Fifty days ago, we began this Easter season by lighting a fire at the entrance of the church and proclaiming that Jesus is risen from the dead. Now, on this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate another fire - not a fire that we light, but the fire of God come down from heaven. That fire is the Holy Spirit who came upon the apostles and Mary as tongues of fire and who lives in each of us who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.
We call Pentecost the “birthday of the Church” because on that day the apostles are transformed from men who were too afraid to leave the upper room to bold proclaimers of the resurrection of Jesus. They went from men still confused about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection to preachers of His divinity and Lordship. Rather than being paralyzed by fear and doubt, they are driven by conviction and faith to proclaim the good news to all the world. There is no other explanation for this than the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through them.
The feast of Pentecost was celebrated by the Jewish people as the commemoration of the giving of the Ten Commandments through Moses. It was because of this festival that Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem as we hear in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We all know the story of how Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. When he brought the stone tablets written by God down the mountain, he discovered that the people had made a golden calf to worship. Filled with rage, Moses shatters the stone tablets on the ground and commands that all those who participated in the idolatry be rounded up and put to death. It turns out that three thousand people were killed on that day. Though the gift of the Law from the hand of God was a day of celebration, it was also a time to remember how often the people disobeyed the Ten Commandments and broke their covenant with God.
It is no accident that God sent His Holy Spirit upon the apostles on the feast of Pentecost. Rather than write the law on tablets of stone, He would now write them on our hearts. Rather than give us a law we could not obey, He gave us His Spirit which is the power not only to understand what Jesus teaches but to live it out.
I would encourage all of you when you get home after Mass to open your Bibles and read the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles from which today’s first reading is taken. After the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit, we read that Peter addresses the crowd that had gathered on the street below. They are struck to the depths of their soul by his message and ask what they should do. Peter tells them that they must repent of their sins and be baptized so that they also may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. In verse 41 we read, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Whereas three thousand people were slaughtered by Moses on that first Pentecost because they rejected the law, three thousand people were saved by the apostles because of the power of the Holy Spirit. The law of the Old Covenant did not offer those who received it the power to live it out. But to those who receive the New Covenant of love, the Holy Spirit is given empowering us to accept and live out the teachings of Jesus.
It has been said that the Christian life is not just difficult, it is impossible. It is impossible to love and forgive our enemies. It is impossible to bless those who curse us and rejoice when others make fun of us for being followers of Jesus. In today’s world, many think it is impossible to live a chaste single life or a faithful married life. For human beings with our weak wills, all these things are impossible. That is why no other religion besides Christianity proclaims such a radical, all-embracing message of love.
The reason we as baptized members of the Body of Christ do say that it not just possible but mandatory that we live and love as Jesus did is that we have the Spirit of Jesus living within us. We have received the same Spirit by which Jesus cured the sick and raised the dead. We have received the same Spirit that compelled the apostles to preach the good news of Jesus resurrection to all the world even to the point of giving their lives for Christ. We have received the same Spirit that empowered the saints to feed the hungry, care for the sick and teach the gospel message even under the threat of persecution. It is that Spirit that makes it possible for us to love our enemies, to live simpler lives so that we will have more to give to the needy and to love God more than life itself. We can now live the Christian life with joy, not as a burden, because the Spirit of God lives in us.
Very often we fail to live the gospel message because we are trying to live it by our own power or on our own terms. When we sin, we too often just tell ourselves and God that we will try harder next time. Or we pick and choose which teachings we will follow and which teachings we ignore. Both attitudes are a recipe for failure. If we are to live the Christian message in all its fullness and experience the joy and peace it brings, we must resolve to abandon our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit. We must say to Him, “I am no longer in control, Lord. You are.” We must simply tell God that we give up trying to follow Him by our own will power and give Him permission to work in and through us. It is a scary thing to do because we do not like to hand over control of our lives. But once we do, we will see wonders take place just as the apostles did and just as generation after generation of saints who have given up everything to follow Jesus.