“And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (Reference: John 20:22-23 )
The writer of the gospel of John places this scene after Jesus has risen from the dead and has shown himself to the disciples. Other gospels place the giving of the Holy Spirit after Jesus has returned to heaven, keeping to the strict structure of Jesus gone and the Spirit comes. If the original disciples walked amongst us, we could ask them.
The point is not so much when the Spirit came, but that it did come. The historic Anabaptists tied together the coming of the Spirit and the forgiving or not forgiving of sins. Pilgram Marpeck wrote “For the Holy Spirit of God is the key of heaven, through which sin is retained or forgiven in the community of the saints! . . . . No one is commanded to judge without the Holy Spirit, without whom no certain judgment is possible.” This may seem to indicate that historic Anabaptists left all judgments to the Spirit.
Very early on, when the beliefs of t he historic Anabaptists were solidifying some interpretations of the Spirit would clashes with another, and each group would “withhold” forgiveness from the other, and refuse to have brotherhood, one with the other. This aspect of historic Anabaptist that comes down to us and still lingers in our practices is the act of excommunication. I was reminded of this just the day before I wrote this commentary, and so my ponderings from that are fresh in my mind.
Between the early days of Anabaptism and emigrating and immigrating of Anabaptists/Mennonites to other countries, there is a rich history of how the faith evolved and adapted to the times. Our brethren that retain a less technological type of lifestyle have held on to judging by the Spirit but mediating it through the judge-er’s own agenda. Less delicately put, conflicts of faith issues and life practices meant that believers who were thought to have “gone astray” were excommunicated and could only be admitted back into fellowship after that had confessed their “sins.”
This excommunication practice dates back to Menno Simons who in the middle to late 1400’s thought much and wrote much on evolving Anabaptist theology. His careful thought and wisdom lessened the tensions between the groups, and a harmony of beliefs took hold, at least in the area where he had influence. He had much to say on excommunication, but reserved it for sins against God as acted against a brother or sister. Criminal matters, he said, need to be referred to the civil authorities; but matters of faith should be held between the sinner and who was sinned against, be it a person or the faith community.
Modern Anabaptists/Mennonites do not retain for themselves with the same sense of holding onto forgiveness versus granting forgiveness. We try to forgive everyone because God forgives us. We moderns are much more likely to allow forgiveness to be between the person and the Spirit. Very rarely is personal spiritual/faith wrongdoing referred to church leaders. Criminal/civil wrongdoing is “sniffed out” most effectively by the law.
However, just as in our early history, a clash of faith or belief practices can result in much turmoil between faith communities. Not person to person but group to group. Anabaptists/Mennonites, as we have grown in number, have evolved a diversity of beliefs. And society, culture, and the media have splintered the cohesiveness that Anabaptists/Mennonites once had. We see it, acknowledge it, and struggle with what to do about it. We do not call it excommunication or “shunning” any more. It is now disciplining, as if the errant group have been naughty or mischievous.
I guess when I look at this issue in its entirety, we have done just what this verse from the gospel of John says; withheld our forgiveness from each other. But what Jesus gave as a way for the disciples to teach and guide new believers, we have made a club to hit and correct each other. And it is not a good thing beloved. Not a good thing at all. Would that we would have the wisdom of the original disciples. Would that you would too. Selah!