“Each one heard them speaking in his own language.”
That line of the first reading always amazed me. As I pictured it, I could just see people standing there in Jerusalem, and all at once these men start preaching and everyone hears them in his or her own language. It must have been an amazing experience. Certainly the message had to be powerful, but for each to hear it in his or her own native tongue had to boost the power of the experience for each of them. This was the power of the Holy Spirit on display for all the world to see.
That powerful experience helped to ignite the fire that was the early Church. If not for this amazing experience, we wouldn’t have the Church today. Because Jesus returned to the Father and they sent forth the Spirit, those early apostles preached the word to everyone and the Church was fostered that brings us the faith in our own day. This is why Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church.
What I think is important to note about that experience is that the gift of the Holy Spirit enabled the Church to speak the Gospel to everyone. Not just those who spoke Hebrew, or even Greek or Latin. The reading from Acts is clear:
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.
So this gift of the Spirit helped the primitive Church to universalize the Gospel message. Christ desired that we would all be one; we’ve heard that over and over in the Gospel readings during the Easter season. This gift of the Spirit underscores just how universal that unity was intended to be.
That experience enabled a sixth century African author to preach this in a sermon on this day:
Therefore if somebody should say to one of us, “You have received the Holy Spirit, why do you not speak in tongues?” his reply should be, “I do indeed speak in the tongues of all men, because I belong to the body of Christ, that is, the Church, and she speaks all languages. What else did the presence of the Holy Spirit indicate at Pentecost, except that God’s Church was to speak in the language of every people?”
And so she does. Thanks be to God, the Gospel is preached all over the world every day. And souls continue to be won for the Lord. But for that Gospel to be believed, for it to be adopted and lived, it needs to be backed up by the way that we live. Many people may miss our preaching, but they can’t fail to notice our living – one way or the other. As Saint Francis once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
Sometimes words fail us. We might not know the right thing to say in any situation, but in those moments, our actions can preach much louder than our speaking. We often experience that when someone close to us has lost a loved one, or is grieving in some way. Words aren’t going to make that all better, but our presence and being there for them says much more than our words could ever say. That presence may be just the right thing to say at that time.
I experienced that same kind of thing this week as I watched the video, over and over, of the horrifying murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. I think, by now, it should go without saying that treating another human being that way in any situation is objectively wrong. But what is also wrong is the still present racism that underlies the whole situation, and others like them, including the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. The fact that these situations happen over and over frankly means that we aren’t speaking the Gospel in every time and place. Because there is no room in the Gospel message for racism, bigotry, and any kind of rhetoric that seeks to smooth those things over or make excuses for them. They are objectively wrong, period.
What do we say in the face of these horrifying events? Honestly, I don’t know what we can say. Even “I’m sorry” rings hollow when the structures that continue to make these things happen persist. We need to speak the Gospel in these situations by the way we live our lives. We need to make it our life’s work to accept every person as if he or she were Christ, because that is what the Church has taught us always and in every age. If the Gospel is to mean anything in the world today, we have to be people who inconvenience ourselves to love others before we do anything else, or our preaching will continue to ring hollow.
And we have no better example for this than our Lord Jesus Christ, who took on the worst in us because he saw the best in us. He it is who took our sins – our sins – to the cross, and rose to everlasting glory that we might have the same – all of us. He it is who returned to the Father and with him sent their Holy Spirit upon the earth that we might all be one, that we might, as Saint Benedict has said, go together to everlasting life.
This broken world needs to hear the preaching in our actions, in the way we treat every person, so that this world can become the Kingdom of God. We may well be the only time someone ever sees Jesus; may the preaching of our lives be so strong that they can’t fail to see Jesus in us.
Come Holy Spirit! Renew the face of the earth!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!