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.’
Broken hands on broken ploughs, Broken treaties, broken vows, Broken bodies, broken bones, Broken voices on broken phones Broken words never meant to be spoken, Everything is broken (Bob Dylan)
Forgiveness means that brokenness doesn’t have the Last Word. It’s a resurrection term: forgiveness is what enables something new to rise out of the ashes when relationships have been broken beyond repair; when there is no means of undoing what has been done.
“I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is a commitment to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is the lifeblood of the Church. Churches ought to be communities of forgiveness – places where renewed and restored relationships are a daily reality and experience.
We don’t do that very well. It’s hardly surprising: forgiveness is hugely costly. It means choosing to bear the pain and cost of what other people to do to us. It means offering them a free pass. It means allowing love to triumph over hurt and anger. It means being Christ to the very people who least deserve it.
So, when someone says, “I’m sorry”, our usual response is to say, “Oh, that’s okay – it doesn’t matter”. Of course it matters! Forgiveness isn’t for the “little things” – the “forgivable things”. It’s for the big things that crucify and kill relationships.
It isn’t accidental that Jesus speaks about forgiveness after giving his disciples the Holy Spirit: forgiveness is the overflow of God-life. It isn’t something we can do in our own strength. Jesus isn’t giving them the power to hold people in a state of unforgiveness: he is reminding them that forgiveness is always mutual and conditional. “Forgive our sins in the same way that we forgive one another”, he taught us to pray.
What would happen if we made confession a time of forgiving others, as well as confessing our own sins …?
Make us Christ-like, O God, not merely people who name the name of Jesus. Give us your Holy Spirit so that we, too, may take up our cross, bear within ourselves the cost of sin, and allow new relationships and a new world to be born – by forgiving others, even as we ask them and you to forgive us. Amen.
Lawrence Moore, Mission & Discipleship consultant, Worsley Road URC, Salford.