Sunday, 21 May 2017

Easter Week 6 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

The prophet Isaiah says that the Messiah will be anointed with the Spirit and will have the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, the knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11.2). For Christians Jesus is this promised messiah and those who belong to him through faith and baptism are members of the messianic people. They share in these same gifts of the Spirit.

In writing to the Galatians Saint Paul speaks about ‘fruits’ rather than ‘gifts’ of the Spirit but the idea is the same: that those who live ‘according to the Spirit’ will lead lives characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23).

If we want to see the Holy Spirit at work, then, we must look out for individuals and communities whose lives are characterised by these gifts and fruits. In today’s first reading, for example, the preaching of Philip unites the people of a Samaritan town just as the miracles worked through him fill them with joy (Acts 8.5-8). A community which is not united and which lacks joy is clearly not a place of the Spirit. Of course there are struggles to be fought and unity is sometimes not easily won. Likewise some forms of supposedly religious joy can be off-putting rather than helpful. But a community which, long term, cannot find unity or whose life is without joy does not show much sign of being a place of the Holy Spirit.

In the gospel reading Jesus speaks of the Spirit as the ‘spirit of truth’ who will be with the disciples and will be in them (John 14.17). He will enable them to live according to the way of Jesus, to understand what he has taught them and to love him in the way he asks. We can say then that fear of truth, or a culture of lies, or indifference to Jesus Christ, or the refusal to love, are all incompatible with the Spirit at work.

The Holy Spirit reveals his presence in these gifts and fruits. But we are taught something else about the presence of the Spirit in today’s first reading. Following the preaching of Philip, the apostles travel from Jerusalem to Samaria to pray for the newly baptised Christians. They pray for them to receive the Spirit and when the apostles lay their hands on them they do receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8.14-17).

Sometimes people contrast ‘institutional’ religion with ‘spiritual’ religion as if these two are necessarily opposed. But this text from the Acts of the Apostles teaches that this is not so and that the work of the Church in the world is the work of the Spirit. At Confirmation when we receive the gift of the Spirit it is through contact with the bishop, successor of the apostles, who prays for us to receive the Spirit and lays his hands on us to that same end.

So the Spirit is at work not only in the virtuous and spiritual lives of Christians but in the preaching and sacraments of the Church. The sacrament of Confirmation gives each adult Christian a mission on behalf of the Church, to live as a witness or ‘soldier’ of Christ, bearing witness to his goodness and love in the midst of the temptations and difficulties of life in the world. Through the Church’s ministry the Spirit is at work in every faithful Christian encouraging justice, integrity, right living, kindness: all that goes with a life founded on truth and goodness. Of course we cannot restrict the work of the Spirit to the confines of the visible Church. But we can be sure of His presence there.

It can happen that we are presented with very clear evidence of the Spirit’s work, for example in the lives of holy people, in the heroism of prophets and martyrs, in the faithfulness of the elderly, in the courage and enthusiasm of the young – all kinds of ways in which the gifts and fruits of the Spirit work for the building up of the community and for the healing of the world.

But it must also be that much of the work of the Spirit remains hidden and unsung. The prayer and suffering of countless people down the ages is a spiritual reservoir at the heart of our world. One of the joys of the eternal kingdom will be learning how the Spirit has been at work in creation and its history.

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