Meditation on John 20:19-23
First Sunday after Easter 2014
Someone posted a recent quotation from Pope Francis. You know he has gotten great reviews from folks outside Roman Catholicism and has run head long into establishment outrage within his church. The statement reads: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to is own security.”
In this brief statement he contrasts a body suffering the blows of engaging the powers of the world to bring justice and equity with a morbidly obese couch potato church that looks out through its Plexiglas covered stained glass windows on a broken world and shakes it’s head and clicks it’s tongue at all that’s wrong.
I want to take the passage that Ken read for us line by line and see where it leads us.
”When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week,” That’s right – this is the evening of the day when early in the morning it was discovered that Jesus’ had been resurrected from the dead. It’s difficult to involve people of other faith traditions in interfaith gatherings because they usually occur on weekends. For Islamists their special day is Friday. For the Jews it’s the Sabbath. And for most Christians it’s the first day of the week which we set aside for our worship – because it is a little Easter. We are people of a resurrected Christ. Quakers used to be pretty obvious about that, calling Sunday ‘first day’ as a reminder of the significance of our choice of when we hold our announced times of worship.
Mary had awakened Peter and the other disciple early – before dawn– on that morning. It had already been a long day for everyone when, in the words of the Gospel of John
and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,
It wasn’t fear of the Romans or of the general public that the disciples had locked themselves into a house – it was the Jews they feared, which in John speak refers to the elite class, the professionally religious and those who enjoyed the protection and the economic benefits of Roman occupation. Recall how they had threatened the family of the man born blind whom Jesus had cured. They would be kicked out of the Temple, which for any Jew was to be ostracized, a social death sentence. This group who had gathered in that house in the hopes of staying safe had every reason to think that as being followers of Jesus, they would be next in line for some form of persecution.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
This had always been something of a fascination. Like a disembodied spirit Jesus mysteriously appears among them. Up to this point all they knew of Jesus resurrection was Mary’s report that she had seen the Lord! Peter and the other disciple had believed her report that his body was gone – that they could testify to but the resurrection was still beyond their comprehension.
I can’t think of anything better for Jesus to have said that “Peace be with you”. The presence of this disembodied person who wasn’t deterred by walls or locked doors would be unsettling.
After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Those who had witnessed the execution knew about his hands and had they stayed long enough would be aware of the piercing of Jesus’ side. As he had instructed Mary to not hold him, at this point no one touched him. They looked and only then the Gospel tells us the next line:
Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
No rejoicing before this – it’s hard to rejoice when you are in the presence of a being that exhibits the characteristics of this one who has come among them. Up until now they had not ‘seen’ this presence in their midst as “the Lord.” They didn’t recognize Jesus for his beauty or his love and compassion. It was in seeing how he had been broken and abused that he was recognizable. I wonder how important that is for us today when we look to see Jesus in others what is it that we are looking for?
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
This experience was wholly new to his disciples. They thought they knew Jesus but in this they weren’t prepared. Peace be with you. Jesus repeats. This was in preparation for the next thing that happened.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” According to the Gospel of John this is the is the great commission. It’s is much more precise than what we read in Matthew 28. It raises for us the question how did the Father send Jesus into the world? For what did God send Jesus into the world to do? To be a sacrificial lamb – pay a ransom to Satan, placate God’s sense of injustice, simply to die… that’s not an adequate response? To be a blood sacrifice to satisfy an offense of God’s righteousness? To balance the scales of divine justice? If that’s the case it clarifies that to which we are called. But that can’t be it. The text says “As the Father sent me, so I send you…” We are called to live in the world not to die for it. It may require sacrifice but I think maybe Pope Frances’ quotation has some merit here when he said ““I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,…”
Jesus came and pointed humanity to a loving God and offered compassion and care, refused judging others and offered forgiveness and companionship.
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. What he did next was to acknowledge that this wasn’t something we could do on our own. Like, in the Genesis creation story when God blew his breath, his spirit into creation Jesus in the same way breathes on those gathered there and invites them to “Receive the Holy Spirit”. I appreciate that it’s an invitation not a demand. Remember, Jesus said unless he went away the promised spiritual companion could not come to lead, guide and direct. In the tradition of the synoptic Gospels we have to wait forty more days for this gifting of the Holy Spirit, but in this Gospel it comes on the first day – the day of resurrection.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” And this may be the hardest part of the whole unexpected post resurrection visit. Reading commentaries on this line of text is fascinating. No one wants to step up the plain language of the text. It’s clear, we are pretty sure we do not want this obligation, to pronounce absolution – to actually forgive the sins of any. Maybe that’s why the phrase begins with an “If” and why the second half of the line shows us the result of our not offering forgiveness. Forgiveness is a horrible leveler. If every one stands forgiven there are no unrighteous and thus undeserving. There are no pedestals for the supposed righteous to stand on so as to look down on others. And think of how this second part is translated: “if you retain the sins of any” like if you have this container into which you store up the trespasses, the slights, the hurts caused by others – you take them into your self. You retain them. Why would you want to do that – to make yourself feel more righteous.
Jesus already made it clear that that to which we are called is not something we can do on our own but only in the Power of God, the Holy Spirit which, if we open ourselves it comes to be our comforter, guide, counselor, companion and director. Only in that power can we step up to the task Jesus put on his closest followers on the first Easter.
The best news in all of this is found in the first words Jesus spoke to that gathering “Peace be with you.”