Last revised: April 8, 2018
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2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR B
RCL: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
RoCa: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2018 we solemnly remembered the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. The above quote about darkness and light, hate and love, is about the role of violence in human history. Following Gandhi, who was following Jesus, King believed that violence cannot drive out violence, only nonviolent commitment to resisting the power of violence can ultimately do that. Only a willingness to openly suffer violence can expose violence’s failure to vanquish itself.
The element of a New Reformation this week is to emphasize faith, pistis, both as a trust in the power of nonviolent resistance as the only power in this world to ultimately vanquish violence, and as a faithfulness to Jesus’ cross-shaped Way of nonviolent resistance. Let’s admit it: it is a tremendously difficult faith to live! All of previous human history has been built upon faith in sacred violence’s power to vanquish violence.
We see this, I think, in today’s infamous story of “doubting Thomas.” What is it that Thomas is doubting? That someone could be raised from the dead? Remember that only days earlier he has witnessed Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11) — so, no, it’s unlikely that Thomas is doubting resurrection itself. John’s Gospel portrays the raising of Lazarus, in fact, as the last straw for Caiaphas and the Judean leadership. News of Jesus’ power to raise someone from the dead is kindling hopes of a Messiah who can bring to climax the hope of the Maccabees, hope in a day of resurrection following upon a glorious victory of the Messiah over their enemies.
The zeal of the Maccabees of course involves faith in the power of sacred violence, a zeal that frightens a leader like Caiaphas but bolsters the average Jew like Thomas. No, Thomas isn’t doubting that someone can be raised from the dead. He is doubting whether Jesus really was the Messiah. How could a Messiah carry wounds of a crucifixion on his hands, feet, and side? The Messiah is supposed to harness sacred violence to vanquish such violence, not be vanquished by it himself. Thomas, in short, is doubting whether Jesus would be raised from the dead because his faith is still in the power of sacred violence, and so he doubts Jesus’ Messiahship.
When Jesus appears to Thomas a week later, it is the beginning of a new faith, faith in the power of love to drive out hate, nonviolent suffering to drive out violence, light as the only thing that can drive out darkness.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus of Nazareth. The final section of the book, entitled “Sin in the Community and Transformation of Evil,” centers on a Girardian’s reading of the Ananias and Sapphira story, on this portion of Acts in which the disciples share everything in common.
Reflections and Questions
1. There has often been a big deal made about this passage as an example of communism in the Bible. Counter-arguments have drawn contrasts between the atheistic forms of the modern political movements and this small, Christ-centered community of believers. Without taking a political stance, Girardians can take a slightly different tact: following Christ means following in the way of nonrivalrous mimetic desire; sharing possessions in common as described here could certainly be a manifestation of such nonrivalrous desire.
But there are suspicious signs of rivalry and violence around this text. The Jewish leaders clearly act in rivalry with the apostles, but do the latter also reciprocate in some ways? I’m not enamored with, and not quite sure what to make of, the prayer which precedes this passage in response to the Jewish leaders (Acts 4:23-31). I would feel better about an emphasis on the Eucharist as having preceded the passage about the practice of common possessions. I think that the sacrament must always be at the heart of our re-socialization based on the servanthood of Christ.
And what follows this passage is also troubling: the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). What is the Girardian take on people who die on cue? Isn’t that usually a cover-up for human violence? How did Ananias and Sapphira really die? Any other reactions to the lack of emphasis on the Eucharist? (Contrast this summary of their life with Acts 2:43-47, where breaking bread with gladness is at the center.)
1 John 1:1-2:2
1. James Alison, Raising Abel. Chapter two is alone worth the price of the book. Beginning with the Resurrection — which is what this season is about! — Alison shows how the Christ event began to unfold for the apostles a renewed experience of God. First, the resurrection begins to dawn on them that God is totally about life. Death is our thing, something that we are enthralled to. Next, we begin to see that, if God is not about death, then God is not about violence either. Our experience of God is being pruned of the violence. I would like to share with you the next step that Alison lays out for us, since it relies heavily on 1 John:
The Second Step: the Revelation of God as Love
It is not only that the living God is pruned of violence, by an act of negative theology, as it were. There is much more. In John 3:16 we can read a real step forward:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
This means that the apostolic meditation about the utterly living God revealed by Jesus and his resurrection had been able to reconsider what had been going on in Jesus’ death. If we look at that death in the light of the violent god, we see a blasphemer who is killed so as to satisfy the law of god that whosoever acts thus must die. However, if God raises up this man, then the first step is to recognize that the violence against that man was human and not divine — the separation of God from violence. The second step is to see that the disposition of that man to allow himself to be killed was not accidental, but a deliberate plan of self-giving to make it possible for us to believe in the utter vivacity of God, and thus to begin to live, ourselves, outside the dominion of death. That is to say, we can see a positive intention of love in the way in which Jesus gave himself up to death; and that positive intention of love is described by saying that God gave his only Son.
Now, this “giving his only Son” is not an idea pulled out of a hat. It is, itself, the demythologization of a story from the Old Testament: the story of Abraham who was prepared to give up his only (legitimate) son to God, by sacrificing him. But look at what has happened meanwhile: in the first story God is a god who demands sacrifices from humans, including the one sacrifice which really mattered, even though, in the story as we have it in Genesis 22, God himself organizes a substitute for the sacrifice. In any case, we still have a capricious deity. What we see in the New Testament, completely in line with the change in the perception of God that I’ve been setting out, is that it is not humans who offer a sacrifice to God (by, for instance, killing a blasphemous transgressor), but God who offers a sacrifice to humans. The whole self-giving of Jesus becomes possible because Jesus is obedient to God, giving himself in the midst of violent humans who demand blood, so as finally to unmask and annul the system of murderous mendacity which the world is.
Once more, if you think I’m making this up, everything which I have been saying is beautifully and exactly resumed in the first epistle of John. There we see what the message is, the nucleus of the Gospel:
This then is the message which we have heard of him (i.e. Jesus), and declare unto you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
That is: what Jesus came to announce was a message about God, and God’s being entirely without violence, darkness, duplicity, ambivalence or ambiguity. This message is then unpacked by the author in the following verses, and then he gives us the famous summing up of where this process of the changing perception of God has led to:
…for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10)
Here we have the element of the discovery of the absolutely vivacious and effervescent nature of God leading to the realization that behind the death of Jesus there was no violent God, but a loving God who was planning a way to get us out of our violent and sinful life. Not a human sacrifice to God, but God’s sacrifice to humans. (Raising Abel, pp. 44-46)
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. In a passage similar to the one just quoted, Alison instead moves his use of 1 John toward the doctrine of the Trinity.
By the time we get to the Johannine writings, and particularly the epistles, the shift out of the Old Testament discourse, and towards the abstract anthroplogical understanding of salvation is further advanced. We get a simple definition presented as being the absolute kernel of the Gospel:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
That is to say, the Gospel is the revelation of the monotheism that is utterly purified of violence; and then, further on:
…for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8b-10)
Here God is shown as the love that was made manifest through “the intelligence of the victim” [which is Alison’s shorthand phrase for the insight that comes from taking the perspective of the victim].What we have then is a gradual process of the re-casting of God in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, such that it becomes seen that the previous discourse [i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures], within which Jesus had operated, and within which his victimary self-understanding was forged, was in fact a provisional discourse. In the light of the resurrection it gradually becomes possible to see that it was not that God was previously violent, now blessing, now cursing (see Deut. 32:39), but had now brought all that ambivalence to an end. Rather, it became possible to see that that was all a human violence, with various degrees of projection onto God. God had been from the beginning, always, immutably, love, and that this love was made manifest in sending his Son into the midst of the violent humans, even into the midst of their persecutory projections of God, so that they might treat him as a human victim, and thus reveal the depth of the love of God, who was prepared to be a human victim simultaneously to show the depth of his love for humanity, and to reveal humanity as having been locked into the realm of the Father of lies [John 8:44].
The process we have seen in the Pauline writings and in the Johannine epistles is then the definitive demystification of God and man, such that it becomes possible to look again at the crucifixion and the resurrection and develop a perception of God only as derived from that event. So it becomes possible to see the crucifixion as the meeting point between, on the one hand, a human act of violence, and, on the other hand, the love of the Father, who sends his Son into humanity as an act of love, the Son who gives himself freely to being victimized by human beings as part of his imitative love of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, who is the inner dynamic of the relationship between the two of them. Jesus on the Cross gives up his Spirit to the Father. The Father at the resurrection gives back the Spirit to the Son, and the two of them are then able to give this same Spirit, the Spirit of the crucified-and-risen victim to humans as induction into a new way of being human — becoming children of God (see John 1:11-12, the chiastic centre of the prologue), quite outside the violence of the “world.”
The understanding of God as Trinity then is the understanding that the Cross of Christ, made alive in the resurrection, was in fact a relational reality — a reality of giving and of self-giving that was saving as revealing, and revealing as saving. The Trinity is revealed as the salvific density of the Cross. (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 107-109)
3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Ch. 26, “Making It Real.” McLaren lists this as a text to go along with an imaginative telling of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus’ healing forgiveness.
Reflections and Questions
1. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” — 1 John 1:5. This verse has become somewhat of a signature verse for me. I read it as a summary of the Gospel which represents the pinnacle of insight from an anthropological theology. We come to understand all of our experiences of a darkness in God — i.e., a divine wrath or violence — are idolatrous. The Hebrew scriptures set us well on the way to this insight by entertaining the notion of monotheism at all, namely, that there is only one true God. A version of 1 John 1:5 in the Hebrew scriptures is the formula, “YHWH is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” — found in at least seven passages: Exod. 34:6; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2. The revelation in Jesus the Messiah, then, brings this trajectory of monotheistic insight to its fulfillment, as expressed in a passage such as 1 John 1:5.
2. Hasn’t the history of Christian theology, however, represented a back-sliding from the pinnacle of 1 John 1:5? In my own theological tradition of Lutheranism, the story of Luther’s conversion is the story of one in which his experience of God through the Medieval church was of an extremely dark God, a God of terrible wrath and threatening violence. Luther’s emphasis on the God of light revealed in Jesus Christ represents a step forward once again. But I’m not sure that Luther successfully brings us all the way back: he maintains a hidden side of God in which these darker qualitites may still seem to reside. I believe that Girard’s anthropology of the cross can complement Luther’s theology of the cross in a way that more clearly returns us to the height of Christian insight in 1 John 1:5. Link to a sermon that elaborates these themes, “Spirit-Ministry of the Weakest Link” (Pentecost 2001; a farewell sermon at my last parish).
3. The “atoning sacrifice for our sins” in 2:2 is also made more clear by mimetic theory — the Alison piece from Raising Abel above being a good example. When speaking of sacrifice, especially when it comes to Christ, we need to see that we are the ones who demand sacrifices, not God. In Jesus Christ our sacrificial mechanisms are transformed into the way of self-sacrifice.
Verse 23: an tinōn aphēte tas hamartias apheōntai autois, an tinōn kratēte kekratēntai. The NRSV translates it: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The word for “sins,” hamartias, is not in the second phrase; it can be ‘read’ into it since the two phrases are otherwise parallel, but not necessarily. The verb krateō also has a fairly wide range of meanings: take possession of, arrest, grasp, seize; hold, restrain, retain.
…the text of John 20:23 does not say anything about “retaining sins.” Translated literally, it says, “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they are forgiven to them; whomever you hold are held fast.”
In other words, just as the Father sent Jesus (to take away the sin of the world), even so Jesus is sending us to forgive and dissolve the last residues of sin as we embrace the world the way he embraced us. Jesus took away the sin, singular, of the world, exposing the underlying deception that warped our desires, our view of God, ourselves and the world. We are now called to forgive the sins, plural, of the world, these are the many after effects, the thoughts and behaviors that resulted from the singular sin — our basic blindness. We continue in this new spirit, this new mimetic cycle of love, to embrace and include others in the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. (245-46)
There is an emphasis in both this story and the “doubting Thomas” story to follow on Jesus showing them his hands and his side. At the time of this Gospel we know of a drift toward gnosticism, or docetism, the tendency to say that Jesus just seemed to be human. This emphasis on the hands and side is a way of saying that the crucifixion was a real death of a real human being. Jesus wasn’t just shadow-playing. The disbelief in the Thomas story is more of a disbelief in the crucifixion than the resurrection, from this standpoint of answering gnosticism. It is the scandal of the crucifixion which makes the resurrection difficult for gnostics to believe. In these verses, the emphasis is on “Peace be with you. As the Father sends me…” This sums up the resurrection, which is the experience of suddenly being impelled to do what he did. My life is no longer my own. He lives in me. The experience of the resurrection is twofold. First part: The Christic impulse is in me. I feel compelled to do what he did.
The second part: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The Holy Spirit is synonymous with the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the defender of victims. How do we defend victims? Urban II had a way of defending victims: go and slaughter the victimizers [a reference back to the discussion of the Crusades earlier in this lecture]. We know where that leads. How does the Paraclete defend victims? Forgiveness, even forgiveness of the victimizers. From our sacrificial point of view, we read this as a stern God who says, ‘You get to go out there and decide who’s going to go to hell and who’s not.’ Rather, the part about retaining sins is an urging to the disciples to get out there and get busy forgiving people’s sins, because if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. Unless people experience forgiveness from them, they won’t be forgiven. If they don’t experience forgiveness at the hands of the Jesus’ disciples, then they will go on generating the kinds of rituals by which they will feel expiated. It’s not some pious thing that says, ‘Ah, you’re O.K.’ It’s tremendously dynamic – and hard to pull off. People today will pay hundreds of dollars an hour trying to be forgiven.
Rowen Williams wrote: “There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.” The resurrection was an experience of forgiveness. The disciples had all abandoned Jesus, becoming complicit with his murderers. The fact that the resurrection was happening to them was an experience of forgiveness for them.
Followed by quotes from Schillebeeckx, H.J. Richards, Bonhoeffer, Sullivan, and Johann Baptiste Metz.
2. David Froemming, Salvation Story, pp. 100-03. He concludes:
Fear has been broken by the presence of Jesus’ identity in the midst of the disciples as his narrative and promise of peace is remembered. Here is the resurrection breakthrough — the positive power of mimesis is in the remembering of Jesus and in the following of him despite all the wounds of his crucifixion and death. John joins together the power of forgiveness in Jesus’ words of “peace” and his giving to the disciples his Spirit, conferring upon them the very power of forgiveness to exercise in the world. The narrative identity and character of Jesus that was already embodied in the disciples, as well as others, has now been set free to be the presence of the risen Christ for the world.
Let us again make note of that which is not part of the narrative identity of Jesus. There is no reprisal from God for the death of Jesus. The battle myth has been ended. There is peace and forgiveness in the place of more violence. The positive side of human mimesis has been restored as resurrection marks the realization of our life extending to others and their life extending to us through this event of the risen Christ. In the resurrection of Jesus, the power of fear is broken and continues to be broken wherever and whenever someone experiences the breakthrough of all the lives of people whose image and memory provides peace, comfort, direction, wisdom and the courage to live and love. The resurrection is indeed bodily as the life of Jesus comes to be embodied in all of humanity. (102-03)
3. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 121. Commenting on the notion of binding or loosing sins,
Why is it that we so easily assume we are being allowed, even encouraged to bind on earth? Why are we slower to see that maybe we are being encouraged to loose on earth? Let’s return to Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive and Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. If we have to forgive others as God forgives us, and that without limit which is what seventy-seven times means, then we are indeed being encouraged to loose on earth. We are being warned that if we do not loose on earth, we are bound to our resentment for what others have done to us (or we think they have done to us.) If we remain bound to our resentments, we will be so bound even in Heaven since God’s hands are indeed tied for as long as we refuse to let God untie us. Truly accepting this free gift of forgiveness entails passing this free gift on to others. We are all thrown into the same world together. The question is whether we will be tied up in vengeance or bound with others by forgiveness.
4. Brian Zahnd, various places in his books. Beginning with his most recent book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, there is a quintessential Zahnd paragraph that could be used as an encapsulation of the Gospel:
The cross is not about the satisfaction of an omnipotent vengeance. The cross is about the revelation of divine mercy. In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. Once we understand that God is revealed in Christ (and not against Christ), we realize what we are seeing when we look at the cross. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs human sin and recycles it into forgiveness. At Golgotha humanity violently sinned its sins into Jesus. Jesus bore these sins all the way down into death and left them there. On the third day Jesus arose without a word of vengeance, speaking only “Peace be with you” on that first Easter (John 20:19). When we look at the cross we see the lengths to which God will go to forgive sin. The cross is both ugly and beautiful. The cross is as ugly as human sin and as beautiful as divine love — but in the end love and beauty win. (87-88)
In Chapter 3 of A Farewell to Mars, “Christ against the Crowd,” Zahnd does his usual good job of explaining the center of Girard’s work — how crowds turn against scapegoats, and how the cross of Christ exemplifies this.
On the cross Jesus took the blame. All the blame. Our sinful addiction to blaming others — Jesus took that upon himself. He was innocent, but he took the blame anyway. Caiaphas blamed Jesus; Pilate blamed Jesus; Herod blamed Jesus; the crowd blamed Jesus — and Jesus took the blame. The practice of blaming is given a place to die in Jesus. Jesus carried our blame down to Hades — where it belongs — and left it there. Jesus became the final scapegoat. The innocent one, suffering, praying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 ESV). And Jesus was telling the truth from the cross — we do not know what we are doing when we blame the scapegoat. We have been deceived by the crowd, by the satan, by the spirit of fear. So Jesus died for our sins. Jesus died at the hands of humans under the satanic impulse to blame. Jesus died as an innocent victim of the demonic scapegoat system that the crowd always resorts to. And he died with forgiveness on his lips. Jesus took the blame to do away with blaming. Jesus bore the accusation to do away with accusing. Jesus became the scapegoat banished to the wilderness of death. But then something new happened.
The banished scapegoat came back! Three days later Jesus was vindicated by God the Father in resurrection! But in his return from the wilderness of death, Jesus did not speak of revenge; instead he spoke of peace and forgiveness. (See John 20:19-23.) Yes, Jesus forgives us, but he also calls us to forsake the evil practice of turning people into scapegoats. Jesus says to a humanity that has built its civilizations upon the blood of sacrificial victims, “I forgive you, but we’re not going to play this way anymore.” No more cruelty. No more blame. No more scapegoating. No more sacrificing. No more trying to shape the world by the violent sacrifice of collective murder. Jesus is the Lamb of God who ends sacrifice! (83-84)
In the closing chapter, this passage plays a prominent role in painting a picture of the new world that begins on Easter:
On the evening of his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room, saying, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his wounds and then said again, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-21). Peace is the first word of a new world. Having absorbed the sin and death of Cain’s violent civilization into his own body, Jesus carried it away to Hades and on the third day rose again to speak a fresh new word to the world of humankind — the word peace!
With the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, the kingdom of God has come — and it is a peaceable kingdom. It’s time for the lion to lay down with the lamb. War belongs to the previous age governed by the satan. The age to come, inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection, is an age where war is abolished, peace reigns, and spears are set aside for pruning hooks.
Does everyone accept this? Of course not. That’s why the anachronism of war is still with us. But those who confess Christ has been raised are to embody the reign of Christ here and now. No more eschatological shenanigans where we keep pushing the reign of Christ off until we’ve waged a few more wars. No! The Lion of Judah has overcome the beasts of empire, and he’s done so as a slaughtered Lamb. Now we are called to follow the Lamb and give incarnation to his ways of peace. We who believe that Christ has risen have heard our Lord say, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). What Jesus did to embody the will of the Father on the cross was not just done on our behalf; it was also done as the way we are to follow. Jesus did not renounce the way of violence for the way of peace so that we could renounce the way of peace for the way of violence. The long dark night of mankind’s addiction to violence has come to an end. The new day of Messiah’s peace has dawned, and we are called to be children of the day. Do we dare? (188-89)
Finally, in a book titled Radical Forgiveness, John 20:23 plays a central role. It is cited on page 1 with a number of other biblical quotes about forgiveness. Later on in Chapter 1 it is cited in response to the nineteen men who changed the world on September 11, 2001:
Jesus Christ taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who abuse us. And he modeled it to the extreme. He carried his cross to Calvary and there forgave his enemies. As Christians, we believe that Calvary is the time and place that the world began to change. Did nineteen men full of hate and armed with box cutters change the world? What about twelve men full of love and armed with forgiveness? Yes, in the Upper Room on the evening of the Resurrection, Jesus breathed upon his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (John 20:22-23). Loving and forgiving our enemies, this is how we are to change the world! (13)
In Chapter 6 on “Forgiveness and Justice,” it begins by quoting Psalm 85:10 — “Mercy and Truth meet; Justice and Peace kiss” (quoted prominently in Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast) — and closes in the last paragraph with a quote of John 20:23:
In answer to Jesus’s prayer, there would be no retribution, no reprisal, no vengeful reckoning. Injustice had found a place to die — it died in Christ when he absorbed the blow on Good Friday without retaliation. And the resurrection of Christ was not only the Father’s vindication of his Son; it was also the dawn of a new world founded on the justice of reconciliation and forgiveness. The first Easter Sunday saw justice and peace kiss so that the risen Son of God could say, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19, 21). Ultimately, God’s justice is found in God’s mercy. This is how we are reconciled with God and with one another. This is how we are saved. (129)
And John 20:21-23 continues to shine right through to the closing paragraphs of the book, helping to sum up not only the book but the very mission of God in Jesus:
This is the possibility of forgiveness — the possibility of peace. It’s not the false peace that comes from getting our way and triumphing over our enemies. It’s the peace of Christ that comes by forgiving and being forgiven. It’s the peace that comes through the triumph of love in the form of forgiveness. This is the peace Jesus achieved when he loved unconditionally and forgave from the cross. As followers of the Lamb, we must come to realize that it is only through the practice of radical forgiveness that we can achieve real peace. Peace with God comes by forgiving and being forgiven. We both receive forgiveness and extend forgiveness by faith. Forgiveness is nothing less than faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). So as the people of faith, we keep on praying day by day, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We keep on forgiving seventy times seven. We keep on forgiving the sins of others and using the keys of the kingdom of heaven to liberate our world from the chains of hatred, which bind us to the cycle of revenge. This is how we follow our crucified and risen Lord. This is how peace comes to our heart, our home, our world. And peace doesn’t come any other way. Indeed, no peace is peace but that which comes through the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” — JOHN 20:21-23
The Father sent Jesus on a mission of forgiveness — a mission that led Jesus to the cross. That Jesus was faithful in his mission and succeeded in opening the door to forgiveness and peace is the testimony of God in the Resurrection. Now Jesus sends us on the same mission — the mission of forgiveness. We too will have to take up the cross, because forgiveness is often a kind of suffering. But we believe that beyond the suffering of radical forgiveness lie the resurrection of love and the triumph of peace. (219-20)
5. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, pp. 34-35, 101-02, 113-14, 301-2, 331, 348-49, 363-64. As the title suggests, a resurrection text like John 20 figures prominently. Robinette begins in Chapter by using John 20 in supporting the element of doubt:
Nearly every modern treatment of Jesus’ resurrection begins with discussion of the difficulty the “modern mind” has believing in it. We would be mistaken to suppose however that the conceptual difficulties in its consideration are unique to modern people. They abounded for the early church as well. … That John’s story of the “doubting Thomas” has reached the level of cliché only further confirms the point (John 20:24-29). If all of this is true of the early church, how much more so in subsequent centuries of Christian doctrine and practice? How much more so today, two millennia removed? (34-35)
In the second half of the book, Robinette brings Girard explicitly into the conversation. For example:
The cross displays the victim mechanism in its most crude form whilst unmasking it. “His suffering on the Cross,” writes Girard, “is the price Jesus is willing to pay in order to offer humanity this true representation of human origins that holds it prisoner. In offering himself in this way, he deprives the victim mechanism of its power in the long run.” Jesus’ self-gift is therefore redemptive suffering, not redemptive violence. He does not utilize violence in any form as a part of his Kingdom of God ministry; rather, he absorbs our violence in his very person in order to transform those who are addicted to its intoxicating power. As we stand before the crucified Christ contemplatively and worshipfully, we worship the person who reveals to us in an act of total self-giving the full scope and nature of our untruth. Our worship opens us to a purgative process that begins once we see our self-judgment and self-condemnation in the face of a victim whose innocence and non-violent hospitality is absolute. The cross disabuses us of our naiveté. It is revelation in the strictest sense of the term.
That this is possible to affirm is because of the resurrection. God has traversed our alienation by giving back the crucified Jesus to us in our concrete history. God’s forgiveness is not offered by a sort of divine fiat that renders our sin a matter of indifference. Because God allows the risen Jesus to appear in our midst with the marks of his rejection and crucifixion, such forgiveness allows us to adjust our eyes to see the full scope of our sin for the first time. The deepest mystery of the resurrection is found in God giving back to us the one we crucified. “The resurrection life includes the human death of Jesus,” writes Alison. “He is always present after the resurrection simultaneously as the crucified and as risen Lord.” The significance of this simultaneity is this: as we stand face-to-face with the risen Christ, we stand face-to-face with our sin from the perspective of divine forgiveness. The light of the latter makes the darkness of sin visible by contrast. In John, for example, Thomas is instructed by the risen Jesus to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). Thomas reacts to this remarkable invitation with a christological confession of the highest order. “My Lord and my God” (v. 28)! Whatever else we may want to say about the relationship of historical tactility and divine transcendence in this vignette, it gives elegant expression to the relationship between the risen victim and divine forgiveness. To “see” the crucified-and-risen One is to “see” the forgiving hospitality of God in its incomprehensible nearness. (300-01)
6. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 135-36. Schwager masterfully pairs John 20 with the Parable of the Wicked Vineyard Workers to provide a nice summary of the Gospel:
The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness however comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. But the heavenly Father in his Easter “judgment” acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge’s verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness for those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came about a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia, a pardon for the earlier nonacceptance of pardon. It could be summed up in that saying from the Old Testament, which, taken together with the parable of the wicked wine-growers and seen in the light of Easter, says something quite new and can serve as the hermeneutical key to the Gospels: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was accomplished by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10). The miracle of Good Friday and of Easter once again embraces those people who hardened their hearts and made their decision against the Son. A rightly understood doctrine of the atoning death is therefore, even when seen from the viewpoint of Easter, not in opposition to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is precisely the peace of Easter which shows how the Father of Jesus willingly forgives, even in the face of people’s hardened hearts.
7. Matthew Distefano, All Set Free, pp. 60-61, 107, 113. Most representative of these references:
Jesus, as Lord, is given authority to judge both the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1). As I discussed at length in chapter 5, the judgement of Jesus is rooted in mercy and grace — dying for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8), forgiving while being murdered (Luke 23:34), and returning from the dead with the word of peace (John 20:19-23). As judge, Jesus consistently displayed perfect justice — not deeming some guilty and some innocent, but all guilty (Romans 3:23), yet all shown mercy (Romans 11:33). (106)
8. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 27, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
9. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “The Precise Message“; and in 2015, “Do We Have to God to Church?“; Rob Grayson, a sermon in 2018, “How Jesus Comes to Us.”
1. Walter Wangerin, Jr.‘s version of this story in The Book of God lends itself well to a sermon about peace. What kind of peace do we usually think of when we read that Jesus suddenly came into their midst saying, “Peace be with you”? Peace from the inner turmoil of grief and guilt? Wangerin’s story sets the stage with Peter and James arguing, ready to come to physical blows, blaming each other. As James is ready to lunge at Peter, Jesus suddenly is between them speaking his word of peace. A much more dramatic version of “peace,” don’t you think? Link to a sermon using this theme entitled “Called as Peacemakers.”
2. An extension of the theme raised in #1 is an emphasis on social peace to counter-balance the modern emphasis on inner peace. The younger generations are increasingly divorcing their religious life from their so-called “spiritual” life in a way that lets loose of the social dimension. The well-worn line is, “One doesn’t have to go to church to be spiritual.” What is the goal of spirituality, then, an inner peace? Mimetic theory would challenge the fact that anyone could have inner peace without outer, social peace. Our psychologies themselves are inextricably social, depending on other people for our desires. Since the foundation of our human worlds, therefore, religion has been about what can hold us together in relative peace. The Christian Gospel reveals our religious mechanisms for peace as depending on violence against victims, and so the work of the Gospel has been to slowly undermine those age-old religious answers. But the answer can never be an isolated, inner peace. The Church has undoubtably been a colossal failure in providing God’s new answer to the social peace we crave. But is there anything better? In Word and Sacrament, Christ still comes to invite us into a Holy Communion. Link to a sermon exploring these themes, entitled “Do We Have to Go to Church?”
3. What is retaining sins about? Is this an ironic portion of the commissioning that Jesus throws in to make clear their mission is to not be as the unforgiving servant was in the parable of Matthew 18? How could they retain the sins of any after experiencing themselves this utterly gracious presence of Jesus among them as forgiveness? Had they done anything to deserve Jesus’ forgiving presence with them at that moment? Had Jesus himself shown any hint of retaining their sin?
I made ample use of this John 20 passage in my Epiphany 5C sermon (entitled “A Bad Hire?”) on the first calling of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. The theme I tried to bring out was that Jesus needed to call his disciples a second time. The first call didn’t stick. They all abandoned him at his time of need. So I used these verses from John 20 as an example of calling the disciples a second time. And I made a big deal out of the fact of Jesus calling them again after they had utterly failed. Why would he do that? Is this the case of a bad hire? Or is their failure, along with Jesus’ forgiveness of it, precisely their main qualification for being hired as apostles? Here’s the last several paragraphs of that sermon:
Here’s that second calling of the disciples, and it’s absolutely amazing! His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling “guilty as sin,” and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them — ‘You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I’m risen I’m going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.’ That’s what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it’s incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! And, some time later, when Jesus goes out to hire the person he wants to take this message of forgiveness to the ends of the earth, he hires Saul, one who is guilty of killing some of Jesus’ first messengers. Is Jesus crazy? No, of course not. He’s the Son of God, and so he definitely does things differently from what we would do. To spread a message of forgiveness, he hires not those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He hires those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.
You and I are called as disciples of Jesus. Why? Because we are somehow better than others? No, the job description for being a disciple of Jesus begins with knowing how wrong you are [Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong], with knowing how much you are forgiven. It begins by recognizing our own guilt and then having the wonderful experience of being forgiven for it. Life can begin anew! There is a joy in being forgiven, and that joy is knowing the life-giving power of being forgiven.
Our Risen Lord comes to us today once again in the Holy Sacrament of Communion. He comes to say to us, “Peace be with you.” Not only that, he comes to call us. He comes to hire us to help spread the news. He comes to ask us to extend this word of healing, life-giving forgiveness to others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Oh, yes, there’s also this second part about, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But after you yourself have had your sins forgiven, could you really retain the sins of another? You see? Jesus has hired the right people, after all. Amen
4. Another twist on the releasing and binding of sins in John 20:23 is to look at it through the Akedah, which means “binding,” the story of Genesis 22 in which Abraham binds Isaac for sacrifice and then is released from such a horrific command. Jesus continues the Good News of a God who releases us from the sin of such idolatrous sacrifice — a sin to which we might nevertheless continue to bind ourselves if we resist the Good News. See my reflections on John 20:23 in light of the Akedah at Proper 8A.
5. A comment from Britt Johnston in 1998:
A friend of mine who is a member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty was demonstrating against an execution in Alabama last year. He was holding a sign that said, ‘Jesus was executed.’ But a church-goer who was demonstrating in favor of the execution took issue with him, saying that Jesus’ death wasn’t really an execution because it was the will of God fore-ordained from before creation for our salvation, etc. This is the equivalent of Thomas’ words, “unless I touch….and…see, I will not believe.” This is what Paul meant by the cross being a scandal. Once again, we want to cover over the murder with a comfortable myth.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the content of our believing as Christians. What are we supposed to believe in? That Jesus was God’s Son? That he rose from the dead? Is that what Thomas is having a hard time believing? Is it hard to believe that someone can be raised from the dead? In John’s story, the raising of Lazarus was still fresh for Thomas. Can he not believe that God could raise Jesus from the dead? I’m not so sure that’s what Thomas’ problem was. Perhaps it wasn’t simply that God could raise Jesus from the dead. Perhaps he had trouble believing that God would raise a crucified Jesus from the dead. Why would God raise someone executed in utter shame? How could someone so shamed be the Messiah worthy of resurrection?
The above comment by the church-goer favoring capital punishment puts these questions in perspective, I think. What are we supposed to believe? To me, this church-goer is off the mark. We are invited to believe precisely that God raised this one whom we executed. The execution brings us face to face with the heart of the matter: that our cure for violence is sacred violence, and that God’s cure for violence is completely different. God submits to our sacred violence in the cross and reveals it as meaningless and powerless compared to God’s power of life. The only way to ultimately stop violence is to completely refrain from doing it, even if it means submitting to it, revealing its meaninglessness.
Isn’t this what is truly difficult for us to believe? Consider our response to the horrific terrorism of September 11. Can we conceive of any other response than our own form of sanctioned violence? That God might be calling us in Jesus Christ to another way to respond — isn’t that the toughest thing for us to believe in? Was Thomas having trouble believing that God’s Messiah would be crucified? Doesn’t that confront him, and us, with a completely unheard-of plan of salvation from our constant violence? Doesn’t he insist on seeing the nail prints and the mark of the spear because he is having trouble believing in a crucified one? How could one who seemed so powerless against the violence actually be the one who is saving us from it? If we want to truly be challenged by something in which to believe, try believing that there is ultimately a nonviolent way to stop violence. Can we believe there’s another kind of response to September 11 than to wield our full military might at terrorism? And that Jesus came to call us to that other way? Don’t more folks have greater difficulty believing in the latter than in Jesus being raised from the dead?
6. My 2002 sermon, “Dreaming of Peace,” is very much related to these reflections (especially #4) but was spurred on from a most unexpected source: I had a dream, on the Saturday night before preaching, of experiencing an execution. I awoke still shuddering from the revulsiveness of it and immediately began to connect it to Thomas’ doubt in this Gospel Lesson. I have never before had an experience of feeling like a dream was given to me by God, and it resulted in an unusually powerful preaching experience for me.