Today is the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday and the Greek word for “fiftieth day” is pentecoste hemera, which we abbreviate as “Pentecost.” This is the name that Greek-speaking Jews gave to the Jewish holiday Shavuot, a holiday that commemorates the giving and receiving of the Torah to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago. Many of our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to celebrate this holiday today. In fact, it was the holiday Shavuot that the Jewish disciples of Jesus were observing when they were all gathered together in one place at the beginning of our reading from Acts this morning. The author writes, “When the day of Pentecost had come [or in other words, when Shavuot had come], the disciples were all together in one place.” So as the disciples were remembering God’s gift of wisdom to them in the form of the Torah, God crashed into their lives again with a wisdom that now rushed through their bodies as a violent wind and stormed their souls like a holy inferno, empowering them with the gift of tongues to share the good news of Christ to all peoples and to reverse the curse of the Tower of Babel. The disciples were so enthused with the Spirit that onlookers thought they had consumed other kinds of spirits; that they were drunk. And I love how Peter responds to this accusation by saying, “Come on! It is only nine o’clock in the morning!” He then reminds them all that God promised to pour out his spirit upon all flesh, empowering everyone to experience and embody God’s reconciling love to the world. It is this generous outpouring of the Spirit that marks the birth of the Church, at around the year 33 AD (at 9 AM on Shavuot), making the Church 1,984 years old today, which is why we celebrate with birthday cake, balloons and a bounce house!
Now in John’s version of this Pentecost, we are given a deeper understanding of the meaning and implications of the Spirit’s outpouring upon all of us who are baptized. In John’s version, we read about Jesus breathing the Spirit upon his disciples, bestowing his peace, commissioning his disciples (us) out into the world and empowering us with the authority to forgive sins.
When Jesus says, “Peace be with you” he is giving his disciples (including us) the peace which the world cannot give (John 14:27), the peace which flows between the Father and the Son, the peace which sweeps us into the unity of the Triune God, which the early church fathers described using the word perichoresis which means “circle dance.” When Jesus says “Peace be with you” he invites us into that divine circle dance so that we may experience the loving unity of the Godhead and embody that unity as God’s beloved community, as God’s church. Jesus’s final prayer before his Passion was that we might be one as he and the Father are one. This oneness is only possible by the power of the Spirit, which the Risen Christ breathes upon his disciples, and which we all receive at our baptism and which we all can cultivate within us through a discipline of daily prayer and weekly worship.
Jesus then says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” With these words, Jesus empowers us to be to the world what Jesus was to the world: a healer, a liberator, a redeemer. In John, Jesus certainly stresses the importance of loving one another within the community when he says, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (13:35).” However, Jesus refuses to stop there. The Spirit is given not only for us to love one another within the church but also to go out into the world and serve the last, the lost and the least. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The Church is one of the only societies on earth that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” The Spirit empowers us to work for the benefit of those outside of the church, especially the sick, the poor and the needy.
Finally, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now here it sounds like Jesus is giving us the power not only to forgive sins but also to withhold forgiveness: “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now why would Jesus tell us to withhold forgiveness? In Matthew, Jesus says, “If you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Or as author Anne Lamott puts it: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” If withholding forgiveness from others is poisonous and results in the Father withholding forgiveness from us, then why would Jesus give us the spiritual power to withhold forgiveness?
Although there may indeed be times to temporarily withhold forgiveness (especially from someone who remains unrepentant and unapologetic and abusive), I do not see that as Christ’s main point here. What we have here in our Bibles again is a mistranslation and misinterpretation of the Greek text. The translation of the first clause (ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς) “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” is fairly accurate, but the translation of the second clause demands a closer look. The Greek word for sin is ἁμαρτίας which you may have noticed when I read the first clause in Greek. Now listen to the second clause in Greek: ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται. Did you hear the word ἁμαρτίας? Sin? No, because it’s not there. It was added by the translator. A literal translation of the Greek would be “Whomever you embrace they are embraced.” The direct object in the first clause is sin, which is forgiven. The direct object in the second clause is the person who is embraced. You may have heard the adage “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But here, Jesus is saying “I’m giving you power to forgive the sin and to embrace the sinner.”
So with these words Jesus does not empower us to withhold forgiveness. Instead, Jesus empowers us to forgive and to embrace and include and welcome others into the circle dance of love that flows between the Father, the Son, the Spirit and the Church. Through these words, the Holy Spirit empowers us to let go of that which we need to let go and to hold onto and embrace that which we need to embrace. One of my favorite poets Mary Oliver concludes one of her poems with the following words:
“To live in this world
you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
Reconciliation involves holding and embracing that which needs to be embraced and those whom need to be embraced and also letting go of that of which we need to let go. The Holy Spirit empowers us to do this: forgive and let go of our anger and frustration towards others so that we can truly embrace and welcome them into the beloved community, the divine circle dance.
So today we celebrate the birthday of the Church when the Holy Spirit empowered all of us to forgive, embrace, heal, and serve others in our own unique and beautiful ways; and to embody the love that flows through the perichoresis (the circle dance) of the Triune God. We all tap into this divine power through the sacrament of baptism and our baptismal vows, vows which we will be renewing together today, as we also celebrate our own spiritual birthdays as full members of God’s Church and as participants in the divine dance of the Lover, the Beloved and the Love Overflowing. Amen.
 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς, ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται. If we were to translate the Greek of the first clause literally it would read something like this: “Of whomever you forgive the sins they are forgiven to them” and so the translation “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” captures the meaning quite well.