Thought for the day
The four marks of our Christian belonging are our personal journey, our community belonging, our practical discipleship and our adult integration of faith and life. None of us “inhabits” all four dimensions fully, all of the time, and yet all four dimensions should in principle be there. The good news of Pentecost is that the Spirit, poured into our hearts, enables all four aspects of our faith to live: the Spirit helps us in our prayer; the body of Christ is animated by the gifts of the Spirit; our service of others gets its energy from the Spirit and the Spirit “reminds us” of all that Jesus taught. Today, we celebrate discipleship in the community of faith.
We open our hearts and lives to you, Holy Spirit: breathe a breath of new life into us all! Amen.
John 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The resurrection appearance narratives are unique to each Gospel. This means that we are dealing with deep reflection, presented in the form of narrative, rather than with the more historical reports we find in the Synoptic gospels. These narratives manage to express faith in Christ risen from the dead, as well as to address issues current at the time of writing.
Kind of writing
In John 20—perhaps originally the final chapter—there are four resurrection appearance scenes: (1) Mary Magdalene (in two moments); (2) Peter and the beloved disciple (in between the two moments with Mary); (3) the gift of the Holy Spirit and (4) doubting Thomas, prepared for by the third scene. Scenes 1, 2 and 4 deal with how one comes to Easter faith. Scene 3 deals with the gifts of the Risen Lord to his followers, that is, the Holy Spirit and forgiveness.
Old Testament background
(i) The first day of the week suggests creation, which began on the first day.
(ii) Peace (shalom) has a special range of meanings in the OT: fertility, health, prosperity, good relationships (see Psalm 122). Victory over death is included here.
New Testament foreground
(i) This Gospel uses the topos of the new creation to frame the story of Jesus. It starts with “in the beginning”. On the cross Jesus’ words echo “when God had finished” on the sixth day. The Easter stories are twice signalled to be “on the first day of the week” and in today’s story, Jesus, echoing the Creator in Genesis 2, breathes on the disciples.
(ii) The phrase “just as” echoes important themes in the Fourth Gospel. In general the point being made is that Jesus does not simply set an example that they should follow, but that Jesus’ example enables the following. This means that believers do not simply “copy”, but are enabled to do as Jesus did by the gift of the Risen Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit. See these texts:
For I have set you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13:15, adjusted)
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:33–34)
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:4)
Just as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:9–11 adjusted)
“This is my commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you. (John 15:12 adjusted)
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Just as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:11, 18 adjusted)
Just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them just as you have loved me. (John 17:21–23 adjusted)
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:12–17)
Verse 19 It does not say immediately “the twelve,” which would emphasise authority, but rather “the disciples” which underscores attachment to Jesus. As often in John, we are meant to think of the historical disciples of Jesus of Nazareth as well as the present readers, who are disciples of the Risen Lord. Jesus “comes” in John— something special to him. This recalls: I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. (John 14:18) Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. (John 14:27–28)
Verse 20 In Luke, Jesus shows his hands and his feet, to show that it really is himself indeed. This motive is elided in John, who reminds us not only of the manner of death, but the spring of salvation, the water of life which flowed from the side of Jesus. Thus both the death of Jesus and its efficacy are presented. Again unlike in Luke, there is no hesitation, but rather complete joy as they “see” the Lord in that full sense the word has in John’s gospel. This deep seeing fulfils the words of Jesus, In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:19–20) Even the perfection of joy has been anticipated by Jesus in the gospel: So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:22, 24)
Verse 21 Just as in the OT, a theophany always means a task or a call, likewise in the NT, the Risen Lord has roles for his followers. Theirs will be the task to bring to the world the riches and blessings achieved by the Risen Lord. The first sentence sends them out and the second sentence makes the mission possible. The note “just as” is stronger than a comparison—it means there is a direct continuity between the first and second sendings. The gesture of breathing is taken from Gen 2:7.
Verse 22 This verb “to breathe” is used only here in the New Testament and is a direct echo of the OT usage. The re-reading in Wis 15:11 is close to John because it links the verb to inspire which is based on the root pneuma. At this moment the new creation comes to be. It is likewise a fulfilment of a prediction of John the Baptist: And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ (John 1:32–33)
Verse 23 Of course, this gift of the Spirit is given to all and has nothing to do with a special gift to the apostles and even less to do with ordination. The Spirit is given to all, as we read: By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. (1John 4:13) This joining of the Risen Christ and the gift of the Spirit prevents any separation of the age of the Son from the age of the Spirit. The unexpected word about forgiveness of sins (in the plural) echoes something in Matt. 18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Within a resurrection appearance story, the mission to preach forgiveness of sins is found elsewhere—cf. Lk 24:27; Mt 28:19 and even Mk 16:16, if you must. But this is the only mention of forgiveness in the Fourth Gospel. As there is no “clergy” in the Johannine community, the gift of forgiveness is given to the community or the church (assembly) as a whole.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus comes into a room full of fear. Sometimes it is fear itself that makes us close the door on others and on God. Occasionally a person comes along with the gift of breaking through our closed doors, a person who comes to be with us in our fears. Do you have memories of people getting through to you and being with you despite your closed doors? Who brought you peace in a time of anxiety?
2. Jesus showed his wounds to his friends. Moments of grace can occur when another shows us their vulnerable side, or when we do that with them. Let your memories speak of such experiences to you.
3. As Jesus was sent by the Father, so he sent out the disciples. This evokes images of receiving and handing on the things that give life: values, meaning, sense of purpose, love. Who are the people who gave you life by what they handed on to you? To whom have you handed on what is life-giving?
4. In our tradition the final verse reminds us of the Sacrament of Reconciliation but its meaning is broader than that. Spirit-filled people are people who forgive. You might like to recall memories of when you have forgiven, or retained, another’s sins. What difference has it made to you and others when you forgive rather than hold sins against others?
Send down, O God, upon your people the flame of your Holy Spirit, and fill with the abundance of your sevenfold gift the Church you brought forth from your son’s pierced side.
May your life-giving Spirit lend fire to our words and strength to our witness.
Send us forth to the nations of the world to proclaim with boldness your wondrous work of raising Christ to your right hand.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.