Today's readings [display_podcast]
In a few moments we will stand together and pray these beautiful words:
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
And we pray those words so often, that they are probably something of second nature to us. They may even pass right out of our lips without us ever stopping to think about what it really means to believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. And that’s too bad, because people through the ages have literally suffered and died for these words. The writing of them into our Profession of Faith was not done without some heated debate and many tears. These words about the Holy Spirit unfortunately were partly the cause of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox. And so as we pray them, we need to take special note of them, knowing that it is never the intent of the Holy Spirit that we remain divided and when we pray these words we must remember our brothers and sisters who gave of themselves so that we might have faith.
So, what does it mean to believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life? The Holy Spirit informs our faith and guides our life, so our belief in that Spirit ought to be evident, it should look like something. If we really, truly believe in the Holy Spirit, our lives should be a certain way, and I think our readings today give us some attributes of the Spirit-led life.
In our first reading, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit in a very public setting. They were all in one place together, and the Spirit descended upon them with a strong, driving wind and tongues of fire. This Holy Spirit enabled them to proclaim the Good News in the various tongues of the then-known world. Every foreign person in Rome was able to hear the Word in his or her own language. Now being a person who has very little facility for foreign languages, this would be my dream gift of the Spirit! I know un pocito of Spanish, and most days struggle a bit with English! But here the disciples are able to speak in all the languages of the world, enabling the Word to be heard by people of every nation.
Whether language is our gift or not, we too are filled with the Spirit and sent forth to preach to all nations. That the Word was heard by people of every nation in their own tongue was evidence of the fact that Jesus was quite serious when he commanded the apostles to go forth and make disciples of all nations. God really does want the Word to be known by every person everywhere, and he expects us to preach it. Maybe we will be sent off in mission to speak to people in their own language. Or maybe we’ll have to put the Word out there in a way that people in our own time and place can understand. We’re in a culture that very rarely if ever speaks the word of God, and it’s evident that so many people have lost the ability to relate to God. It’s up to us to make the Gospel known to them by preaching it with our lives. As St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” People will come to know the Gospel as they see us living it. Love is a universal language. Joy is evidence of the presence of God. People can relate to love and joy and peace and grace and kindness and compassion. All we have to do is to live that way, and people will come to know the Lord. The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to preach the Word to people of every nation and tongue.
In the second reading, St. Paul preaches to the Corinthians that people of the Spirit can do everything. “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;” he says, “there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.” Now, I admit, some days we all get out of bed thinking there’s no way we can do anything really good. Some days just breathing seems to be a major accomplishment. So the ability to do everything is something that for most of us – me included! – seems so far out of our grasp.
But we don’t have to be the one person who does everything. We are all united in the Spirit, and together we can do everything. We all have some gifts. We have celebrated those gifts this year as our parish has focused on stewardship as our theme. And as St. Paul tells us, the gifts of the Spirit are never given just for us. We are meant to use them for the good of others and the glory of God: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do everything, when we share the gifts we have been given in concert with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And finally, in the Gospel, Jesus forgives his apostles and calls on them to forgive others. Now we’re getting to the end of the Gospel of John, a Gospel that has been a kind of mirror of the book of Genesis. Both the book of Genesis and the Gospel of John begin with the words, “In the beginning…” And that’s not an accident. John is doing that for the very specific reason of showing us how God is re-creating the world. Just as the book of Genesis showed the first creation of the world, so the Gospel shows us the re-creation of the world in Christ. If the Gospels show us anything, they show us how we need to be re-created.
The apostles were gathered on that first day of the week, the day of creation, but also the day of the Resurrection. They are afraid, the Gospel says today, “for fear of the Jews.” They knew that what happened to Jesus could certainly happen to them. But there’s more to it than that. Jesus has risen now, and they know that. Gathered together, they are a group ashamed of the way they treated Christ on his last day. They let him down by denying him and running away. They had sinned, and their sin filled them with shame and fear. The were hiding behind locked doors. They needed to be re-created.
They needed to be re-created just as much as all of us need to be re-created when we sin. When we treat others poorly, or withhold compassion, or don’t forgive, or let our relationships deteriorate into sin, when we spend too much time on the internet looking at the wrong things, or cheat on a business deal or in school, when we waste the gifts of the earth or any of many other ways we can go wrong, when we do any of these things, we need to be re-created. We too can find ourselves behind locked doors, afraid of what will happen to us and ashamed of the way we have treated God, ourselves, and others. We need to be re-created almost every day, don’t we?
But just as Jesus could break through the locked doors that kept the apostles cooped up, so he can break through our own locked doors. And what he said to them then is what he says to us now: “Peace be with you.” That isn’t a fluffy, kumbaya kind of peace, but a peace that re-creates us from the inside out. It’s a peace that wipes away our sins and gives us a second chance.
Or even a third or fourth or nine thousandth chance. “Peace be with you.” We receive this same kind of peace in Confession when the priest says to us in the prayer of absolution: “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace…”
But having been forgiven, the apostles then and us now are told that that peace is something that has to be spread around. We forgiven, re-created children of God must now reach out to others and invite them to experience that same peace. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,” Jesus says, “and whose sins you retain are retained.” The cost of retaining any sin is disastrous. In terms of the Church, the only sins that are really retained are those that are unconfessed and unrepented. There is no peace possible when that happens. But we can sinfully retain others’ sins when we refuse to forgive them, when we bind them up with stereotyping, discrimination and hate. This is not the way that has been laid out for us. This is not the example we have received. We have received peace, and we are commanded to give peace in return. We must be a people who forgive because we are a people who have been forgiven and at a great cost. The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to be forgiven and to forgive.
And so, we who believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, are a people who are enabled to proclaim the Word to every person in our words and deeds, a people who can do everything as we use our gifts in communion with our brothers and sisters, a people who can forgive as we have been forgiven. We could never do any of this on our own, of course. It takes the Holy Spirit alive in us and in our world to make all things new. And so every day we pray with the Psalmist: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”