Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind.
Happy Pentecost! Happy Birthday to the Church!
We celebrated Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter 50 days ago. We continue to follow today, the pattern of the actual history experienced by the Apostles. Fifty days after that first Easter, the Apostles and others were praying in a room, like we are today, and suddenly the Spirit descended upon them – like a mighty rushing wind and the likeness of tongues of fire appeared on their heads – and they began to speak different languages.
The day itself was a Jewish holiday, prescribed under the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy [16:9-12] and Leviticus [23:11], 50 days after “the offering of the barley sheaf at the beginning of the Passover”. It marked the end of the barley harvest, a thanksgiving to God for the harvest – people gathered in Jerusalem with thank offerings for the harvest and offered peace and sin offerings.
Sometime between the last prophet Malachi, around 450 BC, and the time of Christ, the Feast also became a celebration for Jews of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. [New Bible Dictionary, Pentecost] So when God chose this feast day to pour out his Spirit, Jews immediately saw the connection between the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and the establishment of a new Covenant. God had promised through the prophets that he would pour out his Spirit and write the Law in the hearts of his people [Jer 31:31-34; Joel 2:28-32]. And indeed, in his first sermon Peter ever gave on the day of Pentecost, he quotes from the Prophet Joel to explain what is taking place.
The Spirit was poured out and the Church was born. And the Spirit continues to be poured out through the ages.
How do we get this same Holy Spirit today?
God’s love is not bound by strict rules, He works in the hearts of those outside the Church drawing them to Him (His prevenient grace), but He shows us a normal way we can count on. Jesus promises the gift of the Spirit through Baptism. John the Baptist said, “I baptize with water, but…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” [Matt 4:11; John 3:1-11] And the Church has followed this command of Jesus just before he ascended – “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” [Matt 28:19-20] Jesus promises to be with us always by his Spirit.
And today we have continued in obedience to Jesus’ command, baptizing Georgiana Viola. We believe that what began on Pentecost continues to this day.
But wait! some of you may say. Surely it’s not that simple. Does baptism really assure us of the gift of the Spirit to this child, who has not even answered the questions of faith for herself?
This week I was listening to a BBC news report and there was an item about a referendum being held in Burundi last Thursday. The president there, who is close to finishing two seven-year terms, has asked that the constitution be changed to allow him to serve two more seven year terms, until 2034, if he is elected. He has apparently killed or exiled or silenced through intimidation, any who oppose him. And the reporter concluded the report by says, “He is a fervent Christian, and believes he has a God given right to rule.” Hmm. A fervent Christian? Is that the Holy Spirit working in him? We can imagine how the world rolls their eyes when they hear this – that’s all we need, another fervent Christian!
Or what about the neighbouring country of Rwanda, which in 1994 descended into tribalism, with Hutus killing vast numbers of Tutsis – 500,000 to a million – they don’t even know the extent of the killing – in a period of 100 days. What was their religion? The Rwandan population [in 2002] was 57% Roman Catholic, 26% Protestant, 11% Seventh-Day Adventist, 5% Muslim and 2 percent unaffiliated. 94% Christian by self-identification! Where was the Holy Spirit? Well, some church members did speak out against what was happening – they were the first to be killed.
But we don’t need to go to Africa to be shocked and ashamed. What happened in Germany and in the Netherlands in the last war? How could so many baptized persons become Nazis – responsible for the death of millions? How could so many baptized persons in Russia later become Communists responsible for the deaths of even more millions?
And of course we might look at our own lives and ask why it is that when people look at the Church today they don’t always see a difference between us and non-Christians – and some non-Christians are clearly living a more moral life than some Christians. We ourselves are not always shining examples of holiness – of wisdom, of truthfulness and of love.
While baptism includes the promise of the sending of the Spirit, and we are called to believe what Jesus says, it seems we can still be corrupted by ideologies, by moral failures, led completely by other spirits.
Is God’s Spirit not more powerful than any other spirit?
Somehow we have to hold these facts together to properly understand how God works and how he doesn’t work, to understand how we can foster the work of God’s Spirit in us to make us holy.
In the Gospel this morning [St John 14:15-27], Jesus assures us that the Holy Spirit will be in us: You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
But Jesus repeats three times in this Gospel today the order of our receiving of the gift of the Spirit.
- If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever,… He…will be in you.”
- Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
- “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
Do you see the order in each case? First, love Jesus, second, keep his commandments – that is the sign of authentic love, and third, God will come and dwell in us, and reveal himself to us.
The Spirit does not come to replace our spirit, the Spirit does not come so that we have no more responsibility for our actions. He comes alongside us.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth…”
The Spirit is a helper or comforter – the Greek word means, not so much ‘consoler’ as ‘strengthener’.
Now I’m walking on the edge of heresy here – maybe some of you see the danger. [I’m not wanting to suggest Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism – that our salvation involves a little bit of our work and a little bit of God’s work mixed together.]
But it is true to says that the Spirit, comes alongside us, takes our feeble efforts and strengthens them, so we find it easier and more desirable all the time to do what is right. He is not replacing us with Himself, but strengthening who we are as God’s creation. Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. [Aquinas]
If we chose to do what is evil, clearly God will not come to help or to strengthen that evil will. Rather he will withdraw his help, his strengthening power. The path of hell will open up in us and things will get worse for us and others around us. If we see that we are going the wrong way, that is the Spirit waking us up to the truth. And we can ask for the grace to turn from our evil ways, we can be forgiven through the Cross, and we can return to the path of truth, of life, of love, hopefully sooner this time than last time. Then we will know again the strengthening of God’s Spirit to do what is right. He wants us to go up, not down. But he gives us the freedom always to choose for him or to reject Him – that is a frightening freedom.
We may very well think we are following Christ, but if we are rejecting his commandments to love our neighbour, we have simply stepped aside to do our own will. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ [Matt 7:21-23]
It is not those who say they are Christian, who will inherit the kingdom, but those who truly seek to love as Christ loves. Hopefully that is each one of us here. If that is our desire, we will inherit the gifts and graces that God pours upon us by his Spirit, to strengthen all that is good in us, to bring us to the fullness of who we can be, to uncover the image and likeness of God – to be filled with his gifts and the fruits of the Spirit – and people will see the difference.
Georgiana will need to be encouraged by their parents and godparents to love the one who is Love incarnate, Jesus, and to follow his commandments, and each time she does, she will experience a strengthening in the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Pentecost is the fulfillment of a promise by God that is full of hope and possibility. Let each one of us love Christ, follow his commandments, and see what happens! It seems the sky is the limit!