Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. †
Christians use the Bible as a weapon in culture wars and search its contents for ammunition to use in our fights among ourselves. For example, there was serious discussion among serious people about whether the Bible should be translated into the vernacular. Anglicans argued against translating the Bible into English saying that uneducated people lack the critical skills to discern biblical truth and they used the Bible to make their point. Guess what scripture was used to argue against translating the scriptures into English? Remember the sign that was placed above our Lord’s head on the cross? It said, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Remember that it was written in three languages, Greek (the language of the people), Hebrew (the language of the Jews), and Latin (the language of the Empire). So the argument was made that the Bible should only be published in those three biblical languages—Greek, Hebrew and Latin.
I mention that only as a benign illustration of how the Bible can be used to make all sorts of points. On the other hand, the fact that scriptures are so readily available in the language we use means that we have a responsibility to read it both in the larger sense of a narrative of God’s mighty works in human history (which is why I preach so often from Old Testament lessons) and in the more narrow sense of realizing that every word in the Bible was chosen for a reason. Sometimes there are words or phrases that we might not notice because they seem insignificant or even parenthetical but which are there for a reason and are profoundly important.
Take, for example, the words of Jesus when he appeared to the apostles in the upper room. He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit and he told them that if they forgave sins, the sins are forgiven and if they retain the sins of anyone, they are retained on earth and in heaven.
A working definition of Church would be the recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We traditionally celebrate the birthday of the Church and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday using the story as Luke tells it but John’s gospel says that Jesus gave the apostles the Holy Spirit in the upper room. Then, immediately after breathing on them (think about the fact that Jesus, who had died, was now breathing and you start to understand the nature of the resurrection) Jesus told them they have the authority to forgive sins or retain sins. He didn’t say they could do miracles—at least not in the way we usually think of miracles. He said they could forgive sins. That can be miraculous in our lives—forgiving. The Church has too often thought of this passage of scripture as giving the Church the power to forgive sins but it isn’t about power. Forgiveness isn’t something we do as much as something we discover. It isn’t about my having something I can hold over you. It is about my coming to realize that we share a common shame with Adam and Eve who hid from God when they realized they were naked. So when someone comes to me as his or her priest to confess and receive forgiveness, I do so in the name of the Church and ask the penitent to “pray for me, a sinner.”
I had a friend once who was a recovering alcoholic. He was in his eighties and those of us who knew him cherished him as a spiritual friend and mentor. His wife was killed crossing a street. She was hit by a drunk driver. My friend went to the jail where the man who had killed his wife was incarcerated, not to confront him or condemn him, but to offer to be his sponsor in AA.
Forgiveness is our job as Christians. If we were to hire someone to be a Christian his or her job description would be one word, “Forgive,” and the only qualification for the job would be, “Forgiven.” We are a community who forgives as we have been forgiven.
So why is it so hard? Why do we beat each other up so when we feel we have been wronged? Why do we hold grudges and pass resolutions and quote scripture and write canons and make demands?
I think one clue to that lies in the lesson from Acts: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
We don’t do that. We give a portion—some give incredibly generous portions—but we don’t give us private ownership of possession. We have a word for political systems that don’t allow private ownership, communism—Godless communists. But let’s not to miss the point. Church is important. Religion is important. The reason Christianity is losing popularity in this country and in Europe and why it is growing with intensity in developing nations is because it is important. The reason forgiveness is so difficult within the congregation of believers is because some of us take this very seriously. So when we disappoint one another, when we wrong each other and let each other down, when we need to forgive each other, it is hard and it’s even harder when our investment, whether spiritual, emotional or financial, is significant and sacrificial.
We get that. The Prayer Book assumes that. The presiding priest asks the congregation’s forgiveness every time he or she approaches the Altar. That’s what’s happening when I say, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” I can’t proceed with the prayers at the Altar unless the congregation responds, “And also with you.” That means we are forgiven. We are at peace. You exchange the peace of God with each other. Then, when we’ve made our peace, we can offer our gifts of bread and wine and we can receive the gift of God, the body of Christ and the cup of salvation.
Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.”
As forgiven and forgiving people, let us hear the word of God and live fully and never lose the joy of our salvation.