Sunday Homily- Fr. Luke Uebler
Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side, and when he had said this, he breathed on the, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven.” Words from our Gospel today from the 20th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
Today, we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, in which the disciples received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and in which the Church was born to herald Christ’s enduring presence and mission to all the world. In some respects, you could say, happy birthday to us! Our readings today recall for us some of the backstory surrounding this feast, but if we listened closely to the Scriptures that were proclaimed for us, we would notice that there are very different accounts of the Pentecost event. The narrative we hear in the Gospel of John, occurs right after the resurrection. With the crucifixion of the Lord fresh in their minds, the disciples are huddled together behind locked doors in fear. Thomas is not with them in the Upper Room, and Judas has gone off and hung himself. This encounter is the first time that Jesus has appeared to his disciples, and after showing them his hands and side to prove his triumph over the grave and wishing them peace in the midst of their anxiety, Jesus goes on to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit and commission them in the work of forgiveness that very Easter Sunday night. On the other hand, we have Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles from our first reading. In this instance, some time has now passed since the events of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples have encountered the risen Lord on numerous occasions, and Jesus has since ascended into heaven. Thomas was with the group, St. Matthias was chosen as a successor of Judas to the office of Apostle, and the community of disciples were gathered together in celebration not fear. Indeed, they were gathered in gathered in Jerusalem with their fellow Jews throughout the world to celebrate together the Jewish feast of Pentecost, in which the Covenant of Sinai was commemorated, and which worshippers brought the initial harvests from their fields to be offered at the temple in thanksgiving for their relationship with God. Why these differences between the accounts? It’s important to remember that – although they certainly draw from history – St. John and St. Luke are not describing Pentecost to us as historians, but as theologians. So, the real question we have to ask ourselves then is, “what is it exactly that John and Luke are trying to tell us about Pentecost?”
First to St. John. If you were wondering why the doors of the Upper Room were locked, it’s because Mary Magdalene had just encountered Jesus in the garden and returned to the disciples saying, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Jesus is alive; the bad news is that he wants to talk to you guys about abandoning him last Friday. OK – bad joke Fr. Luke. But some of this is true. There was guilt on the part of the disciples in having abandoned and denied Jesus. There was also a lot of fear that being discriminated against and labelled as they were, that they might be crucified next. There was uncertainty as to what they were supposed to do now. And then Jesus comes and shows them the nail marks in his hands and feet and shows them his pierced side. In no way does Jesus hide these grim realities or shy away from the pain and hurts that have been caused. But in the face of difficulty, even overcoming the greatest of difficulties, Jesus comes with the message of peace, and I think that’s the key to understanding John’s account of Pentecost, because the Holy Spirit is given – why? – for the forgiveness of sins. And that is what the apostles are commissioned to do. We know ourselves, that we haven’t been perfect either, that we are also carrying great burdens, and that many of us are being tested beyond our limits – pandemic, scandal, racism, political divisions… In one form or another peace has been taken away from us, but amid our own guilt and fear and anguish, the only way we are going to find peace again is by forgiving one another. Locked doors won’t solve any problems. New laws won’t change any hearts. You want peace: learn to forgive one another, show your nail marks without resentment, as Jesus did. That could be a powerful Pentecost moment in your own life, where Spirit of God sows peace in your hearts and works through each of us to renew our relationships with one another as God would have it. Peace is something the world cannot give. The peace of Jesus: that’s a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven. Disciples forgive in Jesus’ name.
What about St. Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles? Already I mentioned that the disciples were celebrating the Jewish feast of Pentecost, commemorating the special relationship God established with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. On Mount Sinai, there were peals of thunder and lightning and trumpet blasts and fire streaming forth from heaven. St. Luke goes to great lengths to show how this new Pentecost moment, this coming of God’s Spirit, is much like that monumental event in Israel’s history. The tongues of fire, the loud sound of rushing wind coming from the heavens, and the speeches that are heard are all reminiscent of the signs of the Divine presence found on Sinai. And just as at Sinai, the Israelites were transformed, from no people into God’s people and were established to demonstrate God’s power to the world, so now has Holy Spirit transformed the disciples into apostles, from those who learn to those who are sent, sent to proclaim God’s mighty deeds to all the world now gathered together in Jerusalem. So, participating in the feast of Pentecost therefore means celebrating the transformation that God’s Spirit has brought about in us and joining ourselves in the service of God just as the Israelites and disciples did before us. The traditional way of celebrating Pentecost meant coming to Jerusalem to offer God the first fruits of one’s labors and harvest in thanksgiving for all that God has accomplished for them. Again, in some ways, the Pentecost St. Luke describes was a harvesting of first fruits for God on behalf of the Church, in which 5,000 people in the crowd who rushed to the disciples to see what was happening were thereafter converted and baptized. As such, these people were initiated and joined together into Jesus’ own offering of his labors, his sacrifice on the cross, the work of salvation. As disciples, we are likewise called to come and offer God the fruits of our labors, rejoicing with God for the Spirit’s work of transformation already accomplished for us and in us. But as much as Pentecost is an ending, it is also a beginning! In that Pentecost is a celebration involving first fruits means that there is more fruit to come! There is work to do still, which the Spirit energizes us for. It’s been an honor to harvest those fruits with you here at St. Mary’s, but I believe & look forward to a greater harvest still to come.
So, following the lead of Luke and John on this feast of Pentecost today, let us indeed celebrate the transformation God’s Spirit has produced among us, let us offer ourselves in the service of God’s Kingdom, and let us invite the Holy Spirit to bring true peace into our world by forgiving one another.