We are so used to Luke’s account of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), that we miss the account of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in John’s Gospel, where it occurs, not fifty days after an Ascension (there is no Ascension in John), but on Easter Sunday night. It is a pity, too, that this unique account is rather lost in our liturgical reading of the First Sunday after Easter by making it part of 20:19–31, so that the whole focus becomes the story of Thomas. How many preachers speak about the Holy Spirit on this Sunday?
The portrayal of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples (when Thomas is absent) has its own special value. Although Peter and “the one whom Jesus loved” had seen the empty tomb, and were apparently convinced that the body had not been stolen by grave robbers (20:3–10; grave robbers do not roll up cloths neatly), they do not seem to have been convinced that Jesus was risen, or at least they made no impression on the other disciples, who are depicted as hiding (“doors … locked … fear of the Jews”). This scene speaks directly to those to whom this Gospel of the 90s AD was directed — those who, out of fear of the authorities, were afraid to publicly admit to belief in Jesus.
The Risen Jesus shows himself to be capable of standing in their midst at any time, and the suggestion is that he is always there. The Johannine community mourns the loss of the apparently absent Jesus. His word to them (three times; vv.19, 21, 26) is: “Peace be with you.” Peace is what the persecuted Johannine community needs.
In v.20, Jesus shows them his hands and his side and they rejoice. Their rejoicing does not come when they find him in their midst, but when they see his wounds. Throughout this whole account, it is always the Crucified Jesus who is emphasised, as will especially be the case with Thomas who is invited to touch the wounds. Previously, Peter had made clear that he would rather not have suffering as the path to glory (cf. The Only Commandment of Jesus) (see also Mark 8:32–33).
The result of seeing that the Crucified One has risen to new life is joy. They can now be sent, and Jesus sends them to do the same work that the Father sent him to do. Only now, after realising the place of the Cross, and rejoicing in it, are the disciples ready to be sent and to receive the empowering Holy Spirit. Jesus had said that the Holy Spirit could not be given until he had been “glorified” (7:30), and the disciples now understand that his glory is inextricably linked to his suffering.
In v.22, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, in an action reminiscent of the creation of man in Gen 2:7, where Yahweh “breathed life” into the man. This whole Gospel is about God giving life, and here Jesus is the life-giver, in a new creative act. Paul would have been happy with this image of a “new creation” (cf. Gal 6:14–15; 2 Cor 5:17).
The Holy Spirit is not given; instead, Jesus urges them to “receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). And he links their ability to receive it to their ability to recognise the Risen Crucified One.
V.23 is the only verse of John’s Gospel that speaks about “sins,” and it seems strange that it should only appear in the commissioning of the disciples. Here, the power to forgive sins is given, not to the Twelve, but to the disciples generally. It is the greatest authority that can be given by God, and it is given to those who can recognise Jesus as the one who was glorified because he was prepared to suffer and to lay down his life for his friends, out of love.