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John 20:19–23 ~ as told by Deborah
That evening (of Resurrection Day) the disciples were huddled together in an upper room with all the doors locked — fearful that they would be arrested for being followers of the Lord.
Jesus appeared among them and said, “Peace and grace be with you.” Then he showed them the wounds in his hands and the place on on his side where the centurion had struck him.
The disciples were delighted to see the Lord with their very own eyes.
“Peace be with you.” he repeated, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Then he breathed on them and said, “Accept the Holy Spirit. If you release the sins of others, they are released; if you retain their sins, they are retained.”
“If you release the sins of others, they are released;
if you retain their sins, they remain.”
I’ve been in a long debate with God over this passage. What does it mean, and why is it so strangely worded, and so difficult to understand?
How do you “release” or “retain” other people’s misdeeds? We certainly don’t have the authority to release others from the consequences of their actions. If a man has robbed another, he remains indebted to the victim — no matter what we may say.
We cannot restore what has been lost, or undo what has been done. What we can do is aid the afflicted and work for justice — and peace, lest the unending cycle of violence and vengeance begin.
It was in thinking about justice that Jesus’ words to the disciples started to come into clearer focus for me.
Everywhere you look there are demands for justice. We will not rest until all hurts have been healed, all damages repaired, all debts repaid. But justice — our imagined, highly-subjective, perfection-restoring ideal — will never come. Life is complicated, messy, and unmanageable.
But, like a dog with a bone, we will not let it go.
Each day our list of complaints grows longer as our disordered hearts begin to see evil lurking behind every hedge. Grown weary of hopes unfulfilled, our emotions become brittle; the slightest bump or bruise scrapes our tender soul-skins and we weep and rant and rage.
We are not holding out for justice, but holding on to others’ sins.
It is not what others have done wrong that poisons our hearts, but their guilt: our almost insatiable desire “to make the bad guys pay.”
“If you release the guilt of others, it is released;
if you hold onto their guilt, it remains.”
It turns out that the word usually translated as sin does, in fact, mean guilt: the responsibility/obligation incurred by a wrongful act. Guilt is a debt: the price to be paid in order to restore balance.
What we crave, demand, hold on to — is others’ guilt. We are not satisfied until justice is done: when a cost has been extracted from the evildoer. We expect it, hope for it, predict it: “Karma will catch up with her,” “Those birds will come home to roost,” “He’ll get his just desserts some day.”
The wrongdoers may be blissfully ignorant of the harm that has been done, filled with regret, or callously indifferent, but as long as we cling to our desire for guilt-payment, their crimes live on. The evil that has been done persists in us: we carry the memory of it; reliving it, reimagining it, feeding it.
When we cannot let it go, others’ wrongdoing becomes our burden. It weighs us down, exhausts us, immobilizes us.
Peace and Grace
Jesus said, “Peace and grace be with you.”
To release others’ guilt is to let go of the expectation of repentance or apology. Doing so frees our souls from the burdens of anger and resentment, and brings the gift of peace — the blessing the risen Christ gave to his disciples when he first appeared to them.
When we let go of our focus on the wrongs others have done, we can set our sights on the good that we can do. We can envision the possible, we can see what is beautiful and hopeful, we can look upon the world with Christ’s eyes: filled with compassion, love, and tenderness. That is how we can follow the Way that our Lord proclaimed.
Accept the Holy Spirit
We have a notion of justice ingrained in our being: a desire for fairness, and a belief that evildoers ought to face consequences; that they owe a debt to those they have harmed. We think that guilt-payments would restore balance to our world: that it would bring about peace and order and goodwill among all people. And we think that we are capable of deciding who is owing. And the more we think about it, and fantasize about it, and dwell on it, the more we build up anger and hatred — fueling the fires of evil, and forgetting our call to love and to serve.
The first thing the risen Lord asked of his followers was that we let go of others’ guilt, thus freeing ourselves from the toxic temptations to judge and condemn. Christians are not debt-collectors, but relief messengers; bearing the Good News of God’s love and compassion.
Jesus came to the disciples and said, “Just as God sent me, now I am sending you: accept the power of the divine Spirit. Let go of what others have done, or their sins will become yours.”
May the power of the Spirit infuse us with love and understanding.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
This Week’s Suggested Spiritual Exercise
When have you held onto the sins that others have committed? How has that harmed you?