John 20:19-23, Pentecost
One time, I visited with some sisters doing a conference in one of the retreat houses in the city. The retreat house was run by another group of very kind nuns and they welcomed all their clients to join them at their daily morning masses. Over supper, my sister-friends said, “Arnel, the priest they invited this morning said something that disturbed us. Over and over, he said that we have to earn God’s love, earn God’s love.’ Then he went through the Ten Commandments and said we must obey them if we want to earn God’s love.” “Matanda na po ba ‘yung pari?” I asked because it sounded to me like, for lack of a better phrase, “old theology”—to earn God’s love. “Naku, hindi, Arnel!” they said. “Bata pa!”
Because I teach theology, I need to crack the Bible open on almost a daily basis. Lately, I’ve been thinking, maybe I’m the one who’s misinterpreting the Old Testament and the Gospels. Because that wasn’t the first time I heard that a young priest said what he said about God—that we have to earn God’s love. Now I wonder, is what I call “old theology” back? Like long-playing records are back, like the muu-muu dress is back, like the word astig? Am I the one who’s teaching the wrong theology? Because for the life of me, when I read about Yahweh in the Old Testament and about his complete self-revelation in the Christ in the New Testament – I have yet to see God say and show that the people have had to earn his love first and only thereafter does God decide to save them or heal them, or forgive or feed or protect them. From what I’ve of God from Scripture, and appreciated and learned to love all these years—hindi niya hinihintay na kitain muna natin ang pag-ibig Niya. It’s more powerful in Tagalog, isn’t it? Kitain. Kitain ang pag-ibig ng Dios. Like it or not, that’s what “earn” comes down to, kitain. And for all I know, I might just be the one misreading the Father and the Son—especially when I hear more and more stories of young priests saying, kailangan muna nating kitain ang pag-ibig ng Dios.
Jesus’ life story on earth has two “bookends,” so to speak, a once-upon-a- time and a live-happily-ever-after. His once-upon-a-time is the Incarnation, when God’s Word was made flesh and “pitched his tent among us.” Were we to see a “movement” in the Incarnation, we could say it’s a descent, a coming-down, pagbaba. That’s why we hear it said that God “came down” from his Godhead to become like us in all things except sin—the Incarnation is a descent of the Divine to us, the human. And just when we think that the Resurrection and the Ascension are the end of the Lord’s story on earth, well, they were not quite the end of the story, after all. Because the completion Jesus’ story on earth, the happily-ever-after was not an ascent but another descent: Pentecost—when our Lord and our God came down upon the apostles, this time as Holy Spirit. So, see, Jesus’ once-upon-a-time & happily-ever-after are both a coming-down, a drawing-towards humanity, pagbaba, pagnaog. And just in case we’re missing it, everything in between these two bookends were many, many episodes of descent. Jesus spent his entire ministry always coming down to where peole were, especially where they were at their lowers, their worst, and their darkest. Meeting them there, Jesus took them. He raised them towards the better, the healthier, the brighter. Now, do we remember any of them ever having to first earn a healing, or to earn forgiveness, or earn the fish and the loaves, the exorcism, the raising from the dead—before Jesus came down towards them? Nope. It was after the Lord showed them God’s love first that he bade them to be humble and commanded them to sin no more.
If people had to earn God’s love first, then the apostles would have been the last people who ever deserved a Pentecost. Just when the Lord needed them most, they became a bunch of cowards. They holed themselves up and hid away. They did not “earn” the Spirit. Yet, in all the Easter stories, Jesus appeared to them anyway, greeted them with peace, recited no litany of reproaches, but instead, even commissioned them—and now, at Pentecost, Jesus gave himself back to them—they who did not deserve any of this, they who did not earn it.
Dear sisters and brothers, the Spirit’s descent on Pentecost reminds us how God is with us forever. “With us” means not just “beside” us or “among” us or “around” us, but most importantly within us. But this descent is not just a “movement,” dear sisters and brothers. More importantly, it is an act of giving. At Pentecost, God not only goes “somewhere” to give us some “thing.” No, God gives us Someone: himself—just as he had been doing all this time, from his once-upon-a-time to his happily-ever-after, and everything and everywhere in between. So, when you think about Pentecost and the Spirit’s descent, think about God saying, “I am with you;” but not just that, but also, “I am yours.” Spirit is not just presence. Spirit is gift. And my favorite theologian said, “God is ours to such an extent that…we can no longer say what a human being is if we omit the fact that God himself is the human being’s ‘possession.’ God is our God.” And that, he said, “is the glad tidings of Pentecost.” So, not only is God with us. God is ours!
Now, when God has made himself a part of us in the Holy Spirit, was there anything we did or said to have earned that?