A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you hold anyone fast, they are held fast.”
When the Coronavirus first forced us to stop having services in the church building, I wrote you all a letter about today’s Gospel reading. On the day of Christ’s resurrection, the disciples were shut inside, in a room, afraid. A situation not too much different from our own. But what then happened?
Suddenly he was there and he said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them the wounds from his crucifixion—those tokens of the reality of living and suffering in this world, those signs that God takes what we are going through in this life with utmost seriousness. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Jesus appears to his disciples and sends them to continue his healing mission, he gives them the Holy Spirit. And when he does that he says something that is almost always translated very wrongly. And I think I know why the church translates it wrongly—it’s because people in charge—including people in charge of the church—want to have power, and especially the power to punish people who don’t go along with what they want. I’ve been a priest a long time, believe me, this happens a lot in the church.
You have probably heard this passage quoted as saying, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – But that’s just made up—“retain the sins” is not a meaning of the Greek words in the sentence. One of my professors explained this in detail—the word that I translate as “hold fast” is reasonably common and the dictionaries list all sorts of uses of this meaning throughout Greek literature, but there’s only a lone citation for the “retain their sins” meaning—this verse, and with no reason for that. So let’s continue with what the Bible really says here:
Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples and said to them: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven, and if you hold anyone fast, they are held fast.” What does that mean? The meaning is the very next thing that happens. Thomas had not been there and he was skeptical. He had experience with these guys, as we all have experience with people in the church. It was not too much of a stretch for Thomas to think that his friends might be a little bit crazy and deluded. So he told them so. He refused to believe them. And here’s where Jesus giving the disciples the Holy Spirit comes into play. What did they do? Did they say, “Take your chances on your own, Thomas,” and throw him out? No. They held Thomas fast; he was part of them. It took a week—though it often takes much longer in our experience—Thomas wasn’t ready, he was still disagreeing with the rest of the disciples and then—he saw Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”
As this church lives by the Holy Spirit of God given by Jesus, we hold one another fast. Whether agreeing or disagreeing, whether comfortable or in crisis, whether sick or well. I am here and I minister, but mostly I observe Trinity Church during this crisis holding one another fast. Calling, visiting, praying, bringing food or medicine to some who can’t get out. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven,” Jesus says. They are past. But as we hold one another fast, we are all held together in God’s Kingdom. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says. Yet we do see the Spirit of Jesus in action today and we are blessed.
As it says in our lesson from the first letter of Peter:
“By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead … In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”