Saturday, April 6, 2013

What Really Matters in the Church Is the Life in the Spirit of Jesus

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C, John 20:19-31, April 7, 2013

SOME MIGHT WONDER if we have to talk about a “Johannine Pentecost.”  Is this something different from what we used to know—namely, the 50th day after Easter, which we celebrate in the liturgy after the feast of the Ascension?  If by Pentecost we mean the bestowal of the Spirit upon all believers, then we have much ground for saying that the Gospel today is John’s version of Pentecost.  We have to understand that for theological reasons, Luke, who wrote the Pentecost account in Acts 2:1-13, separated the Christological moments of redemption.  In his account, there is a day for the resurrection of Jesus, another for his ascension, and still another for Pentecost.  John, however, has a different way of looking at these moments.  For him, Jesus’ resurrection is bound up with his exaltation and the giving of the Holy Spirit.  When he rose from the dead, Jesus at the same time was exalted and bestowed the Spirit on the gathered believers.  It is not surprising, therefore, that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
            But how does John describe the Pentecost?  In depicting the event, John does not use words and images that evoke the giving of the Law at Sinai, as Luke does in Acts. It is instructive that in describing the giving of the Holy Spirit, John uses the words “breathed on them” (John 20:22).  Since the term “to breathe on” or “to blow in” popularly lined with Gen 2:7, there is no doubt that he harked back to the creation narrative when God breathed into the nostril of Adam who became a living being.  That is to say, just as God gave life to Adam by blowing into his nostrils, so Jesus was giving a new life to the community of believers by giving them life. A similar view is held in wisdom literature; “the one who fashioned him, and breathed into him a quickening soul, and infused a vital spirit” (Wisd 15:11). 
           At the same time, he alludes to Ezek 39:9-10 where, in the vision of the prophet, the dry bones came to life after the wind “breathed into them.”  Since this text has reference to the gathering of Israel from the land of exile, it is clear therefore that John has in mind the reconstitution of God’s people as a new creation.  John seems to be saying that with the death and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit, God recreates his people by letting them share in the life of the Risen One.  Jesus possesses this new life, but at Pentecost he shared it with the community of believers.  In other words, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, those who are given this new life become members of a newly created people.
            When the Holy Spirit descends on a people to re-create them, what happens to them?  As the attribute “holy” indicates, the people are cleansed from their sins.  The idea of outpouring of the Holy Spirit is linked with the cleansing from sins: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.  I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees” (Ezek 36:25-27).  No wonder that the early Church linked the sacrament of baptism, in which the Christian receives the Holy Spirit and becomes part of the new creation, with forgiveness of sins: “Now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). 
But if we strictly follow John’s theology, we notice that into this re-created people, the unity of the Father and the Son is communicated, and they become one people living in one divine life.  As the Father is in Jesus, and Jesus in the Father, so the community is in Jesus and the Father (John 17:21).  The members are bound into a corporate unity, but each one is known by their shepherd (10:3-4) who lays down his life for them (10:17).   They imitate him by serving one another in humility (13:15).  What holds the community is its spiritual relationship with Christ.  As disciples to whom divine life is communicated, the members are sustained by Christ himself, who is united with them and remain in them (15:1-5).
            What does this mean to us?  It means many things, but we can point out one.  To be a Church, the life its members live is of paramount importance.  That life must be one that our Lord communicates to us at baptism and shared in the community of believers.  It is just dismaying to know that when we talk about the Church, most of us look at it in terms of secular standards.  We tend to forget this inner life, and we regard the parish as good if, for example, the parish church is well constructed, the celebrations well attended, the church organizations are in place, the parish councils have plenty of projects, and the parish has much money in the bank.  In the light of Johannine Pentecost, however, all these are secondary.  Money, projects and infrastructures are never an indication that the community flourishes.  The proper questions to ask are: do the members of the parish know each other?  Do they love one another?  Is their love expressed in helping those in need?  Do they form one community?  Does their love grow?  Are they more forgiving than before? 
            The parish may have the best infrastructures, but if it is lacking in love, forgiveness, unity, and mutual concern, it is no different from a secular body that has no soul.  In the end, what really matters is the life in the Spirit of Jesus.

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