Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Evangelism of Forgiveness

In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 20:19-31), Jesus will say to the disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." I think he meant that, and I think we should take him seriously. In fact, I don't think there's any more important instruction Jesus could give the bearers of his gospel.

Yesterday, I began a new series in an early morning bible study. I've called it "Controversially Jesus," and each week we are examining a different aspect of Jesus' life and ministry that would have been controversially in his own day. I'm using Mark as the general basis for that work, and we began with the subject of "touching" with Mark 1:40-45 as the focus. Jesus touches a leper. Next Tuesday, our second class will be "forgiving," and we will use the story of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. Remember what the scribes say when Jesus pronounces that the disabled man's sins are forgiven? "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (v. 7). That's Mark, of course, and this Sunday's gospel is from John, but I think that the basis for the scribes' question--who can forgive sins, really?--runs through the whole four-fold gospel.

In John's gospel account, there are several moments like that, but, from the very beginning of the way he tells Jesus' story, the act of forgiveness and the act of healing are inseparable--so much as not to need mentioning. In John 1, John the Baptist proclaims of Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!" In John 2, at the wedding in Cana, Jesus used the water set aside for purification rites to provide the good wine for the banqueting feast. That's followed immediately by the cleansing of the temple, which provides another skeptical focus on the Second-Temple cult. In Jesus' exchange with Nicodemus in John 3, he proclaims, "Whoever believes in [me] is not condemned." In John 4, we read a lengthy exchange between a scandalous Samaritan woman who had had multiple husbands and Jesus, who did not heal her in any physical way but offered her and her village an invitation to salvation (same Greek word) through believing in him. Perhaps most directly, Jesus healed a man born blind in John 9 but only after his disciples questioned whether it was the man or his parents who had sinned in order that he would be born with this disability. Again, there is no proclamation of forgiveness as there is in Mark 2, but the invitation to "walk in the light" and the healing power that Jesus offers are a direct repudiation of the doctrine of sin to which many in his religious culture held.

On Sunday, therefore, when we hear Jesus transmit the power of forgiveness to his disciples, I believe it is the culmination of his work on earth. His proclamation from the cross, "Father, forgive them," is accomplished in his death and resurrection, and this Pentecost-like moment of breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples and sending them out to forgive (or not) is the completion of his earthly mission. After all, it's all about forgiveness, isn't it?

Mother Church has long used John 20:23 as the basis for presbyteral absolution of sin. This is the moment when those who continue in the footsteps of the apostles are equipped with divine authority to pronounce forgiveness. I don't deny it. Certainly, I practice it. But I think it's more than that. This is more than a citation for church polity. It's the basis for evangelism. It's the focus of good news to be shared both by lay and ordained disciples of Jesus.

Travel back to that moment when the disciples were hiding behind locked doors. Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and she had announced to the disciples that she had "seen the Lord." But he hadn't appeared to them yet. Peter and the other disciple had seen the empty tomb, but they hadn't seen Jesus yet. This was all still new. Uncertainty lingered. Fear remained. The doubt stemming from Jesus' earthly defeat stayed with them. Perhaps guilt and shame dwelt in their hearts. And what does Jesus say to them? "Peace be with you. Here I am. Look at me. Peace be with you. Just as the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins, they are forgiven. If you retain them, they are retained."

What does a fearful, guilt-ridden, doubt-plagued world need more than a proclamation of forgiveness and the peace that comes with it? It is a fundamental human truth--not a church doctrine--that, when someone offers us forgiveness, we are lifted and set free and, when someone withholds forgiveness, we are weighed down in psychological chains. What do you think Jesus came to earth to accomplish? (If you need a hint, go back and read John 3:16-17.) What do you think Jesus is calling us to do?

This is our moment, Church. This is our chance, sister and brother disciples. We are followers of Jesus. We have heard his message of forgiveness. Now it is our job to go and proclaim forgiveness to the world. Yes, that's partly a proclamation of God's forgiveness--the kind we do in church when the priest waves her or his arm in the air and announces that we are forgiven. But it's not just that. It's basic, universal, unlimited forgiveness. It's human beings saying to each other in the name of Jesus, "I forgive you. You are forgiven." Sure, we have the power to retain sins, but is Jesus asking us to hold that power or give it away? In the style of Francis and the Missionaries of Mercy, let us be in the business of forgiveness--all of us. That's what Jesus invites us to do. And forgiveness has the power to change the world.

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