24 May 2015
“‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” (John 20:21) In the name …
I don’t think Pentecost was so much an event as it is an awakening, and this helps to explain the Pentecost contradictions in the Bible. Was Jesus there when the Spirit was shared like I just read in the Gospel or not like Sharon read in today’s Lesson? Was the Spirit shared in Jerusalem or far away in Galilee? Did it happen on Easter night or 50 days later? These obvious contradictions are part of the reason why I don’t think of Pentecost as a singular event. And because of this, Luke then has the freedom in his Acts of the Apostles to situate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Jewish feast of Pentecost for theological rather than historical reasons. A Jewish tradition was emerging at the time of Jesus that associated Pentecost with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. As a matter of fact, some Jewish friends of mine went to synagogue last evening and then stayed up through the entire night to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses. This tradition is based on the biblical record of about 50 days from the time Israel left Egypt to the time they arrived at Mount Sinai. Pentecost was becoming the Jewish celebration of her foundational moment. This is why we hear today that Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem. They were there to celebrate the birth of their religion.
Luke is very concerned in his writings with showing that Christianity is the continuation of God’s covenant with Israel. Christianity is not a new religion; it is the continuation of the older one. God spoke once through Moses at Mount Sinai, says the Jewish Pentecost, and now God speaks again through His Holy Spirit on the Christian Pentecost. The Pentecost that once celebrated the foundation of the Jewish faith now celebrates the founding of the Christian faith. I think this symbolism of Pentecost is much more meaningful than the actual date of the Spirit’s descent. I believe that the sharing of God’s Spirit is what then and still now inspires, guides, protects and even surprises the church. This is why Paul writes that we are made ministers of a new covenant not of letter, but of the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:6)
I also think it’s important to realize that the Spirit defines the church and not the other way around. The Pentecost story begins with an undefined “they.” We tend to define that word as the twelve apostles, but maybe we should look more closely. “They were all in one place together” when the Spirit descended, says the Bible. But just before this Pentecost story, Luke tells us that there was a group of about 120 believers all gathered together “in the one place.” (Acts 1:15) That phrasing sounds intentionally similar, and if it is, then the “they” of Pentecost may refer to that large number of Jesus’ first followers. That would make more sense out of Peter’s Pentecost speech, part of which we read already in the opening prayers of today’s Mass. Peter tries to explain Pentecost as God’s promise fulfilled. God’s Spirit will be shared with all His people as the prophet Joel once promised: “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” The church here breaks off, but Peter continues by saying, “‘Upon my servants and my handmaids I will pour out a portion of my spirit in those days and they shall prophesy.’” (Acts 2:18) We’re talking about young and old, men and women, the Spirit is shared with everyone. This reference makes a whole lot more sense in a group of 120 people rather than a group of just 12 men.
But the Spirit still is not confined. Pentecost makes an allusion to the Tower of Babel story from Genesis. According to the story, God created confusion among the people of the earth by the creation of different languages. Where once everyone understood what everyone else was saying, now there was only a babel of noise. When Pentecost speaks about everyone again being able to hear the gospel proclamation in their own language, this is a gift of the Spirit’s presence. This means that the Spirit is not only found in the Christians who are preaching. The Spirit is also a part of the non-believers who are listening. The sharing of the Spirit can precede faith and can lead to faith. The Spirit doesn’t belong to the church, in other words. The church belongs to the Spirit. And that’s an important distinction. We don’t own God; we follow God. And that’s why the church has to always remain open to where the Spirit is leading because the Spirit is more than church.
I want to share with you some statistics from a recent survey of 35,000 American adults. In the last seven years the number of Americans who don’t belong to any religious organization has increased from 16 to 23%. What is additionally disturbing is that the median age of Catholics in this study is 49, Main Line Protestants is 52, but among the unaffiliated it is only 36. An additional question was asked of these unaffiliated, and 44% of them said that religion is either “very” or “somewhat” important to them. As Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic ( http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/american-religion-complicated-not-dead/392891/): “That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms.” Think about this and the vote a couple of days ago in Ireland to allow gay marriage. Ireland has one of the highest rates of church attendance in Europe, yet the citizens voted according to their consciences rather than their bishops. All of this may also be evidence of a church that is not listening as closely as she should to where the Spirit is moving. We had a bit of this conversation during last Sunday’s Confirmation catechism class. I told them that Sunday morning is the highlight of my week, and that it always has been. I enjoy church. Judging by their faces, this was almost incomprehensible to the teenagers, and these are church teenagers, never mind most of their friends who don’t attend. Pentecost is the message that church needs to be open to change and even surprise. Our Pentecost tradition is not how we do things, but that we let the Spirit drive us out of the comfort of our locked room and into the confusion of the people of the world. The church can’t talk old slogans and practice outdated rules and then not be surprised that people are finding God on their own terms. As I said last Sunday, let us be surprised by the Spirit so that Jesus may send us out into the world to speak His word but also to listen to His people. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo