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MAY 19, 2013: PENTECOST

Readings: 

Acts 2:1-11
I Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

 

I remember years ago asking my high school Scripture class what they thought about the Twelve after we'd studied Mark's entire gospel line by line. One girl raised her hand and replied, "I always thought they were important people. But they're really a bunch of dummies."

If one reads only Mark and Matthew's gospels, that response is correct. The first two evangelists frequently employ the Twelve as a literary device to push the narrative along. In Matthew, for instance, there's just one time when one of them either gives the right answer to a question, or makes a completely correct observation. (That's in Matthew 16 when Peter answers Jesus' question, "But who do you say I am?" forcing Jesus to point out, "You didn't come up with this on your own.") In some sense they play the role of the "straight man" in a modern comedy routine, always advancing the dialogue, making certain Jesus gets the key lines.

But by the time Luke writes, in the mid-80s, the church is facing a new situation. Unlike his two gospel predecessors, Luke presumes the Christian community is going to be around for a long time. Jesus' Parousia isn't going to happen anytime soon. People are beginning to ask, "How do you know this stuff you're telling us is true? Do you have reliable witnesses?"

In many ways, Luke rehabilitates the Twelve, making them the reliable witnesses his readers need. We Catholics, who claim our leaders are "successors of the apostles," have no problem with his treatment of the Twelve. Our catechisms have traditionally bought into Luke's theology on that topic. Yet, especially on this day, it's important to see that Luke's Twelve are witnesses to more than just the things the historical Jesus said and did; they also witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community.

One of their tasks, as we hear in today's I Corinthians pericope, is to testify to the presence of that Spirit in everyone who follows the risen Jesus. Paul, the apostle, couldn't be more emphatic about his belief that every Christian is Spirit-gifted. "To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." Paul's convinced that only when all Christians use their gifts for the common good does their community morph into the body of the risen Christ

Of course, Luke tells us in our first reading that the Spirit's arrival in the community isn't always a peaceful event. He deliberately chooses the violent images of wind, noise and fire to accompany his/her coming. The early church presumed one reason it was gifted with the Spirit was because it daily had to face environments, situations, and questions which the historical Jesus hadn't encountered. These other Christs had to go beyond, "What would Jesus do?" They were forced to ask, "What's the risen Jesus doing?" The Spirit was the one element providing the answer. And almost always, that answer led to disturbing insights.

On the other hand, as we read in John's Easter Sunday narrative, that Spirit is also the force of forgiveness in the church. Without constant forgiveness, no family or institution can long exist. If the Spirit is the glue holding the Christian community together, we shouldn't be surprised that John's Jesus proclaims, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them . . . ." (Scholars presume Jesus never wants us to withhold forgiveness. He simply wants us to be aware of the destructive power we have over others by not forgiving them.)

Perhaps the most important thing to which we church leaders should be testifying today is the power of the Spirit in our midst - a power not even we can control.