Sermon for May 31, 2020

Day of Pentecost, John 20:19-23 May 31, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the festival during which Christians mark the coming of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised to his followers before his death, resurrection and ascension.

There are in fact at least two biblical accounts of the sending of the Holy Spirit – the one from Acts, chapter two, which is appointed as the first reading for this festival day, the story commonly thought of as THE Pentecost story. And then there’s the one you just heard in the Gospel of John, a story more commonly associated with Easter, as it proclaims a resurrection appearance by Jesus. But a noteworthy feature of this passage is also this: Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’”

These two stories share few common features. They are, in fact, radically different accounts of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Let’s take a closer look.

A feature common to both stories is that the disciples are gathered together in one place, in a house. Another common feature is that the stories in their own ways account for the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

But that’s pretty much it when it comes to what the stories share in common.

Here are some key differences between the narratives:

  • In John, the Spirit is introduced in the evening on the first day of the week; in Acts, it’s the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival day.
  • In John, the disciples are behind closed doors; in Acts, they are at first in a house by themselves, but then a crowd representing the many nations soon shows up amidst all the commotion.
  • In John, the mood begins in fear and turns to rejoicing; in Acts, the mood is described as one of amazement, perplexity, astonishment, and sneering on the part of some.
  • In John, the Holy Spirit is conveyed to the disciples via Jesus’ breath; in Acts, the Holy Spirit is described as imparted as a sound, “like a rush of violent wind” that filled the whole house, and then also as divided tongues “as of fire” appearing among the disciples and resting on each one of them individually.
  • In John, the Holy Spirit’s coming is mediated by Jesus’ wounded, earthly, bodily presence; in Acts, the Spirit comes on its own from heaven. • In John, Jesus does the speaking – “Peace be with you,” he says; in Acts, the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to speak languages foreign to them, with Peter’s tongue in particular being released to preach a first sermon. • In John, the Father sends Jesus to send the disciples with the Spirit to forgive sins and to retain sins if need be; in Acts, the Holy Spirit is all about giving birth to speech, namely, the proclamation of God’s deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead.

So, you see these two accounts of the coming of the Holy Spirit are radically different from each other.

For those inclined to be skeptical – a skepticism often resulting from a preoccupation with biblical literalism – these kinds of inconsistencies in the biblical witness render the Bible’s stories inauthentic and thus perhaps untrue, maybe completely fanciful.

Differing stories of Pentecost are certainly not the only examples of accounts of God’s acts in human history which are inconsistent and quite different from each other. Recall that there is not one, but two creation stories in the book of Genesis. There are four different Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – which offer sometimes the same and sometimes unique stories of the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. And this list goes on and on.

For me, such differing accounts serve more to authenticate the biblical witness rather than to diminish its authority, for God’s interventions in human history are too rich and nuanced and complex and mysterious to be reduced to simple, straightforward accountings.

Moreover, such diversity is built into what this Day of Pentecost celebrates in the first place. For this, I turn to the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who writes in what is the second reading for this festival, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

I might add that there are varieties of understandings of the Gospel, but one and the same God whom we have come to know in common as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Again, diversity of understandings and interpretations in attempting to make sense of the Jesus event – as evidenced in the two accounts of Pentecost – have been with us since the beginning, and they are still obviously with us today in the multiplicity of different Christian churches commonly known as denominations – Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Moravian, Baptist, Pentecostal, and on and on goes the listing.

Alas, for far too long, our diversity of interpretation of key gospel stories has resulted in schism, in divisions, sometimes violent, among Christians.

But I am here to proclaim to you that it does not have to be this way, particularly since diversity is built into and essential to our tradition.

Unity does not require conformity.

This realization is a growing feature of the ecumenical movement, of which I have always been very much an enthusiastic, active participant.

The notion of “differentiated consensus” is increasingly embraced among churches as we realize that there may be some irreconcilable differences of theological opinion among us but that these differences do not need to be church dividing.

In other words, we do not have to agree on everything to still embrace and acknowledge our essential unity.

This, I believe, was Paul’s essential insight in his writing to the Church at Corinth, writing which remains authoritative to us and for us to this day. Here’s more of what Paul proclaims: “All these [manifestations of the Spirit] are activated by one and same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:11-13)

Thus, the fact that John’s account of the sending of the Spirit differs so radically from the account of Pentecost in Acts is no stumbling block, but a gift, a gift that reveals the richness and different features of our experience of God’s actions in human history.

Moreover, the multiplicity of distinct Christian traditions is not an impediment, but rather makes for a wonderful and beautiful tapestry which comprises the whole fabric of Christianity. Seen as a whole, one tradition complements the next, our diversity itself being a proclamation of God’s many different deeds of power for the healing of nations, tribes, and peoples.

Unity amidst diversity is a core feature of what we celebrate on Pentecost as the Spirit gave the followers the ability to speak the languages of the many nations and indeed radically different cultures.

Finally, our capacity to celebrate unity in diversity is a crucially important gift to our ever more divided world.

As you read, see, and hear news accounts of what’s going on in our nation and world, oh, don’t you long for a sense of shared purpose and common humanity?

The coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, imparting gifts differing for the sake of the one message of God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus, is particularly healing balm for what ails us today in church and world.

May we all be embraced by this one gift in our diverse ways for the healing of the nations.