by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus came and stood among them (the disciples) and said to them: “Peace be with you”…and he said to them again: “Peace be with you”. John 20, 19-23
While this Sunday’s gospel-reading gives us John’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, I suggest that our reflection will be enriched by our reading on to the end of chapter 20. In so doing, we get an understanding of how rushing to label Thomas as ”doubting” does him a disservice. Moreover his profession of faith in Jesus is a very appropriate conclusion to John’s Gospel, fittingly rounding off the task John set himself in writing his Gospel. Today’s first reading (Acts 2, 1-11) gives us a very different account of the Pentecost event, situating it forty days after Jesus’ resurrection. It’s important to keep in mind that the authors of these two accounts were intent on exploring the significance of the impact of the Holy Spirit on the lives of the disciples. They were not trying to record history. Both readings deserve our attention and reflection. So let’s start with the gospel-reading from John.
At the conclusion of what had been a very eventful day, and even, perhaps, a traumatic one for the disciples, John records: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews”. Remember that this was a day full of shocks and surprises. Mary Magdalene had arrived with the news that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Peter and John had rushed off to check if she was being hysterical. Satisfied that she was right, they returned to where they were staying. Then Mary Magdalene arrived a second time, announcing excitedly that she had met the risen Jesus, and passing on the message that he had asked her to take to the disciples. Yet, instead of celebrating, they retreated behind closed doors out of “fear of the Jews”. They were Jews themselves, so the Jews of whom they were afraid must have been the leading Jews who were responsible for having Jesus executed. News that Jesus’ body was missing was surely not confined to his friends and disciples. Remember that the Romans had posted guards at Jesus’ tomb. So word of a missing body would have spread quickly. Understandably, the disciples were afraid that their names might well be on the list of those to be executed. After all, they were close associates of the Jesus who had caused all the unrest. Even though John does not say it, it’s highly possible that the disciples were also afraid that, if Jesus really had been resurrected, he might have some embarrassing questions for them concerning their cowardice and desertion of him when he most needed their support. Remember, too, that for John and the other Gospel writers the very opposite of faith and trust is fear, not doubt.
So, we learn from John that locked doors did not present an obstacle for the risen Jesus. The signs and wonders he had done in the course of his ministry were testimony of that. So Jesus appeared among them without warning, offered them a greeting of deep peace, and showed them the scars on his body before repeating: “Peace be with you” – a greeting that immediately assured them that he was not coming with recriminations and had no intention of embarrassing them. And with that greeting, he breathed God’s Spirit on them and commissioned them to continue his mission to the world. For John, that was the Pentecost event, and the language he uses echoes the language describing the creation of humankind in Genesis: “The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and breathed life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Genesis 2, 7) The breathing of the risen Jesus on the disciples signals the birth of a new creation, a new community to bring new life and hope to the world. The peace that Jesus breathed on the disciples was shalom, not just a freedom from the fear which gripped them, but a deep-seated, abiding sense of well-being – the kind of peace and security that John had earlier referred to as “the peace that the world cannot give” (John 14, 27). In doing so, he assured them that they would have walking with them, as companion on the journey, God’s Spirit (another name for God’s Spirit is Paraclete, from Greek paraklétos, meaning one who walks beside) who would guide them in their proclaiming the message of God’s love for the world.
It is vital that we understand Jesus’ words to the disciples about forgiving and retaining sins. He is not talking about the moral lapses that all of us human beings fall into. They are not the wrong-doings we list in the sacrament of reconciliation. “Sin” in John’s understanding is an unwillingness to accept that Jesus personified in his life God’s love for the world. Jesus is passing on to his disciples the responsibility of making real in their actions God’s love for the world that Jesus himself had demonstrated in his life. Anyone who cannot accept that message from them will remain locked in unbelief (sin), and simply miss out on the good news.
It is significant that Thomas was not in the room that night with the other disciples. He was the disciple who had earned a reputation for speaking exactly what was on his mind, thereby causing some embarrassment at times. This time, there were no “Please explains” directed to Jesus. And Thomas is given due recognition for his magnificent expression of faith in Jesus at the end of this same chapter in John.
Today’s first reading from Acts (2,1-11) places the Pentecost event in a more spectacular context. What was it that prompted the disciples to venture into the public eye at a time when Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims? Perhaps it was triggered by one of their number, like Thomas, who had the courage to say something like: “Come on, you lot, Jesus did give us a directive to continue what he taught us. So we had better give it a go!” And they did give it a go, and what’s more, with spectacular results. There is no simple, human explanation as to how and why visitors to Jerusalem understood the disciples in languages that they could not have learned while they were locked away in hiding. As Christians, we believe that God’s Spirit is still alive in our world. We see evidence of it in the creative productions of artists, composers of music, scientists and writers. Their works reflect the beauty and goodness of God. We recognise God’s Spirit at work even in our own humble inspirations and excursions into creativity.
In his novel, A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward some become strong in the broken places.” That may well explain what the disciples were able to do on that first Pentecost. After forty days of seclusion, and reflection on and discussion of their pain of loss and failure, they emerged from their experience of brokenness and found the courage to start doing, with guidance of God’s Spirit, what Jesus had entrusted to them. They found strength in their broken places. More recently, Henri Nouwen observed that we all have to learn to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking. Jesus took the risk of loving his disciples, and, in time, that love bore fruit when they took the risk of reflecting that love to their world.
Pentecost also invites us to take the risk of loving and to find strength in our broken places, individually and as communities, always aware that we, too, have God’s Spirit to guide us. Last weekend, a leading Sydney newspaper carried an article suggesting that many of us may need to relearn the art of breathing healthily. Jesus breathed deep peace into the lives of his disciples. He offers us that same deep, abiding peace, assuring us of God’s Spirit to accompany us in all we do. Taking time to consciously feel our breathing is a practice that can help us to appreciate the gift of life. It can also be a prayer, reminding us of the presence of God’s Spirit within, especially if we can remember to whisper “God’s peace” as we inhale and “God’s presence” as we exhale. Pentecost can become for us a daily experience. And let’s not forget that love speaks all languages. That’s the language that we need to speak clearly instead of that of many of our elected leaders who seem to prefer Babel.