Disciples Forgive (John 20:19-23)

day of pentecost

Six weeks ago, on the Sunday after Easter, we looked at this same story from the perspective that Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Discipleship is about Jesus preparing and equipping us to carry on his work in the world on his behalf by the power of his Spirit.

As we celebrate God’s gift of his Holy Spirit to his people at Pentecost, I want to look at this story again from the perspective of the work the Spirit empowers us to do.

I have had lots of conversations with Christians over the years about how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer. One aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work that doesn’t seem to get talked about a lot, however, is the Spirit’s work of forgiveness. Yet here, at the end of his gospel, when Jesus appeared to his disciples in the evening of his resurrection, John makes a strong connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness of sins.

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t talk about forgiveness a lot is because our culture doesn’t like talking about sin. We still suffer from the effects of sin, though, even if we want to try to deny its existence. So many people that I talk to describe how they feel guilty, or have regrets in life, or carry a sense of shame. The remedy for these afflictions rests in the gift Jesus gave to his disciples in this story: forgiveness.

Another reason talking about forgiveness can be difficult is that it doesn’t come naturally to us. We tend to find it hard to believe that we can be forgiven for the wrongs we have done or the guilt that we carry. We can also find it hard to forgive people who have wronged us. That is why the gift of the Holy Spirit is so important for us. The Spirit of God works in us what we can’t do for ourselves. The Spirit creates forgiving hearts within us by giving us the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross and the empty tomb. Then, having experienced forgiveness, we are more likely be forgiving people. That is why Jesus taught his disciples, including us, to love others like he loves us (John 13:34). To love someone means forgiving them and not keeping a record of their wrongs (see 1 Corinthians 13:5).

This isn’t a gift that is just given to pastors, priests, or whatever your name for the professional clergy might be. Just as one of the emphases of the festival of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is given to all of God’s people, so all of God’s people have the authority and the privilege to lift the burdens of guilt, shame and regret by forgiving others. We all pray ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ in the Lord’s Prayer. The sad reality is that some people never hear words of forgiveness outside of worship, so I consider it a high priority each week to tell people who live in a harsh, judging and condemning world that they are forgiven for Christ’s sake. It is my constant prayer that the Spirit of the living Christ will use these words to breathe life into people’s hearts so they can believe they really are forgiven children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Mark 1:11 etc), and they can in turn extend God’s forgiveness to the people in their lives who need it.

Obviously, forgiveness isn’t all the Holy Spirit does in the life of a believer, but it is a vital and life-giving aspect of the Spirit’s work. As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, it is good to remember firstly that Jesus’ disciples are forgiven people and to ask the Spirit of Christ to give us a bold faith to hang on to the forgiveness he gives to us. As Jesus’ forgiven disciples, then, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to extend that same forgiveness to everyone in our lives, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most.

More to think about:

  • Why do you think some people find it hard to accept forgiveness? Why do you think some people find it hard to forgive others?
  • Do you find it easy to believe that you are a forgiven person? If you are living with guilt or shame or regret, where do you think these feelings come from?
  • Why do you think John connects Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples with the forgiveness of sins? (It might help to go back to Jesus promising the Paraclete [someone who stands beside us and speaks God’s truth to us] in John 14:16,17)
  • Who is someone that you find difficult to forgive? How might the gift of God’s Holy Spirit help you to forgive that person?
  • Who do you know that might need the gift of forgiveness? How might you be able to extend Jesus’ gift of forgiveness to them?