PENTECOST HOMILY 2021 by Fr David Tomlins
There is a certain logic in the ordering of the books of the New Testament. However, my logic would like to re-arrange them slightly so that the Gospel of Luke is followed immediately by Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles. It’s not just another book. It is part two of the same story. The other three evangelists also tell the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and perhaps a brief commissioning of the disciples: “Go, and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). Mark does add: “And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them…” (Mark 16:20). Luke says emphatically that the ministry of Jesus was not the end of the story. He expands Mark’s “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them…” This is the narrative of Acts, it is Luke’s message to the Church of all ages: the Lord is still working with you and through you to bring the Good News to all people.
The Holy Spirit is a prominent protagonist in Luke’s two books. There are three instances of singular importance. Firstly, at the Annunciation the angel Gabriel tells Mary “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Secondly, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, at his baptism in the Jordan “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22). “And Jesus”, Luke tells us, “full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2). And he enters upon his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth, reading from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”(Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1-2).
Thirdly, Luke, in this morning’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11), provides us with the only presentation of the Pentecost event. “The apostles had all met together in one room, when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven… and something appeared to them like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit”. Luke is speaking here of the group of Jesus’ disciples traumatised by the execution of their leader. Now they are “filled with the Holy Spirit”, set on fire. They exhibit an unaccountable boldness and joy. Pentecost is day one of a new reality; it is the birthday of the Church: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit”.
The Church, each and every Christian disciple from that day forward, is “filled with the Holy Spirit” at baptism and, like Jesus, in the words of Isaiah, “sent to bring the Good News to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Peter, as usual, is straight into it that very morning. Luke writes: “Peter stood up… and addressed them in a loud voice”, quoting the prophet Joel. “‘In the days to come – it is the Lord who speaks – I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…’” They will prophesy, see visions, dream dreams (Acts 2:14-22).
Pentecost 2021 is a special birthday for the Church in Australia. Why? It is special because we are all being called to come “together in one place” (Acts 2:1), namely, the fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Church. We have a joint appointment to “listen to what the Spirit is saying” to the churches of Australia today. The first of two assemblies will be held in October of this year, with the second in July of next year. Two preparatory stages have already been completed. We were consulted over a year ago about what we thought God was asking of the Australian Church at this time. Did you take up that invitation? 12,758 individual submissions were received, and another 4,699 group submissions; 222,000 participants in total. An appointed group undertook a discernment of this material based on these submissions. A Working Document (Instrumentum Laboris) was then produced and published (you can find it online). This, in part, will serve as the basis for discussions at the two assemblies. 280 delegates – bishops, priests, religious, and laity – will endeavour to listen to what the Spirit is saying through this wider consultation.
In 2001, at the beginning of the new millennium, Pope John Paul 2 wrote: “Conscious of the Risen Lord’s presence among us, we ask ourselves today the same question put to Peter in Jerusalem immediately after his Pentecost speech: ‘What must we do?’” (Acts 2:37). The fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Church is our asking ourselves that question: “What must we do?” What must we do as a community, here and now, to respond as faithful disciples of Jesus to the leading of his Spirit today and in the years ahead? What must we do for the Good News to be effectively shared with our brothers and sisters?
St Paul, in the second reading (Galatians 5:16- 25), distinguishes between being “guided by the Spirit” and “yielding to self-indulgence”. He provides a checklist that is always worth revisiting. At Pentecost, let’s focus on the signs of being “guided by the Spirit”. Paul insists: “The Spirit brings… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and selfcontrol”. These are not our virtuous achievements. Paul says: “The Spirit brings…” Our part is to allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit. This will result in us all being gathered together in one place, in the Spirit. It is the Spirit who creates communion in the Church, creates the communion that is the Church. As we pray in the third Eucharistic Prayer: “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood may be filled with his Holy Spirit and become one body, one spirit in Christ”.
“What must we do?” The journey of the Plenary Council is already under way. Are we part of it? This is about us. We are the Australian Church. We are responsible for Jesus’ community and Good News in Australia at this time and into the upcoming generation. Nobody else can exercise this responsibility for us. So: “What must we do?”
Perhaps the first thing we must do is be positive, have great expectations because we trust in the Spirit’s presence and activity in our community, the Australian Church. The temptation might be to cynically announce that “they” don’t want anything to change and won’t allow it; or that the process will be highjacked by those with an agenda. No! “The Spirit brings trustfulness”. We must strengthen our confidence that the Spirit desires to be present and active. Next: Be interested. If you haven’t read the Working Paper (Instrumentum Laboris), maybe think about getting it and informing yourself. “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”, not just to yourself. You might then want to contact one of the delegates (to be found online). It is not too late to make your thoughts known to someone who will be there. Above all, pray constantly in the time ahead for the Spirit’s will to be made manifest and brought to fruition. Be positive. Be interested. Pray constantly.
The Risen Jesus told his disciples when he was at table with them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and then you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth”. Then “when the day of Pentecost came round, the apostles had all met together in one room, when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven… and something appeared to them like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit”. We, too, the Australian Church of 2021, have been called to wait in prayer for the Spirit to empower us to be witnesses and instruments in renewing the face of the earth.