Preemptive Forgiveness

John 20:19-31New International Version (NIV)

19 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!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.


Easter has come and gone here in 21st-century North America. We have eaten our Cadbury Eggs, Easter ham, and at least the ears off those gigantic chocolate bunnies that you feel compelled to buy the day after Easter because they are on sale, but you remember after that first taste of bunny ears that they really aren’t made of good chocolate. You may have even wondered whether or not these chocolate bunnies were actually made with pieces of real rabbit. It turns out having four rabbit feet wasn’t all that lucky for old Thumper, now was it.

Easter 2016 is in our rear-view mirror. This week we put away the Easter baskets and reusable plastic eggs. Do you remember all those beautiful flowers that we put on the cross last week? Well, someone had to pull 50-60 dead flowers out of chicken wire this week. We have moved on to other things, because time waits for no one. The lawn needs mowed. There is baseball to be played. And the park is filled with screaming children and picnic-ers.

But notice that today’s scripture doesn’t allow us to move on too quickly. On the official liturgical calendar, today is known as “Easter 2.” I know, a creative name, isn’t it? It is Easter 2 because our story for today occurs on the first day of the week. The women have found the tomb to be empty, they have told the disciples, some of whom ran to check it out. Jesus has appeared to the travelers on the road to Emmaus. And now we are told that it is evening on that first Easter Sunday.

We are told that the disciples are locked in a room out of fear of the Jewish leaders. They have seen the full power of Rome sweep in and take their leader away, beat him, and crucify him. Surely they are afraid that the same thing might happen to them as well. Some women have claimed that Jesus’ tomb is empty, but the disciples really don’t know what that means. Was the body taken, or are the women who claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead actually on to something? And if he has risen from the dead, he is going to be ticked off at them! One of the disciples, Judas, betrayed Jesus. He flat-out sold him out for some silver. But the rest of the disciples also abandoned Jesus in some way. Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, even denied knowing Jesus. Three times.

If Jesus really had risen from the dead, would he be angry? While he was being tortured and crucified, where were his disciples? Only John is said to have been present at the crucifixion with some of the women. Would Jesus, if he had come back from the dead, be upset that they didn’t try to do more, to try to overcome the Romans and save him?

I have to wonder if the disciples were not simply afraid of being arrested by the Jewish authorities, I wonder if they were maybe a little bit afraid that what they had heard was true. If Jesus was alive, would he be upset, or at least disappointed in them? I don’t think that they needed to worry about Jesus being violent, but how would their resurrected leader now view them?

When the resurrected Jesus shows up, how does he great the disciples? He says, “Shame, shame, shame on you!” No, his first words recorded are, “Peace be with you.” He then shows them the holes in his hands and the hole in his side. And what does he say? He says the same thing again. Peace be with you.

It would have been common in Jesus’ day, just as it is today in Hebrew cultures, to greet someone by saying, “Peace.” The phrase that I like to greet you with, shalom havarim, literally means, “Peace, friends.” This greeting states your intentions. Think of those old Marvin the Martian cartoons where Marvin would meet Bugs Bunny and say, “Greetings, earthling! I come in peace!” To greet someone with a word like “shalom” is to tell someone that you come in peace. I’m not here to harm you.

So why does Jesus say it twice? He shows up and says, “Peace be with you,” and then shows them his scars and says, “Peace be with you.”

This week we had a hard time getting our daughter to go to sleep. When she gets overly tired, she can’t sleep. So we check on her, see if she needs something, and then tell her to go back to sleep. But after a while, you just have to let her cry it out a bit.

One night, when we were getting frustrated, we decided she needed to cry it out a bit. And eventually, she did fall asleep. When we went to bed, we checked on her, and she was sleeping on the floor of her room, next to an empty box of tissues. Using the clues, we figured that she was crying because she needed to blow her nose and didn’t have any more tissues.

We felt a little bit guilty because we could have done something about that. We could have got her more tissues. Instead, she fell asleep with a stuffy nose and an empty box.

When Jesus restates, “Peace be with you!” after he shows his disciples his scars, he knows that they are probably feeling guilty about not being there for Jesus. They are probably thinking the same thing that we thought when we saw Hadley lying next to an empty box of tissues. We could have done something about this! We could have prevented it if only….

No, no, says Jesus. Peace be with you.

This is not just a casual greeting, this is Jesus speaking words of forgiveness to his disciples. Yes, you have deserted me, denied even knowing me, and totally missed what I have been teaching you for the last three years about dying and rising again. But you are forgiven. And now we have some work to do.

So let’s start piecing this together. In verse 21, Jesus says, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Just as God sent Jesus into this word with a message of reconciliation and forgiveness, so too is Jesus now commissioning the disciples. Let’s add verse 22, “And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Keep in mind that in both Hebrew and Greek, the same words are often used to refer to wind, breath, and spirit. And the last time God is said to have breathed on a human being, the human being was just a lifeless lump of clay. God breathed his holy breath, his holy wind, his holy spirit into that lump of clay and that very breath of life transformed that lump of clay into a man we know as Adam. And now, God, in the form of the risen Jesus Christ, is breathing his holy breath, his Holy Spirit, into the disciples. Now these bumbling, fearful, somewhat dimwitted disciples have the giftedness to share the good news of reconciliation and forgiveness.

That much of today’s passage is clear. And most Protestants will probably just skip over the next verse and go straight to Doubting Thomas, as if Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit and we jump right over verse 23 and go straight from 22 to 24. And if that is what you would prefer to do today, I hope that you will forgive me. Because we are actually going to wrestle with this strange thing Jesus says in verse 23: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

I’m not going to pretend to understand exactly what Jesus is saying here, and this is going to be one of those things that it will be okay if at the end of the day we aren’t in full agreement. What I want to do with the remainder of our time together this morning is simply look at different ways that this passage can be interpreted and allow you to make up your mind for yourself.

I think that the most important thing to remember here, regardless of how we understand this, is to remember to read verses 22 and 23 together. Whatever Jesus meant when he told the disciples that they had the ability to forgive sins, he only told them this after they had received the Holy Spirit. There are other times when Jesus commissions the disciples to preach about God’s forgiveness, but only now that Jesus has breathed on them and given them the Holy Spirit does he also give them the authority to forgive sins.

Let’s start by looking at what I will simply call the “Catholic” interpretation of this passage. Many of us are at least familiar with the way that Catholics do confession from the way this act is depicted on television. A person enters a confession booth and says to the priest, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been X days since my last confession.”

Where does the priest get the authority to forgive sins? From a little something we like to call “Apostolic Succession,” that’s where.

Remember that while he was on earth, Jesus went around forgiving people of their sins. To the woman in Luke 7 who anointed Jesus’ feet, Jesus clearly said, “Your sins are forgiven” (v. 48). In John 8, Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery. And as these two stories show us, women are the only ones who need forgiveness. No, in Matthew 9, Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven, and then heals him. Of course, the Pharisees are outraged, and they say things like, “Only God can forgive sins. Who do you think you are, God?”

Jesus clearly thought that he had the ability to forgive sins. And I agree with him, he did and still does! But he also does some weird things, like telling the disciples in Matthew 18:18, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And whatever that means, all of this is in the context of sin and forgiveness.

So in today’s text, when Jesus tells the disciples that they can forgive people’s sins, the Catholic Church believes that through Apostolic Succession, through the passing of the role of apostle from one generation to the next, the priests in the church are able to stand in the place of the original apostles and Jesus himself to forgive sins.

Now that is a lot of responsibility! But even more responsibility is found in the statement that the apostles and therefore the priests can retain the sins of people. If an apostle or a priest says that you are not forgiven, then you are not forgiven. And ultimately, that is why I reject this interpretation. Who am I to say if someone is not really forgiven when I cannot know their heart?

Let’s consider a second option, one that I will call the Herald. No, not Harold, like your uncle. Herald, as in one who proclaims an important message.

Many Protestants will interpret this passage in a different way from our Catholic brothers and sisters. Where a Catholic will say that the priest actually is doing the forgiving as a representative of God, many Protestants will say that the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit and having trained with Jesus for three years, will know that God forgives and what is necessary to make that forgiveness a reality.

In this scenario, imagine that someone comes to me and tells me something that they have done and they feel guilty about. Maybe they tell me that they have slandered the name of God, or something like that, and they feel bad about having done it. They are asking for God’s mercy and God’s grace.

From the Herald perspective, my job as one who receives this confession is not to actually do the forgiving, but to inform the person that God does forgiven them. You can see the difference: the priest is standing in as God’s proxy, forgiving in the Catholic approach, while the person serving as a herald simply lets the confessor know what the herald already knows. God forgives us.

That sounds pretty good to me, except one thing. It still doesn’t account for that whole retention of sins thing. Sure, we like to tell people when God forgives their sins, and we also like to tell people when God doesn’t forgive their sins. I’m a lot more comfortable with the first than I am the second. I have no problem with telling someone that shares something with me with a contrite heart that their sins are forgiven. I sure don’t want to be the person who tells someone that their sins aren’t forgiven, because again, only God knows their heart and their motive.

So what is left? If the traditional Catholic interpretation and more recent Protestant/Herald approach are found wanting, what else could Jesus have meant? Let’s look again at verse 23, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Notice who is missing in this verse: God. God is not mentioned at all. Jesus doesn’t say that if you forgive anyone’s sins, God will also forgive them. This isn’t about God forgiving sins because only God can forgive, and God has done so through Jesus. This is about the disciples forgiving. And I think it is about the disciples forgiving those who will be persecuting them as they go forward with the ministry that Jesus has just commissioned them for.

You see, in today’s passage, Jesus models forgiveness, and then invites his disciples to follow him. When the resurrected Jesus shows up, he starts by stating, “Peace be with you,” a statement of forgiveness for the disciples who have deserted and denied even knowing him. And now that Jesus is commissioning the disciples, he is telling them to be ready to forgive, because their ministry isn’t going to be easy. And sure, they can choose to forgive someone or not forgive them. But this doesn’t mean that God hasn’t already forgiven the people.

This is about making sure that the disposition of the disciples matches their actions. They must forgive the people who will ultimately put them to death as they preach a message of God’s forgiveness.

I wonder how our lives might look different if we were preemptively forgiving others. Some people go into a situation looking for a chance to be offended. This is true of the secular world and of many Christians. I know because I can be that kind of person! I listen to speakers, I read books, I listen to radio interviews looking for something to be offended by so that I can discredit the writer or speaker. Rather than entering into a conversation looking for some reason to be offended, what if we entered all of life offering a preemptive forgiveness, forgiveness in advance? What if we offered grace even before we were offended?

I think that Jesus is calling his disciples to offer preemptive forgiveness because that is what God is like. In Luke 15 we read the story about the Prodigal Son, who asked for his inheritance from his father well before the father passed away. The son then left home, blew the money on “loose living,” and then returns home to ask for forgiveness. How long does the father in the story make the son wait before he offers forgiveness? A day? A week? No, I would say that the father probably forgave the son before he even left the farm. Even as the son is on his return journey, before he can even get the words “forgive me” out of his mouth, he is met by his father in an all-out sprint, who embraces his son and calls for a party. We serve a God who preemptively forgives.

And what are we to make of Jesus’ words of forgiveness on the cross? When the Romans are torturing him, spitting on him, mocking him, and stealing his last few possessions, he calls out, “Father forgive them, for the know not what they do.”

Jesus invites his disciples to practice preemptive forgiveness because that is what God does. God preemptively forgives us.

I’ll admit that I don’t have a lot of need to forgive people, and I’m not complaining about that. When I do need to forgive people, it is for minor things like being a little bit late for a meeting or eating the last brownie at a carry-in. Lately, I have enjoyed messing with people a bit when I find them apologizing for something. They might say, “Kevin, please forgive me for being late. My last meeting ran late.” I like to respond by saying, “I can’t forgive you.” This usually makes them ask why, and it gives me a chance to say, “Because I never held it against you in the first place.”

When Jesus tells his disciples that they have the ability to forgive or not forgive people, I don’t think he is saying that they have the ability to forgive on God’s behalf or to proclaim God’s forgiveness on someone else. I think that in today’s scripture he is telling the disciples that they are about to enter into a situation where people will do them wrong. And the disciples will either need to forgive them or not forgive them. It is up to them. But if they truly want to be like Jesus, they will need to enter the situation with an attitude of forgiveness. They will need to practice preemptive forgiveness. They will need to practice grace.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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