One Sunday, as people filed out of a church, a pastor noticed a youngster staring at a large plaque. It was etched with the names of men and women who died in the wars of our nation. The pastor greeted the youngster, who asked, “Why are these names here?” The pastor replied, “It is a memorial to the men and women who died in the service.” The youngster paused, and then asked, “Which church service was that?” Let's hope that doesn't happen today!
Today we celebrate Pentecost – the outpouring of the Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem centuries ago. The lesson of Pentecost is simple yet profound: the triune God lives in us; and we in God. To paraphrase St. Paul: we are living temples of God.
Pentecost is not easy to celebrate visually. In Advent, for example, we see a wreath. At Christmas the crib and the tree. In Lent we focus on the cross and cactus as a reminder of our 40-day desert journey. At Easter, we have a paschal candle and display lilies. But except for red vestments, which symbolize tongues of fire, there's not much to see on Pentecost Sunday.
It wasn't always so. In some medieval churches, people dropped burning straw from the ceiling to recreate the “fiery tongues” at Pentecost. That practice stopped when it set afire some churches. And there was the dove which symbolized the Spirit in light of Luke's description of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan. In medieval France white pigeons were released in cathedrals during the singing of the hymn “Come, Holy Spirit.” But that was discontinued, when people complained that something other than the Holy Spirit was dropping from the rafters.
The image I like best is “breath of God” or “gush of wind.” It's something you feel. It's catching the Spirit. It's feeling the Spirit of God moving wherever it wants to recreate whatever it touches. Remember, e. g., how the “dry bones” in the Book of Ezekiel felt God's Spirit bringing them back to life. The power and force and energy and vitality of the Spirit is within us. It moves us, “seizes us” so that we can be a channel of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-discipline to one another.
Pentecost concludes the Easter season and begins the mission of the Church, the people of God, you and me, to continue the saving work of Jesus Christ until he comes again in great glory and power at the end-time. And one way we can continue that saving work is by embodying the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom (to recognize what truly matters in life), intelligence (to discern what's true), courage (to stand up for what's right), empathy or compassion (for the needy), good judgment (to do the right thing), and wonder and awe (to worship the great God of this universe).
The word “Pentecost” comes from a Greek word which means “fiftieth” – the fiftieth day after the Hebrew Passover. The Hebrews initially celebrated this festival after harvesting the spring wheat in their fields. Later the Hebrews associated this festival with the covenant God made with their forebears on Mt. Sinai—a covenant summed up very simply yet very powerfully in the phrase: you are my people and I am your God.
In the Christian tradition, Pentecost gradually celebrated one aspect of the entire paschal mystery – including the death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus and descent of the Spirit.
The Book of Acts describes how the Jews had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. And suddenly the Spirit -- described in images of wind and fire (images that symbolize power and force and energy and vitality) -- was poured out on the disciples and emboldened them to preach the Gospel fearlessly in Jerusalem and eventually to people all over the Mediterranean.
The word of God asks us: Do we stand up for what's right? I always remember that great philosophical clarion call: “If not you, who? And if not now, when?”
The letter of Paul to the Christian community at Corinth in Greece speaks about all the gifts the Spirit bestows upon us: all for the common good. In our own 21st century where we often overemphasize the individual, Paul’s words are a powerful reminder to seek the common good.
Some of you may have heard of the “Paradoxical Commandments.” In this age of the World Wide Web, someone picked up the “Paradoxical Commandments,” circulated it and it began circling the globe, attributed to everyone from Mother Teresa to psychiatrist Karl Menninger. The greatest paradox was discovering it had been written by a college student no one ever heard of. Here are the “Paradoxical Commandments.” I like to think Paul would agree with them in light of today's passage:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered; Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies; Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow; Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable; Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds; Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs; Fight for the underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed in one night; Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them; Help people anyway.
And finally give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth; Give the world the best you have anyway.
Doing these ten paradoxical commandments will serve the common good Paul highlights in his letter.
The Gospel according to John describes a post resurrection appearance of Jesus where he breathes upon the disciples (as God breathed life into us in the Book of Genesis) and in that gesture bestows the Spirit upon the disciples.
So you may ask: what does the Spirit of God do within us?
It’s tremendous: the God of the universe, the triune God, lives within us. Because he is there, we are new creatures; we have a destiny: eternal life with God. That life has already begun. And if you want to see what the Spirit can do, look at the early disciples: transformed from cowards into heroes.
Let us pray on this feast that the Spirit whose gifts we already possess will empower us to live the results of the Spirit,s presence in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-discipline which St. Paul describes so powerfully.
The same Spirit of God who spoke through the prophets of ancient Israel, the same Spirit who overshadowed the Virgin Mary, the same Spirit who descended upon the disciples, and the same Spirit who lives within the Church—the community of believers-- and guides human history despite its “twists and turns” toward its ultimate fulfillment:
That Spirit lives within you and me and can transform us if we will let him.