Sunday, March 30, 2008

Forgiving and Retaining - A Sermon

You could do a lot with this passage.  Doubting Thomas is a beloved story, and when we talked about it with the confirmation class, his doubt was instructive -- after all, what are Inquirers Classes if not a chance to question one's faith and practices?  

BUT there's more here than Thomas, and what's more interesting for us today is when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples during his first visit -- and said, "if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, and if you retain them they are retained."

This is John, so you know this is different from the other gospels.  In other "Commissionings", the apostles are sent to be witnesses (Luke) or to baptize and "teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matthew)  Mark's first ending has no commission at all, while the second has the order to proclaim the good news and baptize -- but also the strange signs afterward:  those who don't believe are condemned, and those who do believe "will cast out demons...speak in tongues...pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."

But John -- John is different.  (1st off, it's more than the 12 -- the "disciples".  It's the entire community he's addressing).  There's a sending, but no real order to proclaim anything.  There's only this one command to the disciples: receive the Holy Spirit.  "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.  If you retain them, they are retained."

Aside from Jesus' later order to Peter to "feed my sheep," that's the only commission he gives in John.  

But, what the heck does it mean?

Yes, it is clear that Jesus came and preached forgiveness in all the Gospels.  When Matthew said "teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you," he surely included forgiveness.  When Luke wrote that the disciples should be witnesses, surely he meant witnesses to Jesus' mercy as well as his power.  But only John puts it in words.  And not only forgiveness but also retaining that sin.  That's the curious thing.

On first blush, it sounds like Jesus is giving the disciples the power to send people to heaven or hell.  But is that what's going on?

What does it mean to forgive sins?  In John, sin is more than just bad things that people do to each other, although that is part of it.  Rather, sin is missing the mark -- missing the Love of God embodied by Jesus Christ.  For John, sin is that thing that gets between us and the life-saving relationship with God.  Not only were the disciples to forgive the personal sins against them but to forgive those who did not believe them, who did not accept Christ.

But a bigger question is, what does it mean to RETAIN the sin?  Nobody else uses this word "retain" in the gospels.  And John only uses it here.  But why? If the sin is retained, whose does it become?  

Maybe Jesus only means that a retained sin is not forgiven, but when we don't forgive, don't we, in fact, retain them?  Don't we, the one who has the power to forgive, hang onto them, refuse to let them go so that they become ours?

It doesn't matter if the sin we retain is something personal -- be it a petty slight or a vicious crime -- or if it is a person's refusal to follow Christ as we do.  If we hang on to that sin, we make it has us.  If we refuse to let go of that sin, then doesn't it have a hold on us?

Perhaps what we have here, then, is not so much an empowerment to put people in their place.  Perhaps it is a warning to the entire church -- not just the leadership -- that inability or unwillingness to forgive others will ultimately harm only us.

We know this in human experience.  Those who refuse to see others as equal in God's eyes because their faith isn't "the right faith" -- they are eaten up by their own tunnel vision and separated from part of the Body of Christ.  Those who refuse to forgive sins committed against them by others ultimately feel the weight of that sin more than the person who committed it.

In contrast, those who witness Christ's love while never condemning those who see it differently live a more joyful and certainly freer life.  Those who can forgive even the most horrendous crimes against them are able to release the shackles that bind their souls.

Forgiveness, then, is what John says our mission is as followers of Christ.  We forgive those who refuse to see what we see, and we forgive those who hurt us.  And in doing so, we make ourselves free.  Amen.