Spirit is for the common good

  • May 22, 2009
Pentecost (Year B) May 31 (Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

In an extremely polarized and intolerant world, the need for God’s Spirit has never been more acute. Many mistake their own deeply held opinions as the will of God and the only truth.

The experience of the Spirit is often interpreted as a confirmation of one’s own views and judgments or a blessing on the established order. Accompanying this misapprehension of the Spirit is often an “error-has-no-rights” mentality that seeks to marginalize or suppress those who see things differently.

But the Holy Spirit is not about any of these things. After the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, it made very quick work of the human barriers that separated people on the basis of ethnicity, social class, religion or gender. Some were open to its guiding force while others resisted with all their might — very similar to our own time. Unfortunately, for many the Spirit for the most part remains a theological concept and an article of faith rather than a living and vibrant experience of new life in God’s Kingdom.

In the Acts of the Apostles the descent of the Spirit is a veritable sound and light show. It brings power and its effects were almost immediate and very public. This stands in stark contrast to the private and rather quiet giving of the Spirit in John’s Gospel. In that Gospel we hear nothing of the continuing work of the Spirit and the apostles seem to have returned to their usual lives. In Acts, however, they never look back — they witness to the Gospel and the direction is outward from Jerusalem to the far ends of the Earth. The comprehension of Peter’s proclamation sends us a very important theological message. The division and scattering of humanity symbolized by the Babel story in Genesis is now being reversed. Humanity is being gathered in and unified. Reconciliation, healing and unity are key characteristics of the Spirit’s work and it is rather easy to detect God’s handiwork in diverse places. Anything that inclines in the direction of disunity, division, exclusion and selfishness wages war on God’s Spirit.

Paul drives this point home in his letter to the fractious Corinthians. The Spirit is owned or controlled by no one and must never be used for selfish or egotistical ends. The movement of the Spirit is always towards the common good — an ideal that unfortunately has slipped from our grasp. In the community created by the Spirit no one is unimportant or inferior despite its apparent diversity for we all labour for the same goal. The Spirit teaches us interdependence and co-operation rather than domination or control and this principle is the basis for any authentic community.

As Jesus breathes on the stunned disciples in the upper room there is scant indication that this is a replay of the opening lines of Book of Genesis. The Hebrew and Greek word “spirit” and “breath” are identical in both testaments. The divine breath is bringing order and harmony out of human chaos in a manner reminiscent of the original act of creation. God’s breath or spirit gives us life but it is never solely for us, for Jesus utters the words of their mission even as He breathes on them. God’s Spirit is dynamic and active both in creation and in human lives, so they are to move out in the world to live, love and serve as Jesus did and to continue His work. But grasping the Spirit with a fearful and selfish ego can be dangerous for the self and for others. History, both distant and recent, is filled with dismal examples.

How can we discern the “spirits” that vie for our attention? We should be suspicious of any activity of the “spirit” that seems to pander to our fears, opinions and prejudices. Does the prompting of this spirit lead to healing, reconciliation and unity? Does it serve the common good? Does it reach out to others, especially the marginalized and excluded? The Spirit will surely lead us out of our comfort zone, and when we are open and willing to be led we can truly be God’s instruments. Being graced with the Spirit of God should empower us to heal our planet and restore humanity to unity and harmony with one another and with the Creator.