The below is an excerpt from www.thesacredpage.com, Scriptural reflections written for the Sunday readings by Dr. John Bergsma. This excerpt is for the Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday.
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.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Sometimes this passage is called the “Johannine Pentecost,” but it would be incorrect to pit these two events against one another, as if John was of the opinion that the Spirit was given at one time, and Luke of the opinion that it was dispensed at another. In the Christian life, there are certainly definitive giftings of the Spirit (for example, in Baptism and Confirmation), but the Spirit comes to us continually, not just once.
In fact, Luke does record the same event we find detailed in today’s Gospel Reading, although the fact is frequently missed. In Luke 24:49 Jesus says,
“Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you.”
The Greek is present tense: Jesus is giving the Spirit as he speaks, which is the event recorded in John 20. The rest of Luke 24:49 says, “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from high.” So Pentecost is not the first time the Apostles receive the Spirit. Rather, it is a special dispensation, a “clothing with power from on high.” We should understand it as an extraordinary empowerment with gifts and charisms that they will need for their apostolic ministry. As the Second Reading emphasized, there are many gifts and forms of ministry inspired by the same Spirit.
Finally, the Gospel Reading emphasizes the coordination of the ministry of the Spirit with the ministry of the Apostles. John makes the same point as Luke, a point we have remarked on in previous posts. The Spirit works through the Apostles and their successors. There is not, and should not be, a division between the “charismatic” and “hierarchical” Church. Of course, when the Church’s officers resist the Holy Spirit, or don’t manifest the “fruit,” it is a sore trial of faith for the rest of the body, but the answer then is prayer and fasting (Matt 17:21), not schism.
The gift of the Spirit in John 20 constitutes the beginning of two sacraments: Holy Orders and Reconciliation. The ministry of forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament was mediated through the priesthood, as one can see in Leviticus 5:10 and many similar passages. In John 20 Jesus grants the Apostles the essentially priestly authority to mediate forgiveness: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained.” This emphasizes the purpose for which the Spirit is given: that our sins may be forgiven.
Because it seems to be an obvious Scriptural basis for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, John Calvin (who rejected that sacrament) struggled to interpret this verse and ended up arguing that the “forgiveness of sins” referred to the apostles’ preaching. Through preaching sins were forgiven or retained; not by hearing the sins of believers and making a judgment to absolve or retain (i.e. Reconciliation).
But one can see that Calvin’s interpretation is certainly not the obvious meaning of the text. There’s no mention of preaching here. Perhaps if the entire Church had always understood the verse that way, one could accept it as its meaning. But of course, that’s not the Church’s tradition either. Like many other passages of Scripture, this was one in which Calvin could not actually live by the principle of “sola scriptura.”
When talking with other Christians, Catholics should remember that it is most certainly not a question of “them” taking the Bible “literally,” and “us” taking the Bible “figuratively.” Both Catholics and non-catholics use figurative and literal interpretation strategies. The differences between Catholics and other Christians revolve around which passages are to be taken in one way or the other.
As a Protestant pastor I never even noticed John 20:23; but now I love this verse as an assurance that those vested with the leadership of the Church have been granted by Jesus himself the authority to remit sins. I’m not left to battle with my own subjective judgments on my own behavior, which are invariably self-justifying and biased, but I can state reality before the man on whom hands have been laid, and objectively, tangibly hear the voice of the Spirit: “I absolve you …”