I’d like to touch on three things Scripture shows the Holy Spirit doing.
The first is from the Gospel we’ve just heard: Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ A link is made: the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit and sin are enemies. Sin is something hard and stony; or knotted and lumpish; it’s heavy. But the Holy Spirit is like flowing water, or wind, or fire, or green things growing. He’s compared with things that live and move and breathe. So even in imagery, the Holy Spirit and sin are opposed. And when the Holy Spirit comes, when his influence starts to shape our lives, he disengages us from sin. He shows it up. He enlightens our conscience. Our excuses seem less convincing. He moves our hearts. Maybe we start to cry. We are being converted. We seek out the sacramental sources of forgiveness Christ has lodged in the Church: baptism if we’ve not been baptised, reconciliation for sins committed after baptism. We realise we have some forgiving to do ourselves, and some forgiveness to ask of others. The Holy Spirit is in all this. It may happen suddenly. It may be a long process, with backward steps as well as forward steps; we may go round in circles for years. But this link: Holy Spirit – forgiveness is always there. It has been there since that first Easter and Pentecost. It’s here now waiting to embrace us. The Holy Spirit moves us from the state of sin into the state of grace. The things St Paul mentions – ‘fornication, gross indecency, sexual irresponsibility; idolatry, sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions, envy; drunkenness orgies and similar things’, the whole soap-opera of fallen human existence – these things can be put behind. And that other litany – ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control’, the fruits of the Holy Spirit – can start to sing in us. Not only is the guilt of original sin and of our actual sins taken away. Something deeper is being shifted. The Holy Spirit gets to grips with our whole ‘out of kilter-ness’, our ‘off-tune-ness’, the sinfulness that lies behind our specific sins. It’s a whole work of cleansing and purifying our heart that gets underway. Our re-creation in the image and likeness of God is being hammered out on the anvil of life. It will go on our whole life; after death if need be. Its upshot will be a final absolution, as it were, that will shine on us from the eyes of Christ when we see him face to face. ‘My child, your sins are forgiven.’
The forgiveness of sin: Pentecost releases this into our lives. The path of holiness lies open.
There’s another thing the Holy Spirit does. It’s the same from a different side. It’s in today’s 1st reading: ‘Now there were devout men living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound – the sound of the apostles praising God – they all assembled.’ There follows this list of places, a reader’s nightmare: Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Phrygia, Pamphylia and all the rest, a tour of the world as it was known in the 1st c. Mediterranean. The point is, ‘they all assembled’. They gathered. They came together. After Peter has spoken three thousand of them accept baptism. This is the beginning, the birthday, of the Church. How beautifully God works! He sends his Son into our fallen world to lift it up. He concentrates salvation, as it were, in the person of Jesus. He locates it in a particular time and place. But then he sends the Spirit, the Spirit who ‘fills the whole world’, who can connect those of every place and time with the Saviour. Pardon the image, but it’s as if the Holy Spirit is a great, benign lasso thrown out into the expanse of space and time to draw people to faith, to Christ, to the Paschal mystery of his Cross and Resurrection. Or to be more biblical, he’s the net thrown into the sea of the world, to catch the fish. Generation after generation, he gathers together believers from every nation under heaven. He opens up a path to unity. He forms the Church, the universal Church, one and catholic. This is what the Latin, Greek and Hebrew words for ‘Church’ mean: ‘gathering, assembly’. This is what the Church is: ‘the gathering of believers’ (congregatio fidelium). It is the undoing of that scattering of the nations, recounted in Genesis’ story of the Tower of Babel. Pride, hubris, disconnection from God scatters, disperses, alienates; we become incomprehensible to each other. The Holy Spirit moves us the other way. He draws humanity into the Body of Christ, and within the Body is always at work overpowering centrifugal forces, knitting us together. If we look beyond personalities, squabbles and scandals and all the criticisms thrown at us, we will see: the Church (like the universe) is a standing wonder. For all our globalisation, we inhabit a fragmented world, with so many attachments fractured, with so many mutual animosities. Yet, ‘spread throughout the world’, is this wonder of the Church. She is the original worldwide web in which we can really communicate. St Augustine called her ‘the world reconciled’. She holds together despite everything. Here are we gathered together Sunday after Sunday at the Eucharist. Whose work is this? The Holy Spirit is the mysterious conductor who keeps the orchestra together and faithful to the score, the music of Christ. He’s the great connector. Here in Aberdeen he’s gathering us ‘from every nation under heaven’ (almost!). And thanks be to God, we hang together. This is the genius of the Spirit. Always and everywhere, he’s creating communion: between a parish and its priest, between parishes and diocese, between a bishop and his people, between brothers in a monastery, between the Pope and the bishops, between the young and the old. Between individuals, he’s forging bonds of Christian friendship. In families, he’s bringing husband and wife back together when they drift, or parents and children; gathering the domestic Church.
This is a divine gift. It’s a share in the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And again it’s released at Pentecost. It’s a movement, a process, a flowing stream. It’s a path, and history can never close it.
The last thing: ‘The Spirit gave them the gift of speech.’ The apostles found their voice. They began to proclaim ‘the marvels of God’. The Holy Spirit does this too: he enables Christianity to find its voice. It’s the voice of praise (liturgy), the voice of communicating the faith among unbelievers (proclamation), the voice of charity and service (diakonia). This is the voice the Church has to find in so many different contexts. It’s not a voice that will always be heard. It won’t always win referendums (cf. yesterday in Ireland). It may struggle to find the right words or hit the right note. (This is why, surely, the Holy Father has called the Synods on Marriage and the Family). ‘But their sound has gone forth to the ends of the earth, their voice to the utmost bounds of the world.’ The Church, however stammeringly, does speak Christ to the world. The Holy Spirit gives her this power. He gives it to each of us in a different way. We find the way to voice Christ in our own time and place, in our life and actions and words. Yesterday in El Salvador, in the capital San Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero was declared ‘blessed’. He was Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. He lived under an oppressive regime, and gradually he found his voice. He took courage. He began to speak out in defence of the poor, against the injustices and arbitrary arrests, imprisonments, torture, assassinations. He wasn’t a politician; he was a pastor. He took his stand on the Gospel and the 10 Commandments. And it cost him his life. He was killed by a sniper on 24 March 1980, while celebrating Mass. His voice was silenced, it seemed. But it wasn’t. His death became a word that gave hope, and still does. He is hugely loved in Latin America. And now his beatification sounds it out again.
Yes, the Holy Spirit helps us Christians find our voice, despite all the attempts to silence us. He opens this path too: the path of the Church’s mission through history, the path of our personal witness.
Let us indeed by ‘led by the Spirit’!