According to the liturgical calendar, Easter is not a feast that the church celebrates only one day of the year. The seven weeks between Easter and Pentecost Sundays are called Eastertide, when the church reflects scripturally on the mystery of the Resurrection.
Bondings 2.0 has created the “Out of the Tomb” series to present reflections on the liturgical readings for these Sundays and Ascension Thursday for our LGBTQ and Ally readership. You can view the readings for today, Pentecost Sunday, by clicking here.
Today’s post is Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv., Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky. Bishop John was a featured speaker at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, in April 2017. In the past few years, he has made a number of statements supporting pastoral affirmation of LGBTQ people. If you would like more information about him, you can find all Bondings 2.0 posts about him by clicking here.
We frequently refer to Pentecost as the “birthday of the church”. Like many great movements in history, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific moment of beginning for the church. Vatican II recaptured the etymological sense of ekklesia, a gathering, in its preferred description of the church as the “People of God”. And from the very beginning, that sense of ekklesia was all-inclusive.
When citing Vatican II on the church, we frequently omit an important adjective: it is the pilgrim people of God on a journey to the Kingdom. The image of a pilgrim assembly actually helps us relate to the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover or after a week of weeks (7 weeks x 7 days), when the Chosen People celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. That assembly on Sinai made a covenant with God, and the church can trace its roots to that event.
We could also look to the moment when Jesus begins to form a community of disciples around himself, inviting them to follow him on his itinerant preaching journey, as a beginning of the church. It is that group of disciples, together with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who are gathered in the house on the Jewish Feast of Pentecost when the awaited Holy Spirit arrives. These disciples who had accompanied Jesus on a pilgrim journey to Jerusalem had witnessed his passing from death to life, or at least they knew he had died and saw him after he rose from the dead. In The story of Pentecost, told by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles , is preceded by the account of Jesus’ ascension to the Father ten days earlier. Jesus made a departing promise to send them the power of the Holy Spirit so that they could be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
As Luke narrates the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were in one house together. They were bewildered after Jesus departed, as they were left standing there with all of their unanswered questions, with their incomplete understanding of his and their mission, more stunned than capable of action. Although Luke does not provide many details, it is not hard to imagine them sharing their experiences of Jesus, recalling the scriptures that Jesus had explained to them as they searched for clues about this Holy Spirit they were awaiting. They certainly broke bread together and surely they remembered how the risen Jesus revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. But they remained enclosed, living in fear, still afraid to reveal to others the truth that they had come to know.
“Suddenly,” Luke says, there is a loud noise like a driving wind (wind and spirit are the same word in the biblical languages) and it filled the house. They were filled with the Spirit and even on fire with the Spirit’s presence- with tongues of fire resting upon each of them. It becomes immediately clear that this incredible moment and this gift from on high is not only for them, but it is to be shared with others.
They begin speaking in different languages with this newfound power of the Holy Spirit. I like to think of that driving wind of the Spirit’s presence, blowing open the doors and windows of that closed house in which the community had been waiting. Doors and windows opening up to the bustling pilgrimage scene on the streets of Jerusalem, a festival of all nations gathered in the Holy City. The message of these uneducated disciples who were considered as outcasts by the religious establishment were eager to share their experience of divine love that is more powerful than even death. This message is heard in a variety of languages and by a great variety of people, and they were so convincing that 3,000 people joined what had been a closed community. The disciples’ newly found courage to be open about the message they had received from God allowed them to help other people discover new depths in their own religious understandings.
The Spirit at work opens the doors, pushes the disciples out into the open, free to authentically share their faith and their new identity as Christians, and the church is born. The community is expanded, their mission begins, Jesus’ mission continues. The church at its origins is a community both intimate and universal; diversity is evident from the outset.
Isn’t this what Saint John XXIII had in mind when he dreamed of an ecumenical council, when he wanted to open the windows of the ancient church to let in the fresh air of the Spirit? He invited the Church from East and West and even those not in communion with Rome to come together so that the Holy Spirit might do something new.
Isn’t this what Francis of Assisi experienced when his exuberance of spirit moved him to renounce the materialism and status that had defined his life and to embrace the outcast and the lepers? The Holy Spirit empowered him to discern how to rebuild the Church by fidelity to the gospel and inclusion of the poor.
Isn’t this what Paul of Tarsus experienced when he saw no reason to exclude the Gentiles from this universal community? A late-comer in comparison to the apostles, he challenged them to be more expansive and inclusive.
Or Dorothy Day when she opened the doors to bring in the homeless? Or Saint Teresa of Calcutta when she cared for dying Hindus and people of all faiths with Christian compassion and mercy?
Isn’t this opening of windows and doors what the founding leaders and supporters of New Ways Ministry were doing as they embraced those wounded by rejection because of their sexual orientation?
Since the beginning of his Pontificate, Pope Francis has made his embrace wide and inclusive. He worries about the church becoming sick because of confinement in a stuffy atmosphere. He leads us towards a new Pentecost, a new birth, where empowered by the Holy Spirit we speak new languages, reach out warmly to those the Church has ignored, and break down barriers. Even those who were once excluded must ask: Who are we called to include?
“God, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth- and the face of your church!”
–Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv., Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, May 31, 2020