[As with some feasts there are some choices for the readings on Petecost. I have chosen the Mass During the Day] As we continue with the Acts of the Apostles, we return to near the beginning. Here we witness the scene, right after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, where the Holy Spirit descends. The Apostles were gathered in one room when the Holy Spirit arrived in a strong wind. All those gathered were given the ability to speak and understand different languages. In John’s Gospel (recounting an event that happened before the reading from Acts) Jesus appeared before the disciples despite the locked door. He breathed on them and told them that because they have received the Holy Spirit they now had the power to forgive sins: “those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, often known as the “birthday of the church.” Since Easter we have been following the days when the risen Jesus walked in our midst: after his resurrection and before his ascension and descent of the Holy Spirit. We can be forgiven for some nostalgia and even some envy for those who lived in those days.
And while it’s true that our faith means nothing outside of the resurrection, we also would not be who we are outside of Pentecost. When we hear the words of Jesus that we have the power to forgive sins (or withhold forgiveness) we may limit this to the ability of priests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But it’s much larger than that.
Imagine living in a place where the good stuff we do is fleeting but the bad stuff we do is permanent. Let’s face it: good deeds are always fleeting. Give up your seat on the bus to a pregnant woman or give encouragement to a child facing a difficult task and it’s good but will likely not be remembered a week later. Invent a device for cars that will save lives and it will make a good opening at your funeral but almost nobody outside of your family will connect you with the device. By the way, John Hetrick invented the air bag.
But what if we were defined, or at least known by, our worst moment? What if there was no escape from that memory?
For years the comedian Garrison Keillor opened us to the fictional Midwest town of Lake Wobegon and its residents. One such story revolves around a man who went to the local bar for a few drinks. On his way home he decided to drive out onto the frozen lake to check on his icehouse, but halfway there he remembered that he took it in a week ago because of the spring thaw. About that time the cracking of the ice told him this wasn’t his day and his truck broke through the ice and sank about five feet. As he sat on the roof of his truck waiting for rescue he realized that this would be long remembered. Quoting Mr. Keillor: As is true of everyone who does a dumb thing in a small town, he was often reminded of this. Every time he left the bar he was serenaded to a chorus of “go straight home now, no need to check on the icehouse.”
That story gets a chuckle out of us (and an understanding chuckle out of many) but I’m describing a place without forgiveness, a place where our reputation isn’t a balance of the good that we do and the stupid we do. Unfortunately we see that all around us.
Francis Scott Key wrote the American national anthem and we see his name decorating schools around the country. But not long ago a small group “discovered” that this Maryland resident owned slaves, which was legal in Maryland in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Now this group wishes to remove his name from all public places. Please understand I’m not defending slavery but Mr. Key broke no laws at the time, and virtually nobody even knew about this. Most of us know him because of his best deed, but others care only for his worst.
Additionally, there are a few companies who, for a large sum of money, will “repair your online reputation.” If you conduct a web search for your name and you find that the first several entries focus on a mistake you made or a horrible thing you did, your life will become much more difficult. It can make it hard to find a job, rent an apartment, or qualify for a loan. Ironically these companies can’t erase bad events, only crowd them out with good events.
But today’s Gospel gives us another path. The power to forgive doesn’t pretend that the person who hurt us didn’t really hurt us, and it doesn’t diminish the seriousness of what happened. It does put the incident “in its place” and allows everyone to move on. As many of you know I used to be a priest and some of my most fulfilling moments happened when I participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (heard confessions). I witnessed brave men, women, and children struggle to move beyond a bad decision. It was an honor to be there.
Finally, this reminds me of the wisdom of 12 Step programs, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous. Much of their program doesn’t limit itself to avoiding alcohol. Instead it offers a new way of life that not only allows them to move on, it also encourages them to extend that mercy to others.
The people I know who are truly living in recovery don’t look down their noses at other addicts. They hope for, and pray for, “those who still suffer.” When someone hurts them they endeavor to forgive even it takes a long time. There is a German word “schadenfreude” which describes how one person enjoys the misfortune of another. True recovery does the opposite.
So should we. Pentecost gives us a tremendous gift. We have the power to forgive and not only those who have hurt us. It allows us to see everyone through the eyes of forgiveness. Let’s do that. No time like now.