Pentecost is called the birthday of the church because at the moment the Holy Spirit entered the followers of Jesus, they be-came the body of Christ in the world. The story in the Acts of the Apostles suggests that this birth did not happen without serious birth pangs.
Pentecost marks perhaps the most important transition the fol-lowers of Jesus had to face after he departed from them at the Ascension. He is gone, and they have been told to remain in the city and pray until the Spirit comes. In the 10-day interval between his departure and the arrival of the Spirit, the group enters into an intense time of prayer and soul-searching.
No doubt, many in the group felt deeply unworthy, even ashamed. They had failed Jesus in his hour of greatest need. When told that he had risen from the dead, the Apostles at first doubted the women. They were hiding in a room with locked doors. Even when Jesus appeared to them, some were still slow to believe. Now, in Jesus’ absence, we find a frightened, doubting group, perhaps arguing among themselves, but feeling abandoned and totally unprepared.
Luke tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was with the Apostles and about 120 other believers. This is an important detail, because, in a sense, Mary had already been through this experience three decades earlier. Then, in the town of Nazareth, the same Holy Spirit had overshadowed her as she pondered the meaning of the angel’s words that, with her consent, God’s Word would be made flesh in her womb. She would give birth to a son, Jesus, who was also the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
The same Jesus, now revealed as the crucified and risen Christ, is about to return by the power of the Holy Spirit to his followers. His earthly sojourn is complete, but they will now become his mysterious presence, the body of Christ in the world. They will receive from the Spirit every gift they need to carry out his redemptive work. All the baptized will experience God’s indwelling, empowering them to extend this mystery to all humanity through their preaching, witness and service.
Pentecost happens as a powerful wind shakes the house and a baptism of fire in the shape of tongues descends on the members of the group. Whatever fear and fragmentation they had felt is overcome. They were one in the Spirit, one in faith, hope and love. As a sign of this unity, they found they could preach to the crowds in any language, the symbolic healing of ancient divisions that occurred in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).
In John’s Gospel, Pentecost is telescoped into Jesus death on the cross and his first appearance to his disciples in the upper room, when he breathes forth the Holy Spirit into them. The church is born on Golgatha in breath, blood and water. In the upper room, they learn that the work of the Spirit is mercy. Jesus gives them his own peace. What the disciples freely receive they must now freely give. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. The love Jesus shares with the Father and the Spirit now dwells in them. This is how the world will know that they are his disciples.
Pentecost reminds us that we are now the church, the body of Christ in the world. It is our turn, and the Spirit gives us everything we need to complete the mission.