John 20:19-23, Psalm 133
“Uprising” is an unusual way to describe resurrection. But it holds the complexity of Jesus’ rising up from the grave with the fact that his rising up also began an uprising among the followers of Jesus.
Let’s put ourselves into the story of that little cadre of shocked, deflated, disciples for a moment. It is the first day of the week. We are still moving and breathing, but as if in a cloud, unaware of our own movements. This morning, some women who are part of our movement went to Jesus’ tomb to wash Jesus body and prepare it for proper burial. When they arrived, they had a vision involving earthquakes, angels and voices. One of the women claimed that Jesus appeared to her. The rest of us think it was just the gardener.
A couple of us ran back to the tomb to check out her story. Empty! That part of their story was true. Peter went right into the tomb and found the cloths which had wrapped the body when they took him down from the cross – dirty and blood-stained, but all neatly folded. Who would take a corpse and leave behind a neatly folded pile of dirty linens?
Right away, we realized that this resurrection rumor could get us into trouble. The authorities will see it as a threat to keep the Jesus movement alive. Jesus had been publicly assassinated by the Romans. We were his associates. The same thing could happen to us.
Foggy with fear and confusion, our group split up. Some of us went to our homes, like Cleopas and his wife, and Thomas. I am not sure where everyone went. Some of us, not really knowing what to do, just went back to the Jerusalem room we were using. We were afraid there, too. At any moment Temple guards, or Roman soldiers might crash in the door. So we mill around this claustrophobic room, terrified. Each replaying the story, the “what if’s” and “should have done’s” in our minds.
By evening, we were in a terrible state. We sat in confused, vigil behind locked doors – jumpy, skittish, avoiding even each other’s eyes. If there was one traitor among us, there could be another. We pace the floor, one of us suddenly doubled over with weeping, then another beat the air with his fists – at the Romans, at the religious establishment, at God – for allowing this to happen! What was God thinking? God had stepped in for life over and over again in the years with Jesus. But now, God is silent! It is beyond imagination! Who is this God we believed in? Yes, the past tense. I am not sure we love this God any more.
Suddenly something is different. Our skin prickles as we come to sudden attention. There seems to be a new presence in the room. Strange, and yet familiar. We began to come out of our downcast gloom, to peek out at what was happening. Impossible! Somehow Jesus was among us. I can’t explain it. I am just telling the story. We all saw him. It is not just in my head.
“Shalom!,” “Peace be with you!” Not what a guard or soldier would say. We exhaled a common sigh. He showed us his hands, his side. The scars…. It was him. The women were not dreaming. We too were face to face with the risen Christ. Seeing our fear and confusion, he repeated his greeting, “Shalom.”
Then he did three things that changed our lives: First, he sent us out. Then he breathed God’s breath into us. And then, perhaps the most crazy radical thing he did – he told us to forgive.
Let’s come back to the room now and look at these first actions of the risen Christ. What did they mean for the followers of Jesus then, and for us now?
Verse 21, “Shalom! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”
Can you imagine the conversation behind this brief verse?
Jesus: What are you doing here, locked in this little room with each other?
Disciples: We did not know what to do, or where to go.
Jesus: Didn’t I tell you this was going to happen? When I sent you out to teach and preach and heal, you went and I saw evil upended and goodness abound. You have done my work without me at your side.
Disciples: Yes, but you weren’t dead!
Jesus: And I am not dead now!
Disciples: But we didn’t know.
Jesus: Stop making excuses. Be filled with peace, rather than fear. And get out of here! Let people know that the world as they know it has been turned upside-down. Get out of here and do what I trained you to do. Don’t let fear stop you!
Disciples: But the Romans, the Judean authorities…, they will kill us too.
Jesus: Maybe. But you know that is not the end. I have been saying that all along, and now I am living proof. Everyone needs to know that laws and rules and authorities cannot kill life. Life is a gift of God. Now get out of here! Spread the word!
Let the uprising begin, Jesus is saying. I was sent out of my safe life in a remote village to preach and teach and heal – to bring life in all its abundance to all who would take it. As I was sent by God to do this, so I am sending you to do it, too.
Verse 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
It is hard to say exactly what Jesus meant here. The word he used for spirit, whether in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic, conveys a complex of three distinct meanings: breath, wind, spirit. In Judaism, all three meanings are mysteriously present at the same time. When I studied Greek, we were supposed to choose the best translation, one translation. Middle Eastern thought doesn’t force a choice, but includes all. Context tells us that the first meaning is breath. Jesus breathes on them. His words are in context of this action.
So, when Jesus said “receive the Ruach,” the first thing he meant was receive my breath. That seems odd, which is probably why we get the translation, “spirit.” But Jesus was making a connection to God’s act of forming human beings out of clay and breathing into them the breath of life. Jesus was offering the disciples the breath of life, offering to recreate them as God intended from the beginning. And, Jesus was giving them his own breath of life, the breath that went through death and was not extinguished.
Receive it – a hospitality word. Like all good middle easterners, they know that hospitality is the highest duty of life. And now, Jesus’ breath needed a place to live. And he chose these followers as the new residence. They were to be, now, the home of the very breath of God – life-giving breath! The Holy Spirit.
The new uprising was being filled with the breath of life, blowing like a wind through the land and the people. The uprising is empowered by unending life, which certainly takes the sting out of the power to kill which the authorities tried to hold over them!
Verse 23 “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus was putting the power of forgiveness in the hands of human beings. No more was a sacrifice or a Temple ritual required. It was simple. Forgive. Do it yourselves.
When I have studied this passage in the past, I have worried it to death. I have tried to make it too complicated, I think. I was troubled over the power not to forgive Jesus spoke about. Like Jesus was offering the disciples the opportunity to condemn people to hell. And this seemed out of character with Jesus. Well, if we give this passage a half-turn and look at it from a different angle, it may open up to something else.
So, here is Jesus, having been murdered by an unjust system. Killed completely unfairly. The natural human response is to seek revenge. Coming back from the dead, we would see as an opportunity to wreak vengeance on those who did us wrong. We want them to suffer as much as we did! But Jesus comes back talks about forgiveness, just as he did from the cross.
Remember the time when a bunch of people brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery and they wanted him to authorize stoning her? What did he do? He squatted down and wrote in the sand. And as he wrote, the people dropped their stones and walked away. Did he write their sins? Did he write the greatest commandments: You shall love God with all your heart, soul and might and you shall love your neighbor as yourself?” I wonder if the same sort of thing happened when Jesus talked about forgiveness here. Did he meet their eyes? Did he see their fear, their hatred, anger, vengeance? Did he expose them to themselves?
Then, as they dropped the stones of their anger, he could say the life-changing thing: You can forgive all by yourselves. You don’t have to go to a priest. You don’t have to fulfill certain requirements. There are no hoops to jump through. No Temple needed. Just forgive and it is done.
One of the things I have learned about forgiveness in conversation with so many people in the Divorce Recovery program, is that forgiveness, while hard to do, is much simpler than we think. It is simply choosing to let go of the right to revenge, or even justice. To drop that stone. Forgiveness doesn’t require participation of the other person. We can choose all on our own to live our lives without bearing the grudge for a wrong done to us. When we refuse to forgive, it is we who carry the weight. It turns us bitter.
In this context, Jesus statement makes perfect sense. If you forgive – it is done. The weight is off. If you don’t forgive – especially the people who were part of my death – you will carry that weight around with you the rest of your life and you will become bitter, unforgiving people. You choose. What do you choose?
After having received the breath of life, the power and energy of God pulsing through their bodies, I think they all knew the way. To forgive is what they chose. Were they ever angry about Jesus’ treatment again? Well, yes, of course. But they dropped the vengeance and chose instead to pursue life – for themselves and for everyone they met.
It was the beginning of an uprising of forgiveness.
Three little phrases. Three little gifts, but they change everything. I am sending you out of the room of fear to do the things that we started together. Become the body home to the breath of life. And as you go, remember that the door to forgiveness is wide open to you and to everyone. Let go of your desire for vengeance for what happened to me or to you. It will only hold back the uprising that is about to begin.
Joining the adventure of Jesus is a starting line, not a finish line. It leads us into a lifetime of learning and action. It challenges us to stand up against the way things always have been and to help God create new-to-us ways of making things as they were intended from the very beginning. It enlists us as human beings into an uprising of peace, freedom, justice and compassion.