Pentecost: The Church's DNA
The gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, celebrated this coming Pentecost Sunday, is the feast of validation of the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. So any of our beliefs about ourselves—from the actual power of our sacraments to the divine legitimacy of our leadership to our confidence in the books we call Scripture—come from our foundational trust that the Spirit of God is the soul of our faith community.
I noted a ways back that it took the Church some time to appreciate the reality and the meaning of the Resurrection. The same is true of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The term “Pentecost” only occurs in Luke’s writing. Pentecost was a well-established Jewish feast centuries before the appearance of Jesus. In Greek the word “pentecost” means fiftieth, and originally referred to an agrarian feast celebrated seven weeks after the Passover. The Hebrew term was “Feast of Weeks” and was related to the productivity of the harvest. It was customary for Jews to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem at this time. St. Luke’s theology is clever—there is no other word for it—in placing the Christian event of Pentecost on the Feast of Weeks. The city would have been full of pilgrims of diverse tongues and dialects. Luke reports in Acts 2:5 that there was general amazement among the pilgrims that every man understood Peter’s Galilean sermon “in his own language.” Interestingly, one of the options for the first readings of the Vigil Mass this coming Saturday is Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel (though your parish may choose another; check your “local listings,” so to speak.)
Sunday readings are here but may be used on Saturday as well.)
For Luke, then, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is unity, and the reversal of Babel’s confusion described in Acts 2 is a step toward a universal conversion and healing. A second gift of the Spirit in Luke is power: the Acts describe in some length the miracles of Peter and John in the immediate post-Pentecostal days. A third gift is eloquence: Peter’s sermon of Pentecost and similar ones by Peter and Paul throughout Acts give evidence that the Spirit’s presence brought a wisdom far above what one might have expected from a blue-collar Galilean fisherman. The Spirit’s wisdom similarly would impact Paul in the Acts, as he came to understand that baptism and Christian life were intended for all, not just Jews, and he brought this argument home in the famous Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
Perhaps most importantly Luke depicts the Spirit as bringing peace and salvific efficacy to the early Church, which remains our quest today. Acts 2:42-47 describes an ideal church, rooted around “the breaking of the bread” (certainly a reference to the Emmaus event, among others) I only recently noted that this church experienced “a reverential fear” (Acts 2:43) among its other characteristics. The members sold belongings and divided the money along the lines of needs. They continued to worship regularly at the Temple, to work marvelous deeds, and to live with “exultant and sincere hearts.” The effects of this were powerful on outsiders, as Luke records that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
To speak anachronistically, Luke describes the effects of God’s DNA in the Church as a whole and in each of us who are baptized members. To his credit, Luke does not shrink from airing the family linen from time to time. The famous story of Ananaias and Sapphira and their real estate misadventures comes immediately to mind, (Acts 5:1-11), and the famous squabble about household duties, or as I call it, the disciples’ declaration that “we don’t do windows.” (Acts 6:1-6)
An awful lot of material comes across my desk about “the new evangelization” (a phrase that someday needs its own critique) or the less bombastic subject of renewing one’s parish. When I see these kinds of projects put forward as agendas, I have to wonder if maybe we have failed to “read the manual” first. Pentecost has been called the Birthday of the Church for good reason: the Church was born from the utter graciousness of God. Luke gives us the elevations of how this church community would look: penitential, humble, reverentially fearful, wise, spokespersons for Jesus of Nazareth, doer of good deeds, faithful to our Jewish roots, generous beyond contemporary logic, grateful for its legitimate leaders, and most of all, united around the table of the Lord to break the bread and meet Jesus until he comes again in glory.
Luke never describes the Church as defensive, proprietary, micromanaging, proud, discriminating, suspicious and divided. And while there are many today who labor to make compelling arguments for these strategies, they simply do not meet the smell test. A Spirit-driven Church striving to overcome the divisions of the Tower of Babel has no time to create new barriers among the Body of Christ. Pentecost is the prime feast of the year when we return to our roots and discover again who we are and what we are not. May these lessons gain momentum as we return to Ordinary Time very shortly.
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