“Peace be with you,” Jesus said. “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.”
Though these words of Jesus seem rather plain and easy to understand, these words have been a source of controversy for quite some time. Perhaps it’s not that the words themselves are hard to understand, but rather the operation: power, and the transfer of power, is always controversial.
Now, five or six weeks ago I preached on this same passage, but it was tucked into the larger Gospel lection for Easter II. This is the second appearance of the resurrected Jesus that blessed John tells us about – the first being to Mary Magdalene in the burial garden – and this is the scene in the locked room when all the disciples are present except Thomas. Jesus just appears in the midst of them, which was unsettling, to say the least, and Jesus seemed intent on making sure the disciples heard three things and received another. So let’s take a look at what the disciples heard and received.
The first thing Jesus said was “Peace be with you.” Peace. Not as the world gives, but peace as God gives. That kind of peace is not just the absence of war or the absence of conflict, because that kind of peace is not negative, it’s not the absence of anything. That kind of peace, the kind of peace the Lord gives, is something added to us, not something external taken away. That kind of peace is a loaded peace, a peace loaded with hope, the kind of hope that saturates a person body and soul, the kind of hope that has led Christians around the world and for all time to stare down persecution and even death with a quiet calm. That kind of peace is loaded with love, the kind of love that has led Christians to lay down their lives, to become living sacrifices for each other and their God. That kind of peace passes all understanding.
The second thing Jesus said to them was “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The Disciples at that moment became the Apostles. The word apostle means sent one, one who is sent, one who is given a mission and sent out. But being sent by God is not just a function or a job; Jesus didn’t make the disciples into functionaries but rather He changed their very being. Jesus, at that moment, ordained them; He changed them ontologically. They were no longer the creatures they had been since their conceptions, they were now priests, and not just priests, but high priests, bishops, capable of re-making others in the same manner, capable of ordaining their own successors. I have argued in the past that the Church was not given to us on Pentecost but rather at the Annunciation, when Blessed Mary said yes to God’s request that she bear His Son. I stand by that, but there in that locked room the disciples received not the Church but the outward nature of the Church, they received the power that the Church has by her nature.
And that’s where things get controversial. Because the third thing Jesus said was “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.” The ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ part we can get behind, even though it should scare us a bit: receiving the Holy Spirit puts us in quite a situation, a situation in which we must deal with God not just as an external Being up there somewhere in Heaven but as Someone who lives with us, around us, even in us. The natural implications of such a thing are enormous, but such is the power of God. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” For the last 500 years church reformers have choked on that line; protestants somehow don’t accept the basic meaning that Jesus gave power to His priests to forgive sin and to not forgive sin, to allow the stain of a man’s sin to remain on his soul for whatever reason, usually lack of true repentance. I don’t blame the reformers for being uncomfortable with that kind of power being given to men, even ontologically changed men; but the ones who should be the most uncomfortable with that power are the ones to whom it has been given, and trust me, I’m not fully comfortable with it. But that’s where the receiving thing comes in, that one thing Jesus wanted the Apostles to receive.
“Receive the Holy Spirit.” That’s what Pentecost is all about, its about the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son, the very breath of God alighting on us like fire. This giving of the Spirit is not symbolic – Jesus actually breathed on them, and the priests of the Church, acting as Jesus at the font and at the altar, still breathe on things, as funny as that sounds. When a priest blesses the baptismal font at the Easter Vigil, he breathes on the water in the font. When a priest consecrates the elements at the altar, he leans over and breathes the words over the bread and wine, this is my Body and this is my Blood. There’s nothing symbolic about that, either.
But again, the gift of Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit not only invested the Apostles and their descendants with power, but also with discernment and hopefully some wisdom, if we let the Spirit work on us and within us. All of us, all of the baptized, have received the Holy Spirit in one measure or another. All of us in the Church have been breathed on by Father and the Son in an awesomely powerful but also wonderfully intimate way. What a gift that is to us, what a gift it is to see our children being raised in a Church that has been invested with the very Spirit of God. What a gift to know that God is always with us, leading and prodding and consoling and inspiring. That’s the gift of Pentecost.