May 31, Pentecost (John 20:19–23)
“Receive the Holy Spirit” isn’t an invitation. It’s a command.
Behind locked doors, afraid of what might happen next, mulling over the level of risk in the community and the intentions of the authorities, the remaining disciples huddle in an upper room. Some stay frozen in shock, while others cycle rapidly through the stages of grief as Friday becomes Saturday becomes Sunday. This week’s text takes us inside the room, later on the day when Mary Magdalene finds the empty tomb and encounters Jesus in the garden. In John’s Gospel, there is no 50-day wait for the Holy Spirit to arrive. Jesus appears and breathes the Spirit onto his followers as Easter Sunday becomes evening.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. He does not offer an invitation or allow an opportunity for avoidance. The Greek indicates a command, not “if you like” but “here, take it.” The Spirit is upon them and the power that comes with it, the forgiving and retaining of sins.
What do we make of that awe-filled responsibility? Some of us might be only too eager to act as spiritual judge and jury. Others would hesitate to get involved. In many churches we hesitate to judge our own members, much less to employ our collective power in measuring the sins of the world. Yet I think we must trust that the aid of the Spirit is part of the gift, empowering the receivers with not only authority and responsibility but also the capacity to discern when sins can be forgiven or must be retained.