I wonder how many of us noticed that there was a discrepancy between the version of the descent of the Holy Spirit given to us by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles and the version given to us by John in the Gospel. For Luke, it was 50 days after Easter on the feast of Pentecost for the Jewish people. John tells us it was Easter Sunday night.
Now I point this out just to remind us of what I mentioned last week about the Ascension, that people who write the New Testament Scriptures are not writing a history. They’re not writing a biography of Jesus. They’re writing the truth about Jesus, theology, and doctrine. They want us to know who Jesus really is, what he did and why he came, and what he asks of us.
So, Luke wants to emphasize the fact that Jesus has entered into a new covenant. The feast of Pentecost for the Jewish people was a feast where they commemorated what happened at Mt. Sinai when God took those people that he had freed from slavery in Egypt and he formed them into what God called my people: “You are my people; I am your God.”
God entered into this covenant that God would always be their God. They would always be his people by following his commands. Luke wants us to realize that what happened at Pentecost is a new covenant entered into God and all of us through the coming of Jesus. This new covenant is ratified in the blood of Jesus by his suffering and death on the cross and rising from the dead. Luke wants us to realize that now we, God’s people, have entered into a covenant with Jesus to carry on his work in our world.
The other covenant still goes on, but now there’s this new covenant just as important and just as long lasting as the first covenant, only now the covenant is between God and us. We, the people of God, through Jesus have made a covenant with God to carry on the work of Jesus. Luke also helps us in his version of the feast of Pentecost to realize something about what this new covenant is — it’s universal. If you noticed in the account in the Acts of the Apostles, the last part of it is about all the people from different parts of the world that were present there on that Pentecost Sunday.
In fact, the list includes all the known nations of the world at the time. Luke is telling us this new covenant is universal. It goes out to the whole world. Every nation, every people are called to enter into this new covenant with God to carry on the work of Jesus. What is that work? To transform our world into the reign of God. To transform our world so that it becomes what God intends it to be: a place where every person in our world can have a full human life where there is peace, goodness, and love filling the lives of everyone.
That’s why Jesus came — in order that we might receive the gift of God’s reign into our world where God’s love would be what dominates everything — God’s love flowing through our planet, through us, transforming our world into the reign of God. In the Gospel lesson, we’re told by John in his account of what happened on what he describes as Easter Sunday night when Jesus came. These disciples had abandoned Jesus.
They were in fear that Easter Sunday night because they were afraid that what happened to Jesus might happen to them. But they were also afraid of confronting Jesus. They had run away. Peter had denied him. Judas had betrayed him.
But what happens? Jesus shows us what his mission is: how the reign of God will happen. He enters into their midst and his first words are reassuring, loving, “Peace be with you.” Let go of your fear; there’s nothing to fear. You’re forgiven. There’s no limit to the forgiveness that God offers.
Jesus makes that clear, “Peace be with you.” I’m sure the hearts of the apostles were just filled to overflowing with thanksgiving and love and a very deep peace that Jesus had brought to them, that Jesus offers to every one of us. But then you notice that John says, “Jesus breathed on them.” That’s an unusual thing. You think of a crowd of people and somehow Jesus breathing over all of them. But why is John describing it this way? He’s going back to the story of creation.
When you look in the book of Genesis when God formed what was to be the first human, the author of the book of Genesis tells us that God breathed on him and he was filled with life. So, God’s breath brings life. Jesus breathed on the disciples. They received the new life of God, God’s spirit living in them. Then Jesus says, “As God has sent me, I send you.” To do what? To transform our world, again. How will they do it? “The sins you forgive, they’re forgiven.”
Jesus, first of all, is calling his disciples to reconciliation, to bring peace into our world by forgiveness, by reconciling, even by loving our enemies, never turning them away, never trying to hurt them or destroy them but loving them. It’s something totally new. We haven’t learned it yet, have we — how to really become the people of God who are reconciling and forgiving, giving up weapons and war and hatred and killing, and only bringing peace, forgiveness, and love — only those that are of Christ. Jesus calls us to spread that.
Jesus shows us that we must be people who reconcile by forgiveness. The sins you forgive, they’re forgiven; there’s peace. But also, Jesus says, “The evil you restrain, it can be restrained.” There are tremendous evils in our world. In fact, I think Pope Francis made a very deliberate effort when he met with President [Donald] Trump to try to highlight something that many people still do not accept: that our planet is being destroyed.
It will not be a place where humans can live three or four generations from now. The pope took great effort to write that encyclical letter based on highly qualified scientific research that shows what is happening. We could restrain that evil and it would be restrained. But we can ignore it, as we see as a nation through our president, at least at the present time, to be doing. Many people who will and can continue to restrain that evil to save our planet, this gift that God has given to us that’s not repeatable. We can save it. We can restrain evil and it will be restrained.
The feast of Pentecost is a very important feast. You and I as people of God and members of the church have entered into this covenant with God through Jesus. It’s a covenant that can transform our world into the reign of God if we follow the way of Jesus, the way of peace, forgiveness, and love, the way of overcoming evil with good, the way of restraining evil by good.
We can do it if we continue to listen carefully to what Jesus teaches us and if we follow his way as members of his body having entered into this new covenant with him that extends to the whole world. It’s a universal covenant that God has made with all people everywhere. It can bring our world to a fullness of life that God intends as God makes God’s reign happen in our midst.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish in Detroit June 4. The transcripts of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]