This abbreviated reading from the Gospel of John has already been heard as the Gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Easter (20:19-31).
On the Sunday after Easter the focus is on “doubting” Thomas, a character unique to John’s Gospel. Sadly, Thomas has been the victim of identity theft over the years of biblical interpretation. According to the Greek text, Thomas does not “doubt” but is apistoi that is, “unbelieving,” and yes, there is a difference, at least for the fourth evangelist. In this initial appearance of Jesus to the disciples narrated in our text for today, Thomas is not present to receive the Spirit, yet he will come to believe when in the presence of Jesus, made evident by his all-encompassing confession, “My Lord and my God” (20:28). Situating our text for today within the narrative of the disciples’ first encounter with the risen Christ is important for the interpretation of the coming of the Spirit according to the fourth Gospel. The focus of 20:19-23, at least according to the lectionary, is the first part of verse 22, “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” But believing, according to John (not “belief” or “faith”–it is never a noun in the Gospel of John) is central to this passage (cf. 20:30-31).
The particular challenge when preaching this passage from the Gospel of John is actually to preach on this passage from the Gospel of John. That is, typical sermons on the day of Pentecost lean more toward general concepts of the Spirit that have more to do with doctrinal commitments than biblical claims. Moreover, the vivid and violent description of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts tends to overpower, quite literally and literarily, the more sedate arrival of the Spirit behind closed doors in John’s Gospel. A sermon on Pentecost according to the fourth evangelist might well afford our congregations with a distinctive understanding of this festival day in the life of the church and perhaps more importantly, a unique meaning of the Spirit in the life of faith.
The setting itself for the coming of the Spirit in the fourth Gospel is critical. Here, the NIV translation better represents the Greek construction because there is no word for “house” in the Greek text, which the NRSV includes. In both 20:19 and 20:26 there is no direct statement of a location of where the disciples are gathered, only “where the disciples were” (20:19) and that the disciples “were again inside” (20:26). Jesus comes where the disciples are and stands in the middle, though the doors are shut (20:19, 26). The ambiguity of the location of the disciples and of Jesus’ entrance sends the reader back to chapter 10 where Jesus himself is the door. That the disciples are inside (where? what?) echoes the enclosure of the fold in 10:1 and 10:16. This is an intimate setting of Jesus’ own and not a crowd of “devout Jews from every nation” (Acts 2:5).
The “I am” statement of Jesus as the door in 10:7 and 10:9 is certainly not as popular as Jesus as the shepherd in 10:11 and 10:14 but it is every bit as much a life-giving image. In 10:7-10 Jesus describes himself as the door of the sheep; as the door he provides pasture and abundant life. This provision is carried forward to Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples, so that pasture and truly abundant life are made present. Moreover, the door is that which enables the sheep to enter and go out of the fold. This possibility is critical for Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in 20:19-23. Before the gifting of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus’ sending of the disciples into the world just as he was sent from the Father carries with it the provision as the door and his own leading as the shepherd.
This brings us to the particular function of the Spirit in the Gospel of John. While pneu/ma is used earlier in the narrative, the specific function of the Spirit is worked out in the context of the “farewell discourse,” where the distinctive designation for the Spirit is the term paraclete–literally, “one who appears in another’s behalf.” There are a number of ways to translate this term that appears only in the Gospel and first letter of John–Helper, Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor, yet no one title can adequately hold the meaning of what the Fourth Evangelist seems to want to communicate. The primary function of the Spirit is to continue the very presence of Jesus who, as the Word made flesh, must return to the Father (16:7). Given this theological reality for the fourth evangelist, the Spirit is “another Advocate” (14:16) given by the Father to be with the disciples forever (14:26-27; cf. 16:7-15). In the midst of fear, uncertainty, and unbelieving, Jesus brings peace and comfort, not with mere words of reassurance, but with the very ongoing incarnation of the Word in the lives of his disciples with the gift of the Paraclete.
For the fourth Gospel, the day of Pentecost is no tongues of fire or a bewildering, amazing, perplexing cacophony of voices, but the peace of one voice, the shepherd’s voice, who bestows on his disciples the abiding presence of “I am.”
It is fine to preach on this text as the story of the birthday of the church. We want to remember, however, that for Luke the church is not the end of the story.
The church is the vanguard of the Kingdom, of the realm of God that is both coming and yet to come. When Peter preaches on Pentecost he changes slightly the quotation from the prophet Joel. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, Joel says: “After these things, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” (Septuagint, Joel 3:1) Luke, through Peter, makes clear that what is happening at Pentecost is the beginning of the great time when God brings all of human history to consummation–in Jesus Christ. “In the last days, it will be, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
The whole great drama of the two volume book–Luke and Acts–is the story of God’s Spirit as the sign of the end of the times. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus stands in the synagogue and reads Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Jesus’ ministry begins with the gift of the Spirit, not for the sake of the church but for the sake of the world. The church’s ministry begins with the gift of the Spirit, not for the sake of the church, but for the sake of the world.
Notice that at the beginning of both ministries, that of Jesus and that of the church, Luke shows us how deeply grounded the new covenant is in the old. Jesus cannot explain his ministry without turning to Isaiah. Peter cannot explain what Pentecost means without turning to Joel. The understanding of the relationship of the growing church to Judaism in Luke and Acts is a much disputed issue. What cannot be disputed is that neither Jesus nor church is comprehensible apart from Israel’s story and Israel’s hope.
Our text is often read and preached in connection with the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. In that story we remember God confused and diversified human languages so that the whole earth no longer “had one language and the same words.” Presumably this is God’s punishment for the human pretension and pride that built the tower. Notice, however, that Pentecost does not really reverse Babel. It is not the case, that at the end of Pentecost all the earth–or even all believers–have one language and the same words. The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other. It is a misreading of the story to think that God’s promise for the church is a kind of ecclesiastical Esperanto–a universal language we all can speak and understand. The apostles speak a variety of languages so that a variety of people can hear. God’s promise for the church is that in our diversity, through our diversity, the Spirit still leads us forward in understanding. If Eden was a “happy fall” because it made possible our redemption, maybe Babel was a happy fall because it enriched our diversity–the languages in which we can preach the Gospel and praise God.
Professor Lamin Sanneh of Yale Divinity School grew up as a Muslim and converted to Christianity. He has great appreciation for both faiths, but he has pointed out that Christianity, unlike Islam, believes in the translation of our sacred texts. The Q’ran is really the Q’ran only in Arabic. The Bible is the Bible whether in Hebrew and Greek or in English or French or Hindi. That is a gift of the Spirit.
We also notice, though, that when the first believers speak in diverse languages but say the same thing, they do not deliver speeches praising diversity. Diversity is a blessed feature of the Christian life but it is not the center of that life. What they speak about is “God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:11) There is a tendency among American Christians to bring diverse people together to praise our diversity. The model we get in Acts is that we bring diverse people together to praise God.
When Peter preaches about the miracle that people have observed (trying to defend his friends against the accusation that they have been drinking too much) what he talks about is not the splendor of the congregation but the majesty of God. It is God’s Spirit that makes this day possible. The day is not the church’s day; it is “the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”(Acts 2:20) The purpose of the day is not to congratulate each other but to repent and believe: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21)
This is not the last word on the spread of the Gospel in the book of Acts. Here we have the Gospel proclaimed and enacted among Jews from every nation and of every tongue. But the story goes on: in Acts 8, Philip interprets scripture to the Ethiopian eunuch. In Acts 9, a Jewish leader named Saul is overpowered on the road to Damascus and recruited–though he does not yet know it–to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles. In Acts 10, Peter’s vision of God’s vision grows enormously. When God gives him the compelling dream of the sheet filled with creatures of all kinds, Peter realizes that Pentecost is for people of all kinds. He has to rethink his own sermon on Joel. When God says “in the last days I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” God means all flesh.” The church grows and spreads and among all peoples serves the coming Reign of God.
I would have fit in well in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians’ struggles, which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 1–4, resemble my own: jealousy, striving, arrogance, and a propensity to measure one’s worth through comparisons with other people.
Although the specific activities that manifested these attitudes in the Corinthian church might seem foreign to many of us in 2008, the disease behind the symptoms remains common in Christian communities across time. I suspect that American believers are especially vulnerable to temptations to nourish rivalries, given our culture’s historical embrace of competition, individualism, and a social Darwinist ethos.
Paul hoped his letter would lead to healed divisions and reestablished unity (see 1 Corinthians 1:10) so that the Corinthians would more fully manifest Christ in their communal life and witness. Paul could have made his appeals by extolling the ethical virtues of cooperation, but he took a different route. His approach was more radical and existential, in that he reminded the Corinthians that unity must spring from their common theological identity as people in Christ. United to Christ, Christians are united to one another, which means that that qualitative distinctions among people have no place in Christian community. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12 continue to advance this basic argument as it applies to corporate worship, saying that the “one and the same” Holy Spirit gives gifts that equip Christians for various yet complementary ministries. The Spirit’s work is cohesive, uniting believers into “one body” comprising members that function interdependently.
The Corinthians themselves had raised questions about the Spirit’s work among them. We know this because Paul introduces Chapter 12 with the line, “Now concerning…,” which signals that he is addressing specific topics from a letter they had written to him (see 7:1). It appears that some in Corinth were considering the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work and making qualitative judgments among themselves based upon values they assigned to particular spiritual gifts. At least two things are possible: some Corinthians interpreted specific gifts as evidence of greater spiritual maturity and so valued those gifts (and those who possessed them) while disdaining others, or perhaps rivalries had formed around those possessing different gifts and the different ministries or worship practices that those gifts supported. For Paul, assumptions like these that introduce qualitative categories among believers contravene the gospel, because they fail to recognize that the same Spirit bestows all spiritual gifts for the specific purpose of creating a unified, interdependent body of believers.
The consistent refrain through verses 4–11 is that the one Spirit dispenses a diversity of gifts. This passage does not offer an exhaustive inventory of the gifts that God dispenses; Paul merely illustrates the breadth of the Spirit’s work in support of the corporate good. At least three conclusions follow from what he says.
1. No single person or category of people can claim exclusive insight into the Spirit’s presence or the complete nature of the Spirit’s activity. The fullness of the Spirit’s work is corporate, with the one Spirit manifested differently through different gifts. Thus, when the body of Christ operates, when a community of faith pursues and discovers things such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, and healing, no one less than God is at work (see 12:6). God’s Spirit is not bound to our own strategies, systems, or expectations, for the Spirit freely chooses to be present among Christians, their worship, and their witness (see 12:11).
2. There are ways to discern which claims or activities might be authentic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Notice that Paul connects the Spirit and Christ in two ways. First, the Spirit bears witness that Jesus is Lord (see 12:3), which implies that the work of the Spirit advances the proclamation of Jesus’ lordship. Second, through the Spirit people are baptized into the body of Christ, and so the work of the Spirit contributes to the unity and harmonious functioning of that body. This means that Christian communities might answer the question Where is the Holy Spirit present in our life together? by focusing instead on two other questions: How is Jesus magnified as Lord among us? and What builds unity and corporate well-being among us? The focus of these questions keeps people attentive to the Spirit’s overarching purposes and discourages well-meaning but misguided practices that can predefine what the Spirit can or cannot do, such as creating catalogs of spiritual gifts or placing limits on the specific modes by which the Spirit can be expected to operate.
3. Christian community, worship, and ministry–if they are to reflect the fullness of God’s Spirit–must manifest unified diversity. Diverse gifts and insights that proclaim Jesus and sustain his body must be valued. When people formulate hierarchies among themselves or impose distinctions based upon appraisals of gifts, they fail to reflect the Spirit’s identity and threaten to obstruct the Spirit’s work in their corporate existence.
The pneumatic environment of the Day of Pentecost encourages preachers to draw attention to the gifts that God gives, allowing congregations to glimpse the Holy Spirit’s presence among them. But the festival setting can also distract. Pentecost celebrations often have the unfortunate effect of making talk about the Spirit a lot less interesting and a lot less powerful than it should be. The trappings that accompany Pentecost–red paraments, fiery banners, readings and prayers in multiple languages as echo of Acts 2–can make the whole day feel overly exotic or inextricably rooted in the past. It is risky also to talk about the Spirit and consider the Spirit’s activity among us now. Some Christians’ careless or abusive claims of spiritual authority make others prefer to treat the Holy Spirit’s power as a piece of nostalgia instead to of exploring how God’s gift of the Spirit matters for the church’s life and witness today. Yet, despite our ambivalences, this passage boldly declares that God remains present and active in and through communities of faith. In embracing that declaration, and renewing it in our congregations, we embrace a commitment to live in light of the Spirit and to mend our intramural rivalries and competitions based on status, knowledge, or measures of spirituality.