Pentecost Sunday–May 29, 1977–CNR
The whole movement of the liturgical year reaches its climax in the feast of Pentecost that we are celebrating today. Christmas we celebrate not as an end in itself, but as the beginning of God’s self-revelation and self-gift. The dimensions of that revelation are unfolded in the days of the year as we hear of the words and deeds of Jesus in which God again and again speaks to us and touches our hearts and bodies and communities and lifts them up healed. The word and deed of God combine in the death and resurrection of Christ, when a man’s self-gift in death is God’s own demonstration of his love and when God’s gift of life overpowers for us all that last great enemy, death itself. And all of this great good story is completed when the Spirit who had driven Jesus to his ministry and raised up his crucified body becomes the gift we–Christ’s brothers and sisters–now share with him. It is the moment for which Jesus lived and died and was raised, and it is the moment in which we ourselves are given a foretaste of the life for which God called us into being and blessed us with his own Son.
It is not easy to speak about this Holy Spirit of our God.It is almost as if he is always disappearing behind the persons and events through which he works. He does not seem accessible for himself. We wonder how this Jesus of Nazareth could be and say and do what he has, and, not understanding, we speak of “the Spirit” that led and drove him. We experience a healing or en-couraging of our souls, and, not finding any other person or event to explain this comfort or courage, we assent to the Scriptures’ descriptions of a Spirit of light and truth and love. We find ourselves at home in the Church, alongside brothers and sisters, whose griefs and joys are our own, their faith and hope as well, and we are thankful that from such a diversity of members the Spirit has fashioned the Body of Christ in this world.
Perhaps that is not all so strange. For the work of the Spirit is, in St. Paul’s language, to conform us to Christ–to enable us to stand before his Father and know him to be our Father who loves us as he loves his own Son–and, through that work, to equip us for the work of Christ’s ministry. It is all summed up in the scene St. John records: Christ greets his disciples with peace, the peace which is the Holy Spirit. But that peace which restores us to communion with God is immediately also the great gift we must make to others: “Receive the Holy Spirit: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And that gift which empowers the apostles on their mission is not confined to them, but comes upon us also as the Spirit of truth whose instruments we too are to be.
From the one God, then, flow the diversity of the ministries that are given to each one for the common good, as St. Paul put it. Those gifts are as many and as varied as are the talents we all possess and as are the needs we encounter within the Church and among other men. The great work of gathering people to himself God has not ended with Christ’s resurrection and ascension. He continues it now, only with us as its instruments and bearers, speaking the word of truth and communicating the grace and peace of the Gospel. What we have received from others it is ours to give to others, in the hope of and towards the goal that out of a sinful and divided humanity God might finally establish that one people for whose life and joy the word of light first sounded in the primitive darkness and the word of life raised Jesus from the futility of death. Let us give thanks for this Spirit, receive the peace he offers, and be ready to speak and give it to others, even on this day.
PENTECOST SUNDAY – MAY 26, 1996 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
With this feast we bring to an end the celebration of Eastertide: the fifty days, unfortunately less sharply outlined for most people than the forty days of Lent, during which the blessings that burst upon the world with the resurrection of Christ are unfolded and made to shine forth. These are all summed up for us today as the breath, the power, the unity of the Holy Spirit.
Liturgically speaking, this feast is a consummation, an end. We begin tomorrow what is rather prosaically called “Ordinary Time.” But the point of our readings today surely is that this time is not supposed to be “ordinary,” as if the glorious concentration upon Christ and his blessings may now fade from view and we may return to life-as-usual, life lived as if death and resurrection did not define its mystery. The readings make it clear that the wonderfully new thing that God did in Christ he continues to do in ordinary lives which that event should make extraordinary.
The great new thing was and is in fact the appearance of the Church. John Knox, the American Protestant theologian, once wrote that the only difference between the world as it was before Jesus of Nazareth lived and the world as it was after his life was that now there was the Christian Church. This is obviously, even banally, true on the simple level of history; but it has also a religious and existential meaning too. It is the Church that has realized and continues to realize whatever significance Jesus of Nazareth has, whatever difference he makes. It is the Church that remembered and remembers Jesus of Nazareth, that confessed and confesses him as Lord, that celebrated and celebrates the new life he made and makes possible. Without the Church he is only a relatively minor figure of world history.
When I speak of “the Church” here, we should not think of something apart from ourselves, for example, of the great worldwide organization. We should think of ourselves, of this assembly of a couple of hundred people here in this building at this moment–of you and me. If we were the only people in the world who remembered Jesus of Nazareth, confessed him as Lord, celebrated his Spirit’s gifts, he would still make an historical difference, the essential mystery would still be realized. There is no great worldwide phenomenon called the Church unless this memory, this confession, this celebration are being realized and accomplished in the thousands of similar assemblies that on this day are meeting all over the world. We–we here and all those other assemblies–are the living realizations of the significance of Christ; we determine whether he is remembered, whether he continues to make a difference, whether his existence, his life and teachings and works and death and resurrection, continue to mean anything. We are the living continuation of the Pentecost-event when the apostolic word about Christ gathered people from all over the world into something new, a community in which the differences between Parthians, Mesopotamians, Phrygians, Egyptians, Romans, are all overcome because of the one word preached and believed, because of the one Spirit that makes us one across our differences, one in faith, hope, and love.
Now that is a mystery that is far from “ordinary,” as we might see by simply looking around at our world today, where difference and opposition and conflict and even bloody war seem to be far more visible and powerful than the reconciling force of the Spirit. This “ordinary” assembly here today and everywhere else that Pentecost is celebrated ought to be an extraordinary event in which the ordinariness of human division is overcome in the centering faith and reconciling love that Christ and his Spirit make possible. And out of this and the other experiences of this mystery there is supposed to be present and effective in the world something new and different, a new thing that makes a difference. If it does not happen here, in us, if it does not happen in those other assemblies, then human history ceases to be different because of Christ and time becomes once again “ordinary” indeed.
PENTECOST SUNDAY – JUNE 3, 2001 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
This feast, Pentecost, ought to have the same high place in Christian consciousness as is enjoyed by Christmas and Easter. Those feasts focus, of course, on the gift of God in the Incarnation of his Son and on the gift of the Son in his death and glorious resurrection. This feast, Pentecost, celebrates the gift of the Spirit by which the Church lives, by which this congregation lives, by which each of us lives.
John Knox, a biblical scholar of the last generation, described the Church as it first emerged as the community that remembered Jesus of Nazareth, that confessed him to be Messiah and Lord, and enjoyed a new common life in the Spirit of that same Christ. It was this new common life, in fact, that was the first and last proof of what God had been doing in Christ: the evidence of Christ’s Lordship was their life in the Holy Spirit.
Dimensions of that life are set out in the scriptural readings of the day. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the descent of tongues of fire that enables the apostles to speak in various tongues and for them to be understand by those present from all over the world in their own languages. The scene anticipates the story of the whole book: as the Word of God goes out and begins to gather people from every nation into the Church. It is a wonderful symbol of the catholicity of the Church, a reversal of Babel, that Old Testament symbol of the dissolving of the primitive unity of mankind into the various nations, incomprehensible to one another. Pentecost overcomes Babel not because now all nations speak one language but because the one message about “the mighty acts of God” can be spoken and heard in all the languages. Unity under Christ and in the Holy Spirit is achieved in diversity, diversity is redeemed in the integration of all in the one faith, the one hope, and the one love. There are few things more central to Catholic Christian consciousness, few things that the Church needs more to represent, to embody today.
That is one of the great differences in the world the Church has made in the past and should make today. The world should be different because there are Christians in it. Paul’s powerful contrast between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit describes that difference in terms that relate to each of us. “Flesh” here does not mean the body; it means a selfishly ordered or directed life; and “Spirit” does not refer to some distant esoteric realm; it means living now, in our bodies, in our daily lives, in the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through the Spirit that dwells in you.” Paul is not speaking about the afterlife here. He is speaking of a death and resurrection of these mortal selves that we are here and now: of the necessity of dying to a certain way of life, of the possibility of rising into a new way of life. It is what happened at baptism; it is what is supposed to happen each time we are set before a choice between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit.
And most wonderfully, this new life is not a life lived in the fear that slaves know but in the confidence that children know, children who are able to address God with the intimate term “Abba, Father.” Paul takes that babbling term–Dadda; Mamma; Pappa; Babba; Abba–as itself the Spirit’s witness that we are children of God, brothers and sisters with Christ; heirs with Christ, by our participation in his death and resurrection. “Abba” was the word Jesus used in his most intimate prayers to his Father. That we may use the same affectionate term means that we are privileged to stand where he is and to know that his Father is our Father. No small privilege, if only we think about it for a moment and take it to heart.
We may say of this feastday what Newman once said about Easter: “This day has made us greater than we know.”
Pentecost Sunday – May 27, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
This great feast is an end and a beginning. Pentecost brings the Easter season to its climax as we celebrate the risen Christ’s gift of the life and power of the Holy Spirit. At the same time it inaugurates the history of the Church, of the community of disciples whom the same Spirit has enlivened and empowered, generation after generation, until it has enlivened and empowered us who gather here. We are celebrating our origins.
The first great difference that Jesus Christ made in human history was the community of the disciples on whom the Spirit came as fire and of those who came to believe when they began to preach about God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ. Our readings celebrate, first, the catholicity of that community: already, in the many different regions and peoples represented there, is anticipated the worldwide spread of the faith that the rest of the Book of Acts will describe being realized. The wonder of Pentecost was that the unity that was achieved did not obliterate their differences: all of them heard the Apostles’ message, yes, but they all heard it in their own languages. Their diversity was integrated under the word about Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
A modern theologian, Louis Bouyer, used a vivid metaphor to describe how all other Churches derive from that first Church of Jerusalem. He speaks of them as having come by way of cutting and planting. A friend of mine has an African violet that she received from her father shortly before he was killed in a car accident over thirty years ago. In one sense it is not, of course, the same plant; but in another it is, because over the years she has several times carefully cut a leaf and nourished it until it grew roots and could itself flourish. And the plant she now cherishes is the result of many such plantings and cuttings; but it is still her father’s gift.
That is how the Church has reproduced itself over the centuries. This is most visible, I suppose, in missionary work, when a Church sends some of its members to tell other peoples about Jesus Christ and, eventually, a new Church is planted and begins to flourish. But it is also true of how the Church continues to live where it has lived for decades, centuries, or even millennia. We are like that African violet: different in a sense because born in a different time and place, but in another sense the same, genetically identical, as it were, because united in the same faith, hope, and love as the first generation of Christians. We who gather here this morning are the children of the generation of Christians who lived before us–of our parents and grandparents in the faith. And they, of course, were the children of earlier generations, who were themselves children of earlier generations, and this all the way back to that community in Jerusalem on whom the Spirit first came in light, power and life.
Our identity with that mother Church can be vividly felt as we hear the second reading today, from the glorious eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This letter was written some 1,950 years ago, and yet as we listen to it we know it was written for us, as when we hear: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit who dwells in you.” “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”
The Spirit who came upon the first disciples has come upon us. The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead raises us from the death of sin and fear. The Spirit of the Christ who taught his disciples to call God “Abba, Father” has made us God’s daughters and sons, able ourselves to address him as our very dear Father. To the extent that all of this is true of us, of each of us, and of all of us, then here today, in this congregation, the wonder of Pentecost continues.
Pentecost Sunday – May 11, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
This wonderful feast brings our fifty-day celebration of Easter to its completion and its climax. The Church which had come to be in and because of its faith in Christ’s resurrection receives now the power from on high that Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit. Our three NT readings spell out dimensions of that gift to the new People of God.
The description of the first Pentecost is a miniature of the story that the whole of the Acts of the Apostles tells. Tongues of fire descend upon the apostles and enable them to speak in such a way as to be understood in the various languages represented in Jerusalem on that Jewish feast day. Already the Church is catholic: speaking all the earth’s languages. The linguistic chaos that followed the building of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis is overcome, not, however, through the restoration of a single language but rather through the unity of message: “we hear them speaking in our own languages of the mighty acts of God.” It was the single message of the death and resurrection of Christ that now would make one people out of many peoples. This announces from the beginning that the Church’s unity will not be purchased at the price of her diversity, that the Church’s catholic character will be redemptive integration of the diversity of languages, cultures, peoples, nations that make up our human race.
The passage we have heard from St. John’s Gospel describes the same Spirit coming now as the peace which the risen Christ bestows on his disciples. As God breathed life into Adam at his creation, so the new Adam breathes his Spirit into the disciples and makes them the bearers of the great gift of reconciliation that Christ came to effect through the forgiveness of sins. The Church was to be the great sign and instrument of the reconciliation of all of humanity to God and the reconciliation of individuals with individuals, of groups with groups. It is no small thing for there to exist in our shattered world a community of men and women, a Church, who believe that such reconciliation is possible.
Finally, St. Paul describes how in another way the Spirit is a principle of both unity and diversity within the Church. There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, he says, but the same Spirit; different kinds of service, but one Lord; different works, but the one God. We do not all have the same gifts, the same tasks, and yet each of us has been given some manifestation of the Spirit for the good of the whole. We are like a human body, with different members and organs, whose health is the full flourishing of each of them within the one organism. We cannot do without others. Our gift cannot flourish unless those of others are allowed to flourish, and we cannot sustain our individual gifts except within a living whole.
These are three vivid descriptions of the Spirit’s work, and they have in common the integration of variety into a living unity. When Pope Benedict XVI was here in the U.S., he devoted one of his speeches to an appeal to unity within the Church. He noted as “one of the great disappointments that followed the Second Vatican Council,” what he called “the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family.” He urged us to turn to Christ in order to “discover the wisdom and strength needed to open ourselves to points of view that may not necessarily conform to our own ideas or assumptions” and to learn to “value the perspectives of others, be they younger or older than ourselves, and ultimately to hear ‘what the Spirit is saying’ to us and to the Church.” This is the way to “that true spiritual renewal desired by the Council,” to “that holiness and unity indispensable for the effective proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world.”
We have need, then, of a daily Pentecost, of a descent of the Spirit in light and power, overcoming sinful divisions, cancelling out perceived or real harms inflicted, integrating legitimate diversity into a healthy and vibrant Church, a living demonstration of the Gospel of reconciliation we preach as our main word to the world. The first Pentecost is often called “the birth of the Church.” It is a birthday we ought to be celebrating every day of our lives.
Pentecost Sunday – May 23, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
Today, Pentecost Sunday, ranks with Christmas and Easter as the three greatest feasts in the Christian calendar. With this solemn feast we celebrate the climax of the work of our salvation. What began with the coming of the Son of God in our own humanity, what was carried forward through the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, what was concentrated in his death and resurrection creates a new humanity when he sends his holy Spirit upon his disciples. “Behold, I make all things new,” we heard God declare three Sundays ago, and the age begins today in which God sends forth his Spirit and renews the face of the earth.
All that we profess in the Creed we will recite in a few moments we say was done “for us and for our salvation.” The Creed is the formal statement of all that God’s love has led him to do. He did not have to create us: that we exist, that we can draw our next breath, we owe to God’s love. He did not have to overcome the alienation that we allowed to grow up between us and God: that we can be at peace with him, we owe to God’s love. He did not have to give us a share in his own life: that we have a hope for fullness of life with him, now and beyond death, we owe to God’s love.
This is how God has renewed the face of the earth. He has brought into existence and has nourished over two thousand years a new people, a community of men and women who come together because they remember Jesus of Nazareth, because they profess him to be Messiah, Lord, and Savior, because they find joy and peace in a common Spirit poured out into their hearts. There was no such people before Christ; there is no such people anywhere else today except in the Christian Church. And when I say “the Church,” don’t think of something apart from you, some big, supra-personal thing; don’t think of the hierarchy, of pope and bishops, of the clergy; don’t think of it in the third person, as an “it” apart from you. When I speak of this new people living in the here and now as his Church, think of it as involving you, as including you; think of it in the first person plural, requiring the pronouns “we” and “us” and “our.” The early Christians regarded the Church, a great scholar (Congar) once wrote, as “the Christian ‘We.’” That is, the Church was what could be known by examining all they meant when they used those first-person pronouns: “we” and “us” and “our.”
When I make such dramatic claims about the Church, I am not trying to glorify the Church, and I am not thinking of some ideal Church, a kind of Crystal Palace, all light, all perfection, “without spot or wrinkle.” I am thinking of the real Church, the actual Church, the concrete Church, which consists of hundreds, thousands, of small, human-sized communities like this one gathered here this morning. The Catholic Church in Goshen is not so much this building as this people, the number of people assembled here, in all our diversity, in all our humanity, with things to be proud of, and things to repent of, but believing that God loves us, has loved us in Christ, has reconciled us to himself in Christ, has taken us up as his People, as Christ’s Body, as the Temple where the holy Spirit dwells. Believe it or not, it is through people like us, through communities like ours, that God is renewing the face of the earth, because he has sent forth his Spirit on us. If we are renewed in mind by our faith, renewed in action by our hope, renewed in heart by our love, then God’s purpose begins to be realized. Are we not, after all, part of the face of the earth, and has not God given us his Spirit?
Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the Church, when the Spirit came upon the disciples and inflamed and inspired them to begin telling the good news of the saving death and resurrection of Christ. But it’s not a birthday in the sense that we look back and think of that birth as happening almost two thousand years ago. For when we think back upon what gave birth to the Church then, we recognize that it is the same thing that gives birth to the Church today. Every time the Gospel is preached, every time the Spirit is poured forth, the Church is born again. But let us not put this simply in third-person terms: Every time the Gospel is preached, every time the Spirit is poured out, we are born again, born individually, born as the community of faith, hope and love. Pentecost can happen every day.