JOHN 20:19-23 & ACTS 2:1-11 (Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13)
The liturgy of the feast of Pentecost presents us with two ways of describing the infusion of the Holy Spirit into the Christian Community, the Church. Each of these two ways can be understood as the birthday of the Church, although for the Gospel of John, the Church was born from the side of Christ on the cross and was then brought to life through Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples. In the sequence of time the gospel reading is first. It takes place on the evening of the very day on which Jesus rose from the dead. The portrayal of the birthday of the Church in Acts of Apostles is placed by Luke fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore it is called Pentecost from the Greek word pentecoste, meaning ‘fiftieth.’ First, the gospel reading.
Jesus enters the room where the disciples were hiding for fear of arrest by religious and/or Roman authorities because of their connection with Jesus. He had been executed as a rebel king. Jesus enters the room while the doors were securely bolted. Thus John indicates the resurrected body is no longer subject to the laws of physics. Jesus greets the frightened men with a greeting of peace, “Shalom alachem,” (Peace be with you!). To demonstrate that he is the same Jesus recently tortured and crucified he shows them his hands and his side. Only in the Gospel of John is Jesus’ side opened with a lance – an important theological point for the author. Jesus states his credentials, “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” This is John’s equivalent to the Great Commission we encountered last week in Matthew’s gospel for Ascension.
Jesus breathes upon the disciples, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit….” In composing these narratives the gospel authors are guided and affected by Old Testament back-ground. In Genesis 1:2, the story of creation, there is only emptiness until “the Spirit of God moves over the waters.” The word for ‘spirit’ and ‘breath’ are the same in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. It is the breath of God that injects life in pre-creation emptiness. When John depicts Jesus breathing upon the disciples and imparting the Holy Breath or Spirit it is a recasting, a re-enactment of the beginning of creation in Genesis 1:2. As noted above, the Church was born from the open side of Jesus on the cross. The Breath of Jesus, the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit, now brings the Church to life. In addition to Genesis 1:2, John’s narrative is also based on Genesis 2:7, “The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” As Jesus breathes upon his disciples imparting the Holy Breath of God, the Christian Community is brought to life.
The first reading for Pentecost, Acts 2:1-11, is not the theology of John, but the theology of Luke. One expects and gets a very different narrative. Luke begins, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled….” Meaning: beginning on the Feast of Passover, when 49 days had elapsed, it was now the fiftieth day, that is, the pentecoste day, the summer harvest feast. It is appropriate that Luke places the birthday of the Church and its first harvest on the Jewish harvest feast of Pentecost. “They were all in one place together,” and had been together for nine days (the first novena, from the Latin word for the number nine, novem). One hundred and twenty were “devoting themselves to prayer with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.” The nucleus of Jesus’ disciples gathered as the Christian Community is about to be brought to life.
“And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a mighty wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. There appeared to them tongues of fire which parted and came to rest on each of them (not just on the Apostles). And they began to speak in different tongues (languages) as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” What is the Old Testament background? With fire and storm and earthquake, Exodus 19-24, the original People of God were formed and brought to life at Sinai. With fire and storm the new People of God are brought to life. Luke may also have in mind Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God moving as “a mighty wind (breath of God) and filling the house in which they were.”
Luke continues, “There were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound they gathered…but were confused, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” In Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel is a symbol of human pride exalting itself before God. The Lord sees, and says, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language…. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad…over the face of the whole earth….” In Luke’s theology of Pentecost, Babel has been reversed. “Devout Jews from every nation under heaven” were gathered in Jerusalem. Each one heard the Apostles speaking in the language of each one present.” Luke envisions the Church under the guidance of the Spirit of God gathering all human-kind into one Christian Community. The theologies of Luke and John meet in one goal. John expresses it in these words, “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven.” Luke expresses it in words attributed to Jesus before his ascension, “that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed in his name to all nations….”