I preached a version of this a couple of weeks ago at my wife’s Church, St. Andrews Episcopal. It was well received, and I was encouraged to write it out.
In many churches the weekly scripture passages come from the Revised Common Lectionary, a system of distributing readings over a three-year cycle. Churches that follow the lectionary can be assured that their preachers are addressing a variety of passages and topics through each cycle. My assigned passages were Rev 1:4–8 and John 20:19–31. In the following I focus on a very important link between these passages.
Read as a whole, Revelation encourages Christians to live victorious lives in a lost world. While many Christians think of Revelation as a book about the future, it is actually very concerned with how its readers live in the present. (I hope to write a series on “Revelation without the Rapture” this year or next.)
In Rev 1:6 Jesus refers to his followers as “priests.” While Revelation does not develop this idea further, the verse alludes to the concept of the “priesthood of all believers,” more fully expressed in 1 Pet 2:4–10. Simply put, while Old Testament priests were specially selected and consecrated for service by God, the New Testament teaches that in some sense Jesus has made all Christians into priests.
The question we need to ask, then, is what is the role of a priest? The Old Testament priests did things like examining sacrificial animals for blemishes (Lev 22:17–25) and checking humans for skin disease (Lev 13:1–43; Matt 8:1–4). They did these things to “mediate” between God and humans, making it possible for human beings to interact with God. A sacrifice only worked in the Old Testament if it was done correctly; the priest made sure that the sacrifice was done correctly.
This is how God wants us to be priests. When we commit to following Jesus we become people who stand between God and humanity. Jesus calls us to help other experience God.
John 20:23, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” is a very intriguing, perhaps surprising, declaration of one way in which Jesus wants us to mediate. Taken at face value, Jesus seems to be giving his disciples the authority to decide whom God will forgive, and whom God will not forgive. (Compare this sometime with Matt 18:15–20).
Does this mean that we human beings get to decide who is right before God, and who is not? Based on other passages, I’d have to say, “no.” At the end of the day, God decides on his own who makes it into heaven.
Instead, Jesus is pointing to something more here and now. In John 20 the disciples will soon be leading the church, and as leaders they will have to figure out exactly who it is that they are leading. People must be declared “forgiven” by the disciples to gain approval from other Christians and become part of the church. Jesus is not looking toward a day of “lone rangers,” in which individuals decide on their own how well they are doing with God. Yes, in the twenty-first century many people really don’t care about church, preferring to work out their relationships with God on their own. But the New Testament has a community in mind.
A basic component of community is membership: who is in, and who is out. Who is part of our group, and who is not? For example, in the last few years we Americans have been talking extensively about who should get the right to live in the United States, and who should not. We’ve been debating about what people should do to become legal residents, and what should happen for them to become US citizens. We have laws in place to determine these things, but these laws must be interpreted and applied to fit individual circumstances. US citizens determine whether immigrants have met the requirements and are following the correct procedures. In this way, judges, lawyers, border security, and immigrant advocates act as “priests,” making sure that immigrants really do meet the requirements to live here and gain citizenship.
When Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven,” he is saying that he expects us to determine who does and does not meet with God’s approval. We decide who is and is not part of the church – not necessarily individual churches, but the Church Universal, consisting of all Christians. When we are out in the world, and when people know that we are professing followers of Jesus, we have the power and responsibility to determine who is part of us, and what people must do for God to call them “disciples.”
One visible way Christians decide who is “in” and who is “out” is our practice of communion. In most churches the leader makes a statement about who may partake. In Baptist churches, it’s common to declare that all baptized Christians qualify, although some may insist that only those who have received “believer’s baptism” through immersion are eligible. Most churches also agree that the communion leader can and should refuse to give communion to someone who is willfully unrepentant. By refusing communion, the leader effectively declares that a person has not been forgiven.
In the twenty-first century, many Christians are reluctant to carry out this responsibility, perhaps for fear of being too judgmental (or perhaps not judgmental enough!) Yes, we all understand that only God knows the heart of every human being. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to identify, as best we can, who is and is not part of the body of Christ.
As we meet and interact with people in our daily lives, we need to think about who we know is included in the church universal, and who is not. Who has been forgiven, and on what basis can we say so? Jesus has called us to be priests, determining who is part of the body of Christ. And for those who have not been forgiven, our task is to make clear to them what is needed to gain God’s good standing.