Sunday, April 12, 2015

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There are two schools of thought on what’s important.

In the first school, it’s the last thing you say that is clearly the most important, because you left it to last. “Your mother and I are going away for the weekend so please don’t have a party.” Moments later kids with cases of beer begin to appear. But no matter, because that last unheeded word was clearly the most important.

The second school of thought says that the first word, the one spoken after “now listen carefully” is clearly the most important. Forget for a moment that timeless gag when Max says to the Chief “can you repeat everything after you said ‘now listen carefully?’” If you say it first, it must matter most.

So we have a dilemma and a biblical test case, so we better get to work. The disciples have retreated to an undisclosed location to ponder last week’s startling news and perhaps make a plan. They meet behind closed doors, firmly locked for fear it says, and Jesus breaks in once more.

But before we tackle the first word-last work debate, we need to sound a note of caution about reading John. The Gospel of John remains my favourite, despite the nascent anti-semitism that appears in the book. Case-in-point is the first verse that Taye read for us. “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Technically this statement is true, since the leaders that might seek to harm the disciples were Jewish. But since everyone in the room—everyone hiding—was also Jewish, the use of the descriptor “Jewish leaders” has another intent. John is already trying to draw a line between church and synagogue, a line that would not exist for decades. And later, when the competition between Jews and Jewish-Christians is in full swing, these early attempts at creating division will make more sense. And still later, when the church is powerful and the synagogue is weak, this line-drawing will fuel anti-Jewish feeling. And sadly, it still does.

Better to say ‘religious leaders,’ since we remember from a week-ago Friday that a religious man was crucified at the behest of religious leaders, not from a competing tradition, but from the very same one. Suddenly the lesson from the cross that ‘we crucified Christ’ and that ‘he died for our sins’ makes much more sense since this event happened within the family of faith. It might be easier to say the Jews did it or the Romans did it—certainly easier than admitting that we did it, and might do it again given half the chance.

So where was I? Back to our passage, the first word is really a salutation or greeting that has its origin before Jesus and gives us a glimpse of his life with the disciples:

Peace be with you.
And also with you.

For our Muslim brothers and sisters it is “As-salamu alaykum” (“peace be upon you”), a greeting commended by the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the same manner that Jesus said "When you enter a house, first say, 'Peace to this house.'” (Luke 10.5) So I think we can safely say “peace be with you’ is a greeting and not the first word.

The first word, then, is “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And this, of course, takes us back to Luke 10:

8 “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’

These disciples were trained to go our into the world to share the message that the Kingdom of God is near, and then trained not to waste time on the towns that are unreceptive to this message. Rather, they are to leave having shared the message once more, the Kingdom of God has come near, and then shake. And just to add a little emphasis, Jesus gets personal, based—no doubt—on field reports from the missionary trial run described in Luke 10:

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.”

Ouch. Obviously we’re encouraged to imagine our own town on the list (“woe to you Mount Dennis, woe to you Weston”) and make sure we stay off the unwelcoming path, because that path does not end well.

So that’s the first word, what about the last? If the last word in this encounter is the most important, then what do we make of “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Ignoring the Little Pentecost of “receive the Holy Spirit (that would be jumping ahead) we are left with this seemingly straight-forward description of the mechanics of forgiveness.

And this is really just a restatement of a lesson Jesus gave in Matthew 18. He describes the biblical standard for discipline in the church (first one-on-one, then with a witness, and so on) and then he adds this summary: "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

First, I have to say that λύο is my absolute favourite verb in Greek, and second notice that the topic is really the same one as above. You will encounter all sorts of resistance on the road, and you will tempted to say “woe to you” at every turn, but recall that “if you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” To bind or to loose is a huge responsibility, and the church must tread carefully when we give into the temptation to condemn. In other words, forgiveness is usually the best policy, since the Kingdom of God is near anyway.

So in the end, both the first word and the last word involve being sent: taking the message of the Kingdom of God into the world and wrestling with the outcome. Sharing the Good News that God is near and even within you and hoping against hope that the message will be received. It is an awesome responsibility, so how are we doing?

For those of us who have the opportunity to occasionally work with other churches, there are resources available to help them find their way in the troubled and uncertain future that seems set before us. And one of the resources we commend to churches that are not as clever or advanced as Central United Church is something called the Natural Church Development Survey.

Developed by a Swiss theologian, the survey takes a look at all the aspects of congregational life and does some computer-based magic to generate a result. And if you are suddenly thinking ‘hey, that sounds like fun, we should do that too’ you can set that thought aside. We have found that every United Church that takes the survey comes out in exactly the same place: brilliant at doing and not so good at being. Happy to do the work, but reluctant to talk about it. Keen to engage the world out there, but hesitant to ponder the life in here (the heart).

It seems that when we hear the words “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” we think dinner for eighty and Habitat for Humanity and units with rent-geared-to-income and harm reduction and the benevolent fund. We immediately want to do something rather than be something. An it’s not your fault. We internalized the message from our Creed about the Jesus “who works in us and others by the Spirit” and we roll up our sleeves. We’re ready to work and so we say “how can I help?”

So to remain with our Creed, we are first in line to “to seek justice and resist evil,” but somewhat reluctant “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” We are increasingly adept at living “with respect in Creation,” but uncertain how we daily “celebrate God's presence.” It’s all in there—the doing and the being—but we’re just better at the doing.

So I encourage you to dwell in the peaceful presence of the Risen Christ, and just be. I’m tempted to say “just do it,” but I won’t. Instead, just be it. Amen.


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