The Gospel today (from John 20 verses 19-23) takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene, who is the first apostle to see the Lord tells them about her encounter with Jesus. Now these disciples also see him.
By saying it happens on “that day” perhaps the author also wants us to remember the understanding that the Hebrew scriptures had of ‘the day of the Lord’ – for example, Isaiah 52 verse 6 that says, “My people shall know my name; on that day they shall know it is I who speak.”
John tells us that it is the disciples who are gathered – not just the Eleven – or the 12 apostles minus Judas. Jesus then greets this larger group of disciples who have gathered with what had become the standard greeting within rabbinic Hebrew – shalom alekem – “Peace be to you.” Here, the words of Jesus are not just a wish – but a statement of fact.
Jesus then shows the disciples his hands and side and it is at this moment that they can begin to move from disbelief to belief and they are ‘overjoyed’ at seeing the master. Showing his body to them connects his earthly body to the risen Jesus and fulfils the promise that Jesus had made during the last Supper that their pain and sorrow will turn to joy (see John 16, verses 20 to 22).
After their recognition of him not simply as the risen Jesus, but also as their Lord, Jesus can now greet them again with shalom alekem – “Peace be with you.” Only now can they actually receive his gift of peace. And only now, after receiving that gift of peace, can they hear and receive the commission of the Lord: ‘As the father has sent me, so I’m sending you.’
All of these disciples, through their faith in the risen Lord, and with the gift of his peace, are now able to be sent, that is to become apostles of the risen Lord, just as Jesus had been sent by the father.
How on earth are the disciples to do such an extraordinary thing? Only with this precious gift from heaven – the gift that comes through the breath of Jesus – the gift of the holy Spirit. The Spirit is precisely that which empowers this fragile community to continue the work of Jesus. This is the only time that this word ‘to breathe’ is used in the New Testament, and it clearly evokes God breathing the breath of life into the first human in Genesis 2.
The Spirit-empowered mission of these disciples is to forgive sin – which in the Gospel of John is all about belief, not morality. To sin is to be blind to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. So the commission that the disciples and the church receives in this Pentecost moment is to continue to make the love of God in Jesus known in the world. By doing this we are true to what Jesus said about the action of the Paraclete back in John 16 – “to prove the world wrong about sin – because they do not believe in me.”
The gift of the Spirit comes so that we can continue what God sent Jesus to do.