Thursday, April 28, 2011

Penance and Forgiveness

By Allen White

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” John 20:21-23

Boy, there’s a lot of theology packed into these words from Jesus. While you and I have had a lot of years to process these thoughts, it was a lot for the disciples to unpack.

Jesus greets them with “peace,” then informs them of their mission. The disciples are being sent just like Jesus was sent. They weren’t headed to the cross rather they would carry on His mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

It wasn’t up to the disciples to accomplish God’s Work on their own. Jesus breathed on them. Breath is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). Then, He added, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Up until this time, the Spirit was with them, but the Spirit was not in them (John 14:16-17). When the Spirit is with someone, the Spirit directs the person toward Christ (John 16:8-11). When the Spirit is in a believer, His Presence confirms that indeed the person is a child of God (Romans 8:16). The Spirit also brings supernatural power (Acts 1:8).

Attempting God’s Work without God’s Power is worthless. But, being empowered by God’s Spirit to fulfill His Mission is unlike any other adventure. God intends to use believers in ways beyond what they would ever imagine.

Jesus’ final instruction here is a little more challenging to understand: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23). The range of interpretation goes from the sacrament of penance to just avoiding the topic altogether.

Some have taken this forgiving/not forgiving authority along the lines of binding and loosing (Matthew 18:18). Jesus’ disciples are instructed to affirm those who have received forgiveness, but to warn those who haven’t sought forgiveness. The believer’s mission (John 20:21) combined with the Holy Spirit’s mission (John 20:22) leads to a wonderfully redemptive result. Judgment placed in human hands tends to become something less than wonderful.

But, let’s look at the basic meaning of Jesus’ words. If you forgive someone, they are forgiven. How can we forgive people who offend us and sin against us? We can fully forgive because Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins allows us to freely forgive others. The offender still needs Jesus’ forgiveness, but our forgiveness of them is a strong testimony of Christ’s love.

If we don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven. They can still ask Jesus for forgiveness. We don’t stand in the way of anyone’s salvation, but our forgiveness of them could help them along to finding salvation. Not to mention that our unforgiveness only interferes with our relationship with God (Matthew 18:33-35).

Jesus has sent you. What does your mission field look like? It’s your workplace, your neighborhood, your home. Don’t get overwhelmed. Jesus has also given the Holy Spirit to help you. Your mission is a mission of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). You don’t have to right every wrong, but when you have opportunity to forgive, that’s the first place to start.

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