"Whenever and wherever we see you still loving in the face of loss, ridicule or rejection, we see God’s Spirit alive and well in you, evidence that Pentecost is alive and well."
On Saturday, May 22nd, His Excellency, Bishop Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, delivered the below sermon to the candidates for Confirmation.
When was the last time life took your breath away? Anyone who has known breathlessness appreciates the powerful gift of lungs full of fresh air. That invigorating rush of oxygen clears the head, flushes the cheeks as it sharpens our vision and heightens our awareness while something marvelous stands for a few seconds staring us in the face.
So much of the majesty of each passing moment of life so easily passes us by. Astonishment, which literally means being thunderstruck, for lack of a better word, is one of the clearest indicators of the vitality of our spirit-life. Being astounded means being jolted awake beside-ourselves with amazement. This invariably leads us to wonder, which opens our hearts to a sense of awesomeness in face of the splendid mystery of life. And as Christian believers, reverence always culminates in expressions of gratefulness.
By the same token, when we encounter breathtaking vistas or gasp aloud in horror at wanton desecrations and tragedies that happen these days, shocking events do steal the very breath from us and provoke us to tears.
At any given moment, especially life’s best moments, we are offered opportunities to explore the magnificent mystery of being alive, wide-eyed and open-hearted. Amidst astonishment a veil lifts as it were and we understand that there is nothing really ordinary about existence. Everything about life is extraordinary if we would but notice the movements of God in our lives. We might even say, if we are not astonished here and there perhaps we are not yet awake or some malaise has overtaken our spirit.
But definitely not to be naïve, these days, do we have to even mention, there is a good deal of fear in our lives; fears exploited by the media and fear that invades public discourse. And there is much to feed our fears: global climate change and environmental devastation, social breakdown, perceived injustices, growing economic disparities, pervasive violence, weapons of unimaginable destruction, conflict and competition over perceived shortages and ever depleting natural resources, fear of peoples coming from outside places invading our space, and much more.
Fear remains a powerful motivating force in our lives and our religious institutions are not immune to its divisive influence as history attests. When we are frightened we tend to draw the curtains, lock our doors, we huddle together with like-minded folk with hearts and minds closed tight. This need to feel safe and secure in uncertain times can lead us to spiral inward. When fearful, we hide ourselves and our resources, we hold back, we become suspicious of the differences, un-attentive to widespread indifference, cynical regarding the needs and motives of others. We are hardly neighbors.
Moved by primitive instincts to protect ourselves we erect dungeons of our own design. The healing power of deep listening seems beyond our reach. In such instances we are left to wrestle with the bitter fruits of fear: segregation, stockpiles of weapons and spiritual asphyxiation. Under these terms we human beings are not our best.
It is not surprising then that fear-driven communities tend to be: autocratic, focused on command and control, domineering, dogmatic and self-preoccupied, deprived of creative diversity, wanting increased law enforcement and postured by a rigid and hard-hearted, mean-spirited, unwillingness to negotiate.
However, digging down deep into the nobility of the human spirit, is found the experience and expression of compassion, being willing to risk best turn-outs resulting from sacrifice, generosity, empathy toward the plight of others and neighborliness, being inwardly moved in face of all that is human that melts down fear and turns pain inside out, all that shows forth the best side of our nature and all things Christ-like. Only the compassionate Holy Spirit has the power to unsettle us enough to shake us free from the temptation to keep one another at a distance.
When we are at our most vulnerable, the gospel proclaims that the Holy Spirit can surprise us with a multiplicity of gifts to inspire, console and disturb us, to cause a new breath of life, a flash of insight, a glimmer of hope; unimagined possibilities, unforeseen strengths, wonder, wisdom, gratefulness, understanding, awe and humble reverence. Such is the giftedness of peace we can expect to receive and share, when we are willing to come together and turn inside-out the turmoil of these days. The Holy Spirit we have come to know inspires such good things in us.
When we find ourselves backed into fearful spaces deeply troubled by turbulent times it helps to keep in mind that our Church was born in just such circumstances. And surprisingly, marvelously, inexplicably, fearful disciples locked up in a small room in a back corner of the city Jerusalem were suddenly surprisingly found this day outside speaking aloud about the Christ and his salvation for everyone regardless the shape of their nose, the color of their eyes, the color of their skin or the language they spoke. How does one explain such immediate and instantaneous and indescribable transformation of this small collection of disciples except by coaching of the great Enabler Himself, the Holy Spirit?
The Smithsonian museums in Washington DC are some of the more inspiring show places of science and progress and history our country has to offer visitors and citizens as well. You may have gone there yourselves or with your families or accompanied 8th graders on the annual trip of passage to the nation’s capital.
You may have also seen the attractive Hope Diamond exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington. Tourists are amazed that the largest diamond in the world was transformed from a huge piece of black coal into this exquisite jewel. What a transformative event of nature that was. How it happened dazzles us, scientist and student alike.
Similarly, Jesus’ followers today look back to the time following upon Pentecost astounded at the Church’s expansive growth since this transformative event. The Church has developed from a rough diamond, you might say, to the Body of Christ, glittering with the talents and gifts and the courageous martyrdom of its baptized members for love of the Christ. The Church needed Pentecost to give the breath of life to the Church, the renewed Body of Christ. Without Pentecost, Christ’s mission may not have sparkled with the depth and brilliance present believers share or the religion might have simply phased out completely from the world’s notice.
Stories of Jesus’ love and sacrifice may lack the feelings of intimacy two thousand years hence, but with the coming of the Holy Spirit believers now know that this closeness includes a personal and intimate dimension allowing followers to call Jesus, Savior and Lord, by reason of their baptism and Confirmation.
The Holy Spirit’s presence gives followers a fellowship with other Church members which builds the Body of Christ. While the Holy Spirit’s wind and fire inspired the apostles to launch Christ’s mission, it also forms and prepares them for their journey from baptism to heaven. In fact, this ongoing conversion transforms all followers of Jesus into diamonds God envisions and the Holy Spirit polishes.
From Peter’s Pentecost sermon to the crowd of gentiles and Jews and others listening, the Church continues to attract diverse peoples from cultures everywhere. They hear the same message, learning how God loves all equally and invites us to do the same.
Jesus came to bring every race, gender, nationality or social status home, and that is now the role of the Church to follow in His stead. “For, in one Spirit we were baptized into one body, whether Jews, Greeks, slaves or free persons.” (1Cor 12, 13). The Holy Spirit breathes where it wills. We can’t control Him. Like the Hope Diamond’s makeover from coal to jewel, the Holy Spirit still transforms believers marvelously into inspired Christians.
And, like those Christians who came before us we live in uncertain times. For us, Pentecost is much more than a symbolic celebration. It arrives each springtime as a new creation, heralding an extraordinary event for sure and underscoring a season laden with gifts, challenges and God-given surprises. We tap into the power of that Spirit of God unleashed on the world for each of us and especially those of you being confirmed in the Holy Spirit today.
We are living in the age of the Holy Spirit. It may seem hard for us to find tangible evidence of this. But, for all the terror and inhumanity that still disfigures the human family and that tends to depress our spirits at times, be assured that the Holy Spirit is active and will see goodness triumph over evil. Know too that God uses us to accomplish His goodness in the world. Today, my dear candidates, you pledge to be allowed to be used as instruments for the Cause of the kingdom of God.
Over the course of your instructions in preparation for this day you have come to know this mysterious Third Person of the Trinity, that the Holy Spirit is a powerful impulse for good in your lives. The Holy Spirit breathes in us the very life of God leading us where we are not sure we want to go sometimes.
The Holy Spirit pushes you to become involved in causes of faith when you’re sure you do not want to be involved. The Holy Spirit guides us as he guided Jesus to right thoughts, right actions, heroic love, while giving us strength to suffer patiently in this life while doing good.
So, candidates, wherever and whenever people see you doing and loving heroically, especially where there’s no logical or gainful return at stake, we see the Holy Spirit in action in you. Whenever and wherever we see you still loving in the face of loss, ridicule or rejection, we see God’s Spirit alive and well in you, evidence that Pentecost is alive and well.
For all the spiritual backsliding we may be guilty of along our own life’s journey, remain assured that in the Holy Spirit all things are still possible in you. We may yet not only overcome our failings and sins but even become the saints God desires us to be.