The risen life: forgiving sins
1 Peter 1.3-9
There is something very puzzling in today’s Gospel reading. Do you know what I mean? It’s this: the risen Lord Jesus says,
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
That could sound like we have the authority to determine which sins can be forgiven and which cannot. And it seems that is the way the Roman Catholic system of confession to a priest works. A Catholic priest has the authority to forgive the sins of those who come to him—or not to forgive them. In other words he has the authority to retain them. Is that what this means? I hope not.
Perhaps there are other ways of interpreting this saying. I think there are…
But firstly, the Catholic Church is right; only a priest can forgive sins. But the Catholic Church is also wrong, because we are a priestly community. Friends, each one of us is given authority to forgive others. You can say, ‘I forgive you’ to another person. And you know, when you do that, you are being a ‘priest’.
A priest is someone who links other people to God; it’s what a priest does and is. So we are a priestly community. We who make up the Body of Christ are a priesthood because we connect others to God.
So praying for others is a priestly thing to do. It’s priestly because we link another person to God through our prayer.
We especially link another person to God when we forgive them. And guess what?—we also link ourselves more firmly to God. It’s just the Lord’s Prayer in action:
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
A community that has the risen Lord Jesus in its midst is a forgiving, priestly community. Its members connect one another to God through forgiving, accepting and praying for one another.
I wonder if some of you are feeling a little impatient with me right now? I hope some of you have realised I’ve left some pretty crucial words out of what Jesus said. What did Jesus say?
‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Let’s look at this more carefully. Jesus came to those who’d let him down and said, ‘Peace’. If I were the risen Lord, I might say something like, With friends like you who needs enemies? or, You’re going to pay for deserting me when I really needed you! But Jesus says ‘Peace’, which in Hebrew is ‘Shalom’—that’s such a rich word, which embraces wellbeing, completeness, health, wholeness among people. It’s not primarily about ‘inner peace’, harmony or serenity; it’s about living in peace with one another.
Shalom was and is a powerful word of blessing. Jesus was calling this weak bunch of failures his friends, and even more than that—he was calling them his brothers.
Next, Jesus makes it clear that it’s all about the mission. Jesus is sending us on mission as the Father sent him. We go as he went—we go with him as the way, the truth and the life. We walk his way, we proclaim his truth and we draw from his life.
For this, we need help. We need the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. So Jesus breathes on the disciples and says,
Receive the Holy Spirit.
Receive the Holy Spirit. Receive my power, my authority—which is the power and the authority to serve one another.
In the story of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2, we read:
the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…
God breathes the breath of life into his human creation at the very beginning. And here, Jesus breathes on the disciples. It’s a new creation! In Hebrew and Greek, the word for Spirit and the word for breath are one and the same. Jesus is breathing the breath of life upon his friends. He is giving them new life to be new people for the new creation.
Do you feel daunted by being sent as Jesus was sent? If you do, ask him to give you more of his Spirit. Imagine him breathing upon you, and saying to you by name—
[Paul], receive the Holy Spirit.
Breathe the Spirit in. And then say to Jesus,
Thank you, Lord. Let’s see what we can do today, together.
Try it. Do it in the mornings, and take Jesus at his word. See the difference it makes.
Next: the one thing that Jesus identifies as what it means to be sent as he was sent, to be Spirit-inspired, is this:
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.
We are to be a new creation, a community which is characterised by mutual forgiveness. That’s the spring from which everything else flows. To be forgiven is to be set free, freed from the past, unbound from the chains that shackle us. To be forgiven is to know the shalom of Jesus in a future that is open to God and to others.
What about the rest of Jesus’ words? As I said, it’s kind of worried me, even floored me:
…if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
I’ve been floored because it sounds like we can withhold forgiveness from another person, that we can decide who should be forgiven and who should not. I’ve come to believe it doesn’t mean that at all. I mean, how can we pray the Lord’s Prayer and choose not to forgive particular people, or certain types of human being, made in God’s image?
Let me suggest two other ways of understanding this verse, each one far more likely in my view.
Remember that after he washed their feet, Jesus said to his disciples (John 13.34-35):
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.
Jesus commissioned—there’s that ‘mission’ word again, it’s all about the mission—Jesus commissioned his people to serve one another in costly ways. And if they were to do this, others would know that they were his disciples. And it applies equally to us today.
In the upper room, with the disciples, Jesus repeats this commissioning. Forgive one another—‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them…’ Love one another, serve one another in costly ways. Forgive even if your brother or sister sins against you seventy times seven.
In this way of understanding Jesus’ words, this is the only command. When he says, ‘… if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’, he is simply stating a fact. If you don’t forgive someone, if there is no reconciliation, the burden remains and you stay unreconciled.
We are in the business of forgiveness. When we don’t forgive—when we retain the sins of another person—we are failing to bear witness to the new thing the resurrection has brought to life: a Spirit-inspired community of faith, hope and love.
The Christian Church has been good at ‘retaining’ sins, at holding people’s sins against them. At least, that’s how many people outside the life of the Church see us. To them, we are moralistic, self-righteous hypocrites. We are judgemental, negative, we oppress gays and arrogantly believe we are the only ones who will be saved. At least, that’s how a lot of people see us.
And some of that mud has to stick.
When we allow ourselves to be sent as Jesus was sent, our work is to gather and forgive people. When we try to define who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ on the basis say of doctrine or sexuality, when we ‘retain’ their sins, we scatter and even repel people.
On that first Easter Sunday, the disciples had met behind a locked door for fear. In Aramaic, the first language of Jesus and the disciples, the word for ‘locked’ and the word for ‘retain’ are the same. To retain someone’s sins is to lock the door of our heart against them, and not to do the work of Jesus. That’s another reason we need the Spirit’s help. This isn’t easy.
There’s a second way to understand what ‘retaining’ means. And really, it’s related to the first, so I don’t feel too inclined to choose between them.
Remember what Jesus said:
Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
But did he say that? Interestingly, in the last part of the verse the Greek we translate doesn’t contain the word ‘sin’. So it could mean this:
Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain anyone, they are retained.
In this second interpretation, we ‘retain’ people, not sins.
So if you forgive someone, you keep them in the fellowship, in the church family. You retain them.
It’s interesting that the very next story is the story of Thomas. He wasn’t there on the first Easter night; but he was there a week later. We call him ‘Doubting Thomas’, but whatever doubt he had, he was there in the Upper Room with his friends. Whatever sins he was carrying were forgiven, and he was retained within the body of disciples. So much so, that it seems quite likely he actually did go to India and evangelise that part of the world.
So there we have two possibilities for understanding these difficult words, and both take us in a similar direction.
In the first, it’s our mission to forgive people’s sins, and if we don’t then we are unreconciled to one another. We retain the sins in our locked heart.
In the second, it’s our mission to forgive people’s sins, and if we do then we are reconciled to one another. We loose the sins and let their chains drop to the ground.
One of these readings may be the correct reading for this passage. But either way, I’d want to say they are both great ways of ‘getting’ what it means to be sent as Jesus was sent.
Jesus hasn’t changed his tune. He greets us in the same way today as he greeted the disciples on that very first Easter: ‘Peace be with you’. So let us receive the Holy Spirit for the mission of Jesus. Let us unlock our hearts and forgive one another, and open our hearts to those the world judges harshly. This is to take intentional steps in being a community, a church family, a people of the new creation where the risen Lord is in the midst. Amen.