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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Pentecost (A)

(Acts 2:1-11; First Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

In our Gospel reading, St. John told us that Jesus first of all gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples gathered together in the upper room:
Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you."   And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
There, He was preparing His Apostles, whom He was about to send out in His Name, to forgive sins and bestow new and potentially eternal life by giving them the gift, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit for their personal lives and public ministry. 
After thus receiving the Holy Spirit from Jesus, however, the disciples did not, in fact, start preaching anywhere; actually, they went back to Galilee and to their fishing, where Jesus appeared to them once more. Now that is strange; but it is also very instructive, as we shall see shortly.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we were told of another, subsequent, bestowal of the Spirit, and this time a public bestowal, where the Spirit descended upon the Church as a whole:
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.  And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.  Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Let me bring out clearly for you the difference between these two occasions.
On that the first occasion, mentioned by St. John in his Gospel, there was only a small group involved -- fearfully assembling in secret -- where not even all the future apostles were present, Thomas being absent, as we were expressly told:
The same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you."
On the other occasion, however, of which you heard in our first reading:
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.  
That was indeed a gathering of the whole Church, as is made clear by the emphatic words: all with one accord in one place; and it was after this public bestowal of the Spirit upon the whole Church gathered together as one that the disciples spontaneously began to praise God:
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance … speaking the wonderful works of God.
Now, it was only after this giving of the Spirit to the whole Church that the Apostles -- in the person of Peter -- began to carry out their commission to proclaim and to offer salvation, through faith in the Gospel (Acts 2:14-18, 36):
Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words.  For these are not drunk -- as you suppose -- since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh.’ Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
The Spirit, therefore, is primarily bestowed upon the Church as the Body of Christ -- the whole Body -- not just to one part of the Body, even though that part be the college of Apostles.  Once the Spirit had been poured out upon the whole Church, the special grace and blessing which the Apostles had already received became active within them, but not before.  This is what the Apostle Paul taught us in our reading from his letter to the Corinthians:
The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.
As the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ: by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- whether Jews or Greeks whether slaves or free -- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.   For in fact the body is not one member but many. (1 Cor. 12: 7, 12-14)
A false emphasis on unity has often, in the past, been used to impose a strait jacket on Catholics: we are one publicly visible Body, under one publicly visible head – the local bishop or the universal Pope – walking in conformity along one publicly approved pathway.  But that is not the whole of Paul’s teaching, because he tells us that “the Body is not one member, but many”; for spiritual diversity – as bestowed and blessed by the One Spirit in charge of all -- is absolutely necessary if our unity in Christ is to bear full witness to the inscrutable depths and infinite variety of God’s manifestations of His sublime wisdom and beauty, goodness and power.
Today, however, whereas our political set-up seems to ape the old-church conformity through its promotion of political correctness; in the Church, on the other hand, the necessary unity under one head -- with the Pope as visible and temporal head of the Body whose supreme, invisible, and eternal Head is Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord -- is much enfeebled by individuals claiming the right to pick and choose what to believe and how to behave whilst still, paradoxically, asserting themselves to be true members of the one, universal, Body.
On this day of Pentecost, dear People of God, in our rejoicing, let us rejoice in the Truth: Variety and Unity are both essential in the Church.  She is not what the Corinthians wanted to imagine, that is, a gathering where each and every one could strive to display and develop themselves and their personal egos:
You are still carnal: for where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? (1 Cor. 3:3)
On the other hand, neither is Mother Church like some marble obelisk that abides untouched by the passage of time; it is essential for her to grow and develop because the Spirit has been given to lead her into the fullness of truth and guide her into an ever more truly fitting response to that truth.
If there were only liberal-lefties in the Church, she would be like that herd of Gadarine swine that went off in a wild and unrestrained rush and drowned in the waters of Galilee.  Were there none but died-in-the-wool traditionalists, more conservative than Rome and more papal than the Pope, she would be like a stranded hulk held fast and immovable by its own inertia, impervious to the gentle breathing of the Spirit of Life ever seeking to guide her to fulfilment.
And so, People of God, today we – both as a body and individually – are being offered God’s best Gift: the Spirit of Love, Truth, and Life.   To fruitfully receive what is being offered we must want to use this Gift for God's purposes, and in God's way; therefore, in all our endeavours for God, His Church, and for our world, we should bear in mind that the supreme and over-riding purpose for this  bestowal of God’s Gift is for the common good, the good of the Church as a whole, and for the salvation of souls. (1 Cor. 12:7, 18-21):
The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.
God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose.   If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you.”
On that first Pentecost, as you heard:
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance, speaking of the wonderful works of God.
Today the same Holy Spirit still wills to come to us for a purpose: not frequently “to speak with other tongues” in our modern times; again, perhaps but rarely to enrapture our hearers with convincing eloquence and moving passion; but certainly to lead us to “speak of the wonderful works of God” as we have experienced them in our own lives,  giving glory to God by speaking – as best we can under the impulse of the moment -- of the influence which the truth and the grace of Jesus has had on our lives: the beauty our minds have been enabled to recognise and our hearts to appreciate, and the joy and peace which hope in Jesus’s promises has afforded us when faced with the bewildering difficulties and downright wrongs of daily living. We would fail God if we were afraid to thus occasionally ‘stick our necks out’ at home, at work, or in general conversation, by giving sincere and truthful witness to Him and to the Faith; for our first duty, as the angels proclaimed is to give:
            Glory to God in the highest.
However, because we are all members of the one Body of Christ, besides individual sincerity and truth there must be humility and charity in our mutual relations, because, our lives -- with all their gifts and talents and despite all their trials and troubles – can, under the providence and grace of God, serve the common good of the whole Body, as the angels went on to declare:
            Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His People on earth.
That song, once sung by the Angels at the birth of Christ, has now to become a sublime and eternal chorus in which heaven and earth unite, because Jesus, having finished His mission on earth and being risen from the dead, has now ascended to heaven where He is seated at the Right Hand of Power.  And, as the Psalmist prophesied, God the Father has embraced His victorious and glorious Son with the words:
Sit at My right hand till I make Your enemies Your footstool. (110:1)
People of God, today, Mother Church is urging and encouraging us to join ever  more wholeheartedly in that paean of praise; for the Spirit is being offered us in and through her liturgy and sacraments that we might work to make the enemies of Jesus a footstool for His feet as the Father wills: that is my vocation, it is also yours, indeed it is the vocation of all God’s priestly people held together as one in the embrace of Mother Church.  What a privilege we have: let us get on with it, with grateful praise on our lips and trustful confidence in our hearts!