Acts 2:1-11; 1Cor 12:3-7, 12-13; Jn 20:19-23
I can’t help feeling that you have to have the gift of tongues to get through that first reading, with its list of peoples who heard the first teaching of the apostles. It is an impressive list, but somewhat challenging for the reader.
Moving on, I have to confess, to my shame, that I am easily irritated, and one of the things which irritates me is to hear or read that, until the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, the disciples were cowering in fear. If you do hear anyone say that, thump them, pummel them, knock them down, and sit on their heads, because it is unmitigated drivel.
Why on earth would they have been fearful after the Resurrection and Ascension? When they returned to the Upper Room after the latter, it wasn’t to cower, but to fulfil the instructions of the Risen Lord. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke wrote: “When [Jesus] had been with them at table, He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised,” and in his Gospel Luke states that, after the Ascension, “they worshipped Him and then went back to Jerusalem FULL OF JOY; and they were continually in the Temple, praising God.”
There is not the slightest hint of fear. Furthermore, in the first chapter of Acts, St. Luke describes what they were doing in the Upper Room: “they joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with His relations.” Are people suggesting that Our Lady was cowering in fear? What a load of nonsense.
Why then do people suggest it? I can only assume that they are misunderstanding, and in fact misplacing, today’s Gospel which does indeed speak of the disciples’ fear. When, though, is this Gospel passage set? Anyone who is reading it with half an eye should be able to recognise that this is an account of the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples on Easter Sunday evening, and strictly speaking has nothing to do with Pentecost at all.
Yet the mistaken view seems to have taken deep root in people’s perceptions. After I had explained everything very carefully in a previous parish, a lady—a former deputy head of a Catholic primary school, no less—came up to me after Mass, and asked triumphantly “Who is right then? You or St. John?” Presumably she had spent her teaching career telling her pupils that the Pentecost disciples were cowering in fear, and she wasn’t going to allow the odd fact to stand in her way.
So why is this Easter Sunday Gospel used today? It is to remind us that there is more than one way, and more than one time, for the Spirit to be given. The Easter Sunday Christ breathes on the disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is a gentle outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a far cry from the spectacular manifestation at Pentecost.
Also the Easter gift of the Holy Spirit is for a different purpose. The Spirit descended at Pentecost in wind and flame to empower the apostles for the preaching of the Gospel: that same Spirit was breathed into them at Easter to enable them to forgive sins.
This is in keeping with St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians which we heard in the Second Reading, “working in all sorts of different ways in different people” and again “the particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose.” The Charismatic Renewal Movement gave the Church many gifts, but it sometimes conveyed the impression that, if you weren’t having spectacular experiences, you hadn’t received the Spirit. Clearly we can see from the scriptures that this is not the case. I can’t help feeling a degree of sympathy with the Shrewsbury priest who attended a charismatic meeting many years ago in the USA. At some point, a large lady standing next to him turned to embrace him, whereupon he exclaimed “Oh no! Please don’t! I am British!”
We have all received the Spirit. May we respond to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by using the gifts which we have been given, as we pray for a new outpouring of the Spirit on ourselves, on the Church, and on the whole of creation.