In John’s gospel (chapter 20), within 2 paragraphs of Mary Magdalene finding an empty tomb, Jesus’ first words to the group of the disciples.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Why in my 37 years of Easter morning services have I never known what specific directions Jesus gave the disciples? I got the “go and make disciples” messages, and the running to the empty grave and even some stories about not recognizing Jesus on the road. Never once did I know that we had this Forgiveness Mandate put upon our lives.
Previous to Jesus’ announcement, forgiving only happened at the Temple. (Remember that passage where the religious leaders accused Jesus of heresy because he forgave the sins of the man on the mat? “Only God can forgive sins,” they yelled.) To achieve forgiveness status, you showed up at the temple with the appropriate size of bird or mammal, along with a tithe (and remember, the Pharisees were tacking on a tenth of mint and thyme because they were High Achievers). You paid your dues for having Psoriasis to the Temple system and moved on about your life.
And what about when you kept having to give and give to the Temple System because bad things kept happening to you? Like when you spent 3 months locked in your house because your 4 small children caught every bug and virus known to the local school system? The message was clear: You’re not blessed. You’re not on God’s good side, so give a little more.
Those without had even less. Unless you count the heaps of guilt and shame they carried around with them.
Jesus’ message of new life: We the People can forgive. You’re not tied to a suffocating system anymore.
God gave the temple as a means to serve the people. God gave processes, not because he needed the smell of burning heifer to create happiness in heaven. God didn’t need another dead dove or spotless ram from your field. God did, however, need people to walk in a sense of freedom.
And in the absence of a system which restored people to fullness of life, Jesus handed the task to the people. Regular old carpenters and farmers and guys who liked to fish on Sunday.
This passage resonated deeply with me, not just because of the weight and the task ahead of us (ahem: me. I cannot tell you the last time I went around sprinkling forgiveness into my conversation. Who am I to forgive you? That shall remain for another blog.)
My circles include plenty of people who have no use for church. And it turns out, Jesus gets that. It’s no secret the way religion can – and has, or does – participate in the power structures of society.
Now, I’ll stand by the local church. And, I know that if there’s any means of forgiveness and restoration coming from these walls, it’s not because God favors the building or the system: it’s because I’ve happened upon a group of people who love God and are participating in the great command of issuing grace to one another from a great bounty of love.
If you’re home on Easter Sunday morning, perhaps feeling a tad guilty for choosing chocolate bunnies and hard boiled eggs over organ hymns or even rock guitar versions of songs of jubilee, then I see you. I get it. And it’s okay. If the system has failed to bring you peace and forgiveness, then that’s the fault of the system. And more accurately, it’s the fault of the people who proclaim a message and then fail to offer it’s generous benefits to everyone.
What we’re all looking for doesn’t come from a system, it comes from The Spirit – which resides in the people. We fail the world when we try to systematize that which can only come from contact with the living God.
I’m walking away from this passage this morning less with a mandate to “invite someone to church” and more to walk alongside those who need to see and hear and know and feel what it is to live in forgiveness and freedom. They will not find what they’re looking for in a church if they cannot find it in the person who invites them.