The Holy Spirit seems to like a crowd. In St. John’s Gospel when the Risen Jesus appeared and breathed on the shocked and awed disciples saying “receive the Holy Spirit” it was not to individuals but to the group as a whole that he came. In St. Luke’s account of the first Pentecost, the dramatic bestowal of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus fifty days after Easter, we are told that they “were all in one place together.” We know from a little earlier in the Book of Acts that the Jesus movement gathered in the Upper Room at that historic moment consisted of about 120 people, including the eleven apostles, the disciples, “the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brethren.” Those 120 were all together when they had a wind-blown, fire-tongued, house-shaking, language-mashing Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but they immediately attracted an even larger crowd. There were people from every nation under heaven, according to the Bible, who gathered as a vast throng to hear St. Peter proclaim the mighty acts of God. The text goes onto say that about 3,000 were baptized and “added to their number” after hearing Peter preach. A crowd indeed!
Why crowds? What is it about crowds that attracts the Holy Spirit? Let’s look at the Bible for some possible reasons. In the story of the first Pentecost we are told that Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents from Iran, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Armenia, Syria, Jordan and inhabitants of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Crete and Arabia and even far off Italy (to use the modern names) were all present there. Luke presented this list of the citizens of the whole known world to demonstrate that the Spirit belongs to everyone. That suggests that the Holy Spirit likes crowds because it is in a crowd that you get to see the diversity which reflects God’s creative power. It is in a large crowd that we get to witness the Holy Spirit inspiriting the one human race to which we all belong. In a large crowd you will find people with a whole spectrum of skin tones, of people who are bald and some who wear dreads, of people who are Republicans and who are Democrats, of people who like a suit and tie and others who wear Tie-dye, of people who speak English and others who speak Jive, like June Cleaver. In a crowd we see the many manifestations of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit brings everyone and everything together.
Contrast the work of the Spirit pulling things together with what is happening in the world today. You only have to turn the news on for five minutes to recognize the absence of the Holy Spirit. Instead of pulling together in the political realm we have retreated into our respective tribes where we distrust those of other parties as not worthy of being listening to. Instead of pulling together, our society has let racism infect the very air we breathe so that the police react with disproportionate violence against people of color and a black man is viewed as dangerous and threatening while looking for a tufted titmouse or a snowy egret in a city park. Our country has become so fearful of the “other” that we tolerate separating children from their parents at the border. Instead of pulling together we are pulling apart. For all of you old Greeks out there you can translate pulling apart – apart “dia,” pulling bolic” – pulling apart as “diabolical.” When the Holy Spirit is present people come together in contrast with the diabolical, that which pulls apart.
The Holy Spirit likes a crowd because in a crowd you get to see different kinds of gifts. St. Paul in the epistle says that the different gifts are manifestations of the Spirit. No single person has all of the gifts but we as a people together have all the gifts. The Apostle uses the image of a body to help us understand how the Spirit works among us. The different parts of the body all contribute to making the whole work. You need hands as well as feet, eyes as well as ears, toenails as well as belly buttons. In a similar way we need each other in order to be complete. But what happens when a part of the body cannot make its contribution to the whole? What happens when an organ is not given the nourishment, the opportunity to develop that it needs to thrive? That part of the body atrophies and the whole body becomes sick. The manifestation of the Spirit, according to the Apostle, happens when the whole body benefits. If you want a healthy body you have to make sure that every part of the body can give its gift.
Which brings us to this moment. After months of social distancing, of sheltering in place, of maintaining quarantine there was quite a large crowd in Chicago yesterday. The question though — was it the kind of crowd that attracts the Holy Spirit, a spiritual crowd, or the kind of a crowd that pulls apart, a diabolical crowd? To answer that we must notice what Jesus said when he breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples. “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, and whose sins you retain are retrained.” When you have the Spirit you can both forgive and retain sins. To understand how that works think back to your catechism, to the lesson on going to confession. To make a good confession you must have a “firm purpose of amendment,” you must intend to do better in the future, not to sin again. We don’t always succeed at that, we keep making the same mistakes over again, but our purpose, our intention must be to do better. We saw in Chicago yesterday injuries to a people piled up for hundreds of year unleash violence. A crowd acts out when they see no firm purpose of amendment but the besetting sin of racism being perpetuated again and again. No justice, no peace is exactly right. The sins will not be forgiven but retained until we as a society genuinely make those decisions which will create the kind of society where every part of the body is respected and valued and given the opportunity to give their gift to the whole. On this Pentecost, in the absence of a soul-stirring, hand-clapping, banner-waving, song-raising, foot-stomping, heart-hugging time together, let us make a firm purpose to create a more just society. Then, we will truly have a spiritual, a Pentecost experience.