I would donate a pile of money to a worthy cause for the privilege to have been a fly on the wall in the Upper Room on the morning of Pentecost! What happened up there? None of the eyewitnesses present passed down a written record for us to know.
To gain insight into the transforming nature of the Holy Spirit, however, we can ponder the change wrought in the apostles through the Pentecost experience. Before they enter the Upper Room, the followers of Jesus are afraid, not sure what to do next, and are silent about their relationship with the risen Christ. Anointed in the power of the Holy Spirit through wind and flame, they emerge into the streets of Jerusalem, united, courageous and articulate in their proclamation of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah.
In reflecting on the Pentecost experience as the birth and foundation of the church, we clearly see how the Holy Spirit forms and energizes the evangelizing mission given to us by Christ himself. Only after the Paraclete’s anointing can Simon Peter, who denied even knowing Jesus on Holy Thursday night, look his killers in the eye and proclaim the resurrection to them, not in a condemnatory tone but an invitational one.
So magnetic was Peter’s evangelizing message that morning that 3,000 people were baptized in an explosion of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of God helped the early church make sense of its experience of Christ and gave it the courage to profess it publically.
We can learn how to better evangelize the world today by reflecting on the Pentecost experience which ignited the great saving mission of the church. One key reason for the extraordinary growth of the early Christian community was its unity.
The first believers gathered around the apostles, celebrated the Eucharist, shared their possessions in common, prayed over the sick, assembled in the temple to praise God, in all things, genuinely loving each other. Paul and Peter may have debated over whether Gentiles had first to become Jews before they could become followers of Jesus, but a deep unity, centered on belief in Jesus as Messiah and Christ and the saving power of his Gospel message, bound the church together in an extraordinary communion.
As Catholics, we seek to build, deepen and live that unity today, within the Catholic Church and with all Christians. Perhaps, the greatest stumbling block to proclaiming the Gospel is the disunity of its adherents. If we cannot live in harmony, peace and love with each other, why should anyone want to join us?
Sometimes, the church feels like a fractured collection of varying political parties with differing candidates, agendas and ideologies. Only by living in deep communion with Christ and fidelity to the church and her teachings, can we discover that profound unity for which Jesus prayed before his death.
The early Christians were courageous in their proclamation of Christ. They knew that the Gospel would not only upset the religious authorities in Israel but also the political authorities in Rome. If Jesus is the Lord and Messiah, then no one else is, not even the Roman emperor. Faith in Christ relativizes and subjects all human power, and there will always be people who will not like that.
The apostles did not fashion their message to the fancies of their audience. They proclaimed the truth of the Gospel, regardless of the consequences, whether they were praised and exalted for it or whether they were tortured and imprisoned. The courage of the early Christians in their conviction to die rather than deny their faith remarkably fueled the growth of the church.
Are we courageous in our embrace of the Catholic faith? Do we live and profess it whether we are revered or reviled for doing so? Can people see in us the amazing courage of Bartholomew and the serene steadfastness of Perpetua and Felicity?
The witnessing power of one disciple of Christ who is willing to sacrifice leisure time, reputation, popularity, money, a job and even life itself for the sake of being faithful to Christ is extraordinary. The lives and deaths of Agnes, Polycarp, Thomas More and the martyrs of El Salvador never fail to stir my vision and inspire my faith.
The Holy Spirit made the apostles articulate in their profession of Christ and the faith. A motley band, composed mainly of uneducated fishermen, became philosophers and theologians who were able to express their religious experience in such a compelling fashion that thousands joined them.
In his conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip is able to explain the prophet Isaiah in the context of Jesus’ passion and death. Paul unfolds the first theology of Christ and the church in his epistles. John and his followers articulate divine love as the source and center of Christianity. The early church succeeded so well because she could explain what she believed.
We will only evangelize effectively to the extent that we can do the same. Catechesis and adult formation are burning necessities for us if we hope to equip the average Catholic in the pew with such a fundamental grasp of the faith they can articulately witness to Christ and his church in a world that increasingly misunderstands and rejects the proposal of the Gospel.
We cannot afford to neglect the study of our Catholicism if we hope to bring others to belief. This need for religious formation is a key component of our archdiocesan effort to help parishes become dynamic centers of evangelizing activity.
As we celebrate Pentecost this Sunday, may the Holy Spirit compel us to proclaim Christ wherever we find ourselves – in an office, a hospital bed, a restaurant, a gymnasium or a living room – by living in unity, believing with courage and professing with knowledge. The early Christians had no spiritual gifts that we ourselves have not received. Let’s go set the world on fire for Christ!