The Power to Forgive
2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)
In my message for Easter Sunday I wrote about how Christ overcame the most serious problem that we all face — death. But Jesus doesn’t just treat the symptom. He gets to the root of the problem. To truly conquer death, Christ had to take away the cause of death, which is sin (see Rom 5:12). This is why at each and every Mass we say, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…”
This Sunday’s gospel reading takes place exactly one week after the Resurrection — “on the evening of that first day of the week” (Jn 20:19). Jesus appears in the midst of the Apostles and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them the wounds in his hands and side to illustrate that it is truly him — that he really did die on the cross and truly is now risen from the dead.
Then Jesus does something very profound. He gives the Apostles a mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). The word “mission” comes from the Latin word missio, which means “to send.” What is the mission that Christ was giving them?
…when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”Jn 20:22-23
The mission Jesus sent the Apostles into the world to accomplish is the forgiveness of sins, reconciling man to God. But in order to do that, Christ also had to give them authority.
Only God Can Forgive Sins
To understand the full significance of what’s going on in this gospel passage, we need to look back at an earlier incident in the gospels, when Jesus was in Capernaum and healed a paralytic man (see Mk 2:1-12). A large crowd had gathered around Jesus when four people lowered their paralytic friend on a mat down through the roof, in order that Jesus might cure him.
When Jesus saw him, he said, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5). This caused a great stir among the scribes there, who said, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” (Mk 2:7).
The scribes were correct. Only God can forgive sins. The reason is simple — you can only forgive a debt you are owed. For example, your roommate can’t forgive your student loan debt, because you don’t owe that debt to them. When you commit an offense against someone, you incur a debt of justice. If you offend against your brother, only your brother can forgive you, not your sister or your friend. Sin is an offence against God, therefore only God can forgive sins.
In essence the scribes were saying, “Who does this Jesus guy think he is, forgiving people’s sins? God?” What they couldn’t understand is that this is exactly who Jesus is. To demonstrate his divinity — and therefore his authority to forgive sins — Jesus healed the paralytic man’s legs.
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth” — he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”Mk 2:9-11
This healing miracle — like all the miracles Christ performed — was a sign attesting to his divinity. And of course the greatest miracle of all, and therefore the greatest proof of Jesus’ divinity, is the Resurrection. When Jesus appeared, alive and glorified, to the Apostles and other witnesses after being publicly executed on a cross, there could no longer be any doubt. Jesus is the Messiah. He has power over life and death. Jesus is God.
Mission of Mercy
Having demonstrated his divinity, and therefore his authority to forgive sins, the Risen Christ gives the Apostles a share in his mission of reconciliation, and — most importantly — the authority to carry it out.
He breathes on them — just as God breathed life into Adam — giving them the Holy Spirit so that they might have the same divine authority to forgive sins and he does. In other words, he establishes the Sacrament of Penance, what we also call Confession or Reconciliation. He gives the Apostles the power to forgive sins in God’s name, and they would later give the same authority to their successors the bishops, and the priests who share in their ministry.
This means we now have the ability — and the privilege — of going to a priest to confess our sins, and hearing those comforting words: I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace.
We do this not because of anything special about the man on the other side of the screen, but because of the divine Spirit that was given to him at his ordination. The authority Christ gave to the Apostles to forgive sins lives on in the Church today, and will do so until the end of time. What a great mercy!
Our Share in the Mission
This means that we will always have access to the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation made possible through Christ. But we also have our part to play in God’s ministry of mercy. We may not be able to sacramentally forgive the sins of others. But we are each called to forgive.
Throughout the gospels, Christ is clear about this. If we want to receive God’s mercy, we must be merciful to others. When Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive his brother who sins against him, suggesting as many as seven times, Jesus replies, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” to indicate that there should be no limits to our forgiveness (Mt 18:22).
Then he tells a parable about an unforgiving servant who owed his master ten thousand bags of gold. He begs for mercy and the master forgives the debt. But when the same servant refuses for forgive a debt of one hundred silver coins that a fellow servant owed to him, the master recalled the unforgiving servant and had him placed in jail until his debt was repaid. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Mt 18:35).
In other places, Jesus gets right to the point: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt 6:14-15). And “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:37). Even in the Lord’s Prayer, that great model of Christian prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt 6:12). Each time we pray the Our Father, we are praying that God forgive us only to the extent that we forgive others. Think about that the next time you say this prayer!
Christ gave the authority to forgive sins to the Apostles, but the mission of mercy belongs to all Christians. In fact, the word “Mass” comes from the final dismissal in Latin — Ita missa est — from the same word missio or mission. At each and every Mass we are sent on a mission of mercy.
The meaning is clear: as people who have received so much of God’s mercy, we have no right to withhold mercy from others. May this celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday cause us to be mindful of two things: 1) that we should never hesitate to ask God’s forgiveness of our sins — he died on a cross to do just that — and 2) we should never hesitate to extend forgiveness to others. By so doing, we participate in the Church’s ministry of mercy and reflect the love of Christ to those who most need it.