“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
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Mark 16:8
When I was a little girl, at night I would often see a shadow in the upper corner of my bedroom. It was just some trick of how the moonlight came through the window and bounced off the furniture, but it looked exactly like a man lying down on the ceiling. My logical, rational self knew that it wasn’t a real person, but the logical, rational self doesn’t do its best work in the middle of the night. That shadow scared me. For a long time I was convinced it would come to life and grab me.
That’s the thing about fear. No matter how much we try to reason with ourselves, it can get the better of us. The rapid heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the racing mind at 2:00 in the morning. Sometimes we just can’t control it.
It’s one of the things I love about the Easter story from the Gospel of Mark. We have these three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome. They are coming to the tomb early in the morning with spices for Jesus’ body, so we know they have a certain fortitude. It takes courage to show up and anoint a corpse. I don’t see Peter or any of those other guys heading to the tomb at sunrise.
The women aren’t even talking about the horrific events of the last few days. They’re focused only on practical matters. How will they get that heavy stone rolled away?
So put yourself in their position as they get closer. The stone has already been moved? Who would have done such a thing?
And then they’re close enough to look inside, where they see not the dead body they were expecting, but a young man in a white robe. They were alarmed, it says. I bet. I’m sure “alarmed” is an understatement.
The young man has good news for them: “He has been raised; he is not here.”
It’s good news, except that it makes no sense. What the young man is saying makes…no…sense. The reaction of the women, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. They are afraid: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Almost every word in that sentence highlights their fear. They are seized with terror. They are afraid. Of course they ran. I would have too.
If you were to open your Bibles to the Gospel of Mark, you’ll find that there are a few more verses in Chapter 16, this final chapter – a couple of stories of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and to some other followers. But scholars agree that everything after what we heard this morning was added later. What we heard today was the original ending of Mark. It ends with fear.
When Hollywood looks to make a movie about resurrection, Mark is not the version they choose. Hollywood prefers resolution, a clear ending. Even when people in movies must say goodbye, they do so with memorable parting words. Think Casablanca’s “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” or E.T.’s “I’ll be right here.”
Hollywood would never go for three terrified women running down the road. For heaven’s sake, in this version Jesus doesn’t even show up for his own resurrection.
All those accounts of Jesus appearing after his resurrection? They come later – in other gospels, other versions of the story. They’re good stories, and we’ll hear several of them in the coming weeks. But today, on this Easter morning, all we get is an empty tomb and some terrified women.
And that’s what makes it so beautiful. That empty tomb meets us right in the middle of our lives.
Because we all understand fear. Fear is the uncertain shadow on a medical scan. It’s the sound of sirens as an ambulance goes rushing by. It’s the evening news, the sense that violence is around every corner, that nowhere is safe. It’s the struggle of someone you love whose disease you can’t fix. It’s our longing to gather all of our loved ones into one place and enfold them in bubble wrap.
Fear comes even when we’re preparing for a new chapter – starting a different job, retiring, beginning a relationship, moving to a new home, having a baby, starting college, watching a kid head off to school. Those changes are filled with possibility and hope. They’re also scary.
The empty tomb tells us this: Yes, be afraid. That’s normal. But whether we see Jesus with our own eyes or not, we know he has defeated death. The thing we’re most afraid of has been destroyed, and that means we are free to live and to love in powerful new ways.
How will we do that? How will we respond to this tremendous, terrifying news that the tomb could not contain the Savior? How will we, in our daily lives, in our little corners of the world, embody the love of Jesus? It’s a question each of us answers in our own way, but the answer matters. The world needs what we can offer, even when we are afraid of what might happen.
When we go all the way back to the start of Mark’s Gospel, we see that it begins with only a fragment of a sentence. It says simply: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And yet that opening reminds us that what follows across the next 16 chapters is only a beginning. The story continues. It reaches past that abrupt, incomplete ending. It reaches beyond the fear and silence of the women. It reaches across the centuries to this moment, this place, this time in which we, too, have a chance to add to the story of Jesus, who is alive and on the loose in the world and here with us now – in the bread and the wine, in the body of Christ gathered together in this place.
The women eventually broke their silence. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. The women told someone, probably with their voices trembling and their knees shaking, but they told someone, who told someone else, who told someone else. The story could not be contained. Jesus can never be contained.
So let’s add our voices to that story, however scary it might be. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ