Jun 4, 2017

Pentecost Sunday - The River flows

"And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit . . ."

Acts 2: 1-11
1 Cor 12: 3b – 7, 12-13
Jn 20: 19-23

About two weeks ago, Pope Francis met in Genoa, Italy as part of his visit, with a group of priests, sisters, and seminarians for that local Diocese. He was asked about his feelings on the state of the Church and positions that are labeled “right” and “left” leaning, in the same way we take political positions that we might say are more conservative or progressive, which frankly should not be used in the case of the Church.

The Holy Father used what I though was a wonderful metaphor for the Church.  He said: “The Church is like a river: the important thing is to be in the river.  If you are in the center or more to the right or to the left, but within the river, this is a legitimate variety.  Many times we want the river to narrow only on our side and condemn others.  This is not fraternity.  Everyone inside the river. All.”

Where do you stand in the “river” of the Church? While differing opinions and emphasis about important focus for ministry is understandable, to be genuine members of the Church, faithful to the Gospel, we need to be standing side by side, together, in the flow of grace called the Holy Spirit that gives life to the Church.  As long as everyone is standing in the river, we are of the Church and all have a place.

What holds us together and avoids extreme positions?  The breath of forgiveness and mercy we extend from Christ to one another.  In the Gospel we hear Jesus breaths on the Apostles and says: "Receive the Holy Spirit, Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them . . ."  Not only in the sacrament of Reconciliation do we find the breath of the Spirit's healing through God's mercy but we must always extend that gift to one another.  

Sometimes we may find those who are far to the right or left who stand on the shore and hope the river will come over to their side.  Yet, the measure of the Spirit is the gift of unity that the Spirit brought that first, explosive and windy day when the Apostles were at prayer along with Mary the mother of Jesus.  In diverse languages the Apostles were energized and went out to proclaim the good news of Jesus and the gift of salvation for all.  They were heard by the multi-language crowd of various cultural diversity assembled outside who were “astounded” by what they heard: “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?” 

This was not a time when God was silent like the whispering sound to the prophet Elijah.  But God comes with energy and force that catches attention and profoundly changes hearts and lives. Despite the barrier that varied language can cause between people, that wall was now removed as all heard the same message about the “mighty acts of God.”

This unity within diversity is, I think, the genius of Catholic Christianity.  When the tall, large door barring relationships between Jew and Gentile was finally lifted through the ministry of Paul, at the sign of the Spirit, the Church was forever changed and the fresh wind of the Spirit could blow.  So it is this inclusiveness of Catholic Christianity that is a powerful sign of the Holy Spirit within the Church. 

When the Apostles, as we read in the Book of Acts, opened the door to the Gentile communities who embraced the message of the Gospel preached to them, and the Spirit showed itself among them, the very Christ centered mission of the Church became apparent.

From 1 Corinthians 12, our second reading, we read: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; different forms of service but the same Lord . . . the same God . . . as a body is one through it has many parts . . . are one body.”

What is the point of these verses?  - Unity in diversity.  From a broken and fractured and alienated world, the power of the Spirit brings together as one: all in one place . . . gathered in a large crowd . . . we hear in our own tongues . . . different gifts but same Spirit . .. one Lord, one God, many parts but one body. This unity among diversity is God’s intent for his Church. 

The Second Vatican Council through Pope St. John XXIII who sensed the call of the Spirit, challenged the Church to open the window to fresh air and to reassess the place of the Church in the world.  Post Vatican II experience showed that to be a moment of chaos for some and a new creative freedom for others.  It has taken time to restructure and renew our lives accordingly because it really is more about a new perspective and review of purpose for the Church.  The fresh breath of the Spirit has brought us to see an explosion of lay ministries for example and a new understanding, which is really a return to a more ancient understanding of the role of authority in the Church and the purpose of its mission.    

Rather than seeing differences as a point of separation, the Spirit of God sees them as a reason for union.  This truth reveals to us that in spite of differences we are all loved by the same God; we are all his children each made in his image and likeness as the Book of Genesis reminds us. We all have a meaning and purpose to contribute to the whole.

The beauty of creation and of human life is expressed in a kind of kaleidoscopic way like bits of colored glass that by themselves have no useful purpose but put together in a pattern they become parts of the whole.  It is the Spirit of truth which we all were born into through baptism and confirmation that makes us one; each in its own giftedness.

When we gather for word and sacrament we do so not as individual isolated families or couples or singles.  We gather in one place to welcome the risen Christ among us who feeds us with himself as we continue this journey of life in service to him and one another. It is during the celebration of Mass that we see the gift of the Spirit’s unity among diversity most beautifully displayed. 

So, we have a choice to respond to the proposition God has made to humanity:  to embrace the power of unity and peace or to remain in division and our own arrogance of self-superiority.  There is much that could divide us from politics to culture to economics and education.  But today’s Feast is a reminder that God has created a family of the Spirit and a place to enter with Christ himself as shepherd. The Spirit guards the truth among us so we have a direction to follow in confidence.  May the noisy wind of the Spirit keep us in the river of the Church where we all find grace and peace.   

O God, who by the mystery of today's great feast
sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation
pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit
across the face of the earth
and, with the divine grace that was at work
when the Gospel was first proclaimed,
fill now once more the hearts of believers.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)