by Br Julian McDonald cfc
‘Then Jesus breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” ‘ John 20: 19-23
‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in different languages as the Spirit prompted them.’ Acts 2: 1-11
Every now and then, daily newspapers and television news outlets carry stories about churches. For instance, some years ago the Anglican Church, after a long consultation, made a decision to ordain women. About a decade later, Pope Paull II issued a decree that stated that the Catholic Church would not only forbid the ordination of women but that members of the Catholic Church were not to discuss the topic of women’s ordination. This coming Sunday, pastors in the churches of various Christian denominations will choose in their homilies to refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. As I began to prepare this reflection, I asked myself what comes to my mind when I use the word church in conversation, see it in print or declare that I am a baptised member of the Catholic Church. Some of the things that come in and out of my mind when I refer to church are: the Vatican, the Sacred Heart parish church building into which I enter every weekend, Pope Francis, the organisation that is the archdiocese of Sydney, the stunning rose window in the cathedral of Chartres, the people with whom I gather to celebrate Eucharist. I suggest to you as you read this reflection that you might take a few minutes to pause and reflect on what you think of when you use or engage with the word “church”.
These musings led me to remind myself that every week as part of the ritual leading to the celebration of Eucharist I, with the community of which I am a member, proclaim either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed as an expression of my faith. That leads me to ask myself: To what and/or to whom am I committing myself when I proclaim that creed?
To help refine my thinking, I took some time to reflect on a story I have borrowed from Fr William Bausch of whose writing I am an unashamed fan. I believe it is a story worth sharing:
In 1964, with special approval from the sitting Government, the Catholic Church in East Germany held a conference in the city of Leipzig. Whenever conferences were held with special government approval, it was almost mandatory to invite a high-ranking city official. The invitation was duly sent, and a communist magistrate arrived to address the assembly. He shared some of his memories of the war years under Hitler, adding that he himself was imprisoned because he was a communist. He proceeded to tell of another prisoner who had been trusted enough to qualify for limited work duties. As a “trustee”, he was allowed a little more freedom than other prisoners and rewarded with scraps of food and discarded clothes. Instead of keeping these for himself, he took the risk of sharing them with fellow prisoners. Had he been caught, he would have been executed. The magistrate concluded his address with the comment: “That man was a Christian, and for the first time in my life his actions made me think that the church might be worthwhile.
This story illustrates that the church, before it is an organisation or an institution, is first, foremost and essentially a group of people, who, by virtue of their baptism, have committed themselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Without being able to articulate it, that communist magistrate saw in the prisoner, who shared his good fortune with less privileged fellow inmates, a reflection of Jesus. The church is a community of disciples galvanised into action by God’s Holy Spirit alive within them.
Implicit in Luke’s account of the Pentecost event is the information that those first disciples, obedient to Jesus’ direction to go and wait for the Spirit he had promised, went off and isolated themselves behind closed doors. There is a strong suggestion that they were also motivated by fear. Even though Jesus did not launch into recriminations about they way they had abandoned him following his arrest, they could hardly have escaped feeling ashamed of themselves. Moreover, in taking leave of them at the time of his ascension, Jesus had given them the responsibility of proclaiming his message and witnessing to his resurrection. He had also directed them to take that good news to the ends of the world. Carrying the burden of fear and shame, they were still surely struggling with how they might go about carrying out the responsibilities to which Jesus had commissioned them. But let’s not forget that the twelve who plunged into the deep on that first Pentecost morning were not alone. They must have had encouragement and prodding from the women and men who had joined them behind locked doors.
Behind all that is a message for all of us. From time to time, we are all faced with the prospect of having to make difficult decisions. To do so, we need to call on our reserves of courage and sensitivity. We know that we hesitate, procrastinate and even let fear delay us. Yet, deep down we sense God’s Spirit nudging us to trust and act. I can only surmise that the apostles who launched themselves into action on Pentecost day experienced similar feelings before they stepped out and addressed the crowds that had come to celebrate the Jewish festival of the harvests. It matters little whether the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles when Jesus breathed on them on the evening of the day on which he was raised from the tomb or whether it was 50 days later in Jerusalem as Luke described it in Acts. More than likely, they needed time to absorb the encouragement they were getting from those around them and the promptings of the Holy Spirit welling up from deep within themselves. With the responsibilities Jesus had entrusted to them still fresh in their minds, more than likely they would have formulated among themselves a plan of action which they implemented in the way in which Luke described it in today’s first reading.
Finally, I believe the last verse of today’s gospel-reading merits some comment. Having breathed the Spirit onto the disciples, Jesus reached out to them with a greeting of peace. Effectively, he was telling them not to be afraid of recriminations and that there was no need to cling to their shame for having failed to support him. In his public ministry, in curing people who had been excluded from their village or community, Jesus repeatedly told them that their sins were forgiven. So having penetrated the walls and the doors of the room in which the disciples had locked themselves away out of fear and shame, Jesus restored peace to their minds and hearts and proceeded to entrust them to forgive others in the same way as he had freed others from their burdens of guilt and shame. I am convinced he was not referring to the institutional church that would eventually evolve from that initial community of his close disciples. We know that Jesus urged all who would follow him to reach out in forgiveness to their enemies. Therein lies the message for us. It is the message embedded in the last verse of today’s gospel-reading from John. If we fail to forgive people who hurt us, the only alternative left to us is to retain or hold on to the hurt and take on the role of victim. The hurt festers and poisons us, blunting our effectiveness as disciples. Lewis Smedes (1921-2002), a theologian in the Calvinist tradition wrote a book entitled Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (Harper Collins, NY). In it he observed: “When you forgive, you set a prisoner free. And then you discover that the prisoner was you.” A distinguishing characteristic of a genuine disciple of Jesus is a readiness to forgive. Listening to God’s Spirit is an essential step in learning to forgive, in growing into true freedom, in ridding ourselves of the fear and shame that so easily paralyse us.