by Henk Hart
ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ 20:21-23
Original text John 20:21-23 Greek New Testament (SBLGNT)
21 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν· Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν· καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. 22 καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· 23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς·
ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.
Reading the text once again
The 10 references to the same gospel I surveyed last week suggest that 20:23b from that very gospel may not offer support for church discipline. In a 2012 report of the West Coast Presbyterian Pastors Conference, Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, said about this difficulty that “this verse always bothered him.” So he translated it in The Message as: “If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” In material for the Lectionary Mat Skinner wrote: “Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world … left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. .... Jesus is not … granting the church a unique spiritual authority. He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ … leaves itself unable to play a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.”
The problem can perhaps be addressed by reading the text differently. Peterson leans that way in responding to 20:23b by exclaiming: And then what! He seems to imply that leaving people unforgiven creates an intolerable situation. So does Skinner. If they are right, we can take 23b to mean: and so forgive, never leave people unforgiven. Had 23a read: "When people are hungry, feed them," 23b would have been immediately clear: "if you don’t feed them, they remain hungry.” So: when you forgive sins they will be forgiven, lest people will continue as they are. Never fail to forgive. John’s great commission is: Forgive.
John 20:23b now urges us always to forgive, following the tenor of the gospel, in line with Paul's canon of the new creation (end of Galatians 6). John’s interpretation of Pentecost is the inbreathing of a new Adam who, as in Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, following Jesus in love, is filled with all the fulness of God. I read these kinds of texts as giving us a new interpretation of humanity made in God’s image. The fulness of God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7a now no longer needs to be completed with vs 7b. In Jesus the fulness of God’s love covers all iniquity. As in John 3:17-18a "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned….”
Forging a new tradition
But John 3:18b says: "whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son….” And vs 36: "whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” How can I maintain my different reading in the face of these clear condemnations? I respond that these condemnations are not part of the church’s mission. They are not God's intent in Jesus. The church is not called to condemn, but to be a means of grace. The gospel simply asserts the meaning of living outside the life-giving forces of love. All the more reason to read 20:23b as I propose.
Our world cries out for love and the gospel focuses on love as the core of the church. To practise love, we must overcome a centuries old tradition about reading a text. That’s been done before, also in connection with sin. We seem constitutionally inclined to respond to transgression, trespass, disobedience in just one way: punishment. So the post-resurrection church believes it must practice discipline to remain true and reads John as commanding this.
A reading of Scripture about our nature can be based on a mistake. In Reformed theology Augustine’s teaching of original sin was once very influential. Today we know his doctrine represented his misreading of Romans 5:12. Is it possible that we also misread John 20:23b? Are we free to work at a new tradition?
Restitution for abused victims
It is difficult to abandon an established tradition without the strengths of a new one. Breaking new ground often misses the mark again and again. Failure can tempt a return to Egypt. Entering a phase of the Reformation without church discipline will meet with resistance. But if the church is to become the special institution where love has no barriers, these hurdles must be taken.
What will a church do when acceptance of abusers seems to leave the abused without healing? Abused people, especially by clergy in a position of power in the church, rightfully look for restitution. Can they trust the church to restore them if the perpetrator is not punished? These questions easily arise from thinking in terms of a punitive model. But an institution devoted to extend God’s love to all is called to bring healing to those broken by the transgressions of others as well as to those others.
We have learned from the “truth and reconciliation” (t&r) process that restorative involvement of both sides of a bloody collision of norms and practices holds out promise for healing and reconciliation, serious shortcomings notwithstanding.* That process was adopted by secular states. It could therefore recommend itself even more to churches for development as a faith oriented process that moves beyond punishment. Punishment can indeed give a victim some satisfaction, but it does not restore. The strategies of t&r were forged in the crucible of seeking restoration after cruel political conflicts. Their path often resulted in truly moving results.
T&R looks for 'restorative justice’ rather than adversarial and retributive justice. It aims to heal by uncovering what really happened, finding truth and exposing lies, and making room for mourning, forgiveness and healing. Following this way churches can forego punishment and at the same time do justice to both abuser and abused. This provides a more Christlike way to read John 20:23b and a way to deal with transgression that incarnates love.
*Desmond Tutu’s Assessment: Despite these challenges and limitations, the TRC was internationally regarded as successful and showed the importance of public participation in such processes, including the initial decision-making process leading up to the establishment of a truth commission. The hearings of the TRC attracted global attention, as it was the first commission to hold public hearings in which both victims and perpetrators were heard. While amnesties are generally considered inconsistent with international law, the South African TRC provided some basis for considering conditional amnesties as a useful compromise, particularly if they help to secure perpetrator confessions.The South African TRC represented a major departure from the approach taken at the Nürnberg trials. It was hailed as an innovative model for building peace and justice and for holding accountable those guilty of human rights violations. At the same time, it laid the foundation for building reconciliation among all South Africans. Many other countries dealing with postconflict issues have instituted similar methodologies for such commissions, although not always with the same mandate. The South African TRC has provided the world with another tool in the struggle against impunity and the search for justice and peace.
This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.