May 1, 2011 – Easter 2A
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Driving an automobile brings out the best in people, doesn’t it? Not you or me, mind you, but everyone else out there seems to have a harder time controlling their emotions when they are behind the wheel.
One afternoon, not long after I moved to Montgomery, I was driving from one pastoral visit at Baptist South to another down Narrow Lane Road, and I had stopped on the access road to wait for the light to turn green so that I could turn left and cross the Bypass. I was actually stopped at a stop sign, but there wasn’t any room for me to continue ahead into the lane of traffic that was waiting at the light. Pretty soon, another car came up behind me, but there was nowhere for me to go, so I just waited. And that meant that he had to wait, too. But, since he was turning right and didn’t need to wait for the traffic signal, his patience with me quickly gave out. Eventually, unwilling to wait any longer, he pulled around me into the lane of oncoming traffic and managed to turn right in front of my car while holding the steering wheel with his knees. I know this because he used both hands to show me how angry he was.
In a moment like that, I like to stretch my neck out a little bit just to make sure that the driver knows that he’s flipping off a priest. I’m not sure that made any difference to him. But it usually makes a difference to me. To tell you the truth, I’m like most other people. I get angry at drivers who cut me off or run a red light or ride my tail. And sometimes those drivers make me angry enough to hold that grudge as they speed off down the road, leaving me mumbling something obscene under my breath. But it’s in that moment—when I’m watching the offending driver disappear down the street—that I remember that I’m a priest and that Jesus once said something pretty serious about holding grudges.
That admonition comes in this morning’s gospel lesson. Jesus says to his disciples, “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.” What does that mean? In John’s gospel account, this is the passage in which Jesus gives his disciples their commission and sends them forth to do God’s work. And right at the center of that charge is the foundational text for our belief in priestly absolution. This is the part of the bible that we turn to in order to understand what it is that a clergyperson does when he or she pronounces God’s forgiveness.
As we understand it, if a priest or bishop absolves someone of his or her sins, then that person is forgiven in the eyes of God…or at least that’s what the Church teaches us. But what does that really mean? Does that mean that the minister has a special path to God and that when he declares forgiveness he’s doing so on God’s behalf? And forgiveness is only the first half of this tricky verse. The more confusing and perhaps more important part is what comes next: what happens when those sins are retained? What happens when someone cuts a priest off in traffic and he refuses to release the other driver from the cosmic consequences of his wrong-doing? Are those “sins” retained in God’s eyes? Is that person forever unable to escape God’s punishment?
Now, I’ll admit that I might be the only person in the world who worries about how this verse should affect his driving habits. And I’ll also admit that there may be a touch of superstition behind my concern. At one level, it’s pretty silly to think that my refusal to absolve someone of his sins will have any impact on that person’s relationship with God when he finally comes to the day of judgment. That’s ridiculous. But heaven and hell are pretty serious things. While it’s true that I probably have no impact on the eternal consequences of another person’s sins, do you really want me taking that chance when it comes to your eternal destination?
Actually, I think this verse has more to do with the impact of sins in this life than it does with their effect on one’s experience of the afterlife. And I also think Jesus’ commission isn’t directed only at members of the clergy. Given the centrality of this verse in Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples, I believe he’s speaking to all of us. What Jesus says he says to anyone who would follow him: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” I believe that all of us are in the forgiving-retaining business, and I think that’s the core of Christianity.
Is there anything more powerful or transformative than saying to someone who has wronged you, “I forgive you?” Nothing else can release the hurt and the guilt associated with a wrong as completely as those three little words. They have the power to heal relationships and to restore lives. Likewise nothing can do more damage than saying to someone who has come to you asking for forgiveness, “I refuse to forgive you.” Spirits are crushed, relationships are obliterated, and lives are ruined when forgiveness is denied. And that’s why this verse is so important for Christians.
With regard to our relationship with God, forgiveness is always given. That’s what the story of Easter tells us. The risen Christ shows us that no matter what evil we throw at God God’s forgiving love will always triumph over it. That’s why Jesus appears to his disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” It doesn’t matter that they’ve run away. It doesn’t matter that they’re hiding in cowardice behind locked doors. God seeks them out in order to forgive them—“Peace be with you.” But there’s more to the story than that.
God’s forgiveness might be certain, but our ability to accept and internalize that forgiveness depends upon whether we’ve known forgiveness here on earth. And that’s where the true and deadly power of sin lies. In the end, nothing can separate us from God’s love—not even our sin. But, if we can’t get past the brokenness that our sin has caused here on earth, how can we have confidence in God’s forgiveness in heaven? When we’re seeking reconciliation with someone we love but whom we have hurt, what matters more to us in that moment—a belief that God will forgive us one day or the agony of knowing that someone we love refuses to forgive us?
God’s victory over sin and death, which was declared through the resurrection of Christ, means that there can be no brokenness that God will not eventually heal. But, before the power of the empty tomb can be real to us we must understand that forgiveness here in this life. The resurrection is not just an image or a metaphor. It’s a physical reality manifest in this world to demonstrate to us that sin should have no claim on us in this life or in the next. That means that sharing the good news of the Easter story is about proclaiming forgiveness to others as liberally and unreservedly as God has declared that same love to us and to the world. As Christians, we are called by God and sent forth by Christ to forgive always and to retain never the sins of those who have hurt us.
When was the last time someone cut you off in traffic? How long has it been since you’ve banged the receiver of your phone on a table because a customer service representative was rude and unhelpful? In what relationships—whether meaningful or not—have you been slow to forgive? The power of the resurrection is liberation from that which separates us from God. But we can only know that power if we propagate that same forgiveness as readily as we ourselves have been forgiven. Jesus is sending us out to do the same work that God sent him to earth to do. We are Christians, and so we are to forgive just as we have been forgiven. Amen.