In John’s first epistle, the opening of which we heard this morning, John’s language about “sin” stands out from the rest of the Johannine corpus—that is, John’s Gospel, and also his three letters—because John’s focus on sin in his first epistle is unusual. “If we say we have no sin,” John writes,
…we deceive ourselves… I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin…., Jesus…is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.
It’s not that language about “sin” is absent from John’s Gospel—in his first chapter, for example, John does claim that Jesus is “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29)—but language about sin is nowhere near as overt in John’s Gospel as it is in John’s epistle. What we do find in John’s Gospel is a more complex and nuanced presentation of sin. If in John’s epistle John presents “sin” as something we are to avoid (“I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin”), and as something we nonetheless do (“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”), but that we are not to worry because “Jesus…is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” in his Gospel on the other hand John subtly weaves sin into a rich tapestry alongside Hebrew worship—especially the Day of Atonement—as described in Exodus and Leviticus. John’s “weaving” of sin into his Gospel is so subtle that we might not notice except… the end of his “thread,” as it were, pokes out from today’s Gospel lesson: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” John writes, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
To better understand John’s complex and nuanced presentation of “sin” in his Gospel, it may help to view John through the lens of Exodus and Leviticus. The setting for this morning’s Gospel is similar to the Levitical ordination rite: Just as Aaron and his sons in their ordination were not to leave the Tent of the Meeting for seven days (Lev 8:33), so the disciples were “in the house” “a week later” (20:26). Just as in the ordination rite Moses took his finger and put blood from the sacrifice on Aaron’s and his sons’ earlobes and thumbs and toes (Lev 8:24), so does Jesus invite Thomas to put his finger in the nail marks of his hands. Just as in the ordination rite Moses reached into the side of the sacrificial ram to pull out liver and kidneys (Lev 8:25), so does Jesus invite Thomas to, “Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (20:27). And all this after John’s Gospel has given us a virtual tour of the Tent of the Meeting (where the rite would have taken place): past the table with the “show bread” (“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus (6:35)), past the lampstand (“I am the light of the world,” he says (8:12)); past the altar of incense (Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, and “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (12:3). Here at the end of John’s Gospel, when Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” John confirms that the mission of the disciples is to be as priests, charged with the wholeness, or “holiness,” of the people.
We who are living through a pandemic are poised to understand in a special way “sin” as it is understood in Leviticus, and also sin’s remedy as it is proposed by John. For Leviticus “sin” is less an immoral violation of divine law than it is a miasma, like a “viral cloud,” that hangs over the people. While they do have liturgical functions, priests in Leviticus are in a way like public health officials concerned about community wholeness, or “holiness,” and urging people to follow “best practices.” And if in Leviticus priests are punctilious in religious observance and urge others to do the same, they are no more punctilious than those offering guidelines for the safe removal of PPE or to double-mask and wash our hands with soap for twenty seconds, so that “sin” does not break out and cause illness and death.
In John, the disciples are and we are called to be as priests or as public health officials, charged with the wholeness or “holiness” of the people. John even has a “vaccine” for us to use. As we heard on Maundy Thursday:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34)
And the most powerful way to use this “vaccine” Jesus himself demonstrated. As John writes, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Though John’s first epistle speaks perhaps more explicitly about sin than John’s Gospel (and we will hear more about sin from the epistle in the coming weeks), it is in John’s Gospel that John offers his most nuanced understanding of sin and invites our response. The invitation I hear in today’s lesson from First John and also in today’s Gospel is to be as priests working for the health and holiness of the community. We are to be agents of health and holiness who distribute John’s “vaccine” most effectively by living it ourselves: “By this everyone will know that [we] are [his] disciples, if [we] have love for one another,” John writes (John 13:35). Jesus’ laying down his life for us—the most powerful use of the “vaccine”—reverberates through our community and beyond as we have love for one another: “I in them and you in me,” prays Jesus, “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:23). And—as John will later tell us in his letter (chapter 5)—as we are faithful in our “priesthood,” our “vaccine” will indeed have an effect, for love, John writes, has the power to conquer the world.
Homily for April 4, 2021
The homily this morning is about Mary Magdalene. But I don’t want to begin with Mary; I want to begin with a question.
Though we probably all have asked it at some point, and though we may ask it still, to ask the question whether Jesus rose from the dead really is to ask the wrong question.
The homily this morning is about Mary Magdalene. And in a moment we will turn to Mary, but first I want to speak to something about which we might wonder.
Sometimes we might wonder whether Jesus’ resurrection was merely metaphorical, like spring is a “resurrection” after winter, or the morning a “resurrection” after night. But to wonder if Jesus’ resurrection was merely metaphorical will leave us feeling disappointed.
The homily this morning is really about Mary Magdalene. And we will get back to Mary, but first I want to speak to some possible ways in which we might try to “explain” Jesus’ resurrection. Continue reading
Homily for April 1, 2021
John 13:1–17, 31b–35
The opening lines of tonight’s Gospel tell us where all this is leading: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world,” John writes. And, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” These lines cue that we are moving inexorably toward suffering and death. As much as we might like to, there is nothing we can do to stop it. Good Friday is coming; Jesus will suffer and die.
Paradoxically, our healing and wholeness depends on resisting our inclination to move away from the cross, and allowing ourselves instead to be drawn toward the cross. Adrienne von Speyr, a 20th century physician and also mystic, writes,
There are always [these] two tendencies in the Church, one toward union with the Lord—the effect of grace from the Cross—and one toward falling back [from the Lord, and toward] disintegration. The…Church….is whole only in him. Having in herself the inclination to move away…the Lord has to draw her to himself constantly… so that she does not move away from her place of generation, [which is] the Cross.
It may seem odd that the cross, a symbol of suffering and death, should be our place of healing and wholeness. Yet the cross is our place of healing and wholeness, our “place of generation,” as von Speyr puts it. For in the cross, Jesus takes into himself all that causes human “dis-integration.” In the cross, Jesus takes into himself: betrayal, rejection, abuse, cruelty, isolation, loneliness, suffering, pain and death… and he redeems them, bringing these dis-integrating human experiences into the presence of God, who continually creates and re-creates and can use even our deepest griefs to bring us healing and wholeness.
I encourage us, who tonight have made a beginning of these “Great Three Days,” to continue to move through our liturgy as it continues tomorrow and Saturday. Even though tomorrow will lead to Jesus’ Passion, and even though our inclination may be to move away from him in his suffering, yet as we allow Jesus to “draw [us] to [him]self” as he is “lifted up” on the cross (John 12:32), we are in a mysterious way integrated and made whole and drawn into “union with the Lord.” Who in the cross anchors us, and roots us the Church in our place of generation, healing, and wholeness.
Homily for Sunday, March 21, 2021
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
This Lent our Old Testament readings offer four different covenants between people and God: 1) between Noah and God (in Genesis 9, on the First Sunday in Lent), 2) between Abram and God (in Genesis 17, on the Second Sunday in Lent), 3) between the Israelites in the wilderness and God (the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, on the Third Sunday in Lent), and this morning 4) between the Babylonian exiles and God. If we ourselves were to draw up a covenant with God, and if we were able to hire whichever of these authors we wanted to draw up that covenant, I would not recommend hiring the authors of the first three covenants, but I would recommend hiring Jeremiah, the author of this morning’s Old Testament reading, to draw up our covenant with God.
While I like that the author who wrote of the covenant between Noah and God had an approachable, anthropomorphic understanding of God—this God changed God’s mind—and while I like that this author imagines God making a covenant not merely with Noah but also with “the birds, the domestic animals and every animal of the earth,” yet Continue reading