In the readings for Pentecost today, the themes of unity and difference are emphasized. In Acts, the passage says, “they were all in once place together.” At the same time, it makes clear that the people who were gathered today came from many different nations, spoke different languages, and ordinarily had difficulties communicating with one another. We know that they had difficulty communicating because when they finally can communicate and understand one another—despite speaking in their own tongues—they are confused, astounded, and amazed.
Pope Francis often speaks of God as a “God of surprises.” That is the experience of God that we see at Pentecost: a God who wants to surprise the people to whom the Holy Spirit is given in these tongues of flame. A surprise is an event that is unexpected, and maybe even inspires wonder. In wonder, we become open to new possibilities rather than only remaining enclosed in our current systems of meaning, which are often too circumscribed.
One of the possible gospel readings is on forgiveness. Reconciliation can be surprising, because in reconciliation there is always the creation of something new: for example, a new sense of self or other; a different way of understanding and integrating the past; or a sense of freedom. This is what Jesus gives his friends when he offers them reconciliation: not only freedom but a chance to let go of their betrayals and the events of the crucifixion so that they can go forward in mission.
The other reading focuses on how the Spirit will inspire God’s people to speak the truth. What is that truth? The truth of God is a truth of love. The second reading names the characteristics of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” It goes on to say, against these there is no law. We could read that last idea quite strongly to mean something like: a law that goes against peace, love, kindness and generosity is not a law to be followed at all. Instead, we are to be guided by God’s spirit, which transcends mere rules or conventions to follow the law of love.
Flames of fire descend on these people because God’s power sends them. That is surprising. And although we as Christians often say that we value the fruits of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, and all the rest—when they descend on us, they can feel no less surprising. They, too, are a gift of God’s power and exceeding generosity.
These gifts are ours today, too, even if we don’t see visible flames over one another’s heads. We do see the signs of generosity, fidelity, kindness, love, and gentleness. We know that when we receive these things, we are also to go out and to share them with others, and so “follow the Spirit,” in all its surprises.