Second Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Nashville, April 7, 2024

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jo. 20:22-23).

The mention of forgiveness in our Gospel today is a bit of an outlier, since it is the single, solitary mention of forgiveness in the whole of John’s Gospel. That’s right, People of God: pay attention, because if you blink you might miss it. It’s the evening of the day of resurrection, the first Easter Day: The risen Lord says to the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jo. 20:22-23). A single, solitary mention, of forgiveness.

It’s not that Jesus is shy about sin in any way in John’s Gospel: after all, in another place, he says to the crowd gathered to stone the woman caught in adultery, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone” (Jo. 8:7). You know how the story goes: no one wants to take this up, because (surprise!) they’re all sinners. “Go your way,” Jesus says to the woman at the end, to underscore, “and from now on do not sin again” (Jo. 8:11). He doesn’t hesitate to talk about sin, but only on this one occasion at the end of the Gospel does he mention sin’s responsive rejoinder: that is, forgiveness.

There’s theological sense, not shyness, in linking the forgiveness of sins to Jesus’ resurrection, as John’s Gospel does. In this, it keeps company with the Gospel of Luke and Acts. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Lk. 24:46-48). As the apostles, those who are sent by Jesus, offer their witness, in Acts, they testify over and over again (Acts 2: 38; 10:43; 13:38) to the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection: new life through the forgiveness of sins! Luke too has the sense that there is this connection between forgiveness and new resurrection life.

Rowan Williams makes the existential connection between them in his little book, Resurrection. He shows us that on Easter Day the disciples themselves were traumatized by what happened to their friend: arrest, crucifixion, and death; also traumatized by their own complicity in these events. Judas’ betrayal with a kiss; Peter’s denial, caught vividly and recounted truthfully by the Gospels; the almost universal abandonment by the disciples as they fled the scene. Williams shows us Jesus’ friends and followers in urgent need of forgiveness themselves.

“If forgiveness is liberation,” Williams writes, “it is also a recovery of the past in hope, a return of memory, in which what is potentially threatening, destructive, despair-inducing, in the past is transfigured into the ground of hope.”  This was not a gift the disciples could give themselves. Traumatized people rarely pick themselves up and move on like that. Again, Williams, “On the far side of the resurrection, vocation and forgiveness occur together…To know that Jesus still invites is to know that he accepts, forgives, bears and absorbs the hurt done: to hear the invitation is to know oneself forgiven…”.

Forgiveness is not an abstraction. We’re not only in need of forgiveness ourselves, but we’re called to extend it to others. It requires coming to grips with real wounds, real hurts, real people. Forgiveness may be the hardest work we are called to as disciples. But as Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jo. 20:22-23). People say that forgiving yourself is hard, but all my experience tells me that it’s much harder to forgive other people! People are different, so perhaps both are true. Still, none of us wants to be the cause of others being unforgiven.

On Easter Day, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples, breathes new life into them, to give them a new life through his forgiveness of them, and their forgiveness of others. Hard hearts won’t cut it. The Holy Spirit has to give us new hearts, hearts that are forgiving: as it says in the prophet Ezekiel, “A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you…” (Ezek. 36:26-27). Just as God breathed life into the body of the first human being, so now Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into our hearts to give us new life.

Forgiveness is built into our vocation as Christians. It’s part and parcel of the work we are called to. As we say the Creed today, we along with our confirmands will recommit ourselves to “the forgiveness of sins,” and a life marked by the practice of repentance. I think we know that the world will never be healed as long as anger and resentment hold sway. We’ve got lots of examples around us that this will not work. Anger and resentment are part of the dominion of sin and death, that Jesus’ resurrection has swept away. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jo. 20:22-23).

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee