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Day of Pentecost - Year A
John 20.19-23

Other texts:

John 7:37-39 is an optional Gospel reading.

These verses are part of the reading for 2 Easter every year (20:19-31). At that time, the emphasis may have been on Jesus' resurrection and/or Thomas' need for proof. If these verses are used for Pentecost, the emphasis could be on the giving of the Spirit/Breath.


In John, the Spirit is not given until Jesus is glorified (7:39). The Spirit's job is to point to Jesus (14:26; 15:26), not to itself.

To symbolize the giving of the Holy Spirit/Breath, Jesus "breathes on" (emphusao -- only occurrence in NT) the disciples (without Thomas!). The same word is used in Gn 2:7 (LXX) where God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of the man and he becomes a living being. It is used in Ez 37:9 where the breath breathes on the slain [the dry bones], so that they may live. It is also used in Wisdom 15:11c where God "breathed a living spirit into them."

How would Thomas receive the Holy Spirit? How do we receive it? One answer comes from the other gospel assigned for this day: It means coming to Jesus, drinking the living waters that Jesus gives. There is also the connection between water and Spirit in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, which I take to refer to baptism. Birth from above and immersion in the Holy Spirit happens at water baptism. In addition, we could also say that for all disciples it is a matter of believing Jesus' words: "Receive the Holy Spirit."

The question has been asked, "What changed the disciples from fearful (hiding behind locked doors) to fearless witnesses in the world?" One answer is that they had seen the resurrected Jesus -- but only a few had this life-changing experience. Another answer is that they had all been filled with the Holy Spirit.

The giving of the Spirit comes after the disciples (and I take these disciples to represent all disciples -- not just a select few) have been commissioned to continue the work that Jesus has done (v. 21). Although two different words for "send" are used -- apostello and pempo -- they are used interchangeably in John. The purpose of this resurrection appearance is not so much to prove the resurrection, as it is to send the disciples as Jesus had been sent. Easter is not just coming to a wonderful, inspiring worship service, it is being sent back into the (hostile) world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus.

I found O'Day's (John, NIB) reflections on vv. 21-23 intriguing:

Perhaps the most difficult part of this Easter/Pentecost story concerns precisely what Jesus commissions the faith community to do. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father, so also he sends the community (v. 21), but the content of the church's work is only alluded to. The combination of vv. 22-23 suggests that the faith community is to be a people shaped by Jesus' gift of the Spirit and that the mark of that gift will be the power to forgive or retain sins. As the Commentary discussed, however, forgiving sins does not involve forgiving moral transgressions (nor does retaining sins involve retaining moral transgressions), but it involves bearing witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus. If the interpreter combines vv. 22-23 with Jesus' commandment to love one another in 13:34-35, a possible picture of the church's mission emerges. By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love. It is in choosing or rejecting this relationship with God that sins are forgiven or retained. The faith community's mission, therefore, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong, but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus. [page 848]

One answer is given by Malina and Rohrbaugh's (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John). These quotes were shared last week, but since they quote this section of John, they are also appropriate here. They present the "patronage" system that was part of the Mediterranean world, and a key to understanding John. There are three characters in this system:

Patrons are powerful individuals who control resources and are expected to use their positions to hand out favors to inferiors based on "friendship," personal knowledge and favoritism. Benefactor-patrons were expected to generously support city, village, or client. ... Throughout the New Testament, God is seen as the ultimate patron.

Brokers mediate between patrons above and clients below. First-order resources -- land, jobs, goods, funds, power -- are all controlled by patrons. Second-order resources -- strategic contact with or access to patrons -- are controlled by brokers who mediate the goods and services a patron has to offer. ... This is clearly a role in which John casts Jesus. Jesus says, "You are from below, I am from above" (8:23). He also makes clear that the Patron (God, Father) has given his resources to the Son to distribute as he will: "The Father loves the son and has placed all things in his hands" (3:35).

Clients are those dependent on the largesse of patrons or brokers to survive well in their society. They owe loyalty and public acknowledgement of honor in return. Patronage was voluntary but ideally lifelong. Having only one patron to whom one owed total loyalty had been the pattern in Rome from the earliest times. But in the more chaotic competition for clients/patrons in the outlying provinces, playing patrons off against one another became commonplace. Note that, according to Luke, one cannot be client of both God and the wealth/greed system (Luke 16:13). ...

In the New Testament the language of "grace" is the language of patronage. God is seen as the ultimate patron whose resources are graciously given and often mediated through Jesus as broker (note John's comment that Jesus or acted with the authority of his patron; 5:27; 17:2). [pp. 118-119]

Besides the image of God (the patron) giving to Jesus (the broker) who gives to disciples (clients); throughout John, Jesus is the "sent" one. Malina and Rohrbaugh point out: "Forty-three times in John we are told that Jesus was 'sent' by God, language that appears only twice in Matthew (10:40; 15:24), once in Mark (9:37), four times in Luke (4:18, 43; 9:48; 10:16), and once in Paul (Rom 8:3). ... 'send' belongs to the vocabulary of patronage" [p. 118].

The "sent" messenger is one beholden to a patron. He acts as an intermediary between the patron and those for whom the message is intended -- that is, he acts as a broker. This is a role Jesus plays throughout John's Gospel. Note also that eight times we are reminded that Jesus will return to his patron (7:33; 13:1; 14:12, 28; 16:5, 10, 17, 28), suggesting that the broker has ready access to and from the patron who sent him. Eventually, Jesus will turn over the broker role to his own favored clients (disciples), who will take up the role on behalf of Jesus: "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (17:18). [p. 118]

So, to answer O'Day's question about what the community is to do, we are to do what Jesus did. We are to broker God's grace to the world. Specifically, from these verses, that grace is defined by forgiveness.

A sermon title and illustration I have used with this text is "Powered Balloons" or "Blown Up by God."

A "dead balloon" -- has no life. It continues to lie wherever you put it. It doesn't move. It has no power.

Take a "dead balloon" and do what Jesus did -- blow on/in it. What happens? It's full of air; but it is still dead, going nowhere until that power is released. [As an illustration, the "powered balloon" can be released.]

Under the "spirit's/breath's/wind's" power, the balloon can move. It goes out. However, when the wind power within the balloon is released, you don't know where the balloon is going to go; but you know it's going somewhere. (We don't know where the wind comes from or is going.)

Jesus did not give the disciples the Spirit's power so that they could stay behind locked doors in fear. It is given as a power to move people out into the world -- even if we don't always know exactly where we will end up.

What happens to the balloon after it has "spent" its power? It seems dead again. All out of power. It's flat. There's no more "spirit/breath" within it. On one hand we are not like that balloon. Jesus promises that the Spirit will be with us forever. We will never run out of the Spirit's power. The Spirit given to you in baptism remains forever. On the other hand, over and over again in Acts, we read that certain disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Their filling didn't just happen once, but over and over again. So we also need to be refilled. Weekly we return to church as a refilling station. To receive Jesus again in the hearing of the word and in the sharing of sacrament and through the fellowship of the saints.

What happens to a filled balloon that doesn't use the power within? Over time, the power leaves. The balloon, without doing anything, will go flat. The same is true with muscles. Muscles that aren't used, become useless through atrophy. Can the same happen with faith -- or the gift of the Spirit?

I found a quote related to this topic in a surprising place: "User Friendly Evaluation," by C. Jeff Woods. He has a chapter called "Evaluation and Church Renewal." He defines church renewal as:

Church renewal occurs when a distinct group of people expect the Spirit of God to challenge, direct, and empower them to reach their potential of being the church in today's world.

One of his four assumptions about church renewal is:

the church does not renew itself. The Holy Spirit challenges, directs, and empowers the work of renewal. . . . The Spirit renews the church. Many church renewal resources coerce the pastoral leadership into feeling responsible for the church's state of renewal. That's simply not biblical. Pastoral leadership has a great deal to do with the activities in the congregation, but renewal results are the sole property of God's handiwork. Even Paul, who liked to tell churches that he had more to boast about than anyone else if he chose to do so, reminded the church, 'I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth' (1 Cor. 3:6). God is the one who provides growth and renewal for churches. Numerical growth. Common-bond growth. Growth in maturity. All kinds of growth. God is the source." [p. 49]

As I noted in the notes on the other text: Living water nor wind are not stale (or boring?) nor are balloons flying uncontrolled through the air under windy power. Shouldn't the same be true of Spirit-filled believers and congregations?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364