Saturday, June 3, 2017

What a Difference an 'S' Makes: Reflections on John 20.19-23 (Pentecost A, 4 June 2017)

What a Difference an ‘S’ Makes
Reflections on John 20.19-23

Pentecost A
4 June 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

                  20.19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the [Jewish authorities], Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

            In 1928, the year my father was born, the American Episcopal Church approved a new Prayer Book.  In many ways it continued the tradition of its two predecessors, but there were some changes.  One of the more notable was a change in the Lord’s Prayer from ‘as we forgive them that trespass against us’ to ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’.  I am sure that some of the changes tripped up my grandmother, but it was the book my father grew up using, so it was familiar to him.

            In the late summer of 1967, the year that I turned fifteen, our parish priest, Father Palmer, made an announcement before the Sunday service.  He held up a little booklet entitled ‘The Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper’.  It marked the moment when liturgical change began for my generation.  Canada would wait a few more years.  After all, in 1967, the ‘new’ Prayer Book was only five years old, but there were voices already suggesting that changes would need to take place.

            I remember having to get familiar with a change in the Agnus Dei, an ancient prayer used in the communion liturgy.  As a choir member I was accustomed to singing ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.’  Now we had a new text to learn:  ‘O Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.  Have mercy upon us.’  As I look back, it wasn’t the change from Tudor English to more contemporary American English that threw me; it was the change from ‘sin’ to ‘sins’.  Even at fifteen I knew that a theological change had occurred and not for the better.

            There is a significant difference between saying that Jesus takes away the sin of the world and saying that Jesus takes away the sins of the world.  Over the centuries untold amounts of ink and paper have been consumed as theologians and church authorities have argued about what it means to forgive sins and how it is done and by whom it is done.  Some Christians have even been persecuted by other Christians over such differences.

            Now let me be clear.  You and I, as members of the body of Christ, have been called to be ministers of reconciliation.  You and I, as members of the body of Christ, have also been called to hold people to account for acts of injustice, for lack of compassion and for attitudes of arrogance towards God’s creation and God’s creatures.  But we need to be clear what sin is, the root cause of humanity’s ills and evils, rather than becoming entangled in the thorny world of sins, the symptoms of the disease that afflicts all human beings, whether young or old, male or female, rich or poor, believer or non-believer, perpetrator or victim.

            Over the Easter season our Sunday gospels have come from the Gospel according to John.  For John the ‘sin of the world’ is not ‘a moral category of behavior but a theological category about one’s response to the revelation of God in Jesus’. [1]  You have heard me quote my professor of theology, the late Jim Griffiss, who began his opening lecture on theology by saying, ‘When you meet Jesus, you meet God.  Everything else is commentary.’ 

            For John and for my professor the sin of the world is the refusal to recognize what God has shown us again and again, first in the law and the prophets, then in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  God expects us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6.8).  This is the message embodied in the ‘Summary of the Law’ that many of us grew up hearing almost every Sunday:  ‘. . . hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.  This is the first and the great commandment.  And the second is like unto it:  thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’. [2]

            What we call sins are symptoms of a more deeply embedded shadow in the human soul.  We find it so hard to believe that all that exists was created by Love.  We find it so hard to believe that we are loved so much that the One who created the universe comes among us to restore us to show us how to live in harmony.  We find it so hard to believe that we are loved so much that God breathes love into every human being in the hopes that this loves fans into a steady flame a desire to love others as we have been loved.

            And this Love that holds the universe so dear and that gives itself so freely goes one step further.  God enlists those who choose to follow the way of Jesus into the same work that Jesus began:  21 Jesus said to [the apostles] again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”’

            Just as God sent Jesus, the Word, into the world, so does God give us the Holy Spirit to continue that work begun in Jesus.  We are sent into the world not as morality police or bedroom spies to make people afraid.  We are sent into the world to take the blinders from the eyes of those who cannot see, who do not see, who will not see, the works of God in their own lives, in the lives of their friends and families, in their neighbourhoods and communities.  The ancient sin continues to hold sway over many we know and love; we ‘forgive’ their sin when we help them, by our words and our examples, see the God who has loved them, loves them and will always love them.

            When we are able to see God at work and know that we are called to be co-workers with God in the great work of creation, redemption and renewal, then we become conscious of the behaviours, the thoughts, the habits that draw us away from becoming who we are truly called to be and from doing what we are called to do.  There is an ancient word for this --- metanoia  --- ‘seeing the world as God sees it’, ‘looking at the world with new eyes’ --- eyes shaped by love not fear, hope not despair, generosity not miserliness.

            Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  How?  By showing us how to live authentic lives, open to God’s possibilities working in us and through us.  By sharing with us the divine breath that turns disciples into friends and frightened people into apostles, ambassadors through whom God appeals to the whole world.  What a difference getting rid of an ‘s’ can make!

[1] The New Interpreter’s Study Bible 2003.

[2] The Book of Alternative Services 1985, 231.

No comments: