Scripture: 1 Peter 1:3-9 ; John 20:19-31
Our seven-part Easter series—remember that Easter is seven weeks long!—is called “Life for others.” I chose the phrase to describe what we are all about here. I like it, because you can in three words describe what we are about without reference to any obscure belief in Jesus or even God. Of course, I love those obscure and mysteriously beautiful doctrines of Christian faith. But as we say, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. So it makes sense to start as openly as we can. But as we go on, we’ll see just how essential the story of God and Jesus are to this life for others. And we’ll discover more and more meanings to the phrase “life for others.” It means first of all that I do not live for myself, I live for others and out of love for others. But it also means that we are for each other; we love one another and give life to one another. And as one loving body our church is also life for others, working to extend our love and provide abundant life for others. Life for others does not mean no life for myself; it does not mean I work myself to death for others. Jesus alone can be said to be life for others in this sense, as we will see. Because Jesus completes and perfects life for others, we are first of all recipients of life, before we are givers. And at the foundation of all life for others is God. Let’s suppose that all our knowledge about who and what God is might be uncertain; but we can still define God this way: God is life for others, life for those who are not God, life for us.
We’ll have to be wary of common misunderstandings as we go. It’s not that God will be for us if we are for others. It’s not a quid pro quo. We are only life for others in response to God, not out of some deal with God. Why? Well on one hand, our relationship of faith in God amounts to much less than a deal. We don’t get to bargain with God. We don’t name our price. Of course, we submit our petitions to God in prayer, our joys and concerns. We can and should ask God to do things for us. But there is no negotiation. Some imagine that God rewards his faithful with protection from all harm and maybe with prosperity, romance, success, fun. That’s what some imagine when they hear First Peter say that God “has given us…an inheritance…kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith.” That’s what they imagine; then sometimes they lose faith when life doesn’t go so well. But the relationship to God by faith is not a protection racket with the ultimate strong man. If we just attend to Jesus briefly, we see that this can only be a misunderstanding. God did not protect his own son from all the vulnerabilities of human flesh. God did not grant Jesus peace and success and prosperity and unadulterated good times. God vindicated Jesus as God has vindicated no other, but did not spare him dreadful sorrow and suffering. Why should we expect God to spare us from our human vulnerability? Consider Paul; Paul describes his service as including: “Great endurance, …afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” etc. Faithful service to God is no picnic. Why should we expect an easy, carefree life instead of persecution for the sake of the Gospel? (Indeed, we probably should wonder why we haven’t made more enemies for the sake of the Gospel.) So if we suffer it is not a sign that God has failed to keep some bargain; it may be a sign that we are being faithful. But we don’t with our faith buy God’s protection from all harm.
On the other hand, our relationship of faith to God is much more than a deal or a quid pro quo. God is irrevocably for us, and for others. We can’t mess that up. If we had a deal with God, we could fail to carry out our end of the bargain; indeed, we would certainly fail, because God doesn’t miss anything. But God has shown himself to be for us in Jesus Christ, once and forever. That’s why Peter exclaims: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfailing….” By faith we can see that this inheritance is so much more than protecting us from suffering. Sure, God can act to save us from disease and even death—remember Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead? But Jesus did this to direct people to the eternal life that we have in union with Jesus even though we suffer. Lazarus would die again. But Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” By faith in Christ we come to believe that God is for others, for us. God is life for others, for us.
But we’re not ready to think through how it is that Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us that God is life for others—our life. That will come later. For now, for the benefit of those of us (that’s all of us) whose grasp on Christ and the cross is a little shaky, let’s focus on what we can see and experience first-hand. Our life as Christians is a life for others. Maybe you don’t feel personally that your life is for others. I don’t feel like my life is for others; in some ways it is, since I’m a minister of the gospel, but then again I am making a living off of my ministry, which ruins my bragging rights. Instead, look at some of the great servants in this church. There are people here who work tirelessly for the church—for our ministry, our missions, our young people. There are those among us who have adopted people who needed help as their own family members. Dennis has had two guys he met on the street living with him who were going through detox and needed a place to feel safe. I gather this is no picnic. These great servants among us are not doing it because God is dangling a reward out in front of them. And they are not doing it because they are just goody-goody types who are naturally sweethearts. If you know them well enough to know their great deeds, then you probably know their faults also. (Dennis, I’m going to go to you once more as the perfect example.) Rather, they are great servants because God is life for others, and this life for others has become the shape of their life by the grace of God. They and we find joy in being life for others, in bringing life to others.
It’s this life for others that is the only true and abiding source of life for this church. This is our imperishable inheritance. If we think that our inheritance lies in having the classiest piece of architecture in town, or in carrying on a vaunted historical legacy in the town of Granby, or in being the place where everybody who is anybody in town comes to be seen, then our inheritance will be death. If we instead, as a church, practice life for others—and again that includes for strangers, for each other, and for God—then we will live in God, because through life for others we have “a new birth into a living hope.” I believe people are searching for an authentic life for others. Everyone knows that this is the right and true shape of life. Everyone knows that life based on selfishness is empty and false. And on Earth Day weekend, we should recall that life based on selfishness is destroying life on this planet. And everyone knows that life that is only for some but against others is a denial of our one humanity let alone of the one God over us all. Everyone knows this; and even those who try to believe that human beings are naturally selfish or tribal are clearly wrong. Life for others is in fact deeply natural. Nature is never either wholly selfish nor against others, even when creatures prey on others for their own survival while protecting their own. Because in earth’s natural systems, everything depends on an integrated and balanced system within which species depend on one another. In this way, nature is always life for others, and all creatures are living for others, even if they are unaware of doing so. We children of God are called to live a higher way, to be knowingly for others, and not a lower one—knowingly for ourselves. If we are life for others, people will be drawn to us.
Everyone believes in life for others, but some try to deny it. Indeed, our world promotes and encourages people to deny it. It’s so easy for people to fall into a a steely, macho cynicism that masquerades as “realism.” And then they challenge us: “Life for others is for suckers,” they say. “You have to be tough in this life, or people just take advantage of you. People don’t respect weakness, only strength. Real men live for themselves; namby-pambies live for others.” (That’s my best macho imitation, I’m afraid; not very convincing, I know.)
I suppose their way of thinking is not all wrong. It might apply to a caricature of liberal Christians who believe that everyone is really very good, including ourselves, we just need some love and acceptance and we’ll give as good as we get. The Bible of course says nothing like that; it takes the sinfulness of the world very seriously. But unlike the tough guyz, the Bible makes us look at our own sinfulness first, before the sin of those others out there. And the Bible only considers sin in light of the love which God has for us and which God commands us to show ourselves and others. The tough guyz, however, use the sin of others to justify hatred and disregard for them. But by baptizing themselves in the bloody water of hatred and sin, they only ensure the perpetuation of death for others.
I find nothing attractive or life-giving in tough guy cynicism. And whatever accuracy their criticism of an extreme liberal version of Christianity, they don’t understand the gospel of Jesus at all. But what our reading in John’s Gospel shows us is that the life for others that the risen Lord Jesus is bequeathing to his disciples is not at all weak or namby-pamby. To be sure, when the reading begins, the disciples are huddled together in fear. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,” that is, the leaders in Jerusalem. The disciples were afraid, reasonably so, that the authorities would come after them next. Now, they, like us, had already heard from Mary that Jesus was alive. And two of them had seen the empty tomb themselves. But they hadn’t personally received the Spirit yet.
Jesus suddenly came and stood among them. (How did he get through the locked doors? you might wonder.) He greets them and shows them his wounds. The story doesn’t explain why that was important. Did Jesus have to reassure them that he was alive despite what he had gone through? That the wounds and piercings were indeed very real, very deadly, but even so not enough to defeat God’s chosen? That, like we were just saying, the Bible takes sin and its destructive power very seriously, but only in the light of God’s love and indeed, God’s victory over it?
Then Jesus greeted them again and added: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he breathed on them [breathe] and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now first, the word spirit in both Greek and Hebrew means the same thing as breath and is associated with the breath of God. God breathed his spirit or breath into Adam, you may recall. God’s Spirit is simply God’s power, that which makes God’s will active and alive in us; the Spirit is God’s life for others. But we have to take Jesus’ two actions together to see their significance. He breathes into them the Holy Spirit, and also says that he is sending them as God sent him. Now, in the Gospel of John, Jesus over and over again says that he was sent by the Father to bring knowledge of God and with that knowledge, a call to decision. Jesus does not come as a judge. He brings the truth about God and shows people the Father, and they judge themselves by their reaction. From John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe in him are condemned already, because they have not believed…. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Jesus does many signs and wonders, but they are all just meant to call attention to the truth and knowledge of God that he brings. And it’s this knowledge of what God is like and his ability to show that to others that makes Jesus a partaker in God’s being, so that he can say: “I and the Father are one.” That breakthrough by which Jesus definitively shows the world who God is / can never be repeated or exceeded: Jesus is unique, the only begotten Son.
But look what he just did. He shares his spirit with the disciples, and sends them as he was sent by God. He is making them partakers in God’s own life, God’s truth, God’s power, as he himself partakes in God. He is investing them with divine authority. And that’s why he adds that shocking and befuddling statement (that no one at Bible study could figure out at all—talk about blank stares, when I asked them what it means): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
So, first of all, who forgives or refuses to forgive sins besides God? ….Well, we do, apparently. We are being given divine authority. We are now the judges of the world. This theme is found in the other gospels, like Luke 22, where Jesus tells his disciples, “You will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This is not namby-pamby life for others, where we let people walk all over us. We are the judges of the world. /But that doesn’t mean exactly what you might think or fear it means. We aren’t swaggering judges who get to impose life or death on people depending on how we feel. Of that sense of judgment, Jesus said in John 8, “I judge no one.” Rather, like Jesus we are now entrusted and empowered with the truth about God, and we simply present it to the world in word and deed, and they judge themselves. So Jesus doesn’t mean that we forgive sins or not, depending on whether we are feeling generous or fancy a particular person. In John, sin all comes down to believing in the truth when it is made plain, or not believing. The truth about God is self-empowering. For our purposes it means this: We show the world what life for others looks like. Some will believe in it, even if they don’t understand what Jesus has to do with that. Some will reject it deliberately, saying, “Who needs that? I’d rather look out for number one.” John tells us that Jesus’ opponents “loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”
Life for others is the shape of the Christian life; the phrase is just another way to describe love. The rightness of life for others should be self-evident to us and to everyone. But it’s not, because the world prefers untruth. So the first thing that Jesus teaches us about life for others is that it is not weak and meek, timid and submissive: it is mighty and bold. It gives those who practice it divine power and authority. In those three simple words, and by living them out, we have the truth, against which the world will never prevail. So, have compassion and mercy on those who dwell in falsehood, but do not for one second envy them. Do not doubt this mighty truth we have been given. But believe, as our reading concluded, “that through believing you may have life in his name.”