Sunday reflection: John 20:19-23

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussionPrevious Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is 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.”

Today is Pentecost Sunday, in which the gift and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are celebrated in Christian churches around the world. Earlier this week, Jews celebrated Shavuot, the Jewish Pentecost, which commemorates the gift of the Torah by God to the nation of Israel. My friend Jeff Dunetz calls this his favorite holiday in the Jewish faith. In both traditions, Pentecost becomes an invitation to live within the blessed life of God, a way of separating ourselves from our own impulses toward sin and self-idolization and to look outward rather than inward by putting God’s love at the center of our hearts.

Two of our readings today touch on the gift of the Holy Spirit. In today’s Gospel, Jesus appears shortly after the Resurrection to return to the disciples and show them their faith has not been in vain. In this passage, Jesus prepares them for their mission as the Church by breathing upon them the Spirit, giving the disciples — soon to be Apostles, or those who go forth — the power to forgive sins. This is in effect an ordination, which transfers the authority over sin that had been considered the sole province of God Himself to the Church. This grant of authority would make even more provocative a claim than Jesus’ earlier claim to be able to forgive sin — which angered the Pharisees and led to His persecution and crucifixion.

We see the first Pentecost, though, in the first reading in Acts 2:1-11, where the gift of the Holy Spirit is much more profound. In this case, the Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles and bears gifts of His own. The Apostles, who were not especially learned men, suddenly began to speak in the languages of all those around them. They became eloquent when prophesying about “the mighty acts of God,” and expert in exegesis of the Scriptures. Later in Acts, one of the first deacons of the Church — Stephen — would become so eloquent and dedicated in his proclaming of the Gospel that he would become the first martyr of the Church after the Resurrection.

The true gift of the Holy Spirit works through us in two ways, as these passages show. First, they bring us together into the Christian Church, the better to do the will of God as one body. The Holy Spirit also works within us by granting us particular and individual gifts, which are intended for use by each of us to do His work as well within the one body of the Church. We have collective gifts as the Church — the ability to forgive sin, as in the passage from the Gospel — and individual gifts with which we serve to build the Church in our own missions.

What are these individual gifts, and how best do we understand them? That question has been around ever since the beginning of the Church, as our second reading makes clear. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 to the community in Corinth in part because the Corinthians have turned these gifts into an issue for envy, which apparently created a competition of sorts for the gifts that the people perceived as the most valuable. Today’s reading only touches on a small part of Paul’s attempt to scold the Corinthians into accepting the gifts given by the Holy Spirit as equally valuable and part of God’s will rather than their own, but it still includes this reminder: “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.”

There are ways to discern on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we don’t get to pick and choose them ourselves. That impulse to envy those gifts or be especially covetous of one over another should have us asking ourselves what we hoped to serve with that gift — the Church or our own ego. More fundamentally, Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians, the gifts of the Holy Spirit come from God’s will for us, rather than our own will. We have an obligation to discern those gifts, but only in humble acceptance of what they are and to put them to use for His will and not our own.

I have been especially blessed in my life to see the Holy Spirit’s gifts at work collectively in the Church as well as individually. The papal conclave in 2013 was an unforgettable experience for many reasons — you haven’t traveled until you’ve traveled to Rome, let’s face it — but chiefly for the front-row seat of this demonstration of the power of submission to the Holy Spirit. No one pretends that papal succession has been perfect over the two millenia since Peter traveled to Rome, because those involved in the succession have at times put their own love of power and their own will above that of God. When the process unfolds in humility and service to God’s will, it produces amazing results. Not everyone agrees with Pope Francis’ approach and attitude on certain issues, but there is little doubt that the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Church has propelled Catholicism into a new relevance, and has the media around the world discussing Catholic teaching more than ever … even if they’re usually (a) getting it wrong, or (b) erroneously believing it to be new teaching.

The experiences with individual gifts are not as easy to describe, but they are more powerful and persuasive because of the personal nature of those experiences. I’ve seen people who either discern a gift and suddenly become passionate about using it in service to their faith, or unwittingly stumble onto their gifts when they are surprised by their natural ability to exercise them. In my own life, I’ve seen too many coincidences where a particular piece of knowledge or teaching comes to my attention, only to have an acute and unconnected need to understand and express it to believe that they are all coincidences.

At the same time, I sometimes realize how the Corinthians must have felt when they saw some of their fellow Christians exercising their own gifts of the Holy Spirit when I see the same in my parish, or in the Catholic social media, and I suddenly want their gifts instead of those I have been given. I lament that I didn’t choose this path or didn’t get the talent to perform in some other way, especially when seeing someone truly gifted and truly committed to using those gifts to lift others in faith. That, however, is a form of ingratitude for those gifts given to us by God, and a rejection of His will in favor of our own desires and conceits. And that is the nature of sin itself.

Fortunately, though, we have the Holy Spirit with us to form our hearts and help us resist that sin. This should orient us outward rather than inward, toward service to God and others rather than service toward ourselves. That itself is the greatest gift we are given, and one shared by all who open their hearts to it. Pentecost Sunday should remind us of this great gift, and propel us to share our gifts with each other to build up the Church and form our communities and the world at large in faith, hope, and charity. We are given the Holy Spirit in charity for faith and hope, after all. We should proclaim that in as many or as few tongues as we have at our command.

Today’s image is of a mosaic of Pentecost in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool, UK (20th century).