Both today’s first reading, Acts 2:1-11, and the Gospel, John 20:19-23, tell the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples. But note how each story begins. The author of Acts, Luke (who also wrote the Gospel that bears his name) says “When Pentecost came round…” (i.e. 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus), while John writes “In the evening of the first day of the week…” (i.e. on the day of resurrection). Why the contradiction?
Neither author is writing literal history as we understand it, but both are concerned with something much more important. They are teaching truths about ourselves and God by means of stories. The stories have their origin in actual events or experiences but the details may vary for theological reasons. We often tend to take them literally in a way that the first-century writers and their original audiences would not have done.
Towards the end of John’s account the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and are sent by Jesus, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. But sent where, to whom? We are given a clue in Acts when Luke lists the names of fifteen non-Jewish nations living around the Mediterranean – Parthians, Medes etc. – symbolising everybody. Just as Jesus came for the salvation of all, so his disciples are to spread the Good News to all. God loves everyone without exception.
It is easy today to interpret “spreading the Good News” as something for priests and missionaries to do, by preaching and teaching. But Jesus’ command is to all his followers. We spread the Good News every time we relate to other people out of love, showing them respect, interest, concern or compassion. This is especially true when the other person is someone we don’t like, or has done us some wrong. The big challenge is to be inclusive.
The inclusiveness of social media in bringing people together, and of online activism for social justice, seem to me to be signs of the Spirit working in the world. The world’s conscience is being gradually sharpened, marking the coming of the reign of God. Today’s readings call us to play our small but irreplaceable part in helping it to come.