Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.
One of the amazing and inspirational things about the gospel stories and the stories of scripture in general, is that we can read them over and over, and each time, discover new messages and insights from God. Some of you may have noticed this morning that today’s Gospel reading from John somewhat overlapped with the reading we explored last Sunday with the puppets. But, as anyone who has attempted the act of preaching knows, there are many many possible sermons that could arise from the same text of scripture. The challenge is often to choose just one, and let the others go for this time around.
Last week, we thought about the strange experience that the first disciples had when the risen Jesus appeared to them beside the tomb, inside a locked room, and later in other ways. We remembered Thomas and his doubts about whether it could really be Jesus appearing before them, and we considered the many ways in which we have met and experienced the risen Christ in our own lives — in scripture, in service, and in sacrament.
And although grappling with what we believe about Jesus is certainly a part of our Christian journey (as it was for Jesus’ first followers) — the next step that rightly follows must be to consider what the risen Jesus is inviting us to do with our lives as his followers. It’s not an unusual question for us to ask as Christians. We struggle with it Sunday by Sunday throughout the church year — reading the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, and learning not only from his teachings, but also from his example.
But today, we are looking at Jesus’ words to his frightened and confused disciples after he has been arrested, killed, buried, and risen from the dead. He’s not going to be with them long — just a few short appearances — and then they’ll be on their own. They’ll be followers of Jesus, but for the first time, they’ll be engaged in his ministry without him right beside them. Where they once stood by and watched and learned from him, now they’ll be taking the lead and doing the ministry themselves. They won’t just be thinking about whether and what they believe, they’ll be acting on that belief in word and deed. It’s almost as if their internship is over and they’re out on their own for the first time. They’ll have to remember what they learned from him so they can do it themselves, and even apply the same principles to new and different situations — thinking creatively to live his way in contexts and cultures that he never encountered.
The New Testament contains several stories about Jesus’ apostles being commissioned to continue Jesus’ work. There are scenes like today’s one from John in both Matthew and Luke, as well as at the beginning of the Book of Acts. Jesus says some final words of instruction, blesses and empowers his followers, and sends them out to continue his preaching and healing ministry.
When you think about the trials and challenges that the apostles and those who came after them dealt with, it’s easy to see why these commissioning stories were so important. Whether Jesus’ followers were being thrown in jail, or fed to lions, or whether they were experiencing other kinds of persecution or marginalization, the memory that Jesus had sent them to do this work would encourage them. The fact that Jesus had empowered them to do this work would give them hope.
But today, I would like us to focus on Jesus’ words to his followers in John’s account of the commissioning. Upon appearing in the locked room, Jesus greeted his followers with: “Peace be with you” – getting their attention and calming their fears. Then, as in other accounts, he commissioned them. He sent them on a mission, saying: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then, also as in other accounts, Jesus empowered the apostles with the gift of the Spirit. He breathed on them, and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
John’s Gospel has already explained what this Spirit will do. Jesus has already promised it to his followers, saying that the Spirit will be their comforter and their counsellor. He’s told them that though he will no longer be with them, the Spirit will be, and the Spirit will remind them of everything that Jesus said and did and what he taught them.
Next, Jesus says something that is unique to this story. He tells his friends: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus gives the apostles the authority to forgive sins. That’s exactly the kind of thing that Jesus did in his ministry, and, it’s the kind of thing that got him criticized by the religious authorities.
Remember that story in which a paralyzed man is lowered on a stretcher by his friends through the roof of the house where Jesus is teaching? The first thing that Jesus does is to declare that the man’s sins are forgiven — and there’s a collective gasp from the people gathered around! “This Jesus claims the authority to forgive sins!” Of course, he goes on to heal the man as well, but forgiving his sins was something that only God could do. A human could not declare sins forgiven. It was equivalent to claiming the power and authority of God. It was blasphemy. But that is exactly what John’s Jesus invites his followers to do, even after he is no longer with them.
Some Christian traditions emphasize the authority given to the apostles and to their successors to forgive sins. Priests hear the confessions of repentant Christians and offer absolution. The priests forgive the sins, and both priest and sinner trust in Jesus’ promise that “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” – God forgives them too.
In our Reformed Tradition, we make our confessions to God both corporately and individually. The minister does not usually serve as a confessor, but both ministers and other worship leaders call the community to confess our sins to God, and we proclaim the assurance of pardon — the assurance of God’s love and grace. We speak those words of assurance – the promise of God to forgive us when we turn to God with repentant hearts.
But though our churches may approach confession and forgiveness somewhat differently in terms of the role of the priest or minister, I think that there is something even more important for all followers of Christ in Jesus’ declaration.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
It’s all about reconciliation and the restoration of community — and not just reconciliation between the sinner and God, but also reconciliation between people.
Think about the closest relationships in your life. They might be with family members or close friends or with your brothers and sisters in the community of faith. Within every community, whether the family or a circle of friends or the church, there are arguments, disagreements, and times when we hurt or offend one another. We are human, and these things happen. Following Jesus in our lives means seeking his way of reconciliation and peace. It means working to restore community through acts of love, selflessness, and sacrifice.
The gift that Jesus gave to his apostles through the Spirit was the power to forgive sins, and it’s a gift that we are given as well. It’s not a special gift that only a few are granted. It is a miraculous gift that all who follow Jesus can choose to exercise. The forgiveness of sins is a miraculous gift because it restores relationship and community so that people can live in peace and friendship and dignity once again.
So much of what Jesus did in his ministry can be described as forgiving sins and restoring community. Think of the woman caught in adultery. The others wanted to stone her, but Jesus helped them to see that she was just like them — human and sinful. He forgave her, and gave her a way to re-integrate into the community.
Think of the 10 lepers whom Jesus healed of their disease. He didn’t just rid them of their illness, but he told them to show themselves to the priest. That was the way that they could be declared “clean” and be accepted back into the community.
Think of the blind beggars and the crippled people who had been rejected and passed over by everyone else. They sat on street corners and begged for a little pity from passers-by. But Jesus touched them and restored them back to health, and more importantly, back to their place in the community.
Think of the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the foreigners, and all who were rejected by mainstream respectable society members. Jesus befriended them, and forgave them, and saw gifts within them that no one else had noticed. He gave them a place of dignity within his community.
Jesus gave his apostles the power to forgive or to retain sins. Or perhaps, he simply reminded them of the power that both they and all people already have. We can choose to retain the sins of our family, and friends, and others who have hurt or offended us. We can hold on to our anger, or our defiance, or our pain. When we do that, community disintegrates. Families break down. Churches split apart. Friends become enemies. Ethnic, cultural, and religious walls grow taller. Nations turn to hatred, revenge, and violence against one another.
Or, we can choose to forgive one another. We can let the past go. We can offer another chance. We can recognize that we are human as well, and prone to mistakes. We can choose to love, even when others choose to hate or seek revenge or inflict violence. That is what it means to follow the way of Jesus — not that things will come easily, or without pain, or without sacrifice on our part.
But when we remember the power that we have — the power that God has given us through the Holy Spirit — we can join the first apostles in carrying on Jesus’ ministry in the world. We can be a part of building his new kingdom on earth.
Through Jesus’ love, we are forgiven and restored to relationship, community, and communion with God. Through our love and our forgiveness, may God’s community of peace grow and flourish in our families, our church, our community, and in all the world. May God’s Spirit inspire and empower us to courageous and radical acts of forgiveness, as we seek to follow the way of Jesus.
To him who loves us, and freed us from our sins, and made us to be a kingdom of ministers, serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.