Today is the first Sunday after Easter. For the Anglicans and other churches that follow the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, today’s assigned Gospel is from the twentieth chapter of the Holy Gospel according to Saint John beginning from the 23rd verse. This passage records Jesus’ first post resurrection appearance to His terrified and grieving disciples. As I was preparing to preach from this text, I recalled that the Lord Bishop on the day I was ordained to the Sacred order of Priesthood, uttered the same exact words that Jesus said to His disciples (words in italics): “Receive ye the holy Ghost” for the office and the work of a Priest in the church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. “Whose sins you for forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins thou does retain, they are retained.”
I can only imagine how the disciples felt upon hearing these words from their master. Probably just the same way I felt when I heard these words from the Lord Bishop. “Me Blessing Jacobs, a chief sinner saved by God‘s grace, forgiving and retaining sins? But this is not the only problem in this narrative. The disciples were behind locked doors for the fear of the Jewish religious leaders that have just killed their master. The author also intimates that Jesus appeared in their midst on the first day of the week and to prove to them that He is the same Jesus that they witnessed His crucifixion and burial couple of days prior, showed them His hands and pierced side. He then proceeded to breathe on them the breath of life and gave them the Holy Spirit.
In the Ancient world, the world shared by Israel and other surrounding nations, death is a one way street. No one has ever gone there and returned to life. All of the ancient world dreaded death because dead people don’t resurrect. There were instances of resuscitations, where people were raised from the dead, but died at later time. For example, Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and only son of the widow of Nain. Isaiah speaks of death as shroud that covers all people.
Jesus’ disciples were Jewish. As Jews, their principal sacred text was the Torah. It is arguable that these men were very knowledgeable of the Torah given that they were with Jesus for couple of years or more, and also from what we know of the place of Torah in every Jewish home. To say that they were astonished at the sight of Jesus would be understatement. This is because there is no where in the Torah (OT scriptures) that talks about the resurrection of an individual. Israel as nation was the one that was said to be resurrected on the third day not an individual as we learn in Hosea 6:1-2. (I was first made aware of the information by one of my favorite professors in college by the name of Andrew Sargent). Not only is this an enigma to the disciples, they could also recall God’s act of creation recorded in Genesis as the Spirit of God moved upon the surface of the waters, and God breathing upon the nostrils of Adam, and making them living beings. And by the way, they are also probably familiar with the Hebrew language and being aware that the word that was used for God in the first chapter of the book Genesis wasn’t the usual designation for Yahweh (Lord, though it could be used interchangeably for God the father and the God the son). What is going on here? Is this a new creation? For Jesus to be resurrected from the dead, He must be Israel because only Israel as a nation will resurrect on the third day. So when Jesus was raised from the dead, He was raised as Israel. To Jesus’ disciples, Yahweh has remembered His promise to Israel. They see Jesus, the only true Israelite that has been tried and tested and yet proven innocent, nothing in this world will stop them from preaching the Gospel even if it means at the cost of their lives. What is this business of forgiving sin and retaining sins? God is still the One who forgives sins. But He will forgive sins through His followers. Jesus’ death and Resurrection is the beginning of the new creation. The new creation will produce disciples, who will speak up against sinful activities in our world, rebuke and warn people of the consequences of sin. The new creation will now be defined by the activity of the Holy Spirit and will collaborate in establishing God’s sovereign rule over His people. The essence of the receiving the Holy Spirit is not to give Jesus’ disciples or the Christians a new form of spirituality. It is not to set them apart as some sort of holier than thou group of folks. It is for the disciples to live the rich full life of devotion, humility and dedication that is modeled after Jesus’ own life. The essence of the giving of the Holy Spirit is so that those who are called to be followers of Christ can do for the whole world what Jesus did for Israel. The charge to forgive and retain sins is a call to humility because we are called to do that which only God can do! He is risen!