Jesus was viciously murdered by the Romans at the instigating of the religious people of his own faith tradition. Let’s paint another picture of that scene in the Middle East today. This could take place in any of those countries – Israel, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon – you name it.
Imagine a well-loved teacher and physician who has healed many, many people who were sick and tired and outcast. He’s a beacon of hope and restoration. He says some things the authorities don’t like. He’s become a threat to those who are in power, and he’s whisked out of his home at night, tortured and killed before his influence gets too great among the people.
Now, what’s your overall impression, from what you’ve seen going on in the Middle East for fifty to eighty years, about what’s going to happen next? The closest students of the deceased teacher/friend gather together in a room, hidden – they don’t want to be found. But what are they doing?
Let me give you a clue and remind you of a story where Jesus, while on his way to go to Jerusalem, told his well-trained disciples to go to a Samaritan town to see if they’d like him to stop and visit. The townsfolk insult him by saying, “No. We don’t want him to stop here.”
What did James and John ask of Jesus? “Jesus, do you want us to call down fire on them from heaven, just like Elijah did to those who were resisting God?” Simply for insulting Jesus.
At the first sight of resistance, Jesus’s closest disciples wanted to hurt someone, to retaliate, to get even.
These are fishermen, rough and hardy – they don’t shrink to anybody. They are no dummies, either. They know the authorities have been taking notes on who’s been following Jesus. They were smart to hide. Fear is an important emotion that helps you survive. But I don’t think trembling and biting their nails were the only things they were doing in that room.
What’s the natural thing a person might do when someone you dearly love has been wrongfully tortured to death? You get angry. You get crazy and want to pay someone back. Am I off base here? That’s the “natural” way many people respond to tragedy.
I imagine the disciples, safely hidden in a room, venting their anger and starting to plot a way to get even – to get “justice” in the name of their Lord. It’s what people in the Middle East have been doing for thousands of years. We in the U.S. are no different. We’re all Hatfields and McCoys. It’s what people in every part of the world have been doing from the beginning of time: repaying evil with evil. Retaliation is the name of the game…and people who live by it call it “justice.”
Except Jesus comes back and stops them. He knows his students. He knows the way of the world. So he finds their secret room and enters, even though the doors are locked. And what does he say? I’ve reduced the response from the gospel reading to this — he says, “Calm down. It’s me. Receive a spirit of peace. Let it go. Don’t retaliate.” Let me explain how I got that.
Peace to you can easily be changed to Calm down. The disciples were upset. They needed to calm down so they could think rationally, objectively.
Jesus showed his hands and side as proof that it was him.
Receive the Holy Spirit. What kind of spirit is that? We know that the Holy Spirit has the power to bring peace, hope, love, joy, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. He knew that the disciples’ spirits were upset, angry, grievous, and revengeful. So he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit – a spirit of peace……the power to let that anger go away. Anger will not serve you well.”
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I think these two phrases mean the same thing. It’s similar to the Psalms, the psalmists liked to say things twice to explain their point. (Psalm 18 is full of doubled phrases.)
Those who are into the religious rituals like to turn everything Jesus said into a ritual. When I was ordained ten years ago, these words were given to me by the church, signifying that the church was giving me the authority to forgive the sins of some and retain the sins of some. It’s a nice ritual and new pastors do need to hear it because some members aren’t kind to their pastors. But unfortunately, some pastors think it means they can refuse forgiveness to some, rather than what “retain” might mean in this setting.
The Greek word for forgive means to “let go, set free” and the word “retain” means – to hold onto.
Listen to another way of hearing what Jesus said: If you let go the sins of any, they are set free; if you hold onto the sins of any, they are held onto.
To let go of a wrong that has been committed means you are freed of any need to retaliate. If you let it go, you can move on and the person who did the wrong won’t have to prepare a defense against your retaliation.
To hold onto someone’s sin is the image of Jesus holding onto the nails on the cross. Jesus didn’t curse and spit on the religious people or soldiers below who did this to him. He held onto the pain, he retained it, and did not throw it back at them. He did not repay evil with evil. He was telling the disciples to pick up their crosses and follow his example of absorbing the pain to themselves without inflicting their pain on others.
I’ll add a few other words I think Jesus could have said after he told the disciples to let it go and don’t retaliate.
“Truly I tell you, I didn’t spend three years dragging you around the countryside, teaching you how to feed the hungry, heal and serve the sick, accept outcasts, take care of each other, and spread the good news that God is good — just to have you go off half-cocked and get killed in one week. You’ve got more important work to do. You’re not going to change the system by fighting fire with fire. You won’t change anything except with love and peace.”
And so the disciples received the power of the Holy Spirit that brought peace into their hearts rather than retaliation. They continued Jesus’s healing and teaching ministry for many years, until they, too, received the evil of the world in their deaths. They had learned their lesson well. “Calm down. Let the Holy Spirit guide you to a peaceful response. Retaliation is not the answer.”