The Call to Continue — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

John 20:19-31; 2 Easter B 2021

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. Mary Magdalene suspects tomb raiders and gets abandoned to grieve alone. Peter and The Other Disciple (aka TOD) race to the tomb, inspect the linens, and retreat behind locked doors. Jesus passes through their security measures and nearly scares the life out of them. Thomas is off somewhere on his own and misses all the fireworks. He demands physical evidence. Jesus says in response, “Stick out your finger, smart guy!”

Yes, it all turns out well in the end. Mary hears her name and greets her Lord and Friend. The disciples rejoice when they realize it’s Jesus. Thomas shouts his confession of faith for the Church to hear down the centuries – “My Lord and my God!” We salute one another with the good news of Easter. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Then another Monday comes. And the broken world is right where we left it on Saturday. So much for Easter bringing in a whole new cosmos, right?

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The writer of John’s Gospel knows this all too well. When we follow Jesus, we need booster shots to buck up. We need Resurrection refreshers to keep us going. It’s not Easter that’s the challenge. The challenge is what comes after.

At the end of today’s gospel text, we read the conclusion to John’s whole gospel story. I know there’s another chapter after this. But think about John 21 like the epilogue or afterword to a book. There’s important stuff there. But the punchline of the whole Gospel of John is chapter twenty, verses thirty and thirty-one.

We tend to miss that because the whole “doubting Thomas” thing sucks all the air out of the room. So, let’s spend some time with those last two verses today. “Therefore, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” John writes. “But these are written in order that you may continue to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus, and when you are believing, you may have life in his name.”

That’s my translation of those verses. I know the New Revised Standard Version says all these signs are written “so that you may come to believe.” The NRSV translation makes it sound like John’s gospel is written for those who don’t yet believe. I think John intends to write mostly for those of us who have come to believe but are in danger of losing our faith.

There’s a theological cottage industry built on the debate about how to translate “believe” in this passage. Nothing would make me happier than to walk through the data and arguments. If I did that, however, I’m pretty sure I’d be walking alone. So, here’s the deal. The evidence from manuscripts and grammar is solidly in favor of the “continue to believe” option. So, I’m going with that reading.

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The writer of John’s gospel knows that. For the first audience, the problem may be that these predominantly Jewish Christians are being forced to choose between a more “orthodox” Judaism and a faith that says the Jewish Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s why another part of the translation matters. Most translations of verse thirty-one say, “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” There are very good reasons, however, to translate it as “the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.

I know, I know. It sounds like six of one, and a half dozen of the other. But each translation answers a different question. Is Jesus the Messiah? That is, is the most important question about Jesus’ identity?

Or is the Messiah Jesus? If you’re a Jewish Christian having debates with your more Orthodox in-laws over a Sabbath dinner, that’s the question that matters. Yes, we are waiting for the promised Messiah. But why in the world would you think that some crucified fool from Nazareth is the One?

For John’s readers, the answer was getting them disinvited from those dinners and booted out of their synagogues. It was a big deal.

We might have trouble empathizing with this problem at first. But think for a moment. How many friendships have evaporated because you can’t see eye to eye on current politics? How many family meals have been disrupted by political – or religious – disagreements lately? How many people do you or I ignore or avoid because we aren’t on the same political or spiritual page?

It would be a lot easier to let go of our contested opinions and priorities. It would be a lot simpler to go along just to get along. What if hanging on to Jesus meant letting go of your family or friends? That may be the sad reality in some families. I hope the more frequent outcome is a hard but rewarding journey back toward relationship and respect. That sounds a lot like new life.

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. We exit this Resurrection week looking forward to some return to “normal,” some measure of “getting back to the way things were.” But what does that mean? Will going back to normal require us to let go of the new world Easter brings?

Esau McCaulley wrote a great book called Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. I recommend it to anyone. McCaulley has an op-ed column in the New York Times called “The Unsettling Power of Easter.”

In that column he writes, “To listen to the plans of some, after the pandemic we are returning to a world of parties and rejoicing. This is true. Parties have their place. Let us not close all paths to happiness.” Yes, I can’t wait to hug my grandkids without anxiety.

“But,” McCaulley continues, “we are also returning to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. This period under pressure has freshly thrown into relief the fissures in the American experiment.” That is certainly true for our country. It also happens to be true for our churches.

Recently, I read a piece by Pastor Steve Brackett. Brackett is an Assistant to the Bishop in the Northeastern Iowa Synod, ELCA. Pastor Brackett has responsibilities for the congregational call process. And he sounds worried to me. I am sure these worries are not exclusive to that synod or to that denomination. I suspect Pastor Brackett speaks for large parts of the American Church.

Especially as we come out of Covid-tide, life after the Resurrection is rough going. “As I write this, we have 30 congregations in the call process,” Pastor Brackett notes. “That number is likely to increase as some of our rostered ministers decide that the only way to recover from the difficulties of this pandemic is to leave and start fresh in another call.”

It’s been a brutal stretch in many ministries. I know that some of my colleagues are nearly at the end of their pastoral ropes.

“My hope,” Brackett continues, “is that rostered ministers and congregations will decide to remain in ministry together.  For this to happen, some time will need to be set aside to have honest conversations about what went well in establishing worship and ministry protocols, and what did not go well.”

A number of my pastoral colleagues are hoping for some recovery time away from the parish sooner rather than later. (By the way, I expect the pulpit supply business to boom this summer).

“Where necessary, forgiveness should be sought and granted for the times when communication broke down, or unkind things were said, or when people let their anxiety or anger get the better of them during negotiations or implementation of protocols,” Bracket wisely counsels.

“Following a crisis of any kind in a community, it is typical for clergy in the area to seek new calls shortly afterward,” he notes, “While this was a global pandemic, it was experienced locally in each congregation.  The easy way for rostered ministers and people to move beyond such a crisis is to part ways. But often the better path for the sake of ministry is to work through these difficult issues and remain in ministry together.”

Friends, we church folks must do our best to heed Pastor Brackett’s counsel and seek the healing good news of Resurrection in our lives, in our relationships and in our congregations. Honestly, in some places, the pain is too much, the ruptures too deep. In some places, a parting of the ways will be the most faithful path. In others it will not. In either case, the good news of Jesus is given to us so that we may continue to believe.

If that is the case in the Church, it is more so the case in the world. But we need more in our world than forgiveness and reconciliation. We need real systemic change and an ongoing passion for God’s justice for all people.

“As we leave the tombs of quarantine,” Esau McCaulley concludes his op-ed, “a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. It involves the ever-present offer for all to begin again.”

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The emptiness of the tomb may reflect the emptiness of our hearts. The retreat of the disciples may point to our own wish to hide from the troubles still out there. We may be drowning in grief, unable even to look up in hope. We may be angry, cynical, and ready to give up like Thomas.

But, dear friends, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! We have these stories so we may continue to believe. And as we continue believing, may we find – and share – the life we have in Christ’s name. Amen.

Esau McCaulley’s recent column: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.html

Steve Brackett’s article: http://blog.neiasynod.org/2021/03/an-update-on-call-process/?fbclid=IwAR2Hm8zdc2fQS-amPLtLq5cAzh7nMgjotl2aNwikg5laQnkNKxZIgIrWwMw

The Tantalizing Tale of Thomas the T — Throwback Thursdays

In many congregations (and certainly the ones I have served) the second Sunday of Easter is observed as “Holy Humor Sunday” or the Festival of Risus Paschalis, the Great Easter “Joke.” For Holy Humor Sunday of 2014, I wrote this bit of verse after the style of the good Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. I haven’t come back to it for a while, so it’s fun to share it with you here. Please feel free to use in part or in whole (just attribute it properly).

“Tis the tantalizing tale of Thomas the T,

The disciple of Jesus, who demanded to see

The proof in his palms and the scars on his side —

To quiet his qualms and to pre-empt his pride.

They called him the “T” for he was a twin,

Though we do not know which child was his kin.

Loud and proud was Thomas the T,

And hard to convince as we shall soon see.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

This poem was part-written at home on my couch.

I hope you won’t think me too much of a slouch.

This poem was part-written in church at my desk.

I hope you won’t think me too much of a pest.

I could not have done it without Bishop Wright

Whose study and writing are such a delight!

For our Festival of Fun I hope it’s of use.

And I offer this effort — with honor to the Good Dr. Seuss.

‘Tis the tantalizing tale of Thomas the T,

The disciple of Jesus who demanded to see

The proof in his palms and the scar on his side —

To quiet his qualms and pre-empt his pride.

Thomas was stubborn and strong and severe.

He wanted his facts and he wanted them clear.

But when he was certain of what he had found

He marched with his Master on dangerous ground.

When Laz’rus of Beth’ny lay cold in the tomb

The enemies of Jesus were plotting his doom.

With stones in their hands and blood in their eye.

But Thomas declared, “Let’s go with him to die!”

Now on that first evening the doors were locked tight

Ten desperate disciples, all quaking with fright.

But Thomas the T was not there to be found.

Out checking the wind, perhaps poking around.

Who knows why he missed that initial surprise?

Avoiding the cops and eluding the spies?

And when he got back and heard all of the news,

Certain he was that the ten were, well, confused.

“I was not there!” cried out Thomas the T.

“I did not touch! It cannot be!

Unless I can prove it, you all must agree.

I will not trust what I cannot see!

Unless I can feel the holes in his hands,

I will not believe that he walks and he stands.

Unless I can wiggle my hand in his side,

I will not accept that our friend has not died.”

“All well and good,” the others then said.

“We know that he croaked. We know he was dead.

We know he expired with the last words he said.

We know he was shrouded and laid in a tomb.

And so we escaped to this small upper room.

We locked all the doors just to keep out the cops.

We thought we were safe, when among us HE pops!”

“Calm down. Please don’t panic!”

He says with a smile.

“It’s me,” he then says. “I’ll just stay for a while.

Don’t be so fearful. Don’t run off and hide.

Here, take a look at my hands and my side.”

“It’s boorish to gawk, impolitest to stare.

But we just had to look…there…and there…

And there!

And then we rejoiced, did a handspring or two!

We remembered the words of sweet Mary, so true.

As she stood weeping outside of the tomb,

A gardener appeared to cast off her gloom.

He spoke and she knew by the sound of his Word

That standing before her was Jesus, our Lord!

We thought her quite mad and overly teary,

Her past and her sex made us all a bit leery.

But as we were trembling behind the locked doors,

We knew then and there that we saw our Lord!

We knew right away that dear Mary was sane.

We knew right away there was much to explain.

Thomas the T was much less than impressed.

He knew he was smarter than all of the rest.

“There is another explanation. A ghost! A phantom!

Or just wishful thinking!

Or maybe an eyelash while you were all blinking!

Maybe the figs in that bowl have gone bad.

Or, to tell you the truth, I think you’re all just quite mad.

“I was not there!” cried Thomas the T.

“I did not touch! It cannot be!

Unless I can prove it, you all must agree.

I will not trust what I cannot see!

Unless I can feel the holes in his hands,

I will not believe that he walks and he stands.

Unless I can wiggle my hand in his side,

I will not accept that our friend has not died.”

Just a week later they gathered again.

But this time good Thomas was there with his friends.

The doors were all shut and the windows were bolted.

Then Jesus appeared and their dozing was jolted.

“Calm down. Please don’t panic!” he said once again.

Then he locked eyes with Thomas and flashed him a grin.

“So proof is the price of your trust in my way?

I seem to recall what you labored to say.

Reach out your fingers and poke in my palms,

Stick your hand in my side if you still have some qualms.

Your mind is not open, your heart filled with doubt.

But now I will tell you what this new world is about.”

“You wanted to hear and to touch and to see,

Do that and much more, and please do it for free!

But if you reach out, understand what’s at stake —

This isn’t a quiz or a game or debate.

If I am past the far side of the grave,

Then you must be something much more than just brave.

You must be willing to open your heart

And trust the new world that’s beginning to start.”

“If you must insist that the world is just so,

That you see what you see

And you know what you know,

That nothing new happens here under the sun,

Then you cannot see New Creation’s begun,

You cannot know that Lord Death is undone.

If all that you know is all that can now be,

Then you cannot grow. You can never be free

To explore past the limits of what you can see.

If all that you know is just what you can touch,

Then, honest to God, you’ll never know much.

You’ll never know loving or dreaming or hope.

You’ll live on an island, unable to cope.”

Thomas stood still as a stone for a tick.

At first he felt dizzy, and then he felt sick.

And then he felt more than a bit of a clod.

He shouted with joy, “My Lord and my God!”

Quite a confession for a good, faithful Jew,

A fellow who knows there’s just one God, not two.

But he was confronted with something Quite New.

If Christ is now risen (Christ is risen indeed!)

Then one thing is certain, a thing guaranteed:

The world has now changed and can never go back.

Death is defeated despite the attack.

Sin and the devil have run out of rope.

For the first time in ages, there truly is hope.

And now, for the big finish…

This is a story for you and for me.

We were not there.

We did not see.

We did not feel the holes in his hands.

We did not wiggle our hands in his side.

We may be convinced that poor Jesus just died.

If that is your view, you should go eat some pastry.

Before you take off, though, let’s not be so hasty.

Will we be like Thomas, closed up in our boxes,

Unwilling to think, entertain paradoxes?

Or will we be open to something Quite New,

Something we cannot re-test or review?

If you open up, understand what’s at stake —

This isn’t a quiz or a game or debate.

If Jesus is past the far side of the grave,

Then you also must be so much, much more than brave.

You must be willing to open your heart

And trust the new world that’s beginning to start.

‘Tis the tantalizing tale of Thomas the T,

The disciple of Jesus who demanded to see

The proof in his palms and the scar on his side —

He got what he wanted, his eyes opened wide.

With Thomas we share the great gift of new birth

To a hope that is living for all life on earth.

And out to the stars far beyond all the planets

Creation rejoices despite every trial. And it’s

Time to get on with the work of new living,

To love and to care and to sing with thanksgiving.

Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Pt. 3); 2 Easter B, 2021

Jesus and Thomas (and us) in John 20:24-29

We come, at last, to “Doubting Thomas.” That title is a misnomer. Jesus does not mention the “doubt” of Thomas. He commands Thomas to stop being “unbelieving.” To move from unbelieving to believing in John is not about intellectual assent. It is rather to accept and embrace a whole new way of seeing. It is being born from above, as we read in John 3.

Thomas is one of a number of witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection appearances are not merely wish-fulfillment. Thomas does not expect Jesus to be alive again. Instead, he had earlier committed himself to go with Jesus to “die with him.” The argument that the stories of resurrection appearances are reports of wishful delusions ignores the content of those reports. Wright notes, “and actually none of Jesus’s followers believed, after his death, that he really was the Messiah, let alone that he was in any sense divine” (Surprised by Hope, page 61).

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“The call to resurrection faith occurs for people of later generations,” Craig Koester writes, “when the message about the risen Jesus is made effective by the risen Jesus. This,” he suggests, “is the dimension of Johannine theology that informs the story of Thomas” (page 70). The resurrection good news becomes credible and life-changing in the midst of genuine encounters with the risen Lord Jesus.

Thomas represents the readers of John’s Gospel in several ways, Koester suggests. We did not see the risen Christ on that first Easter. Instead, we have received the testimony of witnesses to those first appearances, and that testimony is found in John’s gospel. In that testimony we may discover that we too have encountered the risen Christ and may respond with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Seeing by itself does not guarantee believing, Koester notes. We are readers of John’s gospel “can be assured that those who have not seen Jesus are not disadvantaged but are as blessed as the first group of disciples” (page 72). Seeing always happens in a context and within a framework of belief in what is possible. In a very real sense, it’s not that we believe something when we see it. Rather, we often see something when we believe it.

Thomas “is one of those who will know the resurrection not through an Easter experience,” Sandra Schneiders writes, “but through the testimony of the church, ‘We have seen the Lord’” (2005, page 27). But Thomas insists, according to Schneiders, on clinging to a pre-Easter perspective, where he must be able to handle Jesus with his mortal senses. It is not the case that Thomas “doubts” anything. That word is not used in the text, regardless of traditional labelling. Thomas refuses to believe. That’s what he says. “I will not believe unless…

John’s gospel spends some time and rhetorical effort on the demands Thomas makes. The other disciples share their testimony with him, but Thomas is recalcitrant. He uses, according to Daniel Wallace, an emphatic, negative subjunctive construction (can also accompany a future tense, as is the case in John 20:25). Wallace notes that this “is the strongest way to negate something in Greek.” The construction is especially used to negate something that could happen in the future (Wallace, pp. 468f.).

Thomas is quite certain – not doubting at all. He is quite certain that unless his standards of evidence are met fully and without exception, he will definitely not believe. Thomas insists on experience rather than witness as the reason for his believing. He wants to impose pre-Easter categories on the post-Easter reality.

But there’s no going back after Easter. In the post-Easter cosmos, it is witness that makes the experience of Jesus possible. “What he misunderstands,” Schneiders writes, “is that it is not their experience [that of the other disciples] which he must accept in place of his own, but their witness upon which his own experience must be grounded” (page 32). This is the situation of every believer since.

There is a tone of brutality in Thomas’ demands here. “Unless I can thrust my finger into the place of the nail and thrust my hand into his side,” he declares, “I will certainly not believe” (my translation). Thomas represents the invasive, penetrative, conquering approach to knowledge as objective facts which must meet my specifications and must be under my control. Of course, any God worth having would not submit to any such external and objective standards of validity. God is God, and I am not. And that’s the good news.

When Jesus stands again in their midst (please see the description above), Thomas faces the glorified and resurrected post-Easter Jesus. He is challenged to evaluate the wounds of Jesus in a new way. “The wounds of Jesus are not a proof of physical reality,” Schneiders writes, “but the source of a true understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ revelatory death” (page 27). Jesus invites Thomas to “bring” his fingers into Jesus’ hands and thrust his hand into Jesus’ side.

Jesus imitates Thomas’ demand for rough handling. He magnifies that demand with a clear command. “Do not become unbelieving but rather continue believing!” (my translation). Thomas doesn’t touch Jesus. Rather, he is touched by Jesus. This isn’t about being convinced. It’s about being converted. Easter isn’t about new information. Easter is about New Creation. Thomas receives the gift of new eyes. He sees the wounds of the Risen Jesus in a new way.

Alan Lewis helps us to understand that Thomas is not a skeptical foil to our heroic faithfulness. “He is not so much the slowest, and most doubtful of the contemporary disciples,” Lewis writes in Between Cross and Resurrection, “as the final and definitive eyewitness of the church’s good news for every generation: that Jesus, born in flesh, crucified with finality, and buried in godforsakenness and godlessness, has been raised by God the Father” (page 104). The conversion of Thomas represents the culmination of the journey from a pre-Easter world to a post-Easter world.

Wright describes this as the “epistemology of love.” This is the only way of knowing which can grasp the resurrection of Jesus. “What we are called to, and what in the resurrection we are equipped for, is a knowing in which we are involved as subjects but as self-giving, not as self-seeking, subjects,” Wright suggests, “in other words, a knowing that is a form of love. The story of Thomas,” he observes, “encapsulates this transformation of knowing.” (Surprised by Hope, page 239).

Now, does this mean that there can be no connection between knowing on the basis of evidence and knowing on the basis of faith? Wright pursues this question in the latter pages of The Resurrection of the Son of God. On the one hand is the skepticism of “objective” history which remains unconvinced in the absence of compelling evidence. On the other hand there is a certain Christian piety which regards any desire for evidence as suspect and as a demonstration that faith is lacking. Will the twain never meet?

Wright points to the Thomas story. In fact, Jesus encourages Thomas to access the physical evidence he desires. And Jesus mildly critiques Thomas for having such a rigid need for physical proof. Evidence can lead to exploration. Openness to new possibilities can lead to new insights. Both ways of knowing can be true and in fact supplement one another. That seems to be part of the encouragement we receive in the Thomas story.

In the end, however, this is not about investigation but rather about Reality itself. And it is about how I will engage with the Reality, if at all. “Saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement,” Wright suggests, “going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere,” he writes, “and sail back home to safety” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 717).

Instead, we too meet the risen Lord Jesus, wounds and all. Those wounds are not embarrassing remnants from a former existence. “The living one is Lord and God,” Alan Lewis writes, “just because he is manifestly none other than the frail and fleshly creature whose final agonies and injuries had emptied him of life and reduced him to a corpse” (page 105). John tells us a story about the Word made Flesh – flesh that can be wounded, flesh that can die, and the Word which lives among us full of grace and truth.

Lewis deserves a lengthy quote to finish here. “From first to last, then, the identity of Jesus is that of one in whom God’s presence and splendor are coexistent with their very opposite – with the finitude of creaturehood, the shame of suffering, the finality of termination, the nothingness of sepulture, the relationless nonpresence of extinction. In him,” Lewis concludes, “the eternal, creating, and resurrecting God of heaven and the perishable and finally perished man of Nazareth are one” (page 105).

References and Resources

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Pt. 2); 2 Easter B

1b. the first appearance of Jesus to the twelve (minus one) in John 20:19-23.

On the second Sunday of Easter, Thomas draws the majority of homiletical energy and attention. That is unfortunate, since the preceding verses are really a climactic focus of John’s gospel. Therefore, we will spend a second post on these critical and tightly packed verses.

In her 2005 article, “Touching the Risen Jesus,” Sandra Schneiders suggests that these verses are the center of John’s resurrection/ascension story. She proposes that “the [post-resurrection] appearances in John are not primarily about Jesus’ postdeath experience but about his disciples’ experience of his return to them” (2005, page 18). In other words, the gospel writer wants us to focus on the responses of Mary Magdalene, the eleven disciples, and Thomas, in order to interpret our own responses to the glorified and risen Jesus among us.

Schneiders observes that in John, when we deal with Jesus pre-Easter, we deal with him in his mortal flesh. Post-Easter, we deal with Jesus in his “immortal” body. Our dealings with Jesus are not to be compared as better or worse. Instead, the problem is responding to the post-Easter Jesus with a pre-Easter worldview and expectations. We will see this problem worked out in four different ways in John 20 – Peter and the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, the Eleven, and Thomas. In each case, it is important to bear in mind the pre-Easter/post-Easter distinction (and to remember that, of course, we come to Jesus always post-Easter).

Photo by Cleverson Amaro on Pexels.com

Resurrection is the culminating “sign” in John’s gospel. In this gospel, signs always provoke a dual response. Some “believe”, and some don’t. Some don’t believe at first and only come to belief later, after further experience. The gospel is written to provoke the same crisis, the same point of discernment and decision for us as readers that it provoked for the first witnesses to the resurrection. For example, Mary Magdalene begins by seeing the empty tomb as nothing more than evidence of grave robbery. This could be where the conversation ends.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple actually enter the tomb for a look. The orderly arrangement of the burial cloths seems to rule out grave robbery. Peter does not respond well. The Beloved Disciple, according to Schneiders, “believed what Jesus had repeatedly said of his death…namely, that by it he would be glorified” (2005, page 24). The Beloved Disciples, on his first viewing, believes that Jesus has been glorified but does not understand that he has been raised from the dead. What the Beloved Disciple does not yet understand is that Jesus is both crucified and risen, both glorified and resurrected.

Schneiders notes that the Eleven will face the resurrected Lord Jesus in their midst. “Behind the Greek esthe eis to meson (literally, Jesus “stood into the midst” of the community) stands the Aramaic verb for ‘rise up’,” Schneiders writes, “which can refer either to standing up physically or rising from the dead” (2005, page 25). They now face both the empty tomb and the risen Jesus in their midst.

Jesus sends the disciples into their mission and equips them with the Holy Spirit for the task. He does this by breathing it “into” them. The Greek verb is specific in the directionality of the breathing. John’s gospel uses the same verb that the Septuagint uses to translate Genesis 2:7. In that verse, God breathes into the first human being the “breath of life.” Once again, we are invited to connect the original Creation and the New Creation.

One element of the baptismal rite in the Eastern Church instructs the priest to breathe into the face of the baptized. This is a conscious imitation of the encounter here in John 20. It’s an element that I wish now we included in our own practice. While we use the laying on of hands to remember our own endowment with the Spirit, this “breathing into” is such a profound physical reminder that baptism is the gift of New Life in Christ.

It is the Spirit that makes possible the faith which sees the crucified and resurrected Christ in and through the community. “What the Spirit does,” writes Craig Koester, “is disclose the presence of the risen and unseen Christ to believers” (page 73).

Schneiders refers to the passage as John’s version of the Great Commission. In this sending, Schneiders writes, “as the Father had poured forth the fullness of the Spirit on Jesus to identify and empower him as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, so Jesus now breathes into his disciples that same Holy Spirit to re-create them as the new Israel, the community of reconciliation, which replaces scapegoating violence with forgiveness” (2011, pages 24-25).

We should be clear to whom Jesus addresses these words. He appears to and speaks to “the disciples.” This is not limited to The Twelve or to any smaller fraction of that group. The writer of John’s gospel is able to identify The Twelve when that is an important item. But we should not assume that “the disciples” is limited to that group.

“’Disciple’ in John is an inclusive term,” Sandra Schneiders writes. “The community of the Fourth Gospel clearly includes Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles, women and men, known members of the Twelve and many who are not in that group, married and single people, itinerants and householders. In other words,” she concludes, “the great commission of the risen Jesus, in John, is given to the whole church, who will be, henceforth, Jesus’ real presence in the world” (2011, page 26).

The central part of Jesus’ commission to this inclusive community has to do with the healing and wholeness of forgiveness. Sandra Schneiders proposes that John 20:19-23 forms an inclusio with John 1:29, where John the Witness points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus has expelled the “Ruler of this world” and the power of sin to conquer. The disciples are called in this passage to carry out that mission of reconciliation, empowered by the life-giving Holy Spirit of Jesus (see Schneiders, 2011).

John 20:23 requires special attention here. “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” The first “forgive” is a completed past action that is translated as an “historical present.” The sense is, “Whenever you forgive the sins of anyone…” The second “forgive” is a continuing action in the present. Therefore, the action of forgiving has continuing impact in the lives of believers and the life of the community. So far, so good.

The second clause is more challenging. It is translated in most places as “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The problem is that the word for “sins” does not appear in the Greek text of that clause and must therefore be supplied by the translator. Translations reflect, perhaps, a mirroring of similar passages in Matthew’s gospel. Those passages, however, are applied directly to situations of church discipline – an ongoing theme in Matthew’s gospel.

John’s gospel has different concerns. A particular concern is that the community would be “one” and that no one would be “lost.” Sandra Schneiders proposes in a couple of places that the verse should be translated without “sins” in the second clauses since it’s not there in the text. “Assured of [Jesus’] identity and presence and enlivened by his Spirit,” she writes, “the community will forgive sins and hold fast in communion all those whom God will entrust to it…” (2005, page 30, my emphasis).

In other words, verse 23 is not about retaining “sins.” It is about retaining souls, about holding fast to the community in the face of challenge and persecution. “Theologically, and particularly in the context of John’s Gospel, it is hardly conceivable,” Schneiders argues, “that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus” (2011, page 28).

This fits much better with John’s overall theology. God did not send the Son into the cosmos to condemn the cosmos, we remember from chapter 3, but rather that the cosmos might be saved through him. The community is called, therefore, to function, Schneiders concludes, “as Jesus took away the sin of the world…and held fast all those the Father had given him” (2005, page 30).  She expands this conclusion at the end of her 2011 address.

“Just as Jesus received his disciples from the Father and holds them fast in communion with himself despite their weakness and infidelity, so his church will draw into one through baptism those whom Jesus commits to it, and will maintain them in communion through ongoing mutual forgiveness of sins. In that community, feeding on the Lamb who has taken away the sin of the world and freed from all need for sacred violence, whether physical or spiritual, they will live and offer to the world the peace that the world cannot give” (2011, page 29).

Should the preacher spend time unpacking the nuances of Greek grammar to make the case for the alternative translation? No, clearly not. On the other hand, this text has been and can be used as a club of church discipline to exclude rather than embrace “sinners.” It is noted in many church constitutions under the congregational discipline heading, so this is no mere academic interest. I think the preacher should consider at least noting that Jesus’ commission to the church is to retain people rather than sins.

This means that “forgiving” is a way that Resurrection works out in the life of the disciple community. Forgiveness is the embodiment of Easter new life in our relationships with one another. God wants to extend that gift of life to all and to continue to extend that gift of life forever.

References and Resources

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.