“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”—John 20:23
One of my favorite northern renaissance artists is Pieter Bruegel (the Elder). In particular, I love his peasant scenes in which scores of people are scattered about, with each person or group of people doing something different. (These paintings are kind of like a 16th– century Dutch “Where’s Waldo?”) Bruegel is an artist whom, no matter how often I may have seen one of his paintings, each time I come back to it, I almost always see something new.
John’s Gospel is kind of like a Bruegel painting. In John there is so much going on, that no matter how often I may have read John, each time I come back to him, I almost always see something new. This morning’s lesson from John 20 is no different. At first glance, this passage is about faith and doubt. But the more I look, the more I see, and the more questions I have. For example, why in some translations does John specify that it was “after eight days” that the disciples were again together? Why would Jesus say to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side?” (Couldn’t Jesus simply have shown them his hands and feet, as he did in Luke?) And why does Jesus say, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained?”
Returning to Bruegel, I find that one of the best ways to really appreciate Bruegel is compare him to other artists of the same era. If we were to compare Bruegel to, say, Matthias Gruenewald, we might notice how Gruenewald seems to have a higher tolerance for “negative space” – areas of emptiness in his paintings. Bruegel, on the other hand, abhors a vacuum and fills all the space. Or if we compared Bruegel to Hans Holbein the Younger, we might initially think that the two are nothing alike, as Holbein primarily painted portraits. Yet each of them used backgrounds of intricate, almost sumptuous, detail: Bruegel, the landscape of the Flemish countryside, and Holbein, the textures of clothing or meticulously-painted shelves with books and curios. When we place Bruegel alongside his contemporaries, we can see – at least – how much he loves to fill the space and how indebted he is to the Flemish countryside.
This morning, in order to try to better understand John, we’re going to place John alongside two of his own “contemporaries:” Hebrew ritual and Gnosticism.
First, Hebrew ritual. Scholars tell us that John’s community was closely connected to the local synagogue and was intimately familiar with Hebrew ritual. Knowing so much about Hebrew ritual, I wonder how John’s second-century audience would have heard today’s gospel lesson.
- The disciples were in a room with the doors shut, and “after eight days” “his disciples were again in the house.” If I am a member of John’s community, “eight days” sounds like the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests in the book of Leviticus, who, as part of their ordination, were shut in the tabernacle for eight days.
- Jesus invites Thomas to place his finger in the mark of the nails in his hand, and then to place his hand in his side. If I’m a member of John’s community, these gestures sound remarkably similar to the Levitical ordination rite, in which priests insert their fingers into the sacrifice and wipe the blood on the altar, and then reach into the open side to pull out the organs.
- Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” If I’m a member of John’s community, I am wondering if there is a connection between the breath that Jesus breathed on the disciples and the oil that was poured on Aaron and his sons at their consecration. Both give the power to forgive or retain sins.
- And if I am a member of John’s community, a “lamb of God” who takes away sins sounds remarkably similar to the sin offering made by the priests as part of ritual atonement for the people.
If I’m a member of John’s community in the second century this morning’s gospel lesson sounds a lot like an ordination rite.
Next, Gnosticism. “Gnosticism” was a second-century religious movement similar to Christianity. The name comes from the Greek gnosis, or “knowledge.” Like orthodox Christianity, Gnosticism was centered around Jesus, it used many of our Christian scriptures, and it talked about good and evil and an afterlife. But Gnosticism differed from Christianity in significant ways:
- For Gnostics, “salvation” meant salvation from ignorance, not sin.
- For Gnostics, true belief had to do with what they knew about Jesus, rather than what they had experienced of Jesus.
- For Gnostics, matter was evil, not good…
- …and therefore Jesus was not fully human, but only seemed it.
- And because “enlightenment” was so difficult to achieve, Gnosticism believed that salvation would come only to a few, which stood in contrast to John, in which God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world,” and who was the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
When we contrast John with his “contemporaries,” we can better understand what John might be saying in this morning’s gospel lesson:
- John is convinced that Jesus – and not the sheep sacrificed in the Temple – is the sacrificial death that atones for the people.
- John is convinced that it is Jesus’ followers who are the new priesthood. It is they who have received a true ordination by eight days of seclusion and by the ritual of fingers and hands being inserted into the sacrifice.
- John is convinced that it is Jesus’ followers who have been anointed with the Spirit and empowered to forgive or retain sins.
- John believes that Jesus did not merely seem human but was…
- …that faith was not so much about what we could know, but about what we had experienced….
- …that it is sin – not ignorance – that we need saving from…
- …and that Jesus was the one who had come to save, not just a select few, but the whole world.
For John, then, Jesus is the new, human tabernacle who has come to dwell among us, to live and die as one of us, so that by his atoning sacrifice, we might be saved from sin and consecrated as priests to help Jesus save this very world in which we live. Let me say that last part again: we are to be as priests to help Jesus save this world in which we live. Our “priesthood” is not about educating, or enlightening, or avoiding the flesh-y messiness of being human, but rather, our priesthood is about real live flesh and blood, about dwelling in our messy and fallen world, about living lives of holiness, of forgiveness, of self-offering, lives that breath the same breath as Jesus, lives that help Jesus in his work of saving the world from sin and reconciling this world to the Father. Jesus is inviting us into a high calling, to be not merely followers, but active participants in his work; to be not merely good citizens who do good deeds, but to be holy; to live great lives – his life – so that we might help him in his work of reconciling this world to the Father.
Which brings me to John’s passage about forgiving and retaining sins. Why did John talk about retaining sins? I don’t know for sure, but here’s where I am at the moment: We know we Christians are to forgive. But priests also had the power to retain. In saying not only “forgiving” but also “retaining,” John emphasizes the priestly nature of our calling. I don’t think John intends for us to go out and regularly say to people, “You’re not forgiven.” Rather, John is trying to drive home the point that we are to be as priests, dealing with matters of holiness and sin, and who may sometimes be called to say to the nation – as did the Levitical priests – “This isn’t OK. We cannot yet forgive; more work is needed.”
Before I close, I want to speak, too, of Thomas’ doubt. The wonderful thing about Thomas is that, in spite of his doubt, he was still “ordained.” Thomas was not perfect, he did not have special knowledge, he was not enlightened, he was not immune to the flesh-y messiness of our world. Yet Thomas was “ordained.” To be “ordained” into Jesus’ mission, all Thomas needed was honesty, an experience of Jesus, and to gather with the gathered community.
I hope that we might accept Jesus’ invitation to “ordination.” Jesus is counting on “priests” like us to help him reconcile our fallen world to the Father. As we are faithful in our “priesthood,” there is no telling what our life – our prayer, our offerings, our holiness, and even our doubts – can do to help Jesus take back this world for God.