Imagine that you are a Jesus follower in the first century CE in Jerusalem for Passover. It’s the first day of the week – Sunday – the day after the seventh day, the Sabbath (Saturday), which was the day after what we refer to as Good Friday: the day Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, crucified, and buried. You are terrified, afraid to show your face in the city for fear of being rounded up by Jewish authorities for your association with Jesus. You are not hard to pick out in the big city of Jerusalem. People from different U.S. regions can be identified by their distinctive dialect, clothing, phrases, ethos, etc. As one from the rural northern area of Palestine around the Sea of Galilee, you stand out as well. Your belt buckle gives you away before you open your mouth. You decide to wait it out for a few days to let the dust of Jesus’ scandalous death settle. You stay behind locked doors, huddling together with an unbelievably complex set of emotions: terror, horrible grief, disbelief, shock – you are likely numb having watched your friend, hero, leader, idol be so viciously killed. Earlier today you got reports that Jesus’ body had apparently been stolen from the tomb, and some “hysterical women” claimed to have seen Jesus.
Now imagine you live in the first century CE, but 50 years after Easter. Jewish authorities are still looking for you to call you out for your apostasy. You are seen as a disrupter at the very least, wooing people to abandon allegiance to the Law in favor of following the loose Way of Jesus. You are still living in fear. Imagine what remembering this scene would do for you:
That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! Again he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” – John 20:19-23 (NLT)
If the doors are locked, and suddenly a guy you thought was dead appeared, what would your immediate reaction be? Fear! Of course! That’s why Jesus immediately said, “Peace be with you” – the cowering followers likely just soiled themselves. Now they have one more thing to be afraid of! Quickly, Jesus showed them his wounds so that they would know it was him (remember that Jesus didn’t look like the Jesus that was hanging from the cross, or apparently much like the Jesus they followed, so this was helpful). Once they realized he wasn’t going to butcher them, or chain saw them, or claw them, or eat them, their grief turned into joy. Ecstasy, actually. I bet they felt high as kites, and it wasn’t even April 20.
It seems that Jesus was pretty sure nobody heard his greeting, so he said it again: “Peace be with you.” In the moment those in the room wouldn’t have put this together, but afterwards they would realize that his greeting was really, really good news. In the Jewish context, if you experienced a heavenly visit without a “peace be with you” or a “fear not,” it meant you were about to die. Judgment day right now. This really was a peaceful visit. And, also in retrospect, they would have realized that they were living in a pattern. Whenever a heavenly visitor came with a peaceful greeting, it was usually followed by a commission, a directive to carry out some task. You might want to make a mental note at this point in case you ever experience such a visit: the pattern is that the visit is purposeful – there is an invitation coming to follow God in some regard.
Jesus followed suit as he disclosed the mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Let’s look at the obvious here. The one who was dead but now alive was saying that his followers were being sent just as he was sent by God. They didn’t have to start from scratch, wondering what they were supposed to do. The mission did not change. Whatever Jesus was doing in his ministry is what his followers were supposed to do. No need to reinvent the wheel – just follow in his footsteps as faithfully as possible.
Sure. Of course. Naturally. If you’re a follower in the first century, you’ll just step right outside and start teaching profound insights wherever you go, create a picnic for thousands out of a kid’s lunchbox, heal some lepers, restore sight to some blind folks, and bring some dead people back to life. Got it. Are you kidding me?
To make sure they knew they were ever supposed to think they could carry out this task alone, Jesus gave them what he had that enabled him to do what he did. He gave them a Sherriff’s badge which gave them authority to execute justice wherever they went. Nope. Not what happened. Instead, he breathed on them, anointing them with the very Spirit of God in what must have been an unmistakable experience.
This act of breathing is pretty unique in the Bible, showing up only a couple of times. First, at the very beginning of the Bible, in the earlier, more primitive story of God creating Adam from dirt (his English name is Claude). “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7). The ability to live came from the breath of God. Similarly, when Israel was feeling completely defeated, God gave a vision to a prophet (holy man) named Ezekiel about what God wanted to do with people who felt like the living dead – he wanted to breathe life into them, animating them into new creations. In John’s account of Jesus’ life, he remembered Jesus referring to this very scene when he spoke to Nicodemus, a highly educated Jewish leader: the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. The take home point for the disciples? We’re not alone in this venture. In fact, apart from the Spirit of God, we’re dead from the word go. By extension, only when we are animated by the Spirit of God are we getting it right. When we choose to go on our own, that’s when we’re in trouble.
The commission had been given. The power and authority had been shared. Yet Jesus didn’t stop there. He gave one detailed statement for them to chew on going forward: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Got it. We get to judge people. Sweet! Nope.
Unfortunately, this is how some Jesus followers have read this text. Many, in fact, ever since it was uttered. People have been forced to walk in shame because church leaders have told them they are in sin and remain unforgiven. In some traditions, if sin isn’t confessed to an official church authority figure, who would then pronounce forgiveness (hopefully), you’re stuck. Good for my job security, bad for folks who can’t get an appointment… Bad for humanity as a whole, in fact.
There is a powerful element of authority given here. Determining what constituted ethical behavior from a God-inspired perspective was (and still is) part of the role faithful people play today. For better and worse. On the better side, within the Bible itself we see that, over time, the Law softened as humanity developed and greater sensitivity was given to people on the margins. For instance, women (especially widows), children (especially orphans), slaves and immigrants were given increasingly humane rights and protections under the law, with mandates to care for them at the expense of everyone else. Yep, that’s right. Everybody was expected to chip in to care for those who were especially vulnerable. The bad news about this is what likely led to the change in the law: women (especially widows), children (especially orphans), slaves and immigrants surely suffered severely before there was enough outcry to recognize that there was a problem to be addressed, that the people of God weren’t acting very god-like. Luckily, we learned our lesson, and have never allowed anyone to suffer before we made graceful changes to how we think about ethical behavior or legal provisions. Unless, of course, we’re talking about women (especially widows), children (especially orphans), slaves and immigrants. And tack on LGBTQ oriented folks, people who don’t look like us (whoever “us” is), the environment, global economics, and nearly everything else we touch. The fact of the matter is that people of faith do shift, but often way too slow, and at the expense of those who need help yesterday. Truly, the Church has much to apologize for and feel ashamed about for how we have carried out this aspect of Jesus’ directive. We love to divide folks up, calling others out for their sin without seeing our own, or seeing how we are complicit in the struggle of others.
There is a deeper way of thinking about Jesus’ directive, beyond what appears to be legalism. Perhaps what Jesus was referring to was directly tied to his broader mission of love. As New Testament scholar Leander Keck notes:
By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love. It is in choosing or rejecting this relationship with God that sins are forgiven or retained. The faith community’s mission, therefore, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong, but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus.
The world doesn’t need a new Sherriff. The world needs deep, abiding love that heals wounds, allows forgiveness to happen, restores relationships, transforms minds and hearts. The world needs the breath of God. That breath of God can be found in the community of Jesus followers who have been breathed on in order to breathe into each others’ lives and the entire world. We do it by learning it, practicing it, modeling it, and extending it. We image God as we allow the breath to flow through us. This is our high calling. We are called to be people who resurrect people with authority based upon our own resurrection. We have been breathed on in order to breathe on. Embodying grace is an invitation that carries a choice, a willingness to stretch. We need it. People we love need it. The world needs it.
If you find yourself cowering in fear, or anxious about the direction of your life, or full of life, may peace be with you. You are loved by God, animated by the very breath of God to carry you through, so that you may breathe life into people and situations where death threatens in myriad forms. That’s a mission worth getting excited about. That changes the world for the better. You get to do this. So do it.