One of our faith's deepest and most important insights revolves around a unique experience: the forces that usually destroy other movements give life to ours.

Because many of us think of the Holy Spirit as a peaceful dove sitting on our leaders' shoulders whispering heavenly instructions in their ears, we probably don't appreciate that insight. Though we hear the words of Sunday's three readings, we don't listen to the message they convey.

Luke certainly doesn't paint the Holy Spirit in dove-like colors in his Acts description of the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-11). "Suddenly from up in the sky," he writes, "there came a noise like a strong, driving wind which was heard all through the house where they were seated. Tongues as of fire appeared which parted and came to rest on each of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them."

Dramatic entrance

The Spirit's arrival is accompanied by violent noise, wind and fire, extremely disturbing elements. And the most evident sign that the disciples have received the Spirit comes from their instantaneous mastery of foreign languages.

Noise, wind and fire normally are agents of confusion and separation in the Bible. And all of us remember how Yahweh halted the Tower of Babel's construction by making its builders speak different languages. Yet now these confusing, separating elements not only cause people to gather at the disciples' house on Sunday morning, but they're also the reason the crowd understands Jesus' followers when they start to proclaim their faith in Him. What divides and confuses other people in other places unites and clarifies when the Spirit is involved.

The early Christian writers believe that faith in such contradictions is essential to living out our discipleship. It isn't that we've yet to receive the Spirit, but rather that we're afraid to use the gifts which the Spirit's already given us. Paul's Corinthian community, for instance, fears that if it accepts and cultivates all the Spirit's gifts, their Church will be ripped apart (I Cor 12:3-7, 12-13). Paul assures them that such destruction will never happen, as long as they use their gifts for the common good.

"There are different gifts," he writes, "but the same Spirit; different ministries but the same Lord; different works but the same God who accomplishes all of them in every one."

The one body which the one Spirit creates is stronger than any of the individual parts which could tear that body apart. The Body of Christ is one precisely because its many, individually gifted members give it Christ's shape and form. If everyone received and ministered with the same gift, we wouldn't be ministering as "other Christs."

Fear of faith

An identical fear seems to be lurking behind the Gospel (Jn 20:19-23). The Holy Spirit arrives in John's Gospel ont on Pentecost, but as part of Jesus' death and resurrection experience. It's on Easter Sunday night that Jesus stands before His disciples, shows them His wounded hands and side, and proclaims, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then He breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive someone's sins...."

That's why we're afraid. What really happens when we forgive someone's sins? We lose the power and control that we had before we forgave, the power and control that holds most other groups and organizations together. No wonder we've turned this "dangerous" statement of Jesus into a "safe" proof text for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Instead of hearing these words in their original context, as a reflection on the gift which the Spirit has given us to forgive, we latch onto the part about "holding people bound," and stress the control of others which comes with refusing to forgive. We ignore the fact that Jesus always forgives. We're afraid to admit that His power comes from relinquishing power, not from holding onto it.

Only those who share Jesus' faith will find enough courage to give themselves over to the Spirit and step completely into that contradiction.