At Ascension Day we left the apostles in the Temple at Jerusalem, and this morning during the Sunday service we heard the first part of the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, which in continuity with the ending of Luke’s gospel addresses the question of: “What now? What happened after Jesus left?” Did they stay in the Temple forever?” That would have been a very idyllic ending.
No, something happened. As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit came and empowered the disciples to proclaim the gospel to all the nations.
Today’s reading then begins where the first part of the story of Pentecost ends. Peter stands with the eleven and addresses the crowd that seems to be amazed and skeptical at the same time at the strange phenomenon of those Galileans speaking in tongues. I know by experience how hard is to learn a new language. The learning process would take time, but eventually you’d feel the reward of cracking the code and being able to open the door to a new world, made of values, principles, literature, art and religion, faith and spirituality, which will call culture.
That same experience allows me to grasp some of this extraordinary journey at the end of which you are able to think, feel and absorb the culture, values, and message embedded in the words almost as your own language. The difference between my personal experience and the crowds and the disciples’ experience at Pentecost is that for them it was something instantaneous while in my case, it took years of study. Nevertheless, when learned, languages become like codes or keys or- I would better say- channels through which the knowledge and the message, and essentially the person of Jesus become accessible to anyone.
Now as much as this phenomenon of speaking in other languages must have been extraordinary, do not seem to be the most important part of the story. Interestingly the Acts do not report what the disciples were saying to the crowd while speaking in tongues, but just describe it. To an attentive audience it would immediately referrer to another text of the Bible which relates exactly the opposite of Pentecost. In the book of Genesis, we hear the story of Babel, where God confuses the nations that were trying to build a tower to reach heaven, and languages were more obstacles than a means to communicate with other people.
Instead, here the author of the Acts wants us to listen carefully to Peter’s speech. Why? And why is Joel’s prophecy so important to be the point to be literally quoted almost in its integrity during his speech?
What prophet Joel describes in his prophecy is essentially a solar eclipse. What some apocalyptic American preachers would call the “Blood Moon prophecy”, which would foretell the end of times. What is the meaning of a solar eclipse? To the ancient Chinese, solar eclipses meant that dragons were devouring the sun. To the Czechoslovakians, they meant that ice giants, bitter enemies of the sun, were conquering it. To the Romans, they meant that the sun was poisoned and dying. Now according to the Talmud there is spiritual explanation to the solar eclipse that signifies a harsh period. However, in Joel’s prophecy the solar eclipse still signifies the Day of the Lord that follows the locust plague and will be preceded by the outpouring of the Spirit of God upon all flesh. Now we can understand why this quote from Joel’s book is so important to Peter. The outpouring of the Spirit, prompting the phenomena observed in the apostles, is the fulfillment of that which was prophesied by the prophet Joel.
Two things were necessary for the establishment of Israel’s kingdom: (1) the death of Messiah and (2) the availability of the Holy Spirit. When Peter preached his famous sermon, the death of Christ as an historic fact. All that remained, then, was the provision of the Spirit, which Peter identifies with the outpouring of the Spirit that prompted the speaking in tongues of Acts 2. With the availability of the Holy Spirit, together with the death of Messiah, all that is necessary for the establishment of Israel’s kingdom has been provided.
In this perspective, Pentecost is the beginning of the Church lead by the Holy Spirit. It is fascinating to see how the gospel readings and the Acts complement each other while describing the foundations of the Church. In John’s gospel the Church is born from the open wound in Christ’s side hanging on the cross from where it gushes water and blood, and actively proclaim its message to the world at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Spirit, which is its second and final birth as a Church and empower it to its mission in the world.
Now what sort of Church has been born at Pentecost? Clearly not an exclusive one. We just heard that the diversity of languages or cultures would not be an obstacle to the evangelization, but rather a richness to the mission. Those who are listening to the disciples are a mist of Jewish people and gentiles, which means foreigners, or immigrants. Peter’s message to the crowd is inclusive: “Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each…”. They are all included.
This is certainly one the first feature of the Church. The second important feature is universality or equitability, which means that God offers, grants, and distributes God’s own Spirit freely, equitable, and justly to all of us. A third important feature and, indeed, consequent impact in our lives is the empowerment. In order to be able to speak for God, firstly we learn to speak to God through prayer and worship. What Pentecost tells us is that prayer to God is not just an empowerment by God, but even more is God the one who empowers the very prayer itself through the Holy Spirit. The free gift of the Holy Spirit enables our prayer, because it’s the same Spirit already within us who cries out Abba, Father. The question is: how do we prepare for, maintain, and deepen God’s free gift of that Spirit in our lives? Is there any secret we need to know? What the book of Psalm would probably say is prayer -like any other human matters- mature over time and through practice. We learn how to pray as well as we learn how to be better witnesses of Jesus in this world by practising our values, nurturing them in our families and children, promoting the public life of our Local Community and not being ashamed to proclaim our faith to the world.
Does all this have anything to do with the general election vote due this Thursday? We certainly ask for wisdom when we pray before going to vote. I hope that everyone of you will pray before going to vote.
Prayer has also the power to help victims of terrorism overcome the pain of isolation -said the Archbishop of Canterbury encouraging people to join the “great wave of prayer” that ends today on Pentecost. Do we believe in the power of prayer? Justin Welby says that “prayer moves us closer not only to God, but to one another. It connects us with those whom we otherwise cannot see. Prayer breaks down division; in prayer we take each other’s hands and find our safe stronghold”.
Reflecting on Pentecost and the meaning and presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily prayer and life, it is worthwhile asking ourselves: “When we pray, do we pray for God’s intervention, or is God praying for our collaboration?”