Breath of the Spirit
- Breath of the Spirit
RVC’s Weekly Spiritual Essay
JUNE 4, 2006: PENTECOST SUNDAY
I Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13
To understand the impact of today's three readings describing the power
and force of the Holy Spirit, we must hear them as they were originally
written: independent of one another. Each author reflects on the effect
of Jesus' Spirit in his own community. He's not telling us what we
should expect the Spirit to do; he's narrating what has already happened.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, his followers made a life-changing
discovery: the risen Jesus in their midst was guiding them along paths
they had never imagined themselves taking. They quickly began to
understand it's one thing to fall in and follow behind someone as he
takes step after step, eventually arriving at his destination. It's a
totally different thing to be out on the point alone, no longer securely
looking at someone's back, simply following in his footprints. Which
turn do they make? How far do they go in one direction? When are they to
Though it's clear from our Christian Scriptures that some disciples took
no steps beyond the place where the historical Jesus had left them, the
majority began to explore areas which he hadn't explored during his
earthly ministry. When they ventured forth, two topics especially
created problems: Gentiles and Jesus' delayed Parousia. Only the Spirit
could provide answers.
The latter question had a big influence on the former. As long as
Christians expected Jesus to return quickly and take them triumphantly
into heaven with him, they didn't have to worry about Gentiles. But the
longer his return was delayed, the more they had to deal with the
possible conversion of these non-Jews. Can they become Christians as
Gentiles, or must they first convert to Judaism?
Having to deal with such questions seems to be why John includes Jesus'
well-known statement about the Spirit in today's Last Supper pericope.
"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he
comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth... and
will declare to you the things that are coming." The Spirit is the
force which pushes us through doors we rarely notice exist.
It's precisely because some in those early Christian communities refused
to acknowledge those doors that Luke deliberately describes the Spirit's
Pentecost arrival as being accompanied by three disturbing phenomena:
wind, fire and noise. "Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a
strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to
rest on each one of them." The Spirit never comes peacefully.
We old-timers remember the answer Pope John XXIII always gave when
people asked why he was calling an ecumenical council. He'd simply walk
over to the nearest window, open it, and say, "To let in a little fresh
air." Some contemporary church observers thoughtfully remarked, "If that
window's been shut for hundreds of years, a five mile an hour breeze
must seem like a hurricane!"
Though our first Christian authors experienced a "ruffling" whenever
the Spirit appeared, they also experienced a unifying force in the
community which only the Spirit could bring. Luke mentions the gift of
tongues which unified the diverse Jerusalem crowd on Pentecost Sunday.
And Paul reminds his Corinthians of the "different kinds of spiritual
gifts" each Christian posses. Yet no matter how unique and disturbing
the gift, " ... to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is
given for some benefit." In the long run, following the Spirit always
unites the community.
Perhaps, like our sacred authors, we modern Christians should spend more
time reflecting on the signs of the Spirit's presence then trying to
ignore or avoid the Spirit-engendered wind, fire and noise existing all
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OCTOBER 26, 2008: THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEARReadings:Exodus 22: 20-26I Thessalonians 1:5-10Matthew 22:34-40
Today’s Exodus reading brings up an interesting problem: half the laws it contains are no longer in effect, and almost all of us constantly break one of them. Though most of our 20 ecumenical councils condemned anyone who dared charge interest for lending money, our new Catholic Catechism doesn’t even have a section on usury. Over the last 300 years that sin dropped off our moral radar screens quicker than the falling interest rates on passbook saving accounts. Nor among our lists of sins do we ever mention our end of the day obligation to return the collateral we’ve taken on loans. That’s never been part of my examination of conscience.
Yet the first part of today’s Exodus regulations still remains in effect: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien . . . . You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.” Why do we keep some biblical rules and totally disregard others? Can moral obligations change from one generation to another?
Forty years ago many Catholics were asking these very questions during the great 1968 birth control controversy. Is it possible to change the church’s prohibition against artificial contraception? In the midst of this very public debate many well-known, respected theologians brought up the usury controversy which had taken place centuries before, pointing out that both the biblical and church prohibition on charging interest was based on economic principles which eventually were proven to be false.
People originally regarded wealth like we regard a whole apple pie. There’s only so much of it to go around. Everyone’s entitled to an equal slice. If I lend someone money and charge interest, I’m getting part of his or her slice, making my slice bigger - totally against God’s biblical plan of justice and equality for all.
Eventually economists surfaced the mistake in their reasoning, discovering the whole “wealth pie” grows when people borrow money, even at interest. Both lender and borrower can end up with a larger piece. Counter to the what the law intended, poor people were actually being hurt by the usury regulation.
That’s why today’s gospel is essential in forming our Christian morality. Jesus and all biblical authors agree there must be a priority of laws. Some rules are more important than others. We presume, for instance, that ambulances can break speeding laws when they’re rushing seriously ill patients to hospitals. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, students of the 613 laws of Moses frequently debated which were the most important.
When Matthew’s Jesus is brought into that debate, he responds as any good Jew would respond. “You shall love Yahweh your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God is demonstrated by our love of neighbor. That’s why aliens, orphans and widows are still to be protected. Our relationships with God and those around us have priority over everything else in our lives.
Paul can only be referring to such deep concern for others when he compliments the Thessalonians for becoming “a model for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia . . . . In every place your faith in God has gone forth.... “Paul and his co-workers are overjoyed and amazed that what they taught these early converts about love of God and neighbor is actually being put into practice.
Our history of faith demands we never let up teaching these moral priorities. People get hurt when we mix them up. I always remind my friends who long for the good old, pre-Vatican II days that there was a mid-60s national survey in which Catholics were asked, “Which is the more important law, love of neighbor or giving up meat on Friday?” A majority responded, “Giving up meat on Friday!”