Homily for Pentecost Sunday

May 30, 2004

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

"All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit -- whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female."

For the last seven weeks since Easter, the church has been walking us through the story of the early followers of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles. It is our story, for they have shaped who we are.

It began with the first sending of the Holy Spirit on the evening of Easter Sunday, and today we are taken back to the dramatic event of Pentecost, a much different outpouring of the Spirit.

We need to try and put ourselves in the shoes of the first listeners to this account from Luke. Remember, they are listeners, not readers. This was an oral tradition so they would have heard someone telling the story orally. How would they have heard the account? What would their ears pick up more sharply than we might today?

They are all Jews, you know. Steeped in the sacred writings of their people.

I would suggest that two things would have jumped out at them.

First, they would have recognized the very first phrase -- "when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled" -- as an important phrase in Luke's vocabulary. He used that expression on two other occasions and each time he was signaling that a very important turning point was occurring. The first time was when the time was fulfilled for the very birth of Jesus. And the second time was when his mission in Galilee was coming to an end and he turned his attention to -- indeed, he "set his face" -- toward going up to Jerusalem where he would confront the Jewish leaders and complete his earthy mission by going to his death.

The second thing they would have heard immediately and we might miss was Luke's clear reference to the story of the tower of Babel. We can't really understand the meaning of the Pentecost story if we don't grasp its connection to that experience in Genesis.

Luke says that when the people heard the apostles speaking in their own different tongues they were "confused." The word he uses is central to that story. Listen:

The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words. . . . They said to one another, "Come. Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth." Then the Lord said, "If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand what another says." Thus the Lord scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world; it was from that place that he scattered them all over the earth." (Genesis 11:1-9)

So at Babel and at Pentecost both there is confusion, but now there is a complete reverse: then there was confusion because they couldn't understand one another, and now there is 'confusion' -- amazement, really -- because all can understand in spite of their different tongues and nationalities. In naming the various places Luke makes a broad sweep from one end of the know world to the other, as we might say of our country 'from coast to coast.' He's really speaking of the whole world. It is possible for us to understand each other and build a city again.

The gift of the Spirit is all about bringing together, about gathering what was divided and fragmented and fractured. The very word 'church' really means 'a gathering."

In the third Eucharistic prayer --- which we hear so often that we might just pass through it without realizing what we are praying for --- we pray that "we may be filled with his Spirit and become one body, one spirit in Christ."

There is an irony in all this, because this exciting ideal scene is followed by the stories of these past weeks, telling us how difficult it was to live with that universalizing Spirit. The Jesus movement wrestled as it tried to grasp what it was called to be. How did these different people fit in? We heard how the Judaizers were sure that these new Gentiles should be bound by the same constraints of the Law that they were bound by: they have to be circumcised and keep all the purity demands in the Law!" What will we do about slaves? And women?

This story is not some ancient history that needn't concern us. It's been the church's story down to our day: how to deal with difference?

Just think: In the 19th century church leaders, bishops and priests, used a distorted understanding of Scripture to support the abomination of slavery.

And in our own day we saw an amazing act. Pope John Paul II called a gathering of the world's religious leaders at Assisi -- and unheard-of thing, for a Catholic pope to pray with non-Christians. And what did he pray? After his representative on the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews had said,

"Let us pray that, in recalling the sufferings endured by the people of Israel throughout history, Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number against the people of the covenant and the blessings, and in this way purify their hearts", John Paul prayed:

"God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused those children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant."

He was acknowledging how a distorted theology had brought Catholics to buy into the ideology of Nazism and contribute to the horrors of the Holocaust.

It's not too far-fetched to imagine some future pope kneeling at some other shrine asking forgiveness for our church's sins in denigrating and excluding women. Or at an even later date, yet another pope asking pardon for the sins of the church in demonizing men and women who happen to be gays or lesbians.

Pentecost is not a one-time, simplistic achievement of unity. It has to happen again and again, in the church. And in each of our hearts.

God's word comes to us where we are. The same dynamics, the same story, continues in our lives.

And where are we? Now, today? We live in a time where the forces of Babel appear to get stronger every day.

Just look at our nation's capital. Observers tell us that the climate has never been so acrimonious among our country's leaders. Politics is always rough but it appears that no one knows how to deliberate seriously with any semblance of civility.

And in our church? Cardinal Bernardin cried out against the sloganizers, the single-issue zealots who are so right that they attack anyone who might disagree with them. He asked us to seek 'common ground..'

And right here in our city: do you read the kinds of letters that appear in The Catholic Telegraph? Just listen to the poison of those who attacked Archbishop Pilarczyk simply because he suggested that Mel Gibson may not be God, that it was only a film and not the Word of God. You would have thought he denied the Trinity!

If we are to take seriously our responsibility to continue the work of the Spirit, we must pray for the ability to listen to one another. To search out the potential truth in the other person's point of view.

I think one of the most practical thing we could do it to turn off talk radio, and click off those TV panels that pretend to be 'conversations' but are simply shouting matches. And it doesn't matter whether the speakers are from the left or the right. Do we really need the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern or Don Imus or the McLaughlin group to teach us how to insult and be uncivil toward one another? Is that what we want to hand on to our children?

Jesus told us a parable that I think was directed at our situation.

He told of a farmer who had sowed a crop of wheat. And when it came time to harvest it the laborers discovered that there were weeds growing up alongside of the wheat. In their dismay they wanted to clean it all up. Lord, let us just rip out those awful weed! And the master said, "No, no. Cool your enthusiasm. If you try to pull out the weeds you might just destroy the harvest of good wheat. Just let it be and it will all be sorted out at the end."

Let us pray that we may learn that each of us is a combination of wheat and weeds. Every last one of us. If we are to be filled with the Spirit we need to be humble enough to know that the Spirit speaks in all the tongues, no matter how that may disturb us. Wind and fire aren't the most comfortable of elements.