In last week's gospel reading (John 20:19ff), we look mainly at Thomas for the meat of the text, almost missing a key theological point within that passage:
John 20:22-23: "...[Jesus] breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'"
This is a curious message. In one way it points to the fact that it is through the power and the work of the Holy Spirit that we are able to forgive. Building on that, it is only through the work of the Spirit that we can know we have been forgiven by God.
But what about that retention thing? Many people ignore this verse or think about it the idea that if people aren't forgiven- it somehow hurts them. However, when you aren't able to forgive someone, who is actually hurt?
Have you ever been angry about something for a long time and eventually you go to the person with whom you're upset and they're surprised at what you bring to them. Retention of sins, stewing and stewing over wrongs, hurts the stewer more than the wrong-doer. The lack of forgiveness eats at our hearts, disturbing our ability to hear words of forgiveness from God or anyone else.
Does forgiveness mean forgetting? Does forgiveness mean we have to reconcile? Not necessarily. Even when we forgive, the evidence of sin remains. That's the pain of life in this world. We may be better able to forgive something done to us from a distance (either of time or space). Even in acknowledging the humanness of someone who has sinned against us, we can acknowledge that seeing them would bring us to an occasion of sin. Sometimes forgiveness means waiting before contact.
We do well to consider what we retain and how it keeps us from moving forward. Are we retaining sins at a corporate (large body), national or international level? Are we hung up on the wrong that has been done so much that we can't get around to setting it right?
Thinking about this verse has made me remember some sins that I have been retaining. I pray for the Holy Spirit to help me in the work of forgiveness and moving forward. I pray for that for you as well.