by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“Then Jesus said, ‘As Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” — John 20:21b-22.
Today, this very morning— and you may know about this or have seen a story about it— today Pope Francis will hold a ceremony or has held a ceremony at which two Papal predecessors will be Canonized, declared Saints of the church. The new saints are John the XXIII and John Paul the II.
When something like this happens, when some church function with high visibility happens, be it in the Roman Church or another church, say Rick Warren’s Church, I believe the lens through which most people see these events focuses our view in such a way that we tend to see church as monolith. Put another way, when highly visible church events happen our tendency is to see the church both as a much more universal and a much more unified institution than either today’s reality or the reality of the record we find in history suggests.
Hence, today’s events lead me to ask two questions: ‘what is church?’ and ‘who is a saint?’ Put differently: ‘how do we define church’ and ‘how do we define sainthood?’
For starters, let me tackle the ‘what is church?’ question. (Slight pause.) First, for those of us in the Congregational tradition, the one thing we should never say (although I sometimes do find myself saying it) is using the word church to mean building.
This building is not a church. This building is a meeting house. The people are the church. In the Hebrew Scriptures the assembly or the congregation is the term used and it always refers to the people, not to a structure, not even an institution.
Next, today people often assume the early church was much more unified, more organized, more universal, more monolithic than that aforementioned record we find in history suggests. But in the first four centuries after the resurrection the church was very local and not very organized. Yes, there was a hierarchy with Bishops. But it was a local hierarchy. Each Bishop was in charge of their own see, their own area, their own territory.
In the early church each area often held different beliefs and even had different collections of what we, today, call Scripture— for the first four centuries! In short, beyond the local area top-down oversight and/or a broad sense of unity simply did not exist. The church was a bottom-up operation.
Some degree of unity does come into the picture when Constantine declares Christianity the official state religion of Rome and its Empire. That decree takes hold in the decade between 315 and 325 of the Common Era. In 325 the Council of Nicaea is summoned into session not by any cleric but by the Emperor.
This is, of course, the council which publishes the Nicene Creed. Constantine assumed a unified creed would produce a unified church and help unify the Empire. In that sense the writing of the Creed was a political act.
But the Creed did not really unify the church, nor was it meant to unify the church by those who wrote it. In fact, the Creed was composed to embody a broad understanding of Christianity.
Today we do not often acknowledge this truth about the Creed: it allows for a range of interpretation. As the Creed embodies a broad understanding of Christianity it, therefore, did not encourage a unity of belief in the Empire.
The political unity which did happen in that era came about more because Constantine enforced Council edicts— Constantine, the State, enforced council edicts. Among the most important of those edicts was no the Creed but was the adoption of the Roman Secular Calendar which moved the church away from the Lunar Calendar. In short, the State could only emphasize politics and practicality. Belief was a completely different matter.  (Slight pause.)
I’m trying to illustrate a simple idea here. What was true early on is still true today: the church is not a monolith. All church is local. All church is based in the local community.
That brings up the second and perhaps simpler question: what, or rather, who is a saint? John the XXIII and John Paul the II may or may not have been special people. But being special is not the actual church definition of a saint.
A saint is a person set aside by God to do the work and the will of God. And, God willing [the pastor leaves the pulpit, heads toward the congregation and points to different people in the congregation one by one], you are a saint and you are a saint and you are a saint and you are a saint. [The pastor returns to the front of the enter isle and says this:] We are all saints set aside by God to do the work and the will of God gathered in community, gathered in the local church. (Slight pause.)
These words are from that Gospel according to the School of John: “Then Jesus said, ‘As Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Slight pause as the pastor returns to the pulpit.)
When this reading was introduced it was noted the story names those in the room as disciples. These people were not just the leadership. This was the community. To use another word, these were the saints— people set aside by God to do the work and the will of God gathered in community. (Slight pause.)
Next, it needs to be noted the risen Christ repeats a phrase three times. “Peace be with you.”
The peace of God does not mean the absence of conflict. The peace of God acknowledges that the presence of God is real. Hence, “Peace be with you” repeated three times is meant to emphasize the reality of the presence of God. So the reality of the presence of God is affirmed by the risen Christ among the saints, the gathered community.
Once that is acknowledged, Christ says “As Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you.” (Slight pause.) For what are we, the saints, being sent? Are we being sent to conquer the world, to convert all humanity, to be empire? (Slight pause.)
Perhaps that would be the goal if the community of saints consisted of only the leadership of the Roman Empire. Conquest was, you see, the only goal of the Roman Empire. Conquest is, you see, the only goal of any empire.
Conquest is not the goal of the gathered local community, the saints. Conquest is not the goal of the church. (Slight pause.) So, what might be the goal of the gathered community of saints? Why and for what are we, the saints, being sent? (Slight pause.)
Later in the reading the risen Christ says this: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” I think we often mis-read these words.
And the reason we mis-read them is we do often think in terms of empire, we do think in terms of the church as monolith, as institution. Therefore, we tend read these words as if Christ has offered us some kind of universal power to forgive or to not forgive all humanity. That reading seems somewhat presumptions, does it not? That kind of reading seems to presume the church is empire.
When we read these words carefully and in the context of the community gathered and in the context of the saints gathered, what do we see? First, Christ is addressing the gathered community of saints. Second, Christ proclaims the presence of God and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” No small thing— that.
Then comes the words about forgiving and retaining. I am well convinced these words apply to the gathered community, to those sitting near us and next to us. I am well convinced these words apply to forgiving one another, to forgiving those we know.
You see, I am well convinced all church is local. I am well convinced the church is not about empire. (Slight pause.) I am well convinced the local church has no business as grandiose as forgiving or retaining anything unless we can forgive the saints right in this meeting house. And I think that’s what Jesus was saying.
After all, the one who is not there the first time— Didymus, Thomas— well, Thomas is going to need forgiveness. But it is not for doubting anything that Thomas will be in need of forgiveness. Thomas will be in need of forgiving for not trusting.
Which brings me to the last point. In the Greek the word for believe and the word for trust is the same— pistis. Belief is, you see, something we control. Either we believe something or we do not but we control that belief.
Trust, on the other hand, is something we do not control. Trust is something we surrender. And people who are connected to God trust God, surrender to God. People who are connected to God do not need to steer their own life, their own agenda.
People who are connected to God live in a state of grace, a state of trust. In short, those who hand themselves over to God, trust God.  (Slight pause.) Oh, yeah… that one’s not easy, either. (Slight pause.)
If you have heard me say this once, you have heard me say it a hundred times: the lesson found in the Bible can be summed up in four words: love God; love neighbor. Let me go even a little further than that, a little shorter than that. The lesson in the Bible can be summed up in two words: trust God. Amen.
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Last week— Easter Sunday— our Thought for Meditation was from Diana Butler Bass. She says this: ‘The point isn’t that you believe in the resurrection. Any fool can believe in a resurrection from the dead. The point is that you trust in the resurrection. And that’s much, much harder to do.’ Belief is, you see a fairly low bar. Trust… that’s another story.”
BENEDICTION: Go out in the strength and love God provides. Praise the deeds of God by the way you live, by the way you love. And may the steadfast love of God and the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.