“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23)

Pentecost Sunday

The day of Pentecost, which Christians commemorate as the day the Holy Spirit came to abide permanently within the community of the new church after Jesus’ ascension, marks the fulfillment of his promise not to leave his disciples alone. Now the Holy Spirit, the Paraklētos, has arrived and is here to stay. The Spirit is the worker here on Earth — the “Spirit of truth,” the advocate, summoner, encourager, comforter, helper, counselor, and teacher. The Spirit dwells within us and around us and works to help us discover our true identity in God who is Love, and lead us to grow into that identity. 

The first two readings speak to us about the unifying character of the Holy Spirit. But the unity that the Spirit brings is not a whitewashing of our individual uniqueness; it does not subsume us into any amorphous sameness that takes no account of our unique experiences, personalities, and gifts. No, this is a unity in which each person’s individuality is not only acknowledged, but honored, celebrated, and put to good use.

The first reading, Acts 2:1-11, paints a picture of a large crowd of devout Jewish folk from many nations who had gathered in Jerusalem for the annual religious festival of Shavu‘ot (“Weeks”), which commemorates the revelation of God at Sinai, the covenant with Israel that happened there and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Greek-speaking Jews who hailed from outside Judea called it the Fiftieth (Pentēkostē) Day, so the word Pentecost made its way into the mostly Greek-speaking early Christian community. It was to be on this day that the Holy Spirit would be revealed in a spectacular way. 

Now the Holy Spirit, according to Acts, had just come to the disciples like “a strong driving wind.” The pilgrimage crowd began to hear the disciples proclaiming their message, but they were astounded because “each one heard them speaking in his own language… 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.’”

In this first demonstration of the Holy Spirit, this unique Pentecost event that grew the fledgling church by great numbers, the Spirit proves to be a unifier. But the Spirit speaks to each person in a way that he or she can hear, within the context of his or her own language, nation, culture, and disposition. The Spirit is an equal opportunity teacher, who speaks to us where we are. And this is true as much today, every day, as it was that first Pentecost day. God’s Spirit does not change. 

The second reading, from 1 Corinthians 12, reveals the same idea: unity in diversity, oneness in all our individuality. I have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from me, and you have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from you. Paul says it best: 

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.

In the Gospel reading for this Pentecost, Jesus speaks of peace and of sending forth. The scene from John’s Gospel is the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the apostles who were hidden in the upper room in Jerusalem. Although the Gospel for today takes us back in time nearly fifty days before Pentecost, it also reveals the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus appears in the flesh in the middle of the room, though the doors were locked, and says, “‘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.’” 

With this gesture, Jesus gave to his fledgling church the commission to continue to carry out through the Holy Spirit what he saw as his greatest ministry: releasing each of us from the inner bondage of our own sin, when we respond to the awareness of it with a humble and repentant heart. When manifested in what Pope Francis calls the great sacrament of mercy — the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Confession) — the priest as the minister of Christ gives these words of absolution to the penitent:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Absolution is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, granted to a contrite heart. As the minister of Christ’s mercy, a priest cannot withhold absolution (“retain” the sin) unless the person truly has no contrition and humility in the face of their wrong, and professedly has no intention to attempt to do better, or has no grasp of what the entire process is for. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where a person would come to Reconciliation at all under such conditions!

But personal confession in the sacrament isn’t the only way the church mediates Christ’s forgiveness of sins. It happens in a general sense at the beginning of all Catholic masses and at the beginning of many Protestant worship services with the corporate declaration of sin, spoken by the whole congregation. The people acknowledge wrongdoing and ask for God’s forgiveness. This too is the work of the Spirit. 

Holy Spirit, this Pentecost day and always, help us to remember that the unity you seek to bring honors and relies on the individual gifts you have given to each one of us as participants in your works of love. Help us be open to what you offer to teach us. Help us be open to the ways you seek to soften our hearts, and help us always be humble enough to seek God’s forgiveness — the greatest gift of all. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

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