Gospel for Pentecost (13 May 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then 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.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:19-23 – NRSV)
We saw this same text on the Second Sunday of Easter when we read John 20:19-31. The notes below do not repeat what has already been outlined there.
Francis Moloney writes: “There are indications that vv. 19–23 form a bridge between the scenes at the tomb and the final scene in the house reported in vv. 24–29.” (Francis J Moloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 530.)
the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them: This could simply be John’s way of proclaiming Jesus as Lord – he has “passed over”, he is victorious. Jesus “stood among them” as their Lord. No longer can any material barriers stop him. The “them” referred to here could mean the disciples as such, rather than the particular group known as the apostles. If we take that interpretation, it speaks to disciples now as then – Jesus comes through our barriers, the walls we erect to keep threatening reality at bay. In every age he stands among us as the risen and victorious Lord.
“Peace be with you.” This is perhaps the regular Jewish greeting, a mundane greeting, demonstrating that Jesus is really here in our mundane world.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you: Jesus is the one sent by the Father. He, in turn, shares his mission with his disciples. The “as .... so” construct makes the link clear. The implication is that the disciples will also move through barriers and stand in the midst of the world as witnesses to God’s redeeming love.
“Receive the Holy Spirit.” The disciples will be enlivened by the very Spirit of God enabling them to share Jesus’ mission.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The power to forgive sins is reserved to God, yet here it is being shared with the disciples – that is, the church. Scholars are divided as to whether or not this supports the Roman Catholic tradition of the ordained ministry having the power to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Raymond Brown writes: “The problem of the meaning, extent, and exercise of the power to forgive sins granted in 20:23 has been divisive in Christianity. For instance, in reaction to the Protestant reformers the Council of Trent condemned the proposal that this power to forgive sins was offered to each of Christ’s faithful; rather this verse should be understood of the power exercised by the ordained priest in the Sacrament of Penance and not simply applied to the Church’s power to preach the Gospel (DB, §§1703, 1710). Many modern Roman Catholic scholars do not think that this declaration of their Church necessarily concerns or defines the meaning that the evangelist attached to the verse when he wrote it; the import of the declaration is to insist against critics that the Sacrament of Penance is a legitimate (even if later) exercise and specification of the power of forgiveness conferred in this verse. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic position reflects an interpretation whereby the power mentioned in 20:23 concerns the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism and is given to a specified group, the Eleven, who pass it on through ordination to others. This interpretation has been rejected by other Christians who maintain that the power is given to a larger group symbolized by the disciples and that it is a power of preaching God’s forgiveness of sins in Christ and/or of admitting sinners to Baptism.” (R E Brown, R. E., The Gospel according to John (XIII-XXI): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1041.) Brown then concludes: “It is probably impossible to settle this dispute on purely exegetical grounds, for some of the presuppositions on both sides reflect post-biblical concerns.” (Ibid.)
Near the beginning of his Gospel, John tells of “a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus” (3:1). “This man came to Jesus by night” (3:2). At the very end, this same Nicodemus is there to provide a “mixture of myrrh and aloes” for the burial of Jesus (19:39). He must have been deeply impressed by his conversation(s) with Jesus. In the conversation recorded in John 3:1-21, Jesus speaks of the necessity of being “born from above ..... of the Spirit” (see 3:5, 6 & 8). Understandably, Nicodemus finds this hard to believe. We do not know more than that about Nicodemus. A good – and interesting – man.
In today’s text, taken from near the end of John’s Gospel, we are told that, before Jesus calls down the Spirit upon the disciples, he “breathed on them” (20:22). This is an unmistakable reference to the creation story where God took soil and breathed humanity into existence – see Genesis 2:7. In Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, the Father is bringing about a new creation, a world redeemed. We are baptized into this divine activity. We are “born again” as Jesus tells Nicodemus. We are participants in the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelations 21:1).
This is our faith, our gift, our privilege, our responsibility. John returns again and again – more than 100 times in this Gospel – to the act of believing. He never uses the word as a noun, always as a verb. Believing is both gift and task. Our very believing is an expression of God’s creative activity – a gift. It is also, on our part, an ongoing act, an ever-renewed response to this cosmic-altering act of God through us, with us and in us. St Paul writes: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he (she) is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18 – ESV.)
Being a disciple is being open to this gift, doing whatever we can to facilitate the creative action of God, avoiding whatever we can that obstructs this creative action in us and through us. Again, St Paul reminds us: “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” (Romans 8:14-17).
“That very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit ....” We do well to recall this truth often. It is the heart of our being Christians.