The gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday is sometimes referred to as the Johannine Pentecost yet clearly is a different event than the Pentecost of Acts 2. Nonetheless, in this gospel passage, Jesus gives (“breathes”) the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples and on this basis is included for Pentecost Sunday.
The event recorded in John 20:19-23 occurs in the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene had been the first to announce the news of the empty tomb. Peter and John (if indeed John is “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved” of 20:2ff) both entered the tomb and at least John “believed” (20:8). Verse 9 seems to indicate that neither John nor Peter was yet considering a resurrection from the dead, but an empty tomb was still worth discussing!
Later that same day, Mary claimed she had seen and spoken with Jesus; furthermore, she asserted that Jesus himself had told her to carry this announcement to the disciples (v. 17). So, it is a reasonable assumption that Mary’s astounding testimony was being discussed behind the locked doors of the room where Jesus’ disciples gathered.
The doors are locked because the disciples are fearful of what the Jewish leaders might do to them (v. 19). As Passover draws to a close, the disciples apparently fear that those responsible for Jesus’ execution will now turn their attention to his followers.
This short passage draws together multiple threads from John’s Gospel, particularly from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John 14-17.
As Jesus entered the room, despite locked doors, he voiced a greeting: Shalom – “Peace be with you” (v. 19). The greeting was rich and deep under ordinary circumstances, a word of common use yet overflowing with religious content. Shalom conveyed peace, not necessarily the absence of conflict, but a sense of wholeness and well-being in every area of life. But likely this time, the disciples heard the greeting with new ears. Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus gave a promise: “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” (John 14:27). George R. Beasley-Murray’s comments on the passage:
All that the prophets had poured into shalom as the epitome of the blessings of the kingdom of God had essentially been realized in the redemptive deeds of the incarnate Son of God, “lifted up” for the salvation of the world. His “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.
No wonder that a common greeting has come to hold deep meaning among the followers of Christ throughout the centuries. While some congregations regularly share the peace of Christ with one another, for others this practice is neglected if not unknown. For the latter, this passage may provide impetus to discover a rich theological practice that speaks hope and courage to contemporary disciples.
Following his greeting, Jesus showed his followers the physical evidence of his crucifixion (v. 20). Only then did the disciples rejoice. Again, this marks a fulfilment of Jesus’ words to the disciples that they would mourn while others rejoiced; but that their pain would turn to an everlasting joy when they saw him again (John 16:20-22).
The second pronouncement of shalom is tied to a commissioning: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (v. 21). Yet again, a promise from Jesus is coming to fruition. Jesus chose disciples so that they would “go and bear fruit” (15:16). On the night of his betrayal, he prayed to the Father: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18).
“Sending” has been a major theme throughout John’s Gospel; now Jesus fully commissions his followers by breathing on them with the words, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). This action clearly reflects the creation story when God breathed “the breath of life” into the human (Gen. 2:7). To be sent, they must be remade through the truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). To be sent, they must be sanctified, set apart to God and for God, wholly committed to the service of the Father as Jesus was. Jesus declared, “...the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (John 5:19).
That this new creation is parallel to the first act of creation is emphasized with the repetition of “the first day of the week” in 20:1 and 20:19. Of course, this is another theme occurring throughout John’s Gospel, beginning with John 1:1ff.
Christ’s followers must acknowledge that we can do nothing on our own, but only what we have seen in Jesus. Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is essential to enable us to live, teach, and preach the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesus demonstrated unqualified obedience to and dependence on the Father in fulfilling his mission, so must we as his disciples. Unqualified obedience and unqualified dependence are central to what it means to be sanctified. And these are vital characteristics for any who would continue the mission of Jesus.
Just as Jesus stated that those who had seen him had seen the Father (John 14:9), those who encounter Christians today should encounter the Christ.
We have not been given a new mission; we have not been given a different mission. Our mission flows from Jesus’ mission in one sweeping motion: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus’ words in verse 23 indicate that our mission must include calling others to believe that forgiveness of sins is found only in Jesus Christ, to receive that forgiveness, and therefore to enter salvation in the kingdom of God.
When Jesus proclaimed the truth of the kingdom of God, those who believed received salvation, they received forgiveness of sins and eternal life. For others, their refusal to believe meant that their sins were not forgiven and as such they were not receiving eternal life. At a pastoral and practical level, the realization of forgiveness may be more fully realized by the love and forgiveness exhibited within the community of faith. People can more readily receive the forgiveness of God is they experience forgiveness within the community of God’s people.
Only those who have received the new life of the Spirit, breathed into their lives by the power of God. Only those who have received the Spirit of truth. Receive the Holy Spirit – that’s a whole sermon in itself. Apart from receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, we will not experience the joy and peace promised to us. Without the Holy Spirit present and active in our lives, we will not be able to testify on Christ’s behalf.
In summary, there are several key themes that may be drawn from this passage and offered to the congregation on this Pentecost Sunday.
Shalom! Peace is proclaimed and offered to fearful, confused, hurting disciples.
Joy comes from seeing, recognizing, and believing in Jesus Christ.
The life-giving presence of the Spirit is essential to the believers’ commission to continue the mission of God.
The community is sent to offer forgiveness.
Beasley-Murray, G.R. 1999. John. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 36. Second Edition. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers), 379.