Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pentecost Sunday. A Homily from John 20:19-23 for June 8, 2014

 Homily for the Pentecost Sunday, Year A
first posted June 12, 2011

Today is Pentecost Sunday, and as we would expect today's Gospel reading reflects this by offering us St. John's account of a pivotal moment in Jesus' final earthly ministry to his apostles, a moment which culminates in Jesus’ giving them the promised Holy Spirit.

This text extends to us a brief glimpse into a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, but it is a very important glimpse because it brings to us the intimacy of Jesus with his followers; it displays concretely the calling he placed on their lives as he leaves; it discloses the empowerment he provides for their calling because of his absence.

Said another way, Jesus takes three serious actions within this text which I wish to highlight in this homily:

1. Peace In The Face Of Fear

2. Calling In The Face Of The Unknown

3. Empowerment In The Face Of Sin

In the evening Jesus comes into the presence of the disciples without benefit of the door. This, no doubt, caused the normal greeting of peace to take on a literal importance because his sudden appearing had to startle and to unnerve his followers. It would have done so to me, I'm sure.

On this evening his followers hide behind locked doors for fear of the religious leaders, who perhaps would do to the disciples what they had done to their leader.

The LORD identifies himself by showing the scars he had suffered, and this display was enough for his followers. In that moment at least their fear turned into joy.

Then Jesus does something very curious, he offers them a second blessing of peace. This time, it seems to me, the peace offered is grounded in the situation they face, the all too human inclination to let fear rule the day.

Most of us live in fear. Fear over what has happened or what could happen, that is fear real or imagined. Said another way fear eventually finds us all, this is the reality of the human condition. Eventually we learn that life is about facing loss, and it is the not knowing when the losses will descend that causes us to fear. This fear which begins as a distant gnawing feeling in the heart can grow and even cause us to hide behind locked doors as a protection from the world.

Jesus knows this. Jesus knows this part of the human condition, probably learning this lesson through his own suffering (Hebrews 5:8). So he takes action in two ways that minister peace to his followers.

First, he shows his hands and side, displaying the wounds he took as Savior. In this action he presents more than just his identity. In essence he is saying:

 Look here. I understand; I have experienced what the world can do. I’ve been there ahead of you! Now, don't be afraid. Of course, there is pain and suffering in the world, and you will experience it just as I have, but remember, I have overcome the world. 

This leads to the second action: He offers them peace, a peace not as the world offers -- which is momentary and based upon circumstance. No, the peace Jesus offers finds its basis within his person, for it is in the living, risen Christ where we find inner-peace in the midst of the crippling fear in the human condition.

Next, Jesus acts by calling his disciples to follow in his work. The text reads: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The question of fear answered -- the religious leaders may execute us, but we will face that with the peace of the Christ if it occurs -- the question now turns to what next? What happens next when we leave this room?

And Jesus' action is to call them to his work.  In essence he is saying:

The Father sent me, I'm now sending you. I'm sending you to a world that is broken and dying and at vicious war with itself. Expect from the world just what I received from it, but go anyhow. Some will listen and some will not, go anyhow. Some will desire to find the peace you have experienced in me and some will distain it, go anyhow. Some of you will be imprisoned or killed, but go anyhow. Some of you will be let go from your family or work for my sake, but go anyhow. Some of you will extinguish promising, affluent careers, but go anyhow.

Of course, I can never hear these words from Jesus in John 20 without thinking of Margaret Clarkson's great missionary hymn, So Send I You:

So send I you to labour unrewarded 

To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown 
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing 
So send I you to toil for Me alone 

So send I you to bind the bruised and broken 
Over wandering souls to work, to weep, to wake 
To bear the burdens of a world a-weary 
So send I you to suffer for My sake 

So send I you to loneliness and longing 
With hart a-hungering for the loved and known 
Forsaking kin and kindred, friend and dear one 
So send I you to know My love alone 

So send I you to leave your life's ambition 
To die to dear desire, self-will resign 
To labour long, and love where men revile you 
So send I you to lose you life in Mine 

So send I you to hearts made hard by hatred 
To eyes made blind because they will not see 
To spend, though it be blood to spend and spare not 
So send I you to taste of Calvary 

"As the Father hath sent me, so send I you" 

Words by R. Margaret Clarkson 
Music by John W. Peterson 
© 1954 by Singspiration Music/ASCAP 
All rights reserved

All of this leads to the climactic action of the moment. Here the text reads: And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Clearly, to live in peace and to follow in the footsteps of the Master would take more than human effort; it would take power from on high. Enter the Spirit, whom the disciples experienced as just that: power (Acts 1:8).

The Spirit would empower them to experience the peace of the Christ even in the depths of the human condition. Would the religious leaders confound them and attack them? So be it. They now had the peace of the Christ found in the indwelling power of the Spirit.

The Spirit would also empower them to follow in the footsteps of the Christ and his ministry -- “So send I you.” Would they face questions of human sin and depravity, not the least of which their own? Yes, they would, but they now had the resource to discern and understand what must be done to offer the kingdom and the King in each situation -- the resource of the Spirit of the risen Christ.

Much has been made of Jesus' statement, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” There seems to be two primary interpretations of this text:

1) No literal power to forgive sins is here given to the apostles, instead the power to give assurance that ones sins have been forgiven is what is in view. The reasoning here is that only GOD can forgive sins.

2) The power to forgive sins is literally given to the apostles and by extension to those who have followed them.
I do not have the correct answer here (I do have an opinion, however), but in some ways, as is so often the case, the argument obscures the intent. Ultimately, what is in view here is the power to overcome sin, or the power to to overcome that which separates us from fellowship with GOD. This, of course, was the chief action the Christ accomplished by his incarnation -- representing GOD to us and us to GOD.

Here, the apostles are empowered to bring the King and the kingdom to the world, the most important aspect of which is the sliding away of those things that keep us, by our own habits and choices, apart from GOD.

Said another way, the human depravity found as warp and woof of the human condition prevents us from having humanity of life, a real life, an abundant life. But the Christ came to restore this life to the world by giving us a new life with a new start, and a new way to live.

Now, those of us who are struggling to experience this new life -- which is opposite of the self-life -- we now have the opportunity to share this breaking-free from selfishness and the self with others who willingly wish to hear. And, we have been empowered to do so in a way that makes sense of it by the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit empowers us to find moment-by-moment peace, and the Spirit empowers us to follow the Jesus-way, which includes offering peace and forgiveness (read: humanness) to the person across the table. What could be more important than this?

John 20:19-23