Last Sunday, Easter, the gospel reading was the first half of the 20th chapter of John, and today’s gospel is the second half. I mentioned last week, in describing John’s interest in the vertical dimension of eternity rather than the horizontal dimension of time in history, that John telescoped the events Luke spread out from Easter to Pentecost into a much shorter time. We read this morning, for instance, about how Jesus breathed on the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit, and then commissioned them to forgive sins or retain them, on the very evening of Easter Sunday. The Holy Breath is John’s version of Pentecost, and his version of the Great Commission has nothing to do with baptizing people in all nations, as Matthew said, though it agrees with Luke’s version which is also about repentance and forgiveness.
Today I want us to slow down, to back away from meditating on the ascension and eternal life, and linger on the details of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, from John’s point of view. We have not only the gospel reading but the reading from the letter of 1 John which, if not written by the same person, was written by someone in his school. The First Letter of John opens with resonant drama: “We declare to you what was from the beginning…” The Gospel of John opens, “In the beginning was the Word…,” which in turn refers back to the first line of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the Earth…” So the author of the First Letter of John was not talking about the beginning of Christian understanding but the very beginning of the world. This is serious metaphysics, from which John’s tradition does not shy away.
But listen to what comes next: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” What we have heard, seen, looked at, and touched! The deep, metaphysical Word, the Logos, had become palpable. John meant, of course, that the Word was incarnate in Jesus, but that sounds too bland. What he really meant is that the person, Jesus, whom they had heard, seen, looked at and touched with their own hands, was in fact the very Word of God fitted into human form. The author of First John was writing in opposition to some members of the Johannine community who emphasized the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity. The author’s point was that it is the man they had touched who is the real Word.
Touch is also at stake in our gospel reading, is it not? Thomas had missed Jesus’ first visit to the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday and, when told about it, had said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas did not want someone else mistaken for Jesus, nor some kind of un-human ghost or angel. He wanted touchable Jesus. When Jesus suddenly appeared a week later where Thomas was with the others, he invited Thomas to touch. In point of fact, Thomas did not touch him. Seeing Jesus was enough, and Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.” That confession of Thomas’, “My Lord and my God,” is the dramatic high point of John’s gospel.
What were the disciples touching when they did touch Jesus? According to the First Letter of John, they were touching the word of life—“this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” As I said last week, eternal life, for John’s tradition, is the vertical connection with God that is there all along, that we usually miss, and that Jesus revealed to us. Jesus said many things about how to live in this life, admonitions about justice and peace, forgiveness and mercy. John’s stress is on the eternal divine dimension that accompanies all our moments and projects in which we pursue the Christian Way. What is that eternal divine dimension? Listen to how the author of First John concludes his amazing opening sentence: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Then the author adds, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
If you did the assignment I gave you last week, namely, to read the 13th through 17th chapters of the Gospel of John, you recognize immediately what this fellowship is, involving the disciples, Jesus, and God. Jesus told the disciples that he was giving them a new commandment, to love one another as he had loved them. Then he explained that this loving fellowship of friends was bound together not only because he loved them and taught them how to love. It was bound because God loved them and had commissioned Jesus to love and teach them. So, their fellowship of loving one another included being loved by God and loving God in turn. No matter what their lives would involve, and Jesus predicted trouble and pain, their loving fellowship with one another, with Jesus, and with the Father was an eternal life that would keep them safe in the bosom of God. The first lesson to draw from this is that we have many Christian projects to do in the world, concerning peace, justice, care for the poor and sick, and relief of suffering. The second lesson is that, regardless of how we succeed or fail in these projects, our eternal life is that we are living with God in fellowship with one another. As the author of First John says, this makes our joy complete, even when we suffer in all the worldly ways.
Living in loving fellowship with God is no simple matter, however. In this respect, the author of First John said “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not have what is true.” You remember that the Prologue to the Gospel of John says that the word of life in Jesus “was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The divine light is present all the time, but our darkness prevents us from seeing it. What is our darkness? According to the author of First John, it is our deceptive claim that we have no sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Notice that the author assumes that we sin. There is the hope that we not sin, but also the plain recognition that we do sin. The light of life in Jesus is not sinlessness but sins confessed and forgiven. Human darkness is the pretence that we do not sin.
Here is how I understand this point. Our life within time inevitably leads to sin, and in many ways. Hardly anything we can do is only good, even in the great projects of peace and justice. Nearly every action is morally ambiguous, good in some ways, bad in others, good for some people, hurtful to others. The best we can do is to optimize the good to bad ratio. Then we need to acknowledge and confess the bad sides. As human social beings we are surrounded and defined by conflicting obligations. We can never do enough for our families, never enough for our jobs, never enough for charity, never enough for community service, never enough for worship, never enough to improve our characters, never enough to help those who suffer, never enough on and on. At best we try to balance things so as to fail our obligations the least. But we know in our heart that we have failed in all sorts of directions. And some of us have folks reminding us of that with depressing regularity. We need to acknowledge and confess our sins of omission. You can list your own sins of commission! Confess them too.
This inevitably sinful condition is just the nature of life. We do not have to be perfect. Jesus told the rich young ruler, with some annoyance, that only God is good in the sense of being perfect. But we do have to be realistic and live in the light of judgment, confessing our sins. The confession of sins is absolutely essential to our fellowship with one another, with Christ Jesus, and with God. It is not enough to say liturgical confession, although that is a good reminder. The requirement is to seek out the light that reveals us in brutal clarity, to give up our attempts at self-deception, and to admit the judgment upon us openly in our fellowship with one another, God, and Jesus. Of course you know how hard this is. So much of spiritual life is picking the scabs off denial! Even harder sometimes is hearing and accepting someone else’s confession. I would much prefer that you keep your sins to yourself, and for two reasons. If you confess yours, I have to own up to mine, which are probably altogether too much like yours. Moreover, if you confess your sins, I have to forgive you, as Jesus commissioned his disciples to do. Forgiving is even harder than confessing, is it not?
Now you see something of the texture of the fellowship of love to which Jesus calls us as our eternal life. Being buddies, delighting in one another, building a culture together, engaging in worship and in the disciplines of the Christian life together, are all helpful but not enough. Perhaps they are not even essential. We are called to love those we would not want to spend time with, those who are our enemies, those from alien and competing cultures, those whose worship sensibilities are different, those whose interpretations of the Christian life are opposed to ours. The fellowship of love to which Jesus calls us as eternal life is a fellowship based on the divine light of confession and forgiveness.
Oh, what a task this is! Can white Americans truly confess the racist sins of our ancestors who enslaved Africans, and continued to segregate them after slavery was outlawed? Can white Americans confess the privilege we enjoy because of the consequences of that multi-generational racism? Can we confess the racism in our stereotypes today? I doubt it, if we mean confession to be deeper than political correctness. But if we did, could African-Americans forgive their confessing racist oppressors? I doubt it, if we mean forgiveness by everyon. Yet there is hope for walking in the divine light of confession and forgiveness.
That hope comes to us in the resurrected Jesus who shows us that confession first and forgiveness second is backward. Jesus is the one who taught his disciples and died for them. They abandoned and betrayed him, and he forgave them before they confessed. In fact, only because they understood his dying undying love, and its forgiveness, were they able to confess. The author of First John said, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” You see, those other people, those non-Christians, do not have to confess. They are already forgiven. If they can accept that forgiveness, perhaps they then will have the power to confess. If they confess, they can move into the divine light, and enter the fellowship of love in which consists eternal life. Brothers and sisters, the same is true for us. We do not have to begin with confession. We begin by accepting forgiveness. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The saving belief is belief in forgiveness, which makes it possible for us to accept ourselves enough to confess. If we both confess and forgive, then we live in fellowship with one another, with the Father, and with Jesus Christ who overcame the world in his forgiveness.
Do we ever touch Jesus? Of course we do. Every time we meet someone who forgives an un-confessed sin, particularly our own, we touch the resurrected Christ. Every time we forgive someone without demanding or even expecting that he or she might in turn confess, we are in Christ and our touch is that of Jesus. We still are sinners and are surrounded by sinners. But we are also surrounded and filled by the grace of forgiveness. Because of this we can move into the light of confession. With that, we enter into the fellowship of love that is the content of eternal life. The crucifixion did not kill the forgiving grace of God in Jesus. On the contrary, the crucifixion made it overwhelmingly real, for the risen Christ is to be touched in every hand that blesses sinners.