By Ervin Stutzman
In the past month, I’ve been pondering the meaning of Jesus’ commission to his disciples, as recorded in John 20:22-23: “As the father has sent me, so I am sending you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone their sins, they will be forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” I’m seeing this scripture through new eyes, especially as I consider the implications for pastors and other leaders in Mennonite Church USA.
I’ve always assumed that the apostles of Jesus were given a leading role in announcing the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. Part of this assignment was to invite people to confess their sins and receive new life through the power of the resurrected Lord. As people responded to this invitation, the apostles had the power to declare “Your sins are forgiven.” And I’ve always believed that this same authority—at least to some extent—is given to Christian leaders today. Many congregations have some ritual of confession of sin in the worship service, followed by words of assurance.
The expression that’s gotten my attention lately is the phrase: “If you do not forgive their sins, they are not forgiven.” Or in a more familiar rendering: “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In the Anabaptist tradition, we have emphasized the authority of the church to bind and loose, particularly as taught in Matthew 18:15-20. In this oft-quoted scripture, we have seen the power of the gathered church to discern the will of God in regard to particular sins or offenses between individuals in the church. It is a way to “bind” individuals with the responsibility for their actions and to encourage them to seek forgiveness for the wrong they have committed. At the same time, it is also the power to “loose” individuals from the accusations of others—to declare them free in the name of Jesus.
It could be that John’s message to the church is much the same as Matthew’s—that leaders in the gathered church have the right and responsibility to discern whether to remit or retain a particular individual’s sins. But I have a growing confidence that John’s gospel is more about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in freeing people from their sins. According to John 20:22-23, the Spirit of Jesus gives his followers the power, the privilege and the priestly authority to speak words of forgiveness to a broken world.
It’s one thing to make a general pronouncement that Christ forgives the sins of the world. It’s quite another to look people in the eye and declare Christ’s forgiveness for the specific, concrete offences that they have committed against God and others.
A deep sense of God’s forgiveness can release people from the shame of condemnation or judgment. It can bring about a sense of gratitude for God’s goodness. It can help people escape the shackles of addictive habits. And it can bring healing to many of life’s hurts. Let us joyfully take up the commission to forgive the sins of others. If we neglect this essential privilege and responsibility, the deleterious effects of people’s sins will remain.
I pray that God’s forgiving love, brought to us through the power of the Holy Spirit, may lead us to truly become communities of grace, joy, and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.