…and now the work begins
April 8, 2018
Scripture: Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-30
When speaking on this passage from John’s gospel, which tells of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples the evening of the resurrection the focus usually falls on Thomas, or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he has come to be known. However, that little story is for me at least another justification for last week’s message in which I said I believed it was not only possible, but in a sense necessary for a follower of Jesus to have such an ‘in-person’ encounter with the risen Lord in order to truly be committed to the degree needed to carry on the work of Jesus in this day.
And so instead of focusing on Thomas I would like just to look at the gathering there in the room that evening, to see all of the disciples together, unsure of what to do, and it would seem by the description at least of the locked doors, that perhaps they were not yet ready to go out and get to work on the spreading of the gospel. And yet, that is very much what Jesus came and told them to do that first night. More so than wanting to teach about Thomas and his doubts, I believe Jesus came to encourage and empower his followers to get on with the unfinished work of sharing the Good News…the saving work he had given his life to establish.
Jesus was asking them to become witnesses of the faith, to be story-tellers willing to go out and share all that they had seen and heard. He was telling them that the time of one-on-one instruction with him was over and that they were now being asked to go out and bear authentic witness to the love and mercy of God…to share all they had seen and heard, to follow in the footsteps of their Lord and Teacher.
And ever since that moment this call and instruction has remained in force for all who profess to be Christians…a call to offer up an authentic and truthful witness of the Good News of Jesus Christ, regardless of external or worldly pressures to dilute or dissuade its true saving power. And unfortunately, at least from outward appearances it seems this call has in many ways been ignored or deeply compromised by much of modern day ‘Christianity’. The far-right quasi-evangelical interpretation of the gospel has departed from an authentic witness of Jesus and chosen instead to elevate lesser concerns to the level of strict dogma and doctrine while turning profoundly away from the hard work and true cost of loving one’s neighbor…a calling that is arguably the primary task given by Jesus to his disciples.
In truth much of the modern church takes as its primary work a preoccupation with and even idolatry of morality or moral perfection along with how those concerns work their way out through social and political policy. And much of that I believe can be traced to a misinterpretation of a portion of today’s passage, most notably the instruction of Jesus regarding ‘forgiveness of sins’ by his disciples. In this instruction Jesus tells his followers that if they forgive the sins of others they are forgiven and if not then they are ‘retained’. The word ‘retained’ is what the Greek word krateo actually means. However other translations ignore that and substitute ‘not forgiven’ instead, in an attempt to clarify the command although it is not accurate.
And to be sure, on the face of it the passage would seem to be fairly clear. It seems to be stating that Jesus’ followers have now been given an awesome amount of power and authority when it comes to how they treat their fellow believer. On the face of it this passage seems to imply that Christians are called to be jury, judge, and jailer of any who do not line up or comply with their particular faith understanding or moral imperatives. And so, if in the eyes of those in charge you are worthy of forgiveness, if what you have done or who you are is ‘forgivable’ then perhaps you shall be. However if not, then those same lead Christians are entitled to leave you gnashing your teeth in the darkness as you wallow about in a state of condemnation and unforgiven-ness. And it is not an unfair question to ask how many are forced to reside in this perpetual state of ‘unworthy of forgiveness’ in the eyes of many Christians today?
However, that is so far from the intent of Jesus’ original instructions that night, and so different from the work he was asking his followers to engage in and the story he was asking them to share. Jesus was not seeking perfect behavior but rather a much deeper awareness of the truth that God’s love was unconditional and his mercy and forgiveness universal.
Matt Skinner speaks to the difference between the original intent of this ‘forgiving/non-forgiving’ passage and current misinterpretations of it in an article he wrote and posted on workingpreachers.org. He writes, ‘Jesus is not appointing the church as his moral watchdog; nor does he commission it to arbitrate people’s assets and liabilities on a heavenly balance sheet. In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about sin as unbelief, (or) the unwillingness or incapacity to grasp the truth of God manifested in him. To have sin…therefore is to remain estranged from God…‘Sin’ in John is not about moral failings; primarily it is an inability or refusal to recognize God’s revelation when confronted by it in Jesus…Consequently, the resurrected Christ tells his followers that, through the Spirit that enables them to bear witness, they can set people free (And here Matt denotes that, ‘set free’ or ‘release’ is a better translation (of Krateo) than ‘forgive’ in this passage’). (By bearing witness of the grace of God in Jesus, Matt says that the disciples) ‘can be a part of seeing others come to believe in Jesus and what he discloses’.
(On the other hand Skinner says) Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world full of people left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. That is what it means to ‘retain’ sins…a church that does not bear witness to Christ is a church that leaves itself unable to play a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.’
So here we affirm that to bear authentic and truthful witness to those who do not yet know of the depth of love God has for them is the call and command Jesus gave his followers that night in the upper room…a call that may be even more critical today. For the work Jesus started is nowhere near finished as our nation flirts with such darkness and a lack of true vision that is now leaning towards and in fact yielding so much false witness. Even a cursory look at the gospel call of Jesus reveals that we are far from the loving and servant nature of the one we claim to follow.
In fact, I would argue that the most pressing task for those who truly know the Lord is to work for the salvation of Christianity itself…to pray deeply that all those who profess to follow Jesus begin to imitate his words, his actions, and perhaps most importantly, his priorities. Truly there is a need to get on with the task of returning the work and message of Jesus to the original call of the gospel to ‘set the people free’.
And what is that call again? What was Jesus asking his disciples to bear witness to that would show others the true nature of God? What was it he was cautioning them not to ignore for the result of doing so would leave others lacking the saving knowledge of God’s love? How did he want them to spend themselves on his behalf after they left that upper room and went forth out into a world filled with deep resistance and fraught with opposing strength, power, and privilege?
Jesus wanted their lives going forward to reflect the grace of God…and to do so by living and witnessing a life of unconditional love and sacrifice on behalf of others under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He sent them out to encounter and challenge the current faith understandings of his day, much as he still sends us in order to rescue the faithful from the heresies of our own. For the call remains, especially as present-day heresies have become so much more skillfully and deceptively clothed within issues and viewpoints which at times may seem proper or sensible, or even morally critical.
Indeed the work remains before us as our culture and society grows ever farther apart from the central purpose and focus of Jesus’ ministry. Violence has replaced the non-violent willingness with which Jesus walked towards and engaged the hatred and forces against him there in Jerusalem. Deep care and compassion for the least among us has been replaced by a willingness to ignore and even trample upon basic human rights and decency. Oppressive social categories and the systemic ills of racism, classism, discrimination against women, and extreme poverty fought against over the past fifty years have been revived and given new power as they are enforced with greater vitriol by those currently in power and sanctioned by the silence of far too many who profess to follow Jesus.
‘If you forgive the sins’, Jesus said…‘if you work to release from unknowing those who have yet to grasp the overwhelming nature of God’s love for every child, woman, and man, all of whom are created in the image of our God…then indeed those people; those searching souls will be free indeed’. ‘If however you fail in your task to share the true story of our faith and instead get or remain mired in the darkness of worldly and unloving concerns or actions, then all those who observe your window-dressing-only faithfulness will be unchanged and will remain in need of the true grace and authentic witness you have refused to offer them.
The call of our Lord, issued that night in the upper room in Jerusalem remains in effect for all who dare to walk along the path Jesus traveled before us. Love one another…every one another…no exceptions…for that is how our Lord and our God loves us.