"Lively, Commissioning Spirit" Bible Study on John 20:19-23
May 28, 2020, 1:13 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from John 20:19-23 (Common English Bible translation).

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

This coming Sunday is Pentecost Sunday.  A lot of preachers typically preach on Acts 2:1-11, which is Luke's account of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled "Jews from every nation."  Acts 2 is such a vivid, rich story that John 20, "The Johannine Pentecost," is often overlooked as a wonderfully Pentecostal text.  The Gospel of John doesn't connect the Spirit with the Day of Pentecost (the Jewish Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot) but rather on Easter evening.

Indeed, John's Pentecost occurs on Easter evening.  On Easter morning outside the tomb in the garden, Jesus speaks only to Mary Magdalene.  Now Jesus appears to all of his disciples and speaks to them.  Unlike the gift of the Spirit in Acts 2 which seems to be universal, going out into all the world and all people, John's gift of the Spirit, typical of this Gospel, is more in-house, given to the disciples in particular and sending them out into all the world as Jesus' disciples to do Christ's work.

The thought just came to me that Jesus is coming to us right now behind the closed doors of our homes.  The differnece now and then is that we our locked up in our homes in fear of contracting the dreaded COVID-19; the first disciples were afraid of the religious authorities and the enemy Roman soldiers.

You may recall that John the Baptist introduced us to Jesus (John 1:33) as "the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit."  Jesus had earlier promised to give the Holy Spirit "generously" as validation that he is actually from God (John 3:34).  Furthermore, Jesus has spoken of spiritual "rivers of living water" that would flow from him (John 7:38-39).  Jesus has repeatedly promised that, though he will leave his disciplesw, he will send them an "Advocate," the Paraclete, who is "the Spirit of truth," but Jesus warns his disciples that this Paraclete cannot be known or received by "the world" (John 14:16-17).

What will the Holy Spirit do?  The Paraclete is a teacher who will remind Jesus' followers of all he told them (compare John 14:26 with John 16:13) and will give them what they need in order to boldly testify to the truth about Jesus (John 16:26-27).  Surely there was a building expectation among Jesus' followers as to when they would actually be given this educative Holy Spirit.

The setting of this climatic event in John's Gospel is signiicant.  It is night.  After a bloody, violent week, the followers of Jesus are cowering behind locked doors in the dark for fear of the authorities.  If the religious authorities went to Pilate and reported that another revolt was afoot to overthrow Ceasar's rule, they could be arrested, tortured, and end up on the cross just like Jesus.

Without warning, the Risen Christ intrudes and stands among his fearful followers and says, "Peace be with you."  The "peace" is the peace of forgiveness.  Though the disciples have behaved in a reprehensible manner, Jesus returns to them, resumes his conversation with them and, in effect, forgives them.  Jesus has already said that the peace he gives is different from the alleged "peace" that "the world gives" (John 14:27).  Jesus' peace is that which overcomes the dangers of "the world" (John 16:33).  The "world" is that realm of threat and resistance to the Sovereignty of Christ, but Jesus, in his death and resurrection and in his restoration of his disciples' relationship with him, has overcome the ways of the world.

Then Jesus breathes upon them.  Surely John means us to recall that primal act of God breathing life into the first human creature.  Jesus now breathes the Spirit (the Greek reads that Jesus breathes "in" not merely "on") his followers in John 20:22.  It's almost like creation all over again, when the Spirit (the Hebrew word for Spirit is ruakh and means wind or breath of God) hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2b) and Her (feminine article is used in Hebrew) enlivening breath was breathed into the dust in order to create humanity (Genesis 2:7).

To his followers -- cowering behind locked doors, his disappointing disciples who are as good as dead -- Jesus breathes life into them and makes a living movement out of the dust that his disciples through their cowardice had become.  The Jesus movement is given a new lease on life by the breath of Jesus.

Considering what Jesus had said earlier about the gift of the Holy Spirit, it's curious that here the gift of the Spirit is linked to the forgiveness of sins.  If his follwers thought that Jesus was giving them his Spirit as a sort of privileged possession, something that would lead to heightened, personal religious experience, they would do well to think again.  The Risen Christ has come through their locked doors and brought them peace in their fearful state.  Now Jesus tells them that they now can forgive or retain other people's sins: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23, New Revised Standard Version - NRSV).  That sounds like an awesome assignment that few of us would seek.

We need to be careful how we interpret this talk of forgiving and binding.  Be careful of connecting John 20:23 too easily to Matthew 16:19.  To do so is to risk the mischief that these words have sometimes caused the history of the Church's (holy catholic Church or Universal Church as the Body of Christ, with all local churches being a part of that Universal Family of Jesus) interpretation.  John 20:23 is not the establishment of the Church as the keeper of human morality, laying sins on some people, forgiving the sins of others if they adhere to the teaching and rituals of a particular church (denomination), and keeping tabs on which sins are bound forever and which are forgiven.

Sin in John's Gospel is of a particular cast, connected to human disbelief and rebellion against Jesus and God's Realm.  In John 15:22 (NRSV), Jesus implies that if he had not come to earth and spoken to humanity, "They would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin."  Jesus says something similar in John 9:39-41 as well.

Sin keeps the "world" from recognizing Jesus as the true Son of God.  Sin is therefore not doing evil, committing bad acts that you know to be wrong.  Sin is confusion, ignorance, and alienation from the God who has come in the flesh among us as Jesus the Christ which then causes the wrong actions.  Sin in the Fourth Gospel is not moral failing and disobedience to God's law; it is ignorance and a blinded spiritual inability to see Jesus for who he really is: the full presence and embodiment of God's outreaching love.

Jesus tells his followers that because he has given them all his teaching as well as the Holy Spirit who enables them to receive his teaching; they can now witness to the world and thereby set people free ("set free" is probably a better rendition than "forgive" in John 20:23).  What are the disciples to do now that they have the Holy Spirit?  They are to go forth from their locked room and testify, to share what they have seen and heard of Jesus so that others can see and hear and believe and thereby be free from their sin, be liberated from enslavement to their ignorance of Jesus.

If the Spirit-filled disciples don't go forth and witness, then the sin of the world will be "retained."  People will keep on being confused by and ignorant of Jesus.  Far from giving the Church some sort of special privilege, Jesus is laying on his followers the awesome responsibility of testimony to Jesus in a way that will free the world of its ignorance of him.

How sad would it have been if the first followers of Jesus had remained behind those locked doors, quivering in fear!  You and I, and the whole world, wouldn't have had the opportunity to know the truth about Jesus.  We would still be wallowing in our sin -- our ignorance, confusion, misunderstanding, and fear.

How sad if the fearful followers of Jesus today refuse to accept the responsibility that the gift of the Spirit carries with it and remain locked in our cozy sanctuaries, thus leaving a sinful, disbelieving world to its own devices and despair.  That's why, even though we are practicing social distancing and worshipping from the safety of our homes, we are broadcasting and live-streaming Worship Services.  That's why we are checking in with members, neighbors, and friends.  Why not invite a friend or neighbor to go to our church's website or Facebook page and join us for Sunday Worship or read the Pastor's Blog?  We are Christ's witnesses, even from the confines of our homes.


Pastor Greg Rupright


05-28-2020 at 5:10 PM
Pat May
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