I have always had difficulty with the words attributed to Jesus in the resurrection story in John 20:22-23:
‘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.’
The traditional Catholic understanding of this is quite straightforward. Jesus said these words to the Apostles. Ordained priests are the authorised successors of the Apostles. People come to the priest to confess their sins, and the priest has the power to grant them absolution, or to withhold it by giving them a penance to perform as a condition. Presumably also the priest can refuse absolution altogether – for instance, if the person is blatantly unrepentant, or is not a baptised member of the Church.
My Protestant faith rebels against that idea. But what do I make of these words? I have always avoided commenting on them, because quite frankly I didn’t know what to make of them. Perhaps the Apostles made them up, but if Jesus actually said them, what did he mean?
However, hearing them read today, I suddenly felt I was understanding them for the first time – not bad for someone who has been preaching for over 60 years!
Jesus had just said ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. In other words. he was sending his disciples into the world to be what he himself was in the world – to carry on his mission. His mission was to bring God’s forgiveness to the world, and he brought it to all kinds of people – outcasts of society, people burdened by guilt, ‘unclean’ foreigners, the Roman oppressors, crooked tax-collectors, the hated Samaritans – there were no limits.
He didn’t demand penitence from them, and he certainly didn’t dole out penances. He preached the unconditional forgiving love of God. But people who are living with a burden of guilt, or whose whole life has been an experience of being despised and condemned, or struggling to be accepted, can only know that love if they are shown it in practical ways. Jesus brought God’s forgiving love to people by being their friend – touching the leper, eating and drinking with notorious ‘sinners’, praising the faith of a Roman soldier, choosing to stay in the home of the hated Zacchaeus instead of with one of the pious people. And he sent his disciples out into the world to do the same.
The presence of Jesus in the world today is us – that is, not just a chosen elite of apostles, or even the wider circle of Christians, but everybody who is willing to live in the world as he did, accepting and loving people without condition. If we forgive those who wrong us, that is the way God’s forgiveness gets to them. And if we withhold that forgiveness, how are they going to know it?