The Gospel for April 8th, 2018: “Appearance to the Disciples” and “Thomas”
Reflection: The Gift of Free Will
In the past, I would have read today’s gospel and focused on Doubting Thomas. Possessing a highly skeptical nature, I relate strongly to the apostle who needed to see Jesus’ wounds to truly believe that Jesus had returned from the dead. However, my faith has matured to a point where I am less interested in my own skepticism than I once was. While I still have plenty of moments of doubt, skepticism about faith in Jesus as our merciful savior is less a stumbling block for me than it once was.
So in reading today’s gospel, I am focusing on the advice Jesus gives to the apostles after He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, which I find puzzling. He says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (22-23). I understand the wisdom of forgiving sins, but what does Jesus mean when He tells them the sins they retain will be retained?
I did a little online searching and found a helpful source on this puzzle. Jesuit academic James Schall wrote a column for the online publication, The Catholic Thing, in 2016 on this very line. He explains Jesus is giving advice to the apostles as confessors, noting retained sins are “[o]nly those that we present or fail to present to be judged as to what they are, along with our participation in their coming to be.” Schall maintains that Christ is making it clear that priests are not in the business of forgiving all sins as confessors, only those the sinner is willing to acknowledge, not those he denies.
I admit I don’t know if this is a mainstream or orthodox understanding of this line, only that it makes sense to me. On the basis of this reading, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the concept of free will and its critical role in salvation. In discussing this historically theological point, I am exercising my blogger’s right to reflect without addressing the debates of Christian tradition on free will as a theologian or clergy might be obligated. I acknowledge I am not well read in this area. Nevertheless, I have given this some thought and think this is the appropriate time to share those insights.
I believe God created us with free will knowing full well we might exercise it by rejecting His love and sovereignty in pride. I believe He did this so that we may authentically share in His creative love, which is free and selfless. If He had created us like robots and programmed us to love and obey Him, it would not be free and holy. God does not need the love of His creatures, but in His generosity He wishes us to share in His glory by participating in the divine love, which is unmarred by the selfishness and idolatry of sin. Therefore, we must choose Him and His ways to participate. The existence of sin on Earth cannot stand next to the Holiness of God either in Heaven or on Earth in eternity. So God’s salvation plan must respect the free will He has given His creation for the full realization of His kingdom on Earth. The final judgment will be complete when His creation rejects other idols and chooses Him as the one true God.
In His divine genius, God has enacted a salvation plan that starts with revealing Himself to the people of Israel so that they might know Him and learn His ways. The plan continues and culminates with His own coming as the Messiah in the person of His son, Jesus Christ. Christ defeats sin and death in all its forms by rising from the dead and forgiving all of us sinners who reject and crucify Him. The love of God as we experience it in Jesus—His person, His story, His teaching, His truth, His ways– is irresistible. Our conversion as Christians will draw the whole world to God as we reflect His Glory in our worship of Him. Eventually all will choose God in the final judgment. I believe Jesus came to save all and He will not fail. Divine time—eternity—will not run out before the completion of the salvation mission.
Still, free will cannot be circumvented. God, despite His omniscient power and infinite mercy, wants us to choose Him freely, whether we like to call it conversion or service or surrender. This brings us back to the moment in the confessional between the priest and the sinner who has come before Christ to confess. The priest cannot forgive sins the sinner denies. That would be a violation of God’s gift and law of free will. The sinner must accept his sinfulness to be forgiven. I think this is why regular confession is so useful. We as Christians become better at swallowing our pride and acknowledging the depth of our sinfulness every time we receive this sacrament. Each time we let go more in the presence of Christ’s mercy. Again, we are gradually choosing God over sin. This takes a lifetime. For some saints, it has been a short lifetime, for example, St. Therese of Lisieux, The Little Flower. For the majority of us, it takes many decades to surrender fully to our humble and glorious destinies as creatures of the one true God. To reach the point where we say, as Jesus did, Thy will, not my will, be done.
I don’t know if some Christians or Catholics will find this explication objectionable. If they are reading, I encourage them to use the opportunity to comment to open some valuable dialogue on this critical topic. All I know is this is where I am at. My belief in the infallibility of God’s salvation plan gives me peace and hope in the eventuality that we will all be saved. If those who say Hell is filled with sinners are right, I am discouraged by the reality that I deserve a place in Hell. My sins are as black as the next person’s. I cannot expect to be counted among the saints, unless Christ’s infinite mercy will eventually turn my heart completely as His victory on the cross so aptly demonstrates He can and will. I cannot do it without His grace and forgiveness. And so I strive on to confess fully the extent of my sins in the hope they will be forgiven and we may all be saved. Neither priest nor God Himself can skip over this for me by forgiving that which I deny is a sin. I must choose to admit this. In that choice, I choose to love God, His gift to me, so that I may share in His glory, now and forever.