Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Church Accomplishes Its Mission through the Holy Spirit

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of Pentecost, John 20:19-23, May 19, 2013 

PENTECOST IS NOT a distinctively Christian celebration.  Originally, it was an agricultural feast that celebrated the end of the grain harvest, much like the fiesta celebration in many villages in the Philippines in honor of St Isidore the Farmer.  Later, however, it came to be associated in the Old Testament tradition with the Exodus and the giving of the Covenant.  In Christianity, it acquired a new significance as it became the day in which the Spirit of Jesus was given to the Church.  But even in the New Testament, the giving of the Holy Spirit admits of various views and meanings.  Of course, these differences reflect the diversity of the theological interests of the authors.  And most of us are familiar with the Lukan account in the 1st Reading (Acts 2:1-11) whose words and images hark back to the giving of the Law at Sinai.  For Luke, Pentecost is the day when God’s people, represented by the disciples, were reconstituted, and empowered to mediate salvation to all peoples.

            John, however, has a different theological concern.  He already exhibits a different view of the happening by collapsing the division of the mystery into Death, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost to a single Easter event   For him, the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus are bound up with the outpouring of the Spirit, for these redemptive deeds are essentially one.  And as can be gleaned from today’s Gospel (John 20:9-23), the giving of the Holy Spirit in John signifies the commissioning of the Church.  Jesus sent the disciples on a mission: “I send you” (20:21b).  Although the commissioning is placed in a post-resurrection setting, it really picks up a theme in the Last Supper Discourse in which Jesus prayed for the consecration of the disciples, whom he would send into the world (17:17-19). 

            In the understanding of the Johannine community, the sending of the disciples is patterned and grounded on the sending of the Son by the Father: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21).  As Jesus was accomplishing his mission in the world, the Father was present in him, in his words and deeds: “Whoever looks on me is seeing him who sent me” (12:45).  In the same way, those who see the disciples, the Lord’s representatives, will also see the Son:  “He who accepts anyone I send accepts me” (13:20).  Thus, Jesus is also present in the words and deeds of the Church, which the disciples represent.  The three (Father, Son, and Church) are stitched together.  In much the same way that Jesus came to do the will of the Father, so the Church cannot detach itself from Jesus in fulfilling its mission.  It must remain faithful to him.

            The Church will accomplish its mission through the reception of the Holy Spirit:  “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (20:22b).  The disciples are endowed with the Holy Spirit who consecrates them for the mission:  “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world; I consecrate myself for their sakes now that they may be consecrated in the truth” (17:18-19).  Because of the Spirit, they will even do greater things (14:12), have a more penetrating understanding of Jesus’ teaching (14:26), and they will be able to carry out the task even in a hostile world (15:25-26).  It is interesting to note that standing in awe at current development, many think that the success of the Church’s mission depends on the use of technology, money, alliance with governments, and wisdom of missionaries.  Of course, these may be important.  But what is decisive is the Holy Spirit.  Without his power, all efforts will not succeed.  John Paul II made a similar observation in his Novo millennio ineunte: “There is the temptation which perennially besets every spiritual journey and pastoral work: that of thinking that the results depend on our ability to act and to plan.  God of course asks us to really cooperate with his grace, and therefore invites us to invest all our resources of intelligence and energy in serving the cause of the Kingdom.  But it is fatal to forget that ‘without Christ we can do nothing’ (Cf John 15:5).”  The Holy Spirit’s power alone is life-giving.  When God breathed into the nostril of the man he formed out of the clay, Adam became a living being (Gen 2:7).

            What is the mission?  Simply to celebrate liturgy or confine itself to the sacristy, as some critics often argue about the Church’s mission?  According to John, the Church’s mission is to continue the mission of the Son (John 20:21).  The Church does not engage in a new work.  The mission of Jesus is simply carried out and interpreted in various times, places and situations.  As Jesus did, so the Church must bring life: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life” (3:16); “I came that they may have life and have it to the full” (10:10).  The Church must bring this message of life to individuals, communities, and the world.  By life, John of course means neither natural life nor everlasting life but eternal life—the vital and intimate relationship with the Father and the Son, which comes from faith in Jesus and being obedient to his word.   As such, it is eschatological, and one who receives this life dwells in the sphere where God dwells.  This is life in its highest degree. What destroys that life is not death, because it survives bodily death but sin.  (This is the Johannine equivalent to the Synoptic focus on the Kingdom of God which appears only thrice in John.)  And the Church will be able to give that life because the Spirit himself, who gives power to the Church and its mission, gives life, and is the source of eternal life.*

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