By: Fr. Morgan V. Rice, CSB
Yesterday morning, I joined the parish’s Zoom faith sharing session to discuss the Gospel passage that I just read. Knowing that I would be preaching this morning, I was looking forward to hearing what ideas and insights might arise. We discussed for the most part the last two sentences of the Gospel, particularly with respect to forgiveness. Let me read those lines again:
“[Jesus] breathed on [the disciples] 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 20.22b-23).
What we ended up discussing surprised me, not so much in the topic of forgiveness (because it was right there in the passage), but because forgiveness wasn’t what I had planned to talk about in today’s reflection. Even the title of my reflection, “Living Water: Gift of God”, doesn’t fit what I’m going to talk about—but then, we are celebrating today the Holy Spirit, who can surprise us and lead us in different directions, that is, if we choose to follow. Instead of forging ahead with what I wanted to talk about, I felt like perhaps the Holy Spirit was leading me to focus on the connection between the Holy Spirit and forgiveness.
What I found interesting in those last two sentences of the Gospel is how the notion of forgiveness follows immediately after Jesus’ giving of the Holy Spirit. Was Jesus intending to emphasize a strong connection between the Holy Spirit and forgiveness? Is our ability to forgive even possible without the Holy Spirit’s help? Perhaps, it isn’t possible, especially when we consider how difficult it can be to forgive, especially if someone has offended us. Think about Peter’s question to Jesus. “‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18.21b-22). Forgiveness is one aspect of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies and pray for them, taking us beyond perhaps what is humanly possible into the realm of what’s possible only with God.
When we consider that the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life” (Nicene Creed), is focused on life, refreshment, consolation, restoration, joy, and salvation, then choosing forgiveness instead of retaining sins is what we do when we allow the Holy Spirit to act in us and through us. Forgiveness gives new life to others by freeing them and allowing them to move one, just as we receive new life when we are forgiven by God, such as through the Holy Spirit’s action in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. On the other hand, we could choose instead to retain the sins of
others, holding on to a grudge, keeping others bound because they hurt us so much, but that’s not how God works.
St. Basil wrote in the 4th century, “Souls in whom the Spirit dwells, and who are enlightened by the Spirit, become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others” (Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter). When we acquire the likeness of God through the Holy Spirit, when we share in the divine life of God, we are capable of extending forgiveness among other gifts, thus allowing others to see and experience Jesus through his living presence in the Body of Christ on earth. (That’s all of us.) That can have a profound effect on many. Even if we choose to accept the grace to forgive others, we aren’t guaranteed that they are going to accept it. Unfortunately, there is little we can do when it isn’t accepted; however, we can pray that hearts will be softened, or as was sung in the Pentecost Sequence before the Gospel:
Holy Spirit, “Bend the stubborn heart and
will, Melt the frozen, warm the chill.”
That might take some time, but the hope is that forgiveness will be accepted, and reconciliation might result. It connects very well with Jesus’ words to the fearful disciples, “Peace be with you”. The peace that Jesus offers is that “shalom” sense of peace, which speaks of the wholeness that is present in right relationships. Forgiveness is a step towards that peace.v When we consider the world in which we live, with riots and protests happening for various reasons, we can see that our world needs a lot of God’s grace so that all will choose the Holy Spirit’s promptings to forgive, reconcile, and heal. Violence and revenge in return for violence, injustice, and mistreatment is not what Jesus taught. Thanks be to God for sending us the Holy Spirit to teach us and to allow us
to share in the divine life of radical love and mercy manifested in the Church’s sacraments and through all those acts of forgiveness and any other choices that we make in accordance with the nudging of the Holy Spirit within you and me.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of
Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew
the face of the earth!