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Sermon on John Chapter 20 - The giving of the Holy Spirit by Jesus

Pentecost Sermon 2011

Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden Pentecost Year A 2011

Gospel Reading - John 20: 19-23
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

I would like to look at the passage from John this Pentecost, so often we focus on the passage from Acts but this is an inspirational passage. In this reading from John we see the encounter of Jesus with the disciples before he departs from them and Jesus give them Holy Spirit. It is not so dramatic, but it is just as significant.

We should set the scene -

It was Sunday evening, the day of the resurrection, three days after the dreadful crucifixion

  1. Earlier that day Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed and the tomb was empty.
  2. She ran back to the disciples who had not gone to the tomb with Mary, and Peter and John joined her back at the tomb.
  3. They entered into the open tomb, saw the discarded linen wrappings and the carefully folded cloth that had covered Jesus’ face, but Jesus was gone. The disciples did not linger but returned to the house.
  4. Mary stayed, weeping outside of the tomb, weeping for the lost body of Jesus.
  5. Two angels appear, though Mary does not recognise them as angels, and ask her why she is weeping.
  6. She tells them and then she sees Jesus standing there, though she thinks him a gardner. She tells the gardner to help her locate the misplaced body of Jesus, but the gardner speaks her name, and she hears – and then she sees, the Lord.
  7. She returns to the disciples, to the house where the doors are locked for fear of the Jews

There is of course one disciple who for some reason was not present on that first Easter Sunday? Thomas, his turn will come later.

So this was how it was. The disciples had seen Jesus die, they knew the parts that each had played in his death, they felt that they had all let Jesus down, by not standing by him. They were a defeated gathering, and now they heard these reports that the body of Jesus was gone and Mary had spoken with somebody she had belatedly recognised as Jesus. So we are told that they gathered with the doors locked. It is hardly surprising they must have wondered what on earth was going on

We read that Jesus then came and stood among them

The inference is that he just appeared in their midst, without the door being unlocked. The point being made here is that Jesus, whilst clearly physically present was able to materialise, just like those Star Trek programmes. Clearly he could have left the tomb, without the stone being removed. The stone is removed for the benefit of those disciples who come to see, not to let Jesus out. We can also recognise from this that at the Ascension, Jesus need not have gone up like an astronaut, he could simply disappear from sight. The frequent pictures for the Ascension of Jesus with little feet sticking out of the clouds as he heads skywards like superman really annoy me !

Peace be with you.

So it is to this bedraggled bunch of folks, all feeling that they had let Jesus down, that Jesus appears in this dramatic way. No wonder perhaps that his first words are ‘Peace’

Jesus shows the disciples his hands and body, he is clearly Jesus, albeit resurrected bodies are not quite like ordinary physical bodies, which cannot pass through doors.

Then Jesus tells the disciples ‘as the Father has sent me I am sending you’

This is clearly an instruction that they are to share with Jesus in his work and ministry. The ones who had so miserably failed were now to share with Jesus in his work. How could this be? The disciples must have wondered how on earth jesus could come along and ask them to do anything when they had let him down so badly. How were they ever going to deserve a second chance?

Then we are told Jesus breathed on them.

The term used is reminiscent of two episodes from the old testament.

In Genesis 2:7 we read

Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

In Ezekiel 37 we read about the Valley of Dry Bones

The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!  This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”


The clear message from this breathing of Jesus is that he recognises the disciples as being like lifeless bodies, defeated and incapable of ministry or service.

Then we have this symbolic breathing of Jesus upon the disciples. Jesus then says

"Receive the Holy Spirit.

There are many views about what was going on here. Calvin said that this was not the giving of the Holy Spirit proper, which occurred at Pentecost, just a ‘sprinkling.’ Others see this as the full blown thing as Johns records it. Whatever the case, the Gospel writer is clear in showing how Jesus brings together this action of breathing and imparting the Holy Spirit.

What we must not forget is that we are told emphatically that Jesus gives the Holy Spirit so that they might be able to be sent out. The Holy Spirit is given to us to empower us with the grace which we need to be equipped to carry on the work of Christ in the world. We are filled with the Spirit not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world that God loves so dearly.

Pentecost has, all too often, been seen simply as a personal experience. However the giving of the Spirit is there to enables us to serve others. When God’s Spirit fills us we find ourselves being "sent" to serve others. Pentecost should cause us to know that we are sent out into the world to serve.

It is remarkable that the Christian church has suffered terrible controversy throughout over the results of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, especially in worship. Yet when the Holy Spirit is mentioned by Jesus it is nothing to do with worship. It is rather the work of the Holy Spirit to send the disciples out beyond the locked doors into the world outside.

Forgiveness of Sins

Note that when this new life comes by the Holy Spirit, forgiveness is the first item on the agenda. No sooner does Jesus breathe the Spirit onto his followers and he immediately mentions the forgiveness of sins, particularly the disciples’ forgiveness of other people.  That room was filled with shame and guilt -- Jesus speaks of forgiveness. As they had been forgiven then so must they forgive others whose sins were as real and as raw as the sins of the disciples had just been. 


So let’s consider what this all means for the church today as we celebrate the disciples.

We might not be gathered behind closed doors, but we might share some of the same fears and apprehensions as the first disciples.

We too might be acutely aware of our own failings and inadequacies.

I see much difficulty for the church going forward I am not sure how we are going to tackle the declining church attendance, the multiplicity of church buildings with dwindling congregations sapping our money and energy. If we are honest the task sometimes does seem too great. We look at the challenges before us and we feel helpless.

This is how the apostles felt in our reading today. They looked at the task before them without Jesus at their side and they were fearful of the future and held back by awareness of their own inabilities.
At Pentecost we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit which was given to energise the church and enable it to be an effective body of mission to transform the world.

The message of that first Pentecost is a message for us today whenever we feel that we are not up to the job.

Remember what happened with those disciples,

They stayed together as a group and put their trust in God. They realised that it was impossible to even try to go it alone. They put their trust in God and worked together in the common cause.

The energy that was required for the task was supplied not from their own inner resources, but from God. Without God’s power they were power all that we can offer is lifeless corpses. However with the Spirit of Pentecost we are empowered for service and we become alive through the Holy Spirit of God.

So God’s people can meet the challenges in each generation as we do as Christ says and go out in his name to do his service.

In every place where people are divided, Christ-followers, who are filled with the Spirit, are called to be at work bringing peace and reconciliation.
In every place where there is grief, pain, hatred and conflict, God’s people are called to bring forgiveness, comfort, healing and compassion.

The gift of Pentecost is the inspiration and empowerment we need to become those who, like Christ, seek to empower others with the news of forgiveness of sins.

This week we move from Easter into Ordinary Time and our readings for the summer will be all about being disciples of Christ in the world. We will get the nitty gritty of what it means to go as he has commanded. The teaching will be about looking after the poor, feeding the hungry, being kind and considerate. Showing the compassion of God to the downtrodden and afflicted.

Pentecost is all about being given the resources by Jesus for the journey ahead.

I wonder have you ever considered that each of the Gospels finishes with the command to go out by Jesus into the world

In Matthew 28 it is called ‘The Great Commission’

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In Mark 16 we are told

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.

In Luke 24

“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And today in John we have these words

As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.

Pentecost means that we who know the love of God now have the power of God to share his good news with the rest of the world.

During his 2008 Presidential campaign, Barak Obama used the slogan ‘Yes We Can.’ It was very effective and managed to bring people together in common cause. We might sometimes think that it is to such an endeavour that we are being called as Christians. Christians are summoned to work together and go out and carry on the ministry of Jesus.

However Pentecost is not an encouragement for us to work harder, or better or more efficiently. At Pentecost we do not say ‘Yes We Can,’ to do this is imagine that we are engaged in a human task dependent upon our energy and talent. At Pentecost we Christians say rather ‘Yes He Can.’
We are about a divine task, which cannot be completed in human strength. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit working in our weakness that we are able to serve our Lord.

We might be daunted at the enormity of being Christ’s disciples in an increasingly secular society with dwindling congregations and internal divisions. Such is the challenge presented we might be tempted to lose heart. It is to us that this message comes today, the work is not ours it is God’s and we are privileged to share in it. You and I cannot and so we remind ourselves ’Yes he Can.’


Pentecost Notes

The term comes from the Greek word pentekostos, meaning fiftieth, from which one of the most important feasts in the Jewish calendar derives its name. Fifty days after Passover, Jews celebrated the "Feast of Harvest" (Exodus 23:16) or "Feast of Weeks" (Leviticus 23:15–21). Centuries later, after their exile to Babylon, Pentecost became one of the great pilgrimage feasts of Judaism, when Diaspora Jews returned to Jerusalem to worship.

The Lukan account in Acts has become so associated as the Pentecost story that the fourth gospel also speaks of the coming of the Spirit, though in a much different way. In the fourth gospel, there is no amorphous wind or forty day waiting period. In the fourth gospel, the Spirit comes directly from the breath of Jesus on the day of the New Creation.

The fourth gospel speaks of "signs" which are presented in order to encourage faith in Jesus (20: 30-31). The various "signs," and their numbering, are open to interpretation, but N.T. Wright arranges them thus:

1. Wedding at Cana (2: 1-11)
2. The official's son (4: 46-54)
3. The paralyzed man at the pool (5: 2-9)
4. Multiplication of loaves (6: 1-14)
5. The man born blind (9: 1-7)
6. Raising of Lazarus (11: 1-44)
7. Crucifixion (19: 1-37)
8. Resurrection (20: 1-29)

The number 7 was commonly thought to be the number of completion and wholeness--the "number of God," says Eugene Peterson. The first seven "signs" therefore, taken together, give us a "complete" picture of Jesus. He is the one who brings life in abundance, healing for outsiders, true sight, then raises the dead, and dies for the love of the world. The resurrection is the 8th sign--the sign of the "new creation."

In spite of the locked doors, Jesus "came and stood in the midst" and said "peace to you." Previously, Jesus had spoken of "peace" in 14: 27 and 16: 33--both times as an antidote to fear. "My peace I leave with you," Jesus says in 14: 27. Therefore, do not let your hearts be afraid. In 16:33, Jesus says that he has said "these things" to the disciples so that they may have peace. Therefore, "take courage; I have conquered the world."

Jesus displays his wounds, now healed and glorified. This establishes continuity between the historical person Jesus, and the resurrected Jesus. Though he is different in some ways, such as the ability to appear at will, he is also in continuity with the Jesus the disciples had known historically. In fact, he is recognized not on the basis of his over-all appearance, but precisely on the basis of his wounds.

If Paul is correct that we will have a body like his glorified body (Ph 3: 21), then we will also be ourselves. We will be the same people whose personality was formed in this world--we will be us--but now all of us, including our psychology, will be healed and transformed just as Jesus' wounds were healed and transformed.

Jesus shifts immediately to mission--"As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then, "he breathed on them." The disciples are given power from the divine breath. The Greek word translated as "breathed" is emphusao. It is the same word the Septuagint uses in Genesis 2: 7: "And the Lord God...breathed into (Adam's) nostrils the breath of life."

Moreover, the fourth gospel's use of emphusao is the only use of this word in the entire New Testament. Clearly, the author of the fourth gospel is equating the breath of Jesus with the breath of God. Where the Lord God breathed life into a human being, the Lord Jesus breathes life into his church. This underlines the fourth gospel's view that Jesus is the "new creation," and is yet another of the fourth gospel's many references to the book of Genesis.

For the fourth gospel, the method of atonement is precisely through re-creation. Jesus dies on the cross, which is, paradoxically, the hour of glory. He is placed in a tomb, the place of death, and also the place of new creation coming forth from the earth. His appearance as a gardener (20:15) reminds readers of the original garden of Genesis, now re-created through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

"If you release the sins of any, they are released," says Jesus, and "if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This is not a parallel for a similar saying in Matthew. There is nothing here about eternal "binding and loosing." Rather, the New Community is to be characterized by the forgiveness, the "release," of sins. Conversely, if sins are not forgiven, they are "retained" within the community, thereby threatening the community's life.

If a community retaimns sins they are retianed in the community and the community life is threatened.