last year.)
But what I’d like to focus on instead is the way that Jesus commissions his disciples (and us) in this first appearance to the men. Let us not forget that God has already made a Resurrection commission—sending the women from the empty tomb to share the good news with the disciples! Whereas we might hear the Great Commission in Matthew 28 as an “external” sending (into the world to make disciples), what Jesus gives here is an “internal” sending that touches the posture and heart of his disciples. Clearly, the Resurrection isn’t just our ticket to heaven: it’s our calling to an entirely new life while on earth.
Jesus makes a series of physical movements and sayings to make up the Resurrection commission.
Jesus’ First Movement: To Be in the Midst
The first thing Jesus does is enter into the space and be present. He appears to the disciples who have locked themselves away from the world out of fear, while they are struggling and mourning: God shows up.
Jesus’ First Word: Peace
Jesus’ first words are a blessing of “Peace.” He appears among the mourning, shocked, afraid and probably a little angry crew, and says, “Peace be with you.” These words are part of his purpose in being present: we can know peace because the resurrected Lord is with us.
Jesus’ Second Movement: He Shows Himself to be Real
Then, Jesus shows himself to be physically real—he is the actual person the disciples knew as their rabbi. He does this by showing them the marks of his wounds from his crucifixion. Note how the disciples responded to this proof by “seeing” it was Jesus and rejoicing.
Jesus’ Second Word: Peace (Again) & Sending
Having intimately revealed the marks of his crucifixion sacrifice to them, Jesus again speaks words of peace. I wonder if it would be fair to see this as Jesus communicating that he forgives them: he gives them peace even though they abandoned him; we know that Peter struggled with how he acted on Good Friday, so it is not far-fetched to consider that the others had great guilt as well. The feeling is likely familiar to many of us… Jesus spoke words of forgiveness on the cross, completed the work of atonement for humanity and the world, and now blesses those who have done him wrong with peace!
To be forgiven is to be made free and at peace, set in a new direction; we might call God’s forgiveness our commissioning. For when Jesus offers the action that follows forgiveness and its welcomed peace, he describes the disciples as “sent” just as he is sent by the Father. They are to be forgiven-people-of-peace out in the world. The disciples are to be people who give peace, who physically show up, who sacrifice for others out of love and for peace.
Jesus’ Third Movement: Empowering Breath
Jesus physically breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, and with that breath comes the commissioning to carry his message. With the breath comes the same power that raised Jesus from the grave. With that breath comes the peace of Jesus’ blessing, and the ability to do what he commands and describes.
Jesus’ Third Word: Forgive
Receiving the Holy Spirit means receiving power for a new life. Along with the peace Christ has repeatedly passed to them, the most pivotal way of being that Jesus now calls his followers to is forgiveness. (See the textual point below for a consideration of the second half of verse 23.)
Peace and forgiveness. These are the hallmarks of disciples of the Resurrected Jesus Christ. Easter freedom serves the purpose of peace and forgiveness. Jesus’ conquering of sin and death is for our peace; it is our ability to be forgiven and to forgive. God knows that forgiveness is an act of peace; Jesus shows it to be true and the Spirit fills our inmost being with it.
Forgiveness is a complicated topic and practice, one in which we should be careful to avoid caricature and oversimplification. It is important to acknowledge, for instance, that forgiveness is a different activity than justice, reparation, or reconciliation. Often these all get jumbled together—a mixing that leads to none of them being adequately pursued—and usually more than one of these facets needs to be pursued alongside forgiveness. But, forgiveness is something we can pursue on our own, even when the other party refuses to engage in the works of peace. Forgiveness is an act of peace we can give to others, but it is also an act that we can take for ourselves. Just like the disciples locked away in the upper room, by the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, we can know Jesus’ peace and forgiveness in the midst of complicated feelings.
I am struck that Jesus’ first words, after showing that he is “okay” after being executed by the state (with the support of the religious institution) is to communicate peace in word and deed to his anxious disciples, and then to tell them to be people who forgive. Is he thinking specifically of those who put him to death—implicitly leading his disciples away from the path of vengeance and open rebellion? Maybe. But like the work of the cross, Jesus’ calling transcends that specific event: it is the way of life for those who have the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead alive in them. When the breath of life is breathed into us, we have access to not only the resurrection peace of Christ, but also the power to forgive.
The disciples are sent out with peace and the calling to be forgivers. This is the character of the Resurrected life of Jesus Christ. It is the internal work that allows us to be reconciling disciples of the kingdom of God in the world. Peace and forgiveness are the hallmarks of the new life in Christ!
Remember Jesus’ movements in the commissioning; we can trust that God will make the same movements for us: God will show up and will show himself to be real.
The verb “retain” in verse 23 has a number of ways to be translated, but “the primary signification is exercise of power” (BDAG, emphasis added). For instance, you can use it to describe taking hold of something in your hand, seizing control of someone or something, grasping, to hold up (to support), to hold back (keep from happening), to commit to (such as an idea), to keep, or to hold in place.
How are we to understand, then, what Jesus is saying about retaining people’s sins? Many scholars see this part of Jesus’ commission as John’s version of what is found in Matthew 16.19 and Matthew 18.18—especially chapter 16 where it serves as a similar commission to the one we have here. As such, it is a word of empowerment, a way of understanding how the ministry of heaven is to continue among Jesus’ followers.
But what if we also hear it as a word of warning? Jesus says he is sending them out (with his peace), he breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, then he tells them that if they offer forgiveness, forgiveness is made effectual (in the perfect tense: an event with lasting consequences). But if they hold onto/take control of someone’s sins, these wrongdoings will be retained (also in the passive perfect tense).
Having just been executed by the institutional powers of the world, Jesus’ commissioning here is imbibed with peace and the breath of life (the Holy Spirit), and he tells his followers to forgive. Might Jesus also be teaching us that the way of forgiveness is the way of freedom for all of us? For if we hold onto the sins of others, they come to control us just as much as they control others: a closed fist, holding firm onto something cannot do anything else! The Resurrection new life that Jesus makes possible is one in which the freedom of peace’s first description is forgiveness—a letting go—juxtaposed to the image of holding sins.
Every time we pass the peace at the beginning of a church service, we are reminding ourselves of this commission from Jesus Christ to the Resurrection new life: to be people who forgive and are ruled by peace. This is not only what Jesus said to do, it is what Jesus did. In fact, many traditions incorporate the passing of the peace into their communion liturgies to remind us of both the example and gift of Christ as well as his call upon his followers to be forgiven-people-of-peace.
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