Well, Now What?

Sermon based on John 20:19-31 – click on the link to read it.

Here is audio of the sermon. Give it a listen.

The disciples have been through it with Jesus. They knew the kind of sandals he wore, how often he needed a drink of water on a trip between towns, what his favorite songs were to whistle. They knew the look he’d get on his face when he’d approach a person with leprosy or a blind man. They could feel his energy shift when he prepared to teach in the synagogue.  They went from knowing the things you know about your closest friend to then seeing him tried, convicted, and brutally crucified before a crowd of people who had just been singing his praise.

Now they disciples heard Mary exclaim, “I have seen the Lord!” So these weary, grieving, believing (?), scared-outta-their-mind disciples have met in the upper room, they have locked the doors. They have gone into hiding. Maybe they are making escape plans and emergency plans. Or maybe they’re making plans for how to keep this Jesus thing going. Or maybe they’re questioning everything they’ve ever done since they left their fishing nets and tax practices and linen businesses behind.

Of course, that’s when Jesus shows up. Despite the locked doors in the midst of their fear and grief and confusion and doubt- that’s when Jesus shows up with words of peace, God’s deep peace that is the foundation of the world. He shows them his battered body. And then he breathes on them the Holy Spirit. He breathes into their bones, into their hearts, into their lives the mission for the church, the mission for the rest of their lives.

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

And Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there. He missed it! He missed seeing Jesus. He missed what it was like to suddenly have Jesus there, in the room with them, like old times. He missed seeing Jesus’ actual body. He missed hearing what they were sent to do. He missed it.  Poor Thomas.

Thomas says, 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.I mean, wouldn’t you respond in a similar way?  When all of your friends tell you that you have missed the absolute best, most unbelievable thing? “Well, I want to see it too.”  Can you imagine how that felt? The gut punch it must have been? To have missed seeing Jesus!? Mary saw him and the rest of disciples saw him. What about me?

I wonder how the rest of the disciples described to him when Jesus breathed on them? I wonder what they said, if they tried to reenact it. And I wonder, what did they think of this great mission they’d just been given?  Forgiveness of sins?  Whoa. Us?

It looks pretty harsh, right?  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Like, that’s a lot of power to be handing out, willy-nilly. To just any old follower of Jesus. I mean, shouldn’t there be a vetting process? Can anyone just do this? Forgive sins? Don’t you have to go to seminary?

One of my professors from Luther Seminary shook the Greek loose for me on this verse and it’s stuck with me all week. The word for forgiveness in Greek is essentially “let it go.” And the word retain? It means “hold fast” or even “embrace.” Oh, and in the original Greek translation, the word “sin” is not in the second part of the sentence. So you know what you’re left embracing? The person. You know what you’re left holding fast to? Another human being.

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sinsof any, they are retained.”

“If you let go of the sins of any, they are let go, and anyone whom you hold fast (or embrace) is held fast.”

Because if you do hold fast to someone who is struggling, that person will be held onto, not let go, not lost or abandoned.[1]

So what if, now that the band instruments and the flowers and cascading hands of prayer, the evidence of our giving to Operation Hope have all been put away or recycled and given to people who need it?  So what if this after-Easter living is about forgiveness? What if, at the heart of our life together is how we live and breathe – or don’t – forgiveness? Now what, indeed?

We gather at the table each and every week for communion. Here, at the center of our worship space are the 2 sacraments that Lutherans have. The 2 set-apart/sacred things we believe are commanded by God to do and use an ordinary, earthy thing to do it. In water, we are claimed as Children of God, once and for all. And in bread and wine, we are offered forgiveness. Both sacraments hang onto us and free us from what hurts us. These sacraments hold us fast. They tell us that we are not abandoned. We are not forgotten. We are remembered, we are put back together. Because we forget so easily who we are as individuals and as Christians.

My good friends, Joel and Aimee, are at United Theological Seminary. It’s a Lutheran seminary created from 2 Lutheran seminaries, Gettysburg and Philadelphia. They hired their first president, Theresa Latini, who was then outed as having worked for an organization that was anti-GLBTQ that she hadn’t disclosed before she was hired.

I had watched this unfold on-line, on Facebook, and wondered how close my friends were in all of this. It’s easy to throw stones, especially digital ones, at a situation when you don’t know the whole story. Turns out, Aimee is the campus council president and she was the one who was given the damning evidence of Latini’s affiliation with an anti-GLBTQ group she worked with over 20 years ago. Latini spoke openly and publicly about the way her life and thinking has been transformed, crediting the work of the Holy Spirit. She reached out to people and communities she knows she hurt in order to reconcile with them. She had open conversation with the seminary community including confession and forgiveness. The student body leaders asked that the board practice their Lutheran theology, to practice forgiveness and transformation and to keep her on as president. They did not.[2]

*This is a headline of a Christian publication I read and value.[3]UNITED LUTHERAN SEMINARY FIRES PRESIDENT.

*This is a headline from a non-Christian publication that reveals the scandal of truth[4]: SEMINARY BLOWS ITS CHANCE TO SHOW US WHAT CHRISTIANTY SHOULD LOOK LIKE

What are we Christians for anyway? Now what?

Is it time to make the list of sins, the ones you think God should and should not forgive? Maybe they are things you’ve endured your own self. Things you’ve seen movies about. Things you just can’t let go of. It’s easy to do that, isn’t it? You think, “well, certainly that’s forgivable, but not that, right? Not Hitler? Not violent crimes? Not adultery, not any of the 10 Big, right?” We get so eager to make God small, to draw the line, to hem God in, to underestimate God’s love and mercy as equal to ours.

What does it mean to practice this meal we are about to receive? What does it mean to touch Jesus’ body for own selves?

For the disciples, it was to hear Thomas’ questions and insistence on seeing Jesus his own self without telling him to be quiet or to just take their word for it and be satisfied. They just, well, held fast. They embraced him.

What does it mean for you to practice this mission Jesus has breathed into your lives? What are you holding onto that needs to be let go? What and who do you need to embrace, to confront this awful hurt, this separation, while praying mightily to God to help you let go of their sin? It’s not yours to hold. It’s yours to let go. It’s God’s work to transform it.

This is what Easter people do. But we do not do it alone. That’s the promise. Jesus shows up just when we are at our wits end. When everything has fallen apart. When we can only see red. When we are broken beyond belief. And Jesus says, “Yah, metoo. Here is my broken body. Touch the wound in my side. Touch the holes in my hands. It’s for you I will hold fast to you. I will embrace you. And together we will let go of all the stuff that separates you from me. All of it. All of it.”

It’s just what Jesus does. It’s why any of this matters at all.