Fr. Tom O’Reilly SSC reflects on Pentecost and its connection with the Church’s mission.
In the daily liturgical readings from the Acts of the Apostles for the period from Easter to Pentecost, we hear Luke’s unfolding story of the early Christian mission. The story tells of the spread of the Good News ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). When Luke ends his story with Paul in Rome, the centre of the known world, the dynamism and universal relevance of the Good News have been forcefully demonstrated. Neither persecutions, nor imprisonments, nor expulsions, nor shipwrecks, can halt the onward movement of the Good News towards the ends of the earth. In fact, setbacks often open up new avenues and opportunities for the developing mission of the Christian community. Our liturgical reading of the story draws to a close as we are about to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, which is a timely reminder that the Spirit is the principal agent of mission.
The dramatic descent of the Spirit is described at the beginning of Luke’s story (Acts 2:1-13). We are meant to notice the parallelism with the descent of the Spirit on Jesus at the Jordan, when he begins his mission (Lk 3:21-22). As the Spirit empowered Jesus for mission, so the Spirit will be the driving force in the mission of his disciples. The Spirit enabled disciples, who were fearful and almost paralysed by the shock of Jesus’ death, to run into the streets and begin their mission of proclaiming his resurrection to all. Peoples from different parts of the world hear the Good News on their own wavelength and are brought together into a community transcending linguistic and cultural boundaries. The goal of this Spirit-inspired mission is the formation of cross-cultural communities, which are living witnesses to the Good News proclaimed in mission. There is an essential link between mission and community.
For Luke, Pentecost is not a one-off event, but a recurring experience in Christian mission. At key moments in the unfolding story, he tells us of people having Pentecost experiences. When the disciples first realised that they have to suffer in fulfilling their mission, the Spirit comes upon them to enable them to speak the word of God with boldness (cf. Acts 4:31). As the mission spreads from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, we hear of the Spirit confirming and guiding the work of the missionaries (cf. Acts 8:15-17.29). As Peter speaks to Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, the Spirit descends on them, convincing Peter that Gentiles must be accepted into the Christian community (cf. Acts 10:44-48). The Spirit is the main mover in the decision of the church in Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas on mission to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 13:1-3). When the community is struggling to define the terms on which Gentiles should be accepted, the Spirit is again active in guiding the discernment of the disciples (cf. Acts 15:28). The Spirit leads Paul from Asia to Greece (cf. Acts 16:6-10) and then to Rome (Cf. Acts 19:21). Having read his story, Luke wants us to be in no doubt that, at every step of the way, the Spirit initiates, guides and energises the mission of the Church.
Luke’s story of mission is unfinished and open-ended. He has told us of the missionary commitment and efforts of people like Peter, Stephen, Paul and Barnabas. He wants us to realise that the story he has related is now our story and we are called to play our role in the ongoing universal mission of the Church under the influence of the Spirit.
Mission today needs people who have a real sense of their own limitations and feel the need for God’s empowering and guiding Spirit. Faced with the global challenges of structural injustice, environmental destruction, and increasing tension between peoples of different cultures and religions, missionaries can easily lose heart and wonder what they can possibly do to change the situation. We must not forget, however, that the Spirit is the principal agent of mission. Our task is to discern what the Spirit is doing in our world and offer ourselves as channels of the Spirit’s transforming activity.
To engage in mission in the way of Jesus means loving even those who do not deserve our love, forgiving when it is humanly impossible to forgive, hoping when we see no grounds for hope. Responding to these gospel imperatives is beyond human strength. But the Spirit can transform us and make us effective instruments in the hands of God who is bringing about the new creation.