Commentary on John 20:19-23
This abbreviated reading from the Gospel of John has already been heard as the Gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Easter (20:19-31).
On the Sunday after Easter the focus is on “doubting” Thomas, a character unique to John’s Gospel. Sadly, Thomas has been the victim of identity theft over the years of biblical interpretation. According to the Greek text, Thomas does not “doubt” but is apistoi that is, “unbelieving,” and yes, there is a difference, at least for the fourth evangelist. In this initial appearance of Jesus to the disciples narrated in our text for today, Thomas is not present to receive the Spirit, yet he will come to believe when in the presence of Jesus, made evident by his all-encompassing confession, “My Lord and my God” (20:28). Situating our text for today within the narrative of the disciples’ first encounter with the risen Christ is important for the interpretation of the coming of the Spirit according to the fourth Gospel. The focus of 20:19-23, at least according to the lectionary, is the first part of verse 22, “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” But believing, according to John (not “belief” or “faith”–it is never a noun in the Gospel of John) is central to this passage (cf. 20:30-31).
The particular challenge when preaching this passage from the Gospel of John is actually to preach on this passage from the Gospel of John. That is, typical sermons on the day of Pentecost lean more toward general concepts of the Spirit that have more to do with doctrinal commitments than biblical claims. Moreover, the vivid and violent description of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts tends to overpower, quite literally and literarily, the more sedate arrival of the Spirit behind closed doors in John’s Gospel. A sermon on Pentecost according to the fourth evangelist might well afford our congregations with a distinctive understanding of this festival day in the life of the church and perhaps more importantly, a unique meaning of the Spirit in the life of faith.
The setting itself for the coming of the Spirit in the fourth Gospel is critical. Here, the NIV translation better represents the Greek construction because there is no word for “house” in the Greek text, which the NRSV includes. In both 20:19 and 20:26 there is no direct statement of a location of where the disciples are gathered, only “where the disciples were” (20:19) and that the disciples “were again inside” (20:26). Jesus comes where the disciples are and stands in the middle, though the doors are shut (20:19, 26). The ambiguity of the location of the disciples and of Jesus’ entrance sends the reader back to chapter 10 where Jesus himself is the door. That the disciples are inside (where? what?) echoes the enclosure of the fold in 10:1 and 10:16. This is an intimate setting of Jesus’ own and not a crowd of “devout Jews from every nation” (Acts 2:5).
The “I am” statement of Jesus as the door in 10:7 and 10:9 is certainly not as popular as Jesus as the shepherd in 10:11 and 10:14 but it is every bit as much a life-giving image. In 10:7-10 Jesus describes himself as the door of the sheep; as the door he provides pasture and abundant life. This provision is carried forward to Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples, so that pasture and truly abundant life are made present. Moreover, the door is that which enables the sheep to enter and go out of the fold. This possibility is critical for Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in 20:19-23. Before the gifting of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus’ sending of the disciples into the world just as he was sent from the Father carries with it the provision as the door and his own leading as the shepherd.
This brings us to the particular function of the Spirit in the Gospel of John. While pneu/ma is used earlier in the narrative, the specific function of the Spirit is worked out in the context of the “farewell discourse,” where the distinctive designation for the Spirit is the term paraclete–literally, “one who appears in another’s behalf.” There are a number of ways to translate this term that appears only in the Gospel and first letter of John–Helper, Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor, yet no one title can adequately hold the meaning of what the Fourth Evangelist seems to want to communicate. The primary function of the Spirit is to continue the very presence of Jesus who, as the Word made flesh, must return to the Father (16:7). Given this theological reality for the fourth evangelist, the Spirit is “another Advocate” (14:16) given by the Father to be with the disciples forever (14:26-27; cf. 16:7-15). In the midst of fear, uncertainty, and unbelieving, Jesus brings peace and comfort, not with mere words of reassurance, but with the very ongoing incarnation of the Word in the lives of his disciples with the gift of the Paraclete.
For the fourth Gospel, the day of Pentecost is no tongues of fire or a bewildering, amazing, perplexing cacophony of voices, but the peace of one voice, the shepherd’s voice, who bestows on his disciples the abiding presence of “I am.”