An Easter Commission to Ministry -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2C (John 20)


John 20:19-31
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told 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 in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

                Jesus will not be found among the dead. That first Easter morning he was raised from the dead, and according to the Gospels he began appearing to his followers. In the Gospel of John the first person he encounters on Easter morning is Mary Magdalen (John 20:1-18).  I don't know about you, but I find it strange that Paul doesn't mention Mary or any of the other women who appear in the Gospels when he gives his account of the witnesses to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. What we know from John's Gospel is that Jesus commissioned her for ministry, telling her to go tell the disciples that I’ve risen from the dead. You might call that the morning service because Jesus appeared to a larger group at what we'll call the evening service. In this case, the community is gathered behind closed doors because they're afraid of the authorities. And, when Jesus appeared, he didn't knock, he just walked through the walls and stood in their midst. 

                Now, there was one of Jesus' followers who was absent that night. That person was Thomas the Twin. John doesn't tell us why Thomas was absent, but the fact he wasn't there and missed this appearance would lead to infamy because becomes when Thomas finally shows up after Jesus departed, he was skeptical about the reports he was hearing. He takes on the role of David Hume. In fact, he probably takes on a role that describes our own feelings about such reports. How can this be? When you put people in tombs, you expect them to stay there. As this reflection progresses I’m going to stray from the story of Thomas and his doubts, but Thomas’s declarations of skepticism, along with his later affirmation of faith once Jesus appears to him, offer important starting points for conversations about faith and doubt. Thomas gives us a certain amount of permission to be skeptical. There are those in the church who are troubled by any sign of doubt. For some in the church, it's important to believe without asking questions. Fortunately, John included the story of Thomas who gives us permission to ask questions. 

                As important as the conversation between Jesus and Thomas is to this story, I want to focus instead on the commission Jesus gave the disciples that Easter evening. When the community gathered they were trying to make sense of Mary’s witness. That’s when Jesus showed up. John writes that when the disciples saw Jesus they rejoiced. 

            Each of the Gospels, with the exception of Mark, tells of Jesus commissioning the disciples in some way. In Mark, all we get is an angelic commission of the women to tell Jesus’ disciples to meet him in Galilee (Mk. 16:7). Here in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them into the world, even as the Father (God) sent him into the world. After he tells them about his plans for them, he breathes on them. When he does this, he imparts to them the Holy Spirit. Or better, Jesus breathes the Spirit into them. This takes us back to Genesis, where God breathes life into Adam. The Greek word used in John 20 is emphysaō, which is the word the Septuagint uses in its translation of Genesis 2:7.  In other words, Jesus is breathing life into them—new life in the Spirit. As Karoline Lewis puts it: “This resurrection appearance is a moment of re-creation, of new birth, or abundant life, of becoming Children of God (1:12-13).” She goes on to say that “the Holy Spirit is both called alongside us and breathed into us also heightens the intimacy between God, Jesus, and the believer” [Lewis, John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries), pp. 245-246]. It is this Spirit, who will empower them (and us) in their ministry of witness.

           When it comes to the way John understands the Holy Spirit, we need to step back and take into account the message about the Spirit found in Jesus' "Farewell Discourse." In that discourse, he spoke of the paraclete (chapters 14-16). It was the night of his betrayal, and he told them that the Father would send “the Advocate," the Holy Spirit, to them in his name. The paraclete would teach them everything they would need to know and remind them of everything he had said to them (Jn. 14:26). Later in the evening as he continued teaching them, Jesus told the disciples that when the Advocate comes, “he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (Jn. 15:26-27). Now comes the moment in which Jesus imparts to them the Holy Spirit, that is, the Advocate, to empower their witness. It is good to remember that the Greek word parakaletos has a number of nuances that include advocate and comforter. Thus, the Spirit enters the recipient, comforting them due to the loss they are experiencing, but also serving as an Advocate. Having been empowered, they are sent out. Karoline Lewis notes that in “marked contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ disciples are never sent out anywhere in the story until now. Sending can only happen with the security of the Spirit” [Lewis, p. 246].

                What is intriguing about this commission is that Jesus empowers them to forgive sins, or retain them. This is a similar commission to that given to Peter in Matthew16:13-20. In that passage, Jesus commends Peter for making the “Good Confession” and then tells him that he will build the church on Peter or Peter’s confession (depending on how you interpret this statement), and gives to Peter the authority to “bind on earth” what is “bound in heaven,” and “loose on earth” what is loosed in heaven.” It would seem that whatever authority Jesus has had during his earthly ministry is getting passed on to his disciples, and in this case, it would seem that it is due to the imparting of the Spirit. This scene is understood by many to be John’s Pentecost story (and a reason for which this text is designated for use by the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost, year A).

                As for Thomas, he eventually believes. He encounters the risen Christ and affirms him as being his Lord. Jesus responded to Thomas' declaration of faith that those who don’t see him but believe on account of the testimony given will receive even greater blessings. That's a comforting statement since we're dependent on these testimonies. 

            This confession on Thomas' part leads to what looks like a concluding paragraph (there is another entire chapter that follows this one), in which John writes that Jesus did lots of signs that aren’t recorded in the Gospel. That's because there simply isn’t enough room to do so. But what is written has been shared so that people, who, unlike Thomas who got to see and touch Jesus, could hear and respond in faith. Such is the news given to us. We receive the message of Jesus’ resurrection as a matter of faith.  And living by faith might seem sort of weird, or at least that’s how my friend Tripp Fuller puts it. 
If your Christology isn’t weird, you’re doing it wrong. The church’s theological confessions about Christ are not suddenly embarrassing; they always have been. Join the parade! It’s not like it takes a pluralistic culture informed by science to realize that identifying a dead homeless Jew as the Son of the living God is absurd. It is. Let’s own it.  [Fuller, Tripp (2015-11-01). The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, OrAwesome? (Kindle Locations 168-170). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]

John often sounds sort of weird, but even if the world seems to think that the message is weird, it seems to transform lives in the Spirit! We who respond to the call, receive the commission to share the Word in the Spirit of Christ.


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