John 20: 19-23
19When it was evening on the day of resurrection, 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.’ 20After He said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.
Right from its earliest days, the Christian community has amalgamated different renditions of the Pentecost story. The very name of Pentecost, a Greek word meaning “fiftieth day”, was used by the Jews for a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments. The counting depends on your culture. French people today talk of a week as “huit jours” – eight days, The Beatles sang a song entitled “Eight Days a Week”, and the Jews, just like the French, count the start and end days as part of the period. Thus Jesus rose from the dead on the third day not only because the Jews count a day from sunset, not from midnight, but also because the count was Friday, Saturday, Sunday to give three days. Luke’s use of the Hellenised Jewish term “Pentecost” in a Christian context, emphasising the link between the Jewish culture prior to Christ with the Christian culture in the new era, gave us fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, seven weeks, or 49 days on our counting system, later.
Ask most people who have been going to church for a few years and they will tell you that the story of Pentecost includes tongues of fire descending on the disciples in an upper room. That’s because we are so familiar with the version from Acts, courtesy of Luke, that we often forget there are other versions. If taken directly from the NRSV today’s gospel passage opens with “when it was evening on that day” which, of course, begs the question “which day?” so I have put this in context. According to John this is not fifty days after Easter but on the very day of the resurrection. Instead of Luke’s mighty wind and flames John tells us that the disciples were gathered in a locked room “for fear of the Jews.” John often used the term “the Jews” for those in positions of authority and who opposed the message of Christ, not for the vast majority of Jews, some of whom He had gathered together as close followers. Imagine, then, the thinking of those in that room when Jesus came and stood among them, clearly enough in the form of flesh and blood for the disciples to see Him and check His wounds. Given that the timing of this story is only hours after the incidents at the tomb, and some doubted the stories of the morning, word probably hadn’t spread among the remaining faithful, so this encounter may well have been the first experience many of the group would have had of the risen Christ. How many of them would have seen, on the following Sunday, someone who had died on the Friday? A big fat zero comes to mind. How would we react? It’s bad enough having a spiritual experience we can’t effectively share with others, but encountering the physical presence of someone we know had died would be even more challenging.
After His surprise arrival, Jesus passes on, not ‘the peace’ (as we claim to do in services as we share a sign of peace), but His peace, a peace which passes all human understanding. This isn’t “peace” as in an absence of war, but peace from heaven, brought by the man Himself and passed to the gathered disciples. Do we allow ourselves to experience that peace, or do we limit our understanding to human experiences. It’s like unconditional love. When we’ve experienced it, and acknowledge that we have, it transforms us, and changes our whole approach to life. If we read the six verses following these we hear about Thomas, the disciple who unfairly gets a bad wrap for asking questions, and who, according to John, missed the first Sunday evening prayer session with the risen Lord. Isn’t it fair to say that our reaction, if we had missed this important event, would be the same as that of Thomas? We grow in faith by asking questions, so there’s no reason to avoid Thomas’ response ourselves.
What an emotional roller-coaster these people must have been on. They’re hiding in a locked room for fear of the Jewish authorities, the leader whom they knew had died about 48 hours earlier turns up, without a key, to greet them, and then they start rejoicing. Love conquers everything! How do we respond to that revelation?
Having spent the best part of three years training up the merry band of disciples, with their wives and several other women, Jesus now gives them an important task. As God sent Jesus to bring the Good News to the Jewish people, so now Jesus sends the disciples on a mission which will extend well beyond their own shores; and to achieve that monumental task He provides them with the Holy Spirit. Here there is no talking in the languages of visitors to Jerusalem, as there is in Acts, just an instruction which carries with it huge implications, for if the disciples do not forgive someone’s sins those sins will forever remain with that person, unless, of course, God forgives them. Sometimes we are called on to forgive someone who has sinned against us so greatly that we find it difficult to forgive, because we are human. In that regard we can remember Christ’s own words on the cross: “forgive them, Father …” because the human Jesus found it too difficult to forgive. The first part of Christ’s instruction to the disciples is very important too: we can forgive people, and their sins are forgiven. That doesn’t exonerate them from any punishment resulting from the sin, but we don’t hold a grudge which will eat away at us. Life is too short to let those concerns get in the way of us having life to the full.
If there was no talking in tongues how then did the Holy Spirit empower those who were gathered in that upper room? Paul speaks of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the passage from Corinthians, which some churches will have read as the second lesson for Pentecost. Not only did Paul provide a non-exhaustive list of gifts but also an indication that those gifts can apply to anyone. Going back to the upper room, we know from Luke’s account [Luke 24:33] that there were others present who were not part of the remaining eleven, or twelve for Luke who, by this time had added Matthias. The Holy Spirit, then, was not restricted to the inner circle named in scripture, but was also given to those whose presence hadn’t counted through the years of Christ’s ministry, including those rejected by others as a source of teaching. I’m sure we’ve all encountered some of them, and probably learned from them too, if only we’d admit it. If we’ve all received the Holy Spirit, as we say we do in our baptismal services, what are we doing to spread the Good News? If we are able to talk to people in their own language are we sowing the seeds of faith and letting God tend to the new shoots?