The Church in John 20

Mark Gorman

The penultimate chapter of John’s Gospel is busy, with accounts of Jesus’s resurrection and his first appearances to his disciples on Easter and on the first Sunday after Easter. In this chapter, we read about Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb and about Peter and the beloved disciple racing there only to walk away in stunned confusion. We read as Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Jesus, mistakes him for the gardener, and then comes to her senses when Jesus speaks her name. We read further of Jesus appearing among his gathered disciples, despite the locked doors, and of Thomas, who confesses that Jesus is “my Lord and my God.”

Among the many gifts of this rich Johannine chapter is a nascent ecclesiology. The word “church” never appears. But significant traits of the church are on full display, especially beginning with Jesus’s initial appearance to his disciples in that locked room. From that moment, three ecclesial characteristics surface. Two of these are obvious, but the third, though less visible, is just as important.

The most obvious of these traits appears when Jesus breathes on the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. The church is to be a forgiving community. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23 NRSVue). This seems to give the disciples, and, by extension, the church, incredible power with respect to the forgiveness of sins. Another way of understanding what Jesus says, however, is that Jesus gives them an incredible responsibility concerning forgiveness. The disciples are to be people who, filled with the Holy Spirit, forgive sins.

The second ecclesial characteristic in this chapter is peace. Three times Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” The first time, in v. 19, Jesus offers peace to calm his disciples’ fear. They have locked themselves in a room; they are terrified that they will meet the same fate as Jesus; and Jesus, raised from the dead, appears in their midst without explanation. “Peace” is necessarily the first word. In the next verse, however, the disciples’ fear has been transformed into rejoicing, yet in v. 21 Jesus repeats and extends his initial blessing: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” There is no longer a need to calm fears. With this second “peace” Jesus commissions his disciples to be peacemakers, to go out from that place in the same way, the way of peace, the Father sends the Son.

Peace, though, is more than both Christ’s alternative to fear for his disciples and how the community is supposed to live “on the way” as it encounters other communities. Peace also should characterize the community’s internal life. Between the second and third “peace,” there has been a rupture among the disciples. Thomas, who was absent when Jesus first appeared, rejected the testimony of the other disciples. By refusing to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead unless he sees Jesus’s resurrected body for himself, Thomas creates a rift not only between himself and Jesus but also between himself and the rest of the disciples. These were the very same people whom, just a few days prior, during the Last Supper, Jesus had commanded Thomas to love as Jesus loved him, but Thomas has instead taken on the kind of skepticism and doubt that corrodes friendships and ruins relationships. This third “peace” of Christ, therefore, may well be Jesus restoring and healing an already-damaged fellowship.

This leads to the third, unspoken, ecclesial trait in John 20: trust. Jesus does not condemn Thomas for his unbelief, but Jesus does bless “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). Following this, the gospel writer interrupts the narrative to insert himself into the story: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:31 NIV). There is a question as to whether John means “you may come to believe” or “you may continue to believe,” but in either case, there is a clear parallel between the function of the gospel for the reader and the restoration of faith that Jesus’s appearance accomplishes for Thomas. The gospel is trustworthy, Jesus is trustworthy, and the church is to be a community of trustworthiness and of trust.

In these first days of the church, Jesus commissions his disciples to be a people of forgiveness, of peace, and of trust. As John portrays them, these traits are inseparable from Jesus’s resurrection. They flow from Jesus to his disciples. Thus, these traits should always be part of the church’s embodied, lived Easter proclamation, written on our life together so that others may also come to believe.

Posted May 15, 2023

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