The Spirit’s words of forgiveness

The Spirit’s words of forgiveness

Pentecost Sunday. Fr Denis Minns preaches on the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Two sounds are mentioned by St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles in connection with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The first was a sound from heaven ‘like the rush of a violent wind’. The second was the sound of the disciples of Jesus, after they had been filled with the Spirit, ‘speaking in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’

Of the two sounds, it was the second, it seems, that was the louder. The first sound filled the room, but the second filled the city: it was at the sound of the disciples speaking in foreign languages that the multitude came together, drawn from all those from every nation under heaven who were living in Jerusalem.

What amazed the multitude was not that these fishermen from Galilee were speaking in strange tongues; for then, as now, it was not uncommon to encounter people babbling nonsense under the auspices of religion. What surprised them was that everyone was able to understand what was being said, that it made sense: ‘we heard them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’

Luke’s account of the coming of the Holy Spirit squares with what, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus said would happen: ‘The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’

One of the functions of the Holy Spirit, then, is to communicate the Word of God to us, and St Luke shows the Spirit doing this in two ways: enabling some to speak the mighty works of God, and enabling others to understand those spoken words. So there is no comfort here for those of us who might wish for less chatter in the Church, whether from its leaders or from others. St Luke expects that the Church of God will be a noisy place; in a sense, he expects it to be full of windbags: for the Word of the Lord is active, and the Spirit blows where it wills. Our task is to hear this not as just irritating noise, but as possibly the Word of God, and ask ourselves what it might be that the Spirit is saying to the Churches.

Nevertheless, the Spirit is also called the Comforter, and communicating the Word of God is not its only function. In St John’s far less dramatic account of the sending of the Holy Spirit, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, for those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ Words uttered under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are not simply bearers of information, they have power to bring things about. Jesus was once told that no one can forgive sins, but God alone. Nevertheless, Jesus claimed that he did have the power to forgive sins, and, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, he has given that power to his disciples.

In a Church filled with the Spirit of God, therefore, we must expect that prominent amongst the words the Spirit brings to utterance will be words seeking and giving forgiveness. In the other Gospels we learn that unless we forgive others we will not be forgiven ourselves. In St John we hear the much more alarming claim that if we do not forgive others then they will not be forgiven.

Perhaps the point of this is not that we should be puffed up with a sense of our own self-importance in being able to hold others in their sins, but that we should be mindful of what it is we do if, being able to forgive others, we do not forgive them: we frustrate the purpose for which the Spirit was given to us, we attempt to prevent the Spirit from blowing where it will. Might not that be a sin against the Holy Spirit, a sin which does not have forgiveness?

Readings: Acts 2:1-11 | 1 Cor 12:3-7,12-13 | John 20:19-23

Fr Denis Minns is a son of the Province of Australia, but formerly served as Prior of Blackfriars, Oxford, and was a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford.