First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost

William Loader

Pentecost: 8 June John 20:19-23

‘Pentecost’ is the anglicised form of the Greek word for 50th and refers to the 50th day after Passover. Pentecost is the Jewish festival called, ‘The feast of Weeks’, originally marking the end of the grain harvest. It also acquired links with the giving the Law on Sinai. It is a very appropriate time to celebrate the Spirit’s coming to the early church. Luke has given a symbolic structure to the first weeks after Easter. The risen Jesus makes special appearances for 40 days after which he ascended. The Spirit comes on the 50th day: Pentecost. 40 is a special figure linked with preparation (Israel was 40 years in the wilderness; Jesus was tempted 40 days in the wilderness). Luke is using the symbolism of numbers. He even has 120 people gathered in the upper room in Acts 1:15 (10 x 12!). Luke’s hearers would have appreciated the symbolism. The message is clear. We are to see the God of the Old Testament at work again. The coming of the Spirit is about harvest!

It is likely that Luke could create such a wonderful symbol with the numbers because he knew of a significant event which happened at the Pentecost festival. It is now retold in a way which echoes Jewish stories about Sinai according to which a flame came down from heaven, split into various tongues of fire, one for each of the nations of the world, but only Israel listened to the words. Luke’s symbolic narrative won the day and we now celebrate the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Good Friday.

Luke’s was not the only stream of storytelling about the Spirit. No other New Testament writer speaks of Pentecost in this way. Even Luke, himself, indicates that the scheme is a secondary structure, because he cannot hide the fact that the risen Lord also appeared to Paul - outside the 40 days! People thought about the resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Spirit in different ways. Usually they are very closely related. In most writers ‘ascension’ meant going up to be enthroned at God’s right hand and most saw that as happening at Jesus’ resurrection.

John’s gospel pictures Jesus ascending on the day of his resurrection (after meeting Mary! 20:17) but before he appears as the risen (ascended one) to his disciples (20:19-23). On that same day of the resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples and gives them the Spirit (19:22). What Luke describes as happening over 50 days John portrays as happening all on the same day! What really happened may be somewhere in between Luke and John, but it is likely to be closer to John’s account than to Luke’s. More important, however, than trying to work out what happened when, is the importance of what is being described and celebrated. John helps us to link resurrection and Pentecost in one single scene.

‘Peace’(Shalom) may be just, ‘Hello!’, but it probably includes much more than a greeting. It is the greeting that makes all the difference to them - and us! Its importance comes through what follows: having said, ‘Peace’, Jesus shows them his hands and side. This is not because they would not otherwise recognise him. Rather it is as the one who suffered that he presents himself. It is like saying: ‘Please don’t think I have left all that behind!’ From a broader perspective we might say that it reminds us that the resurrection is not about turning away from the life poured out in compassion to something else like reward, power and glory, but an assertion that this way of love and brokenness is the way, the truth and the life which leads us to God and reveals what God is also like.

The simple joy (and relief!) of the apostles hides something much deeper: the cross wasn’t a disaster, a symbol of hopelessness. At our deepest levels we make decisions about hopefulness and hopelessness. The killing of compassion, violence against the good, unrelenting suffering and oppression is devastating. Much of the time we pretend it is non existent or busy ourselves so as not to face its reality. If we allow ourselves to be confronted by the disaster of the cross and many cross-like experiences facing us in the world, we are thrown into the dilemma about hope: is there any? This story’s simple narrative of joy is an assertion of hope. That hope believes defiantly in the possibility of peace. Jesus’ second statement of peace is probably therefore also much more than, ‘Hello!’!

The meeting of hope and peace in the risen broken body is not about winning or triumph, as if it meant: ‘They thought they had won; but he won after all! Let’s join the winning side and reap the benefits!’ With an amazing consistency Jesus’ resurrection appearances end up being commissions (Paul’s is the best known example!). The life which meets us in brokenness meets us to engage us in itself! That means engagement is the same compassion and poured out love. In John that is simply put: ‘As my Father sent me, I send you’. As Christ was the bearer of light and life and truth, so we are to be the bearers of light and life and truth.

This must not be reduced to a programme, a mission statement to be obeyed, a strategy to be worked at, as if the focus now is task oriented activity alone. We will run out of steam! Or, all too easily, we will become frustrated or legalistic, with ourselves and with others. Instead, the one who invites our engagement in life acts creatively, recalling the wonderful account in Genesis of God breathing on shapes of clay to bring them to human life (Gen 2:7). The word for Spirit also means ‘breath’, so the symbolism is rich and evocative. This is John’s portrait of ‘Pentecost’. Engaging God’s life in compassion goes hand in hand with engaging God’s life in receiving compassion. The disciples are to live from this life - not just tell others about it. This is the promise of which Jesus had spoken so many times in his final address to the disciples (eg. 14:12-17,28;15:26;16:5-15).

Verse 23 goes one step further. It authorises the disciples to create an ordered community which faces up to itself, dealing with its own sin. John appears to be drawing on a tradition about church discipline at this point. It grounds flights of idealism which want to take off at the sound of the word, Spirit, bringing them back to accountability. We know that this was a struggle for many congregations, Corinth being the best example, but the problem was widespread (see, for instance, Matt 7:21-23). Perhaps John is addressing it when he consistently undermines faith which depends solely on sensational miracles and tells such people they must be born again (2:23-25; 3;1-5). The effectiveness of Christian community has a lot to do with the success with which it has learned to keep verses 22 and 23 together in a context of compassion. 13:34-35 remind us that community is inseparable from Christ’s mission. This also belongs to the message of 20:19-23.

Epistle: Pentecost: 8 June  1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Epistle/Acts: Pentecost:  8 June  Acts 2:1-21

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