I haven’t done a survey, but I would think that fewer & fewer Catholics today would hold that in those words about forgiving sins Jesus was talking to priests and establishing the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, as some still call it. I believe he was not. He was speaking to the community of his faithful followers and he seems rather to be saying that forgiveness is more than a juridical act, a removal of the charges against an accused or guilty person. Even after being acquitted by the court, the defendant may not feel the healing effect of personal forgiveness.
What I hear Jesus saying in today’s Gospel passage is that we are given an awesome power over each other, the power to make each other feel whole and good and worthwhile and accepted and valued and loved – even after we’ve done something terribly wrong and shameful and are repenting in misery. Jesus seems to be implying that God heals us through each other. That’s the meaning of his words, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
In a way, we might say that God is limited by what we are willing to do. So, if someone you’ve offended refuses to grant you total, unconditional forgiveness, you don’t get it! You remain unhealed, unhappy, and sick in spirit. God in each of us can reach others only in so far as we make that possible.
Therefore, if we are willing to be generous life-givers to each other, we find that we have far more to offer than merely our own human resources: we recognize that we are also instruments of God’s own power of love and wisdom – love that soothes and heals, wisdom that guides and directs. We are channels of God’s power, which far exceeds our human limitations.
A spiritual person is one who lives his or her life always conscious of that divine presence, constantly trying to collaborate with its power and direction.
I am convinced that we have interpreted much too narrowly the relationship between the Spirit of God and us Christians. Just consider these three major aspects of our Christian faith and practice: 1) this Feast of Pentecost, which we are celebrating today and which is recounted in the bible with so much rich symbolism; 2) our traditional devotion to the Holy Spirit; and 3) our one-time reception of the sacrament of Confirmation –these certainly can lead us to believe that we Christians have been given by God an exclusive privilege denied to 9/10ths of the people of the world. That can’t be true. We are all creatures of the same loving God, whose Spirit acts in all who allow her to. From religion to religion we name that God differently, but, as the Scripture readings for today emphasize, it is the same Spirit in each and all of us.
I believe it is true that more wars have been fought over religion than over all other causes. We continue to see religious wars in our own lifetime – bloody ones in the Middle East, acrimonious ones here in our own country. When will they stop once and for all? Only when mercy triumphs over vengeance, when love conquers hatred, when we look at the stranger with eager anticipation instead of resentment and fear, when our first response to offense is forgiveness. We Christians can help by recognizing that Pentecost is our name for a phenomenon that is as old as creation itself: God acting everywhere in God’s beloved universe and in everyone who is willing.
Let’s start again, right where we live, no matter how small the step.
Happy Pentecost to all!