Easter 2 • John 20:19–31 • April 3, 2016
By David Maxwell
The Breath of God
“[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn 20:22–23).
This is not the first time that God breathed on human beings. By breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus is in effect re-enacting Genesis 2:7, where “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The sermon sketched out here explores the connection between these two verses. How does our knowledge of the Old Testament background enrich our understanding of John 20?
At first glance, the connection between John 20 and the creation of Adam is not obvious. After all, the reception of the Spirit in John 20 is focused on the authority to forgive and retain sins. Indeed, in the fifth chief part, Luther’s Small Catechism uses John 20:22–23 in support of the statement, “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to his church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” In Genesis 2:7, on the other hand, the breath of God gives life to Adam.
This is a puzzling connection because we often think of forgiveness of sins in rather narrow terms. Forgiveness is about balancing our account with God. We need to be able to check off every sin with a corresponding absolution so that there is nothing remaining against us on the last day. But the fact that Jesus evokes the creation account in Genesis 2 when he institutes absolution forces us to reconsider our understanding of forgiveness.
In John 20 Jesus is, in a sense, re-creating the human race through the Holy Spirit given to the disciples. We should therefore understand forgiveness not only to balance our accounts, as it were, but to bring us into a new relationship with our creator, who gives us life. Forgiveness is God’s promise that whatever we have done in the past, he is not going to let that separate us from his love.
The example of a human family may be helpful to illustrate the point. When children do something wrong, they feel fear because they are “in trouble.” In their minds, normal family life is suspended because their parents are angry with them. Will they get an angry lecture? Will privileges be taken away? But most importantly, will things ever be back to normal? When they hear words of forgiveness, those words are a promise that family life will continue and they will continue to be welcomed in it. Children do not run to a ledger and check off the sin. Instead, they relax because they are comforted by this promise.
In the same way, God’s words of forgiveness assure us that we continue to be welcome in his family, the newly created human race. Once again the Small Catechism says it best. In the sixth chief part is the question, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?” Luther says, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” With that in mind, it is not surprising that Jesus would evoke the creation of life in Genesis 2 when he gives the Spirit for the forgiveness of sins in John 20.