We have been reviewing the essence of Christian faith this month through our series Seeking the Radical Middle: a Westside Creed. You can find the creed at our website (wkc.org/aboutwkc/whatwebelieve). This past Sunday we talked about the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, whom someone once called the shy part of God. What do we affirm about the Spirit of God? And perhaps more practically, what difference does he make to our lives as Jesus-followers? We spoke about the Holy Spirit by way of a Jesus resurrection story because that is how things fit together: it is the risen Jesus who gives the Spirit to us. In John 20, the text tells us that after his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples and “breathed on them”, telling them to “receive the Holy Spirit”. The metaphor of breath is a recapturing of the Genesis creation story, where God breathed on the man he had formed from the earth, and the man became a living being. In the same way, Jesus’ breath is the gift of his livingness. We cannot follow Jesus in the strength of our own independent life but we live out the mission and vision of Jesus by the breath he gives to us, the Spirit himself.
And then, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, Jesus adds a very practical piece: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” [John 20:23]. In an otherwise beautiful and inspiring moment comes a somewhat difficult statement, an application of this gift of Spirit which, if we were honest, can sometimes be the hardest part of being a Jesus follower. Jesus gives the Spirit and then calls us to forgive; that is what Spirit-gifted people are to do.
But think for a moment how all of this deeply makes sense. Jesus is the man of the Spirit -- the Christ, the Messiah -- the one who carries sins away, who forgives as God forgives, who preaches peace and establishes our peace with God. It is no accidental thing then that when Jesus breathes life on his followers he also reminds them of their basic mission: to be forgivers and peace-makers wherever they find themselves in the mess of human failings.
The Spirit makes this way of forgiveness possible in us. I have lived under the heavy burden of carrying un-forgiveness, of withholding forgiveness from those who have hurt me. I think I know what I am talking about when I say I know how much of a “life-killer” unforgiveness can be. But then I have also known the life-restoring freedom of letting go what I needed to let go. I believe that the Spirit has helped me at critical times in my life, times when I wasn’t strong enough to forgive.
But what about the negative statement (if you don’t forgive sins, they are not forgiven)? How should we understand those words? Some actually think that this statement gives the followers of Jesus the right to withhold forgiveness. Is that what Jesus is saying?
I sat with my perplexity on this for a few days last week. I read a variety of opinions on this statement and then I wondered if talking about it was just too complicated, and perhaps I should leave it alone. But then I thought: doesn’t the gift of the Spirit help us live the hardest parts? Isn’t this the point?
And then our old friend Eugene Peterson came through again. Here is the Message Bible’s rendition of John 20:23:
If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?
That is about the best commentary I know on these words of Jesus. After I had sat with the confusion of what withholding forgiveness might mean, I read Peterson’s rendition and literally laughed out loud -- yes! that’s it! If we don’t forgive sins, what indeed are we going to do with them? If the risen Jesus is in our midst, breathing his life on us, are we really going to hold on to the treachery of the old world, especially when the new world is dawning all around us? Can we really hold on to the sins of others when God’s life is entering into us?
No, I don’t think so. The risen Jesus is giving us his power to enter the new life before us. All things are becoming new. This is the era of the Holy Spirit, when we are graced to breath in of God’s help and power. Forgiveness is the way forward, the only way that makes sense of resurrection life.
We continue our series this Sunday. Remember that there are now four weekend worship options: Vespers, Saturday at 6 pm. Sunday mornings, our main gatherings at 9:29 and 11:11 am. And Unedited Spirituality, Sunday evenings at 7 pm. Find your place in the community and breath in the life that Jesus is breathing out upon us.