Pentecost cropped

Acts 2:1-11  +  1 Cor 12:3-7,12-13  +  John 14:15-16,23-26
May 15, 2016

“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together.” 

It’s common to hear the Holy Spirit referred to as a source of freedom and independence, of innovation and novelty.  It’s easy to imagine someone saying, “The Spirit moved me to quit my job and become a missionary in South America”.  But it’s less easy to imagine someone saying, “The Spirit moved me to get up at 5:00 a.m., do a load of laundry, fix breakfast for the family, and then go to the office for eight hours.”  We don’t tend to think of the Holy Spirit in terms of routine, but rather, in terms of what breaks us out of our routine:  what introduces change into our lives.

Do you like change in your life?  Or are you the type of person who likes things to stay the same?  What about God the Holy Spirit?  Does the Holy Spirit like change, or does He like things to stay the same?  Maybe that seems like an odd question.  At the very least, we surely have to say that the Holy Spirit does, in fact, bring about change.  The First Reading today makes that clear, with all the change that happened as the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles.  Isn’t that what the Holy Spirit is for:  to bring about change?

Or is the Holy Spirit for something else?  What is the Holy Spirit for?  He’s definitely the most mysterious of the three Persons of the Trinity.  We’re not even sure how to picture Him:  sometimes He appears as a dove, sometimes He appears as fire, and sometimes He’s a burst of wind, which you can’t really picture at all!

Maybe we could make the purpose of the Holy Spirit more concrete by thinking about one of the seven sacraments.  Take Confirmation.  Most of us who are adults have received Confirmation.  Those of you who are younger know that you will be offered preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation during high school.  So whether you already have or have not yet been confirmed, reflect on the Holy Spirit in terms of this sacrament.  Why do you receive the Holy Spirit at Confirmation?

If you’re my age or older, then likely you learned that through the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Holy Spirit makes you a “soldier of Christ”.  This image of the soldier goes hand in glove with thinking of the Church on earth as the “Church militant”.  That phrase—“the Church militant”—is one that many young Catholics are unlikely to be familiar with, because in many places that sort of imagery went out of vogue in the 1970’s, when Flower Power was popular.  But in the years since, an awareness has grown that the lyric “All you need is love”—if it can be true at all—requires love to bear a depth that secular culture does not have within itself to offer.

When young people are prepared for Confirmation these days, the word used to sum up the sacrament is the word “witness”.  This is a very biblical word.  In the First Reading for the feast of the Ascension, Jesus promised His disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[1]

Jesus doesn’t use the word “witness” in a passive sense, as we use the word “witness” when we think of someone who “witnesses” a car accident.  That is to say, imagine that you’re just standing on a street corner when an accident happens in front of you, and your eyes and mind take in what happens.  You witness the accident.  But, when Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses”, He’s using the word in an active sense, in terms of giving witness.

Imagine if you did “witness” a car collision one day, and a month later you were called to give witness in court.  Imagine, then, that you show up at the courthouse on the appointed day, but that when you are called to the stand to give witness, you sit there without opening your mouth.  Attorneys for the defense and the prosecution both ask you questions about what you witnessed, but you refuse to speak.  Then finally the judge asks you to give witness, but you refuse to speak.  You were a “witness” at the scene of the collision, but you are not a witness on the stand.  What’s likely to happen to you?

Why does a civil court compel citizens to give witness in such cases?  What would the judge, on behalf of society, do to that citizen who refuses to give witness?  What happens to a society when no one gives witness?

Every one of us in this church is a witness to a collision.  Every day we see the collision of two very different cultures.  The question is whether members of Christ’s Body, the Church, will give witness.  Do we acknowledge, even to ourselves, what’s happening before our eyes?  And do we give witness not just against what we’re seeing, but also on behalf of our Faith?  In other words, there’s a two-fold witness that each of us needs to give:  against the many forms that a corrupting culture is taking in our nation, and also for the responses that Christ gives us in order to build up a culture of life.

What happens to a society when no one gives witness?  Why does God, our Just Judge[2], compel the members of His Church to give witness?  You are called by God to give witness.  But are you ready to do so?  God calls you, outside the walls of your church, not only to witness to what is wrong and what God offers instead as good.  Perhaps more difficult is God’s call for you to give witness about why what is wrong is wrong, and why what Jesus offers brings life.

This is a tall order, no doubt.  This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus:  not just to live, but to share with others the Way of Jesus, even when that brings us into conflict with what’s popular among many.  This is a tall order.  But that’s why the Father and the Son have poured down upon you the Gift of their Holy Spirit:  for you to be a witness to “the ends of the earth”, and to the ends of your lives.

Does the Holy Spirit bring about change?  Is that what He’s for?  God the Holy Spirit is not about change for the sake of change.  The Holy Spirit is about growth.  Life that does not grow is not alive.  The great English convert G. K. Chesterton once wrote that a “dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”[3]

Growth involves change, of course, but the change is for a purpose beyond itself.  In this world here below, there are many storms with flooding rains and damaging winds.  We’re even familiar with tornados, unfortunately, and what the aftermath looks like.  In this world here below, with its fallen nature, we witness destruction of all sorts.  To prevent that, and sometimes in the face of that, we have to build and re-build in order to grow, and that demands change:  not for the sake of change, but for the sake of God, and for the sake of life.

[1] Acts 1:8.

[2] See Psalm 7:12 and Psalm 94:2.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, Chapter VI (“The Five Deaths of the Faith”).