Sunday, April 27, 2014
Text: John 20: 19-31
Before beginning the sermon, let me acknowledge a troubling phrase in today’s Gospel reading. We’re told that on the evening after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were hiding in a locked room “for fear of the Jews,” words that have caused much harm over the centuries. More damaging is an earlier passage in John 8:44 “in which Jesus declares to [the Jews]: ‘You are from your father the devil” (Levine and Brettler 156).[i] The Gospel of John has been used to justify anti-Semitism. Of course we know that Jesus and his disciples were themselves Jews. Jesus himself would not have spoken against “the Jews” as a religious group. But by the time John’s gospel was composed, an irreparable rift had gradually developed between the traditional Jews and the small sect of Jews who were being shaped by the teachings of Jesus. We should understand this hostile rhetoric in the context of infighting and “a process by which Christianity became a separate religion” (Levine and Brettler 156) from Judaism. But that language remains dangerous. So before starting the sermon, I am slapping a warning label on that unfortunate phrase.
“A Peacemaking, Forgiving, Hopeful Community”
On this second Sunday in the Easter season, we turn from last week’s focus on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus to the male disciples’ encounter with the risen Jesus: from an individual’s experience with resurrection to a small community’s engagement in the Christ event.
On this Sunday when our community celebrates two new members and others are invited to renew our covenant in this community, I’ll interpret John’s extended Easter story as instructional for our own faith community. This is a story for and about a new community of faith.
I’ll make this connection by highlighting Jesus’s final instructions[ii] to the remaining disciples—and applying these teachings to our situation. You might underline in your worship bulletin now the following words in today’s Gospel reading:
- “Peace be with you” is the first phrase Jesus speaks in verse 19. He repeats it in verses 21 and 26.
- “Forgive” is the operative word in verse 23.
- “Believe” is the command in verse 27—but the word “believe” may mean something different than you think it means here.
According to John’s account, Jesus leaves his followers with three simple instructions: 1) Be at peace within yourself. 2) Forgive others. 3) Trust God. Maybe a prescription for a healthy faith community continues to be: live in peace, offer forgiveness, and trust.
Consider how we at Open Table might take these instructions to heart:
1) Being at peace, in this particular Gospel story, is mainly about letting go of fear. In this story Jesus’s reentry into his community terrified the already terrified disciples. They were traumatized by the crucifixion, hiding out for fear they would be arrested, maybe weirded out by Mary Magdalene’s report of Jesus’s reappearance, and then, well, you can imagine their fright at the sight of a dead man suddenly appearing in a locked room, the very friend they abandoned in his hour of need. When Jesus spoke peace to them, he was calming their fears. I imagine a long silence followed his every utterance of “peace”. . . as their heart rates returned to normal . . . as their breathing slowed. John’s Jesus had said this at the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[iii]
Inner peace and fearlessness is our vocation, too. You exhibited courage yesterday by going against the grain and extending yourself to others as part of Mobile’s Gay Pride Fest. For some of you it might have felt like a fun Saturday activity. For others it might have required a bit of bravery to attend your first Pride Fest—in Mobile, Alabama. But you were able to do so because you were at peace about your own commitments and you could turn loose of anxieties and come alongside others so we all could be boldly honest about who we are. Developing that capacity for peace within often requires spiritual practices: meditation and prayer, for instance. And trustworthy companions. And then it requires public action: like yesterday’s public demonstration of God’s love. I am proud and humbled to be your pastor.
But, ironically, we often are most challenged as peacemakers within the everyday life of a family—or faith community—when minor differences of opinion divide us, when fatigue and stress make us susceptible to bickering and blaming, when we take each other for granted, when we have unrealistic expectations of one another. The church is the very place to learn peacemaking and to practice it—because within a faith community we meet with interpersonal challenges. Unfortunately, church folks often mistake politeness for peace. Real peacemaking honestly acknowledges conflict and works through it. Tough stuff.
Taking a cue from today’s scripture, let me offer one simple spiritual discipline for peacemakers. Imagine what a powerful effect there might be on a faith community if we were literally to speak Jesus’ phrase “Peace be with you” each time we approach one another. “Peace be with you” might quiet my jangled spirit before I start my conversation with you. “Peace be with you” might be an ideal way to begin a church council meeting. I doubt we’d really speak this greeting aloud as our Jewish and Muslim friends do in their respective Hebrew and Arabic greetings: Shalom. Salaam. But “peace be with you” is certainly a phrase we can say silently and offer prayerfully to one another over and over. We can allow “Peace be with you” to seep into us through Christian liturgy.
2) Jesus also called his first disciples—and us—to a ministry of forgiveness.
According to John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit and its attendant gift of forgiveness were breathed into the disciples on Easter Night. Jesus explains the gift this way in verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Some have interpreted Jesus to be promising that the original disciples and those who follow in their direct line have the power to judge who should be forgiven. Which has meant that Church authorities have sometimes claimed this power over others.
But I understand this verse differently. Jesus is describing the simple reality that others cannot feel forgiven, cannot feel the effects of God’s forgiveness, if we do not live toward them as if they have really been forgiven. And we cannot let go of the burden of our mistakes and live into our own resurrections until we sense forgiveness. We must forgive people of the tiny slights and major offenses against us, real and imagined, so that others experience forgiveness. Which is not “I forgive you and now I have a handy thing to hold over your head” forgiveness. Not “I forgive you and now I feel superior.” Not “I forgive. Sort of.” If the power of God’s forgiving spirit is going to be known in this world, it’s going to be known only as human beings bestow real forgiveness on one another. And if we do not—if we do not let one another off the hook and believe human lives can be transformed—then we are “retaining sins” and brokenness. Friends, you do indeed have the power to help someone experience the mercy of God—or to keep another person trapped in the anguish of disapproval, contempt, and shame.
I invite you to join me for a 30-day Forgiveness Challenge[iv] being issued by Desmond Tutu, who speaks about incredible forgiveness he witnessed after the collapse of South African apartheid. His online invitation includes these words: “Each of us is broken, and out of that brokenness we hurt one another. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing ourselves and our world. You may be thinking, ‘I could never forgive’ or ‘I could never be forgiven.’ From what I have witnessed, I can tell you, there is no one who is beyond hope and nothing that is unforgiveable. Forgiveness will change your life and change our world.”
3) Finally, we are called to believe. “Do not doubt but believe,” Jesus told Thomas. But the word translated into English as “believe” is the Greek word pisteuein, which should be translated as “faith”—except that faith doesn’t have a verb form in English. As we’ve heard Marcus Borg and others explain, this New Testament meaning of “believe” is to set one’s heart toward, to trust, to commit to. Jesus does not scold Thomas for seeking empirical evidence. Jesus does not demand from Thomas a recitation of the Nicene Creed, which would not be written for nearly 300 years. Thomas and you and I are not discouraged from questioning. We are encouraged to trust in the ways of Jesus, to have the faith of Jesus, to rest in the love of God.
We are Open Table: A Community of Faith. Not a community of belief. Not a community of a creed. Not a community of doctrine. Not a community of uniform thinking. Not a community of intellectual assent.
We do share some beliefs. The chief of which is we do not have to think alike, read scripture alike, understand God alike. And right up there at the top of our shared beliefs is the belief that love trumps all. If we love—we will be peacemakers; we will be world class forgivers; we will be followers in Jesus’ hopeful ways. This orientation toward hope is best facilitated and practiced in community—which takes commitment.
This may be the closest I ever come to offering a Southern Baptist-y altar call—I get the heebie jeebies just recalling some of those—but I believe making a commitment to a faith community can focus your spiritual, moral, relational commitments and strengthen the faith community. It’s true we don’t pay much attention to who’s an official member of Open Table and who is not. At Open Table, membership does not have its privileges. You’ll be treated no differently after you become a member of Open Table. But you may feel differently by declaring your commitment to a faith community, which is a commitment to God’s peace, forgiveness, and a sacred orientation toward hope.
It will be my joy to talk with you about what it might mean for you to live out your commitment to the ways of Jesus as a member of Open Table.
Peace be with you.
[i] Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2011.
[ii] Some believe the Gospel of John originally ended with this chapter.
[iii] John 19:27