We are unified in the Spirit

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  • May 15, 2012

Pentecost Sunday (Year B)  May 27 (Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

The spectacular and amazing nature of an event often distracts us from its deeper and more subtle meaning. Mystical experiences, apparitions and miracles are not given to dazzle or entertain us but to enlighten and empower. Luke portrayed the descent of the Spirit as something visible and palpable. Tongues of fire and the violent sound of a rushing wind alert the reader to the imminent manifestation of the divine presence. We should notice that those habitually gathered in that upper room were more than the 12 — they included a number of women and Mary the mother of Jesus. The tongues of fire settled on each one present, not on one more than another. Finally, the various languages that the assembled crowd heard were treated by Luke as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel (2:28-32) in the Old Testament. God had promised that in the latter days the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh — slave and free, young and old, male and female. Spiritual empowerment would be offered to all of humanity.

The fundamental work of the Spirit is unity — not necessarily institutional unity but a harmony of minds and hearts. The Spirit is not some sort of magic word to be invoked at will or to be used for controlling others. It is not present and active merely because we say it is. Its presence is always distinguished by reconciliation, forgiveness, humility, harmony and compassionate action. Its absence is also obvious by the absence of these qualities and the dominance of strife, quarrelling, jealousy, fear, immorality, selfishness, competition and violence.

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit continued to overcome barriers between people — social class, ethnicity, gender and religious — and to form a new spiritual consciousness. This is probably one of the main reasons that the Spirit makes us very nervous — it is not respectful of the status quo or human opinions and prejudices. For good reason it is often described as fire, for it consumes, purifies and illuminates. Only the vibrant presence of the Spirit can ensure the spiritual health of community rather than fear, force or control.

Paul developed the sense of the Spirit as the animating soul of the community. Acknowledging Jesus as Lord is an authenticating sign of the Spirit of God just as the diminishment of ego and selfishness is a sign of its presence. Paul took great pains to deflate some of the egos in the Corinthian community. There were some who interpreted spiritual gifts as signs of their own holiness or exceptional nature and they misused the gifts to lord it over others.

Not so, Paul insisted, no one owns any of these gifts. They are all on loan from God and must all be used for the common good. The image of the body is one of interdependence and equality and runs counter to the usual human mode of community living.

John related the story of the gift of the Spirit in a far more low-key and quiet manner than Luke. Jesus greeted His astonished disciples with the word “shalom” (peace). It was far more than a greeting — it was the unworldly peace that Jesus promised His disciples in chapter 16. Shalom means wholeness, completeness and well-being. This peace is not just the absence of violence. It is the restoration of harmony between God and humanity as well as an experience of the immediate presence of God. When Jesus breathed the Spirit into His disciples, it was the same divine breath present at creation and present in the hearts and souls of those who are willing to receive it.

Perhaps that is why so many spiritual traditions focus on the breath as the presence of the divine. It is not given to be savoured or hoarded but to continue the work of Jesus — the healing, transformation and redemption of our world. This is not a self-help program or another human project tainted with self-interest. It is made possible by the Spirit that we bear within us. To live a life in the Spirit is to live with a purpose and mission and that is to bring God’s peace to a very hurting world.

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