THE DAY OF PENTECOST, May 15, 2005
On the evening of that first day of the week when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 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 anyone his sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (NIV)
WHY I AM A CHRISTIAN
When I was a boy, Pentecost was the day when young white-robed teens that had undergone a period of instruction, alternately rigorous, depending on the tradition, affirmed their baptismal faith and were received into a more mature membership in the congregation. It was a kind of puberty rite as well. Boys often received their first suit, girls wore stunning dresses. The church was bedecked with flowers and ribbons. Special music was performed. At home there was a festive meal for relatives and friends.
In my case, my mother’s friend, Bessie Gronhagen, a lady of Bohemian extraction, prepared the roast with Bohemian dumplings. Presents were opened. I received a set of bookplates from the principal of the school and a pair of ruby cufflinks from my godparents. Wine was drunk at home for the first time. Parents recognized that in some unique sense their child had grown up. There were not only physical signs, but spiritual ones as well. He or she had taken a stand before the world, stating that he/she was a Christian.
In some senses, that ritual took seriously the meaning of the Pentecost story, told in our first lesson today. People from all over the area had gathered to celebrate a harvest festival in Jerusalem. While they were celebrating, Peter preached a sermon, challenging hearers to take a stand with respect to the new faith that had emerged as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In response, many professed their faith and entered the Christian community that day. We remember it on this Sunday as the official beginning of the church.
It’s valuable for us to reflect together on why, in an era when many people don’t believe in belonging to anything, but simply being “individualists,” we became members of the church-- and why it is still important for us today. Today’s Gospel lesson gives us a unique chance to do that because it surprises us with shocking, counter-cultural information about Jesus—and about ourselves. In reflecting on this text, I, for one, am excited to call myself a Christian and, I hope, you, in thinking it through, will have the same reaction.
How shocking to have a Lord who holds no grudges
The first thing which stuns me about Jesus in this text is that he holds no grudges when he had every right to do so. Quite apart from whether Jesus may have been fulfilling a destiny, he had every right to be disgusted with his disciples. The Gospel writers suggest that most of them never seemed to grasp what he was saying or what his mission was about. At the end, some betrayed and denied him. Others, John being the exception, hid during the crucifixion and ran off to a locked room because they were afraid. Some followers they were!
I’m not sure what kind of fear is strongest for you. Occasionally, my wife and I enjoy watching a movie, which my wife calls a “foot-sweater!” It really makes you afraid because there is huge tension as to whether some things will really take place or whether the killers will actually be caught. Why do we watch such things, however? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that, deep down, we know we aren’t responsible for what happened and tomorrow, all will be well. The case is different, however, when we are afraid because we know we did something for which we ourselves should rightly be accused or apprehended.
We are told that the disciples were afraid because their Jewish leaders might apprehend them as well. They were also afraid because of their grief and their confusion. Most of all, however, they were afraid because they felt guilty. They had not defended Jesus. They had fled and were hiding.
It’s one thing, for their fallen hero, Jesus, suddenly to appear in their locked room and show them his pierced hands and side. They were overjoyed, we are told, to know that he was alive again. What must have been overwhelming to them, however, was the fact that he said “Shalom” to them. He said it three times! They might have expected a lecture: “You’re fine fair-weather friends. I thought I could count on you. Instead, you turned out to be faithless cowards! See these pierced hands and sides! What did you do about this?!”
Here was the shocking thing, however. Their Jesus didn’t hold grudges. He greeted them just like old times. He said “Shalom,” the traditional greeting of peace, the wholistic Hebrew affirmation, which showed all was well. It was as if nothing had happened.
Do you know anyone like this? People who after a fight don’t let the words said and the actions stand between you? Can you be like this, when others say and do offensive things to you? Would you like to have a God who acts this way toward you? There is something thrilling about it, something which turns the tables upside down. It is an alternative to the way we typically are. It is the way of a Jesus who comes into his own with us by way of the cross and the empty tomb. This Jesus, who holds no grudges, who accepts us as we are, who finds no fault with us—this Jesus is our risen Savior and Lord.
How shocking to have a Lord who wants Failures to work with him
For me, this is not the most shocking thing about Jesus, that he accepts us despite our failures, our dishonesty, our cowardice and our faithlessness. More shocking is the fact that he commissions us to be his ambassadors. Just think about how it worked with the disciples.
These were men whom he had called to be his followers once before, at the fishing boats in Capernaum, under the fig tree. He had shared everything with them for three years and they had let him down. Donald Trump would have fired them! They were bad hires. The shocking thing is that Jesus hires them a second time. He commissions them and sends them out, losers that they are.
You know, when it comes to being wrong, most of us don’t like to admit it. It’s one of my most difficult problems. We prefer to say, analyzing our lives, “we haven’t been all that bad. Pretty good, in fact. When it comes right down to it, we don’t rob, rape, pillage and kill. We’re the good guys.” Jesus would never hire us on those terms. He looks for people who not only have been bad guys, but who know they have been! Being a disciple begins with knowing how wrong you are. Disciples are people who know themselves to have been forgiven, because they are people who had reason to need forgiveness. James Alison wrote a book on this subject called The Joy of Being Wrong. Only people who know they have been wrong can look forward to belonging to this Jesus. What a joy to be wrong!
When we look for elders in the church, for leaders, for pastors, we look for men and women of moral stature, of good repute! After all, Paul tells Timothy to make only such people bishops. Paul should have known better, because Jesus chose him, a man who had once persecuted Christians. And Pope Bartholomew XVI, what a pious and saintly man his followers take him to be! But the one he claims to follow, Peter, was far from a saintly type. He was one who had to learn the joy of being wrong. Perhaps, as we choose our leaders, we should look for the Chuck Colsons and the John Deans, the Johnny Cashes and the Martha Stewarts of our world, the ones who know what it’s like to have been condemned and then to be set free. I know you’re smiling as I mention these names, but perhaps you wouldn’t smile if I were to mention your names and mine.
Finally, Jesus says something even more shocking. He says, “if you forgive people, their sins are forgiven, and if you don’t forgive them, their sins are not forgiven.” What could it possibly mean to retain—or not to forgive sins! The church, in its need to be control taking, has often messed this all up. The concept of excommunication comes from this statement. If someone sins and does not repent, you can remove them from the Christian community. Historically, both the Eastern Church and the Western Church often held this threat over people’s heads, from popes to kings to reformers to lowly rebellious types. However, Jesus, the one who held no grudges and who hired even those who denied him to follow him again, this Jesus seems never to have withheld or retained sins. And why would we, who have been forgiven so generously, even consider such a thing? If we refuse to forgive someone, of course we haven’t forgiven them-- but why would we entertain such a thought!
Taking your own stand as a Christian
Today is Pentecost and we remember the birthday of the Christian church, a time when people responded to preaching about repentance and forgiveness with changed lives and grateful hearts. When I get it all mixed up in my own life and forget what it means to be a Christian, I, too, may say, “I’m not such a bad person. Jesus might be making a big mistake in overlooking me.” On the other hand, when I get it right, and know that I too have failed to be what even I myself might hope to become, and that in this religion, our God is looking only for the failures, then I too know the joy of being wrong. And I positively love being a part of this kind of counter-culture religion, one which flies in the face of all the human religions which try to make us look good so that we can at last be acceptable! Here is one that takes us as we are, rejoices as we prodigals stumble on the homeward path to the Father’s house, and commissions us to go out again and tell the world that this God loves sinners and can’t even work with people unless they know they are. On Pentecost, remembering when the church first began, I claim this church and this faith as my own once again. I am a Christian and I would have no other Jesus than the one who works with bad hires and gives them a second chance.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus