At Pentecost the Spirit came in tongues of fire – Why don’t they do that today?

Pentecost and Conversions

Last month I considered Pentecost and the transformation it brought about in the Apostles. It seems to me that I need to examine more closely what Pentecost did for the Apostles and how that relates to our own lives. We read of the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the Apostles and the roaring noise like a mighty wind. These were sure signs to the Apostles that something wonderful was occurring and that a great power was involved.

I have no such recollection of my confirmation. Did the Apostles get a stronger Holy Spirit than the one I received? That might seem to be a likely conclusion when we consider the effect it had on the Apostles. They went out into the streets to address the very people they had been hiding from. Not only did they face the Jews but they accused them of unlawfully killing Jesus and went on to proclaim the resurrection.

The striking thing in this episode was not just the new-found courage of the Apostles, but the fact that they were ‘speaking in tongues’. In the ‘Acts of The Apostles’ it says that each of the listeners heard them in his own language. It doesn’t say that the Apostles spoke different languages. When the Apostles spoke each of the hearers understood what they were saying. It is the understanding that is important and I will come back to that.

I suppose I didn’t need a tongue of fire and a mighty wind at my confirmation because I was not a hunted man, afraid for his life and unaware of the powers he had been given. Those signs at Pentecost proved to the Apostles that a greater power was at work in them and gave them the courage to proceed. When I was confirmed I was not in any danger and I had the power of the Universal Church to convince me that God is at work in the world.

It is of some concern, then, that many baptised and confirmed Catholics don’t seem to realise the power they have. They received the Holy Spirit and his gifts and seem thoroughly bored by the whole thing. The power to communicate to people of different languages is nothing to write home about in the age of the internet and Google Translate. You can write anything on your computer and have it instantly translated into almost any language for your audience. Who needs ‘speaking in tongues’?

Well, this is where I’d like to make a distinction between hearing and understanding. I had occasion to make use of Google Translate when I was in my Camino adventure a couple of years ago. I had chest pains and was consulting a doctor in A&E. The doctor spoke Spanish and I spoke English. She used the computer to translate. She typed the questions in Spanish and I was given five versions of what she said in English. I chose what I thought she asked and replied in English. The computer gave her five versions of what I might have said. I think you can see where I’m going. Before long I understood that I was not going to die but had no idea what was wrong with me.

How often have you gone to Mass and heard the readings recited as though they were a list of words to be pronounced with no regard for their meaning? Unless we are to understand what is being communicated we might as well not listen. This is at the heart of our current problem. In our Gospel we have the greatest story ever told. They even made a movie of that. In two thousand years we have managed to make that story boring.

This is the story that brought about the conversions the Apostles made of the very people who crucified Jesus. The implications of this story are such that we must re-evaluate what it means to be a human being and realise that each and every one of us is special. On that first day the Apostles converted about three thousand people. Why are we not having a similar effect on those who have drifted away from the Church?

It is easy for us to place the blame squarely on those who drift. We can console ourselves by claiming they have no sticking power. But, surely that is not the truth. If we were proclaiming the message properly, providing understanding, not just words, then I think the drift would be in the other direction. Now, don’t be alarmed. I’m not suggesting we all buy loudhailers and get out into the streets and start drowning out everything with the sound of the Gospel. It’s not the sound of the gospel we need to spread; it’s the message we have to broadcast.

I think it was as much the example of the Apostles getting out there and proclaiming the truth to a hostile crowd that won people over. By their behaviour they made people think that there must be something in this message worth listening to; just look how these men have been changed. I wonder if anyone looks at me and thinks that something powerful has changed me? If they don’t then I’m obviously not displaying the sort of behaviour in my life that would draw people to Christianity. After all, that is what Christians are for. I remember being taught in school that my task in this life is to save my soul. That is nonsense. Jesus did the saving. My job is to bring others to Jesus.

The wrong message is getting out there and it can’t all be blamed on an ill-informed press. Countless people have told me they don’t like the Church because it condemns gay people or divorced people or terrorists. To be clear, the role of the Church, that’s you and me, is not to condemn anyone; we are about bringing everyone to Christ. That was what the Apostles were doing. They were not condemning the Jews who crucified Christ; they were out in the streets bringing them back to Christ, baptising them and washing away their sins.

There are lots of ‘Christians’ out there condemning people and warning of a vengeful God. That’s not the God I know. The God I know is a loving God. He is the loving Father who watches patiently for the return of the prodigal son. Is that the God we are putting out there? Do we behave like Christ, quick to forgive and always ready to make peace or are we ready to fight? I look at my hands as I type this (I should really learn to touch type) and I’m thinking how a stranger sees my hands. Are they open, ready to shake hands or are they clenched, ready to make a fist?

We usually make a fist if we are afraid. We should take a leaf out of the Apostles’ book and throw off the fear and meet people with confidence. If we put our trust in the Holy Spirit we will always find the right thing to say to put people at their ease and show them the true face of the Church, the face of the Merciful Christ.

Joseph McGrath

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