A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
April 12, 2015, The Second Sunday of Easter
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life…
Thus begins the First Epistle of John, written to the church in the region of the world that is now Turkey at around the same time that our Gospels were written. “We declare what was from the beginning…” What beginning does that refer to? It might refer to the organization of that particular church—as in, “here’s what we agreed upon at the start…;” it might mean what it does in the Gospel of John, “the Word was with God in the beginning, and without the Word, there was not anything made that was made…;” or the beginning could refer to the beginning of our new life, the resurrection of Christ: “what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands … the Word of Life.”
This sentence means all of these things. This week we have entered into Easter, the season of the resurrection of Christ. We can place that event at a moment in time—“we have seen with our eyes, we have looked at and touched with our hands…”—Jesus alive and with us; death defeated. But that resurrection, life conquering death, is implicit there at the beginning, before creation, the God that created the light is in his essence love, and that is the essence of life.
The reading from the Gospel today is the one that is read every year on the Sunday after Easter. Jesus suddenly appears in the locked room with the disciples, the room that was locked because of their fear. Jesus says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Thus, no longer are they to be locked up in their fear—they are to live the life that Jesus lives, sent by the Father. Sent why, for what? “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”
There is another sentence that follows, and it contains a serious mistranslation, so serious that it should be explained. One of my teachers, an extraordinary biblical scholar and teacher of spirituality named Sandra Schneiders, gave a detailed lecture on this when I was in seminary. This Greek word, krateo, means “grasp,” “hold on to.” In my big Greek dictionary there is a long entry about krateo and hundreds of examples of its use follow. At the very end of the entry for krateo appears a different definition, that is, “retain,” but it gives only a single example: “retain their sins,” and it’s from this verse that we read today.
So my teacher did further research, and this is the only use of that sense of the word krateo in all of Greek literature. She was pretty skeptical, devoted Catholic nun that she is. Somehow those in authority in the church thought that it was a good idea that if they could forgive sins, they should also be able to keep sins from being forgiven. After all, that gives a lot of power to us priests, and you know that’s what we need, a little more power. But the sentence that Jesus said actually makes sense without making up new meanings for words. Jesus said to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you hold fast to anyone, they are held fast (in the custody of God).”
Immediately following is the example of Thomas. Thomas was not there. And Thomas knew that his friends could be sentimental crackpots sometimes. He listens to their story, complete with showing Jesus’ hands and his side and he says, “Yeah. Right.” “I won’t believe until I see his hands and his side, and touch him.” I have always loved Thomas. None of this “go along to get along” for him. His belief had to be real, he wasn’t there to kid around about stuff that people fantasized or hallucinated about. And the disciples disagreed, and they held Thomas fast. In the love of God, Thomas was held with them, he remained with them in the room. And a whole week later Jesus appeared. “Put your finger here and see my hands.”
The resurrection is not about what the disciples thought and felt; it is not about what we think and feel. The resurrection is Jesus coming to his people for the sake of his love of the world. It is his welcome and love. His presence here for us, and for all of his people. He stretches out his arms on the cross to embrace the entire world, and to hold them fast. He gives the Holy Spirit to his community to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and to hold his people tight in his love.
The reading from the epistle today ends: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us. My little children, 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 and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
The whole world. God calls us to bring his forgiveness, his peace that drives out fear, to the entire world. Embrace all those that love you, and those who don’t. We start here, and then we are sent. In the openness of Christ, bring his love out into our world.
God will hold us all in his love.