John 20.19-23Catholics don't have much of a problem with this text. As they read it, this passage confirms their view that the church, in carrying the authority of the apostles, has the power to "bind and loose" sins on earth (see also Matt. 18.18).
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
But what are Protestants to make of this passage? According to the way Protestants read the bible this exhortation of Jesus to his followers wouldn't have been narrow--aimed at only a few--but wide, aimed at every Christian and not just at the apostles (and those representing them on earth).
If that's the case, then ordinary Christians have the ability to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness from each other.
Which is a bit of a head-scratcher. Isn't Jesus the one who is forgiving my sins? And didn't he already forgive my sins on the cross? If so, what's this business about fellow Christians not forgiving me and leaving my sin outstanding?
My Catholic readers are, I'm guessing, enjoying this. This is one of those texts that Protestants just ignore because it gives them fits.
So what are we to make of this?
Here's what I'm thinking.
One of the problems with Protestantism, particularly evangelical Protestantism, has been its overemphasis on Jesus forgiving our sins. That is, it is assumed that forgiveness really is just between you and Jesus. This is the classic individualistic emphasis--It's just Jesus and me baby!--we see throughout Protestantism.
The point being that Protestants have tended to ignore, often completely, the communal facet of forgiveness. We should care for more than just the forgiveness of Jesus. We need to care about becoming a community of forgiveness where we forgive each other.
And I think in the text above Jesus really ups the stakes on this, suggesting that failing to become a community of forgiveness--failing to forgive each other--will have eternal consequences. When we fail to forgive each other on earth nothing in our private experiences will Jesus will wipe away that sin. Until forgiveness is experienced among our brothers and sisters that sin, in some form or another, remains on the books. If we want forgiveness, Jesus is saying, it's up to us.
Now that last line is pretty alarming, but work with me here.
Imagine what Jesus is saying was literally true. We are all in a church together. And, being people, we'll sin against each other. But following Jesus we feel called to be a community of forgiveness. We've been entrusted with the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5.18). Because of this we take passages such as this to be the foundation of our common life together:
Matthew 5.23-24That is to say, before we do anything as Christians, before we pray, sing, worship, take communion--before we do anything--we work on being reconciled with each other. Because this reconciliation--the giving and receiving of forgiveness--is what defines this community as a Jesus-following community. It is in the forgiveness of sins, extended by each to all, that makes the community a church. All others communities where reconciliation is postponed for worship, song, sermons, prayer, classes, ministry or communion are false churches--pseudochurches.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
And the reason why reconciliation is so central is because, if we take Jesus literally, if we haven't forgiven each other ours sins remain outstanding--unforgiven on earth and in heaven.
That is a radical notion, but stay with me a bit more because what I want us to appreciate is the moral genius at work here, the practical outworking of how this idea creates the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
To be concrete about it, imagine I sin against Joe. And let's say Jesus's formulation is literally in force, that the reality of the situation is that if I want God to forgive me I need Joe to forgive me. If that's the situation then let me bring us to the million dollar question: How might that formulation energize my desire to be reconciled and at peace with Joe?
I know it'd be a big kick in my pants to get right with Joe. My reconciliation with Joe is no longer optional or something that can be postponed, perhaps indefinitely. Suddenly, my reconciliation with Joe has become deeply intertwined with my reconciliation with God. Outstanding sins on earth become outstanding sins in heaven.
And I wonder, as we think about this, if this might be the genius of what Jesus is saying, exactly what he was getting at.
Because isn't the problem with Christianity that we want God to forgive us but we don't care about being reconciled to others? Isn't it much easier to pray to God for forgiveness than to put in all the time and relational work to live at peace with others?
What if Jesus is saying that forgiveness on earth has eternal consequences. What if Jesus is saying that it's in our relationships with each other where our sins are truly forgiven. Forgiveness in heaven might be irrelevant if you don't forgive each other on earth. Why fall down at the altar asking God to forgive me when I need to be falling at Joe's feet asking him to forgive me? Isn't that exactly what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5? Isn't Jesus saying that Joe's forgiveness is more important, more pressing, and more vital than the forgiveness of God at the altar?
Let me give another illustration of this. Imagine you are a parent with your small child at a playground. Your child gets into a little fight with another child and punches, as little kids can do, the other child. You jump in to scold your child. Your child, feeling contrite, looks at you and says, "I'm sorry."
Well, what would any good parent do in that moment?
I know what I've done. I say, "I appreciate that, but you really need to go say sorry to that little boy over there."
I think this is what Jesus trying to say. Jesus is effectively saying, "As God's representative on earth I forgive you. So you don't have to worry about that anymore. You don't have to go to the temple and make sacrifices anymore to secure God's pardon. In my life, death and resurrection I've ended your need to seek forgiveness from God. For I have forgiven you. Now you are released to live out that forgiveness with each other. Those are the actions--your forgiveness of each other--which will determine your eternal destiny. How you forgive on earth is how you will be forgiven in heaven."
I think that's a fair interpretation of Jesus's message. Consider the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant or Jesus's consistent refrain that "as you forgive others so you will be forgiven."
Luke 6.37And here's the deal, even if you reject this strong formulation it is indisputable that if I restrict forgiveness to what happens between God and myself energy and urgency is sapped from seeking forgiveness from others because that just isn't my most pressing concern. I think we've seen the practical effects of this all over the place. I sin against Joe and then seek forgiveness from God in prayer. I never really get around to seeking reconciliation with Joe. That's just not my central concern. And it might not be a concern at all.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."
To conclude, there is an objection here. What if Joe doesn't forgive me? Can Joe hold a sin against me keeping that sin outstanding and unforgiven in heaven? And if so, wouldn't Joe be holding my eternal destiny in his hands? If Joe's keeping the books on me and Joe doesn't wipe my slate clean then what is going to happen to me in heaven?
Three responses. First, if your overriding concern is saving your own skin rather than working on your relationship with Joe then you've missed the point of everything we've been talking about. Quit worrying about hell and go talk to Joe. If you do that trust God that the rest will be taken care of. Just go talk to Joe.
Second, we have to remember the symmetry of the situation. Joe is commanded to forgive you. And if he doesn't Joe's damned himself. You don't have to worry about if Joe does or doesn't forgive you. You just have take care of your side of the equation. As Paul says, "as far as it depends upon you live at peace with everyone."
Finally, we have to keep the communal focus in mind. It's a community of forgiveness that we are imagining. A community where I am to forgive Joe and Joe is to forgive me and there are others around us helping us both to do this. That is, I don't think it's best to think of two people keeping score. I think what Jesus is doing in John 20 is giving us a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Sure, any given expression of this will fall short of the ideal. But that doesn't take away from the vision of what Jesus is calling us to, that if we want God's forgiveness in heaven we should be focusing on forgiving each other on earth. By ending the temple sacrifices God pushed forgiveness out of heaven and onto the earth--out of the temple and into the church. A community of forgiveness replaces sacrifices on an altar.
But I want to end by coming back to that scary question I raised above.
If Jesus's formulation is literally in force, does that not mean that I hold your eternal destiny in my hands?
And does that not also mean that you hold my destiny in your hands?
Does it mean that we are all mutually holding our collective destinies? On earth and in heaven?
I wonder if that isn't exactly what it means.