The manifestation of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost confronts us with a challenging contrast to the world inhabited by most. Through the Holy Spirit fear was banished and the Apostles began to preach with an infectious joy rooted in the Holy Spirit. Generations of difference and suspicion were broken down in an understanding that united the diverse peoples gathered in Jerusalem.
This was indeed the birth of the Church, the new life of God’s saving presence in a broken world. Like any birth, without in any way denying the difficulties that might lie ahead, it was full of promise.
Pentecost’s greatest promise was that sinful humanity, redeemed in Jesus Christ and brought to life in the Spirit, could become God’s healing presence in the world.
The challenge is first and foremost to ourselves. Because we are sinners, we live with divided hearts, no less complex than the divided peoples assembled in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost. Our divided hearts are reflected in our broken relationships and the bitter divisions that continue to divide nations.
The first Pentecost was indeed the birth of the Spirit in the hearts of the faithful. It was, at the same time, a programme for what must unfold in every life: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ unless he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit.” We can pass over the familiar words of St Paul as an empty slogan from the past, or we can hear them afresh and allow them to speak to our lives.
To say that Jesus is Lord is to confess that all that we are is rooted in him and finds its meaning only in him. We long to say this, but as St Paul himself confessed, we are far from having achieved this. For St Paul, the turning point came when he realised that he could not achieve this of himself.
Then, and only then, did he entrust a sinful life to the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. When we surrender our lives to the Holy Spirit, the possibilities reach far beyond our disappointed hopes. This turning point is the constantly renewed Pentecost promised by the Holy Spirit for every believer.
St John’s account of the gift of the Holy Spirit, contrasted with that in the Acts of the Apostles, is both reflective and prayerful. It is rooted in the peace that the Risen Lord brought to troubled hearts. It is intensely personal in its description of a Holy Spirit breathing new life into the heart of his disciples. It speaks of a mercy and forgiveness that must be taken to the world.
This article first appeared in the May 13 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.