Sermon for Pentecost

Proper C  ~  May 23, 2010

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;

if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.


+ In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,



Was ordained with these words, and I have often thought it a pity that the formula was dropped in 1976. But now, I think, I get it. The power to forgive and to retain sins is not restricted to ordained priests: it is the operation of the Holy Spirit in every baptized person.


To err is human; to forgive divine.


Let’s accept that old saw as fact, for the moment. For humans, it is natural to hit back.  It is not natural to hold back, to forbear, to forgo the right of self-defense or to forgo justice in repaying the injury. It is not natural to forgive. This is one way of looking at original sin: by birth, I am incapable of forgiveness. I am born as a little Cain, whose moral sense is all about me and my rights. And God help my brother Abel if I should come to imagine that he has got ahead of me somehow! I will brook no insult or injury. I will set it right. This is human nature.  And it is written into all of our law codes.


To err is human; to forgive divine.


But the adage is mistaken – or at least imprecise – in its theology. Because to err is not a quality of human nature, but a disfiguration of it. My sin is not what makes me human; my sin diminishes my humanity. Cain did not fulfill his human nature when he killed Abel, he damaged it.  My error is a mark of my fallen nature, not of my God-given human nature as God’s image and likeness. What is true about the adage is that, the fallen state is defined by the inability to forgive.

To err is human; to forgive divine.


                In the alternative Gospel for today, Jesus promises the Apostles to send them another Advocate,


whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him


The Gospel we read identifies this Advocate as the Holy Spirit, whose first gift is the capacity to forgive sin, the gift that, in the words of the old Baptismal rite, “by nature we cannot have”. The miracle of the tongues is as nothing compared with this divine power of forgiveness. It is not the way of the world.  The way of the world is the Law: punishment of wrongdoing and redress of grievances. The world of the Fall neither sees nor knows the Holy Spirit, whose first gift is the capacity to forgive. But without this capacity, how could we dare to pray the words our Savior Christ has taught us? Would we not call down the same judgment upon ourselves by saying “forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.”

                But this new gift is now poured out into the world through the preaching of those polyglot disciples. The content of the message is “repentance and the forgiveness of sins”. What if this good news is not that my own sins are forgiven, but that I now have the divine power to forgive those who sin against me? Then it is, indeed, a new world: the sin of Cain is erased, and I am free of its dominion    not that I will never err again, but that I am now capable of forgiving others. I am no longer the captive of the sin committed against me, I no longer have to retain it, to clasp it to my bosom and nurture it, and keep it alive by my own sense of outrage. I no longer have to “get even”.

The water of Baptism has washed that away, just as the Flood destroyed human wickedness in the time of Noah.

                As He died, Jesus said “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We have always understood that forgiveness of sins was at the heart of Christ’s sacrifice. He said so the night before: “This is my Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” But it can also be translated “…so that sins may be forgiven.” What if the whole thing is about giving us the capacity to forgive? “My Blood shed for you and for all so that you can forgive sins”? When we drink this Precious Blood, we take into ourselves His very Life, including His attitude towards His executioners. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, Who transfigures the Bread and Wine into His Body and Blood at every Eucharist. And the

                The Life of Christ is God’s forgiveness. THAT is what we take when we take Communion – not the forgiveness of our own sins (which is accomplished before we committed them), but our forgiveness of those who sins against us. Why else would forgiveness of sins be mentioned at the Last Supper, at the Cross, and on the Day of Pentecost? That Day was the Jewish festival of the giving of the Law on Sinai. And the Holy Spirit is called the Advocate, the One Who defends us at the bar of that Mosaic Law.  We are invited to the comparison John draws in his prologue:  “the Law came by Moses; Grace and Truth have come by Jesus Christ.” The Holy Spirit is that Grace and Truth: the grace of the perfect defense of the Divine Advocate, and the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us. The Law requires justice. And justice is righteous and good, by definition. But the perfection of the Law is the Holy Spirit, Who enables us to live free of the Law by the forgiveness of sins. For when we forgive those who sin against us, we erase their sin and there is nothing more for the Law to do. The Advocate not only pleads our case, but calls us to forgiveness.

                That means we forgo our right, under the law, to prosecute. It does NOT mean that we suddenly LIKE those who sin against us (though eventually even that will come, because of the mystery that we grow fond of those to whom we do good), but it does mean that we renounce any project of revenge or “getting even” or “settling the matter”.  This is a matter of our will, not of our emotions: it is an act of LOVE, which is not about how we feel but about our decision not to enforce our rights under the Law. All this is possible only through the New Creation of the Holy Spirit, Who comes into the world so that the righteousness of the Law may now be written not only on the stone tablets of Sinai, but upon the flesh of our hearts.




The Spirit of God fills the whole world.

Come, let us adore!