Easter Sunday began with an open tomb, but our text tells us that Easter night found Jesus’ disciples huddled together behind locked doors. They had self-quarantined from the trauma of Jesus death, and for fear of being caught by the religious authorities. The eyewitness accounts to the resurrection that morning led not to celebration but to doubt and dread. For these self-isolating disciples, their enclosure has created an atmosphere of paranoia, helplessness, depression and sorrow. Jesus’ horrific death had left them numb, withdrawn, and suspicious. We can relate to these feelings, can’t we?
It is into this environment of fear and guardedness that Jesus first appears to his gathered community. Jesus greets the terrified disciples, “peace be with you,” not once but three times, and shows them his wounds. Jesus breathes on them, and commands, “receive holy spirit.”
Next to these defeated people, Jesus gives a scandalous gift: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What do we make of this? Jesus certainly isn’t putting his disciples in the role of God. Some have argued Jesus was transferring rabbinic authority of binding/and loosening of Jewish ritual life to them. Perhaps.Why, of all the spiritual gifts to give, does the Risen Christ focus on the gift of forgiveness and the power to retain sins? Why place that kind of power in the hands of fearful, doubting disciples? Why not, instead, the gift of faith? Why not the gift of Healing? Or teaching? Or the gift of prophecy?
Forgiveness is at the core of the faith Jesus wants to shape in us. “Lord, how many times am I to forgive? Seven?” Peter asks. No, Jesus responds, “seventy times seven.” “Pray for your enemies, bless those who curse you,” Jesus teaches. What do we pray when we recite the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Jesus chose to focus on forgiveness as a core principle of Christian life. In doing so, Jesus demonstrates that the practice of forgiving and retaining sins leads to healing, it is the key to restoring wholeness to people who are marginalized, transform the sinner or oppressor, the key to witness, the key to prophetic living and the key to unleashing a generous spirit.
Forgiving and retaining of sins is one of the hardest aspects of our faith that we are called to live out. There are hurts, and then there are hurts. How to we ask abused or oppressed people to forgive? In this climate, forgiveness can even appear naïve, even hurtful. We may even despair of forgiveness, of being forgiven even as we despair of peace. But that is our challenge from our text today. How do we embrace forgiveness when we don’t want to forgive? What is the process of forgiveness? Is it a one time gift, or can it be a process that may take place over years, even a lifetime, maybe better left in the hands of Jesus?
The core meaning of the words used in the gospels for forgiveness is a release from an obligation such as a debt, a leaving, a letting go. Letting go of a claim as a result of an offense. It is a leaving behind, just as the disciples left behind their nets to follow Jesus (Matt. 4:20-22).. It is a willingness to look at oneself in the process of judgment: “take the log out of your own eye first, before you would take it out of your brother or sister” (Lk 6:42).. It is a process to forging a Christ-like existence in our own souls. We forgive more to free ourselves as much as to free whom we forgive. “We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.” Declares Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from in 1984.
We often assume that when Jesus speaks of retaining sins, is that we are given permission to not forgive. Yet this goes contrary to the spirit of the gospel. The language in the passage is more nuanced. The Greek word for “retain” used here means to seize with strength; take into one’s custody, arrest, hold back. This verb is only used with the word, sin. We are free to not forgive, but we are not free of the results of not forgiving. We don’t forgive, we are bound to hurt, bitterness, I
t is helpful for us to understand how Jesus uses the concept of “seizing” and “binding” in his own ministry. Jesus seizes the hand of the dead girl and brings her back to life. (Matt. 12:29). Jesus speaks of binding a strong man before he can enter the house and rob its goods ( Matt. 12:29). When Jesus comes upon a man called Legion because he is possessed by many demons, he frees the man by binding the demons and casting them into a herd of pigs (Mk 5:3). When Jesus retains, seizes it’s about restoring life and protecting. So our Christian life is to keep sin from spreading, to bind it, to actively seek to reign it in when it has been allowed to run amok.
It is striking that Jesus does not give us any examples of withholding forgiveness in his ministry. The closest he comes is when he pronounces that the Pharisees’ sins remain, because of their blindness of faith (Jn 9:41). Jesus challenges and rebukes, but never does he withhold forgiveness to those who are open to receive. If we forgive someone who doesn’t want to accept our forgiveness perhaps we can bring some peace to our hearts, but it probably won’t to the person who refuses forgiveness. The potential of forgiveness to change our lives is the Easter work we are called to.
Throughout his life, and on the cross, Jesus modeled forgiveness. He forgave the soldiers who spat upon him. The soldiers who whipped him repeatedly and mocked him. Jesus forgave the religious hierarchy, in their hypocrisy, their lies how they orchestrated his kangaroo trial that resulted in his death. He forgave Pilate, forgave King Herod. He forgave Judas for betraying him. Forgave Peter for denying him. Forgave all the disciples who fell asleep on him, ran away and hid. He forgave the crowd for shouting out to crucify him. He forgave the thief who taunted him. He forgave the whole darn lot – because that’s what love does. Thus, the act of forgiveness can be the hardest thing we ever learn to do, but as Mahatma Ghandi observes, Forgiveness is not for the weak. It is the strong who forgive.
In our time of quarantine, let us dwell on the gift the spiritual discipline of forgiveness. Who do we need to fogive? Of whom do we need to ask forgiveness? Where do we need to promote forgiveness so peace can flourish? Let us turn to Jesus to help our hearts become forgiving. This is the work of the Easter season. To know the peace of forgiveness.
Let it prepare us for the day when our quarantine is over. May we find ourselves a healed people, set free from fear, sent forth to work gospel deeds to create a renewed world. A World where forgiveness breathes on our brokenness. Where oppression is seized, hurt is bound, and we are sent forth to live our amazing Easter faith. amen