Sunday, June 26, 2011

Share the Love

John 21:15-19
by Daniel Harrell

We return to Jesus’ third post-resurrection appearance to his disciples in John’s gospel, picking up where we left off, on the beach. Jesus’ first appearance was Easter Sunday as his disciples hid out in fear. Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit on them, though the effect was a dubious one since one week later they’re still hiding out. Jesus’ second appearance featured Doubting Thomas, who soon after became Believing Thomas. Still, viewing the dead Jesus alive twice still wasn’t enough to get his disciples busy making disciples. Instead of fishing for people like Jesus told them to do, they went back to fishing for fish. They had the Holy Spirit, but it must have been a insufficient dose. You can’t imagine the post-Pentecost disciples behaving this way. Rather than locked and loaded to go to the ends of the earth as they will be in Acts, here in John the disciples just go back to their boats.

It would be easy to chalk what looks like apostolic reticence up to pre-Pentecost realities were the same reticence not so prevalent among us post-Pentecostals too. Last Sunday we repented of our reticence to practice the spiritual gift of hospitality. I related the sad story of a family who tried attending Colonial Church for almost a year, but then left because they never felt welcomed. Many of you responded gratefully to my mild admonishment, saying we need to do better. Some of you told me of spending years here waiting for a welcome yourself—rationalizing that the wait was due to Minnesota Nice and Edina Exclusivity. But whether we’re in Edina, Eau Claire or Escondido, love defines the church of Jesus Christ, displaying itself in the ways we embrace neighbors, strangers and enemies too. Christians love because Jesus loves.

The conversation Jesus has with Peter on the beach is all about love. Peter was fishing out in deep water with the others when Jesus waved from on shore. They hadn’t caught much, so Jesus told them to try the right side of the boat. Like when they first met, the disciples hit the mother load again, a net-breaking haul of fish. The ever-impetuous Peter put two and two together, put on his clothes and then jumped into the water and made a trout-line for Jesus who had some fish frying already, along with some bread. He suggested the disciples add a few of the fish they just caught to the pan. So Peter hauled the whole net-full ashore, trying his best to make up for all of his failures.

How disappointing it must have been to have Jesus rub salt in his shame: “Simon son of John, do you really love me more than these others do?” Jesus used Peter’s formal name “Simon son of John,” the way parents do when they’re really mad. And why wouldn’t Jesus be mad? Back at his last meal on earth, Jesus had predicted how all his disciples would desert him. He said, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for as the prophet Zechariah has written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.’” Nevertheless, the ever-impetuous and proud Peter crowed, “Even if the others fall away on account of you, I never will. Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you. I will lay down my life for you.” Peter’s cocky crowing vanished with the cock crow that next morning. Named the “Rock” for his strong leadership among the disciples, Peter’s cowardly denial of Jesus left him looking more like paper mache.

We can relate. As paper mache Christians ourselves, we deny Jesus all the time—and with a whole lot less at stake. Sometimes it’s because we’re scared, sometimes because we’re embarrassed, we don’t want to be bothered or because we’re just not sure what to believe anymore. A friend recently lost a family member to cancer. Having prayed for healing—and believing healing was coming—it was horribly disillusioning when death came instead. This friend mentioned he was going to need some serious theological counseling on the other side of this. God was not supposed to operate this way. He’s supposed to cure our all our diseases and answer our prayers like we want. God knows there would be a lot less fear, a lot less embarrassment, and a lot more faith if he did operate this way. A lot more Christians too.

Sure, Peter talked big at the Last Supper. But having seen Jesus operate—all those miracles Jesus did—healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead and changing the weather—who wouldn’t talk big? Jesus had serious power. Bring on the Pharisees! Bring on the Romans! Bring on the world! Jesus gave Peter a heads up, but no way Peter could have been prepared for Holy Week. The savior you believed to be the way, the truth and the life gets indicted for blasphemy and treason and doesn’t even defend himself? He doesn’t say anything? Doesn’t do anything? Acts like he’s guilty? And then he gets convicted and executed? What was Peter supposed to do? Jesus said that once he rose from the dead they’d meet up again in Galilee, but you can’t take that seriously. Saviors don’t rise from the dead because they don’t die in the first place.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told Peter how Satan had gotten permission to “sift him like wheat.” To pick him apart. Jesus tells Peter he’ll pray for him—not to shield him from the sifting, but to turn him back afterwards that Peter might strengthen the faith of the others. The faith you have may have to fail for you to experience the real power of the risen Jesus. This was Peter’s experience. His faith in Jesus had to fail before he could truly believe.

That Jesus shows himself a third time to Peter corresponds to Peter’s threefold denial. As does Jesus asking him the same question three times. “Do you really, really, really love me Peter?” Peter had to feel all of his shame crashing back down. Unable to confess a love based upon his own track record, Peter relied instead on the Lord’s merciful willingness to see him despite it. Peter replied the third time with a plea, “Lord, you know everything (including my heart); you know that I love you.” Jesus told Peter a third time, “Tend and feed my sheep.” True faith looks just like love.

The structure of the interchange between Jesus and Peter has endured extensive examination over the centuries. You’re possibly familiar with John’s differing uses of the Greek words for “love;” namely, agape and phileo. Phileo generally denotes love for friends or family as well as a general fondness for almost any other person or thing. It is where we get our words philosophy (love of knowledge) and Philadelphia (love of the Phillies). The etymology of agape is less certain though it is the word most frequently employed in the New Testament in regard to the love of God. Consequently, when Jesus asked Peter “do you agape me” and Peter responded “Yes Lord, I phileo you,” some argue for a subtle intention on Jesus’ part to pull Peter’s love to a higher, more spiritual plane. But what’s interesting is how it was Jesus who ultimately conceded to Peter’s terminology, not the other way around. It may be that the milder form of love was all that Peter could muster at this humiliated point, not wanting to overstep his bounds again. But in truth, the distinction between these two Greek words for love is not consistent in John. In fact, in addition to the verb to love in this passage (as well as others), John also uses two different words for “know,” “tend” and “sheep.” The next time you find yourself caught up in dissecting this exchange, it’s probably best to remember that the original conversation would have been in Aramaic anyway.

However what is undoubtedly significant is the metaphor of the Shepherd. It’s a frequent Biblical image and central to understanding the mission of Christ and this commissioning of Peter. Earlier in John, Jesus declared “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” The metaphor derives from the vocation itself; one that required strength, devotion and selflessness. It’s much more intense than what gets depicted in those bucolic watercolor Bible paintings of shepherds.

The only actual shepherds I’ve ever encountered were in the West African deserts of Benin. These tireless men roamed the arid countryside in search of grazing fields while at the same time guarding their flocks and keeping the unruly in line. You’ve heard how dumb sheep can be—Jeff preached about it a few weeks back—and its pretty much true; which is among the reasons why the people of God are often referred to as sheep. Sheep are dense and dumb, which makes the shepherd’s job all the more difficult. Nevertheless, good shepherds persist because they love their sheep. Love is indispensable. As a “shepherd,” Jesus indicates his solidarity with Moses and David—super-shepherds who both guided God’s flock. More significantly, God describes himself as Israel’s Shepherd, making Jesus self-designation all the more momentous. However, instead of finding its culmination in Jesus, shepherding finds its continuation in the church.

Its sacrificial nature gets reiterated as Jesus predicts Peter’s future. “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” While this sounds something like getting forced into a nursing home, there were no nursing homes in first century Israel. Instead, “stretch out your hands” was a way to convey crucifixion. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God—which is a way we rarely think about dying. There are some later accounts that say Peter was crucified upside down, refusing to die the same kind of death as his Lord, though this is uncertain. Jesus said, “Follow me,” which may have meant “to the cross.” But more broadly it meant “be a shepherd.” As Christ laid down his life, so would Peter in following Christ lay down his, fulfilling the promise he made in earlier, prouder days.

A shepherd’s love is sacrificial love, devoted and eager to give. The title shepherd goes mostly by pastor these days, from the Latin word to graze—which fits given the recent Duke Divinity School study showing that on average, ministry is the chubbiest profession. Our cups and plates runneth over. The good news is that we’re satisfied in our work—which makes us both fat and happy. In a Star Tribune article this week, Chris Enstad, senior pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale, said “It’s a great job. Who else is welcomed into other people’s lives, from birth to death and everything in between?” However being involved so intimately in people’s lives has its stresses. Which may explain the eating. That and tater tot casseroles and doughnuts. Fruit just doesn’t convey emotion as good as cake. “At least we get to wear black,” Rev. Enstad said, “which is supposed to make us look slimmer.”

 Writing in his own epistle, Peter instructed those to whom he conveyed church leadership simply to “be shepherds.” By implication he meant no less than to be like Christ among those entrusted to their care. Be shepherds, he said, not because you must but because you want to. Be shepherds, he said, not greedy for money, but because you are eager to serve. Be shepherds, he said, not seeking to control others or to exert power, but by being an example of Christ. And when Christ the Chief Shepherd appears—the one who called you and empowered you to serve in this capacity—you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

The church needs good shepherds—more than it needs professional pastors. In a misprint, the Star Tribune referred to Rev. Chris Enstad as Rev. Christ Enstad, reinforcing both the Messiah Complex we pastors have as well as the pedestals we sometimes occupy. But nobody can be Jesus by him or herself. Only together can we be like Christ. We’re all called to be shepherds, providers instead of consumers, givers rather than grazers—remembering that in the early church, the willingness to shepherd each other meant that no one ever had any need; everybody was fat and happy.

Nevertheless, getting us to do this together is not easy. We forget what shepherding looks like. We’re trying to lose weight. Having learned the hard way himself, Peter wrote, “wear humility.” A more literal rendering is: “wear an apron.” It hearkens back again to that Last Supper, where as the disciples argued over which one of them was actually the greatest disciple of them all, Jesus got up, wrapped an apron around his waist, grabbed a basin of water and washed their dirty feet. Artists’ renditions of the scene never reveal the certain horror that must have accompanied the disciples’ seeing Jesus stoop to this humiliating level. Nor do any paintings of this scene suggest the shame that must have been plastered across their faces as they realized how they had missed the whole point of what it meant to be great in the Kingdom of God. Christian shepherd-hood has never been about position or authority or power or pedestals. Instead, it’s always been about people willing to give what they have for the sake of Christ’s flock, for the sake of their brothers and sisters, be they newcomers, old-timers, Ukrainians, Mexicans or Families Moving Forward. Jesus said that a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Who’s good enough to do this? It used to be that the biggest problem was Pharisee-types: self-righteous church folk who, thinking that they thought they had their act together, went around whacking others on the head with their judgmental crooks. But few think that way anymore. Instead, most come to church, look around and depressingly assume everybody else has their act together. You bleat sheepishly and defensively about how you’re not spiritual enough, how could a sheep as sinful as yourself ever shepherd others? But you’re forgetting something very important: when it comes to sinful sheep, the church has the same percentage in it that it has always had (somewhere around 100%). This is what makes this whole shepherd thing so wonderfully hilarious. God uses sheep as his shepherds!

And since we’re all dumb, sinful sheep, it only stands to reason that we’re all shepherds too. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It applied to the disciples then. It applies to disciples now. There are no excuses, no exclusions—especially if Peter is the patron shepherd. He failed miserably when it counted most—which also made him the patron sheep. Yet it was to him that Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Why? Because when you fail you finally experience the real power of the risen Jesus—the radical power of his unconditional love. And having experienced that, you want to make sure others experience it too. Convinced that you’re a spiritual failure? Jesus has job for you: “Feed my lambs.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

All Together Now

John 14:1-17
by Daniel Harrell

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy Father’s Day. Happy Son and Holy Spirit day too. Today is Trinity Sunday, always the Sunday after Pentecost, always the last of the special Sundays between now and Advent.

One of the interesting things about my former church in Boston (Home of the Stanley Cup) was the sign out front. Of all the adjectives that could have been placed on it, on that sign was the descriptor “Trinitarian.” Although “Trinitarian” smacks of polytheism to Jews and Muslims, and of celestial mathematical nonsense to others, being Christian generally equates with being Trinitarian—so much so that putting “Trinitarian” on your church sign seems redundant. However it wasn’t always this way. Long before Unitarians took over many New England Congregational churches and before Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on doors disputing the divinity of Jesus, well-meaning and faithful Christians fought over how it possibly could be that the God who is One is at the same time Three. It got so hot that it caused the first major church split in 1054 between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Trinitarian controversy fractured Protestantism too. There are still debates over the Holy Spirit and the divinity of Jesus and whether God should be Father or Mother or the more Generic Creator.

Most preachers know better than to spend a whole sermon on the Trinity. Seriously. Why pick a fight? Besides, what is there to say? Even if you believe it, it’s not like you can explain it.

Unlike the other sermons I’ve preached since Easter from John’s gospel on the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, this one comes from a passage just prior to Jesus’ death. The context is the Last Supper, which in John does read like a Last Meal. Judas has just bolted to commit his treason, and now Jesus is talking about leaving too. The rest of the disciples are all in a dither, wondering what in God’s name was going on. Jesus assures them, but then confuses them. He does that a lot.

He starts by saying “trust me,” and then goes on about being in the Father and the Father in him and going to the Father and being glorified by the Father and then sending his Spirit from the Father. It was enough to make any monotheist lose his religion. And then to make matters worse, Jesus piles on a trinity of other perennial problems that have plagued believers ever since: housing in heaven, Jesus as the only way to God, and how using Jesus’ name will get you whatever you want. Trust me, he says.

The promise of Jesus saying there’s plenty of room in “his Father’s house” isn’t really a problem. The question over the centuries is more over what Jesus is talking about. Is his “Father’s House” heaven? Elsewhere in John’s gospel his “Father’s House” is the Jerusalem Temple. But Jesus also said his body was the Temple. Is his body a house too? If you grew up on the King James Version, you’re familiar with the promise of “many mansions” and have sort of been banking on that. To have the your pew Bible translate “mansions” as mere “dwelling places” or even as “rooms” elsewhere is a serious downgrade. Bad enough that the recession caused serious downgrades on your earthly house here, do you lose your mansion too? But then again, maybe this is what happens when you pray “on earth as it is in heaven” week after week.

As for the problem of prayer, this wouldn’t be a problem either had Jesus never said, “If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.” But he did, here in John and in Matthew and Luke too. “Ask and ye shall receive,” he said. So you ask, but then you don’t receive. What happened? Elsewhere Jesus adds the proviso: “If you believe then you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Which makes sense. So you believe, then you ask—but still, nothing. “Have faith in God,” Jesus insisted, “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done.” All right. Believe without doubt. Though that one’s a lot trickier.

Maybe I don’t get what I ask for because I’m not truly a Christian. Or at least not a good Christian. “Strive to enter through the narrow door;” Jesus said in Luke’s gospel, “Many will try to enter and will not be able.” Here he’s more explicit. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” The “exclusivity of Jesus” has been a hot topic of late due to the popularity of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Rob Bell writes “Jesus is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every particle of creation.” Does this include everybody? Jesus did say there is plenty of room. But he also said “If you love me you’ll keep my commandments.” If being a Christian has anything to do with loving Jesus, then I’m in trouble. I don’t keep his commandments. Which means I don’t really love Jesus. Do I still get my mansion?

If all of this sounds a little irrational, it’s because Jesus is irrational. What am I supposed to do? A friend suggested in a recent blog post, entitled Worshipping the Irrational Jesus, that basically I have three options, two of which are honest, and the third of which is popular.

First, I can decide that my rational thoughts and the rational thoughts of others should guide me rather than the words of Jesus—and I can stop calling myself Christian. Many people I like and respect have made this choice, and it is an honest one. They call themselves atheist or agnostic or Ethical Humanist or Unitarian Universalists.
Second, I could decide that I will set aside my own conclusions (and those of mainstream society) and follow the irrational teachings of Christ. This is an honest choice too, but a very difficult one. It is profoundly humbling, hard to explain to others and may even seem anti-intellectual, if not downright foolish.
            The third (popular, but dishonest) option is to somehow convince myself that Jesus agrees with me, even when he taught the opposite. Under option three, I call myself Christian while putting my own reasoning above the plain teaching of Jesus. Sure, Christ said that he is the only way to God, but what he really meant was that he was only the best way. There are many good people out there. God will make another way for them. For Jesus to be “the only way” just doesn’t make any sense.

But then neither does the Trinity—which may help explain the irrationality of Jesus. After all, wouldn’t it make sense for a God who abides in ineffable mystery to say things that leave us scratching our heads? If you can’t explain the Trinity, how can you expect to explain everything the Trinity says? The good news is that Jesus promises help: an Advocate, a Comforter, a Counselor, the Spirit of Truth. Later in John, he’ll promise that the Spirit of Truth will guide us into all the truth. Yet here he describes the Spirit of truth as one “whom the world cannot receive,” an admission, perhaps, that Jesus knows all this sounds irrational too. No wonder theologians struggle so to make sense of the Trinity.

That we embrace the Trinity (despite its irrationality) derives from Jesus’ teachings but also from the understanding of the earliest Christian communities. In Romans 8, the apostle Paul describes our new life in Christ by speaking of God the Father, Christ, the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ interchangeably. He writes, “If the Spirit of God lives in you, you are controlled by the Spirit. If Christ is in you, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, God, who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his spirit who lives in you.”

Infused by the Spirit at Pentecost, the first believers discovered spiritual gifts for strengthening and growing the church. These spiritual gifts bore spiritual fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control—evident to all whom came in contact with them. This fruit is meant for the sake of others--which makes sense given that the chief commandments Jesus calls us to obey are to love God and love our neighbor—including strangers and enemies too (neighbor means anyone “near by”).

The Trinity’s three-in-oneness stresses love as God’s chief character trait. God is love, but not by himself. To only love yourself is narcissism. We all need somebody else to love. But why three rather than two? St. Augustine argued that because God’s love is perfect love, it rises to the level of personhood, personally binding Father and Son together in perfect unity. But God’s love is not constrained by the Trinity. It unavoidably and lavishly overflows in search of more to love. This is why creation happened. God so loved that he made the world. And then he so loved the world that he sent his Son to save it and then his Spirit to make it new.

 The great 18th century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (after whom we’ve named our former Youth Ministry offices down the hall) put it this way: “Love is the principal thing that the gospel dwells on when speaking of God, and of Christ. It brings to light the love eternally existing between the Father and the Son, and declares how that same love has been manifested in [most every] thing.” From quark to quasar, from bacteria to baboons, everything comes from the same place and is related to everything else. Creation is a Trinitarian portrait of both unity and diversity. Spread people onto the canvas and God’s relational character emerges in even stronger relief. As God exists in face-to-face relationship with himself in community, so he crafts people in his image to enjoy relationship with him and each other.

The Bible describes humans as created in God’s image, which from very early on was understood as humans in relationship (it was not good for man to be alone). This is why the church is so important (and why we’re called the bride of Christ). Nobody can be the image of the Trinitarian God by his or herself. God is love, and thus the same Spirit who unites God to himself in Triune love is the same Spirit who lovingly unites God to us and us to each other as participants in the Trinitarian dance. Because love is of God, it should look among Christians on earth as it does within God in heaven. And it should show itself not just in the ways we love each other, but in keeping Jesus’ commandments, it must show itself in the ways we love God and in the way we love strangers and enemies too. To refuse to love, to neglect to welcome the stranger or seek peace with the enemy is to refuse to love the Spirit—a move some might call blaspheming the Spirit—which Jesus labeled the unpardonable sin.

While I don’t want to go that far (and I’m sure Jesus agrees with me—option three), I do want to suggest this: If we do not love—tangibly, demonstratively, hospitably, affectionately, compassionately, sincerely, sacrificially, and mercifully as Jesus loved—then we really shouldn’t be so bold as to call ourselves a church. A social organization or a community group or a country club, perhaps, but not a church. Or at least not a Christian, Trinitarian Church.

During his day, Jonathan Edwards witnessed entire communities transformed by a wave of the Spirit historians refer to as the Great Awakening. But even then, Edwards grew suspicious whenever people attested to individual conversion experiences but failed to exhibit any change in disposition toward other people. Edwards cut against these personal, individualist tendencies by denying that any individual had privileged access to God. Jesus may be the only way, but that makes Jesus special. Not you. You might say you’re a loving person, but who you are is not what you say. It’s what you do. If others don’t experience you loving them, then you’re not a loving person. Unfortunately, such stern talk got Edwards fired. So I think I’ll stop now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


John 20:19-23
by Daniel Harrell

I should mention that this blogpost title is not a misprint, but a rather lame attempt to play on the word “Pentecostal” by acknowledging that John’s rendition of the giving of the Holy Spirit occurred near the beach: ergo Pentecoastal. Pentecost celebrates the birthday of the church; it should feel like a day at the beach. Unfortunately, Happy Pentecost! doesn’t quite carry the same ring as Merry Christmas or He is Risen, does it? It’s too bad, really. Pentecost, originally the Jewish Feast of Weeks, was celebrated as a Christian high holy day long before Christmas ever made the rotation. It’s Pentecost, not Christmas, that gets the red vestments. Perhaps the tepid treatment Pentecost receives has something to do with Pentecost itself, what with its mighty wind, floating tongues of fire and subsequent miraculous speaking and hearing. That’s the way the Spirit blows in the book of Acts. But even though virgin births and resurrections are just as miraculous, for some reason they don’t seem quite so weird. Perhaps the Trinity’s third-person/second-class-treatment is due to the Holy Spirit being too, well, spiritual. It’s easy to conceptualize God as Father and Jesus as Savior, but how to conceptualize the Spirit? Up in the air? A breath? A blaze? A bird?

My family used to have a bird, this parakeet named Geronimo that would rest on your shoulder and accompany you wherever you went. To school, to work, around the block; it didn’t matter. Geronimo would come along—maybe flapping around on occasion or jumping onto your head—he was always there. However, other than eliciting strange looks from passers-by and pooping on your shirt now and then, Geronimo’s presence on your shoulder had little effect on your actual life. Sometimes it seems this is what the Holy Spirit feels like. Despite a faith that teaches us that our lives have been infused with the very life of Christ, we Christians tend to treat the Holy Spirit like that pet bird—the Paraclete as parakeet if you will (or a dove to keep with the Biblical imagery). In those moments when we do notice its presence, it’s often with annoyance. The pangs of conscience, spiritual compunction, guilt, Christian responsibility—why do we bother hauling that bird around if all its going to do is poop on us?

At a recent preachers conference I attended at Central Lutheran downtown, many of the speakers bemoaned the demise of the American church. Attendance is down, interest is down, budgets are a mess, there aren’t any young people, nobody cares. Blamed for the decline were the usual suspects: cultural instability, moral laxity, loss of respect for the Sabbath, the proliferation of the Internet, kids’ sports programs and better brunch options. However one speaker challenged us preachers to look at our troubles theologically. He insisted that whatever is happening to the American church, God must be doing it. He then cited a verse from 1 Peter: “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” Maybe the decline of the American church is the fault of the church. Great. More guilt, more spiritual compunction, more Christian responsibility.

I was thinking about this on the way to my car, when I saw the sign in the parking garage that said the Lutherans only accepted cash. All I had in my wallet was three dollars. Knowing that parking downtown would likely cost more than that (the Lutheran church is suffering financially too), I cursed the Lutherans for not accepting cards and pulled out my phone to locate a nearby ATM, which was five blocks away. Cursing my bank, I started hoofing it over to Nicollet Ave, when this guy steps into my path, a wily grin on his face. He says his name is Clarence and that his car has been towed and, he’s not looking for a handout, but if I can give him 16 dollars, he can get his car out and get home. Being the good pastor I am, my first thought was, sure buddy. I know a hustle when I hear one. Of course I also know the story of the Good Samaritan. And I did just come from a preachers conference. Compunction. Guilt. Christian Responsibility.

I tell him I’m trying to get my car out too, and that I only have three dollars. He tells me he knows where there’s an ATM. Thanks. So we walked together and talked, me asking him all of the qualifying questions to make certain that he’s legit, just like Jesus would want me to. We got to the bank and I had Clarence wait outside. I got out two twenties. He’d told me he only needed 16 dollars, but seeing my 20, he mentioned he sure could use some bus fare too. Whatever. Of course when I get back to the Lutheran parking lot, turns out that the cost for parking was only three dollars. Thanks bird. Pooped on again.

Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love.” OK, but what about the resentment I feel the whole time I’m doing it?

Another preacher friend officiated a funeral for an old Catholic high school buddy who mercifully had died after a long bout with cancer. Among the many former classmates gathered was a woman understandably embittered by an episode at this school so many years prior; she had been abused by one of the priests. Although such reports fail to shock us much anymore, they do infuriate, and this woman was still bent on retribution—even though the priest had been defrocked, lost his job and done some time. In the midst of recounting her woeful tale for what must have been the millionth time, my friend was stunned to notice that over in the corner sat this former priest she loathed so deeply. He had shown up for the funeral. By dreadful happenstance, my friend interrupted the woman to say, “Don’t look now, but there he is.”

The woman did not hesitate. Two decades of well-nursed bitterness took over. She stormed over to where her perpetrator sat and confronted him with a ferociousness that brought the entire room to heel. Duly stunned, the former priest arose and hurried for an exit utterly humiliated. The woman too soon left in tears. The encounter did not vindicate her as she must have fantasized it would.

Did she have another option? For those who follow the crucified Christ, the call of the cross is always forgiveness. It is the Christian thing to do. Grace is intrinsic to our faith, nowhere more so than this side of Easter. But let’s be realistic. Forgiveness can be feel like another load of spiritual bird doo. Sure, if our perpetrators were repentant, then perhaps forgiveness feels easier. Yet in many cases, little repentance is ever forthcoming. It’s not that we Christians don’t appreciate grace. It’s just that the grace we appreciate is the grace we receive. Jesus loves me, this I know. The rub comes once I’m forced to acknowledge that Jesus also loves those I hate; a rub chafed raw by his insistence that I love them too.

Thankfully, here in John’s Pentecost account, Jesus understands. The resurrected Christ, himself a victim himself of religious abuse, breathes on us a breath of fresh air: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; but if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Finally! The spirit of God allows me to dump on somebody else. Up to this point, extending forgiveness had only come with a warning: fail to forgive and God will not forgive you. It’s a warning nestled disturbingly snug in the middle of the Lord’s prayer and driven home in that haunting parable of the servant who refused to forgive his debtors as he had been forgiven his debts. The servant’s ruthlessness got him thrown into prison and tortured. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” Jesus warned, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” However now some options have opened up. Apparently the risen Jesus has relaxed his position. Caution has given way to caveat: “if you do not forgive another their sins, then God does not forgive them either.” Happy Pentecost!
Until now, the Bible had affirmed Jesus’ sole authority to dole out grace on earth (a validation of his unity with the Father). But by giving the Spirit, Jesus extends this authority to his disciples. Did Jesus truly intend for this cowardly bunch to be the arbiters of who passed through the Pearly Gates and who went straight to H-E-double hockey stick? What went through the disciples’ minds when they heard they had been given such power? What would have gone through yours? Being the good pastor that I am, the first thing through my mind would have putting together been a hit list.

Yet I doubt the disciples thought so vengefully. They were the ones who had sworn up and down that they were ready to die for Jesus, that they would never deny Jesus, that they would always stand by Jesus. But once Jesus needed them most, not only did they deny him; they betrayed him, fled and cowered behind bolted doors, scared for their lives once that they heard that Jesus was loose. He rose from the dead. What was he going to do to them now? If anybody needed grace, they did. And grace was what they got. Despite bolted doors, Jesus popped in and pronounced peace instead of the expected doom. He showed them his hands and his side, the irreversible consequences of their treachery—but now the signs of their redemption. Again he said, “Peace!” A standard Hebrew greeting became a statement of fact. Though these so-called friends had denied and abandoned him despite vowing never to leave or forsake, Jesus outrageously forgave them. And not only them, but the perpetrators of his execution too, even as he hung to die.

Like a shepherd who leaves 99 perfectly good sheep to go off and search for a single wayward one; like a foreman who pays even the last laborer showing up at quitting time the same as the rest who worked all day; like a King who throws a soirĂ©e and fills his banquet hall with outcasts and sinners; like a Father who loves his reckless son even though his prodigal squandering depleted the family trust fund—Jesus outrageously loves and forgives those who’ve done nothing to deserve it and everything to dodge it.

If you’ve ever truly experienced God’s grace, then the outrage of forgiving others does lessen. Despite their new power, I seriously doubt the disciples compiled personal hit lists because their new power was from the spirit of Jesus. Just as God had breathed life into Adam at creation, so Jesus now breathed new life into his disciples. They were new creations. As the apostle Paul put it (having experienced grace himself), it was no longer they who lived but Christ who lived within them. They were “transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

The context is the mission of Jesus—the total reconciliation of people to God. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus said. Jesus was God embodied. By the Spirit we are Jesus embodied: the body of Christ sent to the world to give grace to all people.

OK, maybe not all people. Let’s be realistic. Maybe God can love everybody, but he can’t forgive everybody. There are some seriously bad people out there—some so bad that not even repentance can do the trick.

Remember the story of Jonah? God sent him on a mission to some seriously bad people—the insufferably sinful Ninevites. God didn’t send Jonah to give them grace. God sent Jonah to give them hell. But as averse to being judgmental as he was to being gracious, Jonah took off in the other direction, only to be hauled back to work by a big fish. A whale of compunction. Guilt. Christian responsibility. Jonah lumbered into Ninevah, mustering the minimal obedience: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed” was all he said. Yet the response was like some Billy Graham Crusade on steroids! Every single wicked Ninny from the king to the peasant came forward at the altar call just as they were.

Then the real story started. God saw Nineveh’s repentance and had compassion. Jonah saw God’s compassion and was furious. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled; for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to forgive and cancel your plans to punish!” Here we thought Jonah fled because of the harshness of the sermon God commanded him to deliver, but in fact Jonah fled because he suspected all along that God was not going to follow through! “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord, but what if the Lord decides to show mercy instead?

For the woman at that funeral service, what compounded her fury was not merely that her abuser still walked the earth, but that he still walked it with the gall to show up at this funeral. Who did he think he was? Though his sin had forced the loss of his vocation and reputation as well as years of shame; it had also forced him to receive help. He was making attempts at new life empowered by the faith he had forsaken so many years before. His presence that day was an effort to live out his redemption. The grace of God exhibited its transformative power. But the woman was furious.

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf writes how, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude my enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity, and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.” The spirit of Christ in us is the breath of Christ crucified for the sins of the world.

So then what did Jesus mean by “if you do not forgive…?” A difficult saying to be sure, yet in light of Christ crucified, it is not permission to withhold grace. If the Holy Spirit in us in the spirit of Jesus in us, then forgiveness is our only option. Yet there remains a seismic difference between grace not offered and grace not accepted. It is the latter, I think, to which Jesus points in this difficult saying. Because grace is gift, it is given and not forced. As gift, it can be rejected by those to whom it is offered. However as gift it cannot be withheld by those who have received it. The Spirit may come with no strings on the front end, but there are obligations afterward. “As the Father sent me,” Jesus said, “so I send you.” “As I have loved you,” Jesus said, “so you must love.”

To remember your own forgiveness by God does lessen the outrage of forgiving others. But the outrage never goes away. You still feel the anger sometimes. The unfairness. The injustice. But maybe this is a good thing. Grace is unfair and unjust. That’s why we call it grace. Maybe you should regard the anger you feel at forgiving as a sign that you’re giving the real thing. The cross of Christ is the ultimate in unjust love. The Spirit of Christ is the power to love likewise.