Acts 2.1-11; 1 Cor 12.3-7, 12-13; John 20.19-23
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital
and Church of the Incarnation
We start in fear, shaking in darkness. The doors locked against our enemies.
On the evening of the first day of the week, while we huddle together, fearful and dreading the noises of the dark, Jesus comes and stands in our midst. He says, “Peace be with you.” To show us his peace, he shows us the violence done to him on the cross; he shows us his hands—pierced, bloodstained—and he shows us his side—cut open, leaking water and blood. There is a small, quiet pause in our fear, just a whisper of doubt, of hesitation; we just barely slow our racing hearts, just long enough for hope to possess us again, and then: we rejoice! The Lord is with us…as he promised. He is with us always, even to the end of the age! He calmed the raging sea with a word; he calmed our dark-terror with a word; now he asks that we calm ourselves again and listen: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The Father sent Christ. Now Christ sends us; breathing on us, he says: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And we are sent.
Indeed, we ARE sent! But sent where? To whom? Why? What are we sent to do? These questions assume that we understand Who it is we are receiving! Jesus says to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit” and so we are prepared to receive. But it is one thing to hear the command to receive and quite another to obey. If we obey, if we receive the Holy Spirit at Christ’s command, Who or what is it that we are receiving? We could say that we are receiving the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. We could say that we are receiving the Word of Creation, the Wisdom of the Father, the Fire of Divine Love. We could say that we are receiving the Pure Mercy of God, Divinity Himself, Perfect Beauty. What if we say that when we receive the Holy Spirit we receive the Gift of God Himself from Himself? God gives Himself to us, freely hands Himself over to us. Not a divine power, an ability, a function. Nor are we given a divine title, an energy, or a name. We are given—gifted with—God Himself, as such, Himself: Father, Son, Holy Spirit!
Now that we know that the gift is God Himself, and we receive this gift rejoicing, we may ask: where are we sent? To whom are we sent? Why are we sent? And what are we sent to do? All of these questions are answered in a single command: “Peace be with you”—our Lord’s simple imperative, his singular order to rest serenely, without fear, without any anxiety; to rest in the all-consuming fire of his love for us, for all his creation. Peace be with you. We are sent to every nation, every continent, the four corners of the world. Peace be with you. We are sent to every soul—the poor, the oppressed, the slave to sin—every living thing. Peace be with you. We are sent to be the peace—the quiet, the stillness, the certainty—of everyone and everything he rules. Peace be with you. We are sent to be Christ for the world. Baptizing in his name, teaching what he taught, preaching what he preached, and accomplishing everything that he commanded us to do. Therefore, peace be with you and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, God Himself freely given to us by God Himself.
All of the disciples are in one place together. As a Body they come together, hearing the Word, receiving the grace of baptism, giving everything they have and everything they are to the Body. Together they are in one place at the one time of Pentecost, fifty-days after our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. And together they hear “from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind…Then there appear[s] to them tongues as of fire, which [divide] and [come] to rest on each of them.” And because they have received the gift of sanctifying water and because they have received the gifts of charity and faith and because they have received the gift of unity together as one Body, “they [are] all filled with the Holy Spirit…” And the Church is born. And here we are: the Church, born of the Spirit, the gift of God Himself given to us by God Himself to be Christ for the world. We too are gifts for the world, given to the world by God Himself.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” The fire of the Holy Spirit arrives in the locked room as a single flame, then divides to rest on each disciple. One flame, many fires—the same Spirit setting diverse souls on fire, each soul receiving as he and she can the gifts of the Spirit. Paul writes, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” The first benefit for each soul is the peace of a mission, a purpose, a designated task written by the Word in the flesh and the spirit. Each will walk away—Jew, Greek, slave, freed slave, man, woman—each will walk away full to the brim with the gift of God Himself. Paul writes, “…we [are] all given to drink of one Spirit.” One Spirit, one drink, one Body, one mission.
Looking at the Church in the 21st century, it is too easy to point out our differences. We can point to differences in language, politics, morality, health and wealth, ease of witness, difficulties with sin. We can point out how we differ theologically, philosophically, liturgically. We can point out the incredibly wide-ranging differences among those who believe with the Church, those who believe against the Church, and those who believe despite the Church. Some would have us celebrate these differences as Creative Diversities and others would have us mourn our differences as Destructive Divisions. Both of these groups—those who would make an idol of diversity and those who would make an idol of conformity—both would impose on the Body ideological straitjackets, chains that would bind us to a particular era of our history (whether the 1940’s or the 1970’s) or a particular idea of our identity (whether the church as Perfect Society or the church as religious democracy). This is not the peace that Christ gives us when he breathes the Spirit on us. This is not the peace that makes us Christ, sends us to the ends of the earth, gives us the Word to preach and teach, or heals the sins of the world. When we celebrate our diversity at the expense of our unity, we are a broken body divided against itself. When we celebrate our unity at the expense of our differing gifts, we are a broken body held together by a fearful conformity.
You fall to the temptation of schism when you believe that any of what you do as Christ for the world is primarily about you and your wants, your desires, your needs, your choices and preferences. When your spiritual focus is centered in your belly, your appetites, when your spiritual eye is trained on yourself alone, you fail and the rest of us fail along with you. The heart cannot be diseased without the whole body falling ill. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the Church, is not an opportunity for us to impose a narrow ideology, a singular means of being Christ for the world. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the Church, is not an opportunity for us, each in his or her own special way, to twirl off into the cosmos, celebrating any and every thing as good and holy. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the Church, IS the breaking open of human history for the entrance of Truth into our common lives. He comes among us to make us One. And so, we must, if we are to accomplish what we have been given to do, we must, always, always, we must always think with the Church, preach with the Church, teach with the Church, be together in the Church—his One Body given life and purpose by the Spirit. For the Christian, baptized and anointed, there is no life outside the Church, no purpose outside the Church. There is nothing for you, for us, beyond the Church, beyond the Body of Christ. We live and grow together, or you die and rot alone.
If you would return to the locked room, shaking in fear, then make an idol of our past, worship the cold heart of a museum-Church and fall prey to the Devil’s own pride. Likewise, if you love the locked room and its dark fear, make an idol of this age, worship the Zeitgeist, the ebb and flow of human fantasy, and fall prey to every snake that tempts you. However, if you will to do what Christ has ordered you to do, do it all with the Church, do it with us, the body and soul of the Church, the Holy Spirit among us, with us. Do this, and peace be with you “for in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” to be Christ, the one Christ, the only Christ, to be the suffering servant of our Father’s needful creation.