Pentecost is truly a wonderful feast. It is that magnificent moment of wind, fire, power and miraculous transformation. It is truly the new age of the Spirit when all is changed, changed utterly. The Apostles are at the heart of it just as they were at the heart of all those strange happenings when a certain Jesus of Nazareth walked the roads of Galilee and spoke of new thoughts, new deeds, and new things. Now, these new deeds are taking place. Now they are walking the talk. And the response is nothing short of amazing. People from the four corners of the earth are hearing them in their own language. This is the reverse of the Tower of Babel which was famous for the division and the breakdown of community; famous for the multiplication of languages so that people no longer knew or understood each other. Now everyone understands the Apostles in their own tongue. Here is the great gathering together of the nations of the world once more. All nations, peoples, tribes and cultures are brought together and celebrate their common heritage in Christ. We are now all brothers and sisters in the family of God, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man. There is no longer any distinction that favours one at the expense of the other.
Perhaps the biggest change is in the Apostles themselves. Just imagine them locked away in that upper room, depressed and huddled together in fear. This was their dark night of the soul. Jesus promised he would not leave them orphans but that’s exactly what they must have felt like then. Could any group of people be more human, more ordinary, more dysfunctional, or more unpromising? How much more obvious could human frailty be than in this group? They have just been mandated to tell the whole world what they have seen, but here they are seemingly paralysed and in a state of collapse. Yet it was at this moment of utter helplessness that the Spirit set them on fire. When they could do nothing more and realised their own powerlessness, it was then that God moved in. With the descent of the Holy Spirit the upper room burst open, the world is now their stage and they are preaching Jesus, so recently crucified, from the rooftops. Such is the fullness of the Spirit that ignited that upper room that nothing could ever hold them back again and the message of the risen Christ spread like wildfire right across the Roman world.
The past unfaithfulness of the apostles did not hold them back in any way. This is rather amazing because our sinful past has the knack of determining everything we do in the present. The murderer who does time is never allowed to forget his crime, not just by others, but even by himself. Peter felt terrible about his denying his Master and ended up in bitter tears. But, with Pentecost, his past is truly left behind as he is now the ‘Rock’ on which the Church of Jesus is now built. How come he could let go of this bitter grief so as to be a free agent for the Lord going forward? The answer is found in the forgiveness the risen Jesus offered to them on Easter Sunday. It’s a forgiveness of love. The love of God was poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit. It was a love so strong that it freed them from being determined by their past. They are now beings-in-love, totally overwhelmed by the love of Christ. As St. Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Sandra Schneiders has an interesting take on verse 23 which has Jesus says, ‘for those who sins you forgive they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain they are retained.’ She says most translations add a word not found in the Greek text to the second part of Jesus’ command. Jesus commissioned his disciples to forgive sins, but when he talked about retaining or holding on, the word ‘sin’ is not in the phrase. Jesus commissions them to forgive other’s sins but to “retain” or hold on to people, not to their sins. To retain the sin of another is to cling to the sin and reject the sinner—hardly the mission of Jesus. Perhaps this is what empowered the apostles in such a courageous way. Jesus not only forgave their sins but having forgiven them through and through, he then held them close to his warm, bulging heart. There is no going back from there. “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!” (The Joy of the Gospel #3)
The community born out of Pentecost is a community of the forgiven who are commissioned to forgive. These are people who must never forget either their origin or their destiny. They are a gathering of the frail and failing called to strengthen one another. The community born out of Pentecost must cultivate what Pope Francis calls “the arduous art of reconciliation,” an art that requires grace and the support of a community.
When we greet each other with peace today, we are challenged to remember the meaning Jesus gave to that word. “The peace of Christ be with you” is the greeting of sinner to sinner, of Christian to Christian as forgiven forgivers. It is a blessing that calls us to humility and generosity in equal measure. It is a blessing that we can make real only in communities enlivened by the breath of the Spirit.
Pentecost Sunday, 4th June 2017