“Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.” John 20:23 (translation by Gospel of John scholar, Professor Sandra Schneiders)
Every week, 14-year-old Jamarion Styles set himself up for disappointment.[i] Every week, he came to a community center in Boca Raton, Florida, hoping to play basketball with the other kids, and every week, he was rejected.
[Jamarion explained]: “They would start picking teams and I would be the only one left out. Then they would tell me just go home.” [Jamarion added]: “You can break someone’s heart like that.”
It’s easy to judge the kids who kept rejecting Jamarion. But to be fair, Jamarion is missing his hands and most of both arms because of a bacterial infection he had as a baby. He doesn’t look like a winning pick for a basketball team.
Jamarion eventually tried out for the basketball team at Eagles Landing Middle School, where he persuaded Coach Darian Williams to give him a spot. The coach admitted his reservations about having a kid without arms on the team, but Jamarion said to him, “Mr. Williams, I’ve never been on a team before. Even if I don’t play, I just want to be on the team.” How could a coach say no to that?
That’s what most of us want – to be on a team. The team might look like an actual team – softball, basketball, soccer, baseball. Or it might look like a group of close friends who support each other. It might be a close-knit family. Or a cohesive workplace. A book club or a bridge club or a chess club. It could be almost anything, but we want to feel like we belong somewhere, that there is a place where people accept us and care about us.
I think that’s what Thomas wants. Even though he’s not there the first time Jesus shows up, he still wants to belong to the group of disciples who have seen the risen Lord. We don’t know where Thomas had gone that first night. Maybe he got tired of being trapped in a room with all that fear. Maybe he needed some fresh air. Whatever happened, Thomas wasn’t there to see Jesus the first time. Thomas wasn’t there to hear Jesus say “Peace be with you.” Thomas wasn’t there to feel the breath of Jesus on his face, to receive the Holy Spirit as only Jesus could offer it.
Thomas had to hear about all of those things second-hand. That group of people who had experienced the risen Jesus? Thomas had been left out. So I get why he might have dug in his heels a bit, insisted that he wasn’t going to join their little club based on word of mouth. He wanted to see for himself. Maybe he gets a little melodramatic: “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.” But who can blame him? Thomas just wants to be part of the team.
I was reminded this week of a different way to understand something that the risen Jesus says to the disciples the first time he shows up in that room.[ii] Jesus says, according to the translation we just heard: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The word that means “retain” also means “to hold fast to” or “to embrace.” This statement by Jesus has traditionally been interpreted to mean that he was giving the disciples the power to forgive sins, but in doing so, he was also giving them the power not to forgive in some situations. So if the disciples didn’t offer someone forgiveness, that person’s sins would be retained, held on to.
Except that based on a somewhat ambiguous sentence structure in the original Greek, the retaining – the “holding on to” – doesn’t necessarily refer to the sins. It could also refer to the people. So Jesus might have been saying: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, the sins are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [whomever you embrace], they are held fast.” In other words, Jesus is telling the disciples to hang on to people, to embrace them, to hold them close.
I hope that’s one of the reasons we find Thomas there with everyone else a week later. Thomas may not want to believe their stories, but the disciples haven’t thrown him off the team. There’s room for someone who has questions. There’s room for someone who needs more time, more evidence, more whatever. The disciples are embracing Thomas. They are holding him fast, even as he challenges everything they’ve tried to tell him.
And of course Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas out. Jesus comes back. He offers Thomas the chance to touch his hands and his side. We’re not told if Thomas takes him up on that offer. We only hear Thomas’ declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!” Maybe Thomas will look back and wish he had believed sooner. But maybe not. He held out for something more, and he got it – eventually. And I’m willing to bet that Thomas’ refusal to believe too easily what others told him probably made him a powerful teller of this story to others who won’t have the chance to meet the risen Jesus in person.
Today we celebrate First Communion for Zoey, Ellie, Peyton, Alex, and Gabriela. In our preparation together for this day, we have talked about how Holy Communion is a place where each of us is welcomed and embraced. A place where we are always part of the team. In this sacrament we are held in God’s unfailing love. Whether or not we believe exactly what we think we “should” believe. Whether or not we’ve screwed up a hundred times since the last time we were here. Whether we are filled with joy or struggling to keep it together, we are embraced. God holds us fast and does not let us go.
I recently joked in Confirmation class, “Can you imagine if Holy Communion were just for perfect people?” One kid laughed and said, “Well, church would a lot shorter.”
Remember Jamarion Styles, that basketball player with no hands and only partial arms? He sat on the bench for most of the season. One day the coach put him in with about six minutes left in the game. Jamarion scored not one, but two three-pointers. The kid that no one would pick? He is now a superstar.
Unlike Jamarion, we don’t have to justify our spot on the team by doing something superhuman. But like Jamarion, we are often made to feel that we don’t belong, that what we bring to the world is not enough. Jesus is here to tell Jamarion…and Thomas…and each one of us: You are enough. You are always enough. There is a place for you here. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii]I was glad to be reminded of Professor Sandra Schneiders’ alternate translation of this sentence, which I rediscovered in Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore’s commentary on the Working Preacher website: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3619