Thursday, June 05, 2014

"Receive the Holy Spirit": Readings for the Feast of Pentecost

This Sunday we celebrate the glorious feast of Pentecost. Here below is a brief treatment of the major themes and issues in the readings.

FIRST READING: Acts 2:1-11
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. 
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.”
The Feast of Pentecost. Seven weeks after Passover--"fifty days"--came the Feast of Weeks, known in Greek as "Pentecost" (πεντηκόστη), "fiftieth [day]"; cf. Tob. 2:1; 2 Mac. 12:32; Josephus, A.J., 3.252). Its observance is described in Leviticus 23:15-22 and Deuteronomy 16:9-12.
The feast was closely linked to the wheat harvest. Appropriately, then, Israel was required to bring leavened bread to the temple, which was to be waved before the Lord during the feast (Lev 23:17). This bread was to be consumed by the priests (Lev 23:20). 

Given that the feast fell several weeks after Passover, a festival which celebrated Israel's deliverance from Egypt, it is not surprising that Jewish sources also associated this feast with an important episode from the Exodus story, namely, the giving of the law at Sinai (cf. Exod 19-24; e.g., b. Šabb. 88a; b. Pes. 68b). 

New Exodus hopes, the Giving of the New Law, the Pouring out of the Spirit. Of course, Exodus imagery was associated with eschatological hopes for Israel. The prophets described the future restoration of Israel in terms of a New Exodus (e.g. Isa 40:3, Jer 23:7-8).[1] In fact, Jeremiah links this age with the giving of the Law at Sinai, the event associated with Pentecost. Specifically, he announces that Lord will give to his people his Law once again, only this time he would not write it on tablets but upon their hearts: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33).
In his description of the ingathering of Israel, Ezekiel uses a similar image, though he speaks of the Lord putting his Spirit, not simply his law, within his people:
“For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you and I will take out of your flesh the heat of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezek 36:24-28)
In sum, according to the prophets, in the New Exodus the Lord will not simply give to Israel his Law, but his Spirit, enabling them to do what Israel at Sinai failed to accomplish--keep the Law (cf. Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26-28, 37:14).

We might also observe that the ingathering of the grain at this harvest festival appears to have served as an image for the ingathering of the renewed Israel. For example, Isaiah describes the restoration of the tribes of Israel in terms of a kind of offering of first fruits to the Lord:
And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. ” (Isa 66:20).
Pentecost in Acts. Luke describes the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost as the fulfillment of God’s restoration promises; the eschatological “ingathering” of Israel has arrived. Thus, in Acts 2 Peter quotes directly from Joel’s prophecy of the restoration of Jerusalem, a prophecy he sees as now fulfilled (cf. Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-21). Notably, then, the restoration is not political but spiritual—literarily the restoration of Israel is accomplished in the Spirit.

Luke thus paints the picture of Pentecost with colors of the eschatological ingathering of Israel with the nations. This is evident in the following:
  • The episode is preceded by the selection of a replacement of Judas, thus restoring the apostles to the number twelve, most likely a sign of the eschatological re-gathered twelve tribes (cf. Acts 1:15-26);[2]
  • Luke mentions of the presence of the scattered of Israelites in the city (Acts 2:5-13)[3]
  • Peter explains that the Spirit’s coming fulfills Joel’s prophecy of the eschatological day of the Lord’s coming (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-21);[4]
  • Peter’s use of the term “house of Israel” (cf. Acts 2:36) suggests a reference to the lost northern tribes, since it was most usually used applied to them.[5] It may also be a reference to prophetic visions of their restoration (cf. Ezek 20:40; 36:10; 37:11, 16; 39:25; 45:6);[6]
  • Peter’s invitation to baptism, “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39), also draws from the Isaianic vision of the New Exodus (cf. Isa 57:19).[7]
All of this takes place in Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the hope that such an eschatological ingathering would take place there (cf. Isa 2:2). In this, Luke shows the continuity between God’s covenant with Israel and the New Covenant.[8]

We should also notice that Luke describes the event in terms similar to the giving of the Law at Sinai. In Exodus 19:16-19 we read about the Lord’s coming to Sinai, which occurs with a loud sound (v. 16, 19, like a “trumpet blast”), the Lord’s “descent” in fire (v. 18) and miraculous but unintelligible speech (v. 19, God speaks “in thunder”). Likewise, in Acts 2, we read about the Lord’s coming in a “sound” like mighty wind (2:2), a vision of fire (2:3), and miraculous speech (2:4). As the Lord descended in fire on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19, the Lord descends on Mt. Zion in fire here. Luke also tells us that on Pentecost “three thousand souls” accepted the word of Peter and were added to the early Christian community. Here again we have imagery taken from Exodus—three thousand fell at the hands of the Levites after they worshipped the golden calf (Exod 32:28).

The story of Acts 2 also seems to highlight the fulfillment of the vision from Ezekiel mentioned above. God has inaugurated the ingathering of his people by giving them his Spirit. Furthermore, as Ezekiel described the future cleansing of Israel and their reception of the spirit as taking place through the sprinkling of water, Peter tells the people what they must do to be saved: “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). The restoration takes place not through a political decree or action but through a sacramental act.

Finally, we should point out Paul’s concern to bring an offering to Jerusalem from the Gentile Christians at Pentecost (Acts 20:16; 1 Cor 16:18). Paul understood his ministry to the Gentiles in connection with the eschatological ingathering of the tribes of Israel (cf. Rom 9-11; Acts 26:7). The offering he took up from them to bring to Jerusalem at Pentecost may have been in some way connected with Isaiah’s description of the restoration of Israel mentioned above (cf. Rom 15:16, 25-29).

R/ (cf. 30) Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
R/ Alleluia.

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD, my God, you are great indeed!
How manifold are your works, O Lord!
the earth is full of your creatures;
R/ Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
R/ Alleluia.

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD be glad in his works!
Pleasing to him be my theme;
I will be glad in the LORD.
R/ Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
R/ Alleluia.

If you take away their breath, they perish
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
R/ Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
R/ Alleluia.
Psalm 104, in part, celebrates the creative power of God. Of course, in biblical traditions creation imagery is used in close connection with New Exodus imagery (cf. e.g., Isa 40-55). Given the restoration imagery found throughout the lectionary readings, it is appropriate to find such language in the Responsorial Psalm. God is bringing about a New Exodus, regathering Israel in Christ through the Spirit in the Church. In this he is also establishing a New Creation through the outpouring of the Spirit. The two images are two sides of the same coin.

SECOND READING: 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13
Brothers and sisters:
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
Four brief thoughts on this reading.

1. Faith is through the Spirit. Paul insists that no one can proclaim Jesus as Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. The language here is similar to Jesus' words to Peter in Matthew 16. After confessing Jesus as the Christ, Jesus tells Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Matt 16:17). Faith is a gift. It is not earned. It is not something that can be produced simply through logical deduction. Faith must be given to the believer by God as a grace.

2. Many charisms but unity in the Spirit. Paul insists that while there are different charisms, there is still one Spirit. The many charisms should not led to divisions--there is one body. The Church, therefore, must be unified by the work of the Spirit, not divided by it. A true fruit of the spirit is harmony. If a charism is leading to divisiveness and factions we might suspect its origin is not in fact in God.

3. Sacramental imagery. Reception of the Spirit is accomplished through baptism and through drinking. The latter passage may in fact be a reference to the Eucharist, though this is debated. Either way, the point is that the work of the Spirit manifested in various charisms is intended for building up--not of individuals' ministry--but the ministry of the one Church. Of course, the sacramental economy highlights the ecclesial nature of the Church. Baptism is not simply about my body but about the body of Christ. In fact, no one can baptize himself or herself. Baptism is by its nature an ecclesial act.

In short, to be a Christian is to be a member of the body and is to be inserted into the sacramental life of the community of faith.

GOSPEL: JOHN 20:19-23
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
In John 20, Jesus also links the forgiveness of sins to the giving of the Spirit. Specifically, Jesus imparts to the disciples the Spirit to enable them to "forgive" sins and to "retain" sins. Forgiveness of sins is, therefore, specifically linked to the ministry of the apostles. These are the ones entrusted with the ministry of reconciling people to God.

Forgiveness is ecclesial. Note: the apostles not only have the authority to forgive sins, they also can retain sins.

This is only possible, of course, because they have received the Holy Spirit. The apostles, therefore, are the instruments of God; they don't forgive sins of themselves or by their own power, but because God is acting in them.

Of course, for the early Christians this was understood in terms of sacrament of penance. Forgiveness of sins involved an ecclesial dimension. Forgiveness was linked to the ministry of the church. Thus Chrysostom writes:
"Anyone who considers how much it means to be able, in his humanity still entangled in flesh and blood, to approach that blessed and immaculate Being will see clearly how great the honor is that the grace of the Spirit has bestowed on priests. It is through them that this work is performed, and other work no less than this in its bearing on our dignity and our salvation.  
For earth's inhabitants, having their life in this world, have been entrusted with the stewardship of heavenly things, and they have received an authority that God has not given to angels or archangels. Not to them was it said, 'Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose, shall be loosed' [Matt 18:18]. Those who are lords on earth have indeed the power to bind, but only people's bodies. But this binding touches the very soul and reaches through heaven. What priests do on earth, God ratifies above. The Master confirms the decisions of his servants. Indeed, he has given them nothing less than the whole authority of heaven. For he says, 'Whoever's sins you forgive are forgiven, and whoever's sins you retain, they are retained.' What authority could be great than that? . . .  
For it is patently mad to despise this great office without which we cannot attain to salvation or God's good promises. For if one 'cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and the Spirit' [John 3:5], and anyone who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink his blood is excluded from eternal life [John 6:53], and all these things can happen through no other agency excerpt their sacred hands (the priests', I mean), how can anyone, without their help, escape the fire of Gehenna or win his appointed crown?--John Chrysostom, d. 407 (On Priesthood 3.5; cited in Joel C. Elowsky, John 11-21 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IVb [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007], 363-64). 
[1] For a good introduction to New Exodus themes and their use in the New Testament, see Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark (Tubingen, Mohr Siebeck, 1997).
[2] That the selection of twelve apostles should be understood in light of restoration hopes see Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2000), 98: “… if Jesus indeed taught that ultimately these twelve would judge the twelve tribes, then he was thinking eschatologically. To assemble the twelve tribes… would take a miracle. But that, I think, is what Jesus was expecting.” See also John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol. 3 of The Roots of the Problem and Person; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 2001), 148-154; Sanders, , Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 98; B. F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979), 154. Also see Max Turner, Power from on High: The Spirit in Israel’s Restoration and Witness in Luke–Acts (Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 9; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 300–1.
[3] See Luke describes that those present included “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 1:5), a clear reference to diaspora Jews. Likewise, “Medes” and residents of “Mesopotamia” are probably to be understood as descendants of northern Israelites. See Richard Bauckham, “The Restoration of Israel in Luke-Acts,” in Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (vol. 72 in Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism; ed., J. M. Scott; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 471. Also see Jacob Jervell, Luke ad the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972), 57-8 who argues that Peter’s speech is directed to Jews of the diaspora.
[4] Darrell L. Bock, Proclamation from Prophecy and Pattern: Lucan Old Testament Christology (JSOT Supplement Series 12; Sheffield, JSOT Press, 1987), 167-71; Mark Strauss, The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts: The Promise and its Fulfillment in Luke Christology (JSNT Supplement Series 110: Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 132-34; John J. Kilgallen, A Brief Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 17; etc. There is a well known textual issue here (i.e., the substitution of "in the latter days") that we cannot delve into here given the constraints of this essay. Here we simply note that Peter understands the coming of the Spirit as a fulfillment of eschatological hopes.
[5] For a comprehensive look at the use of the term “Israel” in Jewish writings see, James M. Scott, "'And then all Israel will be saved' (Rom 11:26),'" in Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (vol. 72 in Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism; ed., James M. Scott; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 500-15.
[6] Bauckham, “The Restoration in Luke-Acts,” 473.
[7] Bauckham, “The Restoration in Luke-Acts,” 474; Frans Neirynck, “Luke 4, 16-30 and the Unity of Luke-Acts” in The Unity of Luke-Acts (J. Verheyden, ed.; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), 377 n. 90; Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 22). Whether or not Peter is referring specifically to lost Israelites or Gentiles here is a matter we cannot examine here. Suffice it to say, he is clearly referring to restoration hopes which involved the inclusion of both.
[8] This is clearly a major part of Luke’s agenda. See Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX (AB 28; New York: Doubleday, 1970), 188-92; Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 271-3.


Fr. Den Irwin said...

Excellent commentary. Thank you very much and may our good Lord bless you.

A Bridge to the Heart said...

Dr. Barber thank you so much for reminding me about this great website. The weekly commentaries have given me another great resource from which to pull great insights into the scriptures and feed the souls of my parish.

God reward you and the other contributors for your work it is helpful.