“No, really,” he said, “The reign of sin is over.
“I’m with you, buddy.” You’ve probably heard that idiom and probably used it. It just means, I agree with you. It’s very common in American usage. That’s what I would tell my students, and they would love that. They love American idiomatic expressions. We will see that this morning’s reading from John is full of idioms. See if you can find them all.
The book of John begins with the proclamation that, “In the beginning was the word,” which is a nice Christian idiom meaning Jesus. It goes on to say that Jesus was God’s vehicle of self-expression. The first part of John is just a poetic way of saying that God became Jesus. The book ends with the same kind of proclamation when Thomas recognizes God in Jesus and says, “My Lord and my God.” So, the book has now come full circle and we can start to think about what it all means: This mysterious, idiomatic Word, its presence among us, its sacrifice to the false-god of human violence, and its return from the dead which gives new life through the gift of forgiveness.
The story in John is pretty simple: Jesus was born and went around teaching and helping people. Then, everybody betrayed him. Jesus died. He came back and forgave everybody. His disciples looked at his wounds. Since they seem not to have gotten it the first time, or maybe because it’s so important, Jesus forgave them again. “No, really,” he said, “The reign of sin is over. You’re free.” Then Jesus sent them all out to spread the word about forgiveness, that the world was no longer enslaved to sin. It’s that very last bit that we’re looking at today.
The fact that Jesus died is one of the main points. Lazarus had been brought back from the dead, so that was not nearly as hard for the disciples to believe as the fact that Jesus had actually died, and in the most humiliating way possible. It was just inconceivable. The writer is trying to make the point that Jesus had been a flesh and blood man who really did suffer and really did die. That is important.
After Jesus died, he came back. He did not come back on clouds from the sky, though he will exit that way later. He simply appeared in the midst of them. The first thing he said was, “Peace.” This is what we say to one another each week at the part of the worship service when we pass the peace. That part of the liturgy comes just after the confession and absolution of sin, and “the peace,” as we call it, is a way that we continue the dialogue of forgiveness with one another. It’s an idiom. “Peace…” we say, and what we mean is, “You and I are free from the bondage of sin.”
After he came and forgave them, everybody took a good look at Jesus’ wounds. Forests of trees have been cut down to record the things that have been written about Jesus’ wounds. But, we don’t have to read all those books. We know that the wounds are openings. They allow us to enter into the body of God — the Christ spirit — even to become part of God’s body. It is hard to say which is more revealing of God, his scandalous naked death or these wounds which allow some to actually penetrate the barrier between life and death, between God and humanity. It was God’s wounds that opened this door to unity and holy fellowship. Unlike previous sacrifices, God is the scapegoat who does not run off into the desert, but who returns to prove that sacrifice and violence are not the path of redemption, forgiveness is.
Then, as if we didn’t hear it before, Jesus said, “Peace” again. Why all this peace? It’s because the disciples had all failed Jesus. They were caught up in the violence machine as both victims living in fear and as perpetrators having betrayed their friend and severing fellowship. That is what sin is: Breaking faith with, betraying. Only John had made it as far as the actual cross. The others all denied him or ran away. Judas had secretly betrayed Jesus for money; Peter had publically betrayed him, essentially cutting off all possible relationship; and the rest were in hiding. They were not very good friends, students, or disciples. So, Jesus came forgiving them. That is not what you’d expect. Betrayal is serious business, after all. It is hard to forgive. But, Jesus restored their relationship with forgiveness. We know that Jesus was talking about forgiveness because the very next thing he said was, “If you forgive others, then their sins are really forgiven…”
Something was amiss, though. The circle of fellowship was not complete. It’s not a literal circle. That’s another idiom I just threw in. Thomas was not there to be breathed on, another idiom, or to hear Jesus’ words of peace… the idiom for forgiveness. We don’t know where Thomas was or what he was up to, but one thing we do know is that he was not with the other disciples. He was not locked away in fear. Thomas was out and about. Maybe he just stepped out for some air and happened to miss Jesus. But, you would think that Jesus would have known about something like that and timed his visit a little better. Something else must have been going on. –
This is yet another area where we mustn’t be so literal or liner in our thinking. When the text says that Thomas was not with the other disciples, it may not mean that he wasn’t home. It might mean that he just didn’t agree with them. Like a good Jew, he had questions. It wasn’t settled for him. That’s not doubt. That’s faith!
Thomas is our truth-teller, remember. He is the one who, while the other disciples were in a quiet reverie about their status in the coming kingdom said, “Hold on a minute… We don’t actually know where you are going, and we don’t know how to get there either!” Thomas is the one who said what everyone else was thinking, or what they would think later. In modern idiomatic expression, we would call him a “thought leader.” Of course, the “thought leader” is the one who is eventually blamed, scapegoated, and exiled. And that may explain why he wasn’t with the others when Jesus showed up the first time.
In saying that he wouldn’t continue believing unless he could also penetrate the mystery of God — that is, touch Jesus’ wounds — Thomas is just asking for readmission to the club. Right after Jesus said, “If you forgive others then their sins are really forgiven…” he said, “If you fail to release others from sin then they will remain in bondage to the violence machine” He wasn’t talking about forgiving moral failures in the way we think of “sin” today. It wasn’t about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. That’s not what sin is. Jesus was talking about the sin that binds us all: the sacrificial violence we have committed against one another — and the violence that we failed to stand up to — since the dawn of storytelling. Those are the sins we have done and the sins we have not done for which we ask forgiveness each week… not that we cursed, or overate, or whatever we might have done or not done.
Here’s the thing, though. Jesus came back for Thomas. Because sin binds us all, the death and return of God frees all of us too. So, Jesus came back for Thomas because God doesn’t leave anybody behind.
Finally, we get to the main point, the reason Jesus came back in the first place: By allowing himself to be sacrificed to the violence machine and coming back to tell the tale, all humanity has been released from the sin-cycle of blame, scapegoating, sacrifice, and redemption. The new cycle is forgiveness, wholeness, and witness.
The sinning does go on, though, doesn’t it? Jesus’ prayer that they may all be one seems like a pipe dream. But, that they may all be one isn’t an idiom. Jesus really meant those exact words, and it’s a prayer God really answered if only we can forgive enough to live into it. It’s about how all of us are forgiven in one fell swoop with none who are in and none who are out because we are one people unified, not in belief, but in the sure knowledge that we are free.
You may ask, “What if I don’t forgive”? Well, that is a sin. It divides the broken yet healing body of Jesus into the forgiven and the unforgiven, those who are in and those who are out. That’s exactly what God came to remedy! So, if someone doesn’t forgive you, forgive them. They are more in need of forgiveness than you are. And if you really need forgiveness, then I forgive you. Peace. Idiomatically, of course.
So, go! Go! You are sent the same as any other disciple to forgive and to join all humanity into the freedom economy of God which leaves no one behind.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
An idiom is a word or a group of words that means something that is only available to insiders. You can’t tell what it means by looking at the words alone. Idioms come into usage over time and some become some commonplace that they are not even considered idioms by those who use them but actually take on alternative meanings.
God became Jesus… It is important to make the distinction between the oft-said, “Jesus was God incarnate,” and the more correct, “God became flesh in the person of Jesus.” The first statement deifies a man, while the latter makes it clearer that Jesus was the human vehicle for God’s big adventure as a human being. — And the other oft-said, and wrong, saying that Jesus was the “Son of God” is better understood as a reaction to first-century political realities than a statement about the parentage of Jesus. Thomas’ proclamation that Jesus is “My Lord and my God,” is not a statement about Jesus as much as a statement about his loyalties to God’s kingdom, not the kingdom of Rome and its violence machine. Very brave of him.
John 1:1… In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. … (NIV)
It is important for God to die because someday I will die too, and so will you, and everybody we care about will also die. Some of us will suffer before we die. Most, I suspect. If God is the god who fell to earth, then God has to have had a real human life, complete with death and suffering. I don’t want a God who is far above it all. I need a God who has died and who can teach me how to die too.
For us, it is harder to believe in the resurrection than in Jesus’ crucifixion, but the writer of John was likely more concerned with speaking to docetic thought which was then beginning to circulate. That’s the idea that it hadn’t really been the flesh and blood Jesus up there on the cross but maybe an image of a human man, a vision. Maybe some kind of scapegoat. And, really, almost all our controversies have swirled around this unanswerable question of who Jesus was: A man, a god, both, neither, or some combination. But, this is not the Akedah. There will be no substitutionary ram. In fact, there is nothing substitutionary about it.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament notes that a public declaration of not even knowing a teacher or friend, as Peter did, effectively cut off all relationship… forever. It was very serious.
John 4:15… Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?” (The Message)
Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakak, al Jouf Province, Saudi Arabia. In her spare time she plays ukulele and makes plans for vacation!