I want to begin with a story about something that happened almost thirty years ago. This was when I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida. That’s an Assemblies of God school. For two semesters, I was part of a street ministry team that traveled to Tampa on Friday nights.
Our “parish,” so to speak, was a quarter-mile strip along Kennedy Boulevard. Our “parishioners” were the street people who lived, and passed through, the area. In those days, I don’t think it was the best part of town.
On my very first night, the very first person I approached was a gentleman clad in shabby-looking clothing. He appeared to be in his fifties. Not knowing what else to say, I told him, “Jesus loves you.” As soon as he heard that, he began crying and telling me how he had lost his family and his career. I don’t remember if it was because of drinking or gambling or something else, but he recited a litany of his mistakes.
When he had finished listing his failures, he asked me if I would forgive him. At the time, I was thinking, “It’s not my job to forgive him. I need to direct him to Christ.” So I told the man Jesus forgives anyone and anything. But that didn’t work. It seemed like he needed to hear the words, so again he asked me, “Do you forgive me?” I relented and said, “I forgive you.” And with that, he shuffled away into the Tampa night.
Why do I begin with this story of speaking and hearing words of forgiveness? One might ask, “Is this a theme for Pentecost?” It’s not even about the Day of Pentecost! I begin with this story on forgiveness because Jesus makes it a theme in our gospel reading from St. John—which is the gospel text.
I should say some people refer to the event in our gospel text as a “pre-Pentecost” Pentecost. Already, on the evening of the day of his resurrection, on the evening of Easter, Jesus is giving his disciples the Holy Spirit.
I don’t know about anyone else, but if you picture this, to me it seems kind of strange. “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22). That’s what he says, but first, he breathes on them. (Blow!) Really? Is that what it takes?
Actually, it doesn’t say he “blew” on them, but he “breathed on them.” This is the posture of one who is not reactive, but responsive. Being in a reactive posture or mode means coming from a place of defensiveness, a lack of listening and learning. Being in a responsive mode means the opposite. It is a place of openness, a place of listening and a curiosity which wants to learn.
There are many other things that could be said, but in a physical posture, it means remembering to breathe, paying attention to one’s breath. (Breathe.) When we remember to do that, it’s amazing how it helps us to be calm and patient and reflective. (But it is something I find myself continually needing to practice.)
The Hebrew word רוח (ruaḥ), which means “breath,” “spirit,” or “wind,” was a familiar idea. John surely would have known about it. Earlier in his gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (3:8). So I suppose it does make sense for Jesus to use his breath in granting the Spirit to his disciples!
But we need to back up and see what’s going on, since this is the evening of Easter. Our scripture text ends before we get to the part about St. Thomas and his questions of believing all this resurrection stuff. Verse 19 says, “the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities” (Good News Bible). Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them the now-glorified wounds in his hands and side. He is not a ghost!
We’re told the disciples have been hiding from the authorities. No doubt, they’re fearing for their lives. Before Jesus appears to them, with his words of shalom, they’re thinking about what happened to him. Still, Craig Barnes, who is president of Princeton Seminary, thinks there’s more to it. If one understands the human psyche, it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion.
Barnes speaks about, not only fear, but shame. “Like the disciples,” he says, “we try to hide when we’re ashamed.” It’s a defense mechanism; it’s almost instinct. It may seem like a good strategy for a little while. But, as Barnes says, “Nothing is more crippling to our souls than working at hiding shame. We lock up more and more doors, sealing off more and more rooms of the heart to prevent our true selves from being discovered. We think we are keeping the world out, but in fact we are keeping ourselves locked in.”
The disciples are ashamed because, when Jesus needed them the most, they turned around and took off. They carry a horrible burden of guilt.
But thank God, that isn’t the end of it. “At the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us. According to John’s text, he walks right through the locked door to find us. He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness.”
With verse 23, we come to what I said earlier may be an unexpected theme for Pentecost: speaking and hearing words of forgiveness, or more directly, forgiving and refusing to forgive. Right after Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he adds, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus entrusts the disciples with a great deal of authority. It isn’t something they have, in and of themselves, but as the community gathered in his name. As the community—as the church—they have the authority to offer forgiveness of sin. We do something similar to that every week with our prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.
Jesus is speaking about something very powerful. On the one hand, if we forgive someone, they are forgiven. In Matthew 18, Peter has a little chat with Jesus about that (v. 21). On the other hand, if we retain the sins of any, they are retained. The Good News Bible says, “if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
The Greek has an even stronger force. First of all, the word for “to forgive” (αφιημι, aphiēmi) also means “to send off,” “to let go.” I think anytime we’re able, by the grace of God to forgive, we can feel what it means “to let go.” It’s a burden we’re glad to be rid of.
On the flip side, there’s an equally strong force. The words “retain” and “not forgive” don’t quite capture it. The Revised English Bible says that “if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.” The Greek word for “retain” (κρατεω, krateō) also means “to hold,” “to seize.” It comes from the word (κρατος, kratos) that means “strength” or “power.” It takes a lot of strength to hold on to that stuff. You wear yourself out.
According to the New Testament, we are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Pe 2:5, 9). One of the key roles of a priest is to declare the forgiveness of sins. We’re told “we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness. We’re called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross. We’re called to open the locks and throw open the door, and walk back into the world as a priest who is unafraid. The only alternative is to live in shrinking prisons of hurt.”
I imagine most of us have sometimes heard it said forgiving also means forgetting. In order to forgive, we have to forget. I would humbly have to disagree. I don’t believe we are called to display amnesia. I don’t believe we are called to have the attention span of gnats. That doesn’t improve the character of either party. That doesn’t help us deal with life.
At this point, I need to interject something. When someone has been the victim of abuse or assault, forgiveness is a very tricky thing. Telling someone, “It’s your Christian duty to forgive,” only adds another layer of abuse. Forgiveness often takes a very long time to come, if it happens at all. Sometimes the scars are too overwhelming. I just mentioned the grace of God. When grace can break through the hurt, it is a wondrous thing.
Moving on, there’s a concept known as “the shadow.” It’s described as “the place we put all the suppressed and repressed parts of our lives.” The shadow isn’t evil. Rather, it’s the stuff about us we want to keep hidden from the world, and even from ourselves. It’s the stuff we find embarrassing and shameful.
As Richard Rohr says, “Suppressing what we don’t want to deal with is like trying to hold a basketball underwater while going on with life as usual… What we suppress—the shadow aspect of life—ambushes us sooner or later. We don’t know why we’re depressed or angry, why everyone and everything is out to get us.”
One big sign of some major repression is the lack of a healthy sense of humor. Can we laugh at ourselves? (That might be an unfair question. Not everyone has the treasure trove I possess which is needed to laugh at oneself!)
Rohr continues, “People who are overly stern and moralistic usually have a significant, repressed shadow. They walk through life shaking a judgmental finger in disapproval—and they disapprove of just about everything! They’re often incapable of easy enjoyment.”
I fully believe humor is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit. I say that because I can recall a time when I had no genuine, joyful sense of humor. Was I a jerk who thought humor consisted of snide comments and sarcastic remarks at someone else’s expense? Yes. I was a living example of having “no patience, no forgiveness, no mercy, but only harsh judgments. No gospel.” No good news. (Sad to say, sometimes I still fall into that trap!)
Looking at our text, one sign we’re open to the Holy Spirit is how willing and able we are to forgive. Both are important. There must be both the willingness and the ability. Remember, just as the disciples find out in their encounter with Jesus, the ability to forgive is a gift. But the willingness must also be present. We need to have a spirit to forgive.
In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17). That is the deep meaning of Pentecost. The Spirit of God brings freedom; the Spirit of God liberates. As people of the Spirit, we reclaim our identity when we send out—when we unleash—the forgiveness of Christ.
When we allow that Spirit to run free in the world, who knows what dangerous and wonderful things will happen? Why don’t we find out?
 Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 129.
 Rohr, 196.
 Rohr, 197.
 Rohr, 198.