The Day of Pentecost
May 31, 2020
A Reflection on Today’s Scripture
A Pentecost Message
“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.” (John 20:23)
What does this mean? Over the 2000 years of Christian faith these words have been interpreted in many ways. Today, I’d like to speak about how forgiveness and the Spirit of God go hand in hand.
It seems obvious when we read this line from the Gospel that Jesus is giving his followers – his apprentices, the authority to forgive sins. In terms of the Jewish faith that they had practiced until then, they had been taught that sins and the need for forgiveness among human beings was more important than sins against God. Why was this? It was because then, as now, it was known that God is perfect in forgiveness and has infinite mercy. We, flawed human beings, are not quite as perfect. We know we should forgive. (As the pollsters say – this statement is true 19 times out of twenty with a 5% margin of error!) Even if were were to strive for forgiveness each time we are sinned against, we know we are not able to let go of the sin perfectly. How often it is true that when we forgive someone, it takes a long time, if ever, not to be a little resentful or a little hurt when we think about it – even if we have mainly put it behind us.
Making up with each other, especially long term, hurts. Giving up grudges is hard work, but the gift that our faith in Jesus says that we are given this day is the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit of perfect forgiveness. Like most gifts worth getting, it is not something we can do flawlessly the first time we try to use it. It is something that we get better at the more we practice it. If we don’t practice this gift of God’s Spirit, if we do not release others by forgiving them, the sins are also retained within ourselves. We are held by them, imprisoned by them. The Spirit of God gives us the authority and the strength to release others and ourselves from that imprisonment.
At times, it is hard for us to understand and to believe in (or even to want to believe in) forgiveness for some of the most terrible things that have been done. In the end, without excuses, even while recognizing that what was done was terrible, forgiveness can release both from the power of the crime. Jesus on the cross says “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34. He has been subjected to the most horrible crime. Innocent of any wrongdoing, tortured, suffered uncalled for indignities and now ready for his execution he is filled with the Spirit of God. He has the strength, the authority, and the compassion to forgive. He releases those who have sinned against him. In that perfect forgiveness, in choosing not to retain, he also is released completely – even from death. Forgiveness is always life-giving. Perfect forgiveness gives life even over death. It’s a tough thing to do – that’s why we celebrate today the Gift of the Spirit that allows us to begin to work on it!