Reflection for the Pentecost by Fr Martin McCormack SDB.
Pentecost Year A – Lectio Divina on John 20, 19-23
Unlike Luke (Acts 2,1-41), John places the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The New Man, restored to life without end and without sin, gives the disciples a mission – to be new men and to renew the whole of humanity. He empowers them for this mission by giving them the Holy Spirit. The disciples receive the breath of the Risen Lord and the mandate to forgive sin in his name and with his power. Knowing that Jesus is risen means knowing that we have power to forgive sin because we have received the Holy Spirit. Anyone who believes in the resurrection has power to forgive and has the Spirit of Jesus as his companion. Living as disciples of the Risen Lord means obeying his command and living with his Spirit, bringing forgiveness to the world.
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I. Read: Understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.
The account is short of detail, but it is a chronicle of the birth of the Church. It follows the typical pattern of apparition accounts – the unexpected appearance of the Risen Jesus, recognition by the disciples and a mission to the world. Because of the importance of the event, its time and place are carefully recorded: “in the evening of that same day, the first day of the week,” in a room where the disciples were (in Jerusalem). None of the disciples is named, nor does it say how many they were. It mentions only the fear that gripped them and the fact that they had closed themselves away. Because he wants to be with his disciples the risen Lord is capable of overcoming the obstacles – the locked doors and the fears of the disciples. Jesus can be present to his disciples whenever he wants, overcoming all limits of space. His absence filled his disciple with anguish. The community felt threatened. The initiative for the apparition comes completely from the Risen Lord (20,19). He stands in the midst of these disciples who were afraid to go outdoors and declare themselves believers, and he encourages them. There is also an apologetic element – these frightened men could not have become courageous preachers if they had not had a real meeting with the Lord Jesus.
The unexpected presence of Jesus among them lets them experience the joy he had promised (Jn16:20-22; Jn17:13). He shows them his hands and his feet (cf Jn 19:34), proving that he was the crucified one. They recognise him immediately (cf Lk 24:41-47). When he has identified himself he grants them peace, not once but twice. His greeting (20,19.21) is not merely to give assurance but is a real gift and viaticum for the mission (17,18; 4,38; 13,20). The first fruits of their meeting with him are peace and joy. The second fruit is the mission. Jesus, who was sent by God, now restored to life and returned to the Father, entrusts his own mission to his disciples, and sends them (20,21: as the Father sent me, so am I sending you.) He says nothing about the content of the Christian mission or to whom it is directed but simply affirms that it comes through him from the Father. God is the source of the mission of the apostles. Christ and the disciples sent by him are joined like links in a chain.
Passing on the mission is an act of investiture and a proof of the Lord’s trust. This handing on of tasks from Christ to his followers makes them new men. The mission re-creates them. Those who are sent receive the life-giving breath of Jesus (20,22). The gift of the Holy Spirit is, therefore, linked to the handing on of the mission (20,23). The account recalls the creation of the first man, when God breathed life into the clay (Gen 2,7; Wisdom 15,11). The granting of the Spirit follows the glorification of Jesus (cf Jn 7,39) on his return to the Father (15,26; 16,7). Jesus himself inaugurates the era of the Spirit and he links it to the universal and unconditional forgiveness of sins. According to John, the Christian community is the only place in the world where the sin of man has no future, because the mission of the community, its exclusive task, is forgiveness without restriction. To pardon or to retain presupposes an exceptional power. The one who is forgiven by the community is forgiven by God.
Believers who have seen the risen Lord are left with but one mission – to open the hearts of men to love and to empower them for their mission. This is not so much a matter of power or authority but of service, a responsibility that transforms them into new men. Until the Lord comes again, the Christian community continues that mission.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The outpouring of the Spirit of Jesus on his disciples marks the birth of the Church. When Jesus left his disciples on earth, he promised them his Spirit. Some days later, when he gave them his Spirit, his disciples felt themselves sent to the world. On that day the Church was born, with the Spirit of Jesus as its patrimony, and with the task of evangelizing the world. From that day the Spirit has accompanied and assisted, guided and strengthened the followers of Jesus. Belonging to the Christian community means being heirs of the mission of Jesus and having the Spirit as an inheritance. To know that we belong to Christ is to know that we have been sent to the world as his witnesses, and that he has left us the gift of his Spirit.
We have received the same Spirit that encouraged Jesus during his lifetime, that led him to preach the gospel throughout Galilee, that made him strong in the face of temptation and that enabled him to know that he was the Son of God. The Spirit is the inheritance from Jesus that we possess today. It is all that we have of him and it is at our disposal. And yet, there is still an absence of Jesus in our world. We continue to follow him, but we feel his absence more than his presence.
As disciples of Jesus we live as if we did not have the Spirit, forgetting that we have the whole world, and our own hearts, to evangelize. It reminds us of the gospel: when the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples they were gripped by fear. Seeing him lifted them out of their sorrow and filled them with peace, but the joy of having him with them did not last long. He breathed on them again and gave them a new mission: “receive the Holy Spirit… those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” The Spirit of Jesus will be with them if they make the world their place of brotherhood.
One who is born again on Pentecost Day will not be satisfied with doing no evil, or with not paying back evil, although this is already good. Nor will it be enough for him to do what good he can, provided it does not cost him too much. Anyone who is a witness to Jesus must give the Spirit of Jesus to the world and his forgiveness. To give any less would be stealing what we have received. Anyone who does not know that he is sent to bring peace and forgiveness, has not received the Spirit. Anyone who does not believe that forgiveness is possible, does not believe in the Spirit of Jesus who makes it possible. If we do not accept the command of Jesus to grant pardon to whoever has need of it, we have not received his Spirit and we have not been sent to the world. Anyone who does not forgive has not got the Spirit of Christ, and cannot be a good Christian, even though he may be a good person. It is because of a shortage of people with the Spirit of Jesus, committed to bringing peace among men, and a shortage of believers ready to forgive, that the world today is deprived of God and lacking true peace.
We complain about the peace that others give us because it is weak and fragile, but if we give them the forgiveness that God gives us, our peace will be secure. Christians today are losing their vocation as peacemakers, and failing in the task that Jesus gave us to bring his Spirit to those who do not share our faith and are not capable of receiving the Spirit. For this reason we are losing our God and losing the world. Others have power, skill, resources – we have the power of God and a mandate from hm. What more can we hope for? Let us return to our community, to our workplace, to ourselves, with the resolve to work for peace and sow forgiveness, to promote agreement and build fraternity wherever we are. Bringing peace and forgiveness to others means drawing close to God. It is the best testimony we can give them. And we can give it, not because we are better than they are, but because we possess the Spirit of Jesus and his mandate.
Let us not forget that we are born as Christians the day that, as disciples of Jesus, we overcome our fears, see the Risen Lord, rediscover the joy of living and accept the world as our mission. In one day, without Jesus by their side but filled with his Spirit, the disciples did more than they did during all the years they spent sharing his life on the roads of Palestine. That is when the community of believers was born. If we want to be reborn today as Christians, let us remember that we have been sent into the world and let us live by the Spirit we have received. It will be the Spirit of Jesus who will send us to speak to people in their own language, directly to their hearts – as the Spirit sent the apostles on the first Pentecost.
We can begin with those nearest to us. Indeed, we can begin with ourselves, making peace with ourselves, with our most intimate desires and our innermost misery. Living at peace with ourselves is the most effective way to bring peace to those with whom we live. When we are at peace with ourselves we can bring peace to our families. Where else would we go to offer peace and the forgiveness we have received, if not to those nearest to us? To whom do we owe pardon, if not to those who share our life and our dreams, our joys and our failures? How can we expect to bring peace to strangers if we cannot live in peace with those closest to us? Wherever our forgiveness reaches, there also the Spirit of Jesus will reach and there the Church will become present. The first goal of our mission as peacemakers is to transform our families and friends. We bring the Spirit of Jesus and we become his disciples as we transform our family life.
The disciples of Jesus, if they know that he is alive, will live to bring his Sprit and his forgiveness among men. If on the other hand, we believe that forgiveness is impossible, or that nobody has a right to demand forgiveness, it means that we do not believe that Jesus is risen, or, worse still, we try to bury him again. He died to forgive us, and he rose that we might be able to forgive. Everything we do to create peace around us and to make forgiveness possible will transform us into the kind of disciples Jesus wants. Anyone who has the courage to forgive his neighbour sees the Lord and possesses his Spirit. There is no other possible explanation.
Offering pardon to whoever has need of it has always been the mission of Christians. If we do it in our day, it will give us again the certainty that we are the Church of Christ. We must not allow anyone to take from us the mission that Christ gave to his followers. We must not let anyone rob us of the Spirit he gave us to empower us for our mission. We have to rediscover the task for which we were born into the world as a community. Then we will feel again his presence close to us. We will have his Spirit in our hearts, if we forgive our neighbour. What more can we hope for? Or is it, that we do not believe that Christ is risen, and that he has given us his Spirit with a mandate to bring forgiveness to the world?
III. Pray: I desire that what I have heard may be done in me
Lord, I am not quite sure why, but I feel very like your first disciples who knew that you were alive yet were overcome by fear. I am closed in my fears and unable to proclaim that you are risen. Come, Lord, set me free from my fears. Give me your peace and the assurance that you have conquered the world.
Give me your Spirit. I am afraid. Fill me with it, before you give me your mission to forgive the world. Without your Spirit I will be unable to be a man of peace and the bearer of your universal forgiveness. I want to be a witness of your new life, by living your gift of forgiveness. I need you. I need your breath. I need your Spirit. If you still want me to be the bearer of your forgiveness, send me your Spirit as soon as possible.