Pentecost homily preached at Good Shepherd Church, Beverly Hills, May 23, 1010
I am a web developer. I work in Hollywood and live in Miracle Mile. So Wednesday evening I was driving south on La Brea. As you know, there are many Orthodox synagogues in that area, and the streets were filled with faithful Jews walking to synagogue. Whole families, everywhere you looked. Probably hundreds of people, all celebrating.
Wednesday was the great Jewish harvest festival called Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks because it is celebrated 50 days after Passover. At the time of Jesus, Shavuot was a pilgrimage feast, which meant that everyone came to the Temple in Jerusalem. Many came from distant lands, the conquered peoples of many nations. These Jews of the Diaspora spoke Greek as the international language of business and government; they even read the Jewish scriptures in Greek. They had a Greek name for this festival as well. They called it Pentecost.
Jerusalem was filled to capacity for this harvest festival. There were crowds everywhere, festive meals and parties. And in the midst of this chaos, something extraordinary happened.
Today’s account from Acts of the first day of Pentecost seems a bit neat and tidy. It’s like the icons we see of Pentecost; the Twelve Apostles and Mary seated in neat rows with identical flames over each of them, evenly spaced in the composition. But the reality of Pentecost is far different. It was really a sort of holy chaos. It was messy and created problems.
When we read the sections of Acts that come just before and just after today’s reading, we get a more dramatic picture of what happened. First of all, we tend to assume the Holy Spirit came upon only the Twelve and Mary. But in the lead-up to this scene we learn there were 120 people present in that room.
When all these disciples of Jesus received the Holy Spirit, they piled out of the house giddy with such joy and excitement that people accused them of being drunk. Peter took offense at this. “How can we be drunk?” he asked, “it’s only nine in the morning!”
And then they all began to spontaneously preach. One hundred and twenty of them. At the same time. What a mess!
Now you’d think they would have spoken Greek. They knew there were people from everywhere in the known world there, and they all had to learn Greek.
It would have made sense to speak Greek. It would have been simpler, neater. But that’s not what the Spirit had in mind. Instead, each person heard the Good News in his or her own native tongue, the language they used to tuck their children in at night and to tell stories around the hearth. This was holy chaos.
And you can imagine what a mess it was. Big crowds of people pushing against each other, 120 people preaching, everyone hearing different languages, and then 3,000 people deciding to join the disciples, right then and there. Three thousand. Three thousand people asking questions and arguing and having to have things explained multiple times.
I think some of us might have looked with despair on this scene. What’s the plan? Did no one develop talking points? Why is everyone talking at once?
But there was no plan. There was only the Spirit.
One day in 1962 a few months before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII was talking with Cardinal Leon Suenens, the archbishop of Brussels. John showed the cardinal a stack of draft documents that had been prepared for the Council Fathers to deliberate on; there were 70 of them. The two men looked at this huge stack of papers and realized there was no way that 70 documents could be debated and amended by 2,500 bishops.
John, almost casually, asked Cardinal Suenens if anyone had drawn up a plan for the Council. Suenens was astonished. “Your Holiness,” he said, “do you mean there is no plan?” John smiled and said, “Let’s say there isn’t a plan.” “No plan at all?” Suenens asked again. John said, “Let’s say there is none. Would you write one?”
Now Suenens wound up writing a sort of plan. It was only three points, sort of guiding principles that fit one one piece of paper.
Some might think it was highly irresponsible of John to call a Council without a detailed plan of what he wanted to accomplish. But John had a deep faith in the Holy Spirit. He believed, with all his heart, that the Spirit would guide the Council Fathers. And the Council did not always go smoothly; there were many instances of holy chaos, caused mainly by people who had their own plans. But in the end, the Council was a great success. In many ways it changed the world. Of course, this is not to say there was not some messiness and chaos involved. But the movement of the Spirit is not clean and orderly.
It can be terrifying to not have a plan. And certainly we do need to plan for some things. We need strategic plans at work, we need to plan for retirement, we need to pay bills and get hotel reservations for vacations.
But there are times we need to let go of our preconceptions and plans and listen to what the Holy Spirit has to tell us. Throughout our history, when we as a Church have taken risks, that has often led to wonderful things. When we as a Church have taken the safe path, that has often led to disaster.
For the first disciples, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not a one-time event. They continued to follow Jesus without a plan. Along the way they were forced to examine some of their pre-conceived ideas and discovered they were often wrong. For example, the apostles were a little surprised at the idea they should also reach out to non-Jews. As odd as it sounded to them, they examined their assumptions and realized they were wrong in not accepting Gentiles.
Had they not been open to the Spirit, Christianity today would be a small sect within Judaism.
We don’t celebrate Pentecost as a sort of memorial to a historic event; the liturgical year is meant to make each celebration real and present in our own day, and Pentecost is no exception. In fact, Pentecost may the the best example of how the liturgical year makes past events real again in our own lives. To make Pentecost real in our own lives we need to listen, to let go of how we think things should be.
In today’s Gospel reading we heard a promise from Jesus:
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.
It’s easy for us to say we believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church and will protect us until the end of time. But it can be scary to actually act on that belief.
Having no plan does not mean having no ideas. The Holy Spirit is the source of all wisdom, so all good ideas come from the Spirit. To grow we need ideas from everyone, ideas that bring wisdom from all walks of life.
Share your ideas and your passion. It may be a little messy at times, it may seem risky. But we know that in the end the Spirit will smooth everything out.
For you see, as we learn from the story of the First Pentecost, a little holy chaos can go a long way.