Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.
These words in John 20 are scandalous.They state that Jesus gives a power to His disciples which is reserved for God. [Recall, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?"]. Many Christians deny the sacrament of Reconciliation for this reason. However, last week we said that since the Ascension, in a real sense, we can say that Jesus "has left the office." In His prayer He told the Father, "I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world." As such, and this is an amazing grace, you and I, the church, are empowered to continue the work of Jesus and until He returns.
However, this power does not flow out of us. the Gospel today reveals that the Holy Spirit is the force and power which will make this ministry possible. But what exactly is "the Spirit"? Spiritual things are, after all, notoriously difficult to describe. It may help that the two alternative translation of the Greek word pneuma (and Hebrew ruah) are Breath and Wind. In fact, both of those words are present in today's readings.
Jesus breathes on the apostles and gives them the (scandalously unbelieveable) gift to forgive sins. This breathing no doubt includes a theological reference to the creation account (Gen 2) where God breathes life into the 'clay man' and he becomes a nefesh (a living spirit). Spirit is life. It is animation. The living body is different; a mannequin or statue has the form of a man, but it is 'spirit' (breath) which makes it alive. At Pentecost (in Acts) there was a sound of a strong wind. The power of wind is also part of the creation account (Gen 1; a divine wind hovers over the chaotic darkness) and so both accounts have echoes to creation. In a real sense, the day of Pentecost is the new creation promised in the prophets. It is the fulfillment of God's pledge to not leave us in sin and death after the first parent's sin.
Forgiveness and re-creation are God's antidote for sin. In Greek, the word tranlated as "forgive" in John 20 is literally, "to send away." This is reflective of the usage in the Jewish Bible (it is an Old Testament word), and we do well to understand Jesus' words in the context of Second Temple Judaism. The Jewish mode of dealing with sins was Biblical: Temple centered and based on grace, sacrifice and repentance. What happened on Pentecost was a dramatic reordering of the Jewish religion.
The heart of human relationship has always been GRACE and covenant. Grace! God created, in love, all that is. God graciously chose (in love) a people to Himself. He made covenant with Abraham and made a new covenant with all of Israel through Moses. The covenant is a RELATIONSHIP, with mutuality and expectations.
In grace (the Old Testament) God forgives sins. "Forgiveness" is part of God's offer of salvation to Jewish (and other human) sinners. Mercy bridges the gap created by sin, it tears down and sends away the barrier of sin. In response to His mercy Israel was called to sorrow, confession and repentance. Israel was saved by its faith in God and trust in His mercy. In response to forgiveness and as an expression of repentance, the Jew would go to Temple and offer a sacrifice. The animal sacrifice was an outward sign, it represented the person's gift of self to God. In the meal that followed the sacrifice, the repentant sinner was in renewed "communion" or fellowship with God. Now, throughout history, prophets were sent to remind the people that the liturgy and ritual were not magic.They had to be accompanied by a faithful and righteous life. Those who simply engaged in rituals were not reconciled if they failed to amend their lives. The prophets were clear on this. However, the Temple remained the center of forgiveness. Sacrifice was not negated; empty sacrifice was!
In the incarnation, the mediated presence of God (His Name or Glory resided in the Temple) is encountered in the man Jesus. He is the TRUE temple and the perfect abiding place of God. In His ministry, Jesus took on the priest/Temple's role and forgave sins directly (though He also sent folks to make the sacrifice). With the resurrection of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is made complete. He is the fulfillment of the Temple. He is the source of reconciliation for repentant sinners. But, more amazing, since His ascension we, the church, are His ambassadors of mercy. The world is hungry for forgiveness and we are empowered for the job. We are told we can send away sin (or retain it).
This work has its dangers. We all know power corrupts, and greater power corrupts more! The God-given power to forgive sins and the temptation to withhold forgiveness from those we deem unworthy is a Jesus declared reality. Human sin, in us, in the Church leads to abuses. Yet Matthew 5:14-15 provide another angle on this: for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you. Some day there will be judgement and all will be set aright. Until then, as His Body, we (the Church) rule as the King's vicar and each of us is an individual ambassador.
The world, so sinful, is hungry for mercy. Forgiveness is an invitation to repentance and conversion. If we say "I forgive" we make it possible for the other to say, "I am sorry." If we mean it, if we mean that we love and forgive, even if we have been hurt, we embody the crucified one's mission: To Forgive the Unforgivable.
No one deserves it, it is always a grace.(Many of us have been victim of crimes which we "cannot" forgive). But forgiveness is the hope for reconciliation and the invitation to repentance and conversion. Forgiveness does not complete the process, it initiates it. Forgiveness does not let anyone off the hook; reconciliation demands repentance, restitution and amendment of life. Forgiveness merely provides hope that the repentance/conversion process is not in vain. You and I are the ministers of this amazing grace. It is a hard task to carry such mercy into the world. It invites suffering. It is, however, the way of God.