Part of the Communion In Times Of Coronavirus series of gentle reflectionsInderjit Bhogal, 2020
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It is generally recognised in scholarship that the Gospel according to Mark is the first written record of anyone’s memory of Jesus, possibly based on the sermons of the Apostle Peter. It has been argued also that the Gospel according to John may be the written memories and meditations that give us windows into the life and thoughts of the earliest followers of Jesus. They are mostly Jewish followers of Jesus who also remain attached to Synagogue communities. Some in the Synagogues were divided in their responses to Jesus (John 9:16; 10:19). Some of the newest follower of Jesus wrestled with how to be his disciples within the wider Jewish community, and feared being excluded from Synagogues on account of their allegiance to him (9:34,35). Some will have found this difficult. There were many, like Nicodemus (3:2) and Joseph of Arimathea (19:38) who kept their discipleship private. To be excluded from the Synagogue would have been a humiliation (9:34).
We cannot pretend that there were not complex arguments and deep divisions between Jewish authorities and the first followers of Jesus. Christians have to acknowledge that the way John has been read has contributed to antisemitic beliefs and behaviour. The Johannine text has to be read with care. Jesus was a Jew. It is a contradiction for his followers to hate Jews.
The execution of Jesus by the occupying Roman authorities was followed by the persecution of the followers of the Way of Christ. Life for Jews under Roman occupation was hard too. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in AD70.
Life for the small bands of Jesus’ followers was tough. They could only meet discreetly and in small groups. They were fearful of everyone, especially local police, occupying military and figures of authority. We discern in John the life of these small and fragile, almost sectarian, groups of followers of Jesus living as a tiny minority. They trusted no one and would be careful who they opened the door to. They lived and worshipped as excluded communities, behind locked doors for safety. They found strength in each other (see also Acts 2:44-47).
This is the band of people we read of in John 20:19-23. It is just a glimpse into their world. A small group meeting behind locked doors, scared and isolated. It is the first Easter Day.
I wonder if their fears included the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. They had been so scared when Jesus was arrested and crucified that they had denied knowledge of Jesus and abandoned him in his greatest hour of need. Now, Mary has just been to the tomb, found it empty, come to them and announced, “I have seen the Lord” (20:11-18). Their first response to stories of Jesus’ resurrection may have been that they were “afraid” (Mark 16:8). They’ve never known anything like the resurrection of a person. There were many reasons for them to lock the doors, they were probably looking accusingly at each other for letting Jesus down, and their fears have drained them of life.
“Peace be with you”
But their experience also was that Jesus stood among them, in their tiny house. He is aware of their fears and has his own scars he bears, and twice says to them, “Peace be with you” to reassure them. He is the one who was executed, but they are the ones who seem to have lost their life.
It is this frightened band of people who are the first people Jesus commissions to continue his ministry with the amazing words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.
Then he did something and said something quite incredible.
First, Jesus “breathed on them” and said to them “receive the Holy Spirit”. They felt his breath, that’s how close Jesus was to them. These words recall what is written in Genesis 2:7 that God breathed “the breath of life” into humanity. Breath is life. Jesus brings this lifeless group of people to life again, and assures them they will be sustained for life and ministry by the life and strength of God. His message is, do not be scared. Live fully in the world. You are not alone. God’s Spirit is with you.
Second, he gives them one instruction only: Be forgiving. This is the key requirement in the followers of Jesus who are commissioned to continue his ministry. Jesus may have been executed by those in authority, but what hurt and crucified him most was being abandoned by his closest friends. He forgave “those who know not what they do” from his cross, practically his last action before breathing his last. His first action with his followers gathered together is to show he forgives them, speaking words of peace. Now he instructs them to be forgiving. Forgive those who hurt you, and encourage this in others. Start here, forgive those closest to you who let you down, as I forgive you, he seems to be saying. Forgiveness helps to dispel fear and set you free. If you are fearful of those who have hurt you, or those you have hurt, forgive them. Forgiveness is most effective when it is face to face.
The symbols of the Spirit of God are life and forgiveness.
12 April 2020, EASTER DAY
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