26th Sunday – Spirit and Institution

The Descent of the Spirit, French School, 17th Century

Num 11:25-29, Mark 9:38-48

We have a strong theme running through this Sunday’s Word. It is what could be characterised as the difference, or the tension between Spirit and Institution. God asks Moses to bring to him seventy elders whom he will anoint with the Holy Spirit on Moses. Moses, till now has been trying to lead the people all by himself – all six million of them, and he’s breaking down. And God creates a leadership structure for the new nation, through which he will make himself present to the people, just as he has done so far, through Moses. But even as the new council is formed, two of those registered, Eldad and Medad, are not present for some unspecified reason. Nevertheless, the Spirit falls on them and they start prophesying. This makes Joshua indignant: these two are outside the new structure – and horror – they have received the same Spirit. That’s against the rules! The same happens in the gospel. Jesus sends out the apostles in his Name, to heal and drive out demons and raise the dead. And they are ecstatic that they have power over these elements. They know it’s not because of their own holiness or strength, it has been given to them. Then, they see someone, outside the established group, using the name of Jesus (and successfully at that) to drive out demons! But there is grace, there is the power of the Spirit flowing in both these places.

In both accounts, there are established structures – the formal structures, willed by God – so that God’s grace can reach the people. But almost immediately, the Spirit seems to work outside them as well. They highlight this division, or at least the tension between the formal and the informal, between what is official and what falls outside it – Institution and the free movement of Spirit. Are these two entities meant to be opposed to each other, or are they meant to work in harmony? This division is not just something that happens in Church, we can see it everywhere. The Spirit aspect of this is analogous to what people would consider something spontaneous, free, creative. The Institutional aspect is what you would consider rigid with proper structures and laws. And we naturally tend to think of what is creative and spontaneous as freeing and good, with what is law-like and institutional as bad, or at least a necessary evil. 

First, let’s look at Institution. Institution is firstly to do with order. And God is a God of order, not chaos (1 Cor 14:33). There is no denying the institutional aspect of the Catholic Church. We have very clearly defined structures, rules and regulations. We have detailed rules on how to celebrate the liturgy, for example. It is easy to ask – is God really interested in the colour of my vestment and exact words I say? Jesus himself said, God is looking for true worship in Spirit and truth? (Jn 4:23) Surely, these are regulations imposed by the Church? Well, yes and no. These have certainly come about historically, and the Church has the power to change them. But is there a divine warrant behind them? Absolutely, yes. Read Leviticus and Exodus and Numbers – there are extensive details on constructing the tabernacle, the type of wood to use, the measurements, the vestments, the liturgies. And as they obey the laws, the glory of God comes down in their worship. And the Church law guarantees, that when you come for Sunday Mass, the bread and wine on the altar become the Body and Blood of Christ, provided the priest celebrates the liturgy according to the rite. If Padre Pio were celebrating Mass instead of your regular priest (yours sincerely), you will have a far greater experience, an encounter with Christ which might change your life. There, the holiness of the priest as a channel of the Spirit, activates something of what is institutional – this encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. But then, not every priest is Padre Pio, unfortunately. And this is where what the Institution guarantees is so important. You don’t have to worry about the spiritual state of the priest, whether he got drunk last night, whether he has listened to God the previous week. If he is validly ordained and does what he is supposed to do, Christ has guaranteed his presence. This is an amazing gift.  And if you are moved by the Spirit, you have an active life of prayer, then, this encounter in the Eucharist will be life-changing. The same is true of other sacraments. Sometimes, we can go repeatedly for confession. This is one of the greatest gifts that the Catholic has; something you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Everyone desires the forgiveness of their sins, the things that they have done wrong – even atheists. Yet, we treat this Sacrament so cheaply. Why? Because while the institutional aspect of the sacrament guarantees the grace, very often, we don’t fully realise or experience it. That comes through being open to the Spirit more and more. So what is the Spirit?

When the Spirit comes on the camp, they prophesy. In the Scriptures, the infallible sign of the action of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. Prophecy is firstly to do with proclaiming the will of God and discerning his action more than foretelling. This is what the prophets of the Old Testament did. And in a larger sense, prophecy is to be sensitive to the action of God’s Spirit, to discern his movement. What is the Holy Spirit doing now? In my life, in my family, where I work, in the country? Because, this movement of God’s Spirit, his action, is grace. One who is sensitive to God’s presence and open to his Word can be used by God for his purpose. We can be so closed and caught up in our own world, many times we don’t have a clue as to what God is doing or wants to do in our own lives, let alone that of others. And then, there can be so many moments we miss, where God could have used us to speak a word of encouragement to someone, to help someone in need, to strengthen the faith of someone else and so on. This is to move in the spirit of prophecy. It is what we are meant to do as a result of our baptism – we were baptised into the prophetic office of Christ. And the Spirit is not bound to the institutional Church. As it says in the Catechism, God has bound himself to the sacraments of the Church, but God himself is not bound by it (cf. CCC 1257). In other words, you always have a guarantee that God will work through the sacraments, but God does not need to work only through the sacraments. Can God work through the Pentecostal Minister down the road? Of course, he can, and he does, often, powerfully. That is outside the structure, but the Spirit can work everywhere.

If, listening to a Pentecostal preacher, draws you closer to Christ, listen by all means. But come back to Mass on Sunday. The priest might be boring, but Christ is being fully present, in an even greater way than this charismatic preacher. The law revealed in the Church, by the Spirit, means that in the Church you will always have a standard to know whether you are receiving the Truth. The Institution shows you where Christ can be found for certain. If we had only the Institution, we’ll have the worst of religion, one of control and power and rivalry. But if we had only Spirit with no structure, it would result in chaos, as the Corinthian churches in the Scriptures bear witness. The Institution is meant to release us into communion with the Spirit, so we can flow with his freedom. Then we come alive and bear immense fruit. This Spirit we ask to receive, in the Eucharist.

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