(re)Imagining Life

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

–John 20:19-23

Yesterday, for many in the Christian faith, it was Easter—a time to reflect on the faith, life, and new life.  Jumping slightly ahead along the Christian calendar deeper into the Easter season, the above reading from John’s gospel is sometimes called the Johannine Pentecost.  John’s Pentecost recounts Jesus’ appearance to his disciples following the resurrection and Jesus’ giving of the Holy Spirit.  This Pentecost story and the more familiar story of Pentecost from Acts have several differences and similarities.  Unlike the account told in Acts, here, Jesus personally gives the Spirit to his disciples and that gift is not delayed but offered immediately after the resurrection. While those and other differences are interesting, what are most useful, on this occasion, are those parts of the story that overlap with the Pentecost story from Acts.  In both accounts, the disciples are gathered in an upper room, locked behind closed-doors, and waiting for something, anything that might turn tragedy into joy.  

In that moment of trepidation, as the story goes, the Spirit comes—whether delivered by a mighty wind or through the words of precious friend.  And, that gift of the Spirit has a transforming effect.  Captured in the words describing the inherited authority gifted to the disciples, the effect simultaneously boldly asserts yet subtly implies.  As a bold assertion, the disciples receive the authority to forgive and retain sin, a powerful capacity granted a group just moments before found cowering in a locked room.  Importantly, it is through this grant of authority that the subtly implied effect appears.

Prior to this moment, only God was assumed to possess the capacity to forgive sins.  Recall the condemnation of Jesus following his efforts to forgive sins in Mark’s gospel:  “‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’”  (Mark 2:7)  Jesus was reject, in that story of forgiving, precisely because he asserted an authority to forgive sins, an authority assumed to be God’s alone.  In other words, by forgiving sins, Jesus is claiming something about himself and his proximity to Divinity.  (Hence, the charge of blasphemy!)

Yet in this passage from John’s gospel, the disciples receive the very capacity that before was believed to be reserved only for God.  So, in a subtle way, Jesus moves the disciples to a position he held while on earth.  The disciples now stand proximally to God as Jesus understood himself to occupy.  Said another way, the disciples become significantly more than what was implied in the sending narrative at the end of Matthew’s story of the Sermon on the Mount.  In that story from Matthew, the disciples come to represent Jesus and the kingdom.  In this pentecostal moment, the disciples cease simply to represent God but to become God’s embodied presence on earth, a presence previously embodied by the incarnate Word named Jesus. 

Both the Pentecost stories from John and Acts suggest this transformation.  Remember the formulaic patter established in scripture for the suggestion of divine presence.  Think of the second creation story, where stuff of the earth and Spirit of God unite to make the embodied presence of God called humanity.  Consider the story of the incarnation, where the stuff of the earth, i.e., Mary, and the Spirit of God unite to make the embodied presence of God called Jesus.  In both instances, stuff plus Spirit unites to mark the Divine’s incarnate, real presence.  Therefore, it is no surprise, that in each Pentecost story, the disciples transform from the hidden to the empowered, from fearful shadows of themselves to the embodied presence of God.  In a new moment yet in a repeated way, those disciples are the stuff of the earth that unites with the Spirit of God to make the embodied presence of God called the Body of Christ.

The story of Pentecost, whether told here or in Acts, is the story that reminds us that the faithful are not simply God’s representatives but God’s actual embodiment.  Divinity is not distant and reserved—the story reminds us—but present and active.  It is because of this embodied character that I regularly mind those who will listen that people are God’s hands and feet, eyes and ears, heart and head in the world.  The challenge, the responsibility is never to forget to hold and to help those in need, to go to those who struggle and suffer, to see injustice and to hear the cries of oppressed, to care and to love with God’s compassion, and to imagine new solutions and new possibilities when and where previous attempts have failed. 

Recently I learned of a Haitian proverb.  That proverb states that God only gives but does not share.  On the surface, such a declaration seems, at best, contradictory and, at worst, potentially offensive.  Why would someone claim that God gives yet simultaneously does not share?  That seems internally inconsistent and incongruous.  Alternatively, why would anyone want to claim that God selfishly hoards?  Such a claim seems cruel in a world with so much and such poor distribution.  Yet, upon deeper reflection, the proverb seems as if it could have directly emerged from this passage of scripture from John’s gospel.  What the proverb suggests is that God, out of generosity and love, gives everything. However, God leaves the sharing of those gifts to humanity, the hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart and head of the Divine.  It is the church’s responsibility as God’s continuing presence on earth to complete the work entrusted to humanity. 

What a gift.  What a challenge.  What an opportunity.  We have a busy day, week ahead of us.  There is a lot to be done and many to serve.  Get to work.  I will see you along the way.

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