The feast of Pentecost holds a special place in my heart because I presided at my first Mass on Pentecost Sunday. This year is the fifth anniversary of my ordination, so, for kicks, I dug up my homily from that Mass and thought I’d repost it here. A lot has happened since that day, yet in some ways it still feels like yesterday…
I’ll begin with homework. Today’s first reading from Acts 2 tells the story of Pentecost, but it’s just the beginning of the story of Pentecost. So on your i-Phones on the drive home, pull up Acts of the Apostles and read all of chapter 2. (Unless you’re driving.)
Now, since in my 22 years of formal education I have noted that occasionally students don’t do their homework, I will go ahead and tell you what happens in Acts 2. The part we heard this morning takes place after Jesus had risen from the dead, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven. One thing I don’t think we realize when we talk about Easter is how disoriented the disciples were even after Jesus rose from the dead. The Resurrection doesn’t immediately bring understanding to the disciples. If you read all of John 20, the chapter from which today’s Gospel is taken (extra credit), you’ll note that even after the Resurrection there’s still disbelief, confusion, and fear. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener. Then, when she realizes who it is, she won’t let go of him—to the point that Jesus has to tell her, “Stop holding on to me.” After the horror of the crucifixion, we can understand why the disciples would be fearful and why Mary Magdalene wouldn’t want to let Jesus go. But Jesus says he has to go to do something necessary for the disciples. He promises that when he has ascended to the Father, he, with the Father, will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
And the story of the Holy Spirit’s coming is what we heard in the first reading. We don’t see the Spirit himself because spirits are invisible, but we see his effects: fire, thunder, wind, and this strange way of speaking and of understanding that seems to cut across all linguistic and national and ethnic categories. If you want to know why racism contradicts what it means to be part of the Church, you need look no further than the effect of the Holy Spirit’s action on Pentecost.
But here’s where your homework comes in—read on because the plot thickens. The disciples who had gathered together because of their faith in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit understood one another no matter where they were from or what language they spoke. But others who were not followers of Jesus were also there watching, and they didn’t understand. In fact, they mocked the disciples. They saw what was going on and said, “They’ve had too much wine.” Lushes.
So Peter stand up and says—this is my favorite part—“We aren’t drunk. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning.” I wonder if most Marquette students would find that a persuasive argument. Peter, however, never went to college. In fact, if you remember from the Gospel, Peter is not an educated man; he’s a man, we could say, with good instincts but who acts and speaks without thinking things through. His flaws catch up with him in a big way on the night Jesus is taken away to be crucified because, just hours after swearing his absolute loyalty to Jesus, he chickens out, he freezes up, he denies knowing Jesus at all. He fails completely as a disciple and as a friend. And it breaks his heart.
And this is important to remember because of what happens next. Peter stands up in front of this hostile crowd that’s just accused the disciples of being drunks, and he gives a speech that is bold and fearless and brilliant. He quotes the prophets, and he cuts right to the heart of the matter and says without hesitation, “This Jesus who you crucified, God has raised from the dead.” And at the end of it, this bullying crowd is hushed, and they say to themselves, “What do we do now?” And Peter speaks with practically the same words used by Jesus himself at the very beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you … and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Today, along with Easter and Christmas, is among the greatest feasts of the Church year because we celebrate what the Holy Spirit did in Peter, transforming this shaky fisherman into an apostle who preaches with the words of Jesus himself. Today the disciples realize—after Easter and all of their strange encounters with the risen Christ, which were joyful but still disconcerting—they realize why Jesus had to ascend to the Father, why, when he ascended to the Father, it did not mean that he was going away, going off into the distance. It meant that he was sending the Holy Spirit to live within us, to act within us, so that we ourselves would become a part of that love that Jesus has for his Father, and the Father has for his Son, that love that is the Holy Spirit. Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and remember that the Trinity is not some abstract game of philosophical terms that we agree to in theory—whatever, it’s a mystery—but then move on to real life. The Trinity is the point of this all—Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—the Trinity is the eternal back and forth of love, between Father, Son, and Spirit, the giving and receiving of love, that makes God God and heaven heaven and makes Christianity different from any other religion or philosophy or spirituality that ever was or ever will be.
To put this in another way, becoming like Jesus is not a program, like a fitness program or a self-help program—how to get to heaven in just six-minutes a day. What happened within Peter on Pentecost didn’t happen because he’d taken a leadership course. It happened because the Holy Spirit changed who he was from within. In other words, he became even closer to God, even more caught up in the mystery of God, even closer to Jesus than he was when Jesus was walking next to him in Galilee.
Think about what that means not just for Peter but for us. Sometimes we hear or even think ourselves, “If only I could have been there. It’s unfair Jesus lived back then and he’s so distant and it makes our faith so distant.” Remember that the vast majority of the people who did meet Jesus in the flesh didn’t actually follow him; and a good number of those who heard him preach, maybe even were curious for a while, were also OK with crucifying him.
Today’s feast, the presence of the Holy Spirit among us, means that it is possible for us to experience Jesus in the Church, in the sacraments, in a way that even those who saw him on the street 2000 years ago were unable to experience. John the Baptist never received communion; not even St. Joseph shared that privilege. Kierkegaard once said that there’s no such thing as a second-hand disciple, and, my brothers and sisters, we are not called to second-hand or second-rate discipleship. Jesus ascended to the Father not so that he would be farther away from us, but so that he would be closer to us than we could have ever imagined. Jesus is here in communion; when we confess our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation, it is Jesus who gives us pardon and peace, as he promises in today’s Gospel.
Perhaps the thunder and flames of Pentecost are meant to wake us up to this reality, to the gift that we are given in the Church, which we so often take for granted, to the reality of the encounter with Christ that happens here today. Our sacraments are ancient but they are never old-fashioned. And there is nothing superficial in the effect they are meant to have; baptism doesn’t mean changing the labels—take the pagan label off, put the Christian sticker on—just as priesthood doesn’t mean getting a new job. The sacraments mean, Pentecost means, being a member of the Church means, this encounter with Christ which we call Catholic Christianity and which has been the greatest blessing of my life means nothing less than God’s Spirit burning within us.
Pentecost Sunday 2017, Milwaukee, WI
Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12; Jn 20:19-23