31 May 2009
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit …” (Acts 2:4) In the name …
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday, the origin of the Christian church, but it also reveals the church as we are to be always. On the first Pentecost, Luke tells us that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” From that very first moment of the Christian era, from that very first act by God upon all who were the church, and then the response of the church in turn, it has always been as community. To try and separate community from Pentecost and to imagine the fullness of faith as a solitary venture is to intentionally ignore the entire story of the New Testament. We come together in response to the Holy Spirit. We are drawn together by our faith. This gathering is a sign of both the Spirit and our faith. And likewise, to separate that community from the enthusiasm, excitement and fire of Pentecost, to speak instead of church primarily in terms of office, rules and membership-obligations, is to diminish the significance and potential of the Spirit-inspired church.
Look at the first story of Pentecost in the Bible and use that as the template for what church should always be. Ideas of a Spirit-motivated community, of outreach and enthusiasm are not only first and foremost in that story, they are the story. If they are not prominent in our story, then we have drifted away from what church can be, and we must work to restore those original priorities. The Bible says, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit,” so this effort then becomes the responsibility of all of us who are church because all of us are vehicles for the word and work of God. We should never minimize the importance of who we are right now as members of the church or trivialize the teaching that God works through each of us right now as part of this sacred community of church. If we set our expectations low for church, then we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what happens. If we forget or doubt the Pentecost power of church, that’s when the Spirit is kept an arm’s length away, and that’s when the church declines. It becomes a shell without a soul. It becomes only an obligation. This is why Pentecost is never only about what once happened. It’s also about what happens still. Pentecost is as much what the Spirit accomplishes today through the church as it is about that first day in Jerusalem. This is how the church constantly renews herself.
Pentecost has always defined church more in terms of the Spirit than as institution. On the first Pentecost the Holy Spirit began to work through believers immediately; the institution of the church came eventually. The church as institution is needed to carry Christ’s presence through the centuries in a continuous expression of faith, and it therefore serves a holy and necessary purpose. Without the institution of church, how would we be here today? But as essential as the institution of church is, it can never become so self-interested that its reputation and status become more important than its spiritual identity. We’ve seen how extremely dangerous and destructive this attitude can be to church.
It is the life and energy of the ever-present Holy Spirit in the church that gives this community a mystical reality that goes far beyond what we can see or what we can plan. It is that direct contact with God that makes the church, this community, sacred right now. The course of the church is in the hands of God. The institution of the Christian church can vary from denomination to denomination, but because Pentecost places inspiration before institution all Christian churches share the presence and power of God in the world. This is why there is only one Christian church because church is defined by the Spirit not by the institution. Denominational differences exist and are probably necessary because people are different, but since the Spirit is the same we are all, differences included, part of the one Christian church that was born on Pentecost in the Jerusalem of 2000 years ago.
The multitudes of people in Jerusalem that first Pentecost Sunday, we should remember, weren’t there waiting for the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is also a Jewish feast day, a day on which the Jewish people celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. They were there in the city of the Temple for this reason. Those commandments became the basis, the foundation, of their faith. In similarity and contrast with this Jewish feast, is our Pentecost Sunday. We would also celebrate the founding of our religion on this day. The Christian church, though, would be born with the sharing of the Holy Spirit. The living presence of the Spirit of God among His believers replaced the unchanging Law written on tablets of stone that served as the foundation of the Jewish faith. That’s one of the intentional contrasts of Pentecost Sunday. In today’s Gospel, John speaks about the Holy Spirit being shared on Easter, day one. Luke postpones this story for a full 50 days so that the church is founded on the same day as the Jewish people celebrate the founding of their faith. The similarity and contrast is definitely intentional, not coincidental. Now for Christians the ever-present, ever-adapting indwelling of God’s Spirit becomes the basis of our religion. As times change, as needs are altered, as insight develops, the Spirit will modify the church accordingly, and this will be reflected in the final prayers of this morning’s Mass. We don’t have to look to the past for inspiration because the Spirit guides us in the present.
Fr. Randy Calvo
In the Bible the sharing of the Spirit is symbolized by fire and proclamation. Fire means that the church is alive, active and ever-changing. Proclamation means that the first act of the Christian church was to reach out and share this gift of ours with others. To be sanctified by the Holy Spirit, to be made holy by the presence of God, to be one of the saints according to the terminology of the earliest church, was not to set ourselves apart from everyone else, but to reach out to everyone else. Pentecost is about conversion, about letting God set the agenda for us, about allowing the Spirit the opportunity to work through us, about listening to God. From day one of the church right through this very day, as church we are completely dependent upon the Spirit. Let us pray that as all were filled with the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost Sunday so may our church be so inspired today as we continue to do the work of God through the presence and the power of the Spirit of God. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)