Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”
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.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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. (John 20:19–31 – NRSV)
This text follows immediately on the encounter between Mary of Magdala and the Risen Lord. That account ends with the sentence: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (20:18). We can assume it is the same “disciples” who are huddled in a locked room “for fear of the Jews”. Did they not believe Mary?
None of the disciples is named. Their number is not given. This is perhaps a generalized depiction of all “disciples” – including you and me. Basic human instincts – including fear – intermingle with the stunning truth of Jesus’ presence. It was the case then and remains the case now. The disciple is therefore called to grow into that stunning truth. John reminds us that “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).
Jesus came and stood among them: There is a whole new way of being represented here. The Risen Lord is visible but not constrained by material objects – “the doors were locked”. This is not a discussion about physics but a proclamation of a new order. Similarly, “he showed them his hands and his side”. (Luke mentions hands and feet – see Luke 24:40.) However, this second statement contains the crucial truth that the risen one is also the crucified one! A clear connection is drawn between what happened on Friday and what they are experiencing now – and what we can experience now. Jesus’ death and resurrection has opened us to see and know and experience what was once unavailable to us. The reign of God has arrived. The Cross is the beginning not the end.
“Peace be with you”: The greeting is repeated. We recall Jesus’ earlier promise in 14:27-31 (“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way”) and 16:32-33 (“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”) “Jesus’ ‘Shalom!’ on Easter evening is the complement of ‘it is finished’ on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted .… Not surprisingly it is included, along with ‘grace’, in the greeting of every epistle of Paul in the NT” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 647).
As the Father has sent me, so I send you: This repeats 17:18-19: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth”. The disciples are part of the very mission that Jesus receives from the Father: “Here it is the perfect obedience of the Son that is especially emphasized (e.g. 5:19–30; 8:29), an obedience that has already been made a paradigm for the relation of the believers to Jesus (15:9–10). Jesus was sent by his Father into the world (3:17) by means of the incarnation (1:14) with the end of saving the world (1:29); now that Jesus’ disciples no longer belong to the world (15:19), they must also be sent back into the world (20:21) in order to bear witness, along with the Paraclete (15:26–27)—though obviously there is no mention of incarnation along the lines of 1:14, and any parallel must be entirely derivative. In so far as Jesus was entirely obedient to and dependent upon his Father, who sealed and sanctified him and poured out the Spirit upon him without limit (1:32; 3:34; 4:34; 5:19; 6:27; 10:36; 17:4), so far also does he constitute the definitive model for his disciples: they have become children of God (1:12–13; 3:3, 5; 20:17), the Spirit has been promised to them (chs. 14–16) and will soon be imparted to them (cf. notes on v. 22), they have been sanctified by Christ and will be sanctified by God’s word (17:17) as they grow in unqualified obedience to and dependence upon their Lord.” (D A Carson, op cit, 648-649.) Central to being a disciple is being sent.
he breathed on them: The Father breathed on Jesus – see 1:33. The Greek verb, emphysaō, is also used in the Septuagint version of creation story in Genesis 2:7: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. Breath and breathing are signs of life and it all points back to the Creator. Listen to the following texts:
“‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” (Ezekiel 37:5-10)
“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6)
“When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit (breath), they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104:29:30)
“Their heart is ashes, their hope is cheaper than dirt, and their lives are of less worth than clay, because they failed to know the one who formed them and inspired them with active souls and breathed a living spirit into them.” (Wisdom 15:10-11)
“For (Wisdom) is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wisdom 7:25-26)
“ …. and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
“But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding.” (Job 32:8)
But Thomas ….: What is said of the unnamed group of disciples is now concretized in a story of one particular disciple named Thomas. Thomas’ response – “My Lord and my God!” – “is the climax of the Gospel, not an exclamation (for not a vocative), but a profession of faith ‘honoring the Son as the Father’” (Dom Ralph Russell, “St John” in A New Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, edited by Reginal C Fuller et al, London: Nelson, 1969, 819:f).
In today’s Gospel – John 20:19-31 – we hear of an apparently incidental action by Jesus – he breathes on the disciples. In fact, this action has profound symbolism.
References to breath, wind and spirit are common in the Hebrew Scriptures. Often, they point to God as creator and life-giver.
In the very first sentence of the Bible we read that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. By this “wind”, the “void” and “darkness” are about to be transformed into an expression of God’s goodness. God’s breathing is creative.
In Genesis 2:7 we read one of the accounts of the creation of humanity: “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”. God’s breathing becomes our breathing.
In the promise of redemption, given through the Prophet Ezekiel, God says to the people of Israel: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” Ezekiel 37:14). God’s breathing heals.
John has told us, near the beginning of his Gospel, that God’s creating work has not finished. Jesus tells Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘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 3:5-8).
“(Jesus) breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’”. Jesus’ breathing becomes our breathing – everyday, everywhere. Our breathing is a reminder that he is fulfilling his promise: “I will be with you!” And St Paul reminds us further that God’s Spirit is working with our spirit enabling us to call God our dear Father – see Romans 8:16.
The best of the Christian Tradition recognizes the deep symbolism of our breathing. St Isaac the Syrian (613-700) writes: “The soul is a breath of God, and though heavenly, it allows itself to mingle with the earth” (Cited in Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976, 117).
The English poet, George Herbert (1593-1633), writes in his poem, “Prayer (1)” that prayer is “God’s breath in man returning to his birth”. This echoes Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, that we must be “born of the Spirit”.
A contemporary author puts it simply: “For now, the best thing is to take in one breath at a time. And the next, and the next. Every breath comes from God, and the air supply is unlimited. Anxiety cramps my breath … But you keep on breathing. And praying. Prayer is a breathing that purifies the air” (Paul Quenon, In Praise of the Useless Life (pp. 135-136). Ave Maria Press. Kindle Edition).