Today is the great solemnity of Pentecost, some refer to this great event as a kind of birthday for the Church, or the day in which the Church is celebrated in terms of its identity and mission. The scriptures for today testify to the Holy Spirit and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit- in other words, the Holy Spirit changes lives.
The word Pentecost refers to a festal and celebratory period of time called Shauvot that was mandated by the Law of Moses. It was an Israelite festival associated with the harvest and involved pilgrimage to the great temple of the Israelites in Jerusalem. It was during this celebration that Christians remember an extraordinary event that happened during the earliest days of the Church’s life- the Holy Spirit was manifested in power and mystery. This event is described in the Church’s first scripture for today- an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Acts.
Today’s preaching for today will be catechetical. I’m going to present two questions about what the Church believes and give you a few insights as to why these beliefs are important and what they mean.
The first question is this- what is the Church?
Now that seems like a pretty basic question, one that seems to be so obvious that it might seem strange to ask. But if someone were to ask you, “what is the Church” how would you reply, what would you tell them?
For many, even for many Christians, the Church is an institution, a faith-based corporation or private club. For many others, the Church is an artifact of culture, something akin to an ethnic identity. In both these understandings of the Church, it’s the purpose of the Church to offer us something- in the case of the corporation or institution we get faith-based goods and services and in the case of the culture or ethnic identity we get a sense of belonging and identity.
Neither of these understandings of the Church are entirely incorrect or inappropriate. The Church is by its nature a human society and human societies have structure and belonging to a society imparts benefits. The problem is not that thinking about the Church as an institution or cultural identity is wrong, but that it is really very limited and it has the tendency to reduce the Church to something that simply has to do with us, something that we just make up as we go along, something that serves our needs and gives us what we want.
When that limited understanding is in place, lots of folks become frustrated with the Church because the Church inevitably will fail to meet our expectations. It won’t deliver what we want or won’t yield to our expectations or support of causes or political expectations and we end up treating it the way we treat a corporation like a public utility or retail store or a restaurant that doesn’t satisfy us- we criticize and complain and we find what we perceive to be a better service provider. If we don’t like the Church as a culture or as an ethnic identity, we just position the Church as something irrelevant or archaic.
Now if all the Church is is just an institution or a culture, this approach to it makes sense. But if an institution or culture is not what the Church essentially is then we have a problem.
The scriptures, our privileged source for telling us Christians what the Church really and truly is, never describes the Church merely as just an institution or a culture. This tells us that neither of these categories, so important to us, were primary in the minds of Christ’s Apostles. Instead of an institution or a culture, the Church is described in two ways- as Israel, transformed by Christ into something new and as Christ’s Body in the world.
With those two descriptions of the Church in mind, go back to that question “what is the Church?”. Because the two best answers are “a new kind of Israel” and “the Body of Jesus in the world”. Did either of those answers occur to you? If they did, great, but your exceptional in that respect. Now can you make sense of those descriptions of the Church for others, for fellow Christians, for unbelievers? Because brothers and sisters, that’s the real challenge of Pentecost.
Pentecost is an ancient Israelite festival. Why are Christians celebrating an ancient Israelite festival? Because we are a new kind of Israel, that is, a people chosen by God for a specific mission in the world. The mission of Israel was to give testimony to the power and presence of the one, true God and invite the world to know this God in a way that was personal and life changing. That’s Israel’s mission. That’s the mission of the Church. Why? Because the Church is a new kind of Israel. It is a mission that comes from God, who in the revelation of Jesus Christ, shares that mission with us and makes it our own.
In other words, we don’t make up the Church out of our structures or culture, we receive the Church from God in Christ. God in Christ makes the Church what it is, gives it a form, an identity, a mission- and then he presents the Church to us and invites us to be a part of it. The institution or the culture of the Church can be a route of access to this invitation, but the substance of the Church is deeper than the institution or the culture, the substance of the Church is a divine revelation, a divine gift- which we will either accept or refuse.
The Church is repeatedly returning to the stories of the Israelites as privileged frames of reference for who we are and how we are supposed to live. Why is that? The interest is not just literary or historical, it’s personal. Why? Because the Church is a new kind of Israel, and we seek to understand what God wants us to do now through considering what God has asked the Israelites to be and do in the past.
And the Church is Christ’s Body. This means that the revelation of Christ is not just a matter of the past, but is happening even right now. Once, Christ inhabited the world in the body of his Incarnation, the body through which God experienced for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life. This is happening in its own unique way right now in the Church. The Church is the means through which God in Christ is acting in the world. That really raises the stakes about our association with and involvement in the Church. We are not just here to offer our financial support to a cause or celebrate a culture but to become for the others the means through which the life and presence of God in Christ is brought forth into the world.
That’s what the Church is supposed to be and do. Extend in space and time the revelation of Jesus Christ. Consider how Christ presents himself in the testimony of the Gospels, what he does, that’s what the Church is, or is supposed to be.
I think at times we Christians retreat into the institution or into culture because that stuff seems easier to us than being new Israelites, which means receiving a way of life we don’t get to make up for ourselves or being the Body of Jesus, which the means becoming the way that Christ makes himself living and present in the world, because then our lives are about him and not ourselves. We can also walk away from institutions and culture and justify ourselves in that decision. You just can’t do that is the Church is a way of life God gives to you and that way of life makes you, like Christ, a revelation.
Now the second question in our catechesis for today is “what is the Holy Spirit?”
The Holy Spirit is God, but more specifically, the Holy Spirit is the “love of God” or even more specifically, “the love of God shared by Christ and his Heavenly Father”.
Let’s keep that all that mind.
Now, for many Christians, the Holy Spirit is a Christian version of the force in Star Wars, a kind of nebulous, invisible cosmic power that manifests itself in intuitions or ideas that we have. We support our claim that our intuitions or ideas are important by insisting that they come from the Holy Spirit. Now when we do that, we are simply doing to God what we often times do to the Church, making the Spirit into whatever it is we want it to be so as to serve our own desires or purposes. That’s not the Holy Spirit. That’s a different kind of spirit and it isn’t one that is holy!
The Holy Spirit is the love of God in Christ- the love of God shared by Christ and his Heavenly Father, that is, it is the relationship of God the Father and God the Son- this is what Christ gives to us when he sends forth his Spirit, the Holy Spirit- he is giving to us the relationship that he shares with his Heavenly Father. The kind of relationship, that is, the love, that Christ has for his Heavenly Father is the Holy Spirit. Let your mind be blown by that are tease out the implications for the rest of your lives. Christ is placing you alongside himself in his unique relationship with his Heavenly Father. That’s the Holy Spirit.
It’s that relationship that changes you, makes you different. It’s that relationship that animates the life of the Church, gives us the Sacraments, makes us capable of being like Christ. That’s the Holy Spirit.
Now I’m going to give you one more insight about all this: when you come here, to Mass, you are praying in the Holy Spirit. This means that you are uniquely situated in the relationship that Christ gives to you- the love he shares with his Heavenly Father. The point of this relationship, this praying in the Spirit, is to make you like Christ. Why is Christ doing this for you, to you?
Go back to what I told you about the Church- Christ is giving you the Holy Spirit, his relationship with his Heavenly Father, so that you can accept the mission he gives you and become for others a revelation of his life and his presence.
That’s what the Holy Spirit is about. That’s what the Church is about.