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Sunday, April 7, 2013

The fifty hour Pentecost

No fifty-day waiting for the Holy Spirit in John. The Holy Spirit can’t wait to be unleashed on the world in John, and the moment of the Spirit’s arrival seems to be the moment when Jesus returns to the Father, that is, when he breathes his last. (Or aspirates his last, from the Latin spirare, to breathe, from which is derived the word spiritus. As in other ancient languages, this root can mean wind, breath, or spirit, but this latter hardly in a Thomistic sense, since we’ll have to wait a millennium for Aquinas to come onto the scene). The New American Bible, Revised Edition beautifully captures this nuance in John’s gospel in the moment Jesus dies on the cross:
When Jesus had taken the wine, he said,
“It is finished.”

And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
This echoes what Jesus had promised in 16:7, during his farewell discourse at the Last Supper, when he said, “It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”

Then, on the evening of the first day of the week, with the doors locked, Jesus appears to the ten (at least). Figure Judas was gone, and Thomas was the only one who wasn’t too afraid to show his face in public - the only one who wasn’t a coward, and he’s the
"The Incredulity of St. Thomas," by Caravaggio
one who gets the bad rap. (I didn’t think of that - it was Rosemary Reuther or Sandra Schneiders, I forget who.) But what John records about the moment of reunion is that Jesus appears in their midst, and

(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.”

There it is. This is the birth of the Church, the Christ-ening of the gathered disciples after the resurrection, according to John. In this moment, the church is anointed with the very Spirit that made Jesus the messiah, the Christ, and is sent “as the Father sent” him, to announce the jubilee of God, forgiveness of debt, and the arrival of the reign of God. (Another way of reading John is to see the birth of the Church, just as when he "handed over the spirit," as happening with Jesus's death on the cross, when "blood and water" poured from his side when he was lanced. This "eyewitness" testimony is meant to suggest, rather than simply proving his death, that a birth was happening, the birth of the church.)

I love this text for its literary and theological brevity, and for what it says about the nature of Christ and the Church. There are at least three elements in this short passage that anchor the text and send their roots back into the rest of the gospel and outward into the church’s future:

  1. The mission of the Messiah is handed over to the community of disciples;
  2. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the church to enable us in that mission;

  3. The church’s mission is forgiveness and therefore unity, as Jesus had prayed in the Last Supper “priestly prayer.”

I don’t think folks these days are as dumbfounded by the discovery of this as I was as a college student on retreat, that the messianic mission of service, forgiveness, and announcing the reign of God is passed on to us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is for a purpose other than particular grace, because in God being and doing are one and the same. It doesn’t start an elitist club of God’s people. Pentecost is a new start, the undoing of Babel, a new covenant. For John, Pentecost happens on the Cross and is made explicit here, in this moment, when Jesus breathes again upon the disciples, and his breath, his spiritus, is the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe this was a bigger deal to me, because I had been brought up in a church milieu where worship, at least, was passive, and membership in the community was measured by mass attendance and donation. Even in our parish, fairly progressive by most standards, the evangelical sense was minimal, but mostly because the gospel itself was a well-kept secret. People now are more brought up in a scriptural milieu in the church, and perceive their belonging to be more than a passive thing, so this passage isn’t as startling to them. But I do think that if we reflected on the great gift that this is, to be not just among the “saved,” but participants in the very act of saving the world, we’d be talking about it more and exploring its meaning. At Easter, we were reminded that in baptism we were baptized into the death of Christ, and rose a new creation, full of the Spirit that makes us the children of God, brothers and sisters to the Risen Lord. This is not our doing; “it is God’s work; it is beautiful to see,” as Psalm 118 says. It is a day that God has made, a new day, Pentecost, and now we Christians live no longer as ourselves but we live as Christ.

Sigh...And, ironically as wedding season starts to wind up, each with its proclamation of 1 Corinthians 13, I realize how un-love-ly I am, how wracked by arrogance, and pettiness, and jealousy, and a whole litany of creepy stuff that runs like a demonic counterpoint to Paul’s paean to agape. So much boils down to the readiness to forgive, which just seems impossible. It boils down to that moment when you just have to give up all the rights to being the wounded one, to asserting privilege over another person however boneheaded or crass he may be, and “being like God” (why do I write stuff like that?) and just letting it go. Why is this so hard to do, every single time? Even now, thinking about it, I’m making excuses for myself, blaming the other guys, trapped in this spirit-less void! Ugh, help. Maybe I have to get a bigger dose of the sprinkling rite water on Sundays, and hope that some of this little town’s hard brown water can start washing away some of this resentment.

No, not some. All of it. If we’re praying for a change, may as well make it a big one. I think I must be like Thomas, only it’s not Christ over there I doubt, it’s the one in here. If I could just put my finger on him, or feel that it’s the real thing, you know? Or let me believe my way, and not make the forgiveness part so mission-critical. Compromise a little, will you, Lord?

The paschal pattern that I see in this broken Savior, risen to life, his wounds exposed for Thomas’s investigation, is the same pattern of vulnerability he showed to the Samaritan woman in revealing his thirst, in bowing to wash the feet of the disciples, and in abandoning glory and god-ness for Bethlehem, Planet Earth. It’s just uncompromising self gift. Not looking for forgiveness, but forgiving. That’s both the identity and the mission he breathed out on the cross and the evening of the resurrection upon the nascent church, and which I breathed in, we all breathed in, as the cold waters of our baptism invoked a gasp from our infant autonomic nervous systems, and marked us forever. 


God, if I can just get hold of that, remember that, when the boneheads start assembling.