Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Risen Christ. AMEN.
“If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Verse 23.
In 2010, Sister Sandra Marie Schneiders, professor at the Jesuit School of Theology presented a fascinating insight to a group of scholars on this verse 23.
The idea was that we’ve inserted and assumed a word into our English translation of vs. 23, and it changes everything: Schneiders points that in the Greek, there is no word “sins” the second half. So an alternative, perhaps more accurate translation would be, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain any — or ‘hold any fast’, or even ‘embrace any‘ — they are held fast/embraced.” The second half of verse 23 is about retaining/holding onto people...rather than sins. The word “sins” is not there in the Greek!
This, she argues — along with Lutheran scholar, the Rev. Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore — that there is not only room for Thomas’ needing proof, it’s far more in line with Jesus’ actions and the over-arching theology of the entire Gospel of John. “Retaining sins”, holding one’s sin over their head, doesn’t really fit with John’s Gospel, especially with all this peace-breathing that’s happening both before and namely after the resurrection.
This text is John’s version of the Great Commission: (In Matthew, it’s “Go ye therefore…”). But here, in John —
“Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathes on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit...
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and whoever you hold, they are held (whoever you embrace, they are embraced...whoever you love, they are loved).” That’s Holy Spirit power! That’s power that’s greater than Pilate and the Roman Empire. That’s power that’s mightier than all the muscles and ammunition we can even imagine. That’s Holy Spirit power. Jesus breathes this on the disciples and on us too! This is way more in line with John’s Gospel, than “retaining sins”? Can’t you just hear the echoes of Jesus actions back through John?!!
On Good Friday, Jesus offered community to his beloved disciple and his own mother from the cross. And so Christ’s sermon there, was to go and care for one another from this day forth, to offer beloved community to everyone, love flowing outward, from the cross. And in the foot washing, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus offers this intimate cleansing and tangible forgiveness to us, and now we’re called, to turn and offer that same cleansing and forgiveness to each other and beyond! First we receive it from God — that’s our being commissioned — then we in turn, and go, and share with the whole world, both locally and globally. And it’s all through John, the raising of Lazarus, the woman at the well, the blind man, the feeding of the 5000 (one church in our synod, this past Lent, offered huge loaves of bread, and the “rule” was, you had to share with someone)...all the way back to the beginning of John’s Gospel where “the light shines in the darkness,” and gives life to all people.
Now post-resurrection — as we wade into this 50-day Easter season, basking in the peace that our Risen Savior breathes on us — here it is again: first we receive from Christ forgiveness and embrace, then we turn and offer it to one another and to this whole world! CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed!!
This is the “in-deed”! Turning and offering both forgiveness and embrace.
“Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and whoever you hold, they are held (whoever you embrace, they are embraced).”
Who is it that you’re holding? They are held in Christ. I’m holding Annie (in this season of grief and chaos in her life), and so — in the resurrected Christ — if I’m holding her, then she is being held. Do you see? Whoever we hold, God holds. Holy Spirit power. (Remember when Jesus said to Pilate, you have no power over me. Now Pilate has no power over us either. We’ve received the Holy Spirit.)
Whoever we hold, they are held. Whoever we embrace, they are embraced...
And whoever we forgive, they receive the very forgiveness of God! That’s embrace of the Risen Christ. Holy Spirit power.
And how all of God’s children need that embrace and forgiveness! How all of God’s children...in our neighborhoods, and workplaces, and schools and shopping malls, and sports arenas and on the roads, and in the hospitals, and the courthouses, and the banks, and the halls of power, and the back alleys, all of God’s children...in every nation and every language need that embrace and peace and forgiveness that the resurrected Jesus so abundantly breathes.
He gives you that same breath this day, that same power to forgive and heal. In a moment we’ll offer that peace of Christ to each other. And the symbols are the same there too. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Today is John’s Pentecost.
It isn’t just shaking hands or giving hugs to your favorite people around you: it’s war ending, walls coming down, conflicts forgiven, creation restored, death itself is destroyed! Jesus’ resurrection offers true peace.
If you’re doubting that’s really happening when we shake hands every Sunday, when we share the peace of Christ with each other, then you’re not much different than the faithful Thomas, who just wanted to see more.
Let’s not forget that it was Thomas, back in John 11:16, who urged the disciples to go on to Bethany, despite the danger: “Thomas said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
Maybe Thomas was already out there, doing the “Sent work,” when Jesus first appeared to the disciples on Easter evening. I mean, why wasn’t he locked behind the doors in fear? Maybe he just wanted to see more! Often the most active are also the most cynical. But there’s room for that in Jesus’ embrace.
It’s hard to believe that war ends with the [names…] shaking hands here at SVLC on Sunday morning. It’s hard to believe walls are coming down as [names..] hug each other. There’s no evidence that creation — the air and the water and the soil — is restored, as [name…] say to each other peace be with you. “Unless I can see it and touch it, I will not believe that death has been destroyed!” But there’s room for that in Christ’s embrace. And now, in our embrace as well.
And “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” AMEN.