Pentecost: Empowering the Church

 Pentecost B 2012

We might say that the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples liberated them from their fear and transformed them into apostles, men with a mission. Not for nothing do we say that this feast marks the birthday of the Church. Let’s look more closely at what today’s readings tell us.

First of all, Pentecost was an established Jewish feast, one of the most important in their liturgical calendar. It was sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, because according to the instructions in the Torah, it took place seven weeks after they had gathered the first sheaf of new corn. So initially it was a kind of harvest festival. Torah stressed that the entry of the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land marked the fulfilment of God’s promises to his Chosen People. It was right and fitting that they should offer the first fruits of the harvest as an act of thanksgiving. The Jewish people came to think of the festival as a celebration of the renewal of the covenant. A key aspect of the covenant was God’s gift of Torah, the laws for righteous living and it just so happens that in rabbinical teaching, fire was often used as a symbol of Torah.

The passage from Acts that we heard just now stresses the crowds present in Jerusalem on the day that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, looking like tongues of fire. There were pilgrims from every part of the world into which Jews had gone. These pilgrims from the diaspora then can be said to symbolize the known world. As the apostles began to preach, each of the visitors heard them in his or her own language. And we may be sure that when they returned to their own countries they talked about what they had seen and heard in Jerusalem. Later, when the apostles began to move out from Jerusalem carrying the good news towards the ends of the earth, no doubt some of these people came forward to support what the apostles said, and to welcome the gospel.

Today’s gospel is another extract from Our Lord’s final instructions to his disciples during the Last Supper. He promises to send them an Advocate whom he describes as the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father; he [or she] will be my witness. Scholars argue about the best translation of the word rendered here as ‘advocate’. To us ‘advocate’ suggests a court of law which is not the normal setting for the apostles. Still, there is a touch of the courts in Jesus’ instruction that you too will be witnesses because you have been with me from the outset. Because they have been with Jesus throughout the years of his public life, they will be able to testify – to bear witness – to all that he has said and done. Since the Spirit is the Spirit of truth they can count on her to help them recall accurately the details of Jesus’ life and teachings: the Spirit of truth will lead you to the complete truth [and] will tell you of the things to come.

We sometimes speak of the ‘indwelling’ of the Holy Spirit. By that we mean that the Spirit once received remains with us, unless we drive her out by committing grave sin. The Spirit dwelling in us represents Jesus’ ongoing presence in the world. This makes us vulnerable, for Jesus does have enemies in the world. Think of the often renewed attacks on Church schools and the teaching of religion generally. Think of the plague of abortion. Think of the indifference to and the demonization of refugees and asylum seekers. Insofar as we draw attention to these evils, we shall receive the abuse that Jesus’ enemies can no longer give to him directly.

Writing to the Galatians, St Paul was concerned not so much with the Spirit’s influence on the mission of the whole Church as with her effect on the life of the believer, that is to say every single one of us. After all, we all received the gifts of the Holy Spirit when we were confirmed. God does not force his gifts on us. We can put them to good use, or we can ignore them. We can follow the promptings of the Spirit, or we can pay no attention. Paul writes: If you are guided by the Spirit you will be in no danger of yielding to self-indulgence. He lists the fruits of self-indulgence. They include sins of the flesh, works of idolatry, activities that harm the community, like jealousy, anger, factions; and drunkenness and carousing. By contrast, the fruits of the Spirit are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.

As you know, this year’s feast of Pentecost has been chosen by the Australian bishops to launch the Year of Grace. It is not so much a time for doing something new as a time for pausing to take stock and for being more deeply what we are already: people of God, recipients of many gifts. Just as the Jewish people regularly recall God’s liberating gifts to them, so also we are being invited this year to review all that God has done for us. It will then be natural for us to draw closer to God with prayers of thanksgiving. Please note that I am not saying we should say more prayers. What I am saying is that we should pray better, i.e. we should spend more time quietly in the presence of God offering prayers of praise and thanksgiving.

During this week the Church reminds us of another matter, namely the need for reconciliation between indigenous Australians and the later arrivals and their descendants. When the first European settlers invited themselves into Australia at the end of the 18th century they were immediately struck by the differences between themselves and the native inhabitants. ‘Different from’ quickly came to mean ‘inferior to’. The 18th century is sometimes called the Age of Reason. It was a time of research, enquiry, exploration; it was a time of notable achievements in literature, art and music – a high point in European civilisation. Regrettably it was not the most civilised Europeans who arrived at Botany Bay. From the point of view of the Aborigines, what they call ‘the invasion’ has been a disaster. Yet we now know that those peoples had developed a very intelligent way of managing and using the resources of this continent. They had an elaborate set of beliefs about the origin and purpose of creation. They had laws and a moral code and ways of dealing with transgressors. Certainly their culture was very different from that of the Europeans, but it was not inferior to it as a way of ordering society.

You may remember that it was not until 1967 that Aborigines were granted full citizenship rights. I can tell you that to an Australian who has lived abroad for more than 30 years, that is an embarrassing fact. So progress has been made, but it is far from complete. The purpose of this reconciliation week is to make us all aware of the problem, and at least open to attempts to solve it.

Early navigators called our country the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. Let us not stifle the Spirit within us, but rather be open to her promptings to draw closer to God and to each other. (Quentin Howard)


2 comments on “Pentecost: Empowering the Church

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