Jun 4, 2017: Pentecost Sunday (A)

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.”

The setting is fifty days after the first Easter, ten days since Christ has ascended and left the disciples with the responsibility of administering his Church. Before he ascended he told them, “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.

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,

The Jewish feast of Pentecost was one of the three major pilgrim festivals of Israel — all Jewish males over the age of twelve were expected to try to celebrate them in Jerusalem.  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.

After this passage, in verse 15, Luke specifies that there were 120 people in the same house!

And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind,

This sound of a great rush of wind heralds a new action of God in the history of salvation.

and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,

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.

It is not clear who was in the room when the Spirit descended.  Was it the 120 people mentioned in Acts 1:15?  Or only the twelve apostles (Acts 2:14)?  The Greek text does not use gender-specific language, so we cannot say that it was a gathering made up exclusively of 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 and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

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

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

A startling change from the confines of the house to the surrounding area. The fact that Pentecost was a pilgrim feast 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 apostles’ speaking in tongues was ecstatic prayer in praise of God, interpreted here as speaking in foreign languages, symbolizing the worldwide mission of the church.

The root of the word translated as “confused” is the same as the word used in the Septuagint 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 fragmentation of peoples that occurred when languages were “confused” after the attempt to construct the tower.

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. The outpouring of the Spirit and the preaching of the gospel to all nations can be seen as the reuniting of the human race and the gathering of all into the reign of God.

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

Thus was the Church born. In one fell swoop, the disciples are transformed from timid persons holed up in a room to proud proclaimers of the marvels which God has accomplished.

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.

This is also the reading for the Second and Third Sundays of Ordinary Time in Year C.

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” (kyrios) 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.

“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 for us to hold but to share. If we fail to share the gifts, the common good suffers.

“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, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

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

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 we hear of Jesus’ first appearance to the apostles. Each of the details included by John is laden with theological meaning.

This is also the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter in Year B.

On the evening of that first day of the week,

The evening of Easter Sunday (Sunday is “the first day of the week”).  This appearance account treats the resurrection and the bestowal of the Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus as having occurred on the same day.

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

The locked doors secured the disciples from those who had some part in the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.  His followers had reason to fear these people might be hostile toward them as well.

Jesus came and stood in their midst

This underscores the mysterious character of Jesus’ risen body: it is not impeded by material obstacles.

and said to them, Peace be with you.

This wish of peace, shalom, was the common Jewish greeting of the day.

The word does not translate well. “Peace” is usually used in English translations, as it is here, but it does not connote the rich meaning.  In addition to a wish for peace, it was also a prayer for the eschatological blessings of health, prosperity, and all good things: completeness, perfection, a condition in which nothing is lacking.

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

By calling attention to the wounds of crucifixion in his hands and side, Jesus shows the disciples he is not a figment of their imaginations or some kind of ghost from the netherworld.  He is the same man who was crucified, but now he is risen. There is no indication that, like Thomas, the others probed the wounds with their fingers.

The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Apparently the disciples recognized him immediately.  All was not lost after all; their leader had returned.

Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you.

The bestowal of the Holy Spirit is introduced by a second salutation of peace.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

He is commissioning them with the same authority with which he was given.

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.

Note that this is a sacrament in one verse: an outward sign (breathing on them) instituted by Christ (he who did the breathing) to give grace (conferring the Holy Spirit).

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

This language describes the activity of a judge, who decides whether a defendant is bound to the consequences of the charges or loosed from them.  Most likely, the authority here given to the disciples is much broader than this.  The phrase “bind and loose” (or forgive) is similar to “flesh and blood,” or “left and right.”  Each expression names the opposite pole, but together they are meant to include everything between them as well.  These are ways of describing totality: “flesh and blood” refers to the whole body, “left and right” includes the entire horizon, “bind and loose” suggests complete authority.  With the bestowal of the Spirit, the disciples are authorized to continue the mission of Jesus.

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 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.”  [Dianne Bergant, Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A]

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