Words of THE WORD: “to forgive” 
Pentecost 2014

Gospel excerpt
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive (ἀφῆτε, aphete) are forgiven (ἀφέωνται, apheontai) them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23)

Reminiscent of the Father’s creative Breath that fashioned humanity in His image and likeness (Genesis 2), the Risen Jesus breathes that same creative Breath, the Person of the Holy Spirit, to continue His saving and renewing work through the forgiveness of sins.

Because the experience of forgiveness is at the core of Jesus’ teaching and way of living, it is well worth pondering its meaning in the Word of God this Pentecost Sunday. Throughout His Public ministry, Jesus freely imparted the Father’s forgiveness in response to sorrow for sin. He taught His disciples to forgive one another and included it as a petition in the prayer that defines all Christian Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. He even pronounced a prayer of forgiveness from His broken Body engulfed in a pain that words cannot even begin to express as He was dying on the Cross. And just in case none of this has moved us, Jesus concluded a parable with one of the Gospels’ most stinging challenge: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother (ἀφῆτε, aphete) from his heart (Matthew 18:35).”

Jesus’ Words certainly cut deep into our minds and hearts. Every time we hear Him say a word about forgiveness our minds vividly present us with the many faces of strained and broken relationships that are still oozing with pain. The pain and hurt often prompt thoughts, if not action, of revenge because ‘he or she is not going to get away with hurting me.’ Other times the hurts generate anger as we realize we cannot do anything to ‘feel better.’ We have experienced hurts so deep that ‘forgiveness’ (whatever that might be) seems impossible to us at that moment.

ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) is the Greek verb that is generally rendered “to forgive” in the majority of English Bible translations. In antiquity, ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) meant “to release” suggesting a prior action that has somehow bound or even imprisoned a person or object. Closely related to the meaning of “to release,” is “to leave” and “to leave to another.” While there are a number of other English words that also translate ἀφίημι (aphíēmi), all of the translations suggest some type of movement. This further suggests that ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) ‘permits’ movement since, implicitly, motion has been halted. Secular usage of ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) conveyed a sense of “lifting or releasing a debt owed;” a meaning that is often woven into biblical texts such as the Lord’s Prayer.

So what does this all have to say to us when it comes to the very difficult action of forgiving another or others? Sin (sin in Hebrew hatta means “to miss the mark”) by its very nature is not only evil or disorder, but also an evil or disorder that is chosen. When I sin, I choose to introduce a level of chaos and disorder into life that retards and may even stop any growth or movement in life towards the other, others and Other (God). The greater ‘the sin’ the harder the brakes are applied to life and relationship living. Some offenses may even bring all movement to a screeching stop similar to putting a car ‘in park’ and blocking the wheels, not to mention the possibility of lifting the car on jack stands and removing the wheels. Nobody is going anywhere then.

The act of forgiving (ἀφίημι (aphíēmi)) is a power breathed into life that has been stopped dead in its tracks. ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) is an act of creation – a mighty act of creation – enabled by the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity within that jump-starts life once again. It does not whitewash or pretend that the hurt or damage has not occurred. Forgiveness is not about forgetting or having the memory of the hurt obliterated. That is impossible; after all what has occurred is an event in history. The damage occurred in a particular time and particular place and is real. To ‘pretend’ otherwise is foolish. What forgiveness does, however, is release one from the crippling affect and effect that the memories of painful events have over our life in the present. In the end, forgiveness is Divine Love that calls forth life into existence much the same way reality first came into existence: the response to the Word, Jesus, breathing the Holy Spirit of Love by the almighty and loving Father.