A story is told of a man, who, when a very young boy, was taken to nursery school by his mother. Attentive to his anxiety about being abandoned, the boy’s mother leaned down, kissed her son, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.” Each day, his mother would bid him farewell with those same words. The boy was too young to recognize the paradox, and embraced his new existence and quickly adjusted to new and frightening surroundings. Day after day, and week after week, his mother bid the same farewell: “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”
The boy grew into adulthood, and was during this time confronted with the reality of having to place his mother in a nursing home. She -- now elderly and frail, with advanced Alzheimer’s disease -- barely recognized him, often forgot to eat, and simply could no longer care for herself. As he departed from her, leaving her in her new and frightening surroundings, he remembered her words. He leaned down, kissed his mother, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving” -- words his mother recognized even though she no longer recognized him. A tear appeared in her eye, as she clasped his hand and repeated, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”
This is Jesus’ message on his departure to the Father: “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving”.
Jesus is departing from us, out of our sight. We find ourselves in the new and frightening surroundings of this life, in a place where we are uncomfortable and often feel ill-equipped to carry on. And yet, Jesus continues to assure us of his continued presence through his gift of the Holy Spirit. This is why though he says Good bye, he is not leaving. This is shown in the Gospel text of today when he comes to the frightened disciples after his Resurrection on Easter evening, with a twofold greeting of peace. These disciples, who fled in fear at Jesus’ arrest, are now themselves forgiven and told to continue his mission from the Father. Though they abandoned Jesus, he will not abandon them; though they failed him, God’s love will not fail them. Then, reminiscent of God’s action at creation, Jesus breathes on them, and gifts them the gift of the Spirit and with it the gift of new life. They have become a new creation. Along with the gift of the Spirit is also a commission which is to forgive and retain sin.” Retaining sin” has sometimes been equated with a juridical act, but two indicators caution us that it should not be so. The first is that it is not just the eleven but the “disciples” who are gathered in the room. John uses the term “disciples’ for a much larger group than the twelve or eleven. This group could also have included women and so the commission has to do with something that is more than juridical. The second is that the Greek “kratein” can also mean “restrain or hold in check.” This thus means that through the gift of the Spirit, who is also the Spirit of truth, the disciples are given power to take away sin the sin of the world and unmask and control, hold in check, the power of evil as Jesus himself did. They are not to act as arbiters of right and wrong, but through their just and loving actions in imitation of the Lord, they are to communicate the unconditional love of the Father.
At Pentecost, as the Acts of the Apostles narrates, the Spirit of God and through the Spirit God’s unconditional love comes down upon the disciples, resting on each of them and thereby bringing them—and us—together once again. The disciples get a crash course as it were in the language of God. After Pentecost the days of Babel and confusion are over. The great differences among us, in communication and dialogue, culture and background, wealth and poverty, are scattered in “the rush of a violent wind.” They are burned away by tongues of fire. It does not matter now whether we are Parthians, Medes or Elamites of old, or Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis of today. Each one hears the same message in his/her native tongue simply because it is a language of forgiveness and love, and the language of love is one.
The unity which this love brings is summarized by Paul in the text of his first letter to the Corinthians. The Spirit, though one, is never bottled or canned. It is at work in each of us, always fresh and always new, waiting to be translated into the language of our own lives, into the language of love.
Our world, however, is still tongue-tied. Babel, the parable of our first clash of cultures and failure to communicate, is more than a mythic explanation of the differences among nations and languages. It is an apt description of the human condition itself. We often do not understand one another even when we speak the same language. We all remain stymied by our fundamental inability to accept the differences among us in how we live and what we believe. It is only to the extent that we make an effort to accept the other, no matter how different or foreign, that we come to understand the language of God. Only then is Babel turned to Pentecost.
As the Spirit used the discourse of the disciples on Pentecost to reshape and redirect the lives of those who listened to their words, so the Spirit on this Pentecost will reshape and mold us if we but listen. After all, God speaks to us in the one abiding word that ends fear and brings lasting peace and love—the Word- Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.