The Bible describes Pentecost as if it were the opening scene of a movie. The camera pans in on ancient Jerusalem. The narrow streets are crowded with people who have come to celebrate the feast of Shavuot, commemorating the day God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
They have pilgrimaged here from all over the known world. Though we are told that they are all devout Jews, they speak different languages, come from different social classes and, influenced by living in the diaspora, espouse different religious philosophies.
Now the camera pans in closer, down a winding street to a single house. Inside, we find the Jewish leaders of the Jesus movement. They too are celebrating Shavout when, suddenly, like a shock wave, they experience a staggering religious vision – an encounter with the Living Spirit of God. They are transfixed and transformed.
What happened that day to the followers of Jesus inside that room, and later to the teeming crowds outside in the streets, may have happened to everyone at the same time, but it was by no means one collective experience. Each person encountered the Living Spirit of God in a profoundly personal way, or as Luke puts it in the Acts of the Apostles, each person heard it in their own language.
To paraphrase writer Anais Nin, we don’t experience things as they are, we experience things as we are. As Christians, we know that the Living Spirit of God continues to act upon us to this day. And, as on that first Pentecost, we experience the Spirit as we are, in our own unique way.
Like the first disciples, we too are designed to be conduits of the Pentecost experience, which is another way of describing the uncontrollable presence of the Divine in our lives. Even when we are unaware, we can become vehicles of that grace, working through us as it will. We have all experienced being touched by the grace at work in those who love us. It shifts us - changes us - frees us. It is healing work. It is the miraculous presence of Love.
Jesus taught us to be communal (Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. Mt 18:20). Over the subsequent two thousand years, we Christians have organized ourselves into religious denominations, which have passed the message of Jesus on from age to age. Human community needs organization for clarity and consistency, and tradition provides us with continuity.
But through the years, dubious human efforts at clarity, consistency and continuity have so complicated the institutional Church that many today are unable to hear Jesus’ message in a language we can understand. Along the way, we lost sight of the unique and uncontrollable way that Divinity works in an individual life. We tried to domesticate the Spirit by proclaiming a one-size-fits-all approach to faith and belief.
But, like the noise of a strong driving wind, the untamable Spirit of God is rattling the doors of the Church today, reminding us of the urgent need to allow for a variety of experiences of the Living Spirit of God. We are being challenged from many directions to think more holistically about the ways we organize ourselves.
Perhaps the place to begin is to ask what it means to be a human person loved into existence by God?
How does that impact the way we see one another? Who then is worthy of full communion with the Church? Who then is worthy of pastoral leadership in the Church?
Jesus taught the Reign of God – a new way of being in the world. Today, the Spirit continues to draw us – not to what has been, but toward what can be.
To quote Fr. Richard Rohr – it is time for the Church to:
take its Christian head off,
shake it wildly,
and put it back on.