PENTECOST SUNDAY – Act 2:1-11 1 Cor 12:3-7, 12f. Jn 20:19-23 (All A, B, and C)
Jesus Is Lord We Can Make a Difference; Sharing Out Gifts; Openness to the Spirit; Unity in the Church; Need for discernment.
It is good to remember – especially on today’s Feast of Pentecost when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit to establish the Church (one Church) – that differences in the Church have been present from the beginning. And that Church has grown and charged.
The Church is in some ways like the squash. We are surrounded by various forms of the squash (curcubit) family: zucchini, pumpkins, gourds, cucumbers, and various melons like honeydew, cantaloupe, Persian, cassava, and watermelon. Developed in the Egyptian desert back in the mists of pre-history, squash seeds were carried by traders and travelers in their packs. By donkey and camel the seeds crossed all of Asia and across the Bering Strait in the great migrations of peoples.
Squash has a particular genius – an ability to evolve and to be transformed with each successive planting. Every time it is planted in a new soil, under new climatic conditions, at a different altitude, squash charges and develops new forms. A simple change of water can produce new forms of the vegetable.
So it is with the Church. Like squash, the Church has an uncanny ability to adapt and to take on the characteristics of the culture in which it finds itself. Planted in the fertile Holy Land countryside by Jesus of Nazareth, the original seed grew and flourished and produced a Jewish form of Church. As the Good News passed throughout the Mediterranean basin, the form of the community (Church) changed and evolved. In Greece, it became Greek; in Rome, Roman.
Which is more authentically Church? Well, is zucchini more squash than gourds? The Word of God takes root in the fertile soil of human hearts – Venezuelan among the people of Caracas, Chinese among the folks in Hong Kong, Australian among the denizens of Sydney. Watered by the Holy Spirit, it produces ever new and fascinating expressions of the divine creativity.
We celebrate that creativity in today’s feast of Pentecost. Originally an agricultural feast, Pentecost among the Jews came to be identified with the giving of the Law on Sinai. With Christians, it takes on an entirely new dimension. It is the beginning of a mission to the world, a harvest of peoples instead of agricultural products. At its heart is the gift of the Spirit that established the Church and continues to move people to undertake the preaching of the Word.
St Paul addressed the idea in today’s portion of his first letter to the Corinthians. Corinth, the city to whose Christian inhabitants Paul wrote, was at that time a prosperous cosmopolitan city, very similar to most major cities in the world today: London, New York, Madrid, Lisbon, Paris, Rome, Berlin. And there were factions.
Such factions have been characteristic of the human race since the pride and sinfulness of the tower of Babel. At Babel, and in today’s mega-city world, human beings gather into big cities and engage in building ever higher and higher monuments to their own egos. Pentecost has the potential of being the reversal of Babel.
Corinth also had a good-sized contingent who, sick of self-seeking, had converted to Christianity. They formed an intensely lively community that burst with enthusiasm over Jesus’ Good News. But the Corinthians were no simple converts. They brought to their new faith cultural and psychological problems of considerable complexity. And with Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians living side by side, there were many contrasts. The factionalism that had spilled over to the Christians in Corinth provided part of the reason why Paul wrote his letter. What was important for Paul was that in all the diversity in the Church there be unity in Christ.
One of the divisions among Christians – how like the modern Church! – involved the charismatic gifts – those extraordinary power given by the Holy Spirit. This was in a time when, like our own, there were among pagans unabashed emotionalism, enthusiasm over prophetic trances, and orgiastic frenzies. Because this could be catching to Christians, Paul reminded them, first, that no one could get anywhere truly meaningful expect by way of the Holy Spirit. The bottom-line criterion for determining the authenticity of an alleged gift of the Spirit is whether it strengthens faith and the bond of unity.
Most importantly, no one can make the unifying profession of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” expect in the Holy Spirit. At that time the Romans, in confronting Christian converts, tried to force them to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Most Roman citizens would have no trouble with that. For them, Caesar was indeed Lord. For others, then and since, there have been other “Lords”: money, liquor, power, self, sex.
The Christian who says “Jesus is Lord!” is expressing a simplified and condensed creed and is making a statement similar to the “Credo” we say at Mass. The statement means we accept the life and the teaching of the historical Jesus as being the norm of our Christian life. It also involves a sense of community, because it identifies a person as belonging not only to Christ, but also to his Church. Unity isn’t uniformity, though, and those who make this profession of faith and praise, while building up one Body in Christ, retain their individual gifts.
Whatever one’s gifts, they aren’t purely personal; they are always the patrimony of Christ’s community, the Church. To receive a gift, therefore, is to give a gift. There are various gifts, or charisma, and different works and ministries. Always, we are to use them not only for our individual wants but first and foremost for the common good (v. 7). In the verses omitted from today’s reading (vv. 8-11), Paul lists many gifts – for example, the ability to express wisdom and knowledge, and to have faith; the gifts of healing, miraculous powers, and prophecy; and the discernment of spirits, the gift of glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and the gift of interpreting tongues.
None of the gifts is as earth-shaking as the gift to be able to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Diverse as the gifts are, all are attributable to the same divine Spirit (vv. 4-6) and are directed to the unity of the Church. And, despite their diversity, all gifts have some feature in common – that they are graces from outside ourselves, for example, that they have forms of service as their purpose, and that in all of them God is at work.
The divine choices – why God chooses to give one gift to one person and another to another – are always as mysterious as God’s choice of the Israelites as His chosen people (Ex 19:3-8, 16-20, as in reading for Vigil of Pentecost). God chose the people Israel to enjoy a unique intimacy with Him, but in turn He required much of them. Through Moses, the people readily accepted that covenant. For His part, God showed His lordship of nature by a demonstration on Mount Sinai not unlike that of Pentecost – peals of thunder and lightning, a heavy cloud, a loud trumpet blast, a rushing wind, smoke, and fire, so that all the people trembled (Ex 19).
Many people, if given their choice of gifs for themselves, would pick the most spectacular of them – gifts which would show up like what the Apostles did on this first Christian Pentecost. But most of us have gifts which are much more quiet – the gift of being practical enough to manage a household, for example, or the gift of getting along with people, or the gift of loving patience to rise children, or the gift of being able to handle the details of a business. In their use, instead of attracting attention to ourselves, we are to help bring others to Jesus and to one another. Diversity and unity are both important to the Christian community, but only when they go together.
Let us all ask ourselves, “What are my gifts? What am I uniquely able to do that is of most help to others and to Christ’s work?” Mother Teresa put it this way:
I slept and I dreamed
That life is all joy.
I woke and I saw
that life is all service.
I served and I saw
that service is joy.
Let us pray with Eucharist Prayer #3, “Grant that we may be filled with the Holy Spirit and become one body, one spirit in Christ.” Then let us accept our gifts from the Holy Spirit and continue to use them to unite people and make us one in the Body of Christ that is his Church. Next to the gift of faith that enables us to confess that “Jesus is Lord!” are other gifts as diverse as those of the humble squash. Our diversity can, f we use it wisely, contribute happiness to the human family.