Reflections on the readings for May 29, 2011 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)

So what’s the big deal about the Holy Spirit? In this week’s first reading, we see Peter and John being sent to Samaria so that the people there, who have already been baptized, might receive also the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is all over the Bible but is really difficult to “nail down” in conversation. Of all three members of the Trinity, the Spirit is the one most neglected, and this makes a lot of sense. I teach a group of four and five year olds at church and I’m pretty sure they are good on God the Father (who is the star of the creation story they know so well) and Jesus the Son who we’ve been talking about all Lent and Easter. But as we approach Pentecost, I’ve been fretting about how to explain to them what the Spirit is.

In the New Testament, the Spirit is connected with the growth of the Christian Church. The book of Acts, in many ways, can be read as a story of the Spirit progressing from Jerusalem (see the end of Luke and the prologue of Acts) to the four corners of the earth. The early Christians experienced the Spirit as power (Acts 1:8)—the power to speak in every language (Acts 2:5-12), the power to heal and cast out demons (Acts 5:12-16), and the power to testify (Acts 5:32, 7:55). Although baptism often gets a lot of attention in terms of the Christian life, in Acts, the receiving of the Holy Spirit is just as important, if not more so, as we see in our readings today. It was not enough for the new believers in Samaria to just be baptized; they needed the Holy Spirit as well.

So what does the Holy Spirit have to do with ethics? In the Christian tradition, the Spirit is particularly important because of the gifts associated with it. The gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord) are like freely offered “powers” given to believers which make us more amenable to God acting in our lives. The gifts empower us to live as disciples.

The Spirit working in our lives, however, does not obviate the need for ethical reflection and moral formation. The Spirit works with us as we strive to live virtuously, discern God’s will, and make good decisions. In this way, the Spirit is the source of true freedom. It is the Spirit that allows us to become the people God is calling us to be (and the people that we presumably want to be).

Perhaps the most important gift of the Spirit is wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to perceive the “depths of God” (I Corinthians 2:10). Wisdom is a knowledge of God that goes beyond “facts” about God and God’s commands and allows the believer to know God through an intimate connection of love. Thomas Heath writes, “Tasting knowledge occurs when a lover comes to know the beloved in a way others do not, or the poetic experience whereby a person is grasped strongly yet inarticulately by the beautiful.” Wisdom, then, is the “tasting knowledge” of God.(I got this quote for Patricia Lamoureux and Paul Wadell’s wonderful new textbook The Christian Moral Life which is one of the few introductory moral theology textbooks which gives in depth attention to the Holy Spirit).

This “tasting knowledge” of God becomes incredibly important for ethical reflection because it allows the believer to judge her acts according to divine standards (Wisdom is both speculative and practical according to Aquinas). It is wisdom, then, which makes possible the exhortation we read in 1 Peter this week: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear.”

We are entering another election season, and the political debate promises to be lively, to say the least. Much of that debate will center on moral issues like abortion, the budget, the military engagements abroad, and provisions for the poor. Christians can and should be ready to “testify” what they have come to believe Christ is calling them to do in this world, but they should be ready to do so in a spirit-inspired wisdom. Wisdom seeks out God’s knowledge, not human knowledge, before judging worldly affairs. Wisdom involves discernment, and not just a hard-fast determination of who is right and who is wrong. Above all, wisdom requires love, even of those who malign and persecute us, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”

The Spirit, above all, is a source of life. And so as we prepare to enter this new election season, let us pray that we may be filled with the Holy Spirit so that our words and actions may be a source of life in our churches, our country, and our world.