Today’s gospel is taken from the farewell discourse of Jesus at the Last Supper. Jesus has just announced to his disciples that he is leaving them and that where he is going they cannot come. The apostles don’t take too kindly to this. Their big fear was how would they ever survive without Jesus? He was everything in their lives. He was always in control, always equal to whatever came down the road to him. So his leaving them was like disaster and that’s exactly what happened at the Passion. Once Jesus was arrested they quickly vacated the scene in fear for their lives. But Jesus was all too aware of this and did not want to leave leave them as orphans. He promises them the Holy Spirit, an Advocate, who will stand by them, lead and defend them and even remind them of all that Jesus taught them.
Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit comes to fulfilment at Pentecost in ways they could never have imagined. The fire of Pentecost was so intense that they burst out of the upper room and began preaching Christ from the rooftops and filling the whole of Jerusalem with their teaching. And when Jerusalem closed its doors to them they simply went abroad, right to the ends of the earth. They were unstoppable.
They say that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Christianity was certainly one of those ideas. But the apostles never lost sight of the fact that this was all due the work of the Holy Spirit and not of their making. Titus 3:5 sums up their attitude precisely: “He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” One senses the omnipresence of the Spirit, like music filling a room, except that the room was their hearts. St. Paul puts it so well in Romans 5:5: “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
There is the refrain of a hymn that we used to sing when I was in the seminary. “I know nothing of tomorrow except the love of God will rise before the sun.” There is a carefreeness about these words. I know nothing about tomorrow, nor do I need to know because God’s love is there. It’s that inbuilt confidence that God’s love will always rise before the sun and take care of me. The early church must have been like this. They didn’t know anything of tomorrow except that they lived in times of persecution where death and persecution could always spring on them like a thief in the night. Nevertheless, they didn’t worry, putting their whole trust in God. Thus the love of God was the great driving force in their lives.
Let’s not forget, however, that it wasn’t all plain sailing for apostles and early missionaries. Every day, they had to adapt to ever-changing times and circumstances. To that end they leaned heavily on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit helped them decide how best to organise the community and steer its mission so they could remain true to Jesus Christ while bringing to the faith more and more people of every race, ethnic background culture and persuasion.
Top of the list of challenges was the issue of coming to grips with the disagreements between Jewish and gentile Christians over the necessity of maintaining Jewish feasts, purification rituals and dietary laws. We are told there was no little dissension and debate. This was such a hot issue that there was need for a council, called the Council of Jerusalem, to solve it.
That first council of the church had enormous implications for the history of the world, far beyond what the participants could have imagined. They were not surrounded by the pomp and splendour of the Second Vatican Council, nor did they have the attention of the world’s media analysing every move. Rather that small group had to proceed believing that, despite their differences and the difficulties involved in reconciling them, the Holy Spirit would guide them on the right path. Notice their awareness of and dependence on the Holy Spirit yet again. “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.”
In two weeks’ time we will celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We may well ask where is the Spirit now who had such a powerful effect on the early church? Has the Spirit gone to sleep? Was the promise of Jesus about sending the Spirit only for a short time, like the first few centuries of the early church? Or could it be that we have grown insensitive to the Spirit and its promptings.
We live in a time of great communications where the Word of God could be quickly packaged and marketed by radio and television. But words are never enough. What is needed is dedicated followers of Jesus. Becoming such a follower demands a personal journey that each one of us must make for ourselves. We get a feel for the man Jesus and gradually we learn to love his words so that they sink into our consciousness, until one day we know that he has come into our lives and whatever happens we have the confidence to know that he will never leave us again.
Meanwhile the Spirit is at work. Was the Spirit not at work when the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel surprised the church and the world by electing Pope Francis who immediately set the tone for a humbler, simpler papacy, geared toward the poor? Is not the Spirit at work in all our lives prompting us to stay close to Jesus and remain faithful to his word?
Sunday, 1 May 2016