Let the Scriptures Speak
Runaways—Blessed And Missioned
… They sent [the Samaritans], Peter and John,
who went down and prayed for them,
that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
for it had not yet fallen upon any of them. (Acts 8:14-16)
Resurrection, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, mission—whereas Luke spreads these events across fifty days in Luke-Acts, the Fourth Gospel concentrates them into the scenario of a single day. This is one of the places that frustrates the historical literalists who insist on finding answers to the question—exactly what happened, precisely when and where? The texts of Luke-Acts and John do not yield answers to that kind of questioning. What these texts do assert is that soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, God, beginning in Jerusalem, presented Jesus live to a stunned and frightened group of Jesus’ disciples and proceeded to enable them by the power of the Holy Spirit to continue Jesus’ mission.
The fact that our New Testament canon includes more than one way of telling about this demonstrates that the Church lives easily with the fact that there is almost always more than one way to speak of the Trinity’s action in Jesus. Our business is to attend carefully to what each diverse account contributes to our understanding of the essential mystery of God's action in the world.
John sets the scene in a startling way: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” Clearly, whatever Jesus may have said about his imminent death and resurrection, the disciples were entirely unprepared for the shock of his execution. Their first concern after learning of their Master's death by Roman crucifixion, apparently, was for their own safety. If the Romans considered Jesus dangerous enough to kill, surely they, the followers, might be next. John’s phrase “for fear of the Jews” has, or ought to have, a strange sound for our ears. After all, they themselves were Jews, as was Jesus himself. The fact is, the Fourth Gospel frequently calls Jesus’ adversaries (especially the religious officials of his day) “the Jews.” One can only make sense of this nomenclature by postulating that, at the time of the writing of the Fourth Gospel, the Christian community was largely Gentile and “the Jews” was for them a way of naming their own opponents. Then it becomes a way to name Jesus’ opponents during his own earthly ministry. (Were John with us today, and given the sad history of Christian anti-Semitism, one suspects that he would delete the phrase “the Jews” as failing to communicate what he had intended.)
Jesus' first statement to these frightened (and no doubt guilt-ridden) runaways is, “Peace be with you.” Before they have a chance to express regret and ask for forgiveness, Jesus blesses them with shalom. Then, to confirm his identity, Jesus shows them the wounds of his hands and side. He follows this with another blessing of shalom, this time linked with the mandate to carry on his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Given all that this Fourth Gospel has said about Jesus as “sent” by the Father—to be light for the world, to heal, to be bread from heaven, to be good shepherds, to die in order to gather into one the scattered children of God, to be the New Temple, to be the culmination of divine presence in human history—to be sent by the Father as Jesus was sent is a thought that requires the use of a phrase from the vocabulary of today's youth—totally awesome.
If that way of describing the disciples' mission is breathtaking, it is also breath-giving. For Jesus implements the commission with a powerful and resonant gesture: he breathes upon them. An action that demands an explanation—breathing upon an entire group is surely an attention-getting gesture—this is another of Jesus' prophetic symbolic actions, like his washing of feet at the Last Supper. The key to the gesture’s meaning is the only other scene in the Bible that even comes close, the creation of Adam (Gen 2:7), where God is pictured as breathing life into a clay model. Thus the post-Easter gift of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples comes in the form of a new creation entailing a mission that implements the very mission of the original Sent One.
Now it becomes clear why John, in his account of the healing of the man born blind, highlights the name of the pool of healing water (Siloam, meaning “The Sent One”). All of us are born blind, until we wash in the waters of the Sent One, baptized into the life of faith. Like the healed blind man, our destiny is simply to witness with our lives how we have been healed of fear and blindness and empowered to continue Jesus' mission.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University