by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Those in the crowd were amazed and astonished… “How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language?” Acts 2, 1-11
Commentators on the liturgical calendar often refer to the event described in today’s gospel – Jesus anointing the disciples with the Holy Spirit – as the “birth day of the Church”. However, those who had locked themselves away in fear were such a rag-tag lot that the punters of their day, even if they knew about them, would hardly have placed substantial bets on their surviving as a “church”. True, there was a leader named Peter who had already failed dismally, a suspect tax-collector, a handful of ordinary housewives who certainly did not belong to the fashionable elite, a few fishermen and a couple of non-entities. The only thing they seemed to have in common was the fact that Jesus had sufficient confidence in them to believe that they had what was needed to spread his message to the world. So, they were the ones whom he anointed with God’s Spirit.
The Spirit transformed them into a cohesive group of women and men who were convinced of what Jesus had taught them: that God really did love them. Sure that God loved them, they came to appreciate that they could do great things. They grew to appreciate that, as they complemented and supported one another with their different gifts, they could make a difference, even though they were simple, ordinary down-to-earth people with the same human weaknesses as everyone else. That’s why Paul could eventually describe the fledgling Christian community in the words we read in today’s second reading from Corinthians: “Now, there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service to be done, but the same Lord; working in all sorts of ways in different people, it is the same God.”
The bottom line of all this is that the miracle of Pentecost, as described in today’s first reading from Acts, is that, in the first place, the disciples were able to get out and speak as they did. The miracle was that these very ordinary people who had been hiding away, full of fear were suddenly knit together as a community, and boldly proclaimed as God’s Spirit had prompted them. That was as miraculous as the fact that the people who made up the multi-ethnic crowd were able to understand the disciples.
Back in the days before the Berlin Wall came down, the Catholics in Leipzig (East Germany) were given permission to hold a church conference. They invited a communist magistrate to address the conference. In the course of his speech, he told the gathering how he had been imprisoned under Hitler because he was an avowed communist. He went on to speak about another prisoner who had been given some work in the prison and the title of “trustee”. This status entitled the man to some extra scraps of food and some old clothes. The man, who was a Christian, instead of keeping the extra food and clothes for himself, started to share them with other prisoners. From time to time, he would throw pieces of biscuit and tobacco into the cells of other inmates. Had he been caught, he would have been executed. Clearly, what he did to make the lives of others a little more bearable was done at great personal risk. The magistrate concluded this story by stating: “That was the first time I ever thought the church might be worthwhile.” What makes us church is the witness we give, in very practical ways, to the message that Jesus proclaimed and entrusted to us.
If someone were to ask you and me what the church of Darlinghurst, Elizabeth, Callan, Limulunga, Bo, Cochabamba or Shillong is like, how might we answer? We would be on the right track if we were able to say that it’s a warm, welcoming, caring and creative community, that supports its members and reaches out to others, especially the needy and those on the edge of society. They are the indicators of a church open to God’s Spirit.
Years ago, when I was studying the history and origins of language, I remember reading the story of Antonio de Nebrija, a linguist who wrote the first grammar of the Spanish language spoken by peasants, farmers and the ordinary people in the streets of Salamanca. In 1492, de Nebrija presented his book to Queen Isabella. The Queen’s reaction was one of puzzlement and confusion, until the local bishop interrupted and explained the significance of the new grammar: “After your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of various tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes, among them will be our language.” De Nebrija was clearly on the same page as the bishop, for, in the preface of his book, he had written about the connection between language and colonisation: “I have found one conclusion to be very true, that language always accompanies empire.” (This story has been reprinted in Henry Kamen’s more recent book Empire: How Spain Became A World Power, 1492-1763, Harper 2004.)
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis is often used as a metaphor for confusion, division and disruption that humanity brought upon itself by believing it could do without God. Yet Pentecost gives us the clearest of messages that as far as God is concerned, there is no imperial language. Instead, today’s reading from Acts affirms that God’s Spirit speaks through all languages. Every language reflects something of the goodness of God. Thus, Pentecost invites us to engage with difference – not just difference of language, but with all the ways in which we see ourselves as different from one another. This is not an invitation to uniformity, but to accept that God speaks through difference as well as through sameness. Pentecost reminds us that God’s Spirit affirms our differences, speaks in ways that each of us can understand, and draws us together in common unity (communion) around the same table.
More than ever, our world is in need of a new Pentecost or a fresh understanding of the true meaning of Pentecost. We can all look at our own countries and see how they are afflicted with different expressions of division, discord and pain. There are debates over immigration and threatened deportation of asylum seekers. In some countries walls are being erected to lock out peoples whose skin colour, ethnicity and religion are different. There are arguments over guns, policing and systems of justice. Even so-called Christian Churches bicker with one another. Our congresses and parliaments more closely resemble the original Babel than Pentecost. Politicians seem much more interested in personal position and power than in mutuality and collaboration to meet the needs of the people they are meant to serve. Pentecost challenges us to respect difference, to live with the vulnerability that comes from allowing ourselves to be temporarily disoriented, and to learn to speak a language of good news that can be heard by everyone. If we can do that, we might just be able to announce a new humanity to which all are welcome and can feel at home as members of the one human family.