Whose sins you forgive

This coming Sunday is Pentecost with the gospel reading taken from the Gospel of John. Many scholars see a parallel between John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The parallel becomes clearer when we know that the words “forgive” in John 20:23 are the Greek words aphiēmi and krateō which mean “send away” and “hold” respectively [EDNT 2:314].  But even with the parallels aside, the meaning, extent and exercise of the Matthean and Johannine powers has been a source of division with the post-Reformation Christian community.

The Council of Trent rejected the proposal that this power to forgive sins was offered to each of Christ’s faithful – something one often sees in commentaries from a Reformed perspective. The Catholic Church has always held that the power to forgive sin was to be understood as that ministry to which the ordained minister was called; something it had maintained as the teaching of the church and only formally declared at Trent when it was challenged by the Reformers.  As Fr. Brown notes [1041] this is not a debate that can be settled solely on exegetical grounds – nor does the Catholic Church propose such a solution. The Church looks to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

The Church has also looked at Jesus’ own action toward sin as expressed in John.  In 9:39-41 Jesus says that he came into the world for judgment; to enable some to see and to cause blindness for others. Deliberate blindness means remaining in sin; and, implicitly, willingness to see results in being delivered from sin.” [Brown, 1042]  So as Jesus was sent into the world, so too the apostles and their successors to exercise discriminating judgment between good and evil.  This idea of the apostles as agents of discriminating judgment is reinforced by the idea that the Advocate/paraclete is working through the apostles as an avenue of the outpouring of the Spirit that cleanses people and begets within them new life. All-in-all this passage is a declaratory statement that the core of Jesus’ ministry, forgiveness of sin and the restoration of right relationship, continues within the community generally, but in specific sacramental ministries in the particular sense.

This gospel passage makes clear that there is a strong relationship between the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit – and Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit points to the Resurrection as the start, the source and the reason for mission.  As Jesus has been sent, so too are we sent on mission.  Those are the final words of the celebration of the Mass:  Ita misa est – Go! [the church] is mission!

Image credit: Fr. Ted Bobash, pravolavie.ru, CC BY-SA

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