by Father Mike Stubbs
PENTECOST SUNDAY Jn 20:19-23
It’s amazing how a simple phrase can change its meaning completely when it appears in a different context.
J.R.R. Tolkien offers a good example of that in “The Hobbit.” That novel opens with a conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo, in which Bilbo tells him, “Good morning.”
Gandalf replies: “What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
Exasperated by their conversation, Bilbo soon adds: “Good morning! We don’t want any adventures here, thank you. You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.
“What a lot of things you use ‘Good morning’ for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”
You see my point. The same phrase acquires a new meaning when it reappears only a moment later.
Something similar happens in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 20:19-23. It is the first Easter Sunday, and Jesus appears to the disciples after rising from the dead. He greets them with the words, “Peace be with you.”
That phrase was the normal greeting in Hebrew and in Aramaic, the two most likely candidates for the languages that Jesus spoke. That same greeting persists in modern Arabic, a closely related language. The words of Jesus’ greeting would not have come as any shock, although the sight of Jesus, risen from the dead, must have surely surprised the disciples. It was a pleasant surprise, though, since the Gospel reports: “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
But a moment later when Jesus repeats the phrase, he had used in greeting them, it acquires a new meaning: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Jesus’ wish of peace to the disciples precedes and parallels his gift of the Spirit to them. “Peace be with you” appears as a prelude to that gift. That makes sense, because the Spirit that Jesus gives is a Spirit of peace. The Spirit enables the disciples to reconcile people to God, to make peace between them and God: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”
Jesus’ gift of the Spirit also echoes the words he had spoken to the disciples only a few days earlier, during his farewell discourse at the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). It is no accident that also at that moment Jesus’ proffer of peace is coupled with his promise of the Spirit. The two go together: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”
The two still go together. If we are open to God’s Spirit, then we will also be open to the peace that only God can bring.