When Differences Bring Understanding
St. John’s description of the gift of the Holy Spirit is very different from St. Luke’s. Luke waits 50 days after Easter, until the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which celebrated God’s gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai. John, on the other hand, tells of the gift of the Spirit occurring on the evening of Easter day. How do we know that? Well, verse 18 of John, Chapter 20, was Mary Magdalene coming directly to the apostles from the empty tomb, announcing that she had seen…and talked with… the Risen Christ. Our reading today starts with verse 19, the very next verse: “On the evening of that first day of the week ( Easter)..”
John used this same expression, “that day”, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, promised the disciples, “The Father will give you another Advocate…the Spirit of Truth…On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in You.” John’s community understood that Easter was “that day”.
Consequently, John’s community was highly centered on the Eucharist, which almost immediately became the custom of the disciples on the first day of the week. And here in our Gospel, is the risen Jesus himself, on the first day of the week, with his disciples, just as he is with us in our Eucharist and in the Spirit.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is seeing his disciples for the first time since they abandoned him at his arrest in Gethsemane. They have a lot to answer for. They deserved to be fired, have their reputations blackened for life. What does Jesus say? “Peace to you.” Then he reveals himself by showing his hands and his side. He literally opens himself up to them. It seems to be in part self-identification. We might call his wounds his “credentials” to minister to all who suffer. Next, he repeats “Peace to you.” Upon hearing him and seeing him, then the disciples rejoiced and believed He was risen from the dead.
“Peace to you” is a Hebrew phrase which meant that something sacred was about to be revealed. It is not just, “Hey Guys, relax.” No. It is a declaration of peace, a proclamation, an announcement. The risen Jesus brings them peace, gives them peace. (You know: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.) Having prepared them to open themselves to the Spirit, he breathed on them. This takes us right back to Genesis 2, where God breathed into Adam the breath of life. It is as if the Spirit “re-creates” the disciples.
Early on, the breath of Holy people was presumed to have supernatural and healing powers. In fact, an early Patriarch of Alexandria filled a skin bag, like a balloon, with his breath, and sent it off to Ethiopia to ordain a Bishop. Here in John, this breath, a sign of creation, is linked with the power to forgive sin, becoming a sign of restoration and fullness of life.
The differences between Luke’s and John’s Gospels can’t be reconciled. We have no chronological historical documents which focus on the exact time line. Besides, much of our scripture was written not with the intent of keeping a play-by-play, but with a much more important goal – that is- to explain the revelations of God to the generations to come.
These revelations are given in a way to help us understand, they help us make sense of what happened, in ways that are not bound by the swing of a clock pendulum, but by the movement of the Spirit in the heart and soul. Our job is to attend carefully and embrace the mystery.
Perhaps the best way for us to really enter into the revelation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to talk about it in ways that we have experienced and with issues that we face. The Holy Spirit has been called “the love that God and Jesus have for each other”. The Spirit brings closeness. Think about the image found in Luke’s Pentecost of everyone in Jerusalem hearing the Good News in their own language. We view that as being able to draw close and talk with someone we had never been able to communicate with before. The barrier of language is removed, and we can share with a “foreigner” the truths we base our lives on. We can listen intently to them, hearing them speak from their innermost self. We are then drawn to love the very human-ness of each other, without stumbling over the clutter of culture or social customs.
What if this Spirit who is Love gave us the ability to listen to people we dislike, those people who drive us nuts, and the people we can’t talk to without getting into an argument. What if suddenly, with the Spirit, we could hear what they were saying, really saying, and suddenly realize that is so very much like what we, too, are really trying to say. What if we wanted to share our time with them, what if our faith suddenly felt big enough to embrace someone else’s understanding?
This week, Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, offered the use of their chapel to a Jewish congregation who had lost their synagogue, saying, “Let’s loose the keys to the church to the community.” Wouldn’t that be the sense of Pentecost?
In John’s Gospel, immediate after saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus brings up forgiveness. Without the Holy Spirit, the “power” to forgive sins – or not forgive – seems enticing. But with the Holy Spirit, suddenly the thought comes – “When I offer forgiveness, the sin is gone, forgiven. What if all the pain and hurt between me and that sibling I haven’t spoken to in years is gone? What if my estranged friend and I could once again enjoy each other’s company?
What if then, we shed some of our defenses, let some perceived insult or meanness be forgotten, what if we felt the person who formerly had annoyed us was, in fact, really of great value. Wouldn’t that be the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Let me end by quoting Pope Francis. “Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to ‘God’s Surprises’? Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness set before us?”