Last week I mentioned that with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the age of the Church here on earth began, that the Church now serves to carry on the mission Jesus began here on earth. And that mission is specifically to spread the Good News of salvation: that Jesus suffered and died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and then rose from the dead three days later. So the mission of the Church is at its most fundamental the salvation of souls. Everything else, including all the good works, all the charitable activities, and so on, is subservient to this ultimate mission of the salvation of souls. In other words, the Church exists to get people into heaven.
I also mentioned last Sunday that the Acts of the Apostles ends very abruptly with St. Paul the Apostle in Rome where he has travelled to make his case before the emperor. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem have accused him treason because of his faith in Christ and, as a Roman citizen, Paul has certain rights which he intends to assert in his defense before the emperor. But as the historical tradition tells us, he was ultimately unsuccessful, and was martyred for his faith in Christ. Well, unsuccessful in the eyes of the world, but from a Christian perspective, Paul enjoyed the ultimate triumph, given that he is now a saint in heaven with Our Lord.
The Acts of the Apostles recounts the life of the early Church, and as I mentioned last week, it mirrors the life of Christ: the life of the Church begins with Jesus’ Ascension into heaven; the Church then begins her mission of preaching, teaching, and healing; the Church experiences persecution and suffering – all just like Jesus. However, unlike the life of Christ, the Acts of the Apostles does not end with a death and resurrection. Rather, it’s almost like the story ends in the middle of a chapter. And I think this is very fitting, because in a sense the Acts of the Apostles has not yet come to an end: we continue to live it out even to this day. It’s like the Acts of the Apostles has continued for the last 2000 years and the story still continues; it is not yet over, nor do we know exactly when the story of the Church here on earth will come to an end. But we do know how this story will end: the Church will face great persecution to the extent that one could say it will be like a crucifixion. It will even seem that the Church herself will have been destroyed, but then at that moment, at the darkest hour, Jesus will return to earth in triumph, and he will then have the final victory over the powers of sin and darkness and death. This is what all human history is heading towards, and in the meantime we all have our own small roles to play in the life of the Church. We all have a mission, if we choose to accept it, which is Christ’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation for the forgiveness of sins.
Of course, what our own individual missions look like vary from person to person. This is where the word “vocation” comes into the picture. Each one of us has a calling or vocation from God to carry on His work in the world: some are called to serve as priests, and we rejoice that this weekend three young men have been ordained to serve as priests in our diocese; some are called to serve as religious sisters or brothers, or as consecrated virgins – and perhaps I could include all those who never marry in this category, even though they may not be called to live out that vocation in a formal way, that is, making vows as part of a specific community; and the majority are called to live out this mission as married men and women, mothers and fathers, bringing new life into the world and raising their children in the faith.
But what does all this have to do with Pentecost, the great feast which we celebrate today? Well, once again it’s time for a little history. Pentecost of course was when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ disciples who were all gathered together in one place in Jerusalem. Prior to that, they had been going to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, but after receiving the Holy Spirit, they immediately began to go out into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to everyone. And at that time there were in the city lots of Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism who had come from all parts of the Roman Empire – wherever there was a Jewish community – for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. That’s right, before there was a Christian feast of Pentecost, there was a Jewish one! The Jewish feast originally was a feast of thanksgiving to the Lord for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. Later it became associated with when the Lord gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. And to celebrate this feast, Jews would travel from even very far away to worship in the Temple. So there would have probably been thousands and thousands of Jewish and Gentile visitors to the city at that time, when Jesus’ disciples first began to proclaim the Gospel.
Coming from many different parts of the Roman Empire, these visitors would have spoken many different languages. And yet, regardless of their language, they all were able to understand what the disciples said. Whatever language they spoke, that’s the language they heard Jesus’ disciples speaking. This is of course the opposite of what happened at the Tower of Babel way back in Genesis, when the people started to build a tower to heaven out of human pride and so against God’s will, and He suddenly confounded their ability to understand one another. At Pentecost, when everyone could suddenly understand the disciples regardless of what language they spoke, we hear how God is beginning to restore and reunite humanity, repairing the divisions that sin had introduced into the world.
Jesus’ disciples were able to communicate to the people in Jerusalem in all these different languages through the power of the Holy Spirit which had just come upon them. This is the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised he would send them, to give them the grace and the strength they would need to carry on his mission. And it is this same Holy Spirit that we receive at baptism and at confirmation. And just like with the disciples on Pentecost, Jesus gives us his Spirit so that we too might be able to fulfill his mission for us here on earth. And he gives us his Spirit so that we might have the strength even to follow him and to obey his commandments.
But it’s not usually as dramatic as it was on that feast of Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not always accompanied by a rushing wind and tongues of fire. And we don’t always start doing incredible things. That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot or does not work in incredible ways. Even in our own age, there are people who have had very powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. Perhaps they are rare, but miraculous healings still can and do happen. Many people have had their lives transformed in powerful and incredible ways through the power of the Holy Spirit.
But I think more often, the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our hearts is much more subtle. Usually it is the quiet, day-to-day of faithfully living out our vocations even when they are dull, onerous, and troublesome, to keep going even when we derive no satisfaction. It is picking ourselves back up when we have fallen into sin once again, returning to the Lord, and striving to keep following Him even though we feel we don’t have the strength to do so. And the Holy Spirit manifests Himself as well in peace, a quiet sense of peace, not of wild euphoria.
And of course, the Lord doesn’t usually force Himself on us. Perhaps most of us here were baptized and so received the Holy Spirit for the first time as infants, the greatest gift our parents can give us along with the gift of life itself. But as we get older, we also have to dispose ourselves or open ourselves to the Holy Spirit – we have to cooperate with God’s grace. We can receive Communion week after week, which is wonderful, but if we are not actively trying to cooperate with God’s grace, then the Spirit’s ability to act within us is much more limited. And if we receive Communion when we are not in a state of grace, then we are actually doing greater harm to ourselves. So how do we cooperate with God’s grace? Through the usual means: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, acts of charity and mercy. Learning more about our faith, reading the Bible, good spiritual reading, and then reflecting on what we have learned or read. It’s not rocket science as they say. God doesn’t make it complicated for us; more likely, we make it complicated for ourselves.
And Jesus has also taught us that we can and should ask for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So as we rejoice on this feast of Pentecost, let us ask Him with confidence and with perseverance that He continue to fill us with His life-giving Spirit.