Second Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O God of life, you reach out to us amid our fears with the wounded hands of your risen Son. By your Spirit’s breath revive our faith in your mercy, and strengthen us to be the body of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
What is a pastor to do when a wealthy, prominent and powerful member of his congregation commits an unspeakable sin? That was precisely the dilemma facing Ambrose, bishop of Rome. His parishioner was none other than Theodosius the First, emperor of Rome. It all started in April 390. Butheric, a Roman governor in command of Thessalonica, ordered the arrest of a popular charioteer on charges of rape. The sports loving populous demanded the charioteer’s release. When Butheric refused, a riot ensued in which Butheric and several lesser Roman authorities were killed. Enraged by news of the uprising, Theodosius ordered an immediate retaliation. The army units sent to Thessalonica indiscriminately massacred seven thousand civilians without regard to their involvement in the rioting.
Ambrose had options. It might have been prudent for him to ignore the whole affair and treat Theodosius as though nothing had occurred. What is done is done. There is no bringing back the seven thousand. So why risk offending a member whose support is critical to the ministry of your congregation? (Imperial support was, rightly or wrongly, viewed as critical to the wellbeing of the church). Then again, Ambrose might have employed a little constructive engagement. He might have invited the emperor out to lunch and, after some light conversation about family and sports, brought up the Thessalonian affair in an off handed way. “You know, Theo, I noticed that you got a lot of bad press for your handling of that business in Thessalonica. What is the real story about that?” Theo squirms a bit in his chair. “As usual,” he replies, “the press put its anti-imperial slant on things. I can assure you that our response to the unspeakable crimes committed in that city was measured and restrained.” After an awkward silence, Theo goes on to say, “Of course, I understand there may have been some excesses in a few individual cases. I can assure you, Pastor, I will look into these claims and see to it that justice is done.” Congratulations, you have nudged imperial policy toward justice-slightly perhaps. Or not.
You could also take the “pastoral approach.” “Hey Theo,” you say to him after a game of squash (which you prudently let him win), “This thing with Thessalonica, that’s not like you. I’m seeing in that a whole lot of anger. Is something going on with you, buddy?” Theo collapses on a bench with his head in his hands. “It’s my wife. She’s spoiling that kid of ours. I am trying to teach him some responsibility. That’s important for a kid his age. He is going to be ruler of the empire for heaven’s sake! But every time he acts up, gets into trouble or starts slacking off, my wife makes excuses for him, takes his side and turns me into the bad guy. My own father was a real ball buster. Push, push, push. I swore I would never be like that with my own kids. But every day I see myself becoming more like my father. I hate it! But what can I do? Somebody has to be firm with that kid…” Theo has a good cathartic cry and feels much better. He thanks you for being such a sensitive and caring pastor. Now that he has had a chance to vent, he will certainly moderate his foreign policy, right? Dream on.
Or you could do what Ambrose did: excommunicate the emperor. According to church historian Theodoretus, when the emperor tried to enter a Milanese church where Ambrose was about to celebrate a mass, the bishop stopped him and rebuked him for what he had done to the people of Thessalonica refusing him admission. Only after Theodosius underwent a lengthy period of penance and promised to enact reforms ensuring due process for persons accused of capital crimes did Ambrose readmit him to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the lessons for this week, I am focusing here on the resurrected Christ’s injunction to his disciples in John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This verse figured heavily into my ordination vows and is typically associated with what Lutherans call “the power of the keys.” This, according to Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, is “the peculiar church power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” LSC, Part V. Luther goes on to cite the above passage from John in support of this assertion. I have no quarrel with the Catechism as far as the assertion goes, but for reasons I will come to later, I do not believe that this particular verse relates to the power of the keys as Luther defines it. Even so, the questions remain: at what point does the church resort to excommunication? Who makes the final decision to excommunicate? What sort of sins warrant excommunication?
Clearly, Ambrose was taking a courageous stand that might have gotten him killed. Still, historians differ over the extent to which the conflict really was between a pastor and his parishioner concerning sin rather than a battle of political will between leaders of the ever competing ecclesiastical and imperial estates within the Byzantine Empire. Therein lies the problem with excommunication. Christian congregations are nothing if not political. Is the sin of a troublesome congregational member who is forever impeding the march of progress likely to be measured with greater strictness than the sin of a team player who supports the congregational programs and policies? What kinds of sin merit excommunication? Often that depends on the cultural biases of the congregation. In some places, fornication warrants expulsion from the church. In other places, use of bottled water is a crime against the environment but sexual indiscretions are politely ignored. How do you measure the severity of sin? When is excommunication the preferred or perhaps only appropriate remedy?
I think that St. Paul’s measure is the most helpful standard. In Paul’s view, a disciple’s conduct must be shaped by the understanding that s/he is a member of the Body of Christ. Sin is whatever injures the unity of the Body. That means ethical conduct is to some extent contextual. Whether a disciple should eat meat sacrificed to idols was a burning issue among the believers at Corinth. May a believer purchase such meat in the market and eat it-as long as s/he does so without taking part in the sacrificial rite in which it was slaughtered? It depends, says Paul. If consuming such meat can be done without giving offense to a fellow believer or compromising the witness of the church to Jesus, then there is nothing wrong with it. Meat is meat. Nevertheless, if eating meat offered to idols will damage the credibility of the church’s witness or give offense to another disciple of Jesus for whom such meat constitutes a sacrifice offered to false gods, then the disciple must refrain. See I Corinthians 8. Similarly, when Paul discusses sexual immorality, his primary concern is not what and with whom, but the effect such behavior has on “the Body,” which I interpret as the Body of Christ. Because each disciple is a member of that Body, engaging a prostitute is not simply a matter of private immorality. It necessarily involves the entire church. See I Corinthians 6:12-20. Notorious sexual immorality also reflects badly on the church’s public witness and is therefore cause for excommunication in at least some cases. See I Corinthians 5:1-13. Thus, it seems there are two questions that must be asked before setting in motion disciplinary measures that might lead to excommunication. First, is the member’s conduct threatening the unity of the church? Second, is the member’s conduct compromising the church’s mission and witness? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then discipline may be appropriate.
Clearly, not all sin calls for disciplinary action. The church is made up of recovering sinners who are called to live as family under the umbrella of God’s forgiveness in Christ. Thus, if a sister or brother sins against us numerous times in one day, the appropriate response is forgiveness, whether it is requested or not. Forgiveness is always the remedy of choice when it comes to dealing with sin. Discipline is exercised only when a member’s sin threatens the unity or witness of the church. Excommunication is a radical step to be used sparingly and only when all other disciplinary measures have failed. Finally, it seems that excommunication is far too weighty a matter to be left in the hands of any single individual. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus places this decision in the hands of the whole church. See Matthew 18:15-20. Paul also indicates that discipline must be exercised by the whole church on the basis of competent evidence. See I Corinthians 5:3-5; II Corinthians 13:1-4.
Peter and his fellow apostles are in trouble again. At their last hearing, they were warned not to teach, preach or heal in the name of Jesus. Note well that the prohibition is not against teaching, preaching or healing generally. Some years ago a colleague of mine told me about how the churches in her city were hosting a statewide breakfast program for low income children. To qualify for participation in the program, churches were compelled to cover up or remove all religious images such as icons, crosses and statues. This was necessary, she explained, to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion. My colleague did not seem to have any problem with the conditions for her church’s involvement in the program. From her perspective, the important thing was that the kids were getting breakfast. If covering or removing images of Jesus was the price to be paid for cooperation in a venture that was surely in the spirit of Jesus, it was well worth the cost.
Is that really the case? Were the apostles being stubborn and pig headed? Why not continue the good work of teaching, healing and caring for the poor without bringing up Jesus? Does it matter whether the church is publically associated with Jesus in its work? Is the public proclamation of Jesus indispensable to doing God’s will in the world? Can you do works in Jesus’ name without mentioning that name? As long as you are doing what Jesus requires, why does it matter whose name is on the final product?
At the risk of sounding ruthlessly sectarian, I believe that the name of Jesus is indispensible to the church’s mission. Thus, were I in the place of my colleague, I would with great sorrow let the breakfast hosting opportunity go. To those who would fault me for my seeming lack of concern for hungry children, I would reply that children do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words and actions are not as easily separable as we moderns imagine. In fact, if you take the Gospel of John at all seriously, Word and action are entirely inseparable. That is the reason why Peter and John could say last week that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The proclamation of Jesus simply was not negotiable. The apostles’ actions were grounded in the Word they were preaching. We call that Incarnation.
As an attorney, I understand and respect the legitimate concern of the government to avoid entanglement between state services and the promotion of religion. I also understand that the circumstances in which my colleague found herself were vastly different from those of the apostles. In her case, she was working with a friendly government to achieve a common humanitarian objective. The apostles were struggling to be faithful under the weight of persecution by a hostile government. Yet whether the state employs threats of violence, entices us with promises or appeals to us on the basis of the common good to abandon Jesus, the net effect is the same. As church, we are not motivated by some vague notion of the common good (which is always less “common” and frequently less “good” than is claimed). The church lives and acts out of its relationship to Jesus and its call to bear witness to God’s salvation in his name. Apart from that relationship, we are no longer the church.
The psalm for this week is a continuation of the same one used for Easter Sunday. I therefore refer you to my comments from last week’s post.
These verses serve as an introduction to a series of messages addressed to the “seven churches that are in Asia.” The reference here is actually to Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey. The seven churches are later identified as those of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The number of “seven” is symbolic of completeness or perfection and therefore may be a literary device. Thus, it could well be that the letters were meant for general circulation as a group throughout Asia Minor rather than individually addressed to the seven specific churches mentioned and that the matters discussed with these congregations were actually issues common to most or all of the churches in the area.
Much speculation has been given to what the “seven spirits” of God represent. Again, the symbolic meaning suggested by use of the number “seven” implies that John is simply referring to the manifold energies of the one Spirit of God. It is also possible that the “spirits” are simply another designation of the “angels” of each of the seven churches referenced throughout the balance of chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Revelation. Some ancient commentators have identified the seven spirits with the seven aspects of the Spirit to be conferred upon the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” referenced in Isaiah 11:2. Frankly, I think this latter interpretation is a bit of a stretch.
The reference to the Son of Man coming in the clouds echoes Jesus’ testimony before the Sanhedrin. Mark 14:62; Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:69. These passages, in turn, point back to Daniel 7:13. Also referenced in this verse is Zechariah 12:10. The alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet respectively; hence, the Lord God is the beginning and end of all things, “the one who is, who was and who is to come.” Vs. 4.
This introduction sets the stage for John of Patmos to deliver the message of his widely misunderstood and woefully misinterpreted book of Revelation. He seeks to impress upon the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to live faithfully are of cosmic importance and eternal significance. He accomplishes this objective by projecting those struggles upon the screen of apocalyptic drama in which good and evil engage each other as fantastic beasts, angels and spirits. These characters are pregnant with symbolic meanings, many of which are now lost to us. Still, the rich poetry of Revelation has always been and continues to be a rich fountain for inspired and hopeful preaching. The refrain of this book, sounded in so many different keys, is the promise that God’s gentle reign will be implemented not through the violent ways of human empire, but through the patient and persistent love of God manifest in the crucified Lamb of God.
Something is different about Jesus after his resurrection. He appears, disappears, and is able come into a room that has been locked up tight without breaking down the door. Yet he is no mere spirit. You can touch him. He still bears the wounds of the cross and this is important. The incarnation is irreversible. Jesus became human and remains so. God, having become flesh, will never shed his humanity. The body of Jesus was not just a clever disguise. Jesus’ body is Jesus. The resurrected Christ is still wounded and bleeding, still suffers the pain of a broken humanity and continues to struggle toward the promised reign of God. Now, however, it is clear that not even death can extinguish God’s incarnate love.
John’s Pentecost occurs on the day of resurrection. Jesus breathes on his disciples the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go forth even as he was sent forth from the Father. The life of the disciples is to be a continuation of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus embodied the Word of God, so they are to embody that same Word now through the power of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus prayed for in Chapter 17 is now being implemented. Jesus will be in his disciples just as he is in the Father. By the agency of the Holy Spirit they will be made one and by their love for one another the love of God will be made known to the world.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? As I indicated in my opening remarks, this verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” LSC, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Poor Thomas gets a regular drubbing whenever this lesson comes up. I say it is time to give Thomas a break. For the last two millennia he has had to live with the shameful moniker “Doubting Thomas” even though he sought nothing more in the way of proof for the resurrection than the other disciples had already received. I think that too much emphasis has been placed on Thomas’ faith or the lack thereof and too little upon the wounds in the Body of Christ that demonstrate God’s continued suffering love for a rebellious world. This will likely be the focus of my sermon if I wind up preaching on this text.