Early on the first day of the week, a friend of Jesus named Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where he had been buried, and discovered that his body was gone. Peter and another disciple went and saw it too. Jesus’ grave clothes were there, but he was gone. Only Mary saw the angels that morning and spoke with Jesus in the garden, but she told the others that she had seen the Lord, that he was raised, and that he was going up to be with God.
The author of John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us what the other disciples thought of her report that morning, but when evening came they were huddled together, scared as could be, all of them in a house with the doors locked. But Jesus will not allow them to hide for long. Neither the locked doors, nor their recent failure to stick by Jesus when he most needed them, will stop Jesus from returning to them, and blessing them, and commissioning them to carry on his work.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” It was a conventional greeting to follow a not-so-conventional entrance. But it was more than that too. It was Jesus bringing a gift of peace to a group of frightened and overwhelmed followers, for whom peace would not have seemed possible.
Then Jesus showed them his hands and his side, and they were overjoyed. I guess it was seeing those distinctive wounds that convinced them that this man was really Jesus. It was seeing those physical marks that let them know that he had truly died, and that he was truly standing in front of them alive. And their confusion, and sorrow, and fear were changed to joy because the Lord was with them.
But Jesus wasn’t just there to reassure his friends and make them happy. Instead, his purpose in appearing to them was to assign them a task. After repeating the greeting and the blessing, “Peace be with you,” Jesus tells his friends that he is sending them, just as the Father has sent him. And then, breathing on them, he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
In the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers have to wait until Pentecost before they receive the Holy Spirit and the mission to share the Good News about Jesus with all the world. But the author of John’s Gospel sees Easter and Pentecost as basically the same event. Even before Jesus disappears from their presence, he gives them the Spirit to inspire and empower them to carry out their mission, to continue Jesus’ own work in the world. And with this Spirit, Jesus tells his friends that they will have the power to forgive or to retain sins. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
At times, these words of Jesus have been interpreted to mean that Jesus gives certain leaders in the church the authority and responsibility to judge others. By Jesus’ own proclamation, they have the power to grant mercy and forgiveness, or to withhold grace and condemn the sinner.
Some are quick to point out, however, that the people gathered in that locked room were not just the leaders in the future church. There’s no indication that it was the 12 apostles that Jesus empowered to this role and responsibility. In fact, the text just says that “the disciples” were together with the doors locked. The group may have included Mary Magdalene and other women. It may have included children and older people. It probably included many who were not in leadership roles. And yet, Jesus breathed the Spirit onto them all — just as the Spirit was poured out on the whole gathered community on the day of Pentecost in Luke’s account.
In the past, I have tended to think of this puzzling verse as a clear instruction from Jesus that we are all called to be peacemakers and reconcilers. That’s a mission that makes sense for all the members of the church to participate in. Jesus is telling his first disciples that they have the ability to hold grudges and hang on to broken or dysfunctional patterns and relationships. And we do too. We don’t have to forgive. We can stay angry. We can retaliate, and hurt those who have hurt us. We can retain the sins of any, and they are retained. We remember them, and we keep on punishing them and making them pay.
But the first disciples, and all of us who follow the way of Jesus, also have the power to forgive the sins of any, and they will be forgiven. Just as God, in Christ, has forgiven us, we also can forgive. We can refuse to hold grudges, and we can choose to offer new beginnings. We can let the past go, and work towards a better future instead. Though it may seem unbelievable, we can forgive our friends or even our enemies, even seven times seventy times, because God’s Spirit will give us the strength and the peace to do it again.
I think that’s a pretty important thing to learn about ourselves as followers of Jesus. With the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, we are given the power to forgive or retain sins. And in following the way of Jesus, we are called to mercy and forgiveness, to be peacemakers and reconcilers, just as God in Jesus, has made peace with us and reconciled us to himself.
But in my reading this week, one commentary cautioned me to be careful to read this tricky verse within the context of the Gospel of John. What difference does it make that this verse and this story is in John’s Gospel instead of one of the others? Well, it makes a big difference! Because each of the Gospels carries a distinct theology coming out of a particular experience in the first century church.
Here, we need to pay attention to what John’s Gospel means when it talks about “sin.” Although this is the only place where the Gospel mentions forgiving or retaining sins, there are many references in John to “sin” — hamartia, in the Greek. We need to understand what John means when he talks about “sin” if we are to understand what he means when he has Jesus give the power to forgive or to retain sins.
“Hamartia,” in John, does not refer to a simple error or bad thing that someone does. It’s not about a moral or behavioural transgression. Instead, “hamartia” is a theological failing. To “have sin” is to be blind to the revelation of God in Jesus. “Sin” is to fail to recognize and believe in Jesus.
God sent his son into the world, and John’s Gospel makes the distinction between those who rejected him and those who accepted him, recognized who he was, and believed in him. Remember the blind man who received his sight from Jesus, and the Pharisees who would not believe. They were the ones who were judged to be sinful because they claimed to see, but they refused to recognize God in Jesus.
According to John’s Gospel, the essence of Jesus’ work in the world is to reveal God to people. Remember these words from the opening chapter of John’s Gospel: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him…But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
Today’s passage suggests that the Christian faith community is to be a people shaped by Jesus’ gift of the Spirit, and the mark of that gift will be the power to forgive or retain sins. But John’s concept of forgiving sins is not primarily about forgiving moral transgressions. Instead, it involves bearing witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus. The power to forgive sins is the ability (by the Spirit’s power) to reveal God to those who have not seen him. It is the gift of being able to make God known to those who have not recognized God in their midst. It is the opportunity to invite others into relationship with God, to have their lives transformed by letting God be God in their lives.
Jesus’ purpose in John’s Gospel was to reveal God to the world, and this is the work that the first disciples, and all of us who follow today, are called to continue. But if that is our call and our mission, the question may arise, “How do we do it? How do we reveal God in Jesus to the world?”
Well, if we continue to follow the model set up for us in John’s Gospel, then we might turn back a few chapters to the story of that last Thursday evening when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and invited them to do the same for one another. Jesus said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love. And it is in choosing or rejecting this relationship with God that sins are forgiven or retained.
It’s not only the apostles, or the bishops, or the other church leaders that are given the power to forgive or retain sins. It is the Spirit poured out on the entire faith community that empowers them to love one another, to reveal God to one another and to the world, and to invite others into a forgiven and reconciled relationship with God.
Our mission, as the church, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong. Jesus does not set us (or our leaders) up as judges over our neighbours with the power to either show mercy or to keep on punishing them for their mistakes. Instead, we have the call, and the responsibility, and the privilege of bearing unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
May God’s Holy Spirit fill us, and inspire us, and equip us to fulfill this great calling. May our words and our actions, and our very lives bear witness to God’s love and grace in Jesus. And may our friends, and families, and neighbours, and even our enemies, see the light of Christ and turn, and follow him. Amen.