Sunday, March 30, 2008
Risen In Deed: A Sermon on John 20:19-31
“Risen In Deed”
March 30, 2008—2nd Sunday in Easter
Titus Flavius Domitianus, better known as Domitian, was a Roman emperor of the Flavian dynasty. He ruled for about fifteen years, from September to September, during the years 81 to 96 CE (“common era”). Whereas his father Vespasian came to power as a result of his military prowess, and his brother Titus won distinction as commander of the Praetorian Guard, Domitian is best remembered in the company of emperors such as Caligula and Nero: for his extreme cruelty and paranoia. He stripped all decision-making powers from the Roman Senate, preferring to rule autocratically and without checks and balances. He was so despised that the Senate, upon his death, issued a damnatio memoriae, or a curse upon his memory, in which all official records of him, including sculptures and paintings, were destroyed.
Why bring up Domitian just now? The gospel of John was written during the reign of Domitian… most scholars date it to the nineties. A piece of supporting evidence is a quirk of Domitian’s that is memorialized in today’s passage from that gospel. He chose to sign all official documents with the words dominus et deus, and required those addressing him to do the same. Therefore, when face to face with the Emperor Domitian, his subjects were required to address him, “My lord and my god.” [i]
Our passage begins on the same day as we left off last week: the day of the resurrection. And the news of the appearance of the risen Jesus has, apparently, been spread among Jesus’ friends and followers. And, you know, they are not throwing a party. Far from it. They are closeted away, hiding, in fear of their lives. The doors are locked. Perhaps Mary’s testimony has been greeted with skepticism, the ravings of a woman deranged by grief. And, after all, at that time, a woman was not permitted to be a sole witness for legal proceedings. Her testimony always had to be corroborated by someone else. None of the disciples, evidently, has quite enough confidence in that story to venture boldly into the world to share the good news. So there they are, locked in, fearing for their lives, and in walks Jesus. Or, in materializes Jesus… we don’t exactly know how he gets in, John doesn’t give us the specifics. John gives us the big picture: Jesus’ friends are terrified. Somehow, Jesus comes in. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And Jesus shows everyone the physical, tangible evidence that, indeed, it is he. Risen, with the marks of crucifixion still upon him.
This passage is mostly noted for the story of Thomas, but I’d like to spend some time on the first part as well: the commission Jesus gives his friends. This takes the form of three separate actions. First, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Second, Jesus breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And third, Jesus says something to his disciples that both they and we might not be anticipating. We might expect Jesus, at this point, to explain what has happened… Why the crucifixion, why now? Or we might expect him to explain just how it is he was able to come back from the dead. Or the disciples might have wondered whether Jesus was capable of keeping them safe from everyone who wanted to kill them at that moment. But Jesus doesn’t give any of this information, or answer any of these questions… at least, not on the record, John’s record. But Jesus does something rather extraordinary: he gives the disciples a job, the job of forgiving sins.
Probably the best known passage in John’s gospel is about forgiving sins. John 3:16 occurs right in the middle of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, when the gospel writer simply can’t stand the tension any more and decides, right there, to give away the game, to interrupt the narrative with some theology, to go ahead and tell the whole point of John’s gospel, in a nutshell: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That is the money verse, so to speak, the one on all the homemade signs at the football games. Less well known is the verse that comes right after it, verse 17, and it’s a verse which, if you are a memorizing kind of a person, I would commend to you to memorize along with verse 16. Here it is: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” It’s a clarification of verse 16: God’s intention is that the entire world be saved. God’s intention is forgiveness.
And now, here, in our chapter, Jesus’ intention for his followers is forgiveness. Those of you who were able to attend our Maundy Thursday service will remember that there were seven readers, and after each reading, not only was a candle extinguished, but the reader actually left the room. The feeling we had, as a worshipping congregation, was that we were witnesses to the disciples abandoning Jesus one by one. If the gospel of John were an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, or a Bruce Willis movie, Jesus’ appearance among those who abandoned him would take on a distinctly different flavor. The action hero shows up, scarred, bruised and battered, but triumphant, and proceeds to make mincemeat—physical or emotional—of those who let him down. Not Jesus. Jesus doesn’t rub salt in the wound of anyone’s shame for how they let him down. Jesus doesn’t even say to Simon Peter, the one who denied him, “I told you so.” Jesus comes, instead, breathing the Holy Spirit and forgiveness, and reminding his friends that that’s their job now, too.
One theologian puts it this way:
... The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness. What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business – and that, of course, is the church's real job. [The church] is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can't turn off or escape from. [The church] is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. [It] is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute [The church] even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of [the] game, [it] instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. [ii]
Jesus gives his followers a commission, a job to do, and that job is forgiveness, reconciliation. And lest we think that job is too hard, that we’re not up to the task, he also gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to help us out. We are, or should be, in the forgiveness business. How would that rearrange our priorities, I wonder, if we took that commission seriously? That we go into the world to tell the good news of God’s readiness to forgive everyone? How would that affect our budget, and our programs, and everything we understand about being church together?
In the wake of Apartheid in South Africa, the people established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the understanding that if people could be encouraged to take responsibility for their actions in a context where the goal was reconciliation and not revenge, then reconciliation could be accomplished. This commission had its basis in traditional African rituals of reconciliation. One of them, the “Fast to Feast” ritual, is shaped like this.
• The community encourages the [warring, fighting] parties to start the process.
• Both [parties involved in the conflict] tell their story with neutral parties listening, along with witnesses from the community.
• Umqombothi (a traditional maize beer) is brewed, an animal is slaughtered, and the community is invited to partake in the eating and drinking.
• The elders of the community/congregation drink first and the children last. The feast is accompanied by music and dancing. [iii]
In this traditional African context, reconciliation is understood a way of life, with the whole community invested in a positive outcome. All parties get to have their say, but at the same time, all parties must agree to be reconciled, even if that means that no one “wins.” If there is no reconciliation, there is no feast. But if there is reconciliation… the entire community experiences the joy of it. We are called to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation. What would it look like, in our context, if the whole community were to dedicate itself to reconciliation this wholeheartedly?
Back to Thomas. Thomas missed that first communal encounter with the risen Jesus; he wasn’t there. I wonder where he was? Just to get a little insight into Thomas’ character, we can go back a few chapters in the gospel of John. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus was near death, his disciples warned him that to return anywhere near Jerusalem was to put his life in jeopardy. One disciple said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). That disciple was Thomas. Why wasn’t Thomas present with the other disciples on the evening of that resurrection day, when the others were all bunkered down, locked in, and hidden away? Maybe, Thomas was the only one brave enough to venture outside, for example, to go out for food for the rest of them. Maybe Thomas was out doing his own investigation into Mary’s claims, despite the threats on everyone’s lives. Maybe Thomas’ name ought to be paired with the adjective “Brave.”
Brave Thomas missed that first encounter with the risen Jesus, and he said to his friends, essentially, “When I have seen what you have seen, I will believe as you believe.” That’s all. And when Jesus comes a second time, a week later, he speaks to Thomas, saying something that would better be translated, “Do not be uncertain, but certain,” or, “Do not be untrusting, but trusting.” Thomas, in turn, greets Jesus with an affirmation of faith, “My Lord and My God.” It is the most powerful affirmation made by anyone in John’s gospel. It’s aimed squarely at Domitian, the tyrant who dares to sign his name “lord and god.” This affirmation shows the courage of the one who makes it, over and against the claims of the world, over and against the claims of empire. In the face of powers and principalities that want people like him dead unless they give full tribute, Brave Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
This story shows us two of the hallmarks of Christian community: first, our willingness to place our full confidence and trust in Jesus over and above outside authorities, including our friends, including the authority of the state; and second, our primary identity as a community called to be agents of forgiveness. These two come together in Jesus’ commandment of love, given that same Maundy Thursday: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The Christian community is the resurrection community—risen “in deed,” not simply in words—when we embrace these facets of our identity, when we become a community of faith and reconciliation and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Wikipedia, from Suetonius, “Lives of the Twelve Caesars.”
[ii] Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in the Christian Faith (Seabury Press, 1974), 132-133.
[iii] Cas Wepener, “From Fast to Feast: Insights into the Process of Reconciliation from South Africa,” in Reformed Worship, Issue #72, copyright 2006, www.reformedworship.org.