Monday, April 8, 2024

Forgiving & Retaining


John 20:19-31

Easter 2 / Year B

The first few weeks after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, along with the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, are pretty heady times for the early church.  Thinking Jesus is going to return soon to initiate his kingdom, those first followers come together often to pray and to watch.  Most give up their jobs and even begin to sell their homes.  The small group holds the proceeds in a communal fund which is used to pay for everyone’s living expenses as well as to assist the poor and needy. 

I have heard more than one preacher extol the model of the early Church.  Why can’t everyone be equal?  Why can’t we share all so no one has need?  Who wouldn’t want to live in this kind of Utopia?  Well, for the early church, two problems emerge.  First, Jesus doesn’t return in the timely manner believers expect and it doesn’t take long for the funds to dry up.  Yes, everyone has the same.  The problem is what each has eventually is not sufficient.

Does utopianism work?  Both Plymouth and Jamestown struggle mightily in their first few years as settlers work collectively for the good of all.  Shortages are common and hunger is rampant until families and individuals are given plots of land to work for their own benefit.  Only then do the settlements begin to produce enough food and crops to sustain each enterprise.

The need to get back to work is the first challenge to the early church’s communal enterprise.  Here is the second: Not everyone is honest with their sharing.  Enter Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who holds back some of the profit they make from selling their house and then lie to Peter about it.  You may be interested to know the Lectionary does not appoint this part of the story to be read, rather it ends with the happy part about everyone sharing and having everything they need.  I decided the rest of the passage provides a needed cautionary tale to the rosy beginning.

That the couple dies for lying feels harsh, to say the least.  After all, Paul was stricken blind for only three days and he was involving in arresting Christians and stoning them.  That everyone else is in the church is seized with great fear is understandable.  Imagine if people at St. Paul’s keeled over from time to time for their foibles.  We would be shaken too.

In our gospel reading we hear of Jesus breathing on his followers to impart the Holy Spirit on them.  He then gives this commission: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  The power to forgive and the authority to condemn are awesome responsibilities and, to be honest, the history of the Church suggests we have not always used them well. 

In this matter, John the Apostle, in his first letter, turns away from an institutionally-centric approach to one more personal:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness…  I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Here the emphasis is on the power each of us has to confess, to repent, to make amends, to be forgiven, and to be restored to fullness of life within the Christian community rather than on the community’s power to render judgment.

Here is what I make of all of this:

First, we all sin and fall short of who we are called to be and what we are called to do.  In just a few moments, as we renew our baptismal covenant, I will ask you, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin (not, in the extremely unlikely event you do sin) repent and return to the Lord?  You will respond, “I will with God’s help.”

Second, the Church is called more to forgive sins than to retain them.  When I was ordained to the priesthood I made a vow to “endeavor so to minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received.”  For me, this means, in part, the opportunity to confess is less of a demand than it is an invitation.  My primary role as a priest is not to point out all the fallenness in our lives, but to hold up the opportunity for transformation.  We are, as I have said before (and try to embrace myself), not defined by our worst moments in life. 

And finally, there are times – and they are sad – when the church must hold individuals or groups accountable for their sinful actions.  We describe the threshold for this as being a “scandal to the community.”  I think about the time a woman was taking money out of our collection plate.  I sat down with her and said, “We really do enjoy having you be a part of our community, but I can’t have you taking money from the offering.”  It was, I thought, a welcome and an invitation to change; to conform to the basic requirements of being a member of a healthy church.  She has not been back since I spoke with her.

I don’t believe I have every preached about Ananias and Sapphira, nor have I ever attempted to tackle the whole thing about forgiving and retaining sins.  I trust my musings will cause you to think and to reflect and, as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on all of this.