Pentecost: context

Pentecost319 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.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 (Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

This Johannine account of the appearance of Jesus follows upon the heels of the events that took place at the tomb in the early morning of the first day of the week (John 20:1–18). There near the empty tomb of Jesus, the risen Savior first appeared to Mary Magdalene. Our gospel contains the second and third appearances of the risen Jesus. These three appearances take place in Jerusalem. There is a fourth and final appearance of Jesus later in a section referred to as the “Epilogue” of John. This appearance is at the “Sea of Tiberias” in Galilee (John 21).

The people involved in the Johannine scene in the garden (20:1-18), despite the testimony of Mary Magdalene, are locked in a room for fear of the Jews (v.19). The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection has not dispelled the fear. The “we” and “they” of v.2 are still active forces in the account. The disciples (we) have not overcome the fear that the Jewish leadership (they) have created throughout the Passion.

Pentecost. The Greek name (pentēkostē) for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, deriving from its occurrence 50 days after Passover (Acts 20:16; 1 Cor 16:8). Because the early Christians received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on this day, the term is now more commonly used to refer to that event recounted in Acts 2:1–13.

The Feast of Weeks was the second of the three great Jewish feasts. Its name signified that it concluded the period of seven weeks which began with the presentation of the first sheaf of the barley harvest during the Passover celebration (Lev 23:15–16; Deut 16:9). Thus it was originally an agricultural feast marking the end of the grain harvest and was celebrated during the month of Sivan (May/June). Both Josephus (Ant 3.10.6 §252; JW1.13.3 §253) and Jewish intertestamental writings (Tob 2:1; 2 Macc 12:31–32) refer to the feast as Pentecost. [AYBD 5:222-23]

Luke’s Account – John’s Account. The first reading for Pentecost Sunday is the account from Acts 2 so familiar to every Christian. Luke’s account is a very public event compared to the very private Johannine account. Why the difference? Some scholars defend the basic historicity of the entire Lucan narrative; others conclude that it is essentially Luke’s theological attempt to explain the coming of the Spirit, not a historical account of actual events. Some, holding to the historicity of the Lucan account in Acts 2 hold that John’s account is symbolic only. The Second Council of Constantinople (AD 533) condemned the view of Theodore of Mopsuestia that Jesus did not really give the Spirit on that Easter evening but acted only figuratively and by way of promise. Some, like John Chrysostom, held that the giving of the purpose was for one particular gift or another; others have said that Easter’s coming of the Spirit is personal while Pentecost is ecclesial or missionary. And another set of scholars posit a narrower coming of the Spirit targeting special gifts intended for specific ministry (e.g., the forgiveness) versus a more general coming of the Spirit as a blessing and empowerment for the larger Johannine ministry of discipleship: love and holding to the commandments of Jesus. Some simply conjecture that since John is not overly concerned about date/setting but rather the theological implications, that the Johannine account is the same event – John has simply re-located the events.

The Roman Catholic view coincides with it theological sense of “both-and”. In a sense the very order of the Readings for Pentecost Sunday (Year A) outlines the sense of “both-and” as follows:

  • Acts 2:1-11: the general coming of the Spirit
  • 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13: the variety of gifts given – personal, ecclesial, missionary and more

3 Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, “Jesus be accursed.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit. 4 There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 there are different forms of service but the same Lord; 6 there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; 10 to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.

  • John 20:19-23: the gifts given for specific ministry, e.g., continuation of the priesthood of Jesus is those that the community raises up for that particular ministry – in this case, the Catholic tradition sees the Sacrament of Reconciliation given to particular ministers to celebrate in the name of the community

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

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