Wednesday, March 15, 2017

If you do not forgive… II

by Henk Hart

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.

Problems with the current reading of John 20:23b

When the disciples are commissioned Jesus tells them that if they do not forgive someone’s sins, these sins are not forgiven. (John 20:23b) In this context a disturbing question arises: are we reading this right? Forgiving is one of the meanings of the new life. Paul ends Galatians 6, in which he tells us to bear one another’s burden if someone has sinned, by saying “what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule.” How could that include leaving people in their sins?

If indeed the last chapters of John are intended to explain what resurrection means, is there no immediate tension in reading 20:23b both as evidence of the resurrection and also as a mandate not to forgive someone’s sins?

I do not believe, given the context of the entire Gospel, such a reading is necessary and I hope to show that the problem is not one of poor translation. It is possible to simply read 23b as it stands and find it emphasizing new life. But first: is John's gospel consistent with retaining someone's transgressions as part of the meaning of resurrection?

Ten grounds for considering a different reading

*In the Prologue to his gospel John refers to the Word Incarnate as full of grace and truth (vs 17). He links us to Exodus 34:6-7a, the astounding self-revelation of God as forgiving and full of mercy, without a link to vs 7b. In the Old Testament this usually means that the reference intentionally does not include God’s resolve to punish iniquity (7b). In John, only the forgiving and merciful God becomes incarnate.

*John points to Jesus (vs 29) as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He refers to God’s inclusive, cosmic love. Calvin’s exuberant reading of 20:23a as an unconditional pardon raises no expectation of limits on God's cosmic love. Nothing here points to reading this same Jesus as later commanding us to retain the sins of some.

*The miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 3) focuses Jesus’ mission on the restoration of joy as the basis for the disciples’ trust. So one would not expect John later to undermine this trust by involving the disciples in declaring some sin unforgivable.

*John 3:16 characterizes Jesus's mission as, again, an expression of God's love for the cosmos. Had Nicodemus been present at the commissioning in John 20, would he not have been surprised hearing vs 23b as a limit on God’s love?

*In John 8:3-11, Jesus tells a woman caught in adultery that he does not condemn her. He also does not assure that her sins are forgiven. Instead he tells her no longer to live in sin. And while he does, he is writing in the sand with his finger, just as the 10 commandments were written with God’s finger. But this time he may have written his new commandment: enter the life of love.

*The new commandment is made explicit in John 13:34, 15:12, 17 without any hint of leaving room for intentionally not forgiving sins. Jesus’s followers are to love one another as Jesus loved them. And Jesus loved them as God loved Jesus.

*In John 's post resurrection stories I read resurrection to mean darkness is overcome by love. He does not say the empty grave tells us Jesus is risen (John 20:4-10). Instead he tells stories that begin in darkness and give way to new life, to love, to forgiveness, all telling us that in Jesus a new creation starts.

*The first evidence of resurrection is the restoration of Eve in the commissioning of Mary to “go and tell” the disciples (John 20:17). She, a woman, is the first to be commissioned as messenger of good news. The Word that was in the beginning and brought us grace and truth incarnate has begun the work of resurrection, of making all things new. Leaving people in their sins does not fit in this commission

*The commissioning of the disciples (John 20:20-23) follows a clear path to new life. First the disciples are told to continue Jesus’ very mission: as the Father has sent me. Jesus then breathed on them to give them the Spirit. The Greek text leaves little doubt that this breathing was like God’s breathing life into Adam. Then they are commanded to forgive and reminded that without forgiveness people remain in their sins. I will say more about how I read forgiving in this third step of the commissioning. In this sequence resurrection can hardly include leaving people in their sins.

*In John 21:15ff the commissioning of Peter takes the place of forgiving him. I will retell this dramatic story in my own words to bring out the subtleties that translations do not reveal. Peter is asked three times whether he loves Jesus and three times he responds by saying Jesus knows. There is never a straight: Yes, I do. The first time Jesus asked: Do you fully love me more than the others? Peter responds: You know we are true friends. The second time Jesus leaves off the more than the others. Peter do you fully love me? Peter: You know we are true friends. The third time, which upsets Peter, Jesus comes down to his level: Are we really friends? Peter: You know everything, you know we truly are friends. Each of the three times Jesus commissions Peter to look after Jesus’ followers and then explains how this will lead to a hard life. Did Peter “get it,” we might ask? Was he renewed? At the end of the conversation Peter sees his close friend John and asks Jesus: And what about him? Jesus gently rebukes him: That’s for me to know. Peter’s renewal is really a sad story. But Jesus does not say he doesn’t forgive Peter. Nor does he discipline him.

Peter's story, more than anything else, make clear to me that in Jesus, full of grace and truth, we know only the God of mercy and forgiveness in Exodus 34:6-7a. God as known in Exodus 34:7b, who does not overlook iniquity, is nowhere in sight. So what is John saying in 20:23b? I will go there next week.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

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