A sermon for Easter 2.
Easter can seem a bit like a fairy story sometimes. We have angels, soldiers who fall asleep at all the right moments, Jesus who is missing, the disciple look here and there for him only for him to appear in disguise as a gardener, or through locked doors. It can make you want to call out to them, ‘He’s behind you’. The fairy story has become a pantomime. (Perhaps Thomas is the Buttons of this pantomime – missing out when the others see the vital piece of the plot and then acting slightly dim.) But of course, fairy tales and pantomimes are distinguished by the fact that they have a happy ending. And the resurrection is nothing if not that – Jesus is risen, all is well with the world, we can now all live happily ever after. End of story, curtain down, time to go home.
There is much in this that we should not dismiss too easily. Easter is a time of great joy, and I think we should enjoy the humour of the Easter stories along with the theology. But there is a danger of allowing our understanding Easter to remain at this level. The danger is that fairy stories and pantomimes can leave our faith in a very childish mode, waiting for Jesus or God to appear when we need him (and, of course, to leave us alone when we’d rather he wasn’t there). In this mode, God revolves around our needs. He appears to comfort and protect us, to forgive us (that’s his job, as someone once said), and to gee us up when we feel a bit low. God may also appear to punish us when we’re naughty, or tell us what to do when we’re confused. The key is that God here is doing what we need him to do. God revolves around our needs, picking up our mess, sorting out our lives.
And in all of this there is a great deal of truth. God does care about each one of us, about our needs and our hopes and our fears. God does comfort us, protect us, forgive us, guide us, even punish us. God does all this for our sake, but that is not the end of the story. We cannot simply get our fix of God and then put him back in his box until the next time we feel a bit sad or bad.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus does deal with the disciples’ needs. They are afraid, fearing the authorities might want to deal with them as they did with Jesus. They may also be afraid of Jesus, since they all deserted him (or worse) when he was arrested. Jesus reassures them, ‘Peace be with you’. But this is far from the end of the story. The disciples are then sent out, and charged to forgive and retain the sins of the world. We are a long way from fairy stories now – sent to take part in the very serious business of forgiving and retaining sins. Jesus meets the disciples’ needs, but they are not left to themselves once he has done so.
Now I confess that at this point I am tempted, very tempted, to try to wriggle out of Jesus’ commission. I can cope with the stuff about forgiving sins – that seems very clear, even straightforward. But retaining sins seems a completely different matter. It’s not something that I do a great deal, and it can even seem to run counter to my understanding of the Christian message. But here it is, very clear, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ There is not a great deal of wriggle-room here.
What makes this such a difficult charge is that forgiving sins is God’s work, not ours. It is God who judges, God who forgives, God who retains sins. And God gives this work to us. We are called to do God’s work. More than that, it is through us that God’s work will be done if it is done at all. I think that we’re allowed to take a moment to gulp and to feel that it’s rather more than we can cope with. But once we’ve taken our gulp, we still need to think about what this means for us.
We will only understand what the forgiving and retaining of sins involves if we look at all that Jesus says to his disciples. The first thing that Jesus says is ‘Peace be with you.’ This is not something to be afraid of.
The next thing that Jesus says is ‘As the Father sends me, so I send you.’ We are called to take part in the mission of God. We are sent by Jesus, as Jesus was sent by the Father. And our mission to do the work of God is just like the mission that Jesus was sent to do. It is to be in the midst of the world, not hidden away in church. It is to speak of God to the world; it is to enact the love of God to the world. It is to celebrate, teach, mourn, suffer and feast just as Jesus celebrated, taught, mourned, suffered and feasted alongside his contemporaries. Jesus was sent by the Father to be human being in the world. This has been the theme of the Gospel right from the start: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. And we are to truly live, to really experience the joys and sorrows that being a human being entails. We are offered ‘life in his name’ says the Gospel writer, and we are to live that life in the world. This story, at the very end of John’s Gospel, is the beginning of the new creation that John has spoken about from the first words of the gospel: ‘in the beginning’. We are called to be the new creation, to live this new life, to live our lives in full as human beings in the world.
The third thing that Jesus says is ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, and he breathes on his disciples. Just as in the first creation, God breathed into human beings to give them life, so here Jesus breathes on his disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit. This is a wonderful image. We are to be filled with the Spirit as we are filled with breath. An on-going, gentle but vital interaction. We breathe in, and then out. Taking from the Spirit, but never exhausting what the Spirit has to give us. It is the Spirit that gives us what we need for this awesome mission that Jesus has given us. The Spirit gives and sustains our new life. It is as we breathe deeply of the Spirit that we are enabled to live fully, to be the people that we were created to be.
The mission that Jesus calls us and sends us to do is about living fully in the world, living the new life that is given to us in Christ. He gives us the Holy Spirit to sustain us and to fill us with that life. And it is in this light that we can begin to understand what Jesus says about forgiving and retaining sins. As we live in our world, we become all too aware that this is not a fairy story. There is much pain and suffering, there are wars, viruses, criminals, oppression, violence and a great deal that takes life away, that is the opposite of the gift of life that we receive from God. The Spirit that Jesus gives to us is also the Spirit of truth, and in truth we must encounter this for what it is – sin. It is not willed by God, indeed it is our mission to transform the world in the power of the Holy Spirit. Sin is not an insuperable barrier to God, there can be forgiveness of sin. But it is not something we can or should ignore. Retaining sins, I think, is at the very least recognising sin for what it is and refusing to hide from it. We retain sins if we are able to name sin for what it is and not to brush it under the carpet. Sins can be forgiven, but until they are recognised and confessed they must actually be retained.
Forgiving and retaining sins is, therefore, an essential part of the mission Jesus gives us. It is about living truthfully and without pretence in the midst of the world; living fully the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ. It calls for an adult faith that has moved beyond fairy stories. It turns out, you see, that the happy ending that is Easter is not an ending at all. Instead it is the point of the story where the characters change. Instead of Jesus sent by the Father, we are sent by Jesus. The mission is the same; the same Holy Spirit is what gives us new life. But the mission is now ours to share. It is the mission to bring God’s new life to our world.
Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will sustain us in this task. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral 27.4.14.