As I mentioned in last week's commentary, our post-Easter liturgical readings overflow with implications of Jesus' resurrection for our everyday lives. It's no accident that today's gospel is always on the Sunday after Easter, no matter the cycle. That can only mean our modern Christian community believes John's insights into Jesus' resurrection should be in the forefront of those implications. These upper-room narratives are even more significant because the evangelist originally ended his gospel with them. (Scholars are convinced chapter 21 was added later.)
All Christian sacred authors agree: our lives should drastically change because of Jesus' resurrection. Luke demonstrates this in our Acts pericope. "The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own; they held everything in common ... There was no needy person among them . . . ." This unique action of sharing everything was the way Jesus' followers "bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." If he/she is alive among us, then everything changes - including the way we look at everyone around us.
Of course, this transformation doesn't come without pain. That why the author of I John mentions that our mentor, "Jesus the Christ, came through water and blood, not by water alone, but by water and blood." "Blood" in this context appears to refer to Jesus' suffering and death. We not only experience life ("water") through him, we also experience pain.
Nowhere is this pain clearer than in our gospel narrative. John's Jesus begins his Easter Sunday night appearance by showing his disciples "his hands and his side;" an obvious reference to his wounds. Though he wishes his followers, "Peace!" it's a peace which comes only to those willing to suffer in order to achieve it.
What form does that suffering normally take? Listen carefully to what the risen Jesus says: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."
Scholars don't believe these lines were ever intended to be the Scripture proof for the institutional church's sacramental power to forgive or withhold forgiveness. What we call "confession" is still far down the road. Jesus is speaking to the whole Christian community in this narrative, not to the leaders of a hierarchical institution. And in some sense, he's not giving that community a power they didn't have before he came into the room that night. More than anything, he seems to be pointing out a power they already have, but had yet to surface or understand.
Perhaps our reliance on sacramental reconciliation over the years has also caused us to relegate our personal power of forgiveness to that musty backroom where biblical theology is stored. By the fact it's in one of our gospels, it's clear our sacred authors wanted their communities to reflect on the power they shared as the Body of Christ. Of course, knowing the teachings and example of the gospel Jesus, there's no way any Christian author would ever expect another Christ to retain someone's sins. That part of Jesus' statement seems to have been added simply as a way to warn readers never to do it, reminding them that their lack of forgiveness has just as deep an effect in the lives of others as their actual forgiveness.
No wonder Thomas' well-known proclamation of faith also revolves around Jesus' wounds. As Marcus Borg reminds us in his latest book, Speaking Christian, biblical faith isn't belief in dogmas or church pronouncements. It's believing in someone; giving oneself over to the person in whom you believe. In the case of Jesus, you're giving yourself over to someone who only achieves life by suffering.