"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

PENTECOST -C- JUNE 9, 2019

Acts 2: 1-11; Ps. 104; Romans 8: 8-17; Jn 14: 15-16, 23b-26; or Jn 20: 19-23

By: Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

First a little background on this feast. Pentecost isn’t a feast that began when the tongues of fire appeared and the sound of strong driving wind filled the room where Jesus’ disciples were gathered. Rather, Pentecost was first a feast of the Jewish people. It celebrated fifty days after the Passover, and was called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or the Feast of Weeks. At first it was an agricultural feast, a celebration of the wheat harvest. Pentecost’s significance in the Jewish community expanded to include the remembrance of God’s giving the law on Sinai. Thus, it was a celebration of the new covenanted community formed by God during the trials in the desert.

This all-too-quick review of the origins of Pentecost is not meant to be a history lesson. But as we reflect on its origins, we can see how "loaded" with meaning and imagery this feast is for Christians. The original feast was connected to Passover and so for us, Pentecost is linked to Jesus’ suffering, death and exaltation at God’s right hand. It is also a harvest feast because the disciples, gathered to receive the Spirit, were the "harvest" of Jesus’ labors and we too are the fruits of his work. Notice the references to harvest and gathering in our Acts reading: "When the time of Pentecost was fulfilled;" "the noise like a strong driving wind filled the entire house" and that the gathered community was "filled with the Holy Spirit." In addition, the large crowds drawn by the sound were from, "every nation under heaven." All this talk of fulfillment and people gathered together, sounds like harvest time to me and suggests that Pentecost hasn’t lost its harvest roots. The prophets had suggested that the dispersed would be gathered together on Mount Zion. Now on Pentecost, devout Jews from all the nations (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc.) are gathered in Jerusalem, God’s city (Is. 2: 2-4).

This first community, recipients of the Holy Spirit, was open to all peoples,"...we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God." Because of idolatry and pride Babel became the symbol of human hubris, and was marked by the confusion of language among peoples (Gen. 11: 1-9). Babel was the sign of division and dispersion; Pentecost, that of unity and community. The old order has passed away, people are united under God’s Spirit.

This liturgical cycle we have been focusing on Luke’s gospel and Luke is also the author of Acts. The Holy Spirit has a prominent role in Luke’s writings. The infancy narratives tell us that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and the Word became flesh. The Spirit also filled Elizabeth, Zechariah, Anna and Simeon with thanks and joy. The Holy Spirit is a living and active presence in Jesus’ ministry. Just as his baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, now Pentecost, with its baptism in the Holy Spirit, marks the beginning of the church’s ministry to the world. Acts begins with the coming of the Spirit on the early church. Soon those who received the Spirit will "act" – empowered by the Spirit, they will go to the ends of the earth, to all people and languages, to proclaim the gospel. Acts has been called "the Gospel of the Holy Spirit." It is less an account of what the first Christians did, and more the narrative of what believers can do who have received the "tongues as of fire." The harvest time has begun and the church will gather the wheat that Jesus planted with his life’s blood. Pentecost truly is a feast of a new harvest.

While the Bible is an account of God’s activities on our behalf, it also tells a lot about the importance of waiting on the part of God’s faithful people. During this Easter season we have been celebrating God’s very good work in Jesus. Jesus was sent by God and stayed faithful to God throughout his mission on our behalf and in his dying. Our Spirit-filled messiah did not turn away, even though his path took him to the grave.

God was active throughout Jesus’ life and did not abandon him, but raised him up.

Meanwhile, aware of all God has been doing, we have been hearing Jesus’ instruction to "wait" for the coming of the Spirit. Faithful biblical people are used to waiting. For long generations Israel waited and longed for the coming of the messiah. The gospels show the fruits of that waiting in the arrival of Jesus and his Spirit-filled mission. For example, Luke’s gospel shows Anna and Simeon waiting and praying in the temple for the fulfillment of God’s promises. After the resurrection the disciples waited and hoped for the promised Spirit to come to fill the open space left in their spirits by Jesus’ ascension. While the disciples were waiting, God again acted and sent the fiery Spirit to comfort and strengthen them.

No one is suggesting we put aside all our labors and concerns and sit around, do nothing and "wait on the Lord." We have already received the gift of the Spirit and have been sent on mission to proclaim the Risen Christ through our words and actions. But there still is a longing within us. Can you feel it, especially in the in-between times when we pause to catch our breath? Call it "waiting." We are one community with our Jewish ancestors and Jesus’ first followers. We are waiting and groaning. A quick look over the maps of the world, the church and our personal lives brings to vivid reminder that, even though we may be busy about the Lord’s work – we are still waiting. We wait and groan for an end to the world’s miseries; our church’s brokenness; our family’s divisions and nature’s devastation.

Pentecost was a reminder to the disciples that God had not forgotten them. Jesus was no longer with them but, as he promised, they would not be left orphans. Our active God sent them the Spirit and on this day we celebrate the Spirit’s coming and the birth of the church. Those gathered in the upper room became a community and began to breathe by means of a new breath – the breath of the Spirit – and to speak in a new way that would unite scattered people by the "tongues as of fire." Was it such a big deal on Pentecost that people were speaking in strange tongues? Wasn’t it more that so many God seekers ("devout Jews from every nation") heard the welcoming message of the gospel in utterances they understood from the disciples? Wasn’t that the real attraction?

Pentecost assures us that God wants to be one with us in helping communicate God’s blessing upon all of creation. As permanent and grinding as the present age seems: world dominance by a few powerful nations; poverty shrouding most of the planet’s peoples; depletion of the earth’s resources; unending violence and the quagmire of war; the displacement of millions – nevertheless, today we celebrate God’s continual presence with us as we preach and heal, reach out to the needy and help forge a Spirit-inspired unity among all people.

Do you think Luke is suggesting by this spectacular Pentecost event that the Spirit came, manifested his/herself and left? Hardly, since throughout the rest of Acts the early church, especially Peter and Paul, formed by the Spirit, show a keen awareness of being Spirit-led. Which means we modern Christian have to draw the conclusion that the Spirit is constantly with us now. We are a Pentecost people and today is Pentecost. So is tomorrow and each day after that! What can we do to show our faith in the Spirit’s abiding presence in our church?

We can work at breaking down any obstacles newcomers encounter when they try to join us. We can make sure "many tongues" are celebrated at our gatherings, in ritual, song and hospitality. We preachers could speak more about the Spirit’s presence with us now, just as it was in Jesus’ ministry. We can start acting less like a private club and reach out to those on the edges of our society. With Pentecost, the under classes and gentile outsiders were given a privileged position in the community of believers.

Under the Pentecost Spirit, the believers were no longer a disjointed and dispirited group. They were empowered by the Spirit to live as Jesus did, for his power was now theirs. Is that possible for us too? Yes, because today and tomorrow and all the days afterward, we celebrate Pentecost.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/060919-day.cfm