II Easter, Year B
1 Jn 1:1-2:2
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
(1 John 1:1-10)
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us– we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
(1 John 2:1-2)
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "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." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Five out of the next six Sundays come from the Fourth Gospel. With the exception of next Sunday, which comes from Luke, Eastertide is dominated by the witness of the Fourth Gospel.
Our text records that the disciples had gathered together. They had gathered in secret, huddled together behind closed doors. They were afraid that the mimetic contagion that had overtaken Jesus might just come upon them. In the eyes of their governing authorities they would been categorized as rabble rousers, troublemakers. They would have been perceived as Jesus had been perceived, as an up-setter of the status quo. Those that rock the boat take the risk of being tossed overboard.
They were genuinely afraid. They had been told of their Master’s execution and now this strange tale of being seen by his closest female friend. Well, they didn’t need to be Freudian to think that perhaps Mary was a bit hysterical. But they were no less subject to fantastical ideations, they were crushed, defeated, afraid and alone. The dream was dead.
Theoretically, this should be the end of the story. One more victim processed by the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism, one more random victim of the prosecuting authorities. Now that the trouble had been dealt with, stability might return to the community, a community still under the domination of the powers that be, but a community relieved of their mimetic contagion. The powers that be closed the book on Jesus. Done deal. The disciples also thought it was the end of the story.
Well, surprise, surprise, surprise! Here’s Jesus alive and well all of the sudden in their midst, just like old times. And his first word to them, which will be repeated, is “peace.”
If you had seen God’s chosen murdered and then come back to life what would you be expecting? What would you expect if you had deserted him, denied him, betrayed him? Wouldn’t you expect God to act the way the king in the parable acted (Matthew 22:1-10)? Wouldn’t you expect God to be like all the other gods come now for his just desserts? Humanity had effectively decided against God in rejecting his agent. Surely, he must be angry.
Jesus’ announcement of peace forever removes that fear. Jesus announcement of peace says God is not like that. Unlike the sacrificial mechanism whose peace must be ever gained by a continual consummation of victims, Jesus word of peace puts an end to victimization. It is performative, it demonstrates that neither he nor his Father participates in retaliation or revenge. It is more than a greeting, it is the offering of a whole new existence and a whole new way to perceive God. The announcement of the Risen Lord is the foundation of all Christian existence and theology.
Now of course we are delighted to have Thomas the Twin come on the scene with his skepticism. We who believe often find great humor in Thomas’ insistence on empirical proof. Maybe Thomas was from Missouri (the ‘show me’ state). He is not going to fall for any more nonsense and his demand for proof borders on the gruesome.
We live in interesting times. One the one hand, we all pretty much share a modern mindset. We have learned that it is silly to believe that there are monsters under our beds but we believe in aliens from other planets, we check our horoscopes and we avoid stepping on cracks. Humans are essentially superstitious. (Seen on a bumper sticker: Only in America is God dead and Elvis alive)
Modern theology, in its empiricist forms, has argued as Thomas did. Since no one that we know of has ever seen the dead come back to life and since it is not replicable in a laboratory, it probably didn’t happen or was at best an a-historical vision, at worst a hallucination or a tale falsely told. Modern theology does not know what to do with the resurrection of Jesus. This is why modern historical scholarship stops cold at Jesus death. It simply can go no further and call itself ‘scientific.’
However, we believe that one of the flaws in much modern theology is that it makes statements about the physical world that are congruent with 19th century science but are out of step with modern discussions between physics and theology. The development of both quantum theory and its offshoots, chaos theory and string theory, has provided the grist for the discussion about the nature of reality and so-called natural laws. Some excellent thinking has come of it that bears on our discussion.
It is not naïve to believe in an event like the resurrection at the level of quantum theory. Both the ‘behindness’ of quantum theory (e.g., anti-matter) and the ‘future’ of quantum theory (‘strange attractor’) breakdown the ‘creation as clock’ understanding of nature (God sets the world in motion like a clock and then stands back and lets it go on its merry way). This mechanical view worked up until Einstein, and even Einstein was not quite ready to jettison all of it. Modern theology which utilizes a mechanical worldview is simply out of touch and out of step with modern physics.
Second, modern theology too often and too easily derives the gospel origin from the myth/s of the dying and rising gods of the ancient world. This is a perfect example of modern theology being on the right track but on the wrong train. It cannot, as a rule, see beyond the structural analogy. It does not see what is missing. Girard has fruitfully applied the same reading to both myth and gospel thereby demonstrating that the gospels uncover what myths cover up: namely violent contagion and scapegoating. It is what is not in the gospel that is found in myth that is important. “Jesus blood speaks a better word than that of Abel.”
There is a key correlation between myth and gospel, the gospel deconstructs myth. But there is only gospel because Jesus has been raised from the dead and sent back to us with the message from His Father, “Peace.” What had occurred in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus cannot be separated from this message, this is why it is gospel, euangellion. Jesus is our Peace.
It is a strange thing that allegedly “modern” theology works from a cosmology that neither the Apostles nor modern physicists would grasp. Recently, a parishioner of mine came to me with questions about a book she’d recently read by Bart Ehrman, one of the saddest examples of “modern” scholarship writing these days. In his book on “The Historical Jesus” he has rehashed the age-old notion that Jesus never really died on the Cross, that he only fainted, and was later revived by the coolness of the cave in which he was buried.
At first, I was deeply angry that she’d had to deal with this question, and that this worn out argument was raising its head again. Then I realized that this is a sign, a sign that the voices of the “powers that be” of which Michael spoke above are concerned, that in fact, even though the Church has messed up the Gospel in so many ways, the Gospel must be doing its work or those like Ehrman, who doesn’t believe in anything (he’s an atheist) wouldn’t concern themselves with Christianity at all. We must be doing something right!
The two elements of Michael’s analysis are in fact intimately, inseparably related. The “creation as clock” cosmology is only supportable in a world where there is a violent, retributive god. In this cosmology the “laws of nature” substitute for the “laws” of prohibition, but what is sure is that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” If you sin, you suffer.
The emergence of quantum physics and its correlates are not the cause of a new way of seeing the world, but a result of the work of the Gospel. If it
were not for the work of a God who refuses to deal out equal and opposite reactions for our misdirected actions, there would have been no ability for us to recognize God’s own freedom reflected in science. Yes, the Gospel is doing its work.
Today we really should tell you that this section is more hermeneutical than Historical or Cultural. But since we are dealing with the development of the narrative we thought it best to separate this from our anthropological reading.
It is the evening of the morning that Mary had come breathless into the room. There are three notable elements to this first corporate resurrection appearance. First is that Jesus is identifiable by his wounds. Second, that the proclamation of peace is a commission. Third, is the ‘giving’ of the Spirit and one key consequence.
With regard to the first, that Jesus is identifiable by his wounds, it is clear that the initial greeting of ‘peace’ is to be connected with Jesus self-showing’, that is his identity as the crucified. The resurrection interprets and makes known all that has occurred up to and including Jesus’ death. What is revealed in the death of Jesus is the conquering of the authority of the Powers (we recall John 16: 5-11). Death, where now is your stinger?
There is now no fear of life ending as we experience it. Death is not the final word, Life is the last word. In being reduced to the penultimate, death is exposed because death lies. The realm of Death has long held sway over us because it has convinced us it is the last word. All of us will experience that moment of death, some more consciously than others, but unless you found the fountain of youth, you’re gonna die. End of your story. Punch your ticket. Jesus appearance puts the lie, that death has final authority, to rest under his feet.
Second, the word of ‘peace’ is repeated this time with a commission. This commission is specific, “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Now go ahead, ask yourself the $64,000 question: How did the Father send the Son? Well, there you go, you’ve just seen what the Christian life looks like.
Our third point is the culmination of these three parts of the story. Jesus breathes on them and says, "“Receive the Holy Spirit.” We recall the larger semantic domain with regard to pneuma; wind, breath, spirit. As the final story of the primary edition of the gospel (chapter 21 having been added later), we should not be surprised to see the author come full circle in his thinking. In line with the midrash on Genesis 1 in the prologue, the gospel will end with an interpretation of Genesis 2.
This brings us to the difficulty of the saying in 20:23 regarding forgiveness and retention of sins. The standard interpretation understands Jesus to be giving authority to the church to forgive or retain sins. As though the world was now at the mercy of the church.
But, if he had taught his followers to “forgive us as we forgive our debtors” and “with the measure you measure you will be measured”, surely the text cannot mean that the church has authority to retain sins. If they were to be like Jesus, they would never retain one single sin of anyone. So what sense does it make that He tells them to follow him and live like him and then turn around and tell them it OK to act like everybody else, even like all the other so-called gods.
Our misreading of Matthew on this score may mislead us. In Matthew 18, there is a similar saying but Matthew uses rabbinic terminology with regard to ‘binding and losing sin.’ Inasmuch as this follows brief instruction on church discipline, it is easy to see how this saying could be co-opted in a prosecutorial fashion. But is this what our text is saying?
He breathes on them. Consequent to this breath, comes a paradigm change. Before them lie two paths, that of the forgiveness of sins and that of the retention of sins. They are given the new opportunity to live with one another as he had lived with them, thereby displaying his life and character in their corporate life together. Matthew 18 also points us in this direction where Matthew has Peter query Jesus with regard to ‘how many times must I forgive my brother?” and Jesus replies “seventy times seven.” In short, we have the opportunity to act like God who forgives sin, or to act like the Satan who retains sin. The breathing of Jesus recalls God’s breathing his Spirit on humanity and setting before that man and women a choice. Our choice is both different and similar to theirs. The choice before us is the choice to no longer follow the gods of mimesis and their retention of sin. We are clearly “set free” to go forth and let Jesus continue to live his life in us for the sake of the world.
The Church in both practice and theology has too often adopted a prosecutorial stance vis a vis its opponents. Christians only manage to get along with those that ‘believe’ the same way that they ‘believe,’ usually with regard to experience or doctrine. It is very difficult to look out across the church landscape and find a congregation that actually looks like Jesus. We are not referring here to the happy-happy rah-rah religion that some will automatically think of; we mean a group of people who so live that it is difficult to tell them apart from the One they worship.
We are not authorized to hold grudges; that is a prosecutorial view of the text that we must no longer use. We must read this text congruently with the Fourth Gospel as well as the Synoptics. If indeed, two paths are set before us and we are set free to follow Jesus on the journey of forgiveness then indeed we will know the power of the Spirit he has breathed upon us. As long we tell the world we are authorized by Jesus, in his resurrection, to prosecute them, it should come as no surprise that we are perceived as Satan. Jesus comes with a message of peace. This saying, at least in this gospel, must be interpreted accordingly.
Freedom to forgive. Set free to forgive. If you think this is a facile interpretation of this text then go ahead and try it. We can pretty much guarantee that you will fail. Really, forgive everyone who has ever sinned against you every single time they sinned. This path is more difficult than you might imagine because it is the way of the Cross. In the joy of the resurrection we stand forgiven by God and because of this we can and may live in peace, forgiveness and love with others. There is a Way. It is a living and true way. May it be so.
When we wrote this three years ago, the war in Iraq was just starting. Now three years later I ask the question: has American Christianity been preaching ‘Peace’ or ‘Retribution?’ What are we so afraid of losing? What is so important about our jobs, our country, our worldviews, that they can usurp the gospel message of peace when we are afraid and insecure?
How can we interpret the ‘right to retain sin’ as the ‘right to punish sinners?’ Why do Christian leaders only preach ‘peace’ to the ‘saved?’ Where have we failed to communicate that the God of the Bible, the father of Jesus, loves all of us, even our enemies? How can we help others find their way to Jesus, the Prince of Peace? In what ways can we announce and live this resurrection Peace in our lives and relationships? How can we call to account in peaceful ways those who distort the gospel of peace?
In a world at war, peace is seen as the ‘chicken’ option at best, traitorous at worst. We had best begin to prepare for a time when our own American government prosecutes and persecutes peacemakers (it is already spying on them). Then what shall we say about this ‘Christian’ nation? Shall we say we did all we could to bring Peace? Or might we repent of our wicked warmongering, domineering ways and….be forgiven?
The gift of the Holy Spirit in this text is more important in the discussion of forgiveness, of living like Jesus, than we can say. It is frankly impossible to overstate it!
We speak of the necessity of forgiveness, of the opportunity to live a new life, and yet even on preaching peace we speak of things we “must” do! What of those who do not do what they “must?” By our very language we continue to make outsiders of those with whom we disagree, just as we complain that other Christians have done.
It is a nearly impossible task, this change, apart from the gift of the Spirit. In fact, I find it well beyond my ability on my best days. I can want to, but the more I want to, the more I treat myself as though I “must,” and, with Paul, I find myself screaming “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
It is only by the Spirit that any of these things will happen. It is only through true submission to the one who submits himself to us that we will begin to see the changes we long for in ourselves and in our communities. It is for this reason that I weep every time that I hear folks in the established churches make fun of the congregations who place a great deal of emphasis on the experience of the Spirit. Yes, there is much questionable theology happening alongside these charisms in some places, but it isn’t a necessary relationship, and many of us have tossed out the baby of the Spirit with the bathwater of violent theology.
Hunger for the gifts of the Spirit is an indispensable part of our walk toward the new way of being offered by Jesus in today’s text.
There are three intertwined theological axioms in I John 1:1-2:2. They are that a) the culmination of the gospel message from Genesis to Jesus, namely that has no dark side, b) that this message was made concrete and particular, truly human in Jesus and c) that Jesus alone provides any mediation between humanity and God.
I have sought to demonstrate in all of my work that there is a movement in the view of God from paganism through the canonical writings of Judaism to Jesus as the true interpreter of these sacred texts. There is a weaving (some might say tangling) of two threads, streams or perspectives in the Bible. These are the perspectives of the persecutor and the victim. The Scriptures reprise the myths and narratives of the pagan God, while at the same time providing an ongoing revelation of the character of God, as God disentangles God’s self-identity from pagan (= human projection) ideas of God.
The power of the Jewish Scriptures lies in their own internal self-critical critique where, for the first time in religious literature, the voice of the victim is heard. This perspective is the voice of God. It is this voice that Jesus is drawn to as He interprets these writings. As the embodiment of God, Jesus character is a direct reflection of God’s character.This character is based, in the Johannine writings, as a mimesis, “what I see the Father doing that I do”, “what I hear the Father saying that I say.” Thus one can only say that “God is Light” by first having recognized that who Jesus and what he teaches are both grounded in this positive mimesis, this imitation of God. Jesus does not come to judge, condemn or consign to hell. Jesus does not come with retribution or a warrant to start a holy war. Jesus comes to save, to heal, to set free, to bring peace, to reveal, to be a mediator.
It is this concrete person of Jesus that, due to his resurrection and session at God’s right hand, is from the beginning. This means that “from the beginning”, a direct allusion to Genesis 1:1, the only way to hear the voice of God is to hear the voice of Jesus. And Jesus is not to be found in the “dark” voices. He is not the God who slaughters innocents, commands genocide or requires sacrifice! Jesus’ God is the One who delivers, hears the cry of the victim, indeed, becomes the ultimate victim, enfleshed and crucified.
If Jesus is the Light of the World (John 8) and God is Light, we must assert that the Janus faced gods of paganism are not and cannot be an analogue for God as Jesus knew and revealed God. James puts it this way “in God there is no shadow of turning.”
This is the real breakthrough of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ, a breakthrough quickly papered over in the post apostolic period (the 2nd cent). Here, under the influence of Marcion and Justin Martyr, the groundwork was laid to unite in the Godhead that which has been forever separated in Jesus, namely, that God is loving and punishing, wrathful and merciful, vengeful and forgiving, etc.
As the only mediator between the world of humanity (αυτοσ ιλασμοσ) and God, he forgives all of our transgressions, not by appeasing a wrathful divinity but by forgiving the actions that stem from our religious views of God. These actions are clearly portrayed in this letter as asserting that God is love, but not living in a loving way toward others. Contemporary Christian ethics reflects the double valence of the dualistic God, whereby all of our hair splitting is trying to find when we can justify really problematic behavior, namely retribution. Jesus does away with all our ethics when he lives a life of love, even and especially for his enemies, those who rejected him, and in so doing brings to revelation the startling new picture of what God without wrath, retribution or retaliation looks like.
This is the essence of what our pericope is about.
That the Christological and the ethical belong together can be seen when one notes that the identity of Jesus and the behavior of the believer are intertwined:
- Christological Criterion 2:18-27, 4:1-6, 5:1-12
- Ethical Criterion 1:5-2:2, 2:3-11, 3:28-3:10, 3:11-18
- Both Criteria Together 3:19-24, 4:7-21
Note that all of the major verbs of I John can be found in the ‘preface’ 1:1-4 (ακουω, θεαομαι, εωραω, φαυεποω, μαρτυρεω, απαυγελλω)
The implications of this pericope are staggering. James Alison in his book The Joy of Being Wrong makes the important observation that the resurrection alters our hermeneutics, in fact it is only our encounter with the Risen Lord that can bring about such a hermeneutic shift.
To proclaim the gospel demands a new way of reading the Bible, of seeing the Bible not just christologically (for the category of Christology can be filled with many things, some of which are paradigms from paganism), but Jesuslogically. It is the flesh and blood, truly human Jesus that had to read His Scriptures and intuit therein the God he proclaimed, the God of Israel, the Maker of heaven and earth.
Preaching this is no easy task for our churches have one of two views of Scripture: it is either divinely inspired and thus free from error or it is a confusing human book. Either way I John 1:1-2:2 deconstructs both views.
Here are titles of a sermon series I preached on I John, it will give you a clue as to the major themes as I see them:
1:1-4 True Fellowship
1:5-2:2 True Spirituality
2:3-11 True Obedience
2:12-17 True Growth
2:18-27 True Confession
2:28-3:10 True Hope
3:11-18 True Life
3:19-24 True Confidence
4:1-6 True Listening
4:7-21 True Love
5:1-12 True Victory
5:13-20 True Assurance