Pentecost: The Church's DNARead Now
The gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, celebrated this coming Pentecost Sunday, is the feast of validation of the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. So any of our beliefs about ourselves—from the actual power of our sacraments to the divine legitimacy of our leadership to our confidence in the books we call Scripture—come from our foundational trust that the Spirit of God is the soul of our faith community.
I noted a ways back that it took the Church some time to appreciate the reality and the meaning of the Resurrection. The same is true of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The term “Pentecost” only occurs in Luke’s writing. Pentecost was a well-established Jewish feast centuries before the appearance of Jesus. In Greek the word “pentecost” means fiftieth, and originally referred to an agrarian feast celebrated seven weeks after the Passover. The Hebrew term was “Feast of Weeks” and was related to the productivity of the harvest. It was customary for Jews to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem at this time. St. Luke’s theology is clever—there is no other word for it—in placing the Christian event of Pentecost on the Feast of Weeks. The city would have been full of pilgrims of diverse tongues and dialects. Luke reports in Acts 2:5 that there was general amazement among the pilgrims that every man understood Peter’s Galilean sermon “in his own language.” Interestingly, one of the options for the first readings of the Vigil Mass this coming Saturday is Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel (though your parish may choose another; check your “local listings,” so to speak.)
Sunday readings are here but may be used on Saturday as well.)
For Luke, then, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is unity, and the reversal of Babel’s confusion described in Acts 2 is a step toward a universal conversion and healing. A second gift of the Spirit in Luke is power: the Acts describe in some length the miracles of Peter and John in the immediate post-Pentecostal days. A third gift is eloquence: Peter’s sermon of Pentecost and similar ones by Peter and Paul throughout Acts give evidence that the Spirit’s presence brought a wisdom far above what one might have expected from a blue-collar Galilean fisherman. The Spirit’s wisdom similarly would impact Paul in the Acts, as he came to understand that baptism and Christian life were intended for all, not just Jews, and he brought this argument home in the famous Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
Perhaps most importantly Luke depicts the Spirit as bringing peace and salvific efficacy to the early Church, which remains our quest today. Acts 2:42-47 describes an ideal church, rooted around “the breaking of the bread” (certainly a reference to the Emmaus event, among others) I only recently noted that this church experienced “a reverential fear” (Acts 2:43) among its other characteristics. The members sold belongings and divided the money along the lines of needs. They continued to worship regularly at the Temple, to work marvelous deeds, and to live with “exultant and sincere hearts.” The effects of this were powerful on outsiders, as Luke records that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
To speak anachronistically, Luke describes the effects of God’s DNA in the Church as a whole and in each of us who are baptized members. To his credit, Luke does not shrink from airing the family linen from time to time. The famous story of Ananaias and Sapphira and their real estate misadventures comes immediately to mind, (Acts 5:1-11), and the famous squabble about household duties, or as I call it, the disciples’ declaration that “we don’t do windows.” (Acts 6:1-6)
An awful lot of material comes across my desk about “the new evangelization” (a phrase that someday needs its own critique) or the less bombastic subject of renewing one’s parish. When I see these kinds of projects put forward as agendas, I have to wonder if maybe we have failed to “read the manual” first. Pentecost has been called the Birthday of the Church for good reason: the Church was born from the utter graciousness of God. Luke gives us the elevations of how this church community would look: penitential, humble, reverentially fearful, wise, spokespersons for Jesus of Nazareth, doer of good deeds, faithful to our Jewish roots, generous beyond contemporary logic, grateful for its legitimate leaders, and most of all, united around the table of the Lord to break the bread and meet Jesus until he comes again in glory.
Luke never describes the Church as defensive, proprietary, micromanaging, proud, discriminating, suspicious and divided. And while there are many today who labor to make compelling arguments for these strategies, they simply do not meet the smell test. A Spirit-driven Church striving to overcome the divisions of the Tower of Babel has no time to create new barriers among the Body of Christ. Pentecost is the prime feast of the year when we return to our roots and discover again who we are and what we are not. May these lessons gain momentum as we return to Ordinary Time very shortly.
The Farewell Dinner AddressRead Now
The weekend and weekday Masses of the later Easter Season draw heavily from the Gospel of John, particularly a section of his Gospel known as “The Last Supper Discourse.” (John 13:1-17:26) This text is not one seamless garment; scholars have found several breaks and shifts of emphasis in this sequence. The literary intent of John, however, appears to be the desire to unite these texts into one farewell discourse, inserted into the Gospel on the night before he died. It is helpful, too, to recall that in John’s chronology the Last Supper discourse is actually the last prolonged opportunity for Jesus to talk with his disciples personally and in-depth. Luke by contrast provides several post-Crucifixion communications, from the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to a final discourse before the Ascension in Acts 1. Whatever final words Jesus would wish to impart to his disciples in John’s narrative would have to occur at the Last Supper.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary, my first and primary (though not exclusive) source when exploring Scriptural interpretation,* adopts the work of the biblical scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg in dividing the Last Supper into four parts: (1) an announcement of the hour and farewell to the disciples; (2) a discourse of exhortation to the disciples concerning relations within the community and in the face of external hostility; (3) consolation for the sorrowing disciples; and (4) Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. (JBC 1989 edition, p. 972, para. 170)
The discourse begins famously with the washing of the feet of the twelve (John 13: 1-20) which includes the powerful instruction that “You must wash each other’s feet.” Jesus goes on to predict his betrayer (13:21-30) and Judas’s departure into the “night,” a favorite symbolism of John’s for the power of evil and absence of faith. With Judas out of the dining room, Jesus talks intimately (13:31-14:31), and begins with the fact that he is leaving them in multiple senses, to arrest and death and ultimately to reunion with his Father. The emotionally ridden questions of the disciples—“where are you going” and “how shall we know the way?”—are brilliant literary insertions by John to address the present day fears of a young Church surrounded by hostility. Recall that the discourse was written as long as 70 years after the Crucifixion.
In this portion of the discourse Jesus reveals what may be the central theme of John’s Gospel: “that the Father and I are one.” He explains that the works he has done—namely, the six miracles or “signs,” leading up to the raising of Lazarus—are testimony enough of his identity and the touchstone of faith to enter eternal life. For catechists, it is worth noting that two of these signs are proclaimed during the final weeks of Lent in the Sunday Gospels of Cycle A as part of the initiation process into baptismal life. Jesus continues on a new topic with immense importance for the Church: The sending of the Paraclete. Under the Paraclete Jesus describes a future in which even greater works would take place; the JBC concludes wisely that Jesus is emphasizing here a unity of the disciples’ work with his own, a oneness of purpose protected by his Holy Spirit until the end of time. John’s Gospel is unique for a virtual absence of reference to the end times; in other locations Jesus has indicated that judgment is happening now in the decisions of his listeners throughout the Gospel (as dramatically portrayed in the character of Judas.) Here (14:20-23) however Jesus makes the promise that he and his Father will return, and that his faithful disciples will share in this same unity of Father and Son. It is a stunning promise.
Jesus again consoles his disciples in 14:25-31, reminding them that nothing but good will come from his return to the Father in glory, and in a touching way, encouraging them to be happy about the future state of affairs. He again reminds them that the Paraclete will help them “to remember” everything he had taught them. There are shades of the same theme in Luke’s Emmaus story, where Jesus himself explains for the two floundering disciples the plan of God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Chapter 15 is the famous discourse of organic togetherness. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus uses several analogies to describe this togetherness including friendship and his own willingness to die for die for these very friends. He continues in Chapter 16 with another, more elaborate reference to the Paraclete or Holy Spirit. The Paraclete will stand by the disciples in time of persecution and concurrently “convict the world” of its hardness of heart. This same Spirit will guide the disciples in teaching the truth. It is worth noting here that there is continuity here with the three Epistles of John. The Gospel and Epistles were written late in the New Testament era. Relations between Christians and Jews, and Christians and Romans, had deteriorated badly. In addition, scholars believe that the Church itself was factionalized over issues as basic as the divinity of Jesus. Certainly these issues were on the mind of the Evangelist as he depicts the farewell meal.
The Last Supper Discourse concludes with Chapter 17, “Jesus’ Prayer for the Disciples.” Again, the contemporary stresses of the Church may have been on John’s mind as he composed this unique prayer composition. As the JBC notes, this is a prayer directed to the Father on behalf of his immediate disciples, then to the readers of the Gospel 70 years later, and then to all throughout history who would believe, to our own time. Jesus prays that they (we) may be sanctified in the truth, that we be one, and that we see his glory.
Fittingly, the Church draws heavily from the Last Supper discourse as the Ascension and Pentecost feasts draw near and we prepare to resume the work of the kingdom, united and in truth under the Spirit, as we resume Ordinary time in two weeks.
* My second source for the Gospels is John Meier's A Marginal Jew (four volumes.) Then I move on to individual book commentaries.
John, Times FiveRead Now
Today’s topic, the identities of the five authors of New Testament texts “by John,” brought to mind the classic sketch by Abbot and Costello involving mixed names and identities. You can enjoy this at your leisure, or listen to it now as a set up for the confusion to come.
Our problem at hand is this: currently the Sunday and weekday readings of the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours (see Office of Hours for May 5 and/or the second and third readings for next Sunday, April 10) are all drawing from the authorship of John. As early as the fourth century the Church historian Eusebius reported confusion about the identity about various persons named john; in his day the popular belief had it that as Jesus had entrusted his mother to the “disciple whom he loved” (who was believed then to be the Apostle John), this disciple took Mary to Ephesus as his new mother where he started what would become a major seat of Christianity. The late scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown elaborates a hypothesis about such a unique community in The Community of the Beloved Disciple (1978),
But is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” the same person as the Apostle John? A close look at the Gospels raises serious doubts. John and his brother James are collectively referred to as boanerges, “the sons of thunder.” (Mark 3: 16-17) and in Matthew’s Gospel (20: 20-28) we discover that John already has a mother, and quite a gal at that. She demands of Jesus that her boys get places at the left and the right of Jesus’ throne and with mother in tow, the boanerges boys assert that they are ready to drink the chalice of suffering.
We still have the question of whether either the Apostle John or “the disciple whom Jesus loved” actually wrote the Gospel of John. Scholar Pheme Perkins observes that the advanced theology of John’s Gospel would have been way beyond the abilities of a Galilean fisherman. The “beloved disciple” is referred to in the Gospel text in the third person, certainly an odd literary feature if he were the author. The best explanations I was taught—and I haven’t seen anything to contradict this line of thinking—involve a third party author or school of disciples who recorded and arranged the Gospel material from the teachings of their leader whom they loved. The identity of this disciple may be beyond our ability to know, although the final authors are clear that their leader was an original witness to the Risen Christ.
There are three brief epistles under the name “John.” Interestingly these letters were not widely used in the first two centuries of Christianity; a bit surprising if these letters were believed to come from the hands of an Apostle. The content of the letters addresses challenges in the Church of a later time: for example, a large number of Jews and others who denied that Jesus was the pre-existent Son of God, divine from the start. If you recall the very early catechetical sermons from Acts, Peter preached that God raised Jesus from the dead and established him as divine. There is quite a difference between “early and later Christology” and the letters of John reflect a later phase in the Church’s understanding of Christ. Similarities in the text and ideas with John’s Gospel strongly suggest that the final author of the letters was either the same final composer of the Gospel or at least a kindred spirit.
This leaves us with the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse.) Adela Collins is correct to point out that there is no other book quite like it in the New Testament. Its preponderance of apocalyptic mystical episodes has made it a favorite for futurists. The first Christian writer to speculate on its authorship is St. Justin Martyr c. 160 A.D. Justin argues that the author John is “one of the Apostles of Christ.” However, the actual author refers to himself in the text as simply “a servant of the Lord” and he claims as his inspiration heavenly origin. The current consensus is that the book’s author was an early Christian prophet by the name of John, or John the Presbyter, or John the Elder, unrelated to the authors we have cited above. This text is dated late in the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.), a ruler who persecuted Christian rather severely. Apocalyptic literature often springs from persecution and trial: its mysterious language is used to deceive persecutors; there is the hope of a dramatic return of God to destroy the peoples’ persecutors. Apocalyptic is not limited to Scripture; this mindset inspired many nuclear themed films in previous recent generations, including “Failsafe” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
Anyone who has read both John’s Gospel and Revelation has probably come away with the sense that these are works with significantly different agendas and differing views of the future. Of all the New Testament books, Revelation requires significant introduction and commentary, as it lends itself to serious misinterpretation if taken literally.