May 24, 2015: Pentecost Sunday (B)

1st Reading – Acts 2:1-11

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.”

Today’s first reading is the well-known Pentecostal narrative.  The setting is Jerusalem, fifty days after Christ’s resurrection and ten days after his ascension.

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,

Pentecost is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh Regalim).  Originally an agricultural feast marking the end of the grain harvest, it was also called the feast of Weeks because it was celebrated seven weeks, or fifty days, after the feast of Unleavened Bread.  As with the other two pilgrim festivals (Passover and the Feast of Booths), it eventually took on historical importance, commemorating the giving of the Law at Sinai.

they were all in one place together.

Just before he ascended, Jesus told the disciples, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 1:4-5).

Following this instruction, the disciples returned from the site of the ascension in Galilee to the Upper Room in Jerusalem.

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,

The external manifestations that accompanied the outpouring of the Spirit (here, wind and fire) were phenomena associated with a theophany, an experience of God.  For example, thunder accompanied God’s revelation at Sinai (Exodus 19:16); God spoke to Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:1), and to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:2).

which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

The text does not specify exactly who was in the room.  Previously, in Acts 1:15, Luke described one hundred twenty who had gathered, but later, in Acts 2:14, only the twelve apostles are mentioned.

Contrary to some translations, the Greek does not use gender-specific language, so we cannot say that it was a gathering of exclusively men; in fact, the later reference to the Joel passage in Acts 2:17-18 suggests it was not.

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit

Recall the words of John the Baptist in Luke 3:16: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Many see the tongues of fire and the infusion of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as the fulfillment of John’s words.

and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

The same Greek word (glōssa) is used for the tongues of fire that appeared above each one and for the foreign tongues that were subsequently spoken.

It is unclear whether the reference here is to communicative speech (“foreign tongues”) or ecstatic speech called “glossoloalia.”  As we will see, the people who came to see what happened did understand their bold proclamations, suggesting that it was communicative speech.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.

A startling change in setting from the confines of the house to the surrounding area.

All Jewish males over the age of twelve were expected to try to celebrate the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh Regalim) in Jerusalem.  This explains why devout Jews from every nation were in Jerusalem at this time.

At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,

The loud noise of wind mentioned earlier draws a crowd.

but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.

The root of the word translated as “confused” is the same as the word used to describe the effect of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), leading some commentators to believe that this demonstrates the reversal of the confusion of tongues after the attempt to construct the tower.

When humans raise themselves up to God to “make a name” for themselves [as at Babel], they are dispersed and confused in language.  When God’s Spirit comes down upon them, divisions are broken down.  This remains a particular mandate for the contemporary Church in an increasingly fragmented world.  [John R. Donahue (2002), Hearing the Word of God, Year B, 80]

This interpretation suggests that the human race has been reunited and all are now gathered into the reign of God.

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 own native language?

Note the change in attitude of the crowd: from confused, to astounded, to amazed.  They knew those speaking were Galileans, presumably because of some feature of their speech.  Yet the hearers were able to understand the message in their own dialect.

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,

A more or less geographical sweep from east to west, which gives the impression of universality.

as well as travelers from Rome,

Breaking with the geographical sweep, Luke also includes the center of the Roman empire.

both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,

As a conclusion to the list, western-most and eastern-most.

yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

The exact nature of this marvel is less significant than its meaning.  It was clearly a manifestation of the universal presence and power of the Spirit.

Thus was the Church born.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13

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.

This reading consists of three different yet related themes: an acclamation of the lordship of Jesus, a defense of diversity within the community, and the body metaphor that characterizes that diversity.

Brothers and sisters: No one can say, Jesus is Lord,except by the Holy Spirit.

The acclamation “Jesus is Lord” is rich in both Jewish and early Christian meaning.  “Lord” (kýrios) was the official title of the Roman emperor.  To proclaim Jesus as Lord was to set up a rivalry between the followers of Jesus and the ruling political authority.  Since most, if not all, of the emperors claimed to be somehow divine, this rivalry was both political and religious.  Furthermore, because the Roman government was involved in the death of Jesus, such a challenging claim would place those who made it at great risk for their lives.

The word “Lord” is  also used in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the First Testament, as a substitute for God’s personal name.  To use this title for Jesus is to ascribe to him the attributes of God.  It is important to note the acclamation uses the name of the man Jesus, not his religious title, Christ.  It is this man who is placed on the same level as the God of ancient Israel.  No one would make such a bold claim were it not for the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

This is a cry of faith, a testimony to the divine character of this man from Galilee.

“If no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit, what can we say about those who do name His name but do not have the Spirit? Here we have to understand that Paul was not talking about catechumens who had not yet been baptized but about believers and unbelievers.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 29,3]

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.

In sketching the diversity within the Christian community, Paul uses two triads: gifts / ministries / works, and Spirit / Lord / God.  Although that latter triad suggests a trinitarian perspective that associates one set of functions with each of the divine persons, it is clear from the next verse that all the activities are manifestations of the Spirit.

The Corinthians had inquired as to which gift of the Holy Spirit was greater than another, out of concern about their own image and status.  They seem to have developed a disproportionate esteem for certain ecstatic and charismatic phenomena, especially speaking in tongues, to the detriment of order in the liturgy.

Paul undermines any spiritual elitism by emphasizing that all gifts have the same origin and therefore the same value, and reminding them that they had all made the same baptismal confession (Romans 10:9).

To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.

These gifts are not given for the self-aggrandizement of the one who received them.  All were given for the benefit of the entire community.

“Each person receives a gift so that, governing his life by divine constraints, he may be useful both to himself and to others while presenting an example of good behavior.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366 – 384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

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.

The diversity found within the community is compared to the complexity of the human body.  Each part has its unique function, but all parts work for the good of the whole, and each part is dependent upon the others.

The Church is the Body of Christ, and it too is formed of many different members which are to work together for the benefit of the whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, 

In this community, there are no more stratifications, whether religious (Jew or Greek) or social (slave or free).

and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

No one member of the body is either superior or inferior to any other; all are partakers of the same graces of the same Spirit.

Alternative 2nd Reading – Galatians 5:16-25

Brothers and sisters, live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
these are opposed to each other,
so that you may not do what you want.
But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry,
sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy,
outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, occasions of envy,
drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.
I warn you, as I warned you before,
that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh
with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

This reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an instruction from the context of the wisdom tradition regarding the correct use of our Christian freedom.

Brothers and sisters, live by the Spirit

Although the verb is translated as “live,” the verb peripateō literally means “walk,” suggesting a path or a way (see Proverbs 4:11 and Mark 1:3).  The Semitic sense of the phrase refers to a way of conducting oneself.

and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.

“Flesh” (sárx), which means “body,” includes everything that pertains to physical existence or life in this world.  In soon came to refer to the weakness of physical existence.

For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh;

“Spirit” (pneúma) means wind, breath, spirit.  Thus it connotes the principle of life, and soon came to reference the noble aspects of human life.  The term is used to speak of the spirit of living things (specifically humans) as well as the Spirit of God.

these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.

In the wisdom tradition there are only two ways, the right one and the wrong one.  There is no middle ground; one must make a fundamental choice.

This exhortation from Paul fits perfectly into this manner of thinking.  Christians must decide between following the desires of the flesh and following those of the spirit.

Paul describes the conflict that exists between these competing ways.  They appear to be opposing inclinations within human beings, not forces external to them.  Because they are within us, we constantly experience the conflict of their opposition.  We frequently suffer the consequences of this conflict and do not act in ways that we intend (see Romans 7:15-20).

“The body… is not an agent but is acted upon. For desire is not of the body but of the soul. … How then does Paul say ‘the flesh has desires against the Spirit’? By ‘flesh’ he means not the physical body but the evil choice. … What then? Ought one to suppress the flesh? Was not the one who said this himself clothed with the flesh? … By ‘flesh’ here he means earthly thoughts that are apathetic and heedless. This is not a condemnation of the body but a reproach of the apathetic soul. For the flesh is an instrument, and no one repudiates and hates the instrument as such, but only the one who handles the instrument badly” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 393-397), Commentary on the Epistle To The Galatians, 5,17]

But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

When Paul contrasts the spirit and the flesh, he seems to be referring to the spiritual dimension of the individual, which is an intrinsic aspect of the person.  When he contrasts the Spirit and the law, he seems to be speaking of the Spirit of God.

However we understand the reference to spirit, Paul’s exhortation is the same, for he believes that the natural spiritual dimension of the person is energized by the Spirit of God.

One who follows this way is guided by the Spirit rather than by the directives of the law.

It is important to note that Paul is not here criticizing the law.  Rather, he is identifying its function.  It is a reliable guide for those who have no other guide.  Before the coming of Jesus it performed its function well, but now those who are guided by the spirit have no need of the law’s directions.

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

The law seeks to control the behavior that results from the weakness of physical existence. Paul catalogs the vices that are produced by the flesh when the law is unsuccessful at its attempt to control.

Those who follow in this way forfeit their right to inherit the kingdom of God.

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.

For him, a spiritual life is a life lived in the Spirit of God, and the fruits of such a life are the fruits of the Spirit, which are listed in contrast to the works of the flesh.

Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

The reading ends with a play on meanings.  Just as Jesus’ flesh (physical body) was crucified, so those who belong to Christ crucify their flesh (human weakness).  Doing this, they have chosen the way of the spirit over the way of the flesh.

“What he means by ‘follow the Spirit’ is ‘let us be content in the power of the Spirit, and let us not seek to augment it with the law.’ Then, having shown that those who introduce circumcision are doing this through ambitious motives, he says, ‘Let us not become proud, which is the cause of evils, calling one another out of factiousness and strife, in jealousy of one another. For jealousy comes from vainglory, and from vainglory all those other evils’” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 393-397), Commentary on the Epistle To The Galatians, 5,25]

Gospel – John 20:19-23

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.”

Today’s gospel reading is John’s account of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples, on the day of his resurrection.

If it sounds familiar, this was also the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter this year.

On the evening of that first day of the week,

This is the first Easter Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead.  John wants to make it clear that this is the apostles’ first encounter with the risen Christ. Every resurrection account which is dated in the gospels occurs on a Sunday.

when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews,

After what had happened to Jesus, they feared for their lives.

Jesus came and stood in their midst

The locked doors also underscore the mysterious character of Jesus’ risen body, which is not impeded by material obstacles.

and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Shalom.”  This wish of peace, the common greeting of the day, is also a prayer for the eschatological blessings of health, prosperity, and all good things.

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 

The showing of the wounds demonstrates that the Risen One is also the Crucified One. It was not only Christ’s spirit that was resurrected, his tortured body is also present.  This answers the question of “Where have they put him?”(John 20:2).

The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Apparently the disciples recognized him, because they rejoiced when they saw him.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.

Jesus introduces the bestowal of the Holy Spirit with a second salutation of “shalom.

As the Father has sent me,

Jesus was sent to reconcile people with God and had the authority to forgive sins.

so I send you.”

Sent with the full authority of God.

Note that “apostle” means “one who is sent.”

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.

There is a beautiful play on the Hebrew word ruah which is the same for “breath”, “wind”, and “spirit”. There is a long tradition of linking spirit and breath — it is reminiscent of the creation of Adam (Genesis 2:7) and the restoration of Israel after the Exile (Ezekiel 37:9).

By breathing in this way the risen Lord portrays himself as one who can create or re-create.  Just as Adam’s life came from God, so now the disciples’ new spiritual life comes from Jesus.

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

They are commissioned to go forth, to declare salvation and judgment. The commission is from God, given by Jesus, and endowed with the Holy Spirit — the trinitarian testimony is clear.

The judicial character of Christ in the matter of sin, now given to the Church to continue, was a character of Jesus which so upset the Pharisees that they sought to kill him. This is the origin of the sacrament of penance. The apostles were not given the charism of clairvoyance; they must hear the sins if they are to know which to forgive and which to retain.

Alternative Gospel Reading – John 15:26-27; 16:12-15

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father,
he will testify to me.
And you also testify,
because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”

In this gospel reading, Jesus explains two important points: the relationships between himself, the Spirit, and the Father; and the role played by the Advocate in the search for the truth.

Jesus said to his disciples: “When the Advocate comes

It’s only in John’s gospel that the Holy Spirit is called the Advocate (Paraklētos).  Although the title comes from the Greek word for comfort (paráklēsis), the meaning here is “helper” or “advocate.”

whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me.

The beginnings, and only the beginnings, of a trinitarian understanding of God are discernible in this passage.

Note that this verse twice states that the Advocate proceeds from the Father, explicitly identifying the Father as the divine fountainhead within the Trinity.

The relationship between the Advocate and Jesus is quite different.  Although the Father is the source from whom the Advocate proceeds, it is Jesus who does the sending.  Upon being sent, the Advocate will then bear witness to Jesus.

And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

Along with the Holy Spirit, the the disciples will be continuing witnesses of Christ.

They can be considered reliable witnesses because they were with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry.  The Advocate proceeds from the Father, and for this reason can also be considered reliable.  The emphasis on trustworthy witnesses indicates how  important the notion of solidly established truth is in this reading.

To what do the Advocate and the disciples bear witness?  Most likely to the claims that Jesus made about himself and about the things to come.

“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.

It seems that the disciples have failed to comprehend much of what Jesus has revealed to them.  In addition to this, there is much more that he would reveal, but they are not yet ready for it.  It will be the role of the Spirit of Truth to glorify Jesus and to lead the disciples to ever deeper understanding of Jesus’ revelation.

He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.

The Spirit will not proclaim new or obscure truths but rather the meaning of the life and teaching of Jesus.  Like Jesus, the Spirit will do the will of the Father.

He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.

The role of the Advocate in the search for the truth is threefold: to bear witness, to glorify, and to instruct.

Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.

The basic outlines of trinitarian theology have been drawn: the Father is the divine source, the Son shares in what the Father has, and the Spirit reveals the mysteries of the Father and the Son.

Connections and Themes

Pentecost.  The Christian community has been living in a peculiar “in-between” time since the ascension of the Lord. Today it celebrates the dramatic inbreaking of the time of fulfillment.  The feast celebrates the fullness of the Spirit and the great gathering together of nations.  The feast also brings the Easter season to its conclusion.  Like the finale of a majestic symphony, the readings for today recapitulate many of the themes that appeared throughout the Easter season: christology, trinitarian theology, reign of God, repentance, salvation, mission, universality.  All are brought together as we are brought together into the body of Christ.

In the fullness of the Spirit.  At last the plan of salvation has been brought to conclusion.  The risen Lord has been exalted to his rightful place next to God, and he has sent his Spirit to fill the earth with God’s power.  The world is charged with divine energy: tongues are loosed, and speech overflows its linguistic constraints; charismatic gifts flood the valleys of human habitation; barred doors are burst open, and frightened hearts are calmed.  The Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world.

The great gathering.  Once again we gather together for one reason, only to discover God has gathered us for another.  Strangers assemble to fulfill personal obligations, and they experience a phenomenon that bonds them together for life.  Individual religious devotion is swept up into communal divine revelation.  Through the Spirit of God we are reconciled to one another, and then together we spend ourselves for the common good.  Through the Spirit of God the world is renewed, the community is revitalized, and we come to know the mysterious yet all-pervasive peace of Christ.

If this has all really happened, why does our world look the same?  Why is there so much religious and ethnic rivalry?  Why do we continue to make distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, woman and man — distinctions that favor one at the expense of another?  Why is there to little peace, or comfort, or solace?  Why do we refuse to forgive or to be reconciled?  Is Pentecost merely a feast we celebrate in red vestments?  Has the face of the earth really been renewed?

The answer is yes!  Resoundingly, yes!  The Spirit has been poured forth and works wonders wherever human hearts are open to its promptings.  The earth is renewed each time rivalries are resolved; distinctions are recognized as merely expressions of diversity; peace is restored; comfort and solace are offered; forgiveness is granted.  We are immersed in the vigor of the Spirit of God; all we have to do is open ourselves to it and the reign of God will be born in our midst.

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