Thursday, March 09, 2017

If you do not forgive… I

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.


Introduction

In most of my weekly blogs since October last year, love has been a persistent theme: God’s love, our love, love as the fabric of creation, love whose redemptive force is irresistible. That theme led me to plead for removing discipline as a mark of the true church, replacing it with love as a way of celebrating 500 years of Reformation. I tried to make this concrete in terms of a church that would eliminate condemnation from its witness. I intended this elimination to apply specifically to the organized church, because it is unworkable for the rest of society, for example for the secular state. Most cultures respond to transgression with punishment. Recently newspapers reported that US chiefs of police are not convinced of the wisdom of relying "only on jail and prison,” which they see as "simply ineffective….” Laudable as that sentiment may be, it is unrelated to dealing with transgressors in love.

So in a context of long having to live with brokenness and discipline, my plea concerned a re-formation of the church as a sanctuary, as a place where without exception all live by grace alone, as a place that wipes away all darkness and allows even worst offenders to breathe freely, as a New Testament version of the Old Testament’s City of Refuge, as a place where no one is ever refused communion.

Some of my readers felt uneasy about this. They were concerned that, for example, victims of abuse by church leaders might never find healing for their wounds if the perpetrators would not face the consequences of their destructive behaviour. In this blog and others to follow I hope to address this legitimate and important concern. But I do not intend to diminish my plea for boundless love for all, also for perpetrators of abuse. However, in my view such love needs a path to genuine healing for victims and a call for perpetrators to participate in that healing. I hope that the process known as "truth and reconciliation" can help us forge a path for the church to walk that will allow abuser and abused to experience a fulness of redemption.

I rely on Bible texts in making this plea. So what follows is a matter of reading sacred texts. Therefore the issue of reliable and responsible reading is very much in play. The more so when my reading—both in terms of what it claims a text says and of how we must respond to it—for the most part deviates from how the church has for centuries read and responded to a specific text. The most significant basis for the maintenance of discipline I take to be John 20:23b. It will, I hope, also become a basis for relentless forgiving. To that end I will offer and defend a different reading.


The church and John 20:21-23

Commentaries on John's story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the first evening after the resurrection seem to agree that this is John's version of Matthew's Great Commission and of Pentecost early in Acts. So John 20:21-23 packs two monumental Gospel events into very few words.

John Calvin’s commentary provides a powerful interpretation of vs. 23, which in the NIV reads: ”If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” The first part, Calvin says (my emphases), is nothing less than “the sum of the Gospel….” We learn here about God’s “unconditional pardon of sins…,” accomplished by “not imputing….” them. Salvation is “the forgiveness of sins through free grace.

His interpretation of the second part is also powerful, but not very comforting. This part has been added, he says, “to terrify the despisers of this Gospel” who will hereby know “that they will not escape punishment….” Calvin adds that in this way the apostles “have been armed with vengeance against all the ungodly…."

In this setting it is understandable that the churches of the Reformation wanted to make sure that the faithful practice of discipline would be a mark of the true church. Verse 23b has been a key element in providing a solid Scriptural foundation for how the church deals with transgression in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. Still, there are wide ranging discussions about 23b, especially among preachers and pastors, who deal with this text not in abstraction, but in their practice with parishioners and councils.

The discussions are often nuanced and wide ranging and many make a connection between what Jesus says and what has been near-formulaic in the Jewish tradition, namely that leaders of the people are authorized to declare with legal force how actions may be set free from condemnation or may be subject to condemnation. Jesus used their technical language of binding and loosing, forbidding and permitting. So in the eyes of many, Jesus intends to authorize the church not to forgive some.

Nevertheless, a persistent minority questions this reading and in some cases provides a different translation. The week after next I will introduce a different way of reading this text, but first I will suggest why some interpreters wonder how likely it is that Jesus, as part of the Spirit-inspired great commission, bids the church to sometimes show no mercy.

My reading of John 20 and 21 assumes that these chapters are devoted to illustrate what John means by resurrection. Very remarkably, the empty grave has little to say in his story. Peter and John entered it, saw that it was empty, believed what the women had said they had found, made no connection with Scripture, and went home. John's truth of resurrection becomes apparent in stories that follow, such as Mary’s commission, the commissioning of the disciples, Peter’s being forgiven and commissioned. These stories suggest to some interpreters that John 20:23 has perhaps been misunderstood. Next week I hope to show that there are good grounds in the gospel itself to join these interpreters in their second thoughts.

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

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I want to forgive, but it's hard. From your telling, I am thinking about how forgiveness is not abstract, but that it presents itself to the Christian follower in a way that makes it hard to sort out - logic and absolutes miss details that are germane. There are earth-dweller problems around forgiveness. Does Jesus give us permission to not forgive? Thank you for eyeing this question hard. JW

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  2. Greetings Jonathan. Yes, forgiving can be difficult. I'm not sure I understand the specific difficulties you have in mind, but you are right, the nitty gritty of being offended and responding with forgiveness are sometimes embedded in throbbing heartache or serious anger. And I'm sure that people sometimes never do get to forgive. I'm sure also that we are sometimes inclined to say that not being able to forgive is understandable. Unfortunately John nowhere unpacks these kinds of problems. If you ask whether Jesus gives us the space of not being able to forgive, I need to go to the Synoptics, where Jesus' attitude to not forgiving is recorded. He speaks about it from the perspective of what it does to you, to the person who cannot forgive. He says that not forgiving boomerangs. If we do not forgive others we will not be forgiven ourselves. I read that to mean that in not being able to forgive we harden our own hearts, while forgiving makes us generous. So he is deeply serious about always forgiving or, as he says, forgiving seventy times seven times. Henk.

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