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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then 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.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:19-23 – NRSV).
“Verses 19 and 20 have as their closest parallel Luke 24:36–42, also set on the evening of that first Easter day. How large a group is referred to by the disciples is not certain, but in the light of the circle at the last supper (made up of Jesus plus the Twelve, and then, after Judas Iscariot left, the Eleven), and in the light of the fact that Thomas is singled out as not having been present (v. 24)—though doubtless there were countless other ‘disciples’ less tightly connected with the Lord who were also not present—we should probably think of the Ten
(i.e. the Twelve, less Judas and Thomas)” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 646).
the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them: We will find them locked again in 20:26. There seem to be two meanings at play here. The obvious one – they were afraid of also being arrested as Jesus was – and the more theological and subtle one of proclaiming Jesus as Lord – he has “passed over”, he is victorious. Jesus “stood among them” as their Lord. No longer can any material barriers stop him. It is not clear who the “them” refers to. Perhaps the “them” refers to the disciples as such, rather than the particular group known as the apostles. If we take that interpretation, it speaks to disciples now as then – Jesus comes through our barriers, the walls we erect to keep threatening reality at bay. In every age he stands among us as the risen and victorious Lord.
“Peace be with you.”: This is perhaps the regular Jewish greeting, a mundane greeting, demonstrating that Jesus is really here in our mundane world.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you: Jesus is the one sent by the Father. He, in turn, shares his mission with his disciples. The “as …. so” construct makes the link clear. The implication is that the disciples will also move through barriers and stand in the midst of the world as witnesses to God’s redeeming love.
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”: The disciples will be enlivened by the very Spirit of God enabling them to share Jesus’ mission.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”: The power to forgive sins is reserved to God, yet here it is being shared with the disciples – that is, the church. Scholars are divided as to whether or not this supports the Roman Catholic tradition of the ordained ministry having the power to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Raymond Brown writes: “The problem of the meaning, extent, and exercise of the power to forgive sins granted in 20:23 has been divisive in Christianity. For instance, in reaction to the Protestant reformers the Council of Trent condemned the proposal that this power to forgive sins was offered to each of Christ’s faithful; rather this verse should be understood of the power exercised by the ordained priest in the Sacrament of Penance and not simply applied to the Church’s power to preach the Gospel (DB, §§1703, 1710). Many modern Roman Catholic scholars do not think that this declaration of their Church necessarily concerns or defines the meaning that the evangelist attached to the verse when he wrote it; the import of the declaration is to insist against critics that the Sacrament of Penance is a legitimate (even if later) exercise and specification of the power of forgiveness conferred in this verse. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic position reflects an interpretation whereby the power mentioned in 20:23 concerns the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism and is given to a specified group, the Eleven, who pass it on through ordination to others. This interpretation has been rejected by other Christians who maintain that the power is given to a larger group symbolized by the disciples and that it is a power of preaching God’s forgiveness of sins in Christ and/or of admitting sinners to Baptism.” (R E Brown, R. E., The Gospel according to John (XIII-XXI): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1041.) Brown then concludes: “It is probably impossible to settle this dispute on purely exegetical grounds, for some of the presuppositions on both sides reflect post-biblical concerns.” (Ibid.)
There are some revealing parallels between today’s Gospel – John 20:19-23 – and the story of the creation and the fall in the Book of Genesis. A brief reflection on those parallels will allow us to glimpse something of the beauty and profundity of Christianity’s understanding of what it means to be a human being.
In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are tempted to eat the forbidden fruit, contrary to God’s command. The Tempter tells them: “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5). There is a sundering of the relationship with God, themselves and each other. Their first reaction is to hide behind fig-leaves. Then God comes seeking their company in the cool of the evening, only to find that they are in hiding: “The LORD God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself’” (Genesis 3:9-10). The sundering has left an irresistible urge in the heart of humanity, an urge to hide from self, others and God. Sundered humanity must be healed of its tragic urge to hide.
John tells us that the disciples are in hiding. They have withdrawn to a room and they have locked the doors of the place where they have gathered, for fear of the religious authorities. They are doing what all of us would do. But then they are transformed by the presence of the Risen Lord. He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (14:6). The sundering does not have to dominate human existence anymore. As Jesus promised: “‘You must be born from above’. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’” (John 3:7-8).
Through him, with him and in him peace and forgiveness are on offer. This is brought about in a new creation. In the first creation “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). John speaks of a new creation: “He breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit’”. This is the being “born from above”. It is also the new life that will heal our pathetic urge to hide from ourselves, other people and God.
We find our meaning and purpose as human beings in loving and being loved. For example, John writes in his First Letter: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).