While our attention was diverted to spectacles of princely matrimony and more tragic school shootings in Texas and Georgia, the Feast of Pentecost quietly arrived. The strange mixture of themes is surely as much a sign of our times as almost any other aspect of life today. But here and now, our focus is now on the conclusion of the great Paschal mystery at the heart of Christian faith.
We are so used to seeing the Holy Spirit portrayed by the symbol of a dove that we automatically insert one in our images of what happened on that strange and wonderful morning. But Luke says nothing about a dove. He speaks of wind and fire, tongues of flame that appeared over the disciples’ heads. In the very next sentence, using the same word, glossa, Luke tells how the disciples began speaking – not just babbling – in foreign languages. And a few sentences later, he describes how the many linguistically different people gathered outside heard them speaking in their languages – dialektoi – that ranged from Persian to Egyptian, Turkish, and Latin. You could call that “the gift of ears.”
Pentecost is about God’s wild and creative energy, about life and unexpected renewal. It is especially about language, and especially the language of prophecy. For the Holy Spirit is above all the Spirit of Prophecy, the Spirit of Jesus himself, sent from God to lead, guide, and guard his followers as they preached the gospel in every corner of the world. Since then, “Holy Spirit” is the name we give to our direct personal experience of God in the real and daily events of our lives. It is the name we place on the ways God acts through us to renew the face of the earth.
Today’s gospel is from John, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus makes when he appears to his disciples on the night of the
Resurrection. Twice, Jesus says to them “Peace be with you.” Then, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And after he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. [John 20:21-22]
How did God send Jesus? John has told us that earlier: “God sent the Son into the world, not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3: 16 – 21]. And so we, too, are supposed to save the world! But what does breathing have to do with it?
In biblical tradition, breathing is always spiritually effective, beginning with Genesis, when “God formed a human being of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human being became a living person” [Gen. 2:7]. The Latin word “spiritus” actually means breath, and so do the Greek and Hebrew words.
We come then to the third and final phrase of Jesus’ mandate to the Disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That declaration seems sudden and, frankly, out of place. But anyone who has sat for a time with John’s gospel will suspect that there is much more going on here than first meets the ear. What these unexpected words tell us is not only startling, but intimately related to why we are here today and our mission as we return to the world out there which is so full of fear, disillusionment, sin, hurt, and longing.
First of all, in scripture, to bind or retain always means to grapple, to grasp, or to hold on to something, usually in the context of a struggle against threatening force. Here, John is telling us that both forgiveness — letting go, and binding — holding back, confrontation, are necessary and complementary dimensions of Christ’s commission to be Spirit in the world by overcoming the powers of evil and creating a commonwealth of love, peace, and justice.
Christian binding has little to do with acts of social control such as excommunication or refusing to absolve people, but much to do with public and private resistance to injustice, that is, with the spirit of prophecy. Some things must not be overlooked. It gets down to prophetic action. All kinds of it, from silent witness to great gestures of protest, defiance, or support that we associate with prophecy in our own time. Here the life and death of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero immediately come to mind.
In the Gospel of John prophecy always means exposing sin and evil in the face of their denial. The Holy Spirit came among us to convict the world of sin, that is, to expose evil and injustice by revealing the sheer fact of its presence. Our task, our mission and ministry is to enable the Spirit to convict the world through the truth and justice of our witness. The gifts of the one Spirit differ, as St. Paul says. Often it is not necessary to do anything but be present, to endure, as the great martyrs have done. Or the lesser ones, such as the silent, daily witness of Christians in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere. The “church suffering” is a living reminder to the world that injustice does not go unnoticed.
Still, to protest injustice publicly, to lament, to proclaim our consciousness of oppression if only by suffering, serves the Truth and the Light. To respond with violence does not. With God’s grace, non-violent resistance will, as it has before, bring those responsible for injustice and suffering to conversion of heart. Then, and only then, will forgiveness and healing begin to operate creatively in the world. We have recently seen that in Parkland and now, again, in Santa Fe, Texas.
As a habit of the heart, the spirit of forgiveness also recognizes our own complicity in evil. By asking forgiveness from each other, we open way to forgiving others on one hand and really confronting evil on the other, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer. Pretty heavy stuff! The stuff that wants and needs confirmation, and why there is a sacrament by that name. For out of such commitment to truth, to love, and to justice, true healing and reconciliation can and will grow. And so the final promise of the Spirit is that love will ultimately heal the wound of sin that infects the world and the cosmos itself, this great body of Christ groaning in labor, awaiting the revelation of the children of God.
That’s what the Gift of the Spirit on Pentecost calls us to celebrate and renew. Let us pray for the light and the wisdom to proceed.