Today is commonly called ‘Low Sunday’ in English. In German, it is called weißer Sonntag – White Sunday. In English we have our own White Sunday: Pentecost, or Whitsunday. The reasons for associating the colour white with these two different days are probably very different, but nonetheless there’s a connection between today and Pentecost in the Gospel reading.
On Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Ghost to the disciples after the ascension, as it is told by St Luke in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In today’s reading, on the other hand, we hear a similar story told in characteristically more mystical terms by St John: Jesus giving the gift of the Holy Ghost to his disciples by his own breath, after the resurrection but before the ascension.
In today’s Epistle and Gospel readings, we see not only how Christ came to us, died, and was resurrected, but that the Holy Spirit he gave us bears witness to these things for us. We remember the resurrection we celebrated last Sunday, but once again, as in Lent, we find ourselves driven to looking forward — this time to the Ascension and to Pentecost.
Jesus says before he gives them the Holy Spirit, ‘As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.’ What extraordinary words. ‘In the same way that my Father sent me, the eternal and divine Christ, to be become human, and to bear witness to God in the world through ministry, and to suffer for the sins of everyone else — in the same way as my Father sent me for these things, that’s what I’m sending you to do.’ In the narrative Jesus is speaking to his disciples, but this is his message to us all, his Church. And then he gives them the Holy Ghost.
John tells us the significance of this gift in his Epistle. If we have received the Holy Spirit, we live in truth. We bear witness to the truth of Christ. Without the Spirit, we have no truth; without the Spirit, we have no Christ in us, no resurrection in us, and no life in us.
This is the significance of the forgiveness of sins. Sin means death. Nine weeks ago, on the second Sunday before Lent, we heard in Genesis chapter 3 the origin of sin, and how mankind, that God had destined for immortality, rebelled against him by sinning. You had one job, Adam: don’t eat from that tree. But he did. After that, everyone who followed in the footsteps of Adam and Eve by sinning was doomed, like they were, to die.
But knowing Christ gives us life. Knowing Christ, we inherit the gifts that he gave us. He tells us that, if we forgive each others’ sins, they are forgiven. Just like that. One of the things the Pharisees objected to about Jesus’s ministry was how he, a mere man, dared to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. Only God can do that, they said. But when we know Christ and accept the gift of the Spirit, we can all forgive sin. We give each other the gift of eternal life and freedom from death.
All of us suffer from sin. We suffer from doing sinful things. We suffer from the sinful things other people do to us. Hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, is other people. As long as we have this sinful nature, we will carry on hurting each other, and suffering from being hurt by the sins of others – just as Christ suffered from the sins of his people against him. But he forgave them, and gave them life. He gave us the gift of life to share among ourselves.
When Psalm 22 came around in the daily office at the beginning of this month, I shared a brief reflection on the contrast between the first part of it, which is a clear prophecy of the crucifixion, and the second part, which dramatically changes mood and points to praise and thanksgiving to God for the resurrection. Good Friday, I said, is meaningless without Easter Sunday. The crucifixion of one poor, itinerant Jewish preacher for heresy would have been forgotten by history had he not shown himself to be divine by rising from the dead three days later.
Today’s readings urge us on in a similar way. The resurrection of Christ isn’t just an extraordinary miracle in and of itself, neither is it just that it shows us what lies ahead of us when our own bodies pass away. It points us to the Christian life on earth as well. It points us to living by the guiding of the Holy Spirit to spread his gift among us. If we let that gift guide us, it spreads among us — the most wonderful gift of all.
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words, which we have heard this day with our outward ears, may through thy grace be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honour and praise of thy Name — through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.