May 31, 2020: Pentecost Sunday (A)

Introduction

The Greek word Pentecost means “fiftieth day.” Fifty days after Easter Sunday, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and their followers, and the beginning of their earthly ministry to make disciples of all nations.

However, Pentecost was a Jewish feast before it was a Christian feast. On the fiftieth day after Passover, the Jews celebrated their covenant relationship with God by recalling Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai. Just as the Gospel accounts reinterpret the significance of the meal celebrated on Passover by telling the story of Jesus instituting the Eucharist, so the Acts of the Apostles reinterprets the significance of the feast of Pentecost, making it a celebration of the gift of the Spirit to the Church.

Pentecost also celebrates the birth of our Church. The coming of the Holy Spirit ushered in a new era for the people of God; from that point on, the apostles carried the message of Christ to the whole world.

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 amazing story of the first Christian Pentecost.

The setting for today’s first reading 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. (A week of weeks is forty-nine days, but if you count both ends (as the Semites did), it comes to fifty.)

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.

Notice that Luke says, “the time of Pentecost was fulfilled.” This is an expression used to indicate the end of a time of waiting, setting the stage for a momentous event.  Luke used the same expression in his gospel when Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem: “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, Jesus resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

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

Wind and fire are traditional symbols for the presence of God; this would have been very obvious to Jews who knew their scriptures. The Spirit of God blew over the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2) and rushed upon David at his anointing (1 Samuel 16:13). When Isaiah describes the coming of the Lord at the gathering of all the nations, he says: “Lo, the LORD shall come in fire, / his chariots like the whirlwind” (Isaiah 66:15).

External manifestations of God’s presence are known as theophany. Other examples: 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.

Notice that the fire rests on each person, indicating that the Spirit has come to dwell in each person.

That being said, it’s not clear who was in the room when the Spirit descended. Was it all 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 (which would indicate the latter); 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, insinuating that the tongues of fire yielded the 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 is ecstatic prayer in praise of God, interpreted here as speaking in foreign languages. This is seen by many as a symbol of 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 event demonstrates the reversal of the scattering that occurred when languages were “confused” after the attempt to construct the tower.

The Tower of Babel story is proclaimed during the Pentecost Vigil (click here for readings), reinforcing this notion.

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: they go 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 an 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.”

Recall that just before his ascension, Jesus told the apostles: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That is exactly what has happened on this first Pentecost: the Holy Spirit has come upon the apostles and they are suddenly and miraculously able to preach to all nations.

Thus was the Church born. In one fell swoop, the apostles are transformed from weak, timid, shallow men holed up in a room to bold, wise men who would reach the ends of the earth to proclaim Jesus Christ.

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” (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 Old 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 the 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).

In John Chapter 17 (7th Sunday of Easter, Year B), Jesus prays fervently for the unity of his body, the Church. Now we understand that all those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into one body, and that the Spirit is our source of unity.

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 after his resurrection. Each of the details included by John is laden with theological meaning.

If the reading seems familiar, that’s because it’s part of the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter every year.

On the evening of that first day of the week,

The evening of the first 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.

That morning, Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb and discovered it empty. She told Peter and John, who ran to the tomb and discovered only burial cloths. Next, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and instructed her to tell the disciples that Jesus is “going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). Mary did as she was instructed. It is on that same evening that the scene we now read occurs.

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

The locked doors protected the disciples from those who had some part in the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. There were plenty of reasons 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. And it isn’t just Christ’s spirit that was resurrected, his tortured body is also present.

He is the same man who was crucified, but now he has risen.

The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

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

Their rejoicing is a fulfillment of a promise Jesus made at the Last Supper: “So you are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you.

Shalom. The message of peace is emphasized by repetition.

This is also a promised gift in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”. Those who believe in the risen Christ receive the gift of peace of heart.

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

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

“Apostle” means “one who is sent”.

And when he had said this, he breathed on them 

There is a beautiful play on the Hebrew word ruah which is the same for “breath”, “wind”, and “spirit”.

This description of Jesus breathing on the apostles is one of John’s many allusions to the Book of Genesis. When God created man in the garden, God “formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Genesis is a story of creating the material world. John’s Gospel is the story of God’s re-creation, of God’s establishing a new spiritual order through Jesus Christ.

Here, Jesus is breathing life into his creation, the Church — a creative/re-creative act consistent with the Easter themes of new birth and a new life in Christ.

and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit.

In John’s gospel, the coming of the Holy Spirit occurs at this first appearance, rather than fifty days later as it does in Acts (Acts 2:1-13).

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).

Note the trinitarian nature of this account: the commission is from God, given by Jesus, and endowed with 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 and empowered 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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