Sunday, 1 May 2011

Resurrection: the transformation of evil

Sermon for the Sunday after Easter, St Matthew’s, 1st May 2011: John 20: 19-23

This is the second of two sermons on the resurrection. My first was at the 10.30 service last Sunday. In that sermon I talked about transformation – firstly as looking back, secondly as turning round and thirdly as acceptance. My sermon was based on the first resurrection appearance described in John’s gospel: to Mary Magdalene, in the garden, in the early morning of that first Easter Sunday. Our gospel reading today comes immediately after that story. It’s now the Easter Sunday evening and while the other disciples have heard from Mary that she has seen Jesus, and at least two of them – Peter and another disciple – have been to the tomb and have found it empty with the grave clothes just lying there – they haven’t actually seen Jesus yet.

One of the striking things about this account of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the locked room is that it is so short: much shorter than the account of Mary meeting Jesus in the garden and very much shorter than the account of Jesus meeting the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the next and last chapter of John’s gospel. And yet so much happens in just a few verses. For example this is John’s account of the conferring of the Holy Spirit to the disciples – which Luke records as happening on a separate occasion. The passage also contains what I think is a very difficult verse: the last verse in our passage and apparently Jesus’ last words to the disciples before he leaves them for the time being: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Why does John feel it necessary to record these words in particular? This is what I want to explore a little today. I can’t explain what they mean entirely but I think they are interesting for as much as what they don’t say as what they do.

But first going back to what I said last week about transformation based on Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus. I said that the resurrection changes everything though casting the crucifixion in particular, and suffering in general, in a new light. But for that to happen we have firstly to look back: just as Mary must return to the tomb in order to find the risen Jesus. This return is surely almost ‘hopeless’ (Mary has seen Jesus die, what is there to find at the tomb?) But return we must.

But secondly after looking back we must turn around, turn away from our suffering, not in order to forget it but to move on into a new way of life, transformed by the hope of resurrection. Just as Mary must turn away from the tomb and turn around to recognise the stranger, who she has assumed to be the gardener, as her friend Jesus.

Finally for our lives to be transformed we have to accept that the transformation is possible, to accept the vocation to which we are called. When Jesus meets Mary her whole way of seeing things is changed. But only for a purpose. Jesus tells her to go and tell the other disciples and give them a message – that he is ‘ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’. She has to accept this task and she does so willingly.

The resurrection, therefore, changes our perspective on suffering. Through the lens of the resurrection the events of Jesus’ last week, his betrayal, arrest, humiliation, suffering and death, begin to make sense. But the resurrection also changes our perspective on evil.

It is perhaps significant that Jesus first resurrection appearance – according to John and Mark is to Mary who was, in no way, implicated in Jesus’ death. She doesn’t even desert Jesus at his crucifixion, but is to be found - according to John - at the foot of the cross. Mary’s return to the grave is not because she feels guilt, but only grief at his loss.

For the male disciples, on the other, hand the resurrection of Jesus is surely much more complicated. Are they not partly, at least, responsible for his crucifixion? Judas is the one who actually betrays him but at the last supper they all uncertain who it is going to be. Might each one worry that it might be them? Peter is the one who actually denies that he knows Jesus when questioned whether he knows him but where are the rest of the disciples at Jesus’ trial? They are there at his arrest but do nothing really sensible to protect their Lord. The disciples, in effect, at best do nothing to prevent the crucifixion and at worst (like Judas and Peter) actively collude with the authorities in bringing it about.

We too may not be actively involved in evil - the violence and injustice we see all around us - but surely we too collude – at least to some degree – in that violence and injustice – if only by not protesting enough about it, by being part of a World where people are still treats people as the authorities in first century Palestine treated Jesus. We too are partly responsible for the death of Jesus.

The disciples, hearing from Mary – that Jesus was alive might well have had mixed feelings about his reappearance. Would he condemn them for what had happened or would he forgive them their role in the events of the past week? Interestingly he does neither explicitly but his words firstly bringing peace to them and secondly about forgiveness of sins, in the context of showing them his wounds are surely relevant to the question.

Jesus firstly does not deny what has happened: far from it. He confronts the disciples with his crucifixion. He shows them his hands and his side. He is still the crucified one, the unjustly condemned man, the victim, their victim. They needed to recognise that the resurrection isn’t a reversal of death, doesn’t put the clock back to a time sometime before the crucifixion. We might assume that the locked room is the same room as the room that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper but was it? Probably not: that would have been too neat and tidy.

The resurrection doesn’t diminish in any sense the responsibility of the disciples for Jesus’ death. But Jesus had already told them he had not come to condemn the world but to save it.

But although Jesus doesn’t say, ‘I forgive you,’ he does say, ‘Peace be with you’. The disciples, surely at that point, let out a collective sigh of relief. What he does say is about forgiveness is ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

This sounds shocking I think because we are accustomed to thinking that it is really only God who can forgive sins. What right or ability do we have to forgive sins? It is hard enough to forgive people who sin against us. Do we have any right or ability to forgive the sins of say the Nazi’s who were responsible for the Holocaust or the murderer who appears to be laughing on the way to his execution and that you can see portrayed here? Or closer to home do I have any right or ability to forgive myself for hitting my daughter on one particular occasion that I can remember quite vividly – not for what she had done but because of how I was feeling at the time.

Well yes, thought the death and resurrection of Jesus I think we do. Jesus’ resurrection changes everything, even the possibilities for forgiveness. ‘If you [my disciples i.e. we ourselves] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven’. ‘If you [we] do not they are not forgiven.’ This all sounds presumptuous (even glib): especially when it comes to forgiving not just those who sin against us but those who sin against other people (Nazi’s responsible for the Holocaust, the laughing murderer). But I think Jesus is saying that just as we have colluded in violence and injustice we must now join with God in forgiving that violence and injustice, even that done by and to ourselves.

Our own forgiveness is closely tied up with our forgiveness of others as the prayer which Jesus taught us makes clear. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ we will say later in this service. We need help (the power of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus has just given to his disciples in the locked room) to forgive other people’s sins against just as we need God to forgive our sins. We can do neither on our own.

All Christians appreciate that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is closely connected with the question of forgiveness (as well as the meaning of suffering). We, at least those of us from an evangelical tradition, tend to think of the work of the cross in relation to our own personal sense of forgiveness for what we have done in the past and/or for things we continue to do in the present. But in this, the first occasion when most of the disciples meet the risen Jesus for the first time Jesus talks to them not about, how they are forgiven, but what will happen if they forgive.

Jesus tells the disciples that that the whole nature of forgiveness has been changed. Jesus is the victim who does not condemn. Through his resurrection, the evil that led to his crucifixion is vanquished, not abolished but forgiven and thereby transformed. There will always be injustice and violence in the world but through the resurrection everything looks different and is now truly different. John tells us in just one word what the disciples felt. ‘Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord’. Hallelujah Christ is risen..

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