If Pentecost was the start of the Church, it was a birth out of frailty. The believers were huddled in fear behind closed doors. Yet Pentecost unleashed a courageous power. Driven by wind and fire, the followers of Jesus were set loose upon the world to make bold proclamation.
The Spirit brought unity, not only in a shared sense of poverty and smallness, but in the common experience of one God in Jesus, one faith, and one baptism. It was a faith that also put believers in touch with their deepest humanity. They would now speak a universal tongue, in a way which could touch the hearts of people from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
It is precisely the strength of unity that allows the church to embrace diversity. Without union in faith, the diversity makes no sense, for there is no common reality over which pluralisms agree. But with the power of union, separateness is overcome, plurality celebrated.
“It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body. All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit.” Our deepest union relativizes all distinctions and eventually subverts them. No longer is being Jew or Greek the primary distinction of life. No longer is being slave or free the dominant criterion of worth. Being one in Christ is.
The unity of faith in Jesus is a subversive power that overturns any particularist claim to supremacy. Since Christ is our primary reality, his Spirit is a force that liberates us from any bondage other than our bond in faith. We are empowered by the Spirit to resist.
Thus, the second theme of Pentecost is courage. The earliest church was made bold in its proclamation of the truth. Believers’ hearts filled with the good news of Christ, they were set on fire with love and zeal.
The fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as promising the advocate who would guide his apostles through their relationship to the world in matters of truth, right, and judgment. The Spirit of truth will give them courage. “In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33). After Jesus invokes the Spirit advocate, he offers his great priestly prayer, bequeathing to his followers not only unity, but a fearless devotion to the truth.
The author of the Second Letter to Timothy takes up the refrain: “That is why I am reminding you now to fan into a flame the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power, and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:6-8).
An intense sense of unity and an equally intense mission were not only the first fruits the early church received from the Spirit; they are also gifts we urgently need today.
It is no secret that division within Christianity is still a major scandal to the world. We may not be assaulted by religious military wars, but we still have our battles. One can find non-Christians remarking on the irony that Catholic priests have been perceived as leaving their parishes and people so that they might marry in another Christian church. And this irony is matched by other Christian clerics who are perceived as leaving their communities for Catholicism in hopes of avoiding women priests. Whether the perception be true or not, what a terrible indictment it would be if our relationship to God and church came down to married or women clergy.
If one left one’s Christian community for reasons of faithfulness to the gospel, or to separate oneself from a people scandalous in its treatment of the poor, it might make some sense. But to reject either celibacy or women at the altar?
And this is only one of the issues that not only fragment us, but debilitate our mission. The more we ignore our one faith, Lord, and baptism, the less we feel capable to address our world, the less we have anything to say to the world, much less say it boldly.
If we are bereft of a strong sense of unity and purpose, with what do we confront a culture that has enthroned enlightened self-interest? With what do we challenge a world that has reduced men and women to pawns of ideology? With what arms of virtue and belief do we address the heartbreaking slaughter in war-torn regions today?
In our own postmodern way, we are still the pre-Pentecost church, huddled in fear of each other as well as of the world at large. How true it is that we long once again for the “lover of the poor, the light of human hearts, the kind guide and giver of gifts, the gracious visitor who eases our toils, the consoler with cool grace and light in darkness, the warmer of our hearts and healer of our wounds, the gift of joy and absolver of sins.”
Send forth yet again your Spirit upon us to renew the face of this troubled earth.