Pentecost Sunday

Commentary on John 20:19-23


 Homily 1 - 2006

Did you notice how Luke put it in the first reading? Each of us hears them in our own native language!

And then Paul made the point that baptism makes us one in Christ, but the Spirit ensures our individuality, our unique giftedness, and thus enriches and contributes to our common life as the Body of Christ in the world.

We struggle with diversity – in the secular world and in the Church.

Our nation struggles with cultural and ethnic diversity. We insist that we decide who comes here, irrespective of their need for asylum, for survival, or for a decent life. We see being different as being somehow inferior.

We truly struggle to look at Aboriginal Australians as sharing the same human dignity and to interact with them respectfully in the light of our shared humanity.

We struggle with political differences, and seek to impose our particular ideology by weight of numbers or economic pressure or astuteness at lobbying.

Our Church struggles with diversity – at times frightened of the individual conscience, of diverse theological leanings or sometimes even personal preferences.

No one can do our growing for us. We can’t inherit human or Christian maturity. Each of us has to start from scratch. So at any one time in the Church there are some who are mature, some still quite immature and most of us somewhere in between.

Our growth as unique human persons and as disciples of Jesus is the specialty of the Holy Spirit.

Paul said in one of his letters: The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given us. That Spirit is precisely the energy who enables and empowers and enriches us to love unconditionally – to love others as unique, as different, even as enemies.

Group-think is not a sign of the presence of the Spirit. Group love! That’s different. That’s the possibility. But it’s always a struggle. We are born focussed on our own needs; and the more insecure we are, the more we get stuck there and the more we are rattled by difference.

Jesus breathed on the disciples. He handed on to them the Spirit that had enlivened him – the Spirit that empowered him to say Peace be with you to the men who had denied and deserted him, and did not understand him.

The sin of the world expresses itself in the unwillingness of people to love - to love God, the source of truth, justice, beauty and love, to love themselves and to understand and to respect their own dignity, and to love others and to respect their human dignity, always, despite the differences.

Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus broke the stranglehold of sin on the world. Breathing the same Spirit on us, he empowers us to engage with the sin of the world, not in our strength but in our vulnerability - the vulnerability that is the hallmark of genuine love. We can hold back, of course, frightened of our vulnerability.

The world’s future is entrusted to us: For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.

We greeted the gospel today: Come Holy Spirit; fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. A wonderful note on which to bring the extended feast of Easter to an end!


Homily 2 - 2009

In today's First Reading, Luke connected the coming of the Spirit with Pentecost. In the Gospel, John connected it with Easter.

We can resolve the difference if we view each of them as we would an icon (a theology lesson in shapes and colours), rather than as a photographic record.

The Gospel conveyed wonderfully the Beloved Disciple's sense of the appearance and impact of the risen Jesus on the lives of the disciples.

Graphically, he described the risen Jesus breathing on them, just as the creating God, at the dawn of creation, had breathed into the clay of the earth the breath of life. We're dealing with the re-creation, re-fashioning, re-newal of humanity.

To make the point even more clearly, the Gospel put it in words. Jesus said: Receive the Holy Spirit - the Spirit that the Gospel had earlier described as the personalisation of the love of Father for Son, and of Son for Father.

And to clarify even further the wonderfully liberating impact of that Spirit of God on unredeemed humanity, he went on to add: Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained.

The role of the Spirit is to make real Christ's overcoming of the world's sin.

It is instructive to observe how St Paul, in today's Second Reading, summed up the difference that the Spirit can make to our world.

Firstly, he described unredeemed humanity under fifteen headings. (We know what he was talking about only too well! not only “out there” but also still lingering on in ourselves)

He first named fornication, indecency and sexual irresponsibility. They were rife in Paul's world! Essentially, they can express the human need to possess, to exploit, to homogenise, and to relate to persons as things. They can be the responses of people unable truly to engage as persons, fearful to love, or to relate to others respecting their uniqueness and difference.

Paul then mentioned idolatry and sorcery - idolatry of the “small g” gods that saturate our culture - our unrecognised addictions to the myriad “must haves”, both as individuals and as societies: the national interest, the market, jobs above all else. And sorcery – the compulsive need to control the future, to “must know” - the fear of trusting.

Paul extended his list by describing what happens when people cannot relate as persons, when they cannot control their fears and their desires. His list is long: feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions, envy.

And finally, he listed drunkenness and orgies (perhaps he could have added “recreational drugs”) that so often seem to be society's way to avoid, to cover up and to distract from, the emptiness and the meaninglessness of life.

If that, to some extent, sums up the sin of the world, how on earth are disciples to engage with it?

We'll get back the Gospel.

Before commissioning them – us – to meet the world's sin, Jesus breathed into them – into us – the Spirit: the divine energy of love.

There is only one way to face the world's sin - (both out there, and within ourselves), and that is to love the world, to love people, to love, even, as Jesus said, our enemies.

Hopeless?

Perhaps, it might just be better to cut our losses and to rely on America - its formidable armaments, and its hundreds of nuclear warheads - and to stay on top.

Personally, I prefer the experience of what Paul listed as what we can expect when we are led by the Spirit of Jesus: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control. Without them, it's just business as usual, and business as usual has been going for too many centuries.

Are we Catholics particularly good at loving? Are we known for it in the broader community? It hasn't always been because we have not tried. Some of us have tried really hard to love. But we don't consistently succeed - and I think it is because we start at the wrong place.

We lack the energy, the ability, to stick at it consistently, because we have not firstly plugged into the love energy abroad in the world - the love of God, the Spirit of God.

Jesus said first: Receive the Holy Spirit. Until we receive it - are fascinated by it, bewildered by it, bowled over by it, we're powerless.

God's love, God's Spirit, needs to flood our lives: all that stuff that we carry from our past, and that we reckon we have already dealt with. It has to be soaked in God's love, God's Spirit. Then, we can begin to love - it flows out of us.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.


Homily 3 - 2015

How do you handle symbolic visions?

In his collection of prophecies, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a vision he had of God that launched him on his prophetic mission.

He was in the temple. He saw God seated high on a throne. Around him were seraphs [or angels]. The whole temple shook wildly and was filled with clouds of incense smoke.  Isaiah was terrified, becoming intensely conscious of his unworthiness, and the sinfulness of the people among whom he lived.  One of the seraphs took a flaming coal from the fire beneath the altar, and touched the lips of Isaiah, proclaiming, “Your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged”.  Then Isaiah heard God ask, “Whom shall I send?” and the now-purged Isaiah cried out, “Here I am, send me.” 

Last week we celebrated Luke’s description of what we have come to call the Ascension of Christ. I believe it would be better to call it the Enthronement of Christ.  As Luke described the scene, we had Jesus lifted up and enthroned at the right hand of God. There was the surrounding cloud of smoke, and we had interpreting angels as well.

Luke was describing in graphic symbol the mystery behind the Resurrection of the crucified Christ. At the Incarnation God had become human, in the process emptying himself, as St Paul put it, of his divinity. The divine was humanised, while somehow still remaining divine. With resurrection, the humanity of Christ was received into the inner world of God. The humanity of Christ was divinised, without ceasing to be human.

That Enthronement of Christ is complemented today in Luke’s description of the follow-up. No longer do we have Isaiah but a large group of disciples. We have the whole house shaken as by a cyclone. We have the flaming fire purging the sinful disciples, and equipping them for their mission to the sin-scarred world. Luke then explained, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages” [that is, to communicate with the whole world].

John approached the same mystery in a more subdued, but intensely intimate way. No terrifying cyclone, but Jesus simply showing up among the frightened disciples in their locked room and greeting them “Peace be with you!”  The message of mission was clearly there, “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.” There was no flaming coal purging their lips, but the intensely intimate gesture of Jesus breathing on them, inviting them to “receive the Holy Spirit”, and equipping them to confront the world’s sin with the offer of unmerited forgiveness.

God is love. The Holy Spirit is the joyful dance of love of Father and Son. We are sent to the world. What we have to bring it is no more and no less than the joyful love of God. When thinking of love, I prefer the warm symbol of Jesus intimately breathing into us than Luke’s more rousing symbols of cyclone and tongues of fire.

Over the past week the Royal Commission has confronted us with a hurting world and a hurting Church, indeed, a sinful and bewildered Church in a rightly angry and hostile world. Yet despite its sin, at its heart the Church remains the Body of Christ, which in this very moment in other quarters of the globe is enlightening and empowering countless martyrs.

Hurting and humiliated as we might be, we are still being sent to this world and indeed to our brothers and sisters in our Church. We do not need to have answers or explanations – they are hard to come by, anyway. What we do have is simply the Holy Spirit breathed into us by the risen Jesus – the creative, life-giving, healing, saving and joyful love of God. We can lovingly listen to those who want to talk, gently support those who need support and humbly respect those who feel angry and even hostile.

To give that Spirit, we must first receive it. We need deliberately, silently, personally to open ourselves to be first loved by God.


 

Homily 4 - 2018

The active volcano in Hawaii has been at it again, with enormous explosions sending molten rock and ash high into the air. I think of volcanoes whenever I read of God’s appearance to Moses, Israel’s charismatic leader, on Mt Sinai: the noise, the winds, the fire, the fear. The purpose of the authors of the Book of Exodus, writing their story several centuries later, was to tell their readers that was really going on was more striking than any volcanic eruption. God was stepping into human history, forming the Hebrew people, giving them their Law, setting them free from oppression.

St Luke was a great story-teller, too. With this account of Pentecost, he used something of the imagery of God’s intervention at Mt Sinai to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit of God into our world: powerful wind, deafening noise, spectacular flames, ecstatic disciples. God was stepping into history once more, forming his people of the New Covenant, writing the Law on their hearts, setting in motion a new liberation, destined not simply for one small ethnic group, but for the whole world.

St John, writing his Gospel some time after Luke, wanted his readers to go deeper into their understanding of Jesus, to recognize not only that Jesus was, as he put it, the “Christ, the Son of God”, but, that, as they pondered that truth ever more deeply against the background of their personal experience, they “might have life through his Name”.

John’s story of the coming of the Spirit is much quieter than Luke’s. Rather than erupting volcanoes and spectacular reactions occasioned by strong winds, loud noise and flames of fire, John draws more on the imagery of God’s gentle creation of the first human. As the creating God had done to Adam, Jesus “breathed” on the gathered disciples, saying simply, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

According to Luke’s account, through the coming of the Spirit, the disciples were enabled to preach about “the marvels of God” in ways that people, despite all their differences, could understand, relate to and appreciate. In John’s account, the breathing into them of the Spirit was to enable them to fulfill what Jesus invited them into when he said, “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you”. Jesus’ mission had been to reveal to the world the beauty, the truth, the love and the creative joy of God; and he specified that even more by inviting them to share in the mystery of God’s unconditional forgiveness of the world’s sin as they related to each other in the communities to which they belonged: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven.”

And here we are two thousand years later; and the same Spirit is at work in the world and the Church now as then. We do not have to choose between Luke’s account and John’s account. Details differ; but both writers are wrestling with the same mystery, and invite us to do the same. What is that mystery behind their stories, and do we ever depth it fully? That is the important question. The story is not the issue but the meaning is.

Can we.. , do we speak about the “marvels of God”, the beauty, the truth, the love and the creative joy of God in ways that people can appreciate? Do we set people free as we accept them as they are, as we listen to them? Do we open their hearts to God’s forgiveness by ourselves gently, personally and obviously forgiving them? Do we look at them with love or with hostility and criticism? We have the choice. The Spirit of God has been breathed into us. All we need is to take the time, to make the effort, to allow that Spirit thoroughly to saturate us and, as it were, even to electrify us.