Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 31, 2020
John 20:19-23 Commentary
My friend the Bible teacher/commentator Dale Bruner is a wonderful teacher of biblical stories. He is largely retired now but years ago part of Dale’s teachings usually included some dramatic re-enactments of the story at hand. He always elicited a chuckle from the class at this point in John 20 when he reaches a certain part in the story’s re-telling only to reach into his pocket and then pull out a little aerosol can of breath freshener. After giving his mouth a couple squirts, he then goes around the room exhaling into everyone’s faces as he re-enacts Jesus’ breathing out of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples! (Wondering Question: Will our resurrection bodies be capable of halitosis? Perhaps not. And even now: someday it may be safe to breathe on each other again too!)
This is in some ways John’s version of Pentecost and it is indeed noteworthy to see Jesus literally exhaling the Spirit onto the disciples.
But it’s also what comes next that is quite remarkable. After all, isn’t it curious to note that forgiveness is the first item on the agenda? In John 20, no sooner does Jesus breathe the Spirit onto his followers and he immediately mentions the forgiveness of sins, particularly the disciples’ forgiveness of other people. Apparently there is a tight connection between new life in the resurrected Christ and the act of forgiveness.
On the surface of it, Jesus seems to be giving the disciples both a blank check and a whole lot of clout and power. Are the disciples now going to wield this Spirit-driven ability to forgive (or not) in a willy-nilly, arbitrary way? John 20 provides no guidelines or instructions but we can assume that the intention here is not for the disciples to start walking around a city like Jerusalem to play some version of the children’s game “Duck, Duck, Goose” by randomly pointing at one person after the next and saying,
“Forgiven. Unforgiven. Forgiven. Forgiven. Nope, not you, pal! Forgiven. Unforgiven . . .”
So how should we read Jesus’ semi-startling words that the disciples had this ability to forgive—or not—in ways that are so binding? It is certainly not a power to be wielded lightly. It’s also something with a clear connection to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and maybe that fact right there tells us something.
After all, consider the setting: the disciples had just recently failed Jesus miserably. They were disloyal, dishonest, fearful, and feckless. Small wonder that upon hearing that Jesus might be back that they locked the door. Maybe they convinced themselves that it was the Jewish authorities they were afraid of. But since they didn’t appear to huddle in locked rooms the day before they were told Jesus had come back to life, you wonder why they locked the door only after hearing Mary Magdalene’s testimony of his return.
In any event, it was an act of supreme grace that Jesus came among them, flashed a kind smile as he spoke “Peace” to them and then gave them the truly great gift of nothing less than a share of the divine through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In a setting like that, hearing “If you forgive anyone his sins . . .” implicitly carried with it the idea “Oh and by the way, don’t forget all the sins I just forgave in all of you simply by virtue of showing up here brimming with grace!” Those who know they have been forgiven much—and who know that deep in their bones—ought not turn around and behave ungraciously themselves (cf. Matthew 18!).
Yes, there would be people in the future lives of the disciples (as well as in the church those disciples-cum-apostles would found) who would be unforgiven for one reason or another (and the main reason would generally be that they did not want anyone’s forgiveness in the first place). But considering what Jesus did for his disciples that very evening inside that locked room—inside that room that was so filled with shame and guilt–Jesus’ subsequent mention of forgiveness was not only a sign of the Spirit’s presence and power in their hearts but set the tone for the forgiveness they were then encouraged to dole out to others whose sins were as real and as raw as the sins of the disciples had just been.
When you just have had the weight of the world removed from your shoulders through another person’s graciousness toward you, it’s not the moment to start calculating what other people in life you want to see stay similarly burdened and what ones you might be willing to help out. Instead, the joy you feel at having been forgiven becomes contagious—you can’t wait to start spreading it around!
But of course since this is a Pentecost Lectionary text—but since we associate Pentecost with something that happened 50 days after Easter—not something that happened on Easter Sunday itself—we need to wonder what the connection is between this John 20 reception of the Spirit and the better-known, dramatic story of Acts 2.
We think John wrote his gospel after the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been written. We think maybe John knew of those three gospels and that is perhaps why he structured his own account so differently. I suppose we could assume that John knew of also Luke’s second volume, his gospel sequel, in “The Book of Acts” but whether he knew that book or not, surely John had been present on the original day of Pentecost there in Jerusalem. Sure, Peter had gone on to steal the limelight that day with that whale of a sermon through which the newly outpoured Spirit of God had converted thousands on the spot. But John must have been there. Granted, he’s not mentioned by name in Acts 2 but by Acts 3 he is side-by-side with Peter doing miraculous healings in the power of that same Holy Spirit who had roared into Jerusalem on Pentecost.
So how could John have known about the huge and dramatic real story of Pentecost and yet reduce the disciples’ reception of the Spirit to that Easter Sunday, behind-locked-doors event in which Jesus essentially blew them all the kiss of the Spirit? How do we square this imparting of the Spirit—replete with, as noted elsewhere in these sermon commentaries, the power to forgive sins—with Luke’s big story in Acts 2? It’s a little hard to say.
Was this like an initial deposit, a kind of holy down-payment, of the Spirit with the big “coming upon them with power” display still to come 50 days later? Was this like a preview that would keep them going for another 7 weeks until the fullness really came upon them in ways that would help them midwife the church’s birth after Jesus was seated in power at the Father’s right hand?
In truth, I could keep on asking questions like this for several more paragraphs (but I will spare you that!). It’s coming up with solid answers to any of these queries that is more difficult. The best we can do is probably speculate (and not get too fanciful even at that) but consider: when Jesus popped into that locked room, he was bursting with the new life of the kingdom. Although there would finally be a certain order of events upcoming, including Ascension and then Pentecost, there was really no containing the power that coursed through Jesus at that time. Resurrection life had to make some kind of an effect on even that first evening of Easter and so, as a sign and symbol and, yes, perhaps as a kind of sneak preview of all that was to come, Jesus could not help but impart some of that new life to those disciples even then. (And anyway, when we look at the state of the disciples in the next chapter of John 21, they don’t exactly display the transformative change that will come after Acts 2—so whatever this reception of the Spirit entailed, it was not what we might call “the full monty”.)
The power of grace unto forgiveness that his death and now resurrection made possible just had to bust out somehow—there was no containing it in some ways! And so even though a very public and dramatic outpouring of the Spirit and proclamation of the Gospel was still 50 days off, that first Easter could not possibly conclude without some kingdom power leaking out to those disciples. Maybe that evening the “wind” of the Spirit was no more than what Jesus could generate by opening his mouth and puffing out some air—maybe it was no more than the warm air from a person’s mouth, the same as we’ve all felt when a loved one whispers something directly into our ear—but contained within it is great power indeed.
What with the world and with all of history having split in two earlier that day and all, there really was no holding it back. Not completely!!
Before breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, Jesus first showed them his scars. Doing so provided more than just some jolt of recognition on the part of the disciples. This was not only a sign of the continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-crucifixion body. Instead, perhaps we can see in those scars the very earthy nature of the ministry for which the Holy Spirit ultimately equips us. The scars remind us of what even the Son of God had to do so as to make us a holy enough people as to warrant the presence of God’s own Spirit in us. But maybe those same scars remind us that we are called to minister in a rough and tumble world of sin that does that kind of thing to even the divine One in our midst. The Spirit did not come to us from an ecstatic vision of light and glory. The Spirit did not come to us on a silver platter and hand delivered to us by a celestial angel of light. The Spirit came to us from One whose body had been broken and still showed the signs of this. And that Spirit comes to us and calls us to a sacrificial ministry in a world full of brokenness and a world willing to keep on breaking all that is holy.
C.S. Lewis was obviously taken with John 20’s presentation of Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit onto his disciples because he wove just that image into the final scene of his first Narnia chronicle, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” If you have seen the movie of this made a few years back, then you recall this scene when Aslan, after returning from the dead, goes around and breathes on all the creatures that had been turned to stone by the White Witch, bringing them back to life. It’s a moving image but those of us who have focused more on the film of late may forget the lyric description of this act of new creation that Lewis wrote in the book. So here is the passage from page165 of the Colliers paperback edition of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (Colliers, New York, 1970):
“I expect you’ve seen someone put a lighted match to a bit of newspaper which is propped up in a grate against an unlit fire. And for a second nothing seems to have happened, and then you notice a tiny streak of flame creeping along the edge of the newspaper. It was like that now. For a second after Aslan had breathed upon him, the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back—then it spread—then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper—then, while his hind-quarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stony folds rippled into living hair. Then he opened a great red mouth, warm and living, and gave a prodigious yawn. And now his hind legs had come to life. He lifted one of them and scratched himself. Then, having caught sight of Aslan, he went bounding after him and frisking round him whimpering with delight and jumping up to lick his face.”
It’s a text that really does put one in mind to anticipate those great words: “Behold, I make all things new.”
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