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Getting Ready For Sunday: Pentecost Sunday

John 20:19-23

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 

Who are you struggling to forgive today?

Perhaps a friend has let you down – perhaps a spouse or a former spouse has been abusive. Maybe you – like me – are struggling to forgive others their biases and predispositions. One thing is certain: we have all been hurt and will be hurt again by someone for whom we care deeply.

Who are you struggling to forgive today?

Forgiveness is so hard.

It doesn’t have to be, though. I’ve taught often on the subject, and I include a “forgiveness formula” which is simple and effective. When we’ve hurt someone, we need only three sentences.

  • I’m sorry for ___ (fill in the blank with what you’ve done).
  • I won’t do it again.
  • Will you please forgive me?

When someone comes to me in humility, names her or his sin, earnestly repents, and requests forgiveness, it is difficult to refuse.

Here’s the trouble: most of us don’t know or use the forgiveness formula. If we get anything after being harmed, it’s just “Sorry.” Confronted with someone who’s unrepentant, what is a wounded Christian to do? 

Our Pentecost Gospel lesson speaks directly to this conundrum.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, … “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, “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.”

This is the message of Pentecost: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” As Jesus says this, he breathes on the gathered disciples. This image of breathing on human beings should call to mind another time when God breathed upon a human being. In Genesis, God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life.

Picture it: God, Adam and – soon after – Eve together in perfect communion in Eden. God had big dreams and plans for this creation – God had ideas about how we’d live in this new world. Until …

In one moment, Adam and Eve fell short of what God wanted them to be. And God so loved creation – including us humans who fell short of what God wanted us to be – that God sent Jesus to be incarnate among us, to take upon himself the sins of us all so we might again have union with God. Forgiveness is the heart of God’s love affair with us – it is the reason for the Church. God created Adam and breathed life into him at creation, and Jesus breathed new life into the disciples, recreating them as members of himself, at Pentecost. Then, he sent them into the world with one commission – at least in John’s telling of the story:

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

How are we to understand this commission? Maybe Jesus has given the disciples permission to choose between forgiving and retaining sins? Yet, in the anguish of our anger – buried at the base of our bitterness over past wrongs – we may be tempted to hear this permission in Jesus’ words, we must resist that temptation. In the Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus’ most powerful teachings on Christian life, Jesus speaks extensively on forgiveness.

  • “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” (Mt 5:22)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:43-45)
  • “Pray then in this way:
Our Father who art in heaven …” We rarely focus on what Jesus says after the Lord’s Prayer: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not … , neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (6:14-15)

We don’t have to confine ourselves to the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus’ teachings are consistent. When Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus says, “Not seven times, but … seventy times seven.” 

Don’t keep count, Jesus says. God doesn’t keep count. Forgive every single time.

Let me pause at this point, because it bears saying: this command to forgive every sin, every time is not a command to remain in a relationship that has become physically, emotionally, or otherwise abusive. Forgiveness does not mean forgetfulness. Sometimes, forgiveness takes place only when we’ve left a harmful relationship. But if we don’t forgive even after leaving, our anger, bitterness, and resentment become a poison we consume in the hope our enemy will perish.

This is what Jesus means when speaking with the disciples in our Gospel for Pentecost. When we cannot forgive a sin … we retain it. We retain it in the form of ongoing anger, bitterness, and resentment. “Don’t do that,” Jesus says. “Receive my peace and take it to the world.”

But how?

I have only one answer. To forgive as we’ve been forgiven, we must be recreated – indwelt by the Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus tells the disciples as he breathes upon them.

This Pentecost, throughout the Anglican Communion, we’ll baptize. We do this on Pentecost because we recognize that, in baptism, God equips us to forgive others through the power of the Spirit. Our job is to allow the Spirit to live in us, transform us, and move us into the life for which God created us. There’s a name for this life: we call it heaven.

Our job is to live in heaven with God right here and right now – to accept God’s Spirit so fully that we see the sin of our anger and wrath … so fully we understand Jesus died for all of us – even those who hurt us … so fully that we draw on the Spirit to give us God’s forgiveness when we can’t find our own. 

Who are you struggling to forgive today?


This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.