The Holy Spirit’s Work of Forgiveness – The Rev. Michelle Meech
May 28, 2023
I imagine the room was dark. It was evening and the doors were locked because they were afraid. I’m sure the windows were shut tight too. I’m sure there was candlelight or an oil lamp of some kind, but they kept it dim. Just enough to see about 3 feet in front of you. So, they were close to each other. They had to be because I’m sure they were whispering. They didn’t want to be overheard because they were afraid.
This was the first evening after the Resurrection. Jesus had been beaten and entombed for three days. And now, here was Jesus in the flesh. I’m sure he hadn’t taken the time to bath. Blood and dirt caked on his skin. Showing the scars from the torture in the dim light, all of them crowded in on top of each other. The tomb had smelled awful when they opened it and found no one inside. Jesus probably smelled. Especially as he opened his mouth and began to speak with them in hushed tones. Especially as he offered his breath to them.
“Peace be with you.” He said.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He continued.
“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.”
When we talk about the Holy Spirit, this scene from John isn’t usually the one that comes to mind.
I bet we usually think of the dove. Or, if the Feast of Pentecost has meaning for us, we talk about the Holy Spirit as wind or breath or fire. Or we talk about a “holy spirit moment” in which someone thinks of us the same time we are thinking of them. Or we receive some form of physical help just when we need it the most. Or we’ve said something particularly eloquent or meaningful and someone thanks us and we deflect their gratitude by saying something like, “It must have been the Holy Spirit.” And we know from our Eucharistic worship service that we call down God’s Holy Spirit upon the bread and the wine, blessing them to be the body and blood of our Savior. The same when we bless the water of baptism.
And in this passage from John’s Gospel, in the midst of the Resurrection, Jesus has this intimate moment with the disciples. Close enough that he breathes on them. Close enough that they receive his breath and all that comes with it. They receive the Holy Spirit.
And it’s not just, Here’s the Holy Sprit, now go and do whatever you want. No. Receiving the Holy Spirit comes with counsel: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Has anyone seen Ted Lasso? I think Ted Lasso has replaced my former object of affection, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because, just like Buffy, the beauty of this tv series is that it depicts the rejection of violent patriarchal norms. The context here is a British soccer team and how the coach, Ted Lasso, is much more interested in helping these young men become good, caring people than he is in making sure the team wins at any cost.
He knows that, if these people learn to care about themselves and one another, if they learn to believe in something besides their own fears, in other words, if they learn to hope, then the everyday offenses that happen through the changes and chances of life, are easier to handle.
This is the team motto, as a matter of fact: Believe It’s written in marker on a simple piece of paper and stuck to the wall, without any care for aesthetics, with blue tape. For the team, this simple piece of paper is imbued with all of their respect and love for one another, it becomes a symbol of hope. This sign that says “Believe” becomes sacred. And this is where this week’s storyline starts.
A former staff member, Nate, interpreted something Ted did as dismissive of him. In response, Nate acted out, as we have all done from time to time. Nate waits until no one is around, rips the word Believe off the wall, and tears it in half. Quitting from the staff, of course.
In the storyline of the show, it’s about a year later and a lot has happened. Nate has written to Ted to apologize and to ask for his job back. Ted asks everyone before responding because he wants to make sure that everyone has forgiven Nate. And everyone has. They have moved past the incident, and they agree that it’s ok to bring him back. Everyone, that is except Coach Beard.
Coach Beard is Ted’s friend and assistant coach from America. Throughout the series, we are never told how these two met. What is clear is that they have a deep friendship, they seem to know everything about each other, and they trust one another completely.
Coach Beard is the one person who vehemently disagrees with the idea of bringing this person back to the staff. We know that he is very protective of Ted, but he seems to take the betrayal more personally than the rest of the staff. Through a sly ruse, Ted invites Coach Beard to reconsider, saying: “I don’t know about you, but I hope that either all of us or none of us are judged by the actions of our weakest moments. But rather by the strength we show if or when we’re ever given a second chance.”
And we learn more about Coach Beard after that, why it’s so important that he offers forgiveness. Why it is so important that he doesn’t judge Nate by the actions of his weakest moment. And how we are invited to see both Coach Beard and Nate through their strength of character in moving past the shame of their mistakes, so they become who they are meant to become and step more fully into their lives.
Back to the Gospel: Can you imagine, for a moment, the disciples during the days after Jesus died? The panic, the fear, the blame, the disappointment? The shame that at least some of them must have been feeling in letting him down? The self-recrimination? The disgrace over their teacher, the leader of their movement being murdered by the state? Were they next? What about the movement that he started? Can you imagine how all of these emotions were brewing amongst the disciples?
Because when someone you love dies, it’s almost as if you stop. Or a part of you stops, at least. This part of you that never got to say something. Never got to give that thing to them. We live all of our relationships as if there are ellipses… dots… in between the interactions we have. And that’s how it’s meant to be. But when someone dies… that just stops. And we can get stuck there.
For the disciples, things just stopped. They had locked themselves in a room.
But Jesus appears, showing them that he is real – real enough that they cannot stay in the past, stuck and unable to move. They cannot remain bound to their mistakes. Christ is alive and so must they stay alive. They must receive the Holy Spirit. They must forgive. Because Jesus forgave them.
“Peace be with you.” The words of forgiveness Jesus offered.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Now you are sent to forgive others.
“Receive the Holy Spirit.” So that you can do this work.
“If you forgive the sins, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins, they are retained.” This is your work in the world. This is what I am sending you to do because this is what God sent me to do.
I sometimes wish that the Gospel brought us to tears the way a show like Ted Lasso does. Because I think this episode has everyone bawling. Not because we are sad, but because we all really do understand the beauty of forgiveness. In our hearts, we know just how exquisite and how powerful this gift is.
You might ask, am I talking about forgiving others? Or being forgiven by someone else? Or forgiving ourselves? Yes. I’m talking about all of it.
Forgiveness takes us out of a state of limbo, where we feel as though we have no agency. The stuck place where we can get no traction. We cannot seem to escape from an endless loop of expectation and disappointment. Forgiveness takes us from this place and transports us back into our lives again. From death to life. From the borderlands to home. From the desert where we feel alone and parched, thirsty for love and belonging, to this feeling of refreshment. A healing balm. Like cool water on a hot day, or a breeze that comes along just at the right moment. Forgiveness is salvation.
Forgiveness is the work of the Holy Spirit, because this is what builds us into beloved community. We learn to see past our own places where we get stuck, past disappointment in others or ourselves and start to see that most people, including us, are usually doing the best that we can. And when we take forgiveness a step further, we start to see how our own behavior affects others and we learn to forgive ourselves. And we become unstuck and learn to change.
As one person forgives so, soon, do other people forgive. We start to lay down our defenses because we realize that no one is attacking. And we start to act in the best interest of all of us rather than only in the best interest of ourselves. It’s like dominoes falling one by one building to a crescendo until suddenly there is a rush of wild wind that carries us as we become untethered from our story of pain.
We see that we are more than that story. We are so much more than that story of pain. We have always been so much more than who we are in our weakest moments. And this is exactly why we come to God’s Table of Reconciliation – to remember this. To re-member ourselves, re-member us. So that we can become the beloved community. So that we can be the church in a world that so desperately needs this very message. Because this is the Gospel that is bright and bold and clear.
All are welcome to live into forgiveness. All are welcome at God’s Table.
Let us now, renew our baptismal vows and offer ourselves to God’s hope for us.