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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Come, Holy Spirit! Come!

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May 23rd, 2021: Pentecost Sunday

(Depending upon where and when you attend Sunday liturgy, readings may be different. There are several options for the readings at Pentecost. You can find other readings for this feast here.)

Acts: 2:1-11
Psalm: 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

Reflection by Jeff Vomund

When preaching, I love using today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, “We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia …” (then hopefully without missing a beat) … “Canada and Mexico, Texas and New York, Africa and Asia. We are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and the Green Party. We are inhabitants of the suburbs, the cities, and the farmlands. We are the rich and the poor, the immigrant and the blue-blooded, the aristocrat and the undocumented.”

The very first act of Jesus’ followers, after receiving the Spirit, was a miraculous manifestation of our common humanity. Notably, these spirit-filled followers created that sense of unity without dissolving the differences between the people who were gathered together. This was unity not despite difference, but through it. There would have been no miracle of communication and communion had the differences between the hearers not been present. This story required diversity so that unity could be realized.

Is there a more pertinent passage for our times? We tend to view diversity these days not as the condition which makes the gift of unity possible, but rather as a de facto obstacle to unity. We separate ourselves by national and ethnic identities, by political ideologies, and by socio-economic status, among many other dividers. Worse, these separations can morph into value judgments almost as a reflex. Almost instinctively, we can judge those who answer hot-button questions differently than we do as not only wrong, but less. The miracle of Pentecost was not that the differences between Parthians, Medes, and Ethiopians went away, but that they were able to see the common gift which God’s spirit had bestowed on them. Their way of seeing each other became not difference focused, but gift focused.

We see this same “gift focus” in this Sunday’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It draws on Paul’s insight that everyone in the Church is actually a part of Christ’s mystical body. We form one reality – one body – and like our physical bodies, we need every part of us if we are to thrive. Later in chapter 12, Paul extends this imagery: how bizarre would it be if the foot were jealous of the hand, or the eye dismissed the ear as less valuable because it could not see? Paul suggests that seeing our own differences in that hierarchical way is just as crazy. In fact, Paul offers a reverse hierarchy toward the end of this chapter (cf 1 Corinthians 12:22-24). It is precisely to those parts of the body which we view as less honorable that we must give special honor. One can (and should) see this passage as referring to the marginalized in our culture. But additionally, the passage challenges me to think about giving “special honor” to those parts of the body that I see as less honorable. How should I give “special honor” to the people in my life caught in racist lies, while holding them accountable? How should I give “special honor” to those who reject me as sinful because I am gay, while continuing to fight for inclusion? What does “special honor” even look like when I combine it with the biases and baggage that everyone brings to their relationships?

Knowing the importance that Paul gives to morality, I do not believe Paul wants us to forego judgments on right and wrong behavior – he certainly didn’t! And I am not suggesting for a moment that we honor racist, homophobic, or avaricious behaviors. Honoring need not be taken as agreeing, just as caring need not imply capitulating. Looking for the gift that another person can offer the world is not the same as giving in to their worldview. Instead, I believe Paul’s imagery challenges us to both recognize the celebrate the gifts of the other, even as we hold on to our own gifts (and our own conscience). What gifts do I, or those around me, have to offer? The challenge here is to be gift-focused, but also not to pretend that our gifts come without baggage. To take seriously the question, “What might this person – who clearly comes from a different part of the Body than I do – truly offer the world?” without denying the truth that all of our gifts are tinged with human limitation. Both Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as well as the author of the Acts of the Apostles see our intractable difference as the necessary condition for our unity, our inherent separations as grounds for our wholeness. I wonder how many Christians actually believe this. There are days, or at least moments within days, when I wonder if I believe it. And to be clear, my doubts are not just about whether I can be gift-focused about others, but even more so about whether I can accept the blessing of my own gifts alongside the gift of my failures: to see my totality as integrally important to the wholeness of the Body, to see everyone’s totality as part of the sacred mystery of us.

A similar challenge emerges from a verse in today’s gospel passage: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” As Catholics, many of us grew up hearing this as Jesus giving the Church (read: the clergy) the power to forgive (or not) sins. But the text offers an alternate reading as well. Although I am no scholar of Biblical Greek, as I recall it, the wording in this passage is ambiguous. The traditional wording is an acceptable translation, but so is, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whomsoever you retain are retained.” That is, the sentence refers not to retaining (= not forgiving) another person’s sins, but rather to retaining (= holding in community) another person. In this translation, the passage is not about the power to forgive or not forgive, but about the power to forgive and hold in community. Although both translations are equally grammatically plausible, the latter seems to me more in line with the fourth gospel’s focus on community and commitment to one another.

In this reading, the Spirit gives us the power to retain community through forgiveness, which is to say, the power to hold on to each other through our differences. This is the gift of the Spirit: the power to retain and strengthen our communion by celebrating our differences – even those differences for which the only option is forgiveness. This doesn’t mean we cannot hold onto our opinions, but it does suggest we might hold them a bit differently, a bit more carefully, even perhaps a bit more kindly. The miracle of Pentecost is not fancy talking, but community building, a community we cannot hope to build without looking at, and looking for, the gifts present in each person in the human family, and in every nook and cranny of creation. The Spirit is given that we might hold on to each other through forgiveness, such that no ethnic or political differences might keep us from connecting to, and building up, our common humanity.

Come, Holy Spirit! Come!

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Jeff Vomund is a member of Dignity/Washington and currently lives in Arlington, VA. After 15+ years of full-time parish ministry and 7 years of teaching students with particular learning needs, Jeff now works at George Mason University as a Graduate Research Assistant and a Graduate Lecturer, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.

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