It's hard to think about mass murder and the death of a baby. Our human reactions include confusion, fear, anger, disillusionment, and a variety of other emotions. We need to deal with them and not ignore them.
But when it comes to answers, they're hard, even impossible to come to. I can't explain the motives of Cho Seung-Hui, regardless of what the media says or what an investigation will eventually decide. And I can't explain the death of a baby. I do know that these things do not resonate with the imago Dei - the mission of God. These events and events like them are not what God planned for humanity...and just a little over a week after we celebrated resurrection, it's still not what God has planned for humanity.
So how do we respond?
The Word of Sunday's worship gathering lingered with me throughout the day yesterday as I watched all together too much news on television. And this morning, Jesus' words in John 20:19-31 are still pressing on my mind. Below is a manuscript form of the preached Word yesterday (for those reading outside of the North Street community, that means the "sermon"). I edited it for readability, but please still remember that what you're reading was meant to be delivered orally (I would have given an audio link like usual, but it didn't get recorded this week). But if you want to read it, please be sure to read the biblical text first (that's the link above to John 20:19-31).
Here it is:
Let’s remind ourselves of where we’re at here in the gospel text.
We’re in the gospel of John and it’s been barely 48 hours or so since Jesus had died when the disciples were gathered in that room. But let’s look back for a second.
He died on Friday, the first day. Though not all were present at his death, everyone knew it had happened. All the disciples of Jesus knew that he was dead. So Jesus had suffered and died brutally. The man in whom all these disciples had put their lives and hopes was stripped from them, arrested, put on trial, beaten, mocked, dragged through the city of Jerusalem carrying a cross up to a hill called “death” where he was nailed to the wooden beams of the cross and hung up for all to watch his cruel death. No one doubted it – he was dead. From the perspective of the disciples, it was the end of their hope, all that they knew and believed to be true was gone. The situation of “all things right and proper” and “as it should be” was gone. Jesus Christ, their messiah, their hope, their savior…was…dead. This was the first day.
Then there was the second day, the Sabbath – what we know as Saturday, a day of rest for Judaism, and a day of rest for the dead Christ. We have nothing of this day in John. But we can imagine. Have you ever woken up the morning after a bad day? You wake up and you know in the back of your mind that something bad has happened. Perhaps you were up much later worrying about it and got a bad night’s rest because of it. Regardless, you wake up with a bad feeling. Sometimes, I’ve woken up after a day like this and there’s this slight glimmer of hope that what had happened actually didn’t happen. Have you had this? You know, just for a moment, when you wake up, you think, “Wait, was that a dream?” Well, it wasn’t for the disciples of Christ, it wasn’t a dream at all. Jesus was dead. And they had to go through that whole day of Sabbath, with the knowledge that Jesus was dead. The son of God was dead. God…was…dead. This was the second day.
Then there was the third day, the first day of a new week. And what we know in the text so far is that Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene and that Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved had seen an empty tomb. So for a second, let’s look at this from the perspective of these disciples who are gathered in this room, with the door shut and locked for fear of the Jews. Let’s place ourselves in their position – what are we thinking? It’s barely been 48 hours since all of this has taken place – since Jesus has died. I’m no great psychologist, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t enough time for our period of grief to subside. And that’s for anyone’s death. It takes time to get over death. And here, 48 hours or so later, the drastic nature of Christ’s death – the death of our Savior – is probably finally beginning to really set it. We’ve gathered together, in fear of what’s going to happen, and our situation is one of confusion, distress, perhaps even chaos – what are we going to do? We’ve dropped our careers, we’ve given up family, and we’ve sold the farm so to speak for this guy Jesus, who’s now dead. Death lingers in the air around us. We can still smell it and taste it and feel it. The anguish of Jesus’ death is still on our minds. We’re disparate, and we’re angry. The last thing on our minds is a peaceful life. Nothing’s right or as it should be.
We need to talk for a second about this word ‘peace.’ ‘Peace’ in scripture is often a bit different than we speak of peace today. Today we hear the word ‘peace’ and our understanding shifts to one of tranquility. We might think of the word ‘peace’ and see a quiet bubbling stream or a slight wind blowing over a grassy knoll. Or we hear the word and think of the opposite of fighting and war, when all sides are in compromise and not killing each other. These two ways of thinking of peace are not wrong, they’re quite appropriate, but the peace of scripture – shalom – goes beyond this. Shalom is a state of being where all is the way it should be. A closely related word shalem means “complete”. Another closely related word l’shalem means “to pay”. Shalom – to pay complete. To give completeness. And Shalom is one of the many Hebrew names for God. God is shalom. Shalom is God. God gives completeness. Satisfaction. Shalom makes things the way they should be. God makes things the way they should be.
So if we’re back again with the disciples during the evening of the third day in the fearful, chaotic, and tense locked room, we’re in a place that lacks any sense of peace, any sense of shalom, any sense of completeness. Our situation is ruin.
…and John says that Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
And after showing them his hands and his side, he says it again, “Peace by with you.”
And the he does something strange. The text says that he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
All right, sorry, but here’s some more Hebrew – a related Hebrew word for ‘breath’ and ‘breathe’ is ruach. And it’s this word ruach that’s in play when God breathes into Adam in Genesis that gives him life. Remember, Adam has a whole body with every part and muscle and bone completed, but in Genesis, only when God breaths ruach does Adam know life. And later on in the Old Testament, in a story that we read last week in Ezekiel, we see ruach again. But here it plays a couple of meanings. God’s spirit is ruach. And God’s spirit leads Ezekiel to the valley of the dry bones, and God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones for the ruach of life. Remember, they too have complete bodies at this point in the story, bones, and flesh, and sinew had grown upon them, but they’re lifeless until God’s ruach – his spirit, his breath is put within them. All is only well, when with the presence of God’s ruach his spirit, his breath, and our breath. Without ruach, there is no life. Without ruach, there is only death.
An equivalent word in Greek is pneuma. It’s from this word pneuma that we get all sorts of words today – pneumatics, pneumonia, pneumatology, and so on. All these things have to do with air, or our breath – pneuma.
So here, back in the room with the disciples, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the holy spirit.”
And he adds this:
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I’m fine with the holy-spirit-giving and the peace and maybe even the whole breathing thing. It makes sense that people over the years have made this John’s version of the commissioning of the Church and even Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit (in John, ‘advocate’ or ‘counselor’ is perhaps more appropriate). That’s all well and good, but what’s with Jesus’ words on sin, here in this place at this time?
Let’s again remember some things that have happened.
It’s notable that:
- Jesus said, “Put your sword away, Peter…” when Peter begins his great defense of Jesus at his arrest.
- Jesus did not fight back amidst his arrest, his trial, his mocking, his beating, his path to the cross, and on the cross itself. He could have, right?
- Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” even as they ‘did.’
Jesus’ whole life is notable in this way: a lack of aggression, a calmness and serenity when he is challenged by those who seem to despise him. Jesus lived a peaceful life. Jesus lived life the way it’s supposed to be lived.
And after the victory over death, and sin, and the grave, Jesus appears to the disciples who’ve gathered in fear and anger and says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
How do you handle the sins of others?
Again, let’s pretend we’re the disciples. We’re fearful and angry that our savior has been killed. And he shows up, alive, breathing, right in front of us. He has risen from the dead, conquered death. This guy’s alive and now I definitely know that nothing can take him down! What’s my response?!?
…Let’s go find Pilate.
…Let’s go find the chief priests.
…Let’s go find the guys that held the hammer and spear.
We’ve got something to settle. Let’s go get ‘em.
…and Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
How do you respond to the sins of others?