The liturgy for Pentecost Sunday sets before us different aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles we see the power of the Spirit commissioning and enabling the Church through the outpouring of the Spirit on the apostles and the Pentecost assembly. The Letter to the Corinthians emphasises the variety and diversity expressed in the Church through the presence of the Spirit. Finally, in John’s Gospel the Spirit is the abiding peace and forgiveness that both heals and nourishes the Church.
The Acts of the Apostles echoed the imagery of the Old Testament in its description of the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles. The call of Moses at the burning bush, and of subsequent prophets, had been accompanied by wonders that had foreshadowed the mighty wind and tongues of flame that descended upon the Apostles. The outward drama of these manifestations were as nothing compared with the inner transformation of the Apostles. Timid men came alive in the power and presence of their Risen Lord. The effects were immediately obvious. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech.”
As a nation that traditionally struggles with foreign languages of any kind, we should not allow the wonder of this seemingly amazing linguistic gift to overwhelm the deeper significance of the event.
The Apostles began to speak with a God-given transparency and faith, a conviction that moved the hearts of all who heard. Nor was this gift limited simply to the Apostles. An assembly made up of diverse nations was enabled by the same Spirit to both hear and understand. “We hear them preaching in our own language about the marvels of God.”
Without the Spirit, the heart listens only to itself and its own needs, speaking only from itself. Everything else is a foreign language. The Spirit enables us to hear and understand the Christ in our midst, and so we begin to hear and understand each other.
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians introduces the diversity of the Spirit with a fundamental principle that underpins everything else. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ unless he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit.”
Whatever drives and forms the fundamental direction of our lives is, in effect, the Lord of our lives. Only in the Holy Spirit can we break free from the hidden selfishness that so easily enslaves us, enabling us to say, with the Spirit, that Jesus is the Lord of our lives.
Without the Holy Spirit the gift of individuality divides us, ultimately leading to the disintegration of a competitive jealousy. Through the Holy Spirit, though many, we become one. We are enriched rather than threatened by the gifts that distinguish each person. “There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit working in sorts of different ways in different people.”
John’s Gospel describes the hidden gifts that are the foundations of the Spirit in our lives. Jesus breathed into his disciples
a Spirit of peace and forgiveness. The shifting sands of frail humanity can guarantee neither the peace of heart for which we long nor the forgiveness that brings reconciliation to broken lives. These were the gifts of Christ as he breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples.
“He said to them: ‘Peace be with you’ After saying this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.’ ”