Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them": The readings for Divine Mercy Sunday

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, this Sunday--the first Sunday after Easter--is known as "Divine Mercy Sunday". Not surprisingly, God's mercy and the forgiveness of sins is a major theme in the readings that will be proclaimed.

Let us take a look.

FIRST READING: Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves
to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,
to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone,
and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.
They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart,
praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.
And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The first reading from Acts 2 describes the earliest Christian community's life after Pentecost. Although there are many fascinating aspects of this reading (e.g., the significance of the early Christians going to the temple), for our purposes I'd like to highlight the way Luke presents the first Christians committing themselves to four specific activities.

But before I do that we need to read this passage in context to really understand why this passage is relevant for Divine Mercy Sunday. Although it is not given in the lectionary selection, it is important to note the way the early church's life is depicted as an outworking of the Christian response to Peter's first sermon. 

Specifically, in Acts 2 Peter proclaims:
"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38)
The passage from Acts read this Sunday describe the way the earliest converts lived after they embraced his invitation to faith. Immediately following Peter's sermon, we read the following:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles... (Acts 2:41-42)
The last verse there is where the lectionary selection for this Sunday begins.

In other words, the life of the early church described in the first reading is presented as a response to Peter's announcement of Divine Mercy; God has offered forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ and the first believers receive this through baptism. They then live in such a way that expresses their reception of God's mercy.

Specifically, this is spelled out in their devotion to four things. 

First, the teaching of the apostles. Note here that though the Spirit had descended on the early church, this did not render apostolic authority unnecessary. The early Christians were specifically devoted to the teaching of the Twelve. The apostles had been Christ's witnesses and they were recognized as having an authoritative office--an office that would receive successors as Judas was succeeded by Matthias in Acts 1. To be Christian, was to recognize apostolic authority and to be "devoted" to the teaching that it imparted. 

Second, they were devoted to koinonia--translated, "the communal life". The word in the Greek has a wide range of meaning but, without getting too specific, we can simply say that the early Christians are here presented as intensely focused on expressing their communion with one another. Since the passage goes on to describe the way the community held all things in common, koinonia is probably especially seen as related to that practice. By sharing all of their resources, the community expressed their unity, caring for one another. It is also worth pointing out that the unity of the Christian church in Acts also seems to be expressed through the agreement on doctrine. In Acts 15, the earliest Christians recognize the need to have a unified position on the question of circumcision. Peter stands up "after there had been much debate" and, after his speech, "all the assembly kept silence" (Acts 15:7, 12). The community's devotion to the "teaching of the apostles" is not, therefore, unrelated to their devotion to the "communal life". 

Third, they devoted themselves to "the breaking of the bread". Luke uses this terminology in reference to the eucharistic celebration (cf. Luke 22:19). It is true, "the breaking of the bread" may also have a larger reference, namely, to eating together. However, it is probably unwise to think the term has no eucharistic significance since it seems the early Christians celebrated the eucharist in connection their gathering to eat other meals (cf. 1 Cor 11:20-33). The passage goes in fact to describe how the Christians were "breaking bread in their homes" and how they "ate their meals with . . . sincerity of heart". The eucharistic celebration, therefore, seems to have been a core part of the early Christian community's life. Of course, Paul links the eucharist to koinonia (cf. 1 Cor 10:16) and to the traditions he received, presumably (at least in part) from the apostles. So the "breaking of the bread" may be closely related to the devotion of the early Christians to the apostles teaching and the communal life.

Fourth, the disciples devoted themselves to the prayers. Christian life is necessarily rooted in the life of prayer. Indeed, more than the other evangelists, Luke highlights the way Jesus regularly spent time in prayer, typically alone (cf. Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:28-29; 11:1; 22:41-46). To be a Christian, is to be like Christ; to be a Christian is to pray. Luke tells us that Jesus taught the disciples "that they ought always to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1). 

To sum up then, the Christian response to Divine Mercy is expressed through:
  • fidelity to apostolic teaching
  • the communal life, especially, taking financial responsibility for one another
  • the breaking of the bread, in particular, the eucharistic celebration
  • prayer

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24
R/ (1) Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.

R/ Alleluia.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let those who fear the LORD say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R/ Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R/ Alleluia.

I was hard pressed and was falling,
but the LORD helped me.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
The joyful shout of victory
in the tents of the just:
R/ Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R/ Alleluia.

The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the LORD has made;
let us be glad and rejoice in it.
R/ Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R/ Alleluia.
Psalm 118 is probably my favorite chapter of the whole Bible. In fact, after I finished my doctoral dissertation (in which I spent a lot of time in this psalm) my wonderful wife gave me a surprise gift by having pens made with the verse "His steadfast love endures forever!" and "Psalm 118" made up. I always have one sitting on my desk. The gift meant a lot to me--and still does. 

The psalm is a bit complicated in structure, meaning, and significance, but, in its essence, it is a prayer of thanksgiving that proclaims the goodness and mercy of God. It is particularly apt for the Easter season because of the line, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone"--a passage which is interpreted in the New Testament in connection with Christ's death and resurrection. In the light of the New Testament, in the Paschal Mystery we have the expression of God's mercy and deliverance of his people par excellence

SECOND READING: 1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,
kept in heaven for you
who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith,
to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while
you may have to suffer through various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith,
more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire,
may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor
at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Peter describes how we have received a "new birth" through the "great mercy" of God. This rebirth orients us towards a hope in a heavenly inheritance which is our salvation. Of course, this salvation will only be fully revealed at the end of time, namely, at the second coming of Jesus ("at the revelation of Jesus Christ").

Yet salvation is also something experienced in the present. We already have received a "new birth". 1 Peter 3:21 links this to baptism. "Baptism," Peter writes, "now saves you."

The life of faith, therefore, entails a journey. We are "now saved" in baptism but also recognize that salvation involves a process of growth in which our faith will be "tested by fire" and thereby be perfected.

Nonetheless, even now we "rejoice". Sounding a theme that will also be emphasized in the Gospel reading, the faithful believe" "even though you do not see him now". How is this possible? Faith. And faith, Peter reminds us, safeguards us "by the power of God".

Faith, then, is a gift. It is received in baptism but it must necessarily grow. Believers rejoice because they knows that, though they must "suffer various trials", with God's help--through the "great mercy of God"--it will "attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls".

GOSPEL: John 20:19-31
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.” 
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them. 
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” 
Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
Jesus' words to Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" clearly resonate with the message of the Second Reading. However, it also relates to the First Reading. There we read about how the earliest converts lived after having come to faith by hearing Peter's sermon on Pentecost. Unlike Peter, they had not seen the risen Lord. They too, in a sense, believed without seeing.

Of course, in Acts the first converts embrace the message of forgiveness of sins--of Divine Mercy--only after the Spirit had been poured out on the apostles at Pentecost. Forgiveness of sins comes as a result of the reception of the Spirit.

In John 20, Jesus also links the forgiveness of sins to the giving of the Spirit. Specifically, Jesus imparts to the disciples the Spirit to enable them to "forgive" sins and to "retain" sins. Forgiveness of sins is therefore specifically linked to the ministry of the apostles. These are the ones entrusted with the ministry of reconciling people to God.

In our commentary above we emphasized the importance of the apostolic ministry in Acts 2. Here it is no less important. Forgiveness of sins is not simply experienced through a private prayer. Forgiveness is ecclesial. Note: the apostles not only have the authority to forgive sins, they also can retain sins.

This is only possible, of course, because they have received the Holy Spirit. The apostles, therefore, are the instruments of God; they don't forgive sins of themselves or by their own power, but because God is acting in them.

Of course, for the early Christians this was understood in terms of sacrament of penance. Forgiveness of sins involved an ecclesial dimension. Forgiveness was linked to the ministry of the church. Thus Chrysostom writes:
"Anyone who considers how much it means to be able, in his humanity still entangled in flesh and blood, to approach that blessed and immaculate Being will see clearly how great the honor is that the grace of the Spirit has bestowed on priests. It is through them that this work is performed, and other work no less than this in its bearing on our dignity and our salvation.  
For earth's inhabitants, having their life in this world, have been entrusted with the stewardship of heavenly things, and they have received an authority that God has not given to angels or archangels. Not to them was it said, 'Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose, shall be loosed' [Matt 18:18]. Those who are lords on earth have indeed the power to bind, but only people's bodies. But this binding touches the very soul and reaches through heaven. What priests do on earth, God ratifies above. The Master confirms the decisions of his servants. Indeed, he has given them nothing less than the whole authority of heaven. For he says, 'Whoever's sins you forgive are forgiven, and whoever's sins you retain, they are retained.' What authority could be great than that? . . .  
For it is patently mad to despise this great office without which we cannot attain to salvation or God's good promises. For if one 'cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and the Spirit' [John 3:5], and anyone who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink his blood is excluded from eternal life [John 6:53], and all these things can happen through no other agency excerpt their sacred hands (the priests', I mean), how can anyone, without their help, escape the fire of Gehenna or win his appointed crown?--John Chrysostom, d. 407 (On Priesthood 3.5; cited in Joel C. Elowsky, John 11-21 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IVb [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007], 363-64). 
This Divine Mercy Sunday let us repent of our sins and thank God for the ministry of the Church, particularly, its ministers, through whom God works as instruments for the forgiveness of sins.


Susan Moore said...

I have discovered that one of the greatest benefits of returning to the Catholicism is the opportunity to return to confession. I go every month because I like that clean feeling. To my spirit it’s like that physical feeling in my mouth right after the hygienist finishes cleaning my teeth.
I wonder if there has been an increase in the amount of violence in the U.S. because there has been a decrease in the number of priests.
(Bty: Psalm 118 figures prominently by connecting in multiple places to His linguistic metalanguage –it’s a linguistic hotspot)

Sarah said...

I dont think you can put blame on one specific group for the increase in violence in this culture. Has the decrease of priests hurt the church? Sure. However, its like Pope Benedict XVI said: it would be better to have a smaller more spiritually filled church for the Lord, than a larger one that seeks to go with the flow of the culture.

Steve Finnell said...


Contrary to what men believe, only God can forgive the sins that have been committed against Him. Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young can forgive sins. Catholic priests cannot forgive sins. Lutheran ministers cannot forgive sins. There are no men dead or alive who can forgive the sins that men commit against God.


Isaiah 43:25 "I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins.


Micah 7:18 Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity...

Only God pardons iniquity. Joesph Smith, Brigham Young, Catholic priests, nor Lutheran ministers have the authority to pardon iniquity.

Daniel 9:98 To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him;

Mankind has rebelled against God and He alone can grant forgiveness.


Mark 2:6-11..the scribes...7...He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone? ....10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins"---He said to the paralytic, 11 "I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home."

The problem with scribes was they did not realize that Jesus was God in the flesh. Joesph Smith, Brigham Young, Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, nor any other men, are or were, God in the flesh.


Acts 8:18-22 ....20 But Peter said to him....22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.

The apostle Peter did not grant forgiveness to Simon, he told Simon to pray to God for forgiveness. Note, Simon was already a Christian.


John 20:19-23 ....23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained."

Jesus was not giving Peter and the rest of the apostles the power to grant forgiveness of sins to men on an individual bases, Jesus was not ordaining them as priests with that power. Jesus was giving Peter and the apostles the authority to proclaim the terms for forgiveness of sins. Peter and the apostles did just that on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:22-41...36 Therefore let the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ---this Jesus whom you crucified. 37...Peter and the rest of the apostles....38 Peter said to them , "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.)

Peter and the apostles did not forgive sins on the Day of Pentecost nor on any subsequent day. They declare God's terms for pardon.
FAITH: John 3:16
CONFESSION: Romans 10:9-10

Christians are not asked to confess to Joesph Smith, Brigham Young, Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, nor any other men, in order to have their sins against God forgiven!

Christians are to confess their sins to God in order to receive forgiveness. (1 John1:5-9 ....God is light... 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from unrighteousness.)

1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between men, the man Christ Jesus,

The only priest standing between men and God is the high priest, Jesus Christ.

NOTE: Confessing sins and asking God for forgiveness is only available to Christians. Non-Christians must have FAITH, REPENT, CONFESS JESUS AS LORD, BELIEVE IN HIS RESURRECTION AND BE BAPTIZED IN WATER IN ORDER TO THEIR SINS FORGIVEN.


Unknown said...

People do make mistakes and I think they should be punished. But they should be forgiven and given the opportunity for a second chance. We are human beings. See the link below for more info.