II Easter, Year C
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.
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 too 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 innocent victim of the prosecuting authorities. Now that the trouble had been dealt with perhaps 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 participate 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 nothing more than a hallucination. Modern theology does not know what to do with the resurrection of Jesus. This is why modern 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 offshoot, chaos theory, have provided the grist for the discussion about the nature of reality and so-called natural laws. This discussion apparently happens mostly in Great Britain and Princeton. But 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 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 as 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.
We may be misled by a our misreading of Matthew on this score. 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 persecutorial 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.
We are not authorized to hold grudges, that is a persecutorial 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.