At the encouragement of Jim Branch, the Blue Book’s author, I changed my spiritual diet. Instead of consuming large volumes of the Word daily, I started eating smaller and more frequent meals, trying to chew each bite more thoroughly. I have grown to love this new approach, and I believe I am healthier as a result. The only time I don’t like it is when I come to passages laden with mystery, passages I have typically skimmed over because of the impasse between my understand and their hard content. No matter how much chewing I do, I am not sure what to do with words like these: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
I am surprised Peter did not stand up here and say to Jesus, “Far be it from me, Lord. Never under any circumstance would I presume to have this level of authority. Only You, the Son of God, can forgive sins.” Yet, I could also imagine Jesus just giving Peter that look he gave him when He said, “Get behind me, Satan. Your interests are misplaced.” That familiar gaze, coming from a freshly resurrected Man, may have been just enough to restrain Peter from expressing his opinion again.
As I tried to read over this, the thought crossed my mind that this complicated verse should be deferred to scholars so they can chew on it in our behalf, and then return it to us in a more digestible form. Yet these are Jesus’ words to his predominantly working-class, un-scholarly friends. In deference to Jesus original audience, I am more inclined to just stop and ask the Lord, “What is this supposed to mean?” I do not have a pat answer as to what this sentence means, but I do have a piece of my story to share and some thoughts that might tie in. It will be helpful to keep in mind that Jesus also told his disciples, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
On Monday I asked if you were involved in ministry. Another way of asking this would be, “Has, Jesus commissioned or sent you?” Or, did He just send out those original eleven? Being a disciple has unfortunately become an optional track, especially in western, seeker-friendly Christianity, spawning the lie that being sent is a special call reserved for a zealous few. It seems many, if not most, of these called ones, have it in their hearts to go abroad, as if foreign fields are the only ones ripe for harvest. (Does ripe mean that people are on the verge of salvation or that they are bound, as all men are without Christ, and need the Gospel?) While this narrow perception of a calling may be good for the nations, it does seem to leave the west with a disciple-deficit. (Oh, yes. The other remaining called ones go to Bible school or seminary and qualify themselves to become professional Christian workers.)
There are a couple of applications I believe I’ve seen of this verse. They both took place in the span of one week with a spiritual father. (The Bible would refer to this person as a shepherd or pastor). This particular father happened to be functioning as a counselor. He served me by listening to years of the accumulated pain and chaos in my heart. This was difficult because I was a disciple—one who had given Christ permission to send him anywhere He wished and to do anything in my life He desired, one who, I would have thought, would by this time be living above such trauma of soul.
This saint created a safe space for me where I felt comfortable enough to be honest with him and myself. In this place of transparency, he helped me see where, by way of unforgiveness, I had retained the sins of many at tremendous cost to my family and myself. In this uniquely secure place, light was piercing the dark places of my heart. The truth was I had not watched over my heart very well, and in spite of my active religious service, Life had ceased to flow from it. At the end of my week of counseling, this shepherd seemed to function as one of the original eleven who had heard this unique command from the Lord. After helping me to see and take ownership of my bitterness and resentment, which are the inevitable consequence of retaining the sins others, and leading me in repentance, he surprised me when he said, “You’re sins have been forgiven.” I think I now understand by what authority this pastor spoke.
I regularly pray that I will not miss whatever lesson God is trying to effect in my heart when I go through trials. I do not want to waste any sorrows. I do not want to have to retake any tests. I do want to be like Him. My time with the counselor exposed the nature of the battle for my heart in new ways. Among other things, it revealed how essential and fundamental it is for a disciple to live without offense toward others. The months (now years) following this event have been very enlightening. With my writing I have attempted to capture some of these lessons and give an account of the new hope I am living in. I am also attempting to comfort others with these comforts with which I have been comforted.
Since that time, I have had a renewed sense of the call He has on all our lives as His disciples. Because of the example of my spiritual fathers and my own recent experiences, I cannot help but see that it is within our grasp to create safe spaces for others, places within friendships and groups of friends where we, too, can become authentic, where light can pierce our darkness and help us discover, reclaim, and build communities where the Life of Christ can flow among us, healing us and bonding us together in unity. I believe that each of us can hasten the coming of our Lord’s kingdom as we adopt this fundamental aspect of being disciples. I believe this is what it means to walk in the light and consequently enjoy fellowship with Him.
Father, may Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, not just in foreign nations, but right here in the midst of our more sophisticated, busy, secular—and religious—darkness. Teach a new generation of us disciples how to go free once and for all from the offenses we have retained so that we can collectively become a conduit for Life from heaven to earth. Amen.