John, in his Gospel, attempts to correct misunderstandings in what the early church knew of the story of Jesus. Our scripture for today gives us another example. In the Book of Acts, Luke says that the Holy Spirit was given to the church on the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the name Greek speaking Jews used for spring harvest festival or Feast of Weeks which was celebrated on the 50th day after Passover. It was a dual purpose holiday in that it was also the time to commemorate God, on Mt. Sinai, giving to Moses and the Israelites the Law, creating a new nation for a promised land. Earliest Christians who saw them selves as a sect of Judaism continued this celebration on this fiftieth day after Passover, but for them it became a time to remember when God gave the Holy Spirit to those who followed Jesus, making them the church.
Dating when Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his followers in this way may have made a lot of sense to some but John, an eyewitness, recalls that it actually happened, not fifty days but three days after Passover, while all of them except Thomas were fearfully gathered in a locked room late the evening of Jesus’ resurrection.
It was then that the church was born; commissioned and empowered to continue Jesus’ work in the world. In his telling the story, instead of basing the story on the exodus or the story of the tower of Babel, John draws upon the imagery of Genesis 2:7 where God breathed life into humanity. Genesis 2:7 (cf. Ezekiel 37:9). A new creation is afoot. This creation does not replace “the world.” It engages it. Listen to how John tells the story:
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In the third century before Christ Ptolemy II, King of Egypt, is said to have placed 72 Jewish elders in 72 separate rooms and instructed them to translate the Torah from Biblical Hebrew into common Greek for his Library in Alexandria. According to legend the 72 translators produced 72 identical manuscripts in 72 days, a mythical testimony to the translation being error free and divinely inspired. It is known as the Septuagint and became the Hebrew Bible which Greek speaking people of Jesus’ day used. According to history the translation project lasted over 150 years. According to scholars, especially Jewish ones, it was a botched job of translation. It wasn’t the only Greek version available. There is good evidenct that some of the earliest Christian scholars used a translation of the Hebrew Bible of which only fragments exist today. It was the work of a man named Aquila.
At some point in Aquila’s life he joined with Christians. Later he became a proselyte to Judaism. He had family connections with the Emperor Hadrian and in the year 128 was appointed to an office concerned with the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
One difference between Aquila’s translation and that of the Septuagint is found in the Book of Daniel. It makes clear Aquila’s theology. My Bible, which follows the Septuagint has: “I heard a holy one speaking…” Aquila translated it “I heard the inward spirit.” The emperor once asked Acquila to prove, as the Jews maintained, that the world depend upon Spirit. We have to remind ourselves that English doesn’t do what most languages do, that is to use the same word for wind, breath and spirit. To demonstrate Aquila had several camels brought in and had them kneel and rise repeatedly before the emperor. He then had them choked. When, of course, they could not rise, “How can they rise? the emperor asked. “They are choked.” “But they only need a little air, a little spirit,” was Aquila’s reply. Life itself begins with God’s Spirit. Only what breathes has life.
Matt Skinner contends that John in his Gospel builds a case for such a reliance on the Holy Spirit. In chapter one John the Baptizer introduces Jesus as “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” In chapter three he has Jesus saying that his ability to give the Holy Spirit “without measure” would offer proof that he is from God and speaks the words of God. Chapter seven has Jesus promising that “rivers of living water”–a metaphor for the Spirit–would flow from his innermost being. And of course Jesus had much to say about the coming “Advocate”: “the Spirit of truth” which the world cannot receive; the one who will teach Jesus’ followers all they need to know; the spirit who testifies about Jesus and equips people to be witnesses.
These close connections John draws among Jesus’ promises about the Spirit, his glorification and ascension, his intimacy with the Father, and his commissions to his followers should alert us to the fact that we are to take seriously John’s recollection of what we call the Birthday of the Church. With the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers receive nothing less than the fullness of the glorified Son. Their lives (our lives) can therefore accomplish ends similar to that of Jesus’ life, insofar as they reveal God.
The words of Jesus say that: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” have been grossly misunderstood. The church is not called to the task of being God’s moral watchdog nor to evaluate people on some heavenly balance sheet. To understand what Jesus is talking about we have to see how, in John, Jesus characterizes the problem of “sin,” the role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of his ministry.
Sin is not about moral failings; it is either an inability or a refusal to recognize God’s revelation when confronted by it in Jesus. In John 15:22 concerning the world Jesus says: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.” For sin to abide is to remain estranged from God. Consequently, the resurrected Christ tells his followers (all his followers) that, through the Spirit that enables them to bear witness, they can set people free. “Set free” is a much better translation than “forgive”. They can be a part of seeing others come to believe in Jesus and what he discloses.
Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, results in the opposite: a world full of people unable to grasp the knowledge of God. That is what it means to “retain” sins. “Retain is just the opposite of “set free”. Jesus is not–at least, not in this verse–granting the church a unique spiritual authority. He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ is a church that leaves itself unable to participate in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.
In receiving the Spirit, the church receives Jesus and Jesus’ own capacity to make God manifest, bringing light to the world. Jesus lives, yes–not apart from us, but in and through us.
The authors of Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John see in John the marks of a patronage system that was common in the Mediterranean world. There are three roles in this system:
Patrons are powerful individuals who control resources and are expected to use their positions to hand out favors to inferiors based on “friendship”, personal knowledge and favoritism. In John God is seen as the ultimate patron.
Brokers mediate between patrons and clients. Land, jobs, goods, funds, power — are all controlled by patrons, but access to patrons are controlled by brokers who mediate the goods and services. It is in this role that John casts Jesus. Jesus says, “You are from below, I am from above” (8:23). He also makes clear that the Patron (God, Father) has given his resources to the Son to distribute as he will: “The Father loves the son and has placed all things in his hands” (3:35).
Clients are dependent on the largesse of patrons or brokers to survive and in return they owe loyalty and honor. Having only one patron to whom one owed total loyalty had been the pattern in Rome from the earliest times. But in the more chaotic competition for clients/patrons in the outlying provinces, playing patrons off against one another became commonplace. According to Luke you can’t be a client of both God and the system of wealth and greed.
The language of “grace” is the language of patronage. God is seen as the ultimate patron whose resources are graciously given and often mediated through Jesus as broker. For someone to be sent also belongs to the patronage system. It is used only twice in Matthew, once in Mark, four times in Luke; and once in Paul. John employs it forty-three times. We find that Jesus was ‘sent’ by God. The “sent” messenger is one beholden to a patron. He acts as an intermediary between the patron and those for whom the message is intended — that is, he acts as a broker. Eventually, Jesus turns over the broker role to his own favored clients, the disciples, who will take up the role on behalf of Jesus: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18).
What are we to do? We are to do precisely what Jesus’ disciples did. We are to broker God’s grace to the world. Jesus did not give his followers the Spirit’s power so that they could hide behind locked doors. Would it inspire us to bold and creative witness if the risen Jesus miraculously passed through our barricaded doors and breathed his Spirit into us? Maybe it only requires that we are reminded that this same Jesus is already present, dwelling in us and among us, giving us his breath of life.