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Sunday 11 April 2021: Second Sunday of Easter

Holding on and letting go

John 20:19-31

By Rusty Edwards

Senior Minister, First Baptist Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Context: an urban congregation with average attendance of approximately 150 that describes itself as ‘progressive’

Aim: to highlight the meaning of our vocation to retain and forgive sins, connecting this to the work of holding on to injustice and working for the day when injustices cease and can be let go

We join the disciples on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. They are securely locked inside a room when suddenly Jesus appears, offering them a traditional Hebrew greeting: ‘Peace be with you.’ If a person you know to be dead suddenly shows up, that is about the best greeting they can offer.

Jesus repeats these words. This time he adds, ‘as Creator God has sent me into this world, so now I send you.’ Then Jesus breathes into them and says, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’

In Genesis 2, the Lord God formed the first human from the humus of the earth and breathed into its nostrils so that it became a living creature. Now, on the evening of resurrection, Jesus breathes into his followers. This is an act of re-creation. This is an act as universal as that first breath of God that gives us being.

In Genesis 2, the breath of God breathed into us is connected to our human vocation. Immediately, we are called to reverently care for the natural world so that it might flourish – the ground, the animals, human community. And so this breath of re-creation on the evening of resurrection also comes with vocation: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.’


What is this holy vocation breathed into us by Jesus?

This vocation of forgiveness and retention of sins calls the people of Jesus to join God once again in nurturing the life of the world. This is a vocation that calls us to join the work of re-forming the places and systems and communities of injustice and brokenness that mar creation.

The word translated into English as ‘forgive’ is a word that means ‘to let it go.’ New Testament scholar, Craig Koester, says if you take your hand and clench it to make a fist, you have the word used here for retain, or ‘to hold onto.’ To let go and its opposite, to hold onto. This is what Jesus did throughout his ministry.

When Jesus was confronted with communal injustices (self-righteous men who were ready to stone a woman for adultery, communities shocked that Jesus would eat with those people, oppressive economic systems that harmed the working poor) he did not just let those wrongs go, he held onto them. Jesus held onto them long enough to name them, to call them out, to bring those communal injustices to light. Injustices need to be held on long enough to name the sin that destroys.

Jesus held onto what is broken in our world in the hope of being able to release those injustices so that past wrong would no longer define the future. His aim was to liberate everyone, to let go of that which mars the goodness of life as God created it.

This vocation to join Jesus in holding on and letting go is not about the church being the custodian of salvation. Instead the church is called to the work of nurturing the renewal of creation.

This passage, which has been read as if we in the church have the right to decide who is and is not forgiven, suddenly makes sense. Breathed into by Jesus, we are given the vocation of holding onto injustice long enough to name it, to bring our community’s brokenness out of the shadows and into the light and force our neighbours to confront it. It is our vocation to hold onto and retain brokenness in the hope that we will one day be able to let injustices go. We hold on until the day comes that oppressors repent, and then we let go. We hold on until all creation is liberated, and then we let go of the past and move into a re-created future. This is a vocation of resurrection.

In the beginning, God breathed into our nostrils and tasked us with the care of creation. At the dawning of a new beginning, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into us, tasking us with the work of holding onto and letting go so that all creation might move into a future of perfect love and peace.

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