In the gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19-31) Jesus gives his disciples many gifts: peace, the Holy Spirit, a mission, the power to forgive sins.
The gospel takes place on the evening of Easter day and follows immediately after the description of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus, summarized below. Early Easter morning Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb but found it empty and thought that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. Weeping, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. …Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” At this, Mary recognized him. Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
The gospel does not tell us how the disciples reacted to Mary Magdalene’s news. They may have dismissed her story as wishful thinking. They may have discounted it because she was a woman. Perhaps they had not believed in the possibility of the resurrection. They may have wondered, if it was true, why hadn’t Jesus appeared to them. More darkly, they may have thought that, if it was true, Jesus did not want to see them because they were unworthy. Some may have wanted to go looking for Jesus. The evangelist does not say how they responded.
Whatever they were thinking, they had stayed together throughout that day. This is the point at which the gospel for the second Sunday of Easter begins.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were 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 his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Apparently, the disciples did not immediately recognize the person who stood among them as Jesus until he showed them his hands and his side. Like Mary Magdalene who thought he was a gardener, the disciples needed to see the wounds on Jesus’ hands and side to know that it was truly him. (The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus when they first encountered him either. Luke 24:13-16)
Jesus’ resurrection seems to have transformed his appearance. That, or he kept his disciples from recognizing him. Either way, his resurrected self was not immediately recognizable.
His first word to the disciples was Peace in a phrase he repeated twice in the first moments of the encounter. Jesus had used the word peace expansively throughout his ministry to mean a number of positive states. His use of peace elsewhere helps elaborate his meanings. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27) …have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble but take courage” (John 16:33) When forgiving the sinful woman who learned that he was in the house of the Pharisee. … who bathed his feet with her tears and anointed them with ointment… Jesus said … “Your sins are forgiven.” … “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7: 37-50) The woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years who .. touched the tassel on his cloak. Immediately her bleeding stopped. When Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” …the woman realized that she had not escaped notice, she came forward trembling. Falling down, she explained why she had touched him and how she had been healed immediately. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 8:43-48)
To his disciples, Jesus’ words of peace may well have included the meaning of do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid: take courage: your sins are forgiven: you are healed, and: you are saved.
However they filtered the words, the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. One can imagine shouts of “Jesus!”, smiles, laughter and hands reaching out to touch him in joy on the other side of disbelief that it was possible. In a flash they “knew”… that he was alive, that he was the Son of God, that all that he had taught was true.
Jesus’ next words were, As the father has sent me, so I send you. It was a huge, divine… and a personal … commission. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus had said of his own mission I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me…that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:38-39).
Jesus’ relationship with his Father was central to his mission. In an extended set of verses from 5:17-43 Jesus details his love for the Father and the Father’s reciprocal honour of the son. He was sharing this relationship with the disciples when he gave them his same commission. The Father’s will was to save people. They were to represent both Jesus and the Father.
We don’t know how the disciples absorbed Jesus’ words. At the least, it must have sounded like a huge undertaking for which they probably felt unworthy, under-resourced and without a clue about how to start. Whether they understood it as a “gift” at that time, they came to see their mission that way as they pursued it with grace and enthusiasm.
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Significantly, he extended the power of forgiveness of sins to his disciples, with his breath. Breath was a sign of life. His gift of the Holy Spirit was the power to grant new life to the repentant sinner.
Throughout the gospel he had taught by his words and example, but this Easter evening Jesus gave them the “tool” of the Holy Spirit by which they could forgive sins and save.Jesus had given them many examples of forgiving generously. The evangelist John favours the verb “save” but Matthew and especially Luke, feature Jesus’ ministry of forgiveness many times throughout their gospels.
Ultimately, the gifts of peace, the Holy Spirit, a mission and the power to forgive sins are linked to one another. Jesus’ peace provided courage; the gift of the Holy Spirit was an intimate breath of the life of God, which would animate Jesus’ followers in continuing his own mission to save by forgiving.
We normally associate the idea of peace with calm and tranquility. But the circumstances of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance likely upset an uneasy silence in the locked room. Imagine the range of emotions the disciples experienced just before Jesus’ appearance, the moment of his appearance and the moment of recognition. His peace likely generated a lot of excitement, joy and, yes, a certain kind of deep tranquility.
If Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him when he first appeared to them do you imagine that he may have appeared to others, perhaps the chief priests, or Pilate, and they, too, did not recognize him? Do you think it is possible that Jesus appears to us the same way?
How do you interpret the words, as the father sent me, so I send you? Do you understand it as something that was given, uniquely, to the first apostles? Or was it a commission that extends to us, today. How didthe Father send Jesus? (This question has sponsored lifetimes of study and reflection for many saints.) How does the commission animate your life?