Pentecost Sunday (Year A)
We live in a globalized world, a world of instant communication and of interconnected supply chains. The globalization that has emerged over the last few decades has big implications for the way the human race operates socially, economically and politically potentially bringing the human family closer together. This globalized world has, however, also facilitated the spread of the coronavirus but with it has come a failure of the world to act together. The pandemic may be global but the consequence has been a rather worrying retreat into localism.
With Pentecost, things worked the other way round. Something seemingly intensely local – an event in an upper room – became truly global. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear a rather exotic sounding list of people: Medes, Parthians and so on. These were not listed by chance for they were representative of the total world as then understood from a Jerusalem-centric perspective. The Parthians, Medes and Elamites were from the North; the people of Mesopotamia, Judaea, Pontus and Asia were from the East; those from Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt and Libya were from the South; those from Crete and Rome were from the West. For St Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, the effects of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, experienced locally were even then seen as something truly world-wide.
The Internet is also something experienced locally and globally. However, the value of the Internet does not derive from it being local or global but from what is put into it by the humans who use it. The Internet is nothing more than people communicating and interacting. The church, as the body of faith, is also both local and global. Unlike the internet, however, the Church is not limited by or dependent on the human input but precisely derives its value, its meaning and its mystery from the input of the Holy Spirit. The Internet allows the trivial, the mundane and the dangerously misleading to be given instant worldwide circulation. The Spirit, breathing into the life of the Church, allows the profound, the holy and the truthful not only to be circulated but to be sown, to take root and to grow in fruitful strength.
Today’s short gospel passage, in which Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit, was also the gospel a few weeks ago. Then the passage carried on with the story of Doubting Thomas. Immediately that Jesus establishes his Church of faith through the Spirit, there is doubt – a doubt that does not lead to despair or despondency but paradoxically leads to stronger and deeper faith. We should not be surprised, therefore, if faith struggles against doubt, be it the doubt of individuals or the doubt of society, nor should we be surprised if the Spirit breathes in a way which changes things, even changes ourselves. The Spirit is not there to breathe a constant flow of cool, calming air to keep things steady, always the same.
When we look at nature’s ‘breath’ – the wind, we see that sometimes it blows strong, sometimes less strong. Sometimes it will blow where we want it to blow and sometimes it will blow in a direction we might not be comfortable with. So it is with God’s breath breathing into the Church, into our personal life of faith, or into society and the broader human family. As the Spirit moves within the institution of the Church, it may blow cobwebs away, throwing light into dark corners, throwing new light onto old problems, and throwing new light onto new problems. As the Spirit breathes into our personal life of faith – particularly at this time when the structures of our faith observance are challenged – we may find things are blown around a bit. To some this may seem bewildering, even frightening, but whatever may emerge will, for the Church, confirm it more profoundly as a living Body of Faith than a church of institutional structure, and on a personal level, a life of deeper faith not merely a religious conformism.
Whatever challenges the Spirit puts before us individually, as the Church, or in broader society, we should remember that the Spirit is also called the Comforter – a word that is not about softness but, from the Latin con fortis, is about giving strength. Strength to fulfil the ‘good purpose’ which St Paul says is why the Spirit is given to each person.
‘Come, Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.’