Sunday reflection: John 20:19–23

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.”

I’ve been blessed to have opportunities to travel abroad, both for work and for personal enjoyment. One reason for international travel is to broaden one’s own perspectives —  to get a sense of history, to see how other people live and enjoy themselves, and to meet them and understand both our differences and our commonalities. We often travel with cameras and video cameras stuck to our face, which is a particular failure of mine, but we do get a chance to interact with people and cultures we don’t know well, and to gain appreciation of them, and then of ours in comparison.

One key strategy for success is to learn a little of the local language before traveling to a country where English is not the dominant language. In much of Europe, at least in the main cities, this is not an utter necessity; the tourist industry usually requires its employees to know several languages, English included, and many others in these areas have learned it for good business reasons. It is also a gesture of hospitality on their part to make guests feel a little more comfortable on their travels, and one that sometimes goes unappreciated.

However, those travelers who take the time to learn and use the local language will find that it is much appreciated — even when all that one knows is the basics. People become more friendly and engage more when approached on their terms. Even if one’s grasp of the language doesn’t come close to fluency, they are more open to conversation and to engagement on a deeper level. I’m fortunate to have some limited gifts for learning languages, and have experienced the differences firsthand. (That doesn’t mean I didn’t make my share of mistakes; I once ordered soccer for dinner in Rome, and got to watch a match on TV.) When we meet people where they are, rather than expect them to meet us  where they are, we make stronger connections and better opportunities for real communication.

Today, we celebrate Pentecost and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, one of which was the gift of tongues. In our first reading from Acts 2, Luke describes what happens when the apostles begin preaching in the native languages of those around them:

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 devout Jews had traveled to Jerusalem for the original Pentecost celebration, known as the Festival of Weeks in Leviticus 23. This was a festival in which strictly observant Jews would have come to the temple for their sacrifices (if able) on the fiftieth day after Passover. They came to Jerusalem to commune with each other and the Lord, but might have had some difficulties in communicating freely because of language. They would have likely been learned men, however, with some experience in travel.

Yet, what happens when they hear their own language spoken? They gathered into a crowd to hear more. The Galileans would normally not have been expected to know their languages (as we gather from the remark in this passage), hinting that people from Galilee weren’t exactly known as cosmopolitan. That shock, plus the ability to understand precisely what the apostles proclaimed, opened their minds and their hearts to the Gospel that they preached.

The Holy Spirit came to them where they were, and that is precisely how the Lord approaches us all. As we read today, that’s the mission of the apostles in today’s Gospel as well. Jesus returns to the disciples in John 20, before Pentecost, to prepare them for the building of the church. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus declares, “so I send you.” Jesus prepares to send them out as missionaries to build His church and to make disciples of all nations, as we read at the end of Matthew, and our first reading of Acts shows the first steps on that mission.

That approach continues today. The original mission of Israel was to serve as a nation of priests to convert the world as they came to Jerusalem, but that model became corrupted by kings and a desire for worldly dominance. Jesus became a servant King, being sent to suffer and sacrifice on our behalf in order to meet us where we are — mired in sin and desperately in need of salvation. The church He founded was designed to “make disciples of all nations” in order to bring salvation to sinners where they are. We are called to action to assist in that mission, not by remaining in our own comfort zones, but to take that message where it’s needed, serving as an instrument of the Lord.

Pentecost speaks to that missionary quality of Christ and His church. The gift of tongues was one of the earliest manifestations of that essential quality, and one that gave us great insight into the loving and wise nature of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tirelessly comes to us where we are, in whatever language we speak, to offer us salvation. And just as with the men of Galilee, who were so underestimated by the crowds on that first Pentecost after Easter, the Holy Spirit can work wonders through each of us if we commit ourselves to assisting in that mission.

“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 discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.