As Christians, on this Feast of Pentecost, we commemorate the gift of the Holy Spirit that came upon Jesus’s Apostles. We heard about that day in our first reading from Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. In that telling, it happens fifty days after Christ’s resurrection. That’s the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, none of the gospels speaks about Pentecost. In fact, the passage from the Gospel of John that we read this morning places the event on the day of Christ’s resurrection—Easter Sunday. I’m not fond of having unresolved issues like these clouding our understanding of the Scriptures. Perhaps some background would help.
Let’s start with the day itself. Pentecost, meaning “fiftieth” is the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The name means “weeks” and it refers to the seven weeks after the Passover that the Book of Leviticus [Chapter 33] defines as a period of special observance. The festival is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. It’s a harvest festival, celebrating the first fruits of the spring—both from the fields and the flocks—that were sacred to the Lord and were to be offered to him. It also came to celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Shavuot, or Pentecost, therefore concluded the Passover season.
The early Jewish converts to Christ continued to observe their traditions, but they came to expand their understanding of these fifty days to conclude the Passover of Jesus from death to life. Saint Luke wrote of this observance in his Acts of the Apostles. Although, in most cases, Luke’s chronology tends to be more historically minded than John’s, here, the symbolic meaning of the seven weeks of Passover observance seems to be at the forefront of Luke’s mind. The period after the Resurrection was evidently a time when the Apostles had to make sense of what had happened and what their future role was to be. Pentecost served as a fitting conclusion to Christ’s Passover and a conclusion to their own period of preparation for what was to come. Don’t become too focused on the days and hours that Luke reports; the timing is merely symbolic.
Now, I’d like to turn our attention to the passage from the Gospel of John that we read. John’s entire gospel concern the revelation of Christ’s glory. Glory—in Hebrew כבוך (kabod)—is derived from a word meaning “weighty,” having ponderousness. It expresses the awesomeness of the divine Presence. For John, this glory is manifest in Jesus from the very beginning. In his Prologue, John writes of the divine Word that brought to birth all of creation. Then, he says “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of enduring love.” [John 1:14] Little by little, throughout John’s gospel, the glory of the Father is revealed in and through Jesus until it is ultimately exposed in its fullness at the Last Supper. In answer to John’s question about the identity of his betrayer, Jesus dips a morel of bread and gives it to Judas. John tells us that Judas “…took the morsel and left at once. And it was night.” [John 13:30]. With that begins the final manifestation of the glory of the Father in Jesus.
John writes, “When [Judas] had left, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. God will also glorify him in himself, and he will glorify him at once.’” [John 13:31-32] For John, Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection fully manifest his glory. Yet, when Mary Magdalene recognizes her Lord in the garden after his resurrection, he warns her not to stay stuck on his physical presence. He says to her, “I am going to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.” [John 20:17] Last week, we celebrated Christ’s Ascension—his glorification and return to the Father.
Why is this important for our understanding of today’s gospel reading? Because, for John, Jesus’s resurrection, his ascension into glory, and the gift of the Holy Spirit all happen on the same day. For him, they are all one event. Resurrection Day is the Day of the Lord that the prophets foretold. From this perspective, now let’s look at the gospel text.
Jesus appeared to his disciples and said, “…peace be with you.” That is עלים שׁלום (shalom ‘alekem). In Hebrew, shalom means much more than “peace.” It means healing and wholeness. In his appearance to the disciples, Jesus is bringing his healing power to bear on his band of brothers, individually and as a group.
“As the Father has sent me, so I also send you.” The eternal Word of the Father, incarnate in Jesus and sent into the world, is calling his disciples to continue that same mission. His mission from the Father is now their mission. It’s the mission of bringing wholeness—healing and reconciliation—to a suffering world. How can these disciples, terrified and confused, possibly carry out the Father’s plan?
John continues, “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.’” It’s not insignificant that Jesus breathed on the disciples, in light of the way John shows us the coming of the Word as a continuation of God’s creative power. Not only is Jesus’s breathing on the disciples an echo of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of chaos at the dawn of creation, but it’s also an echo of the breath of life which God breathed into the man he had created. What John describes in this scene is a new creation of humanity in the person of his disciples. When he tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he’s empowering them to go and breathe new life into the world.
What has this to do with the forgiveness of sins? Go back to Jesus’s first words: “Peace be with you.” That is, peace, wholeness, healing be with you. Sin is a sickness that attacks our connectedness to God, to others, and to ourselves. We become alienated, lost, and alone. Forgiveness is healing. It restores our wholeness and reconnects us to God, to others, and to the people we were created and called to be. We are reconciled and once more become part of that new existence that as disciples we’ve been empowered by the Spirit to create. In that, we not only become that new creation, but we’re empowered to bring that forgiveness, that healing, that newness of life, to others. Through our forgiveness, the reign of God—God’s new creation—spreads.
What, then, can we say about the Holy Spirit? People find it difficult to comprehend what we mean when we talk about the Spirit of God because we’ve been taught to think of the Spirit as a person, an entity. It would help us tremendously if we’d only think of the Holy Spirit as a verb rather than as a noun. Rather than breath, think of the Spirit as breathing. The Spirit is God living, loving, creating, healing, and empowering. The gift of the Spirit that we celebrate today is nothing less than our participation in the dynamic life force of God himself. We’ve been called to share in that same power and energy that brought all that is into existence, that provides destiny and direction to every individual and to human history itself, that raised Jesus from the dead, and that is doing the same for us right now. We share that same Spirit so that we might continue the healing work of Jesus and his disciples in our world. That, my dear friends, is the story of Pentecost.