When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:20-23)
On the evening of the same day on which Christ rose from the dead, he breathed the Holy Spirit upon His disciples. They certainly needed comfort, encouragement and being uplifted. Jesus then immediately speaks about the forgiveness of sins. He is guiding His apostles to thinking about the real message of His crucifixion and resurrection. Forgiveness is not just something to offer a friend, it is the love we are to offer enemies as well!
In Luke 23:34, as the Lord Jesus is being crucified, He says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” He does this without reservation, caveat or exception. Orthodox hymns of Holy Week do not give much attention to those forgiving words of Christ, mentioning them only once during the entire week, while frequently pointing an accusing finger at Judas or the Jews. Christ’s death on the cross was to take away the sins of the world, not to add to them (Hebrews 9:16; 1 John 3:5; 1 Peter 2:24).
Unlike Jesus, the Church in its hymnology has been reluctant to forgive those who killed Him – as reflected in its Holy Week. Christ forgives those who tortured and murdered Him as soon as He is nailed to the cross – in other words, while He is suffering and in agony – not after His victorious resurrection when injury no longer has any effect on Him. Thus, it is worth noting in the quote above from John 20, that the first thing Christ says to His apostles after breathing the Holy Spirit on them is about forgiveness – forgive the sins of any and they are forgiven. The Lord is reminding His disciples in His first encounter with them after His resurrection about what He had said when He was nailed to the cross: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Christ is directing His apostles to do what He had already done – forgive those who murdered Me. He is inviting His disciples to share in His ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Jesus is telling His followers: Don’t see the people of the world, especially those who killed me, as having amassed an insurmountable debt to God – that debt has been canceled/forgiven/paid on my Cross by my wounds. He is telling His disciples to put into action what He has already done: forgive those who hate Me. But then He leaves it to them to choose to forgive or not and tells them they also have the power to retain sins, though that is not the ministry that Christ came into the world to accomplish. The disciples/apostles have to struggle with their negative thoughts, feelings and phobias about those who killed their Lord – and still pose a threat to themselves. Christ’s message is one of forgiveness, He wants His apostles to take that same message to the world, not one of vengeance. In John’s Gospel, it is a message to forgive, rather than calling others to repentance (something John never does in his gospel). Christ wanted us to share in His ministry of reconciling the world to God our Father. This we do by forgiving sins rather than accusing others of being sinners.
During Holy Week, the hymns remind us of what the people chose to do to the Messiah – crucify Him. But then, they should also remind us that our task is to do what Christ did – forgive those who crucified Him or still crucify Him by rejecting Christ. Our piety should not be to hate those who killed Jesus, but to forgive them as Christ did — we are to imitate Christ not His crucifiers. Reminding us of Christ’s torment and pain is to remind us how real His forgiveness is and the price He paid for our salvation. He wasn’t forgiving those who hadn’t sinned against Him, He was forgiving those who cruelly tortured and killed Him. That is the phenomenal message of the Church: Christ comes to seek and save sinners not the righteous. Which is not to say (read St Paul!) that then I better choose to sin so Christ will seek me, but that we are to imitate Christ in our own lives to the degree that we are capable.