The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s032ag08 Pentecost 11/5/08

"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 20.22,23

I've always struggled with the concept that the risen Christ gives authority to the apostles and hence to the Church to retain sins. It seems at odds with the Lord's Prayer: 'forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us'. Surely here the opposite is true too - that we can't expect forgiveness if we are not forgiving.

If we were forgiven without us forgiving, then this would place 'christians' in a privileged position, that for them alone, how they treated others did not and does not affect our relationship with God. Now I suspect that this is what some people hope is the case; but clearly this concept contains the seeds of terrorism and contributes nothing to global peace.

For me I can only explain these words by saying that Jesus will not subvert our autonomy. Even as Christians we are meant to make our own decisions, not be simply compliant subjects.

Of course this is a dangerous concept. It expects us to think and reason. If God expects us to think and reason, then God expects all to think and reason. And if God expects all to think and reason, it implies that the Church can never be infallible, and that there is no one true Church.

The risen Christ breathes on the disciples, and they receive the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit also does not diminish our autonomy. We are as much individuals after as before we receive the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit preserves our diversity.

Of course if we as 'christians' didn't have to forgive, then the whole point of reading the Bible would be lost. There would be no point to sermons, for they would be spoken to those who had no reason to hear them!

If God expects us to think and forgive, we can expect that others will also think for themselves, to come to different conclusions, and that we will need to forgive them for doing so!

We can only come to the conclusion that God's primary concern is not to 'fix' the world, but to enable all people, beginning with those who call themselves 'christians', to come to maturity and to live at peace with others.

For if we want God to 'fix' others (like those who don't call themselves 'christians'), this could be for their well-being, or their detriment. It is most likely to make them more agreeable for us to live with them :-)!

So the Holy Spirit is given to the Church to get on with others rather than to others to get them to come to church, or whatever.

This paradigm - that the Holy Spirit is given to the Church to enable the Church to get on with those outside is also shown when on the first Pentecost, the disciples were enabled to speak other languages. The listeners were not given the Holy Spirit to enable them to understand the language of the Church.

Again if it were the other way around, there would be no point in 'christians' wanting, needing or receiving the Holy Spirit, for they would have no part to play in global mutual understanding. The church would become a haven for people to not listen, to play no part in the well-being of society, indeed to criticize God for making the world as it is and others for not joining them. Perhaps if the church wasn't like this in reality, then people would be more interested in joining us!

Even with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit our autonomy is not taken away from us, for there is little point in loving if we are only doing it under sufferance. We are called not to love because we are commanded to, or because we will go to hell if we don't, but because we want to. We love because others are worth loving, and we want peace for us and for all. Without autonomy, without choice, any love we profess is worthless.

In Australia (and probably elsewhere), this week before Pentecost is dedicated to prayer for Christian Unity. While I would also hope and pray for unity between the various Christian denominations, we are actually on about global mutual understanding, and we lose this vision at our own peril, whether we be Anglicans, Calathumpians or whoever.

Again, we can take these words personally, that we should forgive in our day to day affairs with other people, and this is a good and healthy thing to do. But there is little or no point to this if 'christianity' doesn't forgive others for worshipping God by a different name or in a manner that we find foreign. There is little or no point in loving others in our day to day lives if the religion to which we ascribe consigns non-adherents to eternal damnation!

The good news is that the Holy Spirit is poured out to bring about mutual global understanding, and there is nothing to be ashamed about this. We do not want anyone to become compliant subjects and again this is good news, for us and for all.

This ought to be the mark of the Church, it's basic core business, something by which the Church is known. Sadly we are marked by division over intimacy and telling others what to believe, how to live, how to measure up. Is it any surprise that the Holy Spirit seems singularly absent in all this?

Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"