Brief synopsis of the readings: Last week I had a choice of readings to preach on and I elected not to preach on the Feast of the Ascension. Today is Pentecost and I chose the Mass During the Day. Our first reading from Acts described Pentecost. Shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven the disciples saw the Holy Spirit come upon them. Tongues of fire appeared and rested on their heads. They then noticed something strange. There were “devout men living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven.” They gathered and noticed that they all understood each other even though they spoke different languages. In John’s Gospel we find Jesus appearing to his disciples. He breathed on them and told them they had the power to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.”
I didn’t preach on this but last week many of you read about the Ascension of the Lord. It’s an account in the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles where the resurrected Jesus rose to heaven, not to be seen bodily on earth again.
We don’t know how they felt at the time and I can only imagine that at least some of them felt their story was coming to an end that they would walk away and drift away from each other. Decades later they may have run into each other and remember Jesus fondly, and within a few generations nearly nobody would remember who he was or what he taught.
But God had greater plans and today we commemorate Pentecost where the Holy Spirit descended on them. For those of us who were confirmed as teenagers we well remember the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord.
Those gathered weren’t thinking of these gifts. I’m pretty sure they were overwhelmed by what they saw: a powerful wind inside their doors, tongues of fire, and the splitting of fire on top of each of them.
But this mind blowing event wasn’t over even then. Something else happened that I believe affects us even to this day: those who spoke different languages suddenly (if briefly) understood each other and that’s a big deal.
If you remember back to hearing Bible stories as a child you might remember the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The people attempted to build a tower and God stopped them by confusing them by giving them different languages. Now of course we know that this is a fable and that we spoke different languages because we had scattered over the earth before we developed the ability to speak.
Interestingly, they didn’t suddenly begin to speak the same language. Instead they understood each other. More interestingly they didn’t speak in a way that others could understand them, they listened in a way that they could understand others. Their speaking skills didn’t become miraculous, their listening skills did.
With that understanding we move to John’s Gospel. Here Jesus once again appeared to his disciples and he breathed on them. And he gave them the ability to forgive sins: “For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.”
Generations of Catholics were told that this reading gives priests the ability to hear confessions and forgive sins. But I think Jesus gave that ability not only to priests but to us all.
So how does this connect to our first reading? Glad you asked. Forgiving somebody is not easy and it doesn’t come out of ignorance. Forgiveness happens only when both the sinner and the person he harmed fully understands not only what happened but why.
Let us look to other faiths to more fully understand this. Our Jewish brothers and sisters commemorate Yom Kippur each year. They fast for 24 hours but they also ask for forgiveness for the sins they have committed. But Yom Kippur teaches that you may not ask God for forgiveness until you have asked forgiveness for the person you harmed.
As I write this our Muslim brothers and sisters are concluding Ramadan, the month they celebrate the reception of the Quran. That made the news recently because of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. You may remember that he was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018. It’s a complex case, but for our purposes we only need note that five people were sentenced to death. On the last night of Ramadan his sons formally forgave their father’s assassins, thereby commuting the death sentences.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree on one thing: forgiveness is not mechanical but instead is personal. Pentecost unleashed the Holy Spirit on all of us and gave us many gifts. Among these gifts was counsel. I hope you can see forgiveness within the gift of counsel. The gift of counsel allows us to enter into a relationship in need of healing. Counsel is larger than forgiveness, but all forgiveness happens within counsel. It allows two (or more) people to come together for the benefit of both.
But this happens only when we can honestly hear and understand each other. In our first reading we don’t know how long they were able to understand each other (and in fairness many people at that time spoke and understood several languages) but I like to think great things happened during that time. I like to think that friendships were formed and perhaps even romances began.
I also hope that reconciliations happened also. And not even sins being forgiven. I also like to think that prejudices were ended as they all found each other with an understanding that surpassed language.
Let’s continue that day.