Forgiven forgivers

(Unsplash/Amy Reed)

A little-noticed detail in the Pentecost accounts is that the Spirit descends on community groups, not individuals. Even in Paul’s road-to-Damascus experience, it wasn’t until he met with Ananias that the scales fell from his eyes and he was baptized. When Luke tells the story of Pentecost, he starts with the detail that everybody had come together.

When John depicts Jesus bequeathing his Spirit to the disciples, it is again in a communal setting. Mary was not given the Spirit during her morning encounter with the risen Christ in the garden, and even when the beloved disciple “believed” at the empty tomb, John does not say that the Spirit came to him. Jesus conferred his Spirit on the community, in fact, on the community gathered in fear, trying to protect itself from the rest of the world.

Luke and John offer two very different renditions of the gift of the Spirit to the community of faith. In Luke, it happens after 50 days: a final 40-day tutorial during which the risen Lord appeared to disciples until the day of his ascension. After a 10-day period of retreat, the Spirit dramatically invades the gathered community with the result that they cannot help but share their Gospel.

Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-11
Psalm 104
1 Corinithians 12:3b-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

John paints quite a different picture. In his depiction, on the very day of the Resurrection, the risen Jesus breaks into the midst of the closed-off and fearful disciples to offer them peace. Before all else, this gift of peace comes in the form of forgiveness. This is the risen Lord’s first encounter with the disciples who had abandoned and betrayed him. Their locked doors are one more sign of their lack of faith.

Yet Christ breaks through it all with the offer of peace. This is a profoundly humbling moment, a replay of sorts of Jesus washing their feet. As he greets them with peace, they know all too well that they don’t deserve his acceptance. They have proven themselves cowards and traitors, and he’s proclaiming his love for them just as they are.

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The risen Lord appears in their midst in the most unexpected way. He shows them his hands and his side, signs of an irrevocable past. Nothing can change what happened. But just as truly as he is free from death, he offers them freedom from being determined by their past.

In his book Breathing Under Water, Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr says that forgiveness implies letting go “of our hope for a better or different past.” Both the forgiver and the forgiven acknowledge the reality of what has happened between them, but they will not let themselves be bound by it. They know the hurt but refuse to replay it again and again, pressing the bruise so it will never fade away.

Forgiveness is not a judicial process or a market exchange through which there can be a correctly calculated payback that evens the score. Forgiveness is an encounter of love. Forgiveness springs from the belief the past can be redeemed and its effects can be redirected from a passive acceptance of injustice or the vengeful arithmetic of “an eye for an eye.”

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This is the Gospel the Spirit that impels the disciples to preach. They can preach forgiveness only because they have experienced it. If it was humbling to be forgiven by the risen Christ, it was also empowering.

Pope Francis explains this in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) by saying, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [Christ’s] boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.”

The community born out of Pentecost is a community of the forgiven who are commissioned to forgive. These are people who must never forget either their origin or their destiny: They are a gathering of the frail and failing called to strengthen one another. The community born out of Pentecost must cultivate what Francis calls “the arduous art of reconciliation,” an art that requires grace and the support of a community (Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love”).

When we greet each other with peace today, we are challenged to remember the meaning Jesus gave that word. “The peace of Christ be with you” is the greeting of sinner to sinner, Christian to Christian as forgiven forgivers. It is a blessing that calls us to humility and generosity in equal measure. It is a blessing that we can make real only in communities enlivened by the breath of the Spirit.

[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]

This story appeared in the May 19-June 1, 2017 print issue.

This Sunday scripture commentary appears in full in NCR's sister publication Celebration, a worship and homiletic resource. Request a sample issue at CelebrationPublications.org.

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