by Daniel Harrell
I should mention that this blogpost title is not a misprint, but a rather lame attempt to play on the word “Pentecostal” by acknowledging that John’s rendition of the giving of the Holy Spirit occurred near the beach: ergo Pentecoastal. Pentecost celebrates the birthday of the church; it should feel like a day at the beach. Unfortunately, Happy Pentecost! doesn’t quite carry the same ring as Merry Christmas or He is Risen, does it? It’s too bad, really. Pentecost, originally the Jewish Feast of Weeks, was celebrated as a Christian high holy day long before Christmas ever made the rotation. It’s Pentecost, not Christmas, that gets the red vestments. Perhaps the tepid treatment Pentecost receives has something to do with Pentecost itself, what with its mighty wind, floating tongues of fire and subsequent miraculous speaking and hearing. That’s the way the Spirit blows in the book of Acts. But even though virgin births and resurrections are just as miraculous, for some reason they don’t seem quite so weird. Perhaps the Trinity’s third-person/second-class-treatment is due to the Holy Spirit being too, well, spiritual. It’s easy to conceptualize God as Father and Jesus as Savior, but how to conceptualize the Spirit? Up in the air? A breath? A blaze? A bird?
My family used to have a bird, this parakeet named Geronimo that would rest on your shoulder and accompany you wherever you went. To school, to work, around the block; it didn’t matter. Geronimo would come along—maybe flapping around on occasion or jumping onto your head—he was always there. However, other than eliciting strange looks from passers-by and pooping on your shirt now and then, Geronimo’s presence on your shoulder had little effect on your actual life. Sometimes it seems this is what the Holy Spirit feels like. Despite a faith that teaches us that our lives have been infused with the very life of Christ, we Christians tend to treat the Holy Spirit like that pet bird—the Paraclete as parakeet if you will (or a dove to keep with the Biblical imagery). In those moments when we do notice its presence, it’s often with annoyance. The pangs of conscience, spiritual compunction, guilt, Christian responsibility—why do we bother hauling that bird around if all its going to do is poop on us?
At a recent preachers conference I attended at Central Lutheran downtown, many of the speakers bemoaned the demise of the American church. Attendance is down, interest is down, budgets are a mess, there aren’t any young people, nobody cares. Blamed for the decline were the usual suspects: cultural instability, moral laxity, loss of respect for the Sabbath, the proliferation of the Internet, kids’ sports programs and better brunch options. However one speaker challenged us preachers to look at our troubles theologically. He insisted that whatever is happening to the American church, God must be doing it. He then cited a verse from 1 Peter: “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” Maybe the decline of the American church is the fault of the church. Great. More guilt, more spiritual compunction, more Christian responsibility.
I was thinking about this on the way to my car, when I saw the sign in the parking garage that said the Lutherans only accepted cash. All I had in my wallet was three dollars. Knowing that parking downtown would likely cost more than that (the Lutheran church is suffering financially too), I cursed the Lutherans for not accepting cards and pulled out my phone to locate a nearby ATM, which was five blocks away. Cursing my bank, I started hoofing it over to Nicollet Ave, when this guy steps into my path, a wily grin on his face. He says his name is Clarence and that his car has been towed and, he’s not looking for a handout, but if I can give him 16 dollars, he can get his car out and get home. Being the good pastor I am, my first thought was, sure buddy. I know a hustle when I hear one. Of course I also know the story of the Good Samaritan. And I did just come from a preachers conference. Compunction. Guilt. Christian Responsibility.
I tell him I’m trying to get my car out too, and that I only have three dollars. He tells me he knows where there’s an ATM. Thanks. So we walked together and talked, me asking him all of the qualifying questions to make certain that he’s legit, just like Jesus would want me to. We got to the bank and I had Clarence wait outside. I got out two twenties. He’d told me he only needed 16 dollars, but seeing my 20, he mentioned he sure could use some bus fare too. Whatever. Of course when I get back to the Lutheran parking lot, turns out that the cost for parking was only three dollars. Thanks bird. Pooped on again.
Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love.” OK, but what about the resentment I feel the whole time I’m doing it?
Another preacher friend officiated a funeral for an old Catholic high school buddy who mercifully had died after a long bout with cancer. Among the many former classmates gathered was a woman understandably embittered by an episode at this school so many years prior; she had been abused by one of the priests. Although such reports fail to shock us much anymore, they do infuriate, and this woman was still bent on retribution—even though the priest had been defrocked, lost his job and done some time. In the midst of recounting her woeful tale for what must have been the millionth time, my friend was stunned to notice that over in the corner sat this former priest she loathed so deeply. He had shown up for the funeral. By dreadful happenstance, my friend interrupted the woman to say, “Don’t look now, but there he is.”
The woman did not hesitate. Two decades of well-nursed bitterness took over. She stormed over to where her perpetrator sat and confronted him with a ferociousness that brought the entire room to heel. Duly stunned, the former priest arose and hurried for an exit utterly humiliated. The woman too soon left in tears. The encounter did not vindicate her as she must have fantasized it would.
Did she have another option? For those who follow the crucified Christ, the call of the cross is always forgiveness. It is the Christian thing to do. Grace is intrinsic to our faith, nowhere more so than this side of Easter. But let’s be realistic. Forgiveness can be feel like another load of spiritual bird doo. Sure, if our perpetrators were repentant, then perhaps forgiveness feels easier. Yet in many cases, little repentance is ever forthcoming. It’s not that we Christians don’t appreciate grace. It’s just that the grace we appreciate is the grace we receive. Jesus loves me, this I know. The rub comes once I’m forced to acknowledge that Jesus also loves those I hate; a rub chafed raw by his insistence that I love them too.
Thankfully, here in John’s Pentecost account, Jesus understands. The resurrected Christ, himself a victim himself of religious abuse, breathes on us a breath of fresh air: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; but if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Finally! The spirit of God allows me to dump on somebody else. Up to this point, extending forgiveness had only come with a warning: fail to forgive and God will not forgive you. It’s a warning nestled disturbingly snug in the middle of the Lord’s prayer and driven home in that haunting parable of the servant who refused to forgive his debtors as he had been forgiven his debts. The servant’s ruthlessness got him thrown into prison and tortured. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” Jesus warned, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” However now some options have opened up. Apparently the risen Jesus has relaxed his position. Caution has given way to caveat: “if you do not forgive another their sins, then God does not forgive them either.” Happy Pentecost!
Until now, the Bible had affirmed Jesus’ sole authority to dole out grace on earth (a validation of his unity with the Father). But by giving the Spirit, Jesus extends this authority to his disciples. Did Jesus truly intend for this cowardly bunch to be the arbiters of who passed through the Pearly Gates and who went straight to H-E-double hockey stick? What went through the disciples’ minds when they heard they had been given such power? What would have gone through yours? Being the good pastor that I am, the first thing through my mind would have putting together been a hit list.
Yet I doubt the disciples thought so vengefully. They were the ones who had sworn up and down that they were ready to die for Jesus, that they would never deny Jesus, that they would always stand by Jesus. But once Jesus needed them most, not only did they deny him; they betrayed him, fled and cowered behind bolted doors, scared for their lives once that they heard that Jesus was loose. He rose from the dead. What was he going to do to them now? If anybody needed grace, they did. And grace was what they got. Despite bolted doors, Jesus popped in and pronounced peace instead of the expected doom. He showed them his hands and his side, the irreversible consequences of their treachery—but now the signs of their redemption. Again he said, “Peace!” A standard Hebrew greeting became a statement of fact. Though these so-called friends had denied and abandoned him despite vowing never to leave or forsake, Jesus outrageously forgave them. And not only them, but the perpetrators of his execution too, even as he hung to die.
Like a shepherd who leaves 99 perfectly good sheep to go off and search for a single wayward one; like a foreman who pays even the last laborer showing up at quitting time the same as the rest who worked all day; like a King who throws a soirée and fills his banquet hall with outcasts and sinners; like a Father who loves his reckless son even though his prodigal squandering depleted the family trust fund—Jesus outrageously loves and forgives those who’ve done nothing to deserve it and everything to dodge it.
If you’ve ever truly experienced God’s grace, then the outrage of forgiving others does lessen. Despite their new power, I seriously doubt the disciples compiled personal hit lists because their new power was from the spirit of Jesus. Just as God had breathed life into Adam at creation, so Jesus now breathed new life into his disciples. They were new creations. As the apostle Paul put it (having experienced grace himself), it was no longer they who lived but Christ who lived within them. They were “transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
The context is the mission of Jesus—the total reconciliation of people to God. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus said. Jesus was God embodied. By the Spirit we are Jesus embodied: the body of Christ sent to the world to give grace to all people.
OK, maybe not all people. Let’s be realistic. Maybe God can love everybody, but he can’t forgive everybody. There are some seriously bad people out there—some so bad that not even repentance can do the trick.
Remember the story of Jonah? God sent him on a mission to some seriously bad people—the insufferably sinful Ninevites. God didn’t send Jonah to give them grace. God sent Jonah to give them hell. But as averse to being judgmental as he was to being gracious, Jonah took off in the other direction, only to be hauled back to work by a big fish. A whale of compunction. Guilt. Christian responsibility. Jonah lumbered into Ninevah, mustering the minimal obedience: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed” was all he said. Yet the response was like some Billy Graham Crusade on steroids! Every single wicked Ninny from the king to the peasant came forward at the altar call just as they were.
Then the real story started. God saw Nineveh’s repentance and had compassion. Jonah saw God’s compassion and was furious. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled; for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to forgive and cancel your plans to punish!” Here we thought Jonah fled because of the harshness of the sermon God commanded him to deliver, but in fact Jonah fled because he suspected all along that God was not going to follow through! “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord, but what if the Lord decides to show mercy instead?
For the woman at that funeral service, what compounded her fury was not merely that her abuser still walked the earth, but that he still walked it with the gall to show up at this funeral. Who did he think he was? Though his sin had forced the loss of his vocation and reputation as well as years of shame; it had also forced him to receive help. He was making attempts at new life empowered by the faith he had forsaken so many years before. His presence that day was an effort to live out his redemption. The grace of God exhibited its transformative power. But the woman was furious.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf writes how, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude my enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity, and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.” The spirit of Christ in us is the breath of Christ crucified for the sins of the world.
So then what did Jesus mean by “if you do not forgive…?” A difficult saying to be sure, yet in light of Christ crucified, it is not permission to withhold grace. If the Holy Spirit in us in the spirit of Jesus in us, then forgiveness is our only option. Yet there remains a seismic difference between grace not offered and grace not accepted. It is the latter, I think, to which Jesus points in this difficult saying. Because grace is gift, it is given and not forced. As gift, it can be rejected by those to whom it is offered. However as gift it cannot be withheld by those who have received it. The Spirit may come with no strings on the front end, but there are obligations afterward. “As the Father sent me,” Jesus said, “so I send you.” “As I have loved you,” Jesus said, “so you must love.”
To remember your own forgiveness by God does lessen the outrage of forgiving others. But the outrage never goes away. You still feel the anger sometimes. The unfairness. The injustice. But maybe this is a good thing. Grace is unfair and unjust. That’s why we call it grace. Maybe you should regard the anger you feel at forgiving as a sign that you’re giving the real thing. The cross of Christ is the ultimate in unjust love. The Spirit of Christ is the power to love likewise.