The Spirit dwells in hearts of those who do good

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  • May 2, 2008

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

What was the “real” giving of the Spirit like? The Gospels present us with two distinct but rather inconsistent possibilities.

In Acts, Luke describes it in very dramatic terms — a veritable sound and light show. It was given to a much larger group and occurred well after the Ascension of Jesus. The feast of Pentecost was a Jewish harvest celebration and the harvest was a well-used end-time symbol for the ingathering of the final days. The outpouring of the Spirit on this feast lets us know that something momentous is in the wind. The power of that Spirit is readily apparent as they begin to communicate with the assembled pilgrims so that each could understand what was being said in their own language.

In a speech after the event, Peter interprets this event as a fulfilment of the prophecy by the prophet Joel. In the last days, God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, not just the people of Israel. Not only that, it will be poured out on the young, women and slaves — all of those lacking status and power in their society. In effect, this is a democratization of the experience of God. It also brings about a reversal and a redefinition of all human relationships from top to bottom.

Luke’s pre-eminent vision of the Spirit is that of unity, both of communities and of humanity itself. It will form the soul and organizing principle of the early Christian communities as reported by Luke.

The giving of the Spirit in John, on the other hand, is a relatively quiet and private affair. It is bestowed by Jesus personally without any remarkable signs or manifestations of power, and it does not appear that the apostles put it to any immediate use. For John, the Spirit is one of creation, and with the divine breath the followers of Jesus are being created anew. It is the force that binds us to Jesus and to the Father in a manner that allows us to experience the life of the Trinity. Spirit-gifted people are those who are filled with the presence of God; they do not know about God — they know God personally and directly. And this knowledge of God will penetrate all of the human distortions of the God image.

So which version is historically “correct”? That is something beyond our powers of proof — maybe neither of them narrates the event exactly as it occurred. Each evangelist expressed a momentous event in a different way utilizing a different theological explanation and diverse symbols. But both agree on the important feature: there was a giving over of God’s Spirit, and life was never again the same. We know that it occurred — we are still feeling the reverberations in our own time.

The Spirit was not for the thrill of individual religious experience but for the common good and the building up of the community, a point that Paul hammers home repeatedly in his letter to the troublesome community in Corinth. It comes from the same source — God — and returns to that source. When it is used properly it creates healthy and life-giving communities and people flourish. When it is used for power or self-aggrandizement it withers on the vine and is ultimately destructive.

The more pressing and relevant question is what we do with the Spirit — or allow the Spirit to do with us. The needs of our world and the gravity of our situation being what it is, the worst thing that we could do is to make the Spirit an exclusively “churchy” or possessive affair. God’s Spirit also works beyond the boundaries of ecclesiastical institutions. The Spirit heals fear, encourages compassion and sharing, builds communities, brings about reconciliation and gives hope. Since the Spirit is the missing element in so much of human activity today, it must be shared as much as possible. The Spirit must even be brought into political activity, as long as it is not confused with fanatical, confrontational or proselytizing forms of religiosity. It does not mean having all the answers and it has nothing to do with a lot of God-talk.

The Spirit is present wherever there is compassion, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, equality and wisdom. The Spirit — the very breath of God — dwells in any human heart that is open to doing good and walking in the ways of God.

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