A couple of weeks ago, one of our younger parishioners attended Sunday Liturgy wearing a t-shirt displaying a modulus function equation. A modulus function is an abstraction that renders the absolute value of a number. Absolute values are useful for plotting graphs or collating statistics.
All mathematical operations are abstractions. It doesn’t matter, for example, whether one counts the number of people attending Sunday Liturgy, the number of cars in the parking lot, or the number of Bulletins left on the floor of the church building, the numbers used are always the same one, two, three, etc., because numbers are abstractions. The t-shirt was funny because it used an abstract concept in a very concrete way. The reverse operation, namely, transforming a concrete reality into an abstract concept, does not always work so well.
Pentecost is often described as the birth of the Church. This description is based on the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles; in that version of the sending of the Spirit, the Apostles began to preach about Jesus’ resurrection after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. John’s Gospel contains a different account of the outpouring of the Spirit. In John’s Gospel, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit on the evening of the day of the Resurrection. Some Scripture commentators like to compare the Christian feast of Pentecost with the ancient Jewish feast of Pentecost. The ancient Jewish feast was a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai; the Christian feast is then compared to the giving of the new law of love by Jesus.
These ideas above, and many more, are accurate descriptions, but they can remain merely ideas, that is, abstractions. The Apostles’ experience of Pentecost was not an experience of abstract concepts; rather, it was a unique, concrete event that had very specific consequences for the Eleven and the wider group of disciples.
The differences between the varying accounts of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Scriptures are the result of the various Scriptural authors emphasizing different aspects of the Apostles’ experience of the Resurrection. The details of the accounts differ but the various accounts convey the same message. The post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples are vocational calls that are described in terms similar to the vocational calls of the ancient prophets.
Like Elijah, the Apostles experienced the presence of God as being associated with fire raining down from heaven (1 Kgs 18:38) and a strong, driving wind. (1 Kgs 19:11) Like Jonah, the Apostles experienced large numbers of people repent and turn to God when they preached. (Jon 3:5) The Apostles began to prophesy immediately upon receiving God’s Spirit, just as the seventy elders chosen by Moses had prophesied. (Nm 11:25)
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecost event, was a vocational call for the Eleven. Like the ancient Israelite prophets, they encountered God’s presence. They experienced a crisis of faith. They repented of their lack of faith, and they proclaimed God’s word. Abstract descriptions of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit don’t do justice to the experience of the Eleven; nor do they do justice to our vocational call.
We are the beneficiaries and recipients of the witness of the Apostles. We are offered the same encounter with God they experienced and the same repentance they expressed. These are concrete experiences of the presence of God; when reduced to abstractions, they lose their meaning.
The Scriptural accounts of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles intend to teach us what to look for in our own experiences. God called Apostles and disciples to carry the Word of salvation to the ancient Roman Empire. God calls us today to carry the same Word of salvation to our world. The examples of the vocational calls of the Apostles and first disciples help us discern God’s call in our lives. The Scripture readings for this Sunday provide several examples to watch for in our daily activities.
Perhaps, the most obvious indication that one is accomplishing God’s will is the experience recorded in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. A large, diverse group of people heard the Apostles speaking and came to faith in Jesus. Anyone who has brought another person to faith in Jesus as Redeemer has had the experience of hearing and responding to God’s call.
Addressing the Christian congregation at Corinth, Paul wrote, “No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:3) In this context, the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” isn’t a slogan or a bumper-sticker sentiment; rather, it is the heartfelt statement of a person who has experienced reconciliation with God and neighbor through faith in Jesus.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus appeared to the disciples and conveyed his peace on them. This wasn’t a rote greeting; it was his intention to convey to the disciples the abiding peace and tranquility that he experienced as a result of his faith in God. Anyone who has the experience of a peaceful and just life has heard God’s Word and responded in faith.
Before they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were hapless, faithless, and confused. The sudden transformation of their lives was the result of hearing a vocational call from God and responding generously. God offers us the same transformation so that we might live peaceful, just lives and bring others to God by our witness. The signs of our vocational call are plain to see; we have only to respond.