This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday for churches in the “civilized world” (those that follow something resembling the church calendar and the Revised Common Lectionary).
For lectionary churches like the ELCA, that means the reading from Acts 2:1-21, “divided tongues as of fire” appearing and resting on the disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit and giving them the ability to speak in diverse languages and be heard by all those present — “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” — and then Peter speaking the words of the Prophet Joel (2:28-32) to all those assembled, about the pouring out of the Spirit, the seeing of vision, the dreaming of dreams, and the signs of wonders from heaven.
It is a beautiful passage, and it speaks of the power of God to create a new people, to fulfill promises and do work, among this tiny group of disciples huddled in fear.
But honestly, there is a pentecost passage I like better that usually gets read a week or two after Easter Sunday, and so doesn’t get the pentecost treatment I think it deserves. (I tried to preach on this once at seminary from that perspective, but then-homiletics professor Dr. Craig Satterlee wouldn’t let me, because we were still in Easter when this came around.)
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23 ESV)
He breathed on them. This echoes what God does in Genesis 2 when He creates the man (הָֽאָדָ֗ם) from the dust of the ground (הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה):
[T]hen the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7 ESV)
That breath, the very breath of God, is the difference between inanimate mud and thinking and feeling flesh and blood. Between death and life. And the resurrected Jesus gives his disciples a new breath, a new life, new being, new essence, his very resurrected being makes us alive again!
The passage also echoes Ezekiel 37 — the valley of dry bones — in which God promises to give new life, to create a new people, where there is only death, ruin, and destruction.
And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord. (Ezekiel 37:13-14 ESV)
Do not get me wrong. I love the Acts passage — it is the birthday of the church, and it is the anniversary of my baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But I love this John passage more. I love the implication, that in receiving the Spirit — this renewed breath of God — we are empowered to do what Christ has done, to forgive sins. To go into the world and speak of the Good News, that there is mercy and forgiveness. (And yes, even the possibility that they will be withheld. Because forgiveness is a serious business.) I focus on the forgiveness, on the breath breathed on me, on the new life given, on the calling and the sending.
On the peace given and shared.
The disciples don’t quite leave the room yet. Jesus still has to visit Thomas, still has to appear to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias and share breakfast with them, must still ask Peter three times “do you love me?” And tell him, three times, to “feed my sheep.”
And then finally command his disciples, “follow me.” Into the world, to proclaim peace. To share the Holy Spirit. To forgive sins.