In the evening of the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’, and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again,
‘Peace be with you.
‘As the Father sent me,
so am I sending you.’
After saying this he breathed on them and said:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.
For those whose sins you forgive,
they are forgiven;
for those whose sins you retain,
they are retained.’
We usually hear this Gospel as part of the Resurrection visitations. Although many of us may not hear it properly, as it is part of the Sunday reading where Thomas’ doubts are answered by the Lord’s appearance. The interplay between the Lord and Thomas tends to grab the attention and, just like witnesses after the event, we can be left wondering ‘What was that other thing that was said?’ ; and thinking maybe it was not that important? So it’s good that the Church takes us back to that time – to remind us of what was said; to remind us that the Spirit has actually been with us all through the Easter time.
And this is more than important – nothing is in the Gospel without purpose; but this - this is the first and most crucial gift of the Holy Spirit; the gift that Jesus had won for us– the reconciliation of the world to the Father.
The prayer of absolution begins:
"God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins;
This prayer is said by the priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation but forgiveness is not just for ordained priests; the Lord's gift of forgiveness is given to each and every one of us; breathed into us; yet again, not just the apostles, not just the chosen few but the disciples; everyone of us who chooses to answer his call. We cannot leave it to someone else, saying we are not worthy – maybe we are not, but we still have the responsibility to use this gift.
As disciples it is our mission to take the peace of Christ out into the world and to give it to others; as Therese said, he has no hands, eyes or feet but ours. We are clothed in Christ and gifted with the Spirit so that we can offer the Father’s forgiveness to those we meet; to bring peace to others; to reconcile our brothers and sisters to their neighbour; their family; their friends and enemies; and even to themselves.
A gift and a responsibility then, and not easy to do, which is why the Spirit returns again with the specific gifts that will help us grow.
The second part of this has always puzzled me; the idea that we can retain someone’s sins? Seems like far too much power to me.
It certainly suits the judgemental side that we all have; the idea that ‘they’ do not deserve to be happy; to be forgiven; to be able to move on. It’s the way a lot of us think – seeking retribution; wanting to see people suffer for what they have done. Being hard hearted and carrying a grudge is something we can identify with – why would we want to see ‘those people’ in heaven. Being able to retain sins seems a very good idea. Believing that we know best; and that we have the authority of God behind us.
But it’s not very Christ-like.
And this is where I struggle; Jesus forgives everyone, everyone. Even when they don't deserve it, even when they don't ask for it. And the prayer of absolution makes it clear that God intends to forgive the whole world. We are meant to be Christ-like - so why would Jesus say this? Why give us this authority to retain sin? Is it that it’s just a bad translation?
But my feelings(and this came to me only recently) is that it is one of the Lord’s word games, something of a trick; a challenge; a Catch 22 situation that Jesus has allowed us the option of entering into.
If we accept this authority, rubbing our hands together with delight that now it is up to us; that we have been given permission to choose not to forgive, then what does that say about us?
That we know the rules; that we have the right to be judgemental?
That we know better than God?
If we cast our minds back to the woman caught in adultery; how many of us will find ourselves still standing with our stone in our hand?
Jesus gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit but She is not forced upon us. We cannot be forced into compassion, love and forgiveness of our fellow companions. Jesus tells us we are friends, brothers, sisters not slaves; with all the freedom that suggests. If we want to, we can let Her breath blow right through us and carry on with our old lives; our old judgements; with tree trunks in our eyes and pockets full of stones.
Or we can carry Her breath within our own;we can speak with Her words; Her voice in our hearts - telling of God’s love and peace and desire for reconciliation; knowing that God wills that all will be saved. Knowing that we all belong to the Kingdom and that it is through the desire, sacrifice and gift of the Trinity and the actions of our own hands and heart that we will get there, together.