It should come as a surprise to no one that as Christians, we often hurt and offend one another. Sometimes we do it intentionally, even vindictively. Other times, we say and do regrettable things when we’re in the grip of strong emotion, or just being clueless and shortsighted.
Nor is it news that there are power differences between Christians. Some are in positions of authority and influence over others. And unfortunately, many believers have turned away from the church after being treated harshly by someone in a leadership role, by people who felt it was their calling to play the role of spiritual police in the lives of others.
Imagine, then, someone who has suffered some form of spiritual abuse coming across the following passage from John, in which Jesus commissions his disciples to go forth with the gospel:
“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.” (John 20:21-23, NRSV)
Wait… Did Jesus just give a group of fallible human beings the power to officially declare sins as forgiven…or not? I know people who would misuse that kind of authority, “retaining” people’s sins to get control over them. Is this really a good idea?
Whatever we might expect Jesus’ disciples to do with such a commission, we might understandably be a bit leery of what people today might do with it.
What’s absolutely crucial here is that we keep that commission in context. He is speaking to people who have known him in an up close and personal way. They know not only his teaching, but his conduct and character. And he’s not creating some new and experimental job description; he’s commissioning them to carry on the work he’s already begun, the work he received from his Father. And as we saw in the previous post, that work is a work of peace, of being midwife to moments in which shalom is born into a broken and sinful world.
I can easily imagine that if the resurrected Jesus had continued to walk with the disciples — now, apostles, those being sent — instead of returning to the Father, he would have had some harsh words with any apostles who attempted to lord their authority over someone else.
But staying with them to supervise the mission wasn’t the plan. Jesus was to ascend back to the Father, and the apostles were being sent out in his stead. Thus he empowered them for that work, as promised, by giving them the Holy Spirit.
Many have wondered how to reconcile this part of the story with the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. Isn’t that when the apostles received the Spirit?
There is nothing in Acts 2 that requires that we take Pentecost as the first and only time that the apostles received the Spirit. Indeed, the point of the story seems to be that the Spirit came upon them to empower them to speak in different languages, miraculously setting up the opportunity for Peter’s great evangelistic sermon and the birth of the church.
And if N. T. Wright is correct, the giving of the Spirit in John 20 is meant to remind us of John 1; the ending of the gospel comes back full circle to the beginning.
In John 1, Jesus comes from the Father as the Word made flesh (vs. 14). Later, as he was baptized, the Spirit came down from heaven and rested on him (vss. 32-34). And the very next day, Jesus began gathering disciples to himself.
In John 20, Jesus is preparing to return to the Father. As his Father had sent him, so does Jesus send out his disciples. And they too must have the Spirit to carry on their Master’s mission of peace.
As Jesus did, so would they do. And that might help us understand what it meant for them to have the authority to forgive sins…or not. More on that in the next post.