There’s a scene in the Gospel according Matthew where when Jesus and the disciples came into the district Caesarea Philippi he asked them a question, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples go on to repeat all things they had heard people say, that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead; that he was Elijah, or the prophet Jeremiah;. Then Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am.” Simon stood up, and speaking for all the disciples, answered, “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God.”
With that statement Jesus seemed so happy and said, “Blessed are you Simon, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” For this insight Jesus blessed Simon and told him, “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter means Rock and so the re-naming of Peter is a play on words, “You are Rock and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus told Peter that he would give him the keys to the kingdom and that whatever he bound and loosed on earth would be bound and loosed in heaven. Jesus commissioned Peter as the chief leader of the church and Peter and the Church would have the authority to teach, forgive sins, cast out demons, and not even death would prevail against the church.
This scene is where in part we get the image of old Saint Peter sitting in some booth up in heaven passing out harps and giving people admittance into their heavenly rest.
The other day I learned something I didn’t know. Someone at the Men’s Breakfast mentioned that in the Lutheran Church there is something called the Office of Keys and Confession. It is mentioned in Luther’s shorter catechism and is defined as that “special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”
Today in the Gospel according John Jesus says something similar to what he said in Matthew though the circumstances are much different. In Matthew Jesus is still going about his ministry. In John today he appears to the disciples after his death. He had appeared to Mary early that day and she had at first mistaken him for the gardener. Later that day when it was evening the disciples where hiding out behind locked doors and Jesus appeared among them and, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. It was then that they recognized him and so they rejoiced. Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The disciples had undergone a trauma, maybe even two. First their messiah had been violently killed. Then there was word from Mary that he was alive. So they were afraid, anxious, and then Jesus appeared among and said, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus gives them his peace, and then he sends them as he has been sent by the Father. Instead of locking themselves behind closed doors Jesus sends them out. There world that had closed in on them, Jesus opens it up.
By breathing on them Jesus makes them a new creation. The Gospel according to John is very aware of the first two chapters of Genesis. John’s own first chapter hearkens back to the beginning of creation in Genesis 1. This chapter near the end of the gospel recalls the moments after God created Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed life into him in chapter two of Genesis. Jesus here breathes new life into them, creating them, and gives them the mission of carrying on his work and representing him in the world.
The authority of the Church to forgive or retain sins does not come from itself. It is not an authority the Church has on its own, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit we are simply a group of people who get together to read some stories, hear someone interpret those stories and what they might mean, and up until recently eat a wafer of bread and take sip of wine. Yet with the Spirit the stories we read are the Word of God, and we pray that the same Spirit which inspired them enables the preacher to interpret the stories to edify and build up those who are gathered together, and it is the same Spirit which we call upon to sanctify the bread and wine so that they may be the body and blood of Christ. It is Jesus’ Spirit which brings us to life gives us the power and authority to do these things. Jesus didn’t give us his Spirit to keep for ourselves though. In their fear and anxiety the disciples turned inward. Jesus turns them outward.
I don’t want to give my hot take on the protests that have occurred across the country and the incidents that lead up to them, but I would be remiss not to say something about them this morning in light of the Gospel and don’t plan for it be the last word on the matter. These are preliminary thoughts in a still developing situation.
What I have read and seen over the last week has been disturbing and it is more than that. The last two months have been a traumatic experience for some more traumatic than for others. One hundred thousand people have died. Forty million Americans are out of work. This traumatic experience has been especially hard on people of color in terms of health and the economy. And that’s on top of historic injustices that people of color have suffered. Then when incidents like Ahmaud Arbery occur, an unarmed African American killed by two white men; or when a white woman called the police on an African-American man who was birdwatching, and who asked her to put her dog on a leash in Central Park; and then the death of African-America George Floyd while being arrested in Minneapolis. Trauma on top of trauma. More anger and frustration on top of anger and frustration.
I cannot, but hope that Jesus still appears in the middle of all this and says, “Peace to you.” The thing about it is that the peace Jesus gave the disciples then and continues to bestow on us now, though we seem to resist it, didn’t come without wounds. Hurt. Pain. Or trauma. The disciples recognized Jesus by his wounds.
It was out of God’s justice that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. It makes me think that peace doesn’t come without some sort of cost. Setting things to right will cost us something. The new creation is born out of the death of the old one.
As a church we have rightfully done our part in trying to mitigate the transmission of a disease by staying home. Now we are preparing to regather as a church and we will not be the same. My hope is that we will be stronger, more vibrant, more engaged with the world than ever before.
A member of the parish sent me an email the other day with an article written by one of the former rector’s of Saint Andrew’s, Fr. Nick Dyke, who now works part-time at Saint Martin’s in Houston. In that article Fr. Nick quoted the Roman Catholic Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens who was a prominent leader at the time of the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960’s. The quote came from Cardinal Suenen’s book, The New Pentecost. Suenen’s said, “To those at this moment who are distressed because they cannot recognize in the confusion and the changes of today the church of their childhood, or even the church of yesterday well then…The Spirit is still at work and is our living hope for the future.”
We might identify with that. Maybe we cannot recognize in the confusion and changes today the church of our childhood or yesterday. Maybe we cannot recognize the country of our childhood or of two months ago.
Still, the Spirit is at work. This Spirit of Jesus, this Holy Spirit, is the antidote to fear and despair. This is the time for a New Pentecost. We don’t know what the future will bring, but the Spirit is our living hope for the future. In this New Pentecost may the Spirit give faith. May the Spirit grant justice. May the Spirit give hope. May the Spirit give us all peace.