Mercy and Forgiveness — 3 (to be continued)

After our brief overview of the Old Testament background (post 1) and the different emphases of what might loosely be described as Latin and Greek ideas of sin (post 2), I’d like to continue by looking at some of the post-Resurrection gospels. What I don’t say is as important as what I do, so please don’t expect the argument of a whole book in a single paragraph!

There are some features common to all the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:

  • he appears suddenly;
  • he is the same, but different;
  • he urges his disciples to a deeper level of faith and understanding;
  • he speaks words of mercy and forgiveness (even if he does, at times, remind his hearers that they have been slow to believe);
  • he commissions his disciples to act — announce his Resurrection (Mary Magdalene); preach the Good News (disciples at Emmaus and at the Ascension); follow him (Peter); forgive sins (disciples in the Upper Room).

It is with the words of mercy and forgiveness and the commission to forgive sin that we shall principally be concerned here.

If we look at John 20. 19–23, a sequence of events the Fourth Gospel describes as having taken place in the evening of the first day of the week, the very day of the Resurrection, we note several interesting things. Jesus appears among the disciples without warning, greets them (probably with the word shalom, which means much more than ‘peace’ as we understand it: it is a blessing that confers life, fulfilment, perfection), invites them to look at his wounds, again bids them ‘peace’ and commissions them to share in the same work that he was assigned by the Father. He breathes on them, imparting his spirit, re-creating them as Adam was created when God first breathed the breath of life into his nostrils; and then, importantly, he speaks these words:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

I’ve never been convinced that we should see here an institutionalisation of the sacramental power to forgive sin. What I see first of all is a sharing in the life and mission of Christ given to the nascent Christian community. It is a participation first and foremost in Christ’s healing of us, restoring us to life and wholeness, and it is the whole community, not just part of it, that is entrusted with the mission. That is why Thomas’s absence is so significant. It is not just that he is one of the disciples closest to Jesus, one of the apostles, it is because the Christian community is incomplete without him and Christ’s charge is laid upon all. So what are we to make of that addition: ‘if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’? Does it mean that by sharing in the mission of Christ we also share in the power to give/withold life, or does it mean, rather more shockingly, that we shall be accountable for any failure of others to attain fullness of life? Not so much giving us the power to judge others but laying upon us the responsibility for others? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I think it is one we should ask ourselves because it takes us into the heart of the meaning of mercy and forgiveness and the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection. (cf John 3.16–17)

This is made clearer by considering John 20. 26–30. Again it is evening, the first day of the week, but now we are at the octave day, the point where time and eternity intersect (see, for example, this post) , and Thomas is present. Jesus again appears suddenly and greets the disciples with ‘peace’. Then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds and urges him to believe. Thomas’s corresponding affirmation of faith immediately joins him with the other disciples, and John’s purpose in writing the gospel is fulfilled: ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’

In both gospel pericopes, the wounds of Jesus are significant. They have become channels of grace and healing. We are once more confronted with what the Exsultet dared to call the ‘happy fault’, the ‘necessary sin of Adam’. It is overcome because Christ has destroyed death for ever. Christ’s wounds do not disappear; they are transformed; and there is a lesson for all of us in that. Our humanity is not to be denied but allowed to become what it is meant to be. We are to become ‘sons in the Son.’

Thus I would argue that it is new life, not the repayment of a debt, that Christ bestows upon us and in which we rejoice at Easter. Sin cramps us, makes us sick and distant from the Father and one another; forgiveness frees us, restores us to new vigour and ends the ancient enmities that divide us, one from another. It is indeed the work of mercy, a wholly unmerited gift of God.

In my fourth and final post on the subject (tomorrow?), I hope to tease out a few implications and take into account some of the objections readers have raised.

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3 thoughts on “Mercy and Forgiveness — 3 (to be continued)”

  1. There is a place that I visit once or twice a year where, in the eucharist, the priest places the confession of sin after the bread and wine has been received – his understanding is that as soon as we turn our hearts to reconciliation with God by (in this instance) coming to the mass, forgiveness is already given. This always touches me deeply and saying the confession is, somehow, the more poignant for it. This speaks to me where penal substitution doesn’t! Superb blogging as ever, Sr Catherine x

  2. Thank you, these posts have been most enlightening. I hope you are well enough to bring it to completion tomorrow if not we will patiently in anticipation, and as always keep you in our prayers.

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