Homily for the Feast of Pentecost

May 21, 2009

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 2:1-11; ! Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 15:26-27; 16:12-15)

“We have all been given to drink of the same Spirit.”

I wonder if we can really appreciate the dramatic turn in world history that took place on the day we celebrate with Christians all around the world today.

Just think of what it looked like just a day earlier.

Before that day there were a little over a hundred followers of Jesus. Just about the same number as are present in this church today, as a matter of fact. They were followers of an obscure visionary from a backwater country, huddled together around Mary. They weren’t highly educated but rather small-town tradespeople, mostly from Galilee. And they were totally in the dark as to what the next step of the movement might look like.

They were drawn together by the exciting realization that Jesus had been raised from death and appeared to them. But he had given them an astounding commission: “be my witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria – and to the ends of the earth!” The ends of the earth? Most of them had probably never traveled more than 50 miles.

And then he left them. Gone.

Oh, he had left them a promise. That sometime soon they would receive power when the Holy Spirit would come over them. But they didn’t have the foggiest idea of what that might mean.

Then all of a sudden everything is changed.

They had been frightened and confused. Even the experience of seeing Jesus alive had not dispelled that, and what was it going to be like now that he was gone? Suddenly they are able to speak. And speak boldly. Remember, that word ‘boldly’ is one of the characteristic features of this whole story in Acts, as they go out and confront situation after situation that was threatening.

And perhaps even more importantly for the turning-point of history: they were understood! By this crowd of Jews from so many different lands who had rushed to see what the noise and rushing wind were all about. And even more significantly each one heard them in his or her own tongue. The languages and cultural differences among that crowd of people weren’t cancelled out, they remained – but something new was created which respected all those differences.

The words of Peter and the others touched something deep in the hearts of their hearers. They spoke to desires that had lain unrecognized, and the hearers’ response was “tell us what we need to do!” The word was effective, just as Isaiah had foretold long ago, that the word of the Lord was like rain from the heavens which would not return to whence it came until it had borne the fruit for which it was sent. We are here in this church today only because of their bold proclamation of what they had experienced; as John put it,


“what was from the beginning,

what we have heard,

what we have seen with our eyes,

and touched with our hands.”

So that large collection of such disparate people became a we. They were gathered – which is the root meaning of the word for ‘church.’ They became church.

And then Pentecost led to the question the church has wrestled with for over 2000 years: just what is it that constitutes our oneness? What makes us one? And what divides us?

The whole New Testament story of the Jesus movement in Acts and the letter of Paul

is one of tensions and conflicts about our identity.

Just try to put yourself in the sandals of one of those followers. Even after the excitement of Pentecost you’re still a devout, God-fearing Jew. You pray in the synagogue and go to the Temple; you follow the Law; there are things you can touch or eat and things that are unclean and to be avoided at all cost. And then the word starts to circulate that Peter, the leader, has been eating with Gentiles? What’s that all about? I thought that was forbidden. There’s talk about some troubles with the distribution of food to the widows. Greeks complaining about the Jewish widows getting an unfair portion. And then someone else brings back a report that there are some new people that have been accepted into the community that aren’t even Jews! Maybe you could stretch that far – but it’s getting way out of hand when you find that they didn’t have to be circumcised. Hey, are we still Israelites or not? These changes aren’t what I expected when I joined. Who’s admitted to the Lord’s table? Can just anybody be a member?

It took about 40 years for the consciousness to sink in that this was not just one more sect within Judaism but a new religion. But just imagine the personal struggle each believer went through when there was no easy answer to those questions. Or when others in their family – perhaps a beloved spouse – saw it differently.

We have all been given to drink of the same Spirit. Oh, indeed! But where does that Spirit speak? And who interprets what the Spirit is saying? Who gets to decide?

Remember, even with all the positive energies evident on Pentecost, not everybody had the same experience of these disciples. “They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others said, scoffing, ‘They have had too much wine.’”

Where does the Spirit speak?

For some Catholics the answer is very simple. “Whatever the Pope says is enough for me. Or the bishop. The pastor? Well, I’m not quite ready to go that far. . . .”. They don’t want to wrestle with complexity so they risk quenching the Spirit within them. And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there are the self-proclaimed prophets. “I listen to the Spirit and don’t need to listen to anyone else. I’ve got God on my side.”

Both of them have a hold on part of the truth. The Spirit is indeed given to the gathered community of the church, and each of us has been given to drink of the same Spirit – but the gifts of the Spirit to the individual, whether leader or member, are for the common good of the community. Which means we all have to listen to one another intently.

And misguided message have been promulgated from both leaders and individuals..

Church leaders have taught errors. Think of the case of Galileo, at the beginning of modern science. Church leaders misunderstood the nature of biblical inerrancy. They thought this book was a book of scientific information and so the sun revolved around the earth, when scripture really contained all that is needed for our spiritual life with God. It took hundreds of years until Pope John Paul II, who was certainly no liberal, had to acknowledge the church was wrong. And there are still fundamentalist leaders who want people to believe God made the earth in seven calendar days, just as Genesis tells the story. Or consider the reality that during the lifetime of parents or grandparents of some in our congregation, religious leaders were justifying the institution of slavery on the basis of Paul’s instruction to slaves that they should obey their masters. They equated some of the cultural norms in scripture with its religious message.

And of course over the years there have been plenty of individual ‘prophets’ who claimed to have the Spirit and misled many, many believers. To name just one, think of the famous radio preacher, Fr. Charles Coughlin, promoting fascism and bitter antisemitism. Thousands of American Catholics hung on his voice every Sunday as they sat around their radios.

So are we left without any guidance when either church leaders or charismatic individuals tell us the Spirit is with them? Are there criteria that can help us to discern the presence of the Spirit – or its absence?

Let me suggest two foundational helps.

The first thing we must never forget is that ‘the spirit’ is not just some general, vague, garden-variety angel of some sort. The Holy Spirit is the One sent by Jesus of Nazareth. If we lose the anchor which is Jesus, we will go astray. The Holy Spirit has no meaning apart from the mission of Jesus. Jesus said, “the Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak what he hears; he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Nothing can replace our basic mission, which is always to deepen our search for who Jesus was and how he went about his mission.

As an example: One day some of his disciples heard about someone who was not of his following but was baptizing further down the river. They were incensed and said, “Lord, aren’t you going to call down fire from heaven on them and stop them?” And he said, “easy, guys. Relax. Leave them alone. Whoever is not against us is with us.” And he told a parable in which the farm hands noticed that there were weeds growing up among their master’s wheat. They asked him if they should pull the weeds up.He said no. Try to pull up the weeds and you’ll wind up destroying some of the good wheat. Just let it be and at harvest time it’ll all work itself out. And he gave us a very practical criterion: “by their fruits you shall know them.” See what they produce and you’ll be able to judge whether it’s the work of the Lord or not.

And Paul makes that more specific. (I am reminded at this point of the way we were instructed in the catechetics of our youth. It was all question-and-answer and being able to recite the right stuff from memory even if you didn’t know what it was all about. We were taught to memorize the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost – and the twelve fruits. Nobody ever told us the difference between the two lists – but you sure as heck were in trouble if you confused them!)

Actually when he names the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians (5:22) Paul is giving us the real criteria for sorting things out. When the Spirit of Jesus is at work these are the signs you will recognize: There is love in evidence, there is joy, there is peace and patience and kindness; there is generosity and fidelity and gentleness and self-control. And he ends by giving a few tips for noticing when the Spirit is not present: “Let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another.”

The example of Jesus, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, don’t add up to easy, automatic clarity. They’re not like an ATM where you punch some keys and out comes the right answer. They don’t take away our freedom as adults before the Lord, they don’t absolve us of our responsibility to use our minds and our hearts. Our God respects us too much for that. God won’t diminish our dignity as creatures gifted with the potential for wisdom and understanding by giving us the answers in the back of the book.

Ultimately after all our best effort at listening and praying we are called to be true to what our heart is telling us. We have to respond in humility to our best ‘reading’ of .the signs of the Spirit’s presence and urging.

Let me finish with a true story.

During the Vatican Council there came a moment when there were signs that the whole decree on Religious Liberty might be voted down. A central development in the church’s proclamation to the modern world was at stake. Fr. John Courtney Murray, one of our most distinguished experts, had shepherded the work and he felt he had to do something to avert the disaster. So he asked for an appointment with Pope Paul VI . Murray laid out his concern and the pope listened intently. You might have expected the pope to offer some change of wording, some phrase that might satisfy those who were resisting, something to resolve the conflict. Instead, he said in a gentle tone in Italian, “Be at peace, Father. Jesus is still in the boat. He’s sleeping in the back.”.[ “Stia tranquillo, padre! Gésu sta nella barca. Dormiendo” . . .]

And finally, there is the wise advice of that most genial of popes, John XXIII, that we might all take as our guidance: "See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little."

At that first Pentecost the Spirit came with a wild wind and tongues of fire. But we must not forget the experience of the prophet who asked to see God. The Lord placed him in the cleft of the rock. And there was lightning – but the Lord wasn’t in the lightning. And there was lightning – but the Lord wasn’t in the lightning. Finally there was the faintest whisper of a breeze. And the prophet knew the passing of the Lord.

Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit breathes where it wills. As we celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit this day let’s ask that our church leaders, and each of us individually, may receive that kind of sensitivity. To be able to recognize the presence of the Spirit in our own hearts, in the cries of our brothers and sisters, and in those called to lead us. In the thunder and fire, but also in the gentle breeze.