Breathing the Holy Spirit

 John 20:19-23 - PENTECOST 5/15/05

In a Lutheran elementary school the teacher was explaining some of the differences between Lutheran beliefs and Roman Catholic beliefs. She was explaining some of the Sacraments that the Roman Catholics have that the Lutherans don't; one being "Holy Orders." Before she told them that it meant the orders a person received from God when the person was dedicating his or her life to work in the Church, like a nun or monk or a brother, she asked if anyone knew what Holy Orders were. A girl raised her hand and responded, "Holy Orders are when a pastor tells you to do something." Ah, such power.

Today's Gospel lesson speaks about power-power to forgive sins. It's a lesson that often gives folks some trouble in understanding it. I refer to the passage where Jesus breathes on the Disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." And then he says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Many don't understand this because it sounds like Jesus is giving the Disciples the power to forgive sins. However, such is not the case.

First, let's look briefly at the phrase, "he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" This is an Aramaic idiom commonly used even today and means "he gave them courage." The Aramaic word npakh means, to blow into. It is said the prophets were blown into by the Holy Spirit so that they were able to speak for God. An instrument is blown into to make music. The prophets and the Disciples were God's instruments. They were to sing and sound the note of the new kingdom. And remember, this "new Kingdom" which Jesus preached means "a new way of thinking" -thinking spiritually.

"He breathed on them," means he encouraged them to carry on the mission. After the crucifixion, the Disciples were discouraged. Their Messianic hopes and aspirations were shattered. Their Lord had met the death of a criminal. They thought their careers as Disciples had come to an end and so they went back to Galilee and fishing. Jesus then appeared and conversed with them, reminding them the Son of Man had to die and rise again in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, and that his death was a victory. He impressed on them he was alive and would be with them always. These encouraging words and promises helped the Disciples to be courageous. Once again they took up the cross and followed him. (from GOSPEL LIGHT, by George M. Lamsa, p.491)

So, first the Disciples received the power of the Holy Spirit, which means they received courage and power to speak for God in telling others about the love, forgiveness and promise of eternal life given through Jesus the Christ. And just as they were empowered, we today are empowered in the same way. We and others, who believe in Jesus' and his power, receive the power of the Holy Spirit to be courageous and carry on the mission of Christ and his love and forgiveness and his promises. To be forgiving takes great courage. He commissioned us to do that. He promised to be with us always, AND that the power of the Holy Spirit would be with us as well. We are not left alone.

Then, Jesus speaks about forgiving sins. The first thing is that you are correct in believing that no one forgives sins against God, but God. But we can speak words of forgiveness on God's part, as God's instrument. We can remind people that they when they repent and confess their sins, they are indeed forgiven. We are not doing the forgiving-God is; but we are reminding folks that they are forgiven by God through Christ.

The passage of Scripture that says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained," is not speaking of the Disciples, or any one of us, forgiving someone all their sins, and if we don't forgive them, their sins are not forgiven. Such power belongs only to Christ.

It IS, however, saying that since we are followers of Jesus, and through that belief have received the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given the courage to forgive someone their sins against us or someone else. If we don't forgive them, then we are holding on to their sins within us and are being detrimental to our own psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual self. We are instructed here and elsewhere to forgive others. If we don't we then pay the consequences of holding on to their sin and not forgiving them-the greatest consequence, of course, is that we are not forgiven by God. Scripture is clear about this, especially in Matthew after Jesus gives us the example of how to pray and gives us a model for prayer when he gives us what we term the "Lord's Prayer." Immediately after he gives us the model, he explains that if we don't forgive others, we can't receive forgiveness from God. He's really clear about that. That's in Chapter six of Matthew, a part of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with prayer. It isn't that God is withholding the forgiveness, it's that when we hold on to our non-forgiveness, don't forgive someone, it's like having closed fists. We are not open to God's forgiveness because we are holding on to someone else's sin and not forgiving them. Instead of open hands, ready to receive, we have closed fists, blocking the fullness of God's blessing and totally blocking the forgiveness coming to us from God.

So, here in the Gospel of John, Jesus is saying to us that if we forgive the sins of any, we are letting go of, giving over to God our emotional attachment to whatever sins the person may have committed. Their sins are forgiven by us and we are free of carrying around their sin within us. But if we don't forgive, then we, WE, retain the sins of that person. That means we have those thoughts festering around in us and doing harm to the balance of physical and spiritual health within ourselves.

Some people hold on to grudges and anger for years. You can see what it does to them. They are generally angry about many things and their attitude and outlook on life and relationships is negative.

When we accept Christ we are accepting the power of the Holy Spirit as well. And in that power received, is a powerful measure that can be used to our detriment. That is, we are given the power, the courage, to forgive someone who has sinned against us, or that we see as having sinned against some other person or persons. It takes courage, strength to give up any attachment to those sins. So often we like the feeling that we are justified that we are right and they are wrong. So often we feel justified in holding a grudge or being angry with someone. But not forgiving them means that we are retaining the very sin they committed, retaining the sin within ourselves.

If someone commits a terrible crime of murder out of hate, and we hang on to any emotion about that, hating that person, and we don't forgive them, we are holding on to, retaining the very sin which we loathe in them.

So, it is totally beneficial to forgive someone their sins. That way we don't hold on to their sin and do damage to our physical or spiritual being. We need to let go, give over, give up any feelings of hate or anger toward someone. If that person truly repents and confesses to God for their sin, that is in God's hands to judge and forgive. But we have done what God has asked us to do-forgive. And in that we don't retain any of the sin of another. We are free of whatever emotion keeps us attached to their sin.

So, my friends, Jesus is speaking to us in this Gospel lesson. Forgive the sins of another so that we don't take on and retain the very sin of which we accuse them. Jesus has set us free. The Holy Spirit gives us the courage and power to remain free. On this Pentecost Sunday feel the breath of God coming to you through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.


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