The Saturday before Easter used to be a popular day to be baptised. You were given a white robe, and you would wear it until this Sunday, the Sunday after Easter. Then the real challenges would start, how to live your ordinary life in a Christian way. The ecstasy was nearly over, now you had to reconcile faith and reason, hope and disappointment, love and competition, peace and stress. I understand that some of you have recently had your confirmation. That is great. But you, too, may have your questions about the future. I think there may be quite a few parallels with the experience of the first disciples. They had received this news about the resurrection, but they were still puzzled and afraid. Their door was locked, it says, for fear of the Jews. What kind of life would they have?
Nowadays, there is again, in many countries, a steep rise in the persecution of Christians. When I prepared for today, the terrible attacks in Sri Lanka had not even taken place. 359 plus casualties! According to a study by the Catholic organisation ‘Aid to the Church in need’, “persecution and genocide of Christians across the world is worse today “than at any time in history,” and Western governments are failing to stop it”. The worst rise is said to have taken place in the last 2 years.
But even if we are not in the middle of persecution or discrimination, we have entered a new period with is characterized by a general feeling of unsafety, a fear of terrorism, cold war, drone strikes, etc. There are other threats as well, economic, political, social and environmental ones. And as Christians we are, once again, few and far between, especially as English speaking Christians here in the Netherlands. What difference could we possibly make? That’s exactly what the first disciples thought. But then, in some mysterious way, Jesus appeared to his disciples.
First he uses the standard greeting, Shalom, peace be with you. And they don’t recognise Him.
Then He shows them his hands and his side. And when they recognise Him, He greets them again.
This is the real encounter, when we see Christ as one of us and ourselves as belonging to Christ.
Sometimes we, too, have to meet Christ a second, third or 50th time, to really encounter Him.
In a different phase of our lives we may suddenly grasp what remained a mystery before.
I myself have had at least two very different encounters with Christ, one at age 17, one at age 39.
And I think my second encounter was with a Christ who was somehow closer, more real.
What made Him more real was that He was not only victorious and telling us what to do, but that His suffering was connected to mine. I felt how Christ was truly one of us. And that helped me.
Isn’t it strange how comforting those scars, those signs of suffering, can be?
Maybe it is like our own scars and wounds. On the one hand they remind us of trauma and pain.
On the other hand they are saying: But we are still here, we survived. It is alright!
Of course, Christ’s victory was considerably greater, it was a victory over death itself.
But, to quote Thomas Halik, it is significant that the God we believe in, is a wounded God.
Like the disciple Thomas, we are invited to touch those wounds, to connect with them.
And then we will have an encounter which surpasses all confessions and doctrines.
Strange, how much resurrection, new life, there can be in the recognition of wounds!
And once we see and believe that those wounds (his and ours) are not the end, we are ready move on. Immediately after his second greeting, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Just as Jesus wants to be close when we are suffering or afraid, so now He affirms our strength and potential. We, mortals, are entrusted with a divine commission, not entirely unlike His own. For being called by God the Son is the same as being called by God the Father. I think this has led some to believe that this calling is only meant for a select group of Christians.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Bishops are considered as successors of the apostles and bearers of the great commission, which they are. But this calling concerns all of us. Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” and this is what made them into apostles. This event has been called a mini-version of Pentecost.
Later, of course, a much larger group would receive the same Holy Spirit.
And as we know from 1 Corinthians 12, every believer (past, present or future) speaks with the help of God’s Spirit.
In verse 3 we read that without the help of the Holy Spirit no one can even say ‘Jesus is Lord’!
I bet we have al said this, ‘Jesus is Lord’. So, it was the Holy Spirit speaking through us.
And in verse 11 it says, “He [the Holy Spirit] gives gifts to each person, just as He decides”.
Each person, what does that mean? Yes, that’s right, we all have a part to play in God’s kingdom.
In our reading from Acts, Peter and the apostles testify before the council of the high priest that God has given the Holy Spirit to those who obey him. And they saw obeying God as their main duty.
But Jesus also speaks of forgiving the sins of others. Now someone might object that forgiving sins is a special gift which is not for everyone.
But if that were so, we would expect it to be listed in one of the four lists of specific spiritual gifts.
It isn’t. So what did Jesus mean when He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”?
Could it be that forgiveness is not listed as a separate gift, because it is the essence of the whole gospel? Because it should be there in everything we do? And because it was Christ’s example?
My Life Application Study Bible has this comment to make, “The disciples did not have the power to forgive sins (only God can forgive sins), but Jesus gave them the privilege of telling new believers that their sins have been forgiven because they have accepted Jesus’ message”.
This may all seem like sound doctrine, but there is more going on here!
Forgiveness (or the assurance of forgiveness) is not only for new believers, but for everyone.
Don’t we all need to be reminded time and time again that our failures, will never separate us from the love of God? That we are never beyond the reach of God’s grace?
So, this is more likely about forgiveness and mercy as a way of life, as an attitude in everything we do, and about forgiving ourselves as well…
|Does that mean that anything goes? Absolutely not. Jesus never said we should forgive everything for everybody. Remember what Jesus did when people did not repent from their sins? He prayed to the Father that He would forgive them because they did not know what they were doing. He left these things up to God. So when we don’t extend or declare forgiveness, those sins are retained, but not necessarily forever. We may have done the right thing. Maybe this person or organisation was not ready to accept a declaration of forgiveness. But then again, we may have missed an opportunity to speak words of acceptance in the light of some painful failure. All Jesus seems to be saying is, remember that you carry responsibility for my message of love. If you don’t speak of forgiveness and new starts, time and time again, nothing will change. The sins and failures of the world, although carried by Christ on the cross, will be retained and cause pain longer than necessary.|
Please note that Christ’s message of hope and renewal is too important to be the exclusive domain of clergy and theologians. It is no accident that the book of Revelation calls the kingdom of God a kingdom of priests. In other words, it is not a kingdom like the kingdom of Israel, with priests, Levites and ordinary people, but a kingdom of priests only. In the eyes of God, ordinary people do not exist!
It may surprise you that this is not something for the distance future. John introduces this concept right at the start of the book, in the introduction, before he describes his visions of the future.
He writes that the one who freed us from our sins by his blood, i.e. Jesus, also made us into a kingdom [of] priests. Even the Roman Catholic Missal acknowledges such a “baptismal” priesthood, but they distinguish two kinds of priests.
As early as the third century, church father Hippolytus wrote in “The Apostolic Tradition” about the “common and like spirit of the clergy”. Chapter 8 claims that this is a specific spirit, which is not even given to deacons, but only to priests. He called it the Holy Spirit of grace and earnestness and diligence. But, surely, there is only one Holy Spirit, one which is given to all believers. Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. There are many gifts, but there is only one Spirit and only one priesthood under Christ, our high priest.
Whenever one group of Christians, whether they are clergy, or traditionalists or evangelicals or liberals, claim to own some spirit which sets them apart from other Christians, or even from other people in general, we have to wonder if this is still the Holy Spirit we are talking about.
Because the Holy Spirit is a spirit of unity and equality, mercy and peace. It is not a spirit which tells us we are superior or inferior. How can we speak of forgiveness when we are fond of divisions?
|But the actual Holy Spirit, which Jesus breathed upon the first disciples and which is working on our hearts as well, gives confidence and authority. It enabled the apostles to stand before the high priest and speak of the need to repent. And He can do the same for us, while protecting us from arrogance. Now you may still wonder if this is something we are all called to do. Maybe not exactly the way the apostles were called to do it. But we are still called to be priests. Addressing all who have been “called out of darkness”, Peter even speaks of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). How is this possible? Well, Christ is not like an earthly king, who only allows us to wave at him. Jesus is a King who calls us his brothers and sisters! He is actually admitting us to the royal family and to his priestly order, named after Melchizedek. What a great and humbling prerogative! Why would Jesus do this, why allow us to be his friends and partners instead of just subjects? It is because of His great love for each one of us. Then let us not betray this great message.
Let us further extend the circle of acceptance, understanding and brotherhood instead.
Not so long ago it was Mothering Sunday and we reflected on a 12 year old Jesus staying in the temple for 5 days. Perhaps it is now time for us to dwell in a new temple, which is wherever we are, because it is a spiritual temple. We can be sent out and remain in Christ’s temple at the same time.
Today and every day, Christ appears again in our midst. We may not always recognise Him immediately. He may seem to be just an idea saying hello. But He may also suddenly come closer, wishing us peace, His profound peace. And when He sends us on a mission, that is not in any way a contradiction. True peace is only possible if we have a mission, if we know what it is, if we try to fulfil it, and sincerely support the calling of every other precious child of God.
May God help us to accept this challenge and find this peace which passes all understanding.