Pentecost: A Gift To Our Ears

June 10, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; and John 20:19-23. 

Woohoo! It’s Pentecost! It’s the birthday of the Church! But more importantly, we celebrate that the Holy Spirit has abundantly showered each of us with gifts!

Many of us, when we prepared for confirmation, learned about the seven gifts and the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. But as we’ll hear in our second reading today, there are many spiritual gifts, many forms of service, and many workings, but the same Holy Spirit producing all of them in everyone.

The Holy Spirit does not just give gifts to each of us individually. The Spirit also gives us gifts as a community. The Spirit is the “glue” that binds us to one another within the Body of Christ!

As we are drenched once again with the waters of baptism, let us celebrate that we all continue to be drenched in the Holy Spirit!

The historic day that we Christians call Pentecost was not the first Pentecost. Pentecost was the Greek name for an annual Jewish feast, called Shavuot in Hebrew. It celebrated God’s giving of the Law to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. It was also called the Feast of Weeks, taking place seven weeks after Passover. This was also the feast of the first fruits, when the first crops of the year were ready for harvest.

It’s possible that that particular year – roughly the 1280th anniversary of the giving of the Law – was a Jubilee Year, when many people worked less and spent more time devoting themselves to God. That would explain why there were Jews from all over the known world visiting Jerusalem on this particular Pentecost.

St. Luke tells us that there were approximately 120 people who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover and stuck around for the Feast of Weeks. It’s never been clear to me what exactly happened on that first Christian Pentecost. Was it that each disciple spoke in Aramaic, and that the people from all over the world heard the words as if each disciple were speaking each listener’s own native language, or was it that the Holy Spirit enabled each disciple to speak in a different foreign language, so that everyone could understand what at least one of the disciples was saying?

We usually think of the first Christian Pentecost as a day filled with action and noise. The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples with the sound of rushing wind, and the disciples’ joy exploded the doors of the Upper Room outward. The disciples rushed out and proclaimed the Good News. 

But the most miraculous thing of that day was probably not about the action of 120 people streaming out of the Upper Room or the noise of them all speaking at the same time. The greatest miracle was about stillness and silence: everyone was able to listen and to understand. 

At the Last Supper, when Jesus foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit, he also promised his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” I think that the peace that Jesus promised us is not a total absence of conflict, but a quiet, calm confidence that can’t be shaken even in the midst of confusion and tension.

It might not be on the Church’s official list of various gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, but I am convinced that when we truly listen to one another, the Holy Spirit is present among us. In that moment, our hearts are not troubled or afraid. We have a share of the peace that Jesus promises us.

Listening is extremely difficult work, even when people are speaking the same language. I often don’t understand people because they speak too fast or too soft, with poor enunciation, or with an accent. But more often than not, the challenge of listening isn’t about the speaker: it’s about me. Sometimes, I’m too tired or too caught up in my own affairs to willingly engage 100% of my energy into trying to understand what the other person is saying. Or maybe, I don’t listen because I don’t like what I’m hearing the other person say!

Intentional listening definitely requires the presence of the Holy Spirit. As the author Dean Jackson once wrote, “Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” 

The book of Genesis tells us that when the peoples of the world conspired to build the Tower of Babel “with its top in the sky, [to] make a name for [them]selves,” God confounded them by making them speak different languages. On the first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit united the peoples of the world by allowing them to understand one another. 

Our world seems to be increasingly like the divided world after the Tower of Babel, a world desperately in need of a new Pentecost. We are getting less willing to listen to people who are different than us. So many of us are living in echo chambers, where we only hear the subset of relevant facts that support our already-formed conclusions. Many people are trying to scale the heights of power and glory. Movements that claim that only one group of people should have power and authority, such as nationalist, isolationist, and sectarian movements, are gaining steam throughout the world. Instead of believing that a rising tide will lift all boats, more and more people believe they can only “win” when other people “lose.” In recent years, there has been an upswing in hate groups and hate crimes in many parts of the world. In our own Church, in light of scandals, many of us are asking if we can trust our leaders. Can we overcome the partisan, divisive babble of our conversations today?

There’s another way that the first Christian Pentecost was very different from the building of the Tower of Babel. Whereas people of Babel had tried to climb up and reach God uninvited, on Pentecost, the disciples waited at the invitation of Jesus for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And once God had come to them, the disciples rushed downstairs and out into the streets to share God with others, and not just with people who looked like themselves, talked like themselves, or believed like themselves.

In a way, the first Christian Pentecost was very similar to what the Jewish Pentecost was celebrating. God had invited Moses up to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Law. Once Moses received it, he did not hoard the power and knowledge for himself. He came down the mountain to share God’s Law with others, so they could also grow in relationship with God.

For Christians, Pentecost is the celebration of the creation of the Church. It is a celebration that God binds us more closely to one another. There is no barrier that can separate us. There is neither Jew nor Greek, nor American or Mexican. There is neither slave nor free person, nor layperson or clergyman. There is neither male nor female, nor people who struggle to identify with one or the other gender category. The Holy Spirit brings us together as one in Christ Jesus. Christ’s peace gives us the confidence to genuinely listen to people who look, speak, or talk differently than we do.

Friends, as we leave today, let us make it a new Pentecost. As members of the Body of Christ, we have received the gifts we need from the Holy Spirit  — both the individual gifts we need, and the gifts we need as a community. Let our love and our joy explode outward from this place. May we go forward and share the Good News that we have received. May that energy be powerful enough to devote ourselves to attention over talent, to Spirit over ego, and to others over self.