Gospel: John 20:19-23

The Holy Spirit,
The Force of Forgiveness

How is God's Spirit different from the Force in Star Wars?

With the arrival of streaming services, the Star Wars franchise keeps rolling along.  Children of all ages can relive (or look ahead to) the saga of the most profitable series in movie history (and more!). They can root for the Light side of the Force, and boo the Dark Side.

The Holy Spirit found in Christianity does not mirror the dual nature of the impersonal Force. Why? The Holy Spirit brings us love and hope. Love and hope do not have a dark side. And, both love and hope begin with forgiveness.

The Holy Spirit we worship, the Holy Spirit we possess, is the Spirit of divine forgiveness.

Popular Translation

19 Late Sunday evening, the followers of Jesus locked the doors of the place where they met because they feared the Jewish leaders. Jesus appeared in the middle of them and said, "Peace be with you." 20 After he spoke, Jesus showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They felt great joy when they saw the Lord. 21 Again, Jesus said to them, "Peace be with you. Just as the Father sent me, I am sending you." 22 Then, Jesus blew on them. "Take in the Holy Spirit," Jesus said.

23 "If you forgive someone's sins, their sins are and will ever be forgiven.
If you don't forgive their sins, their sins are not forgiven."

Like many other Resurrection stories, John divided this passage into two blocks: appearance of the Risen Lord and the commission of the disciples. For John, the breath of the Spirit was the sign and substance of the commission.

Literal Translation

19 Being evening in that first day of the week, and the doors having been locked where the disciples were because of fear of the (Jewish leaders.), Jesus came and stood in the middle (of them) and said "Peace to you." 20 Having said this, he showed (his) hands and side to them. The disciples rejoiced, having seen the Lord.

20:19 "evening in that first day of the week" is literally "evening in that day, the first one of the sabbaths." The use of the plural "sabbaths" indicates the time frame of a week.

"(Jewish leaders)" is literally "Jews." John used generic language to indicate specific groups within in the general culture. "Jews" were members of the Jewish leadership. "Greeks" were the non-Jewish populace (not people born in Greece).

The scene in the gospel opened with fear and apprehension on the part of Jesus' followers. John originally wrote "they feared the Jews." Clearly John referred to the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees. So the popular translation reflected the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees.

We should also note the relationship between John's community and Jewish synagogues led by Pharisees. By the time John wrote his gospel, Jewish Christians had been excommunicated for their belief in the Messiah. Ostracized and socially persecuted, some Christians reacted in fear, while others boldly proclaimed the gospel. Early Christians needed as sense of stability, a sense of divine peace. Through the words of Jesus, "Peace" was John's prayer for his readers.

With the sight of Jesus, fear turned into great joy. Anxiety turned into relief. Desperation turned into vindication. Most important, a lack of spiritual direction turned into a sense of deep spiritual grounding. The divine presence stood close to them. And with the divine presence came divine peace.

21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you." 22 Having said this, he blew on and said to them, "Take (in) the Holy Spirit. 23 If you sent away the sins of anyone, they have been sent off for them. If you hold (their sins) back, they have been held back."

20:23 This is an extremely awkward set of sentences. The sentences are literally "Of whomever you might sent away (their) sins, they have been sent away for them. Of whomever you might hold, they have been held."

The key theological phrase is "they have been sent away;" the verb is in the past tense, indicating the sin had been forgiven before the pronouncement of the Church.

On the one hand, Jesus already suffered for that particular sin and all the sins of the world. Hence, the declaration would be a proclamation of the Good News. (The current form of Sacrament of Reconciliation stresses this proclamation. In the sacrament, we are to celebrate God's forgiveness, not our sinfulness.)

On the other hand, the implication of "pre-forgiveness" might lead to presumption on the part of the sinner or a sense of blessed predestination. Obviously the former sense is meant, not the later. God holds everyone responsible for their actions, both of sin and of faith.

Jesus commissioned his followers to partake in his Messianic ministry. At the time of Jesus, Jews believed the Messiah mission at the end of time was universal. They held the Messiah would go out from Jerusalem to the known world, spread the Good News of salvation, and incite a massive pilgrimage to Palestine. As he gathered all Jews spread throughout the world home, he would call all peoples to Jerusalem so they, too, could worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Jerusalem, the Messiah would judge this massive throng in a Final judgment, the Day of YHWH.

The Resurrection appearance marked the starting point for this process. From Jerusalem, Jesus sent his followers out as missionaries to the known world. They would testify to the Risen Christ as the Good News of salvation. And the Good News would start the journey home for both Jews and Gentiles.

What happened to the Jerusalem pilgrimage? There were two possible answers. First, the Romans leveled Jerusalem in response to the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D. Both the city and the Christian mother church turned to rubble. The Jerusalem church could no longer commission missionaries.

Second, Christians spiritualized the pilgrimage. The return home always included the theme of repentance; the sinner who walked away from God's dwelling place turned around and journeyed back. For the Christian, a heavenly Jerusalem became an abode for God. The sinner could find earthly reflection of Jerusalem in the local church community. Hence, conversion and repentance were close to home.

So, the followers saw their vocation within God's plan of salvation. The Father sent the Son into the world to lead everyone back to the Father. Jesus would involve his followers in that same work. Since they witnessed Jesus risen, his followers would witness to others.

But Jesus gave them more than a witness. He gave them the Holy Spirit. The breath and command to "Receive the Holy Spirit" must be seen as two parts of the same action. "Them" (the followers) was the object of "Jesus breathed on" and the indirect object of "Jesus said." As Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit out, the text inferred, his follower would breathe it in, just as Jesus commanded.

We have already discussed the connection between breath and Spirit in past studies. The word for "Spirit" in both Greek ("pnema") and Hebrew ("ruah") was the same for breath or wind. Ancient people believed that any moment of air was the result of power. Breath was the result of an inner power, one's life force or spirit. Strong winds that caused death and destruction were the result of God's inner power judging sin. The breath of inner life and violent winds, Jews believed, came from one source, God. So, God's Spirit was a life-giving, and life-taking power. (See Genesis 1:1 and Acts 2:7).

Once the followers breathed in God's Spirit, they shared in the Messiah's power of judgment with the power to declare sins forgiven. John 20:23 referred to the followers' preaching of the Good News. Missionaries like the apostles and Paul, proclaimed a reconciliation of sinners to the Father through Christ; when sinners repented and converted to Christianity, they were cleansed in the waters of baptism. In the context of this verse, the process of reconciliation began with the proclamation of the Good News (declare sins forgiven) and continued through baptism (they are forgiven).

Notice the verb "are forgiven" is in the perfect tense. Forgiveness began in the past, continues into the present, and trails off into the indefinite future. In other words, once forgiven, always forgiven. But, does forgiveness begin with the preacher's declaration? No. The forgiveness of all sin began with Christ on the cross. The apostles and their successors proclaimed a forgiveness that flows from Christ's death and resurrection; the sinner partook in that forgiveness at the point of repentance, of turning one's life over to God.

An aside: Catholics refer to John 20:23 as the basis for the Sacrament of Penance (also known as Reconciliation or Confession). In a Church that is an assembly of sinners, this insight makes perfect sense. Christ continually calls the Church to never ending conversion, just as the Christian life is a constant road back to God. The sacrament is a celebration of God's forgiveness in which the priest represents God and Church to the penitent. The priest proclaims the Good News of divine mercy to the penitent, advises him or her in spiritual counsel, and declares the penitent forgiven. In response, the penitent prays or performs an act of justice that symbolizes an openness of heart to God and neighbor ("penance"). In this way, the sacrament harkens back to Baptism (which is the original context for this verse) and, so, derives its power from Baptism. The Sacrament of Penance, then, continues the process of repentance Baptism put into place.

Catechism Themes: Pentecost (CCC 731-732)

With the power of the Spirit revealed at Pentecost, the activity of the Trinity was made known. God the Father sent his Son to share his very life, his very Spirit, with his followers. Now, disciples would carry on the work of the Son. They would celebrate the Spirit in their daily lives as they followed in the footsteps of their Lord.

God calls everyone to repentance, even second chances. How do you respond to his call? How do you help others with their call to conversion?

Pentecost revealed the power of God's forgiveness, his Spirit. Unlike the Force of Star Wars, the Spirit of God is personal. The Spirit establishes a link between the believer and the person of the Father through the person of the Son. And the Spirit makes that link personal. It is a link of love, hope, and joy based upon personal forgiveness.

Let us rejoice in the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

How can you celebrate a life in the Spirit this week?