There’s a sense of Spirit in the world today. Not, perhaps in the sense we are most familiar with in church, but nevertheless Spirit – the Spirit of Forgiveness, of Love, and Compassion. And of Resurrection. Just a day after the terrible attacks on civilians in central London, Ariana Grande and a host of young rock idols have come to the lovely old city of Manchester to present a benefit concert for the victims – all of them – of the even more awful attacks in that fine old city on May 22, barely two weeks ago. This celebration of Spirit is like that of other places and other concerts. It is the response of people who refuse to be cowed by terror, who rise up singing. That Spirit, as a friend wrote some years ago, is Loose in the World.
The story of Pentecost is, of course, about Spirit. It is as familiar to us as any of the great Easter mysteries, although we often get it wrong in our paintings — no dove is mentioned, only a great wind and tongues of fire. Pentecost itself was the ancient Hebrew Feast of Weeks, the celebration marking seven weeks and a day after the beginning of the wheat harvest. It was one of the three major festivals of the calendar. It has now been seven weeks and a day since Easter Sunday. As the day on which the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ, filled the disciples with courage and even miraculous gifts to aid in the preaching of the gospel, it truly marks the beginning of the great harvest Jesus spoke of [Matt 9:37, Mark 4:29, Luke 10:2, John 4:35, etc.]. Peter’s sermon represents the earliest proclamation of the gospel, and the Apostles’ sermons in different languages look ahead prophetically to the spread of the faith throughout the known world.
Later generations of Christians looked back to the Feast of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. But the Holy Spirit was no stranger either to the Hebrews or to the disciples of Jesus — the Old Testament is filled with references to the Spirit, and, as we’ve seen, the Spirit was revealed at Jesus baptism. More importantly, and more mysteriously, Jesus endows the disciples with his Spirit on the night of the Resurrection, a gift that we commemorate in today’s reading from John’s gospel.
“….After he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ [John 20:22].” This is the Paraklete, the “other advocate” that Jesus had promised at the Last Supper, the one who would not only defend them when Jesus was no longer visibly present, but would lead his disciples into all truth. But before Jesus breathes the Spirit into his disciples, he prepares them with three gifts. Let’s back up a bit.
“When, on the evening of that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, he said, “Peace be with you.” Peace is the first gift of the Risen Lord. “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread; in John, it is by his wounds — wounds of love that redeemed the world.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. [Just] As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” [John 20:21] Mission is the second gift of the Savior — and more than a gift, a responsibility. Jesus sends the disciples out equipped with the greatest gift of all for the greatest task on earth. Just as God sent him. As John tells us earlier in his gospel:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For 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]. That is, through total uncompromising love.
That is the love that leads to salvation, saving — making people and the whole world safe. But safe from what? Jesus answers with the third and most surprising gift of all: he breathes the Spirit into them and says simply and perhaps surprisingly, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
How strange that sounds after what has preceded. But it makes sense, loving, divine sense. God has saved the world through the gift of love that enables us to forgive, to overcome the power of sin, hatred, and death, the deep darkness that would stifle the light and life of the world. We call it binding and loosing, but we must be careful to consider what Jesus meant. In scripture, to bind or retain always means to grapple with or hold on to something. Christian binding means to come to grips with injustice and oppression. It means prophetic action, the refusal to stand mute and idle in the face of sin, the willingness to expose and resist evil in the face of its denial. But especially and above all to loose: to let go, to unbind, to forgive, to allow the healing presence of God to overcome injury, hostility, and resentment by the sheer force of love.
So as Pentecostal Christians, our mission or ministry, like that of Jesus, is not to condemn the world, but to save it from darkness and sin by the power of love, peace, and forgiveness, to rise up singing, to stand joyfully against injustice and the worship of death. Where love, peace, and forgiveness rule, there the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts and lives, there the saving presence of Jesus leads us into all truth and freedom. So come Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of your faithful, enkindle in them the fire of your divine love….