Sermon – April 8, 2018 – Second Sunday of Easter

Our gospel story for today takes place on Easter night. Just a few days earlier, the disciples witnessed their friend and teacher hung on a cross. They witnessed their imagined lives come to an end, they saw their future disappear. They felt failure and grief mixed together. Just a few hours earlier, a few of them went to the tomb and found it empty. Dismayed, their grief growing, they returned to their homes.

The disciples locked themselves away. They had heard of Jesus’ resurrection but it was not yet a salve to their own wounds. Their feelings of failure, shame, and grief were then amplified by fear. They were afraid that they were next to die—that those who had sentenced and sealed Jesus’ fate would come for them as well and so they are hiding. This is the first gathering of the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The first Easter Church was defined by fear and isolation. The movement that Jesus had started nearly died in that room…fear nearly killed it. But then Jesus shows up:

“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)

Jesus didn’t show up at the house to prove his resurrection…he came to show his disciples what his resurrection means. Resurrection does not mean living locked away by fear. Resurrection is liberating. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit; He commissions and equips his disciples to continue his work. He gives peace to soothe their fears but nudges them out the door because resurrection life is not meant to be kept behind closed doors, Easter people cannot be limited by a building. Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples requires them to leave their fear behind. It requires that they leave their doubts and meet people where they are. Jesus’ entrusted his disciples to continue caring for the people that he cared for—he sent the spirit to give them the power of forgiveness.

Now, I’m going to go on a long, nerdy, theological tangent and you’re going to wonder where I am taking this but I promise it’s important and it has a point so hang on! In this encounter, Jesus entrusts his disciples with the power to forgive. This verse is traditionally translated the way it was read today: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; but if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This assumes that the disciples are empowered by Jesus to forgive but also condemn. When translators approach the original greek of this verse, they assume sin as the second conditional clause— that is, in the original language, the word sin is not found in the second part of sentence. And, the verb for “retained” is actually better translated as “held” or “embraced.” So, some scholars[1] believe that a more accurate translation of this verse is, “For whom you forgive sins, they are forgiven them; and whomever you hold fast, or embrace, they are held fast.” In other words, the sins in the first part of the sentence are ‘possessed’ by the forgiven. It is the persons, not sins, in the second part who are the ‘object grasped or held fast.’ This is important when we consider the resurrection role of the disciples. It makes sense because condemnation is not true to the resurrected Jesus—remember, early in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he did not “come into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Resurrection does not bind, it liberates; It does not condemn, it saves. So, instead of condemnation, the disciples are sent to forgive and embrace people. This was Jesus’ last command to the first Easter church— forgive and embrace.

The truth is, though, you cannot forgive and embrace when you are locked inside a room and full of fear. Fear causes you to condemn, fear causes you to run away. If the disciples hadn’t been met by the risen Christ, the story might have ended there in that room. Jesus’ movement nearly died because it is something that is meant to be shared, to be done in connection with one another. Resurrection is lived out in relationship, we cannot witness the resurrection apart from the people around us.

Lucky for us, the disciples left the building. They left their fear behind, went out and forgave people, embraced people, held people. They set the standard for what church, this new way of existing as Jesus’ followers, was going to be. Our reading from Acts today shows us what this looked like: How possessions were sold to care for those in need, how people sacrificed their own earned privileges so that others could be cared for, and how, in doing so, the resurrection was proclaimed and grace experienced (Acts 4:32-35).

The disciples commissioning from Jesus is our commissioning too. At our baptisms, the same Sprit that descended on the disciples descends on us, giving us the same power to forgive and embrace. Just like the disciples, the church cannot exist locked in it’s own room of fear. The resurrected Christ requires us to get outside, leave the building, and go out into the world for the sake of the world.

I have witnessed this lived out in beautiful ways here at St. Matt’s. People are all up each other’s business in a good way— we ask how others are doing, we show up to grieve with those who are grieving, we hold each other in prayer, we feed each other when we’re struggling (and when we’re not). The inner workings of our caring ministry continuing astounds me with it’s depth. We feed our community through our farm and the many volunteers it takes to make it successful, we bring groceries from our food pantry to those in need, we equip Stephen Ministers to be a listening ear through tough times. We support organizations in our community and throughout our world that are doing incredible work in alleviating hunger, poverty, and violence. It is likely that every single one of us has multiple ties to organizations in our community for which we give our time volunteering or support in other ways. This is resurrection— this is Easter Church.

There is a lot of fear in our world right now, it’s true: fear for our country, fear for our safety, even fear that the church as we know it may be dying. We cannot let these fears allow us to turn in on ourselves; we cannot let these fears keep us locked inside; we cannot let these fears dictate who we forgive and who we embrace. To do so would be to deny the resurrection.

So, get out there, Easter People. Keep doing what you’re doing. Love fiercely, forgive boldly, embrace heartily. Go to the places fear does not let people go and shine some resurrection light. Examine your own fears and then remind them of your God— A God who took on human flesh for you, God who rose from the dead for you, a God who did not come into the world to condemn but to save.

[1] Most notably, Sandra Schneiders  in “The Lamb of God and Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel”