MAY 15th, 2016: PENTECOST
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven
staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.”
Brothers and sisters:
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
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.”
Afraid the axiom “If you don’t use it you’ll lose it” even applies to the Holy Spirit. It’s clear from our Christian Scriptures that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t share his Spirit with us just so we could lock him/her away in our dogmas and conveniently forget about his/her presence in our daily lives. The historical Jesus was convinced those of his followers who were seriously committed to carrying on his ministry would need his Spirit to guarantee they’d be carrying it out as he wanted it to be carried out.
This is certainly presumed in today’s three readings.
In our earliest passage – from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – the Apostle conveys his belief that the Christian community can’t exist as Jesus planned it to exist without the Spirit. The Body of Christ can only function as a body when all its members correctly employ the gifts which the Spirit has showered upon them. More than anything, that Spirit develops and presumes the uniqueness of each person, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” In other words, if each Christian isn’t given the freedom to develop his or her gifts, the common good of the Christian community will suffer.
As Luke reminds us in today’s Acts passage, the Spirit’s presence notoriously creates confusion and tension. It’s no accident he employs fire, wind and noise to accompany the Spirit’s Pentecost arrival. If we want peace, quiet, and equilibrium in our Christian communities, we don’t want the Spirit in those communities. The Jerusalem crowd initially presumes those who’ve received the Spirit have simply been drinking too much. They’re not acting like “normal” people act.
Scholars who deal in “quantum theology” have an interesting take on the confusion the Spirit brings. Going beyond just this planet to discover God’s presence and activity in the entire universe, quantum theologians constantly remind us that change and evolution only take place in the universe when there are huge upheavals. If everything proceeds along peaceably, there simply is no change or evolution. (It’s no accident that we refer to the beginning of creation as the “big bang.”) In many ways, the Holy Spirit is the big bang of the Christian community. Without his/her presence and activity we’d never be doing what the risen Jesus expects us to do. We can’t biblically expect to be a spirit-led church without wind, fire and noise constantly being a part of whatever we accomplish. That’s how the universe works, and it’s how the Spirit works.
This brings us to today’s gospel passage. John, contradicting Luke, has the Holy Spirit come on the community not on the Jewish feast of Pentecost but on the Christian feast of Easter. According to his theology, Jesus rises from the dead, ascends into heaven (returns), and sends the Holy Spirit all on the same busy day. Also, unlike Luke, he connects the Holy Spirit in the life of the community with forgiveness of others. He faithfully agrees with other authors of the Christian Scriptures that the Spirit is the essential force helping us carry on Jesus’ ministry, but his hooking up the Spirit with forgiveness is unique. In John’s mind, the Spirit is the force who helps us discover how to forgive those who have hurt us.
Quantum theologians probably smile at John’s insight. Nothing causes more turmoil in the Christian community than forgiveness. It completely destroys the equilibrium of revenge. We usually know what to expect when someone retaliates for injuries. As Pope Francis often reminds us, forgiveness sends us into uncharted waters. Only the risen Jesus’ Spirit can guide us through the uncertainties such unexpected actions bring.