Readings for Pentecost Sunday:Acts 2: 1-11; Ps. 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; I Cor. 12: 3B-7, 12-13; Jn. 20: 19-23. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/051913-pentecost-mass-during-day.cfm
A couple of weeks ago Peggy and I were blessed to attend an extraordinarily powerful spiritual gathering. It was at the home of June Widman, a friend of ours in Berea, Kentucky who lost her husband, Gil Rosenberg, in a tragic car accident one year earlier (See my “In Memoriam” blog entry for Gil under the “Personal” button just below this blog site’s masthead). Our friend’s daughter and son (Jessie and Greg), some co-workers and friends like us were all present at this commemoration potluck. There were about 20 of us in all.
Before eating we gathered in a circle. The “priest” among us – a former Mercy Sister who has a real gift for this sort of thing – started us off reminding us of why we were there and of how quickly (and painfully) the intervening year had passed. There were some readings – most moving for me “Death” by Pablo Neruda, read in both English and Spanish. A recorded musical selection followed.
And then people began sharing memories of Gil – an extraordinarily beloved member of our church community in Berea. (His funeral had been attended by an overflow crowd rarely seen in our Catholic church – and this for a man who was himself Jewish, though a faithful attendee at weekly Mass along with June and their children.) Gil was smart, quick-witted, and very funny. A teacher at a local community college, he was also a soccer and basketball coach for many of our children. Everyone loved him.
And that’s what we talked about. But more than that, Gil’s friends told stories of how they continued to experience his presence during the past year. People told of actual “conversations” they had with him (mostly humorous) as they faced problems or were taking themselves too seriously. They told how memories of Gil’s quirky wisdom helped them muddle through otherwise overwhelming circumstances. It was entirely inspiring.
The whole experience made me think of that first Pentecost experienced by Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. What happened then stemmed from an attempt on their part to keep Jesus’ memory alive. That’s what June and the rest of us were going for in relation to Gil as well. And like June’s gathering (and like Gil himself), Pentecost blended Jewish and Christian elements. “Pentecost,” of course, was originally a Jewish feast. It was celebrated fifty days after Passover.
Whereas Passover celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, Pentecost (seven weeks later) commemorated the giving of God’s Law at Mt. Sinai. Also called “the Feast of Weeks,” Pentecost was a harvest festival like our Thanksgiving. And like the Passover, the feast drew Jews from all over the world to Jerusalem and its Temple. The evangelist, Luke, takes time to make this point. He lists Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene. He refers to travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.
Because of the events recorded in today’s readings, Christians have come to consider Pentecost the “birthday of the Church.”
I used to think of Pentecost as taking place among Jesus’ disciples (the 11 apostles and about 110 others, they say, including many women) who had stayed in Jerusalem following Jesus’ death and resurrection simply awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. However, now that seems unlikely.
Jesus’ followers and inner circle were poor working people. They needed to earn their daily bread. Even John 21:3ff indicates that following the tragic (and later hopeful) events in Jerusalem, several of them returned to Galilee to resume their labor as fishermen.
Then as the feast of Pentecost approached, they must have decided to return to Jerusalem along with all those other pilgrims I mentioned. No doubt they wanted to re-experience “on location” their final hours with Jesus, even returning to the “Upper Room” to do what June and the rest of us did a couple of weeks ago in commemorating Gil on the anniversary of his death. Surely they wanted to break bread together as Jesus had told them to do – but there in the Upper Room. That would make it truly special.
So they returned to Jerusalem at some risk to their own safety. Luke tells us that they kept the doors locked because they were afraid of the same powers that had arrested, tortured and executed Jesus. After all, Jesus’ disciples had been responsible for circulating the rumor that their Teacher was not really dead. They told their friends that he somehow survived the Roman’s attempts to eliminate him. He was alive.
Evidently, word of that “resurrection” had gotten back to officials of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish court whose members were collaborators with the Romans, working with them hand in glove. The Jewish sell-outs well remembered how the carpenter from Nazareth had “stirred up the people” (Lk. 23:5) with his message about God’s revolutionary “Kingdom.” They especially recalled how just before his execution, he had entered Jerusalem to popular acclaim and led that notorious demonstration in the Temple.
As a result of all that, the people took Jesus for their messiah, which meant he was the enemy of Rome and collaborators like the Sanhedrin members. If word got out that “He lives!” the trouble could well start all over again during the Pentecost feast. So the Sanhedrin mobilized its brutal police to hunt down the members of Jesus’ Galilean terrorist gang and solve the Jesus problem once and for all.
Despite such threat, Jesus’ followers gathered in the Upper Room (or perhaps, some scholars say, it was even in the Temple). There in that place so full of memories, they must have recalled the Master’s words and deeds, and how he continued to influence them even in his apparent absence. I’ll bet their stories were just as dear and humorous as June’s friends’ recollections of Gil.
Then suddenly (in John’s version of the Pentecost event) Jesus is standing there in their midst. He tells them not to worry about the police. “Peace be with you,” he says twice. Jesus shows his friends his pierced hands and wounded rib cage. Don’t be worried, he implies, they can kill you and torture you, but like me, you will not really die.
Then Jesus breathes on them all, and they receive his own Spirit – of forgiveness and discrimination in the sense of discernment. His spirit, Jesus promises, will instruct them about forgiveness — and about what they should never overlook. He tells them to continue his work despite any threats from Rome and its collaborators.
Luke’s version of the same event is recorded in the familiar story from Acts which we heard in today’s first reading. Luke calls on imagery from Exodus – wind and fire – to describe the transforming event of Pentecost. Instead of Jesus appearing personally to bestow his Spirit, Luke says the Spirit came in the form of a mighty wind. It was like the wind that dried up the Sea of Reeds in the Exodus. The Spirit came in the form of “tongues of fire” like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites during the dark nights that followed the initial euphoria of liberation from Egypt.
In both cases (John and Luke), the result of receiving Jesus’ Spirit is the same. The disciples are literally encouraged. Their fear entirely disappears. Doors are unlocked. Jesus’ friends are suddenly are out in the street. And everyone can understand the import of their words: Jesus lives! Everyone can understand because Jesus’ message (as always) is about the Kingdom of God. No matter where people come from, famished stomachs speak the same language of hunger. Calloused hands speak the same eloquent “sign language.” Mothers weep the same tears for their sons tortured and victimized by empire.
According to Jesus’ Spirit, it’s the Romans and their collaborators, not Jesus’ followers, who have reason to fear. Their days are numbered. God’s kingdom is at hand. Once again, Jesus lives! The old order is about to be overturned. The first will be last; the last, first. The rich will be poor; the poor, rich. Those laughing now will find themselves in tears; those in mourning will at last find joy.
In their sheer numbers of converts (3000 says Luke that very first day) the crowds from all over the Jewish world protect Jesus’ friends from the Sanhedrin police. We can picture the lawmen on the edges of the crowd rendered powerless by the crowd’s solidarity.
And what’s to be learned from that first Pentecost experience? Could it be that we must keep Jesus’ memory alive – as the prophetic preacher of God’s Kingdom in the here and now, not in the sky somewhere after death? (Shouldn’t that be the purpose of our weekly gatherings for worship and the Lord’s Supper?) Is the lesson of today’s feast that believers must insist on speaking in language that anyone can understand – the language of the working classes, the hungry, and of mothers in mourning? Is it that a measure of the truth of our beliefs is the degree of threat we feel from empire and its collaborators as a result of the beliefs we fearlessly profess? Is it that followers of Jesus should refuse to accept division but unite instead with a solidarity that protects us from the same forces of empire and its collaborators that threatened Jesus’ first followers?
The truth is that there’s much to learn from Pentecost. June’s and her children’s devotion to Gil Rosenberg along with his friends’ recollections and experiences of Gil’s “real presence” remind us of the nature and purpose of that first Pentecost gathering. It was not only to recall what Jesus said and did in terms of resistance to Rome and its oppression on a macro-level. For us it can also be about creating Kingdom in our personal lives and with our families as Gil himself did. Besides bringing gifts of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit was the basis of Gil’s humor, non-conformity, attention to the needs of the exploited, and refusal to take himself (or others) too seriously.
If we open ourselves wide, we too can receive all of those gifts. The Spirit can make us fierce advocates of God’s Kingdom. It can help us overcome our very selves, along with our fears of the Empire, its police and religious collaborators.