By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the Day of Pentecost, one of seven principal feasts in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar. It has been called the “birthday of the Church,” but this title is hotly disputed. In any case, all agree that it is a day to “pull out all the stops.” And so we will have incense at the Offertory.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us the story of that first Pentecost, when the disciples encounter wind and fire and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They miraculously find themselves able to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in languages that they do not know. The heart of their message to the crowd is found in the very last line of the reading: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So far as we know, this miraculous gift of tongues did not remain with the disciples, but even so, they were not left bereft of spiritual gifts.
As St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Church has at divers times received a variety of gifts: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, the proclamation of prophecy, the gift of healing, the discernment of spirits, and the working of all kinds of miracles. All of these have been useful to the building up of the Church, but later in that same letter Paul reminds us that the most important spiritual gifts are faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these three is love.
Since the Day of Pentecost completes the fifty days of Eastertide, we quite fittingly return to Easter Day in the Gospel reading from John, which takes place on the evening of the Resurrection.
Earlier that same day, you may recall, Mary Magdalene had encountered the resurrected Jesus standing outside the empty tomb. At first she had mistaken him for the gardener. Only when he called her by name did she recognize him. Later, she reported what she had seen to the disciples. Now, just a few hours later, we find the disheartened disciples in hiding, with the doors locked tight. The predominant emotion is not wonder and joy at their Lord’s Resurrection, but fear. We are told that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews”—or to be more precise, for fear of the Jewish authorities. And the specific fear that casts such a pall on their gathering is the fear of death. They fear that soon they too will be arrested and put to death on a cross. So they hole up, and they put their ministry on hold.
Now, we shouldn’t judge the disciples too harshly. Everyone here, I suspect, has experienced the crippling effect of fear some time in his or her life. And there are oh, so many things that we fear! We fear the dark. We fear the unknown. We fear change. We fear failure. We fear poverty and want. We fear illness and pain. We fear loneliness. And last but not least, we fear the end of our existence and the consequent meaninglessness of life. All these fears take a toll. Each and every one impedes us in some way; each and every one keeps us from fully experiencing eternal life in the here and now.
Fortunately, there is Good News: this existential crisis was resolved at the Resurrection. In today’s account, Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples, unhindered by such physical barriers as locked doors. He greets them with the traditional Hebrew greeting: “Shalom aleikhem!” And then he verifies his identity by displaying the wounds of his crucifixion. This Resurrection appearance, in and of itself, serves as a sign to the original disciples, and to us today, that death does not win, that death does not have the final say. God’s love for us is more powerful than death. And the Resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of showing us that we have no cause to fear death, or indeed to fear anything at all. But, as we shall see, the Resurrection was much more than just a release from the bonds of fear.
Jesus comes back to give new life and new purpose to his disciples. He breathes on them, or rather he breathes into them. Just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils in the story of Creation, so Jesus breathes new life into his fearful disciples, saying: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. 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.”
If I had been present on that day, I don’t know what I might have expected Jesus to say, but certainly not that! What is going on here? Well, in a word, Jesus is empowering his disciples for mission. This is John’s version of the miracle of Pentecost. The disciples, and the Church that follows in their footsteps, have been empowered for mission by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that mission is the reconciliation of the world. This commission by Jesus to forgive sins has sometimes been understood as reserved to the ordained priesthood. And yes, it is the duty and the privilege of Christian priests to declare God’s forgiveness to the penitent and to absolve them of their sins. But sharing forgiveness is the duty and privilege of every Christian; this commission is conferred not at ordination, but at baptism. Each of us, in our own way, is called to proclaim and to practice forgiveness. And I would maintain that we should never take Jesus up on the option to “retain the sins of any,” for as he warns, if we retain them, then they are retained. And simply put, that is not what God wants! What God wants is universal forgiveness, universal reconciliation, universal love.
Let me end this sermon by elaborating on the words of Jesus, “You received the gift of the Holy Spirit at your baptism. That gift was strengthened at your Confirmation. And it has been renewed at every Holy Eucharist. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. And yes, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained … and the world remains broken. So if you truly love me, help mend my world, and let not a single sin be retained.”
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.