“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Acts 2, 1-11
I’m sure that most of us have noticed that, every now and then, when we find ourselves struggling to find the right words in a tight spot, we manage to come up with an answer that satisfies those who have been challenging us. I often recall a moment back in 1989 when I suggested to a group of seasoned, English-speaking Christian Brothers that they venture out as volunteers to engage with needy children and homeless adults in Rome. I was confronted with protesting voices of “How can we possibly do that if we can’t speak Italian?” The response I managed to find was: “Kindness, smiles and love speak all languages.” Somehow, those few words did the trick and, a week later, about thirty generous volunteers went off to an orphanage and several soup-kitchens to engage with complete strangers who had not a word of English. They returned home full of stories, and fuelled with eagerness and anticipation for their next opportunity.
As I reflect on Luke’s account of the first Pentecost in today’s first reading from Acts, I wonder if those first disciples were so successful in engaging with the crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem simply because they spoke the language of love which they had learned from Jesus himself. When I look at our world, and, indeed, at our Churches, gripped by confusion, uncertainty and fear as a result of the Covid pandemic, I am convinced that we are in need of a new Pentecost. Not some kind of miraculous intervention by God, but an outburst of consciousness, inspired by God’s Spirit already among us, that we are all one, intimately connected to one another in our human diversity and respectful of one another irrespective of our race, language and adherence to a particular religion or to none.
We belong to a world in which we allow divisions, dichotomies and oppositions to keep us apart. Out of a need to somehow identify ourselves, we gravitate into polar-opposite camps like conservative or liberal, democrat or republican, radical or fundamentalist, pro or anti asylum seekers and immigrants, pro or anti euthanasia. Such polarities divide, and result in mutuality, open-mindedness, respect for and civility to others becoming casualties. And while, in the religious context, we have made some advances towards ecumenism, some Christian churches still reflect tribalism and bigotry, and those who hold different beliefs are turned into targets for demonisation. And, on the social level, we see how would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers are variously labelled as terrorist threats and queue jumpers looking to sponge on social security benefits. Even our own indigenous peoples are accused of being lazy and responsible for the injustices heaped upon them. Phenomena such as these fuel suspicion, doubt and fear that create confusion on the social scene. And on the religious level our churches sometimes look more like Babel than Pentecost.
In the psalm that follows the first reading from Acts, we are invited to pray: “Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104). This is not a prayer to God for some kind of miraculous intervention. Rather, it is a prayer that we will be open and generous in making ourselves available to God’s Spirit who is already alive and active in us and in our world. Today’s reading from Acts describes how God’s Spirit entered the community of those first disciples and fired them to take the risk of proclaiming to pilgrims, who had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish harvest festival, that Jesus really was the clearest expression of God’s love and hope for the world. The disciples were so excited about the good news they had to share that their emotions overflowed. Little wonder, then, that some who heard them were convinced that they had drunk too much. That was hardly a criticism from hard-working farmers and labourers who were able to recognise the disciples as fellow workers who were entitled to over-indulge on a festival day designed to celebrate the success of all Jewish farmers, tradesmen and labourers.
But Luke has a more serious purpose, evidenced by the details he provides. He emphasises that God’s Spirit came upon all the gathered disciples – at least 120 of them (“There must have been a hundred and twenty gathered together” Acts 1, 15; and some were definitely women.) Moreover, Luke goes to great efforts to list the countries and districts from which the pilgrims had come; some even from as far away as Rome. He further adds that Peter explained to those who had assembled to listen that what had occurred was a fulfilment of something the prophet Joel had foretold : ”I will pour out my spirit on all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; even upon the servants and the handmaids, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 3, 1-2). We are told that some listened to Peter and took his words so seriously that they were convinced there and then that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. – and some 3000 of them were baptised. Others remained unconvinced and concluded that those they had heard were just drunk. While what Luke describes in Acts chapter 2, probably collapses several events into one, the Pentecost event provided the impetus that took the first disciples out to the wider world with the message of God’s loved lived and proclaimed by Jesus.
Worthy of note is that Peter, when he spoke to the gathered crowd, did not try to convert them or ram some new message into their heads. He told them that what they were witnessing was the arrival of God’s spirit foretold by the prophet Joel. That same Spirit is still alive in our world, but so often we are inclined to stifle the voice of the Spirit. We refuse to hear the prophetic voice of women and young people (“your sons and daughters shall prophesy”), dismissing them as trouble-makers or disgruntled and disaffected misfits. But today’s readings are challenging us on our openness to hear the prompting and goading of God’s Spirit coming to us in surprising ways and from people we are often inclined to dismiss. Yet, we are being invited to keep alive in our world the message of God’s love and hope entrusted to the disciples on that first Pentecost.
If there is one good thing that has come out of the Covid pandemic, it is that there are signs that people across the globe are beginning to grasp that we are all in this together, that we are all connected in our responsibility to protect one another, to see everyone around us as sisters and brothers. Surely that is a sign that we are beginning to appreciate we can walk together, helping one another to cope with truth that sometimes seems unpalatable, working with one another to accept and respect difference and diversity, thereby edging towards the possibility of sharing with one another the world’s resources and living in peace.
If the gospel-reading, which relates how Jesus penetrated walls and locked doors to appear to the disciples, tells us anything, it is that there are no barriers to the message of God’s peace, love and hope. The challenge for us contemporary disciples is to create a climate that will allow a new Pentecost to find a way into our hearts and our world. The first step might be to start practicing the language of love.