Disciples' joy at seeing the Lord has special resonance at Pentecost

The risen Jesus appears to his disciples in a 15th-century Italian painting. (Newscom/Prisma)

Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (John 20:19).

These are, according to the Gospel of John, the first words Jesus said to his disciples after his resurrection. Mary Magdalene shouted to them in joy: "I have seen the Lord!" and then reported Jesus' reassuring words: "I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20:17). Yet, Mary's message about Jesus' resurrection brought them no hope and joy. Instead, they hid themselves in a room, "with the doors locked for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). It was there that Jesus appeared to them and wished them "peace."

John's narrative of the first encounter between Jesus and his disciples after his resurrection is disappointingly sparse and anemic. He merely notes that Jesus showed the disciples his "hands and side" and that they "rejoiced" at seeing him. Were we journalists reporting this reunion between the despondent disciples and their peace-giving risen Lord, we would describe the disciples' initial shock and disbelief, then gradual recognition and remembering, and finally explosions of exuberant tears and shouts, boisterous dancing and jumping, celebratory hugging and kissing, and triumphantly hoisting Jesus in the air like a conquering hero.

But John, no journalist, is a theologian concerned with expressing the meaning of the event we call "Pentecost." For him, at the heart of Pentecost lie four elements: Jesus' gift of peace, his commissioning of the disciples, his bestowal of the Spirit, and his granting the disciples the power to forgive sins.

Luke's account of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-11 differs from John's in several details. In accord with his tripartite division of the history of salvation, Luke dates the descent of the Holy Spirit 50 days after Jesus' resurrection, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, to show how God's covenant with Israel, which has been renewed in Jesus, is being fulfilled, in the last age, in the Spirit-filled church. In contrast to John, who emphasizes the role of the risen Christ as the giver of the Spirit, Luke focuses on the Holy Spirit himself, symbolizing his power by means of a mighty wind and tongues of fire, and his universal mission by means of the apostles' speaking in different tongues.

In spite of these differences in the time of the event and the modes of the Spirit's manifestation, both the Lukan and the Johannine accounts agree in the fundamental affirmation that there is a strict unity between Jesus and the Spirit, who is both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ, and that with the descent of the Spirit, a new era in the history of God's dealing with humanity has begun. This is the era of the church, whose task is to proclaim the Good News, under the guidance and with the power of the Spirit, to "all flesh" and "to the ends of the earth."

Both Luke and John view Jesus' bestowal of the Spirit, the promise of the Father, to his followers not simply as a gift for their personal sanctification but as equipping them for mission. As the Father has sent him for mission in the world, so now he sends them, for precisely the same mission. And just as Jesus' ministry was carried out with the power of the Spirit, so too theirs will be performed with the gifts of the Spirit.

Paul mentions some of these charisms in his letter to the Corinthians: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 2:7-10). Paul insists that these diverse gifts of the Spirit must be used, not for personal gain but for the "common good," to build up the church, especially its unity, for there is only one and same Spirit, one and same Lord, one and same God (1 Corinthians 2:4-6).

As we celebrate Pentecost this year, what is the message from the three biblical readings that should resonate in a special way? Of course, the Lukan images of mighty wind and tongues of fire continue to awaken our imagination to the power of the Holy Spirit sustaining the mission of the church. Paul's description of the church as the one body of Christ, in which there is no longer distinction between Jews and Gentiles, slave or free (1 Corinthians 2:12-13), continues to inspire our work for all-inclusiveness within the church and in the world.

But I suggest John's remark that the disciples "rejoiced" (echar san) at seeing the Lord gives the most appropriate and most needed message for our time. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis' recent encyclical is titled Evangelii Gaudium, which begins with a joyous note: "The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew."

This joy is the "peace" (irēnē, shalom) that Jesus gives and the world cannot. Jesus compares the sorrows and pains that the disciples experience to those of a woman about to give birth. After the delivery of the baby, she remembers her sorrows and pains no more but experiences "joy that a child is born into the world" (John 16:21).

For the last several years, the Catholic church has been experiencing sadness and sorrows because of many and various scandals. Now, a new Pentecost is happening, a new joy is bursting forth. Once again, we can shout, with Mary Magdalene and the disciples: "We have seen the Lord!" (John 20:25).

[Fr. Peter C. Phan is the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, and the author of many books, including Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.]

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