Hope and Forgiveness in the Holy Spirit
Pentecost Sunday. Fr Simon
When the Holy Spirit descends in our first reading, he does so with great drama. He is accompanied, as usual, by signs that tell us something about him; here a mighty wind and miraculous tongues of flames. But in the Gospel the sign is much less impressive, but no less dramatic. All Jesus does is breathe on his disciples, having said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ There’s nothing particularly miraculous about breathing. The tongues of flame fifty days later certainly are miraculous, but breathing is just natural. And yet that has something of the greatest importance to tell us about the gift of the Spirit and his effect on our relationships with one another.
Not that the gift of the Spirit is natural to us, like breathing. Having the Spirit within you is entirely beyond our natural powers. Breathing, eating, drinking, and so on – all these things are natural to human life. But having the Spirit within you is of a higher order altogether. However, when Jesus sends this supernatural gift into the disciples, he accompanies it with a very ordinary sign – human breath. And the clue to the importance of this lies in the very next thing he says: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
The giving of the Spirit under the sign of breath is immediately linked with the reality of forgiveness in the Church, the power of giving absolution, transmitted by Jesus along with the Spirit to the apostles. Now this passage does have to do with the fact that the apostles, and their successors in the ordained priesthood, have the duty of absolving the sins of Christians. But it also points to the fact that forgiveness has to be at the heart of any community shaped by the Spirit.
A community can be shaped in all sorts of ways. It can be shaped by enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, and so on. But it can also be shaped by love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest. Probably the communities we live in are shaped by a bit of both. And we too probably contribute a bit of both to what shapes the lives of our communities. But what is crucial to the life of any community is whether or not forgiveness is a fundamental value. Because where it is not, a community will only fall apart, with relationships wounded, wounds attracting disease and festering until death. But where there is forgiveness, there is always hope, good will, openness to the possibility of renewal, genuine healing, and a stronger and greater community.
Jesus tells us that if we do not forgive the sins of others, our heavenly Father will not forgive us. And which of us can say that he or she has not sinned? That then is the deal. And there is no better deal. Unless we forgive, we shall not be forgiven. And however difficult it may be for us to forgive the wrongs that may be done to us, the deal Jesus announces is good news for us, because every one of us will benefit, and without it not one of us can really hope.
Forgiveness is often not easy, but for the Spirit. When we look at how our world has rebelled against God, we have to wonder that such a great mass of sin can be forgiven. And yet nothing is impossible for the Spirit who offers forgiveness to all. If the Spirit can forgive all this, then surely he can give us the power to forgive when we find it difficult or even impossible. Because if it sometimes feels that we don’t have the natural power to forgive, the power to forgive is entirely natural to the Spirit. And when the Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts, what is natural to him becomes second nature to us.
That is one reason why so natural a sign as breathing accompanied the Spirit when he gave the apostles the power to forgive sins. Forgiveness may sometimes seem even unnatural to us, but it is natural to a community formed by the Spirit, the only kind of community that can ultimately work in a sinful world. Forgiveness is as fundamental to the life of the Church as breathing is to the life of the body. Without breath, the body dies. Without forgiveness the Church would die too, and so would die our hope. If we don’t forgive, we die. But if we do forgive, God opens up a new life of possibilities before us, and hope for a life with him that will never die.