Pentecost, El Greco
We come to the close of the Easter Season. But Pentecost is not really the close, even the grand finale of the Easter Season – it is the beginning of a new one. Where Easter becomes true for our lives. Pentecost was the Jewish harvest festival. The first Pentecost took place fifty days after Passover, when God freed Israel from Egypt. God descended then, in smoke and fire on Mt Sinai. It says, there was thunder and lightning and the whole mountain was shaking violently, so that the people were terrified. And God gave them the Law, the Ten Commandments. This Law was God revealing to Israel what it meant to live as a holy people, like the God who had called them. But while this Law was good and holy, it could never make a people holy by itself. St Paul explains this at great length in Romans and Galatians. All it could do, was help people realise there was sin (Rom 3:20) and that they needed a saviour.
Finally, fifty days after the Resurrection, from heaven where Jesus is seated, once again come wind and fire, to transform the earth. Fire and wind are signs of God’s untameable power. Imagine how a tornado sweeps away everything in its path. Nothing can resist it. Everything that is exposed to a raging fire, is changed, it becomes fire. And this fire spreads. And Jesus sends this wind and fire on his disciples, as he promised. And it changes them completely. And they start spreading this to others. They are the first-fruits, the harvest of the Resurrection. They are given a new ability to live as God’s people, to be disciples of Jesus, even obeying the Law. I once heard someone preach, saying, ‘Christianity is hard, and yes, it is a struggle. But it is not impossible’. It’s precisely the opposite. The Law of God is not hard, it’s impossible – without the Spirit. And that’s what St Paul is expanding on in the second reading. By ourselves, we have no power to be free of our sins. St Paul lists some in our reading. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like…those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Gal 5:19-21
We might not be not doing sorcery or even getting drunk every day. But we can be addicted to others, from our mobile phones, social media, to over-eating, or worse. We can be even more easily enslaved to pride, to envy, to jealousy, things we can overlook easily. Paul is not giving us a list of sins to tick off (the list is not exhaustive!). He’s talking about a state of being. These capital vices produce their own fruit. We can find ourselves in a situation we didn’t expect, where we do something we never thought we would do. Ultimately to be under the power of sin means we don’t have any peace. We are torn apart within ourselves. We are unable to love others fully, even those we want to love, let alone those who are difficult. But when the Spirit comes, he changes everything. We find this impossible Law is not hard or a burden. The Spirit makes following Jesus life-giving, it becomes joyful. I recently came across a celebratory biography of a chef, with an amusing title, Never trust a skinny Italian Chef. A biography of the saints could use a similar title – Never trust a miserable Christian saint.
What the Spirit brings is very different: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control…You cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires. Since the Spirit is our life, let us be directed by the Spirit. Gal 5:22-24
When the Spirit comes, he produces his fruit in our lives. This is, finally, the only sure sign that the Spirit is working in a person’s life. One of the first fruits is joy. If the idea of Christianity makes us feel miserable, everything about it feels like a burden, we’ve not really experiencing what Christ promised his disciples. This doesn’t mean that those who follow Christ go about smiling all the time. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Christians will never experience any suffering: Jesus said, In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). It is the Spirit who brings this victory of the Resurrection to our lives. He makes the presence of Christ real. The coming of the Spirit means, you know that you are never alone in whatever you go through. Our life doesn’t fall apart with everything that we face. Because of the Spirit, Paul says, we cry ‘Abba, Father’ – we know God as our Father (Rom 8:16). We could even suffer from different neuroses or others, but deeper still, we can know that our life is held together by the love of God. And that brings joy.
All this comes about not simply through receiving the Spirit, but when we let the Holy Spirit lead us, as Paul says (Rom 8:14). This is something we learn to do over time (this book is a lovely introduction in learning to let the Holy Spirit lead us). If we are baptised, we have already received the Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. But that is no guarantee that the Spirit is in charge of our lives. The sacraments are not magic. As Pope Francis noted once, most of the Italian mafia are baptised Catholics. We can live in a completely self-centered, self-indulgent way. Then, the Holy Spirit remains, but becomes dormant in our life. We don’t experience his presence or his power. But the reception of the Spirit is not meant to be a one-time event. We need to ask God every day to renew his Spirit in our lives. And there are certain times, like today’s feast, where the Spirit is poured out in a very powerful way for those who want to receive the Spirit. The question is therefore, do you really want the Holy Spirit to renew your life? More importantly, do you want the Spirit to lead you in your life? If we’re unsure we want God to do much in our life, the Spirit will respect our wishes. He will not intrude into our lives. But if you do, here is a revision of the basics, a few steps to talk about, with God.
First. Obedience to the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given to those who are willing to obey him (Acts 5:32). He is the Spirit of Jesus. He is sent to those who are disciples of Jesus. To be a disciple means I want to do Jesus’ will, not my own. There might be things in my life that will change. The Holy Spirit is gentle. He does not come to torture us. But we have to be willing to change, as he prompts.
Second. Confession of sins. If there are big sins in our life, whatever it might be, we need to confess them and be willing to renounce them. Maybe there is an addiction to something, maybe it is something we’ve never been able to get rid of. It’s not our job to get rid of our addictions. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit. We just have to want to let go of it. God wants us to make us like him. It means a willingness to let go, even what we might consider ‘small sins’.
Third. Forgiveness. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of unity. We can’t love God while hating our neighbour. Are there people you need to forgive? Decide to forgive those, against whom you might have a grievance. Maybe you can’t forgive. That’s okay. But if you are willing to give that to the Holy Spirit, again, he will make it possible, in a time that will be suited for you. Then, ask, and you shall receive. Let us pray.
Father, I realise I cannot live this Christian life without the help of the Holy Spirit. Please baptize, renew in me your Holy Spirit, as you did the disciples at Pentecost. Cause me to know you as my Father, that I may cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ Holy Spirit, please let me know the power of Jesus' Resurrection in my life. Free me from my sins. I promise to be obedient to your leading. Holy Spirit, love of the Father and the Son, fill my heart. Lead me, and let me know Jesus anew. In his Name, I pray. Amen.