The Pentecost Accounts

The readings for Sunday, May 15, 2016, Pentecost Sunday, Cycle C, are
Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; and John 20:19-23.

The liturgy of the Ascension of the Lord presented us with two quite different narratives proclaiming the ascension. Both narratives were composed by Luke, one in his Gospel, the other in his Acts of Apostles. The liturgy of the Feast of Pentecost also presents us with two different narratives, although not from the same source. The sources are the Gospel of John and the Acts of Apostles. In the Gospel of John it is the evening of the first day of the week (Sunday evening), the day on which Mary of Magdala first, then Simon Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” discovered the empty tomb. Soon after this discovery, Jesus appeared to Mary of Magdala. Because she thought someone had removed the dead body, she kept looking for its new location. Jesus entrusted her with an important assignment. “Go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” She faithfully reported this message to his male disciples who were hiding behind locked doors due to their traumatic experience — the arrest and execution of Jesus.

Our Gospel reading begins “on the evening of that day,” the day of the resurrection, the first day of the week (Sunday evening), Jesus suddenly stands among the disciples, although the doors remained locked. He knew what these frightened men needed — peace, security. Therefore his greeting, “Shalom alachem” (Peace be with you.) At the Last Supper he had told them, “I do not give Shalom to you as the world gives.” He repeated his Shalom to them. Of his Shalom it might be said as we say of our seven sacraments, “It produces what it signifies.”

Next on the agenda of Jesus’ visit to his disciples — extending his own mission to them. “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” That was not enough. They needed to be empowered. Therefore, “When he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,” the gift given by himself and the Father, promised in John’s meditation on Jesus’ discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper. The word “breathed” is theologically pregnant with meaning. The Old Testament is always at work in the theology and terminology expressed in our Gospels. In Hebrew, Greek, and Latin the word for spirit and breath are the same. When Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon this small gathering, he is breathing life into the Church. This action echoes Genesis 2:7, “The Lord God breathed into his nostrils (the man the Lord God formed from clay) the breath of life and the man became a living being.” The function of the presence of the Holy Breath, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, etc.”

Now the Lucan Pentecost — today’s first reading. In John’s version of the proclamation of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church, resurrection, ascension, and delivery of the Holy Spirit to the Church all happen on the same day. There is no “Pentecost” in the Gospel of John. This feast is named from Luke’s narrative in Acts 2. His theology proclaims the presence of the Holy Spirit on the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. Pentecoste is the Greek word for “fiftieth.” It is the fiftieth day after Passover. The important point is that Pentecost was a celebration of the grain harvest. Luke has a great idea. He places the first Christian harvest of humanity on Pentecost. For Christians it is not the fiftieth day after Passover, but the fiftieth day after the resurrection.

On the fiftieth day the gathered nucleus of the Christian Community heard a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind. Tongues of fire appeared, resting on each of them,” not only on the apostles, but on the Christian Community. As they were filled with the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit, they spoke in tongues — strange languages. Luke then notes that there were people in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven.” All of them understood in their own language what the disciples were speaking in tongues.

What Old Testament background influences Luke’s composition? In Genesis 11, “The whole earth had one language.” Humankind united in a sin of pride. The Lord said, “Let us go down and confuse their language, that they may not understand each other.” Cooperation became impossible. The building of their arrogant tower to heaven (Babel) stopped. In Luke’s Pentecost, Babel is reversed. The different narratives of John and Luke merge at the end to proclaim the function of the Spirit’s presence — forgiveness of sins. In Luke’s words: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit.”