John 20:19-31 is the source of the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter. This is Christ’s first post-resurrection appearance to the disciples in John’s Gospel, where he appears to the ten (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Christ commissions the apostles on that first Sunday that he appears in the Upper Room. On the following Sunday, the faith of Thomas is affirmed when he sees the risen Lord.
God Sends – Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Apostles
In his first appearance in the Upper Room, Jesus accomplishes three different things. First, he sends or commissions the disciples. We should remember that in the fourth gospel, to be “sent” means to receive and possess the authority of the sender. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, we are told that John the Baptist is sent by God (Jn 1:6, cf. Jn 1:33 and Jn 3:28). But John the Baptist himself tells us that God will send someone greater than himself (also cf. Jn 1:33 and 3:28). The Baptist, speaking of Jesus, says the one who comes from above is above all. Then, making sure that he himself is not misunderstood as being the messiah, John the Baptist confesses, Jesus must become greater, I must become less.
This theology of sending is epitomized in the classic Johannine passage about Jesus:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (Jn 3:16-17)
In John chapters seven, eight and nine, ten and eleven, Jesus repeatedly tells us that the Father has sent him. Christ’s sending is even rooted and tied to the Eucharist and the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus tells us that the work of God is to believe in the one whom [God] has sent. And the one whom God has sent is also the bread that comes down from heaven, and the bread of life.
Jesus also tells the disciples at the Last Supper that He will send the Holy Spirit, in chapters 14, 15, and 16. In chapter 14, Christ says the father will send in my name the advocate, or the Holy Spirit. In chapter fifteen, Christ tells the Apostles that their words will be inspired by the Spirit. Jesus explains that the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father.
Much the same way that God sent the Son, and that Jesus promised to send the Spirit, Jesus now, in the Upper Room, sends the apostles to proclaim the good news.
A Gift of the Spirit
Secondly, Jesus gives the apostles gathered the gift of the Holy Spirit. Specifically, Christ breathes on the men, reminding us that the term for breath and spirit (ruah) is the same in Hebrew. This gift of the Spirit signifies that the apostles are sealed and given the authority to act on behalf of Jesus. This is not the first time the apostles have been given authority to act on behalf of Jesus. However, it is formalized in the post-resurrection appearance in the upper room.
The Authority to Pardon
Finally, Jesus gives the apostles the authority to bind and to loose. In English, the scripture passage says, whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained. In the original Greek the verbs used are aphiemi and krateo. These two verbs mean “to release” and to “hold.”
My Lord and My God
The following Sunday, the apostles are gathered in the Upper Room again. This time, Thomas, who had been absent the week before, joins them. The apostles pray behind closed doors, yet suddenly Jesus appears in their midst. Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wounds in Christ’s hands and side. And Thomas responds with the exclamation, my Lord and my God.
Thomas the Apostle offers us additional evidence that these particular appearances of the Lord are not simply manifestations of a ghost, or simply a vision. Jesus is indeed, a human who has risen from the dead. And Thomas inspects the wounds in his hands and side. John’s Gospel, reminding the reader that the testimony of the Gospel should be as credible as the testimony of an eyewitness, because the Gospel is based on eyewitness testimony, says blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.