06 June 2009

Mortal Sin & Culpability: two case studies

First, I want to say how pleased I am that HancAquam readers did such an excellent job of analyzing the two case studies below! It's encouraging that the fine distinctions were made and the correct conclusions reached.

Here's my take on the case studies. . .

Both Beth and Sue committed an intrinsically morally evil act, acquiring an abortion.

Beth committed a mortal sin b/c her act met all three criteria for mortal sin. As an intrinscially morally evil act, abortion is certainly a grave matter. As a former Catholic with a graduate degree in theology, she certainly knew that abortion is an intrinsically morally evil act. Since she is an adult, in complete possession of her reason, and not in any way temporarily mentally imparied, she deliberately consented to the act. Her apostacy from the Church and subsequent history of fornication is irrelevant to the analysis of this case. An abortion acquired by a rigouously faithful married Catholic woman with no history of fornication would be mortally sinful.

Sue did not commit a mortal sin. Though her abortion is an intrinsically morally evil act, she acquired the abortion without full knowledge of the moral implications of the act and her minority grants her the assumption of the inability to consent. By no fault of her own, Sue is ignorant of the Church's teachings and confronted by a culture of gang violence hostile to learning. That her pregnancy is the result of rape is irrevelant to the intrinscially morally evil nature of the act of abortion, but it does mitigate against the assumption that she is free to consent to the abortion. Rape is devastately traumatic and can severly impair the victim's ability to render culpable judgments.*

Beth is culpable for her mortal sin to the degree that she was truly free to acquire the abortion. Her culpability could be somewhat mitigated if she has a legitimate fear that being pregnant would hurt her in a significant economic fashion--if, for example, her firm had a history of demoting or firing pregnant women. This situation would count as indirect duress. However, the case states that she acquired the abortion in order not to hurt her chances for a promotion not to save her job. Culpability might be somewhat mitigated on the grounds that being a pregnant lawyer in NYC poses a threat to her reputation and the possibility of doing her job at the levels of expected professionalism. Inordinate pressure from her boyfriend, if present, would certainly mitigate culpability.

Since Sue's abortion is not a mortal sin for her, her culpability for the act is zero. The overwhelming pressures of her mother's authority and her violent school life make her little more than a pawn. Poverty and lack of education will almost always mitigate against culpability if culpability is in question. Under duress, she cooperated in committing an intrinsically morally evil act, but she did not sin. Remember: we cannot be forced to sin (venially or mortally) nor can we sin by accident or in ignorance.

In the combox, Annie writes, "So, if the Church did indeed push Beth away through a series of even minor actions or attitudes, those people share in her sin too." To the degree that Beth was deliberately "pushed out," I would agree. But this question needs quite a bit of fleshing out. I am often told by ex-Catholics that they were "driven out" of the Church by an evil pastor or group of hateful parishioners. When pushed for details, these folks almost always reveal that what actually happened was that they were living a publicly sinful life and found the parish's unwillingness to celebrate their sinful lives to be "unwelcoming." In other words, no one pushed them anywhere. They left the Church when they started living publicly sinful lives. The parish's refusal to celebrate their sin was the appropriate medicinal response. Rather than repenting and asking for forgiveness, they chose to leave. Calling this "being pushed out" is false. I've also been told by ex-Catholics that they left the Church b/c they were silenced or harassed or shunned. Again, details are the key! In most cases these folks were pushing dissident theologies, abusive liturgical practices, or causing scandal by stirring up chaos. I also know of cases where orthodox Catholics were "pushed out" of a parish for what they felt were illegitimate reasons. Sometimes the reasons given seemed illegitimate to me. And sometimes the reasons were good. There are, of course, plenty of cases where nothing more than parochial politics, parishioners feuds, and evil pastors get folks booted. To what degree of culpability these folks would be held to if they committed a mortal sin while under this sort of duress is open to debate.

Thanks for playing! We might do this again soon. . .

*My initial phrasing here was ambiguous, so I've amended the paragraph to clarify my point.

05 June 2009

Mortal Sin: two case studies

Following on the post below about confession, let's take two test cases and work out the moral implications of both.

Beth is a 45 year old lawyer working in New York City. Before joining the bar she graduated from Notre Dame with an M.A. in theology. Disgusted with the Church's historical ill-treatment of women, she leaves the Catholic Church and becomes a Unitarian. While working in NYC she becomes sexually involved with one of her legal associates and gets pregnant. Knowing that she is soon to be made a partner in her firm, and knowing that her pregnancy might detrimentally influence her promotion, she acquires an abortion.

Sue is a 13 year old schoolgirl living in Chicago. Though very bright and academically accomplished, she must attend the local public school because her unemployed single-mother cannot afford private school tuition. The school she attends is notorious for gang violence. Sue does her best to avoid trouble, but often becomes embroiled in the local gang activity. She has had no religious instruction other than a general introduction to spiritual ideas via the mass media. On her way home from school one day, she is violently raped. She becomes pregnant. Because of her family's poverty and Sue's young age, her mother decides that Sue must have an abortion. Though she doesn't want the abortion, she complies out of deference to her mother. She has the abortion.

Keeping in mind that an act can be considered a mortal sin only if the act is gravely serious, done with the full knowledge that the act is sinful, and done with deliberate consent, can we say that Beth and Sue have committed mortal sins? If so, to what degree is each culpable (guilty) or not? [NB. ALL three conditions mentioned above must be met. The absence of any one of the three renders the act non-mortal.]

Applicable Church teaching:

According to Church teaching some acts are always morally evil by their very nature, meaning that circumstance and intention do not change the intrinsically evil nature of these acts. Abortion is always a morally evil act. But the question here is: are the morally evil acts committed by Beth and Sue mortally sinful? [Bonus question: are all intrinsically morally evil acts sinful--mortal or not?]

Though circumstance and intent may not count in determining whether or not morally evil act is indeed evil, both can be considered in assigning culpability if the evil act counts as a mortal sin.

The evidence you have here is the only relevant evidence. Do not assume any other facts (e.g., the availability of abortion alternatives, etc.).

Your answers. . .? [Lots of excellent answers in the combox. . .keep 'em coming!]

04 June 2009

But God loves me anyway, right? (Now with footnotes!)

Recently the "Vatican" (whoever that is) lamented the decline in the use of confession among Catholics.

It should be noted that this decline is directly tied to the lack of preaching against sin from Catholic pulpits. I don't mean screaming tirades bellowed from the ambo, but simple, straightforward declarations that sin is real and deadly to one's growth in holiness (1).

Some theologians and clergy don't see a problem with Catholics letting the Confession Muscle atrophy. They exclaim, "But God loves us where we're at! God accepts us as we are!" Yes, this is true. But confession is not about God loving you more or less. God will love you straight to hell if that's what you want. That's what free-will is all about (2).

Confession is not about how much God loves you but about how much you love God. Confession is our chance to apologize for those sins that have damaged our relationship with God, for those crimes against His love that prevent us from being fully in love with God. God does not need our apologies, our repentance, or our penance. We do.

Does God love you despite your sin? Yes, always. Can you love God despite your sin? No. Your sin is evidence enough of this simple truth. And because God loves and respects you, He will honor your decision to spend eternity without Him. That, brothers and sisters, is what we call Hell.

Update: Father, when should I go to confession? The minimum is once a year. Ideally, you would go to confession for any mortal sin. What's a mortal sin? A mortal sin is any disobedience that "destroys charity in the heart"(3). In the ancient Church, the Big Three were: adultery/fornication, murder, and apostasy. Good start. You want to be aware of two extreme tendencies: making every sin into a mortal sin "just in case" and making mortal sin into "no big deal" b/c you don't want to stop committing the sin. Every sin disrupts your relationship with God. Some sins kill that relationship from your end. The question to ask is: did that sin kill my ability/desire to love God? There is a subjective element here that only you can answer. There is an objective element that does not depend on your perception of the sin. You cannot murder someone and then claim that you don't feel that your relationship with God has been damaged. It has. . .whether you "feel" it or not. Use the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes to examine your conscience. If you have serious doubt, ask your pastor. Circumstances and intent do make a difference in most cases. If you have access to a priest, regular/frequent confession is not a problem. Just be careful that you are not becoming scrupulous. Ultimately, scrupulosity is the denial of the reality of God's mercy and can quickly become the sin of pride--"Not even God can forgive MY terrible sins." Wanna bet?

Confessing venial sins is perfectly fine (4). But be aware that participating in Mass with a confessing-repentant heart takes care of venial sin. Also, be sure that you are confessing actual sins. "I forgot my morning prayers" is not sin. Sexually explicit dreams are not sinful. For an act to be sinful it must be a deliberate act against God's law and love; meaning, you have to know you are doing it. You cannot sin in ignorance or by accident (5).

Notes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church

(1) CCC 1849: "Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as 'an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.'"

(2) CCC 1861: "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace [...]"

(3) CCC 1855.1: "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him."

(4) CCC 1855.2: "Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it."

(5) CCC 1857: "For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: 'Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'" See CCC 1858-18690 for defintions of grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. So, if I commit Act X it must be gravely serious (not trivial); and I must know that Act X is sinful; and I must knowingly consent to committing Act X (personally choosing to act). If any of these three conditions is missing, I have not committed a mortal sin. You cannot sin mortally in ignorance, trivially, accidently, or against your will.

03 June 2009

Questions and more questions

The Question Box has been full to overflowing lately. I've been pecking away on this post for weeks, here's a stab at trimming the pile a bit:

1). You're a priest! Should you be criticizing President Obama?

As I have noted many, many times before: I did not renounce my American citizenship when I took solemn profession as a Dominican nor when I was ordained a priest. I have exactly the same free speech and exercise of religion rights as any other U.S. citizen. Since I do not believe that Catholics are morons, I am not even a little worried that my political opinions will unduly influence readers. My readers are perfectly capable of making up their minds and will do so.

2). Where do you get ideas for your homilies?

There are a few hard and fast rules that I follow when composing homilies. First among these is a near maniacal adherence to the lectionary readings given for Mass that day; that is, the assigned readings themselves always, always form the foundation of my homilies. I do this not only b/c this is what the Church asks priests to do but also b/c I am convinced that (as a Dominican) my principal task as a preacher is to give the gospel a contemporary life within the long-lived wisdom of the Church. Also, I get ideas from the literature I read, from the daily news, from classes I teach and attend, from readers. Basically, as Catholics we are called to be in the world living our faith openly and eagerly. Anything that happens in the world is fair game for a homily. You may have noticed that I ask a lot of questions in my homilies. This is more than a rhetorical technique. These are questions I am asking myself. . .the homily is one way I am thinking through the answers.

3). My pastor is a good man. He's thoughtful and compassionate. He's a good businessman with the parish money. But he's a horrible preacher. Is there anything we in the parish can do to help him?

Yes. If he knows that he's a bad preacher there's help for him. If he thinks he's a wonderful preacher, then you are going to have problems. It's important for him to figure out exactly how he's a bad preacher, meaning what does he fail to do? If the content is good, is it the delivery? If the delivery is good, is the content superficial or heretical? Or is he just bad all around? I think preachers tend to make three basic content mistakes: 1). the homily is my chance to show these people how wonderful I am by telling jokes, stories, Hallmark scenarios, etc.; 2) the homily is my chance to pound on my pet issues to a captive audience; 3) the homily is my chance to settle scores and nurse grudges against my enemies. And there are three basic mistakes made with delivery: 1) Fr. Oprah chit-chats on nothing in particular; 2) Fr. Hollywood takes the place by storm like Jerry Springer in vestments; 3) Fr. Professor reads his homily like a paper given at the Annual Meeting of Professors of Ancient Greek Prepositional Phrases. Any combination of a content mistake and a delivery mistake is deadly. I would argue that there are a few givens to good preaching:

1). Stick to the assigned readings as your basic content. Use the images and language of the readings in your homily.
2). Keep stories, jokes, antecdotes to a minimum and make them directly, painfully obviously relevant. Don't tell a joke just to get a laugh.
3). Ask questions. Give answers. I have a pet peeve about purely rhetorical questions. The answers you give don't have to be blindingly brilliant, but asking a purely hetorical question always sounds slightly dishonest to me. . .if you have the guts to ask the question, answer it. . .even if only tentatively.
4). Preach and teach what the Church preaches and teaches. Why? Well, beyond the simple fact that this is what you promised to do at your ordination, you might find that consistently preaching and teaching the truth of the faith improves your preaching overall! Nowadays, the really radical preachers are the ones who are dissenting from the Received Wisdom of the Dinosaur Left and preach a counter-cultural gospel.
5). Delivery style is highly specific to the preacher, obviously. You must do what you are most comfortable doing. Delivery should be transparent, that is, how you deliver the homily should not be the point. Running around the church, yelling into a microphone, and acting like an idiot will not improve bad content. Good content, however, can be ruined by bad delivery.
6). If, like me, you write your homilies out, write for the ear not the brain. Academic papers are meant to be read silently. You can go back and refer to sentences or paragraphs. Papers are intensely logical, usually linear from Point A to Z in clearly defined steps. Homilies are heard. You need certain rhetorical devices to help the hearer. Most useful here is the repetition and the alliteration. Make a single point and repeat it. When making important points make them in a way that's memorable: alliteration or a lively metaphor.
7). Finally, ask for honest feedback and be prepared to change. Many Catholics see homilies as necessary evils to be endured. Few Catholics come to a parish Mass just to hear the preacher. This is very common among Protestants.

To those who must endure Catholic homilies: your pastor will not improve his preaching as long as he thinks you're happy with what he's doing. Silence = approval.

4). You haven't said anything about Judge Sotomayor. What do you think? Good choice?

Yes and no. Strictly speaking, she is not the most qualified candidate out there. To the degree that B.O. chose her b/c for gender, ethnic, ideological reasons, he's being predictably irresponsible. I don't think she will be the radical leftist that some are predicting. From a purely political standpoint, I would rather have a mediocre liberal on the Court than a brilliant one. B.O. is not going to appoint a constructionist, so I would rather he appointed a dull liberal than a charismatic leftist like Brennan. Her Catholicism seems to be irrelevant. If she's confirmed, she and the other five Catholics might have plenty of opportunities to defend the faith against B.O.'s determined efforts to undermine religious freedom.

5). A lady in my parish told us recently that we are required by the Church to believe in the revelations of Fatima. Is this true?

No, absolutely not. You are required to believe the revelations of scripture as understood and taught by the magisterium of the Church. Private revelations like Fatima, Medujorge, Lourdes, etc. are strictly optional. Church approval of private revelations means nothing more than that the contents of the revelation do not contradict Church teaching.

6). How much should a family give to their parish? Do Catholics tithe?

Always a difficult question! Protestant churches have long advocated tithing, i.e. "giving ten percent." This is definitely biblical and was even traditional in the Catholic Church for centuries. The problem comes when tithing runs up against your duty to your family. Can I really tithe to my parish if it means not paying my utility bill? I would argue that tithing should be done gradually, that is, start with a fixed amount and slowly increase over time until the ten percent is reached. This gradual approach allows you to adjust other expenses to compensate for the ten percent outlay. I found this lots of good info on Catholic tithing here. One related practice that I have argued against is withholding donations to the parish or diocese as a form of protest. This is profoundly anti-Catholic and smacks of the heresy of "Americanism." Attempting to influence parochial or diocesan politics through donation manipulation is simply vile. The parish should be your Christian family. Do you deny your family support? I understand that pastors and bishops often do and say things that upset the faithful, but voting with your pocketbook is not the Catholic way of settling disputes. I know I'm going to get blasted for this. . .oh well.

7). How public should my acts of charity be? How obvious should I make them?

Two principles apply here: 1) our witness should be readily identifable as Christian and 2) our witness should always, always point to God and His holy work. So, ask yourself before undertaking any public work of charity: am I doing this work for the greater glory of God and will the work point others to God? If the point of the work is show the world how holy you are or what a great person you are, don't do it. If the point of the work is to outdo the Baptists and showup the local Hindus, don't do it. If you can do the work in genuine love with your heart open to channeling God's mercy and care into the world, then go for it! Be very careful of what I call "passive-aggressive charity." This is charity work done to show others what needs to be done and how they aren't doing it. I find this sort of thing all the time on the religious left. There's a deep self-righteousness about how the Church is not "doing enough" for X or Y or Z, so I'm going to go put in a token afternoon so I can crow about the Church's deficiency at the next parish council meeting. Yea, whatever.

8). Aren't priests supposed to be kind and caring and not smart-alecks like you?

Hey! Smart-aleck priests can be kind and caring. We just limit ourselves to being kind and caring to once a month so we don't burn out. I get some variation on this question about once a week. It touches on people's expectations about how priests ought to present themselves as priests. I find it highly amusing that the people asking this sort of question seem to think that all priests should be little more than a religiousy version of a social worker or a therapist. Priests are supposed to be open, non-judgmental, good listeners, and above all, welcoming. Now, all of these are perfectly good characteristics for a priest to possess. However, we all know that words don't mean much these days, so each of these characteristics really hides an agenda that most certainly does not describe a good priest. For example, "non-judgmental" really means "don't tell me that I have sinned." "Welcoming" here really means, um, "don't tell me that I have sinned." And, of course, "good listener' really means. . .ermmm. . ."don't tell me that I have sinned." Basically, when I hear that someone thinks I am not being "pastoral enough," I take that to mean that I am telling the truth and someone doesn't want to hear the truth. Since I believe that the truth is always pastoral, I always tell the truth! Admittedly, I sometimes (only very rarely) throw in a little humor, or perhaps a tiny little smart-alecky comment. I must be forgiven! My whole family is a veritable three-ring circus of smart-alecks. . .I come by it honestly.

9). Catholics drink and smoke and cuss. Is that Christian?

I get this question a lot when I go home and hang around my Baptist family and friends. A lot of evangelical Protestants operate on a quasi-puritanical spirituality that sees the body as corrupting. Prohibitions against smoking, drinking, etc. are usually loosely grounded somewhere in scripture, but for the most part these prohibitions arose in the temperance movements of the 18th-19th centuries. Now, there are certainly puritanical elements in Catholic spirituality, but these tend to be exaggerated and often lead to heresy. For Catholics, the rule of thumb is: all things in moderation unless clearly morally prohibited or illegal. A nightly tumbler of bourbon is fine. It becomes a problem when you can't function without it, or when you are ignoring your responsibilities. Spending your last $10 on beer instead of food might be considered immoral. Failing to provide basic necessities for your children in order to play the ponies. . .big problem.

10). My son/daughter wants to go to the University of Dallas. Do you recommend it?

Absolutely! If they have the high schools grades and the SAT scores, they can't do much better than U.D. for a rigorous Catholic lib arts based education. Some have asked me to distinguish Christendom College and U.D., or Steubenville and U.D. I really can't. I know U.D. but not the others. From what I have gathered from U.D. students, they see the primary difference as one of how Catholic culture is taught and lived. While other small Catholic lib arts colleges and universities have strong Catholic identities, some of them tend to expect students to live rather monastic lives, sometimes downright puritanical lives. Strict dress codes, visitation rules, mandatory Mass attendance, etc. There's nothing wrong with any of this, of course. Some students need this level of structure and it should be available to them. U.D. takes a different tack. The Catholic culture at U.D. tends to be very Aristotelian in a healthy, southern, conservative sort of way. IOW, most of what the other schools impose as moral absolutes, U.D. students tend to discern and follow as a matter of right reason and good conscience. Yes, there are rules. And yes, the students bark and snipe at them like students everywhere do. But this isn't the distinguishing feature of U.D. What makes U.D. standout is the hardcore, kick-butt, take no prisoners academic atmosphere. If your son/daughter is not prepared to work like a cheap mule on a canyon tour, they need to apply somewhere else. The core curriculum is based on the literature, philosophy, theology of classical western culture (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.). They will write, write, write. And they will study like they have never studied before. In the first semester, they will see their heads grow by an average of 3%. U.D. students tend to be brilliant, funny, well-mannered, intellectually curious, a tad bit geeky, and highly talented in the creative arts. Most are Catholic, some not. There are non-Catholic Christians on the faculty and non-Christians. And there's a healthy percentage of Virtuous Pagans around too. Everyone--regardless of religious belief--believes in the value of the Core. If your child is looking for a college version of a CCD class, they will need to look elsewhere. U.D. faculty teach the western tradition--warts and all--and eagerly locate the Catholic faith within that tradition--warts and all. This does not mean that faculty dissent from Church teaching or rabble-rouse against the Holy Father. Hardly! It means that students do not get the sanitized P.R. version of Church history or philosophy or theology. They get the Truth as it is best known in the western tradition.

I love teaching at U.D.! (NB. I think they should hire me permanently. I mean, they would get a literature Ph.D. and philosophy Ph.D., a Dominican priest, a decent preacher, and an all-around swell guy! And the being smart-aleck only helps at U.D.)

02 June 2009

Burdened to breaking by truth? (UPDATED)

Pentecost Sunday: Acts 2.1-11; 1 Cor 12.3-13; John 15.26-27, 16.12-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

How much truth can we bear? How much before we break? Before the scale tips from ecstasy to madness, from joy to hysteria? If you read sci-fi/fantasy novels, you know that one of the constants of these fictional worlds is the notion that there is a truth, a body of knowledge, an arcane stock of wisdom that only a few can access, that only the truly gifted can call upon when necessary. There is always a price to be paid for knowing more than one ought to and for knowing anything at all about what one should not know. The price is sometimes physical, sometimes mental; sometimes the price is paid with one’s humanity. With one’s life. And the sacrifice is not always triumphant. Sometimes knowing more only leads to more confusion, additional puzzles, greater obstacles. How much truth is too much? When does “bearing up under” the truth become a burden worthy of a cross?

To his friends and students, Jesus promises to send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will comfort them in their trials and give them a sure defense against malicious persecution. Because his friends and students have been with him from the beginning, he says that they will testify to the truth of his gospel and that the Advocate will testify along with them. Then Jesus says something rather odd; he says, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” Is Jesus playing Arcane Master here? Occult Guru? Gnostic Wise Man? What truth does he have to tell that the disciples cannot bear? True, the disciples have shown themselves to be less than stellar pupils at times. And true, they have fussed and fumed about petty marks of dignity among themselves. And we know that when the Judas’ plan comes to fruition in the Garden, these best-buds will run squealing into the night. But what truth, what “much more to tell” will break the disciples?

Just after this odd admission that the disciples aren’t ready for the fullness of truth, Jesus adds, “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” Ah, so maybe the issue here is not that the disciples are incapable of bearing under the truth, it’s just that now is not the time to pile on the truth? The disciples are at a fragile stage, or maybe they aren’t spiritually ready to hear all that Jesus has to reveal at the moment. Possibly. But this still presumes that what remains unrevealed is heavier than what a disciple of the Lord can bear. And we are still left with what this great burden is. Details of Jesus’ trial and execution? A prophecy about future persecutions of the apostles? Some apocalyptic end-time scenario? No. When the Spirit comes, he will guide you to all truth. The Spirit has come. What was revealed?

(Imagine a chilly spring night in Jerusalem, the dark is almost total, only a few stars blink at the earth. From the horizon on the east blazes a meteor, a fist of fiery spirit, a knot of tightly bound love, streaking with undeterred purpose toward the upper room. At the moment of deepest despair, greatest regret, the most intense impatience for the disciples, the meteor smashes into the room and explodes in a thunderous clap, piercing the bodies and souls of the men and women in the room, whipping their spirits clean, sending them all into an ecstasy that overwhelms thought, speech, spirit, motion, and leaves them, each one, ablaze like a star stuttering to its full brilliance…).

The Catechism teaches, “On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of the Promise was poured out on the disciples […] The Spirit who teaches the Church and recalls for her everything that Jesus said was also to form her in the life of prayer” (n. 2623). Perhaps more than any other day of the Church calendar, Pentecost marks our longest distance from fear. Easter comes close. But Pentecost brings us into direct contact with the questions: what do I fear as a follower of Christ? What prison have I locked myself in? What darkness have I protected from the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit? Pentecost raises these questions for us precisely because it is the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that gives birth and rebirth to the Church, the Body of Christ on earth. At the most intense moment of persecution, on the cusp of the Church’s birth, the disciples are ruled by terror, steeped in dread. The Holy Spirit explodes in their midst…and everything is changed forever.

They have locked themselves away in fear and by fear they are ruled. The walls of their chosen prison give them comfort. They know where they are, who they are; they know who is outside, and who it is that hunts them and why. To the temple priesthood, they are heretics. To the Roman governor, they are rebels. They have offended God in His sanctuary and Caesar in his court; they are hiding from the clergy of an ancient religious tradition and from the foot soldiers of the world’s only military superpower. They are menaced soul and body.

From within their self-imposed prison—the easy safety of walls and familiar company—the beloved of the crucified Lord tremble in terror, waiting on the wrath of God’s priests and the punishments of Caesar’s troops. Some of them may have remembered a promise Jesus made before his death. And though it has been some several weeks since he died in the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, that promise comes back in a whispered memory, just a hint of hope sprinkled in among the fear and desperation of those who keep themselves prisoner. If they gird themselves, put their eyes to heaven, and remember! They will remember: “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me.” When the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, comes…he will testify to the truth as the Truth. There is nothing to fear in the truth though for now the whole truth may burden you. Turn the key of your cell door and walk away to freedom. Your wait is over. Walk away from fear and toward the Truth—away from loss, toward everlasting gain! What fear guards your cell door? What terror keeps that door locked?

Into the locked room where the disciples hid, the Holy Spirit, like a furious bonfire—ripping through fear and doubt, burning away indecision, cowardice, spiritual torpor, putting to the sacred torch of truth any and all motivation for hesitancy, complacency, and double-mindedness—the Holy Spirit roared in among them, setting to each a flame that unstuck their tongues, that unlocked their imprisoned hearts, and set them free! Is this the heritage of the Spirit that we lay claim to? Are we heirs to this strength, this purpose? They spill into the street, preaching God’s truth in every tongue. Where is their fear? Where is their hesitancy? Their reluctance? They are abandoned in truth and wholly given over to Him! And because of their fervor, their dedication and exuberance, and because they spoke the Word so plainly and without embarrassment, they were killed. Not all of them. But some of them. Those gone so far in the Spirit that nothing of this world was left in them to threaten.

Is this the burden that Jesus did not want to load onto the disciples too early? Is this the truth that he feared might break them? The coming of the Spirit sparked the glory of the Church in the upper room, giving birth to the Body of Christ as the engine of spirited grace in the world. Set ablaze in holy love, the disciples flee into the streets, spreading God’s holy fire everywhere they run, seeding tinder-dried hearts with embers ready to burst into flame. They are contagious. From heart to heart, from mind to mind, they spread out and plant the Word, scattering seed, rowing up fields for the Church! But does “bearing up under” this truth of the gospel, the work of evangelization, does it become a burden for us, a burden worthy of a cross? Yes, it does.

Inevitably, the truth of the gospel will clash with the lies of the world. At first, the world will draw back in astonished amusement, mildly shocked that someone, anyone would challenge its power. Then, when mockery fails to diminish the fervor with which the Church preaches the truth, the world will react with increasing anger and violence. And, like the early persecutions of the Church by the Empire, the Church will be cast as an enemy of the state, a threat to moral freedom, and a tumor on the body of good order. As an intolerant cult that refuses to honor the diversity and difference that makes modern culture so wonderful, we will be found guilty of refusing worship to the postmodern gods of elitist ideology and labeled “domestic terrorists.”

We are charged by the Holy Spirit to finish telling the truth of the gospel. If that truth burdens us to breaking, then we break burdened by the gospel truth: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.” And, if necessary, we die preaching the Spirit.