Surprise! – Ben Sim, SJ

John 20:19-23, Pentecost

In a small town near a South American border, there once lived a young man by the name of Angelo. One day he crossed the border and came back with a donkey carrying sacks of sand. And when the custom inspector asked what he was smuggling in the sand, Angelo quickly replied, “Nothing.” So all the sand  was poured out and shifted through and through before he was permitted to go on.

The next day the same thing happened, and so on through the third day and the fourth day and virtually every other day. And each time, the sand had to be poured out, and Angelo interrogated before he could move on. “I know you think that someday we’ll be careless, Angelo,” said the inspector, “and that’s when you’ll smuggle something across. So, as long as you bring sand across, we’re gonna make you put it through the sieve-screen.”

The process took place for five years, each day Angelo appearing with his donkey carrying sacks of sand. And each day the custom officials pouring out,sifting through it, and then permitting him to go on – until one day, it came to an abrupt stop.

Soon after Angelo began to show signs of prospering. And then he purchased a big home in the little community and opened a thriving business. One day, years later, the custom inspector, who had retired met Angelo on the street. And so he asked him how in the world he had become so prosperous, when he spent so much time hauling sand across the border and never once was anything in it. Angelo smiled and then said to the inspector, “My friend, during those five years, when you were paying so much attention to the sand, I smuggled 1,593 donkeys into this country!”

This little story makes a point in a humorous way what lies at the heart of Pentecost experience: namely, we grow so accustomed to thinking of God in a certain way and looking for God in a certain form, that we often failed to recognize who God really is and where God can actually be found.

The disciples who gathered in the room on that first Pentecost had no idea that God would come upon them in the way He did. They had their mindsets, their way of thinking and relating to God that were very familiar and traditional.

And undoubtedly, they were surprised and shocked beyond words, when they heard the loud noise and the appearance of the tongues of fire. After the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, the officials hoped that the death of Jesus on the cross would put an end to the Christian movement.

But instead, it did just the opposite. The Christian movement began to spread like wild fire. It spread beyond any expectation that by the A.D. 64 it had become a powerful force in faraway Rome.

How did Christianity do that in 30 short years?

The amazing story is told in the Acts of the Apostles. And the starting point for that amazing story is what happened in today’s readings. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had promised to send his disciples, descended upon them on Pentecost and transformed them. This confused body of human beings was transformed into a courageous body of Christian believers. This disorganized band of human beings was transformed into a single body of witnesses, which we now call the Church. But the Church is far more than just a body of believers sharing the same faith – it is the body of Christ sharing a common life.

Pentecost is rightly called the birthday of the Church – the risen body of Christ made visible. There are two things to be considered about Pentecost.

First, Pentecost was a major Jewish feast – a thanksgiving celebration combining gratitude for the year’s harvest with gratitude for the Sinai covenant. Meaning “50”,  Pentecost took place 50 days after Passover. This explains why Jews from all over were gathered in Jerusalem. They were celebrating this great Jewish feast. This also explains why Jews speaking many different languages were gathered together at one time.

Second, Pentecost must be seen against the background of the Tower of Babel story in the Old Testament. Before the building of the tower, all the people spoke the same language. But when pride began to take hold of the people and they began to build the tower, God “confused the speech of all the people” and “scattered them all over the earth.” The coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost reversed this situation. After the Holy Spirit’s coming, the people of different languages in Jerusalem understood what the disciples were saying.

This point is clear. The Holy Spirit now unites what sin had scattered. God was re-creating the world and making it new again. This brings us to each one of us who were baptized in Christ. What the Holy Spirit began on Pentecost was left to us to complete.

Like the disciples of Jesus in today’s readings, each one of us received the Holy Spirit in a personal way through our baptism and confirmation. And like the disciples of Jesus, we received the gift of the Holy Spirit for a purpose. We are to go forth and preach the good news of the Gospel to all peoples. To use St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading, we are to bring all peoples into the “one body” of Christ, where all were “given to drink of one spirit.”

What does this mean in terms of our daily living? What does that mean to each one of us here?

It means that we take an active role in the Church’s work of preaching the Gospel to all peoples. It means that we get involve and support the ministries of the Church with our time and resources. It means that we support the missionary work of the Church with both financial and prayer support.

It also means that we preach the Gospel  in our everyday lives. I believe this is where we Catholics have a lot to learn from our Protestant brethren, especially the Evangelicals or the “Born Again”. Their lay people are much more involved and apostolic. The ones who are active in promoting their beliefs are their lay people. They have far less number of ministers than we have of priests and religious. But their lay people are fired up with zeal to convert others. That’s what makes them sect grow so fast.

We Catholics are much more timid and defensive about our faith. Why?

And when it comes to financial support for the Church and the missionary effort of the Church, they too outshine us Catholics. They are much more generous with their tithing system and big donations with no strings attached. While for most of us Catholics, our pockets and purses are too deep to reach. It’s more difficult to take the money out to support the Church and her missions.

A parish priest of an affluent parish asked: “Why are we the church of the rich at the beginning of Mass….but become the church of the poor when the collection time comes around?”

If what we profess on Sunday we put into practice and live out the other six days of the week, people would be flocking to join us at church on Sundays.

Let’s close with a prayer:

“Come, Holy Spirit, come!

Come as fire to warm us.

Come as wind to cleanse us.

Come as light to guide us.

Come as power to enable us.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

Help us renew the face of the earth!”

Amen.

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