Saint Augustine says the fifty days of Easter parallels the tradition of a fifty day interval between the Passover in Egypt the day when the Jews received the Law at Sinai. The reception of the Law by the Israelites is still commemorated annually with the celebration of Shavuot, which was first prescribed in Leviticus 23:15-17. Hellenistic Jews call Shavuot… Pentecost.
For Christians, Pentecost is sometimes called “the birthday of the Church,” since the eleven Apostles and the rest of the Church were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4, from the first reading) on that day. As a result of their baptism in Spirit, the disciples were incorporated as a Church. Jesus had already told them what their mission was: to go forth and proclaim the Good News. Pentecost completes the liturgical cycle that began fifty days prior on Easter Sunday; its name derives from the Greek phrase Πεντηκοστή ἡμέρα (pentekoste hemera), which means fiftieth day.
Our Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday is John 20:19-23. 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 Twelve Apostles
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 Disciples
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, (in John 13:20, John 14:24, John 15:26, and John 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.
It is a fair question to ask why Matthew, Mark and Luke exclude the long discourse at the Last Supper, where Jesus says he will “send” the Spirit. John’s Gospel is the last Gospel written. John may have felt, sixty years after the Passion and Resurrection, that the farewell discourse of Jesus was no longer a secret, and that community needed to know that the Apostles are sent in the power of the Spirit. This mandate tends to parallel, theologically, the mandate in Matthew 28.
In Matthew’s 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.
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.”