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Second Sunday of Easter (23.04.17)
Sin – A Powerful Three-Letter Word
It would be fascinating to compare the very early followers of Jesus with the Christians of 4th century AD or later. During the intervening period significant changes had occurred within the community of believers founded by Jesus Christ. His followers had spread far and wide as they fled from persecutors of ‘The Way’, the name by which Christianity was first know. Then Gentile converts began to outnumber Jewish converts. The Gospel, that had been initially orally transmitted, was written down as the original Apostles and disciples died. New languages were embraced as knowledge of The Way spread and this involved translations. The words of one language do not always transfer easily into another. Even within a language, over a passage of time, words undergo a change of meaning. Older speakers of English will ascribe a meaning to the English word ‘wicked’ that is completely at variance with what a 21st century English youth will understand by the same word.
St. John’s Gospel (20:19-31) for this 2nd Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday) may contain an illustration of the complexities that have always and continue to simmer throughout Scriptural translation. The particular passage is:
“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
Jesus was conferring on his Apostles their primary mandate to be ministers of his Divine forgiveness.
Perhaps you have heard of Sr. Sandra Schneiders, a Religious of The Immaculate Heart of Mary and a world-renowned Scripture scholar and lecturer. In her book, ‘Jesus Risen in Our Midst’, Sr. Schneiders points out that we are accustomed to translations that misinterpret this verse by adding a word not found in the original Greek text of the second part of Jesus’ command.
Jesus commissioned his disciples to forgive sins, but when he talked about retaining or holding on, the word “sin” is not mentioned in the Greek text. Jesus commissions the Apostles to minister his forgiveness of sin as they have seen and heard him do in his three years of public ministry. Sr. Schneiders suggests that Jesus was encouraging his Apostles to stay in touch with the person still distanced from Christ by sin. They were to focus on “retaining”, or holding on to, people rather than focusing on their sins. She suggests that to ‘retain’ the sin of another is to hold another’s sin as a form of control, of leverage, over the sinner. She believes that, not only is there no evidence for such an attitude, but that there is positive evidence to the contrary in Jesus’ teaching and action.
John’s Gospel extract for this Sunday (20:19-31) goes on to recall not only the Apostle Thomas’ refusal to believe but also his pre-conditions if he were to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. Far from refusing Thomas’ pre-conditions, Jesus demonstrates the lengths he is willing to go to embrace the estranged Apostle. In other words, Jesus holds, retains, Thomas within the bond of brotherhood rather than excluding him from it. If Thomas’ refusal to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection were a sin, Jesus, far from ‘retaining’ his sin went the proverbial ‘extra mile’ to embrace Thomas thereby effecting his full restoration within the fold.
Sr. Schneiders offer no comment as to how the translation from the original Greek appears to introduce a word not found in that particular section of the Greek text. But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that those, long ago, who were concerned with this particular translation believed that, as Jesus was actually giving his Apostles his power to forgive sin, he must surely also be giving them the power to retain sin. This would be putting a benign interpretation on a translational question mark.
There could be another interpretation. To confer on the Church Christ’s power not only to forgive sin but also to refuse forgiveness gives the Church a power and a control akin to that of a secular ruler.
It may be useful here to recall that members of ‘The Way’ had been designated a pariah group until the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337 AD). Constantine enacted administrative, financial, social, and military reforms to strengthen his empire. He also played a significant role in the organisation and structure of the fledgling Christian Church. With his support, the Edict of Milan in 313 AD decreed the acceptance of previously persecuted Christians throughout his Empire. It was Constantine, not the then Pope, for example, who called the Church Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that gave us the Nicene Creed still being proclaimed in our churches each Sunday.
In the Constantine era Church leaders began to adapt some of the organizational and command structures of Constantine’s Empire in their governance of the Church. For example, the so called ‘Donation of Constantine’ bestowed on the See of Peter "power, and dignity of glory, and vigour, and honour imperial", and "supremacy as well over the four principal sees, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth". The Donation (later accepted as fraudulent) was widely accepted at the time and used to validate Papal temporal power in the Middle Ages. The synchronism that emerged between Empire and Church beginning with Constantine had enduring negative consequences, and perhaps some limited positive ones, that still reverberate in the Church of the 21st century!
Too close a confluence between the secular and the ecclesiastical is unhealthy with issues of overarching power and control as well as of politics. Believers such as translators, for example, may have been influenced to make ‘adjustments’, such as that identified by Sr. Schneiders. The power of even a single word should not be underestimated especially in relation to Scripture.
Power and fear were the tools Emperors used to govern their subjects. These same tools were adapted by church leaders – no doubt initially with the best of intentions – to govern the flock of God given into their care. The threefold mandate the Risen Jesus gave to the repentant and reconciled Peter was “Feed” my lambs, “Shepherd” my sheep, “Feed” my sheep. (John 21: 15-17) At no stage did Jesus endorse the use of power and/or of fear. Jesus did encourage people to ‘fear the Lord’ but in the sense that we must have respect for God which is distinct from a servile fear. Jesus is always near, his enduring love is not a threat but an invitation to allow us to be fed and shepherded by him.
Easter Sunday (16.04.17)
The Truth Is Inexhaustible
A syllogism, they tell us, is a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn from two given propositions. So, for example, we can say with reason: God is inexhaustible since nothing exists without God; Jesus, the Son of God made Man, defines himself as The Truth; therefore, The Truth is inexhaustible. I’m not sure if this is a syllogism but I’m inclined to think so. In any case who is going to doubt that The Truth – with the definite article indicating Truth in its entirety - is inexhaustible. The more we discover about ourselves and our world, the more we discover how much we do not understand!
This brings us comfort when we attempt to plumb the depth of our major Christian festival, Easter. Superficially, at least, the Resurrection of Jesus has been subjected to examination since it happened. Is there anything left to be said? Well, yes! Each individual gifted with faith in Jesus Christ enters and lives in a personal relationship with the Lord, in the midst of a worldwide community. Each personal relationship is just that, personal and unique. It may bear resemblance to other like relationships but there is no carbon copy, just as there is no carbon copy of you or me. One of the joys of a personal relationship is that it is forever undergoing renewal through the living and life-giving bond of love. What I may find new in my relationship with Jesus, you may consider ‘old hat’, so to speak, and vice versa. Our individual relationship with Jesus is entirely unique.
In St. John’s Gospel for this Easter Sunday (20: 1-9) are insights that will touch the heart of some and not others. One such insight concerns the burial linen in which the body of Jesus had been hurriedly wrapped. The journey from Calvary to the borrowed tomb had to be completed before the beginning of Sabbath that late (Good) Friday afternoon. Nevertheless there was the customary Jewish decorum to be observed regarding the burial cloths and the face veil.
It was customary for Palestinians, in those days, to visit the tomb of a loved one for the three days after the body had been laid to rest. This was based on the belief that, for this period, the spirit of the deceased remained near the body before departing when decay made the face unrecognizable. Because (Holy) Saturday was the Sabbath nobody moved. So the Gospel scene opens in the predawn of day three, Sunday, the first day of God’s new creation, the first day of the Jewish week when daily life could be resumed. Mary of Magdala, driven by her deep love for Jesus, was the first to arrive at the tomb. She discovered that Jesus’ body was not there. Her response was to find Peter.
Her choice of Peter tells us that he was still the acknowledged leader of the Apostles. Peter’s cowardly denial of Jesus on Maundy Thursday night at the High Priest’s House would have been widely retold yet Peter remained the leader. Despite instances of Peter’s weakness and instability there must have been something outstanding about a contrite man who could face his fellow Apostles despite his enormous act of disloyalty. Have we previously considered this? A person’s momentary weaknesses should not blind us to their overall moral strength and stature. Jesus, later, chose Peter for the leadership of the infant Church. His successor is the Bishop of Rome today.
Responding to Mary of Magdala’s alarm about the missing body, Peter and John ran to the tomb. John tells us that, having arrived at the tomb earlier than Peter, he had looked in but not entered. John deferred to Peter who was the first to enter the empty tomb on that Easter Day. Our contemporary age is not known for people showing deference to one another. By his deferential behaviour John not only recognised Jesus’ prior choice of Peter for leadership but also, even more tellingly, it showed that John did not judge Peter for his denial of the Lord they had both chosen to serve. There’s a lesson here for us. How rashly we can jump to judgement when we are not called to judge!
John followed Peter into the empty tomb. Both apostles would have noticed the burial linens that had bound the body of Jesus and the veil that would have been placed on his face. The condition of the burial linen and also its placement imprinted itself so strongly on John that he was, much later, to make specific mention of it in his Gospel.
Had Jesus’ body been stolen, as Mary of Magdala had originally thought, the robbers would surely have taken the linen with the body as time would have been of the essence? Had robbers not taken the burial linen they would not have spent time arranging it but simply left it on the floor. Have we considered what it could mean that the burial linen and face veil were undisturbed and still lying in their folds?
One possible explanation for the condition of the grave-clothes is that Jesus’ Resurrected Body had, as it were, passed through them. After his death on the Cross, Jesus would never again be among us in mortal, that is limited, flesh. He showed himself, in his immortal flesh, to the frightened Apostles in the Upper Room on that first Easter Day. They saw, with their own eyes and touched with their own hands, how Jesus’ Resurrected Body could pass through solid material objects like walls and locked doors. (John 20:19-21)
Very early on Easter Day, at the empty tomb, the significance of the condition and position of Jesus’ burial linen must have entered John’s consciousness and soul so deeply that John would incorporate it in his own Gospel. It was in that borrowed tomb that John first believed that Jesus had risen!
The synergy between Jesus and John allowed John to identify himself in his Gospel as ‘the beloved disciple’ rather than by the use of his name. Love allowed John’s eyes to read the signs in that borrowed tomb and his mind and heart aided his acceptance. We hear, in the Gospel, how Mary’s great love for Jesus brought her to be the first at the tomb. Yet it was John, the beloved disciple, who was the first Apostle to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. The first human to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection would have been his Mother, Mary. She had always believed. This why, perhaps, the Gospels make no mention of the Resurrected Jesus appearing to his Mother. There is a passage in Deuteronomy (29:1-6) that is appropriate and illuminative:
“These are the terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb.
Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them:
Your eyes have seen all that the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear. Yet the Lord says, “During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. You ate no bread and drank no wine or other fermented drink. I did this so that you might know that I am the Lord your God.”
It may help to draw a parallel. We cannot interpret the thoughts of another unless, between that person and our self, there is a bond of empathy. Orchestral musicians are able to sense, for instance, when their conductor is wholly in sympathy with the music of the composer whose work they are playing and, equally, when this is not the case without a word being spoken.
Love is that great interpreter that can grasp the truth when the intellect is left groping and uncertain. A young unknown artist once showed the respected French artist Paul Gustave Dore his painting of Jesus and asked for Dore’s verdict. After some time, Dore answered: “You don’t love him (Jesus), or you would paint him differently.” How true it is that we can neither understand Jesus ourselves, nor help others understand him, without loving him with our heart, mind and will. We can misinterpret the mystery of the Cross by seeing it only through the prism of death and humiliation rather than for what it is, when we look through the eyes of faith, namely glorification.