Drive out of New Orleans first thing on a Sunday morning after the town’s had a frisky night, and you learn that depravity isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds. Suzy and I, three children on the back seat, passed through the French Quarter, getting an early start home after a day in the Bayou among more mosquitoes than I had skin to feed. Now the dawn light curdled on the streets in a bilious yellow. A young guy in pink trousers and a torn shirt sorted a stack of dollar bills, flattening them out on the kerb, while around him a woman brushed bottles, crisp packets, and polystyrene cartons, off the sidewalk and onto his legs. Down the street, three leftover revellers cuddled each other like kittens nobody wanted. A neon sign still flashed from the night, advertising ‘Girls’, only the ‘R’ was broken, so it looked like ‘Gills’. We pulled up at a stop light next to a parked car. My son was looking at it out of the window, he said, ‘Daddy, that man’s dead.’ Well, he certainly looked peaky. Behind the wheel, head back, his eyes half-open and each socket filled with a puffy bruise; his cheeks were so hollow they might shelter mice. He wasn’t moving, not a twitch and not even the smallest swell of breath; on any of the usual indicators of liveliness, he was what the medics, I believe, call ‘unresponsive.’ Suzy asked if we should call an ambulance. I said he’d be pretty miffed if was just taking a quiet kip. “Perhaps he’s praying,” said my elder daughter, who was going through an idealistic phase. We decided to drive around the block and, if he moved in the meantime, we’d leave him in what were, almost certainly, the proceeds of some strenuous sinning. Five minutes later, we were back, no more movement on the streets, except somebody had started hosing the detritus of jollity off the road. As to the car, for a moment, I thought we had life but it turned out that gravity had got a grip on what I could now see was a toupee. Since the guy’s mouth had also dropped open, the slipping hair looked like an weary rat shuffling to its den after a heavy night spreading the plague. Collectively, my family have a hard time making decisions, so we thought we’d give resuscitation one last chance before calling for help; again, we circled the block. By the time we got back I’d decided action was essential or some cop would think we were trafficking the children. I suggested trying the horn, so Suzy hit it hard and long. The guy’s mouth snapped shut and he bolted to about as near attention as you can get still sitting down. The toupee flopped onto the dashboard. He gave me a look of affront and indignation that swelled into an unforgiving rage at which I decided we should press on. Ungrateful swine, I thought, don’t you come crying to me when you’re really dead. As we left the Quarter, the place was still making its tentative jabs toward getting breathing and upright: sweeping off its abandoned joys, counting its gains, and coughing on its excess. I know there’s more to New Orleans than its Sunday morning leftovers – there’s the jazz, for a start – but on that day, driving through the party’s collateral damage, it was Sin City, heavy and dull and stuck in its sins.
” And when Jesus had said this, he breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”.”
As resurrection promises go, this may seem a bit disappointing. “Baptize all nations… and I shall be with you always,” has, you might say, more scope and grandeur; and Mark’s passage about picking up serpents and downing poison without the merest twinge of indigestion has a most satisfying touch of the superhero, an entity I have always longed to be. Forgiveness, though, appears a little bland, the stuff of private life, of our petty wrangles. Tolerance for the guy next door who burns his old socks while we’re enjoying the garden. I’m wrong, of course, very wrong. Give us the power to forgive, Lord, and, with this lever, we shall move the world. Again and again history tangles the enmities of peoples and nations into immense and unshifting knots that no wisdom, no words, no diplomacy, no bargains, no peril can undo. Forgiveness alone cuts against the knot, the impossible step of renouncing right and grudge and healing the wounds of enormity by dropping one’s guard and blessing. Time and again, our slowness of heart, our touchiness, our selfishness, hardens the tracks along which our communities move but hardly change. Settled rivalries, memories of slight and bitterness constrain the gospel which, in truth, like the nimble cat would go anywhere and knows a fence is just another place to spring. Only in forgiving and working for forgiveness, does the Church find itself; this is its proper calling, this weakness that lays us open, disarms us and leads us where, but for Jesus, we would not go. Of course, that’s the rub. Forgiveness guarantees no immediate joy, it does not even guarantee peace, though it is the only way to it. Forgiveness is dangerous, it may even provoke more violence, more grief. Sometimes, I fear forgiveness in my bones, I can hardly imagine forgiving some people or receiving forgiveness from some I’ve hurt; it would be so raw and risk such uncertainty. By comparison, my resentment and grievances at least contribute to predictability. Yet, here is Jesus, making his new creation, giving us his authority, which is the authority to forgive, the only power we may not want. Forgive anyone, he says, and they are forgiven. How so? Forgive, Jesus says, and you and I are one, the same life flows in both of us, vine and branches, when you bless, your blessing gives my word. Forgive, says Jesus, and you are at one with me, as stars that align with heaven.
“If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
This is hard. Does Jesus pull the rug on his own blessing? Forgive… yes, but not everyone. What does it mean to “retain sins”? Surely, retaining sins is what the hard-hearted do. The violent, those who hold their grudges tight and tabulate offenses, they retain sins. They store them up against a day of vengeance or, more likely, exact the price in a thousand tiny cuts. The world reels in miseries for all the sins grimly or cruelly, carelessly or despairingly retained. Jesus cannot mean this or we should have nothing more than a paper gospel. Forgive… but, not everyone.
What, though, if this business about retaining sin is, in fact, a warning? Not to others, but to us. Leaving New Orleans as the sun heats up another day, and last night’s drunks blink, and the Quarter slops itself out, ready for all tomorrow’s parties, do we leave them in their sins? Did I fail my aspiring zombie lolling behind the wheel? He coughs, snarls at us, and sticks the car in drive, while we move off. Do we retain his sins; leave him in them, like one beaten in a ditch, for want of a blessing we could not even imagine how to give? This would mean, though, that the limitations of our discipleship set the limits of God’s forgiveness. If that is so, then where and when we do not speak, convict, evangelize, God does not forgive. All around us, sins set fast, tighten round our neighbours’ hearts, because we are unsteady, timorous, and unprofitable servants. If that’s true, if this is what Jesus meant, then I strongly suggest that those who are about to be ordained slip now quietly to the exits, shed your robes, and take up some less pressured occupation like lion-taming or the SAS. For that matter, since Jesus is addressing all of us and not just the clergy, you might all consider finding a more amiable faith. You and I cannot bear such a freight of sin, such horrific consequence; and the God who promises not to break the bruised reed or forget the thoughtless sheep, does not demand such a crushing accountability. Which leads us back to this strange word: “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus says, “I don’t come to judge anyone.” Yet, when he speaks, when he works mercy and not condemnation, the world divides. A blind man spends his whole life scratching for crumbs, sitting in darkness, trusting for a passing pity on his plight, the odd dropped coin. Jesus anoints his blank eyes with a little clay; then, as he washes, the mud becomes water becomes light becomes a world he has never seen. Not everybody can bear such illumination, though. The Pharisees can’t, they treat the man like a criminal, condemn him, and cast him out. You are lying, they say, a fraud, a follower of some nobody, “born in utter sin.” Now, tumbling down those courthouse steps, he wonders how this blessing could earn him such a curse. Of course, he runs into Jesus, who judges no one but yet has set going this fury of judgement from his enemies. Jesus now tells the man, “for judgement I came into this world, that those who are blind may see, and that those who see may become blind.” The one who was in need, is now healed, but those who thought themselves whole, clearly need healing, and from something far worse. They saw the mercy of Jesus, were offended, and blinded themselves. Sometimes, I’ve met goodness, I cannot bear; light in eyes, and grace in speech, and love in acts, so bright that I shrink. I am uncomfortable with this weight of goodness, I stiffen and down deep there’s a rumble of rage, and I want to hide, not to see this godliness, I want to switch out the light. That’s Jesus’ way of judgement, the judgement of one who does not judge, the light that shows where the shadows are.
Leaving New Orleans on a steamy Sunday morning, we pass a church sign. It reads, “New Orleans, Sin is Your Problem.” There is also a reference to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and an assurance that refreshments will follow. Yes, sin is our problem, and not one peculiar to pale men sleeping off last night’s party. Sin is our problem, but what sort of problem is it, really? The sun comes up and you see, in the impartial light, the signs of excess sluiced and swept, ready for the next round. It all looks drab and shabby but, above all, it looks needy, like a desperate striving that missed its mark. Jesus is the form of God’s working goodness, his mercy, his forgiveness, and against it, as a reaction, sin bristles and digs in its heels – it remains. It remains, though, precisely as the terrible sickness that fears its own healing. In ourselves, in everyone who embraces God’s mercy, this gift divides us, we receive God’s love, we rejoice in it, and yet we resist it also. The Church both loves the light and flees it. So, in the world also, the gift is given and the world takes offense. Jesus reveals sin for what it truly is: a vast and unwitting cry for mercy; the appeal hidden in that terrified rage against the love that disarms us. In sight of him, selfishness, hatred, violence expose their roots in need; sin is the lack his goodness alone can heal, the darkness it would illuminate.
When the Spirit comes, Jesus says, “he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Vine and branch, the Spirit grafts you into Christ. You are one life with him, forming in his image and likeness. In your ministry, in your mission, whether you are ordained or lay, you’ll inspire love, and you’ll meet contempt; you’ll bring alive and provoke rage; you’ll reconcile and find yourself at odds; you’ll bring clarity, and comfort, and hope, and faith, yet faces will harden against you and hearts will close. You’ll turn the wills of men and women to the freedom and joy of God, and you’ll weep over those who, because of the life within you, will resist, their sins retained. Do not fret about this. It’s not about you, it’s about Jesus. The point is not how good, worthy, eloquent, skilful, persuasive, or spiritual you are; even the least of us, even the most tentative disciple will divide the world, will forgive and retain sins. Simply because we are one life with God’s eternal Son. Therefore, when you speak and they change the subject, when you are unfairly opposed, when you fail, where you are not heard, where you act in faith and make things worse, when you pray without seeing the merest hope of change, then you know that you are where you need to be, where Jesus is, at the place where the world cries for mercy and secretly begs for healing. Do not fear sin’s intractability. That’s not your problem, it’s not your job to worry about that. Your job is to keep faith, often where faith is scorned or despaired of; your calling is to stay humble, knowing that the confrontation of light and darkness passes through you also. So, speak the truth, build up the Body of Christ, pray, do the deeds of mercy, and forgive. There is in God a plenitude of mercy that shall surprise us constantly and, in the end, show us that, for all our hopes, our hopes were still too small.
Jesus dies between two thieves. One is struck to the heart, calls for life, “Remember me!,” and is forgiven. The other sees Jesus and spits rage, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” That anger, too, is prayer, the prayer of one whose sins are retained, the prayer of furious, enraged human need. “Save yourself and us!” This impenitent thief does not know what he is saying. Yet, he says it, nonetheless, because Jesus has chosen to be right there, next to him. And is there one among us who would dare say, for a certainty, that he was not heard?