God is love, God is light

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  • May 9, 2013

Pentecost Sunday (Year C) May 19 (Acts 2:1-1; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

What actually happened at Pentecost? What would a video recorder have registered? The issue is clouded by the fact that we have two accounts in the New Testament and they are very different. The descent of the Spirit in Acts is rather noisy and flashy, and it results immediately in public proclamation of Jesus by the assembled disciples. The giving of the Spirit in John was a quiet, intimate affair in the upper room. Jesus bestowed the Spirit personally on His followers, but there was no record of an immediate public ministry.

It is difficult if not impossible to determine which of the two is historically “true.” But both are theologically true — each of the two evangelists, Luke and John, chose to present the story in a different way in order to reveal different aspects of life in the Spirit. We need to look for the enduring message from God in each account.

Pentecost was a harvest festival — the harvest was a symbol of the ingathering of people at the end of days. The Spirit in Acts reversed the confusion of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). As a punishment for humanity’s arrogance and presumption, God divided and confused them by means of different languages. Now God began the process of drawing them back together by uniting them in the Spirit. Each one of the assembled pilgrims heard Peter’s proclamation in their own tongue. The Spirit also bestowed boldness — the word is used many times in Acts to describe the public preaching of the Spirit-filled apostles. In place of the terror and weakness that had seized them after the crucifixion was a fearlessness that did not count the cost of witness. Finally, in a continuation of the unification of the peoples of the Earth, the Spirit removed the separating barriers that human traditions and cultures had constructed. Receiving the Spirit meant accepting all people — gentiles and even enemies such as the Romans — as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Throughout Acts the Spirit is more than a static and stale theological formula. The Pentecost generation felt as if they had been swept up into the very life and power of God. It is a message that we in the 21st century need to hear — God is not an ideology or concept; God is alive.

Paul never described the actual moment in which the Spirit was given but he was crystal-clear in his understanding of its mission. The Spirit was the blood and sinews of the community, binding all believers in a relationship of interdependence and mutuality. It bestowed on each member a unique spiritual gift to be used for the common good. The Spirit and its gifts were never the property of individuals or a select few. No one was of greater or lesser importance in the community for all spiritual gifts came from God alone.

John’s account of the gift of the Spirit emphasized its effects within each believer. Jesus appeared to His stunned and frightened followers in the upper room and did something that seemed quite unremarkable: He breathed on them. In Genesis 1, the divine breath or Spirit moved over the chaos at the moment of creation. The opening words of John’s Gospel — “in the beginning” — alert us to expect a continuation of divine creation. Once again, the Spirit was dynamic. With the reception of the divine breath, the followers of Jesus were created anew — nothing would ever be the same. They would need this new creation and gift of God’s Spirit for the mission that Jesus gave them. He sent them forth with exactly the same mission that He had received from the Father.

Rather than knowing about God indirectly through others or through traditions, they knew God directly and personally. They were to reveal the truth of God to a world that struggled in ignorance to find the light. The “truth” was not information but certainty that God is love and God is light. Anything else is a projection of human fear. Not only that, this same God will dwell within any receptive heart and soul willing to walk the same path as Jesus. The peaceful and compassionate presence of one who is truly filled with God is the most compelling testimony possible.

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