Monday, June 1, 2009
Tongues of Fire
Today, we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. In Jesus' day, Pentecost was a harvest festival. It was a time to celebrate all the bounty the earth brought forth through the creative power of God. It was also a time to celebrate how God calls us to work with Him in making the land fruitful through the sweat of our brow.
Now, we know Pentecost to be the birthday of the Church. It was the day when the Holy Spirit rushed upon the apostles and Mary as they prayed in the upper room fifty days after Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
The New Testament tells us that the room shook and tongues of fire rested on their heads as the Holy Spirit filled them with grace and power.
Their experience of the Holy Spirit was so tremendous that they couldn't contain themselves. They poured out into the streets proclaiming to all those who had come to Jerusalem for the festival about the wonders of Jesus Christ and His love for all people. In fact, their joy was so great and their hilarity so intense that people thought they were drunk!
We call Pentecost the birthday of the Church because, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were given the power to go out into the world and proclaim the message of Jesus' death and resurrection. They were transformed from timid men hiding out in fear to bold preachers of the gospel. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they went from being a group of Galilean fishermen and tax collectors to being witnesses to Jesus' resurrection in Jerusalem, in Samaria and eventually to the end of the earth.
We are gathered here today because of those apostles and the gift of the Holy Spirit they received. Let's think about this for a minute. Most of us here today were baptized by a deacon or priest. That deacon or priest was baptized by another deacon or priest. And, they in turn were baptized by another deacon or priest. And so on and so on. If we were to go back far enough following the chain of baptisms, eventually it would lead us back directly to the apostles and Jesus. We are connected over many centuries to the Christians of the past through our common baptism.
Not only are we linked to the Christians of the past, but we are linked to the Christians of the present scattered throughout North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Australia and Asia. In the case of Catholics, we are all hearing and preaching on the same readings from the Bible. We are all receiving the same Eucharist. Though our masses are in English or in Spanish or in Swahili, we all worship the same Lord and God. We are linked through a common confession of faith and a common baptism to every other Christian scattered throughout the world who professes that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Saint Paul describes this for us beautifully in the second reading. He describes the Church as a body. Jesus is the head, and we are the members. Just as all the parts of the body are connected together and rely on each other for life and nutrition, so we are all connected to one another and to Jesus. And, just as every part of the body has a certain function - the eyes see, the heart circulates blood, the feet walk - so each of us has a certain role in the Church. No person is indispensable. Just as we would have a hard time getting around if we were missing a foot, so we as a Church are less effective in preaching the gospel when people keep their talents to themselves instead of sharing them to enrich the life of our community.
As human beings, it is natural for us to want to belong. Our ties to our family and friends are the things we value most in life. Each of us belongs here, too. The Church is a home for those who have faith and have been baptized. The Church is a home for us. And, we must work to make this home an even more welcoming place. To the stranger, we must extend a hand of friendship. To the needy, we must offer some of our bread. To the sorrowful, we must lend a shoulder to cry on. Our faith demands that we recognize that we are all interconnected no matter what language we speak or what country we belong to. When we do that, we become "Church". We make Church real in our lives and in our communities. We experience a new Pentecost, a new outpouring of Jesus' Spirit. Sins are forgiven, and people are united in love.
All of us know someone who, for whatever reason, has stopped coming to church. Maybe someone has said something unkind to them. Maybe they were offended by something someone said to them. Maybe they just felt as if they didn't belong. Now is the time for us to tell that person that we miss them. Now is the time for us to tell them that we are not the same without them. We are not all that we could be without them. It is time for us to make the effort to invite people back, to fill this Church with worshipers, so that we can all grow together in our faith by using the gifts God has given us.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. The Holy Spirit gives us boldness to proclaim the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. It gives us strength to serve the needy among us. The Holy Spirit works to help us realize that we are not free agents living our faith on our own, but that we are interconnected to other Christians who lived before us and to Christians living now scattered throughout the globe.
When we receive the Eucharist today, we receive Jesus' body, and we become Jesus' body. It is up to us now to make His word known throughout all the earth.
(painting by Linda Williams)