Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton, and St. George’s,Middlesex Centre, 30 March, 2008
Acts 2:14a,22-32, Psalm 16:5-11, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if your retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23)
A lot of organizations today spend much time and energy crafting mission statements - summaries of their aims, objectives, and reasons for being. Often these efforts are not valued highly by members of these organizations, because they tend to be written with a lot of bureaucratic jargon and because the performance of the organization often falls short of these lofty goals. Even so, one could argue that an organization that thinks it knows what it's about is better than an organization with no clue. Last week a high-powered consultant working for the diocese visited with me and with representatives of your wardens. Among the questions she asked us to tell her the mission statement of our two congregations. We didn't do very well on that question. Mostly we just said "uhhh" and "ummm". Most of us gathered here today could say something about what we're about - "We're the Christian communities in the Anglican tradition which gather in Ilderton and Denfield on Sundays to worship God and care for one another", something along those lines. But we probably could, and definitely should, be clearer about our mission.
The first meeting of the Christian church after the resurrection was not impressive. This was a church with no mission statement. It was held behind locked doors, so that no one could get in. The disciples gathered that day were frightened and defeated. Today’s reading from John’s gospel describes a group that has cut themselves off from the outside world. They had heard a message of hope from Mary Magdalene, who claimed to have seen Jesus walking in the garden, but they acted like they did not believe it. They looked and acted instead like people without hope. But Jesus refuses to leave them alone.
I don’t know if you see any of us in this group of frightened and beleaguered disciples. Perhaps. The Anglican Church around the world and here in Canada is less than inspiring at times, especially now as churches and bishops lock doors and hire lawyers to argue over who owns what. In our own parish, we’ve had good moments and, sometimes, bad moments, when we’ve huddled and argued and acted fearfully. And Jesus has refused to leave us alone.
The things Jesus does and says in today’s gospel don’t apply just to this one, frightened group of disciples. They apply to every church, everywhere, and they apply just as much now as they did then. So today’s gospel is not just a story of the earliest days of the church. It’s our story and it’s our marching orders, and we dare not ignore it.
The first thing Jesus does is walk through that locked door as if it doesn’t exist. “Jesus came and stood among them” (Jn 20:19). If Jesus wasn’t going to stay locked in a tomb in the land of the dead, he’s sure not going to let a locked door stop him now. And if he spent months and months teaching these guys and preparing them for their work to come as his messengers, he’s not going to let all that go to waste. What we see here is Jesus’ determination not to abandon his followers, but also his determination not to leave them alone. God doesn’t want a huddled bunch of defeatists. God wants a band of brothers and sisters who are willing to live publicly as his children. So the first thing Jesus does is serve notice that the way ahead is outside, into the world, through doors that can’t stay locked.
What does Jesus say? The first thing he says is very simple. “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:20). He’ll say this again when he comes to confront Thomas. You might think that this is Jesus’ way of saying “Calm down, hey, you guys look like you’ve seen a ghost”, which may indeed have been the case. But there’s more here. Twice previously in John’s gospel Jesus has said that he would give his disciples a spirit of peace (Jn 14:27, Jn 16:33). He was not promising them just some happy inner glow, but rather a peace that allows them to go unafraid into the world as his messengers. Jesus said on one of these occasions “I have said [these things] to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (Jn 16:33). Jesus was promising the peace that comes from knowing that God in his love and power is greater than anything else we might fear.
I also think that Jesus is talking about the disciples being at peace with themselves. This peace comes from knowing that they are loved and forgiven. That day, before he came, the disciples must have been far from peaceful with themselves. They knew that they had betrayed Jesus and abandoned him. They'd promised to go to Jerusalem and die with him, and instead they had run like frightened sheep. Jesus could have come and rebuked them, scolded them, but instead his first words are born of love. “Peace be with you”. These are loving words that speak of forgiveness. These words continue Jesus’ ministry of healing and forgiveness, as we’ve seen this Lent with the woman at the well, with the blind man, and now with the disciples themselves. The disciples are now caught up in the resurrection, they share in the power that declares “it’s a new day, it’s a new page, it’s a new life, how are you going to live it?”
“As my Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). We can imagine Jesus now pointing at that locked (or is it now unlocked?) door as he says these words. He’s telling the disciples that their new life will not be lived here, in this refuge, but out there, in the world. What’s more, he’s telling them that their work in this life will be continuation of his work and mission. The work that God sent Jesus to do doesn’t stop here. It continues.
What is the work? Jesus now says “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). You might have been startled by this paragraph. Did you think this was in your job description as a Christian? Isn’t it just the priest’s job in our service to pronounce the forgiveness of sins? Well, within the limits of the liturgy, yes it is. But in a larger sense, it’s the work of every follower of Jesus to share God’s peace with the world.
The great biblical scholar Walter Barclay once said of this passage that this is where Jesus becomes “dependent on His church” (Gospel of John Vol 2, p. 317). The Church now takes up the message that God wants to forgive sins. We all understand this message. Early in Lent we heard those great words from John’s gospel, “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” (Jn 3:16). But how do we tell that message? Do we act like that man carrying the “John 3:16” sign who always shows up on TV at the last hole of the golf tournament? That’s probably not going to work very well.
What will work is if God’s people live their lives in the love and security that comes from knowing that God has set them free. It means, as St. Francis once said, “Preaching Christ, and using words if necessary”. It means being a people for whom the love of God has made a difference in our lives. There’s a wonderful scene in the movie The Mission that makes this point well. Robert De Niro plays a soldier and slave trader, who has killed another man out of jealousy over his wife. Out of remorse, he decides to starve himself, until he meets a monk who persuades him to come on a mission trip to a remote tribe. As part of his penance, De Niro’s character has to drag all his old armour behind him on a rope. His progress through the jungle is terribly slow, weighed down by all this rusting scrap metal until, one day, the monk asks him if he would like to be rid of it. The rope is cut, and the man is free to begin a new life, no longer weighed down by himself. That’s the freedom of forgiveness, and if we as God’s people can live that freedom, it will be noticed. Others will want to be like us.
Jesus also says, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”. This last part is a hard one, and seems the least appetising part of Jesus’ commission to his disciples then and now. What it doesn’t mean is that our job is to condemn other people. Christians have damned people for centuries, and we have a reputation for being smug and judgmental among non-churchgoers. What it means, I think, is that we have a responsibility to take sin seriously, to renounce, as the baptism service in the BAS puts it, the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (BAS p. 154).
Today’s gospel asks us to do more than just preach a bland gospel of love and unconditional forgiveness. Jesus calls us to care about what goes on in the world, to speak out, to do the right thing, to teach our young. Many people in the church are worried today about saying anything negative, when the irony is that many secular organizations, like the Canadian Forces, work very hard to teach ethics, which is basically knowing and doing the right thing. Our gospel today calls us to know and do God’s right thing. We won’t always get it perfect, we will still need forgiveness, but as Christ says, “receive the Holy Spirit”. We aren’t in this alone. God strengthens us and empowers us to know and do the right thing, just as he loves and forgives us. Our mission in the world is to make God’s life look like the best and most attractive option out there for people still lost in the jungle and dragging their sins around.
If that consultant returned today and asked us what our mission statement was, I would suggest, on the strength of today’s gospel, that we could do worse than say the following:
“The congregations of Grace and St. George’s are people who have accepted God’s call to live fearlessly in the world rather than behind closed doors. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and given hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we accept his challenge to live as a loving and forgiven people, and toshare God’s love and forgiveness to those who need it.”
©Michael Peterson+ 2008
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