Walking in the Spirit, we feel the divine breath

  • May 5, 2016

Pentecost Sunday (Year C) May 15 (Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-14; John 20:19-23)

Humans have always dreamed of being endowed with powers that will lift them far beyond ordinary human limitations. Mythology — both ancient and modern — is often an expression of this wish. The immense popularity of the superhero genre of film is a fine example.

For the most part, it remains a dream. For one group of very frightened, demoralized and crushed followers of Jesus, it became a reality. The disciples and remnants of the community were traumatized by the arrest and execution of Jesus. They had been huddled behind locked doors in terror, and only the appearance of the risen Jesus had reassured and comforted them. Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until power was given to them from on high, and at the feast of the Pentecost, something happened that changed their lives forever.

The Holy Spirit, complete with the sound of a rushing wind and with tongues of fire, fell upon all of the assembled disciples. The text initially stated that they began to speak in other languages, but that is not likely. It went on to say that each of the foreign pilgrims in Jerusalem encountering the disciples heard the speech in his or her own language.

The miracle was not one of speech as much as interpretation or comprehension. But this was not the most important aspect of the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit enabled them to speak with “parrhesia” or boldness — something that they had been seriously lacking. They no longer feared pain, persecution or death, and practically laughed in the face of such dangers and threats.

The gift of the Spirit, as always, forced them completely out of their comfort zone. They were taken where they did not want to go and bidden to do things from which they normally shrank. Their attitudes and lifestyles were challenged — they had to overcome prejudice and embrace gentile converts as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

The Holy Spirit detests the status quo, timidity and spiritual tepidity. Christians refer to the Spirit constantly, but unfortunately it often does not mirror reality. How can we talk of the Spirit in the face of such polarization, unkindness and viciousness in both the Church and society? How can we talk of the Spirit while stonewalling any sort of change or refusing to show mercy and compassion to those that are most in need of hope and encouragement?

The infallible signs of the Spirit’s presence are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control (Gal 5:23-26). When these are notably absent, talk of the Spirit is just that — talk.

The Spirit is also the animating and reconciling power that is present in true community and the primal source for all spiritual gifts and ministries. None of them is personal property or a reward for virtue and holiness. They must all be used for the common good, without ego or selfishness, in order for God to be rightly honoured and praised. When we are truly drinking from the one Spirit, we can only be one people, unified in heart and mind. Again, the presence of fragmentation and disunity in our Church and society seriously challenges our claims of living in the Spirit.

Note that the gift of the Spirit in the Gospel of John was a very quiet, staid and private affair — different theologies, different versions of the story. Jesus breathed into them the divine breath — the same breath that was present at creation in the Book of Genesis. The word for “breath” and “spirit” are identical in Hebrew, as they are in Greek. Jesus charged them with continuing the very same mission as His own. His mission had been to reveal God to a world imprisoned in ignorance and fear and to do the will of the Father. There is no way we could do that entirely on our own. It was clear that only the gift of the Holy Spirit made that possible.

When we walk and live in the Spirit and attune our hearts and minds to God, we can feel the divine breath — the Spirit of God — flowing through us. That is truly an empowerment to do great things, but by God’s standards rather than our own. With all that we have been offered, there is really no excuse for leading spiritually mediocre or unproductive lives.