Brief synopsis of the readings: This is Pentecost Sunday and there is a choice of three different readings. I’ve chosen the readings from Mass During the Day. Our first reading brings us back to Acts of the Apostles, near the beginning. It describes Pentecost, the event where all the apostles gathered in one room. They experienced a strong wind, noise, and tongues of fire. All those gathered were filled with the Holy Spirit, and those of different languages were all able to understand each other. In John’s Gospel Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. He breathed on them and told them to receive the Holy Spirit.
Twenty five years ago last month I stood up in the church where I grew up and preached on these readings. It’s a strong memory: eight days earlier I was ordained a Catholic priest and on this day I celebrated my “first mass.” If you’re not familiar, it’s a tradition that when someone is ordained a priest he returns to his home parish to celebrate mass. Frankly, it’s a daunting experience: you’re now a priest and you’re preaching to your family, friends, and all those people who remember you as the clumsy altar boy who stepped on the priest’s microphone cord (true story). Many chicken out and ask another priest to preach.
I didn’t. I spoke about Pentecost as an experience where Jesus’ disciples were overwhelmed by the experience and then recognized that there was a great deal of work to do. I said: “I stand before you today with a fuller recognition of their experience.”
We all recognize moments in our lives that will define us for the rest of our lives. Ordination to the priesthood. Our marriage. The birth of one of our children.
These events call us to both joy and humility. Joy because we’ve been called to a role we didn’t expect to achieve. Humility because God called us to a role that we never expected God thought we could do.
So how do we deal with events that call us beyond our expectations for ourselves? Frankly, we recognize that God cares nothing for the limits we put on ourselves. We like to think of our lives within the limitations we place on ourselves. “I’m not good at math.” “I could never be good enough to be a Eucharistic Minister.”
But Pentecost challenges us to recognize that our abilities aren’t always the result of hard work and determination. Sometimes we recognize that we have talents we didn’t expect. Sometimes these are, well, gifts. That doesn’t mean we don’t work hard to be better at it, but it clearly doesn’t originate with us.
In our first reading from Acts, where all gathered could understand each other, regardless of their language. Pathians, Medes, and Elamites all spoke their own language but they could understand each other and it happened after they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
As many you know I’m a hospice chaplain. Frequently I get the question: “How can you do this?” Here’s how I answer: the ability to work with the terminally ill is a gift. It’s certainly not a gift given to everyone, and it’s not a gift I earned. Why did God give me this gift? Frankly, it’s none of my business. I have a responsibility to continue to hone my craft and push myself to be better at what I do but on no level can I claim be a “self made man.”
But now let’s take a step back. Why the Holy Spirit? Why Pentecost? Jesus just recently rose from the dead, the Messiah had come, so why do we need these gifts? I’ve spoken about this before, but the Resurrection of Jesus wasn’t the end of our story, as many thought, but instead the beginning of a new story.
The Acts of the Apostles begins with Jesus ascending into Heaven. Scripture nearly never talks about feelings and we don’t know what the apostles thought or felt when Jesus left them, but I suspect they weren’t certain what to think. First they thought Jesus would liberate them from the Romans. Then they saw Jesus die at the hands of the Romans. Then they saw Jesus return from the dead.
If our story ended there, there would have been no point in Jesus rising from the dead. We celebrate Pentecost because we were given the gifts to continue Jesus’ mission. Had Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, and done nothing else, we would be no better off than before. We would have been the same people.
For as long as I can remember it’s been fashionable to think that our world is going in a bad direction, and that eventually it will get so bad that God will finally blow the whistle, end the world, divide us between the good who will be saved and the evil who will be condemned.
But what if that’s not true? What if Pentecost gives us the tools to steer the world in a good direction? The Talmud (a compilation of Jewish wisdom literature) suggests that the Messiah will come when all Jews strictly observe the Sabbath two weeks in a row.
I like this because it, in a sense, puts the ball in our court. We live in a world of mass shootings, human trafficking, and climate change. But we also live in a world where we find stunning acts of kindness.
Earlier this year we learned about a two year old girl in Newton, Massachusetts who is deaf. Her parents learned American Sign Language (ASL) and taught it to her so they could communicate. But when word got out, all the neighbors on her street also learned ASL so they could talk with her and make her feel less isolated and less alone.
A few years ago I worked with a nurse whose Marine husband was dangerously wounded in Iraq. She flew to Germany where her husband was flown for treatment and his parents came down to care for their two children. Her neighbors and coworkers gathered and set up a schedule where every night someone would bring dinner to his frightened parents and bewildered children.
I could go on and on but I won’t. It’s easy, and a little bit lazy, to think that God will end time when God’s patience is over. But if Pentecost tells us anything it tells us that God loves and trusts us to create a place where the Messiah won’t need to fix anything because the Holy Spirit infused with gifts that we accepted and build God’s dream for us.