Read John 20:19-31.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (John 20:23)

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples singly and in groups. He had different words for each. “Why are you weeping?” “Put your hand in my side.” “Do you love me more than these?”

When he met with all the disciples together, he had four words: “peace,” “as my Father sent me, so I am sending you,” “receive the Holy Spirit,” and “the sins you forgive are forgiven; the sins you retain are retained.”

Jesus’ words are words of power. When he says “peace,” he grants it. When he says “receive the Holy Spirit,” he gives them that spirit. At the last supper, he told them to stay in Jerusalem until they receive power from on high. With these words Jesus gives them power and sends them forth. Surprisingly, Jesus compares this sending to God’s sending of Jesus, as though they could in some way continue Jesus’ unique ministry.

Note that it was necessary for the disciples to be at peace before they could be sent or receive the Holy Spirit. They had been afraid, gathering behind locked doors. They needed to be at peace to have the courage necessary for their mission. More curious is the fact that they were sent before they were given the Holy Spirit. Perhaps power from on high is given only when and to the extent that it is needed.

What are we to make of that last word, “the sins you forgive are forgiven; the sins you retain are retained”? I think the import is that “your ministry is real.” What you do has eternal consequence for others. It may be tempting to think that the responsibility for saving the world is God’s, that what you do doesn’t affect others. But that’s not the case.

Your actions or inactions, your peace or distraction, your joyfulness or carefulness, your prayerfulness or mindlessness, your pursuit of God or pursuit of the world, your speaking or silence, all these have eternal consequence not just for you but for others. It is not just for you that I command you to love me above all and to love your neighbor as yourself. It is not just for you that I command you to let your light shine. It is for the salvation of the world. If you fail to forgive sins, those sins remain unforgiven.

Stay in the city of peace until you are given power from on high, until you are sent, but then go where you are sent. Say what you are given to say. Heal what you are given to heal. Forgive what you are given to forgive. There is eternal consequence for the world.

Lord, lead me, and teach me to follow in all things.


Second Sunday of Easter, Year C


Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin College and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.