Pentecost Sunday 2017
Homily preached by Fr Prior at the Conventual Mass in the Abbey Church on 4th June 2017.
Readings from Year A: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7.12-13; John 20:19-23
In Jerusalem, in the area believed to have been where King David had his palace, there is a two-story building. The ground floor is where King David is said to have been buried, and the room on the upper floor is said to be the place where the disciples gathered for the Last Supper, and where they re-assembled after the crucifixion in fear for their own lives. It was here that Jesus appeared to them, though the doors to the room were locked. Furthermore it was in that room that the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost and transformed them from a group that had lost all confidence into a community which was able to proclaim the Good News, and gave them the power to forgive sins. And that it was in the same room that the early church met to decide how to treat Gentile converts – the event that we know as the Council of Jerusalem.
It has to be admitted that the present upper room, the Cenacle, simply cannot be the original room: the architecture is fourteenth-century gothic. And I must point out that no-one has to believe that all these four events – the Last Supper, the first appearance of the Risen Christ, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the first Council of the Church, all happened in the same place. But what we do need to recognise is the intimate connection between the Eucharist, the Resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and the continuing guidance of the Church. That is what the tradition testifies to, and the scriptures we have heard make that connection clear.
St Paul says that the Holy Spirit does three things. It makes us able to testify, to proclaim our faith, to say Jesus is risen, that Jesus is Lord, in other words to stand up for our belief that Jesus, the man who lived and breathed and walked on the earth, the man who was born in squalour in Bethlehem and died a criminal’s death just outside the city of Jerusalem, the man who worked miracles and healed the sick, the man who gathered a dozen and more followers and taught them, that man was also God. This is quite a statement, and something that both his Jewish audience and his gentile hearers, would find very difficult. It is a claim that Jesus was both man and God. And it is only the power of the Holy Spirit, and the insight that the Spirit gives us, that enables us to first of all see this is true, and then gives us the courage to tell other people about it.
Then Paul goes on to give a second effect of the Holy Spirit, and that is for service. He points out that there are all sorts of different forms of service: just as in his day so in ours also. Just think of the ways in which people serve each other now. Even if we limit it to unpaid service, or at least, service that is undertaken not as a career, there are so many varieties. First of all, within the family; then there are those who care for the sick, those who keep in touch with the housebound, those who go shopping for the people who can’t get there any more, the people who cut the hedges of neighbours or mow the grass. All this is service, as is those occasions when strangers perform simple acts of kindness, gestures of help, where the decision to help costs something in time and in money.
There are all sorts of service, says St Paul, but it is always to the same Lord. Whatever we do for the least of the followers of Jesus, we do for him, and indeed to him. It can be something very demanding of our time or of our wealth, or it might be something very simple. Even a drink of water, a cup of tea, a slice of bread; whatever it is, we do it for the Lord. But the point is that it is the Holy Spirit that prompts us to do it. It is the Holy Spirit which opens our eyes to see the needs of the other person, and gives us the strength to help in the way that is needed.
Then St Paul goes on to speak of the third effect of the Holy Spirit, and that is to build up the community of the faithful. In various places in his letters Saint Paul speaks of the body. It is a very powerful image. We are the body of Christ. We are so closely united to him, and through him, we are united to each other. We belong together, and as a single unit we are far more powerful, more sensitive, more imaginative, than we ever could be on our own.
The Spirit forgives our sins and forms us into this new unity. The Spirit keeps us together in a dynamic, organic unity, and the Spirit makes no distinctions between the different origins of the various people in the Church. It does not matter how old or young you are; it does not matter how skilled or knowledgeable you are; it does not matter where you were born, what colour you are, how rich or poor you are. The Spirit ignores all these distinctions that we tend to make, separating people into different groups, and forms us all together into one body, the Body of Christ.
And the Spirit is called down on the bread and wine in the Eucharistic Prayer, as we all pray for it to become the Body and Blood of Christ, the nourishment for the ecclesial body of Christ.
In fact, of course while we think of it a disadvantage to have variety in the body, the church, the Spirit realises that this is a good thing. It is easy for us to think, wouldn’t be much easier if everyone was just like me? But we would be very wrong to think that. Frankly it would be torture if everyone was like me. That is a vision of hell. No, variety gives interest. Variety gives a range of skills and different talents. That is one of the lessons of the image of the body. The arm and the leg are different. If they were the same, we would lack the variety of different faculties that we have been blessed with.
These are all gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are practical gifts; they are gifts that the early Christians needed, they are gifts that the Church of our day needs also. We could easily add to the list of practical gifts that we need, but gifts of faith and the courage to express that faith, gifts of service and the gifts of variety and unity summarise the sort of things that God gives us.
We pray today for a fresh outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and for God’s blessing today on the Church as a whole, and on each one of you individually.
See also today's edition of Echoes of the Word.