John 20:19-31. “Receive the Spirit”

Our Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter is John 20:19-31.  In this passage, the Apostles gather on a Sunday evening, behind closed doors, when Jesus suddenly appears among them. Jesus then hails the disciples with a typical Jewish greeting of “shalom” or peace. He shows them his wound, but Jesus is “glorified,” meaning that the disciples see Jesus post-Resurrection.

We have a fair amount of theology in this passage, so let’s break it down.

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” Benjamin West, c.a. 1790. Leeds, UK

Are we speaking of the Twelve or not?

In this passage, John tells us that the “disciples” were gathered in the Upper Room. Are we speaking of the twelve? This is certainly a relevant question, since we’d like to know to whom Jesus sent the Holy Spirit in this passage. So let’s clarify. First, the author of John never uses the term “apostle” in his Gospel. For instance, at the Last Supper, where the twelve Apostles were present, Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him. But the author of John’s Gospel says the disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. Even when John’s Gospel speaks of the twelve Apostles, John uses the generic term, “disciples.”

If we presume this passage theologically mirrors the Last Supper, then we expect the twelve to be present, with the exception of Judas Iscariot. And in fact, John finds it notable that one of the twelve is not present: Thomas.

Jesus “Sends” the Apostles

Jesus tells the disciples gathered that, as the Father has sent me, so I send you. This statement needs to be taken in context, since Jesus reassured the twelve Apostles, just a few days or weeks earlier at the Last Supper (see Jn 13:20, 14:24, 15:26, and 16:7) that he would “send” the Holy Spirit to them. This phraseology of “sending,” is unique to John’s Gospel. Jesus tells the Apostles that they are sent in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the Good News, just as Jesus himself was sent to preach the Kingdom of God.

This mandate tends to parallel, theologically, the mandate in Matthew 28. In this passage, we have another post-Resurrection scene with the Apostles. Jesus speaks to the “eleven,” and tells them, go therefore and make disciples of all nations. Note that in Matthew’s passage, the meeting occurs on a mount in Galilee, with all eleven Apostles present. In Matthew’s passage, the encounter mirrors not the Last Supper, but the commissioning of the Apostles in Matthew 10. In Matthew 10, the twelve are sent to the Lost Sheep of Israel. But after the Resurrection, the twelve are sent to all nations. 

The Power to Forgive, to Reconcile, to “Bind and Loose”

In today’s passage, Jesus then amplifies the mandate and says whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained. This passage in John 20 clarifies the more general (and ambiguous) power given to the apostles to “bind and loose” in Matthew 16:19. Theologians have suggested that “to bind or loose” can mean several things… to constrain or to free; to forgive (or not); or to include or exclude from the community. Here, Jesus is more specific. The Apostles can pardon or retain sins, in the name of Jesus. Technically, only Jesus can forgive sins, and I cannot emphasize that enough. However, Jesus is saying that, as a practical matter, the question of reconciliation and atonement may be delegated to a senior member of the church community.  In other words, they have the authority to review cases where a member of the community has sinned (perhaps seriously) and decide what is required to atone for the sin, or to reconcile themselves with the community.

In this respect, the theology is both similar and different to Paul’s theology. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2:5-10), forgiveness must be sought from the community at large. Here, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is saying that such a power can be vested in someone (the Apostles or ranking disciples) who speaks on behalf of the community. In either case, it is categorically wrong to conclude that reconciliation is always and exclusively a private affair between Jesus and the sinner. Both Matthew and John’s Gospel, on the one hand, and Paul’s epistle, on the other, tell us that a sinner must hold himself or herself accountable either to an Apostolic authority, or to the church community at large, especially if the wrong has harmed another in the community.

Ironically, Paul himself must rely on Apostolic authority in order to be persuasive to his audience. Paul is no mere disciple of Christ, he was sent by Jesus, just as the Apostles were. Consider Galatians 1:1, Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead… .

Receive the Holy Spirit

At the Last Supper, Jesus promised to send the Spirit four times. In John 16:7, Jesus says the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. After the Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples, receive the Holy Spirit. What, exactly, does he mean? The Spirit grants gifts or charisms to those whom God wills. God can grant to anyone a gift of the Holy Spirit, and anyone can ask to receive the Spirit (Luke 11:13). However, the disciples (in this case, the Apostles) receive a gift of the Spirit that is a very specific mandate. The twelve, among the disciples, are “sent;” they are called to make disciples of all nations; and they have the power to bind and loose.

Doubting Thomas

A week later, presumably the next Sunday, Thomas joins the Apostles and tells them that he will not believe that Jesus is risen until he sees Jesus himself. Thomas’ doubt is not unreasonable, as he would like to see the risen Lord for himself. As John’s gospel tells us, Jesus appears a second time amidst the Apostles, appearing in the Upper Room, which was locked. And Jesus tells Thomas to view his wounds for himself. Thomas finally expresses his own faith with the exclamation, my Lord and my God. Jesus reinforces his lesson on faith by saying blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.

Thomas may doubt, but Jesus is asking us not to doubt the testimony of the Gospels and the disciples.

John 20:19-31 

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
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.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.” 
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked, 
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
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