Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Presence and Power

“You know him, because he abides with you and will be in you.”  St. John 14:17

My late father had a personality that could fill a room.  We come from a family of storytellers, of gregarious men.  But Dad was unusually gifted. He worked for years as a hardware salesman, which helped him learn to feel comfortable relating to many different kinds of people, and finding just the right topic for small talk.  It made me smile to watch what would happen when he walked into a family reunion, a wedding reception or coffee hour after church.  People would immediately walk in his direction, smiles would break out, the room would grow louder and more animated as people began to speak up. 

Some people have this kind of social pull because they have to be center of attention. They dominate conversation and cultivate eccentricities that make them stand out.  But aside from being able to tell a joke really well, there wasn’t much that stood out in the way dad presented himself to others.  He didn’t interrupt or compel, but was genuinely interested in other people.  He was able to draw them toward others, to bring out what was best in people.  You might say that his presence lifted everyone else, that he infused a kind of power into gatherings that made them altogether different than they would be without him. 

We noticed this more clearly after dad died, when his absence loomed much larger than I think any of us had expected.  The family reunions were more subdued.  People didn’t stick around as long.  We decided to let go of a few events that had been part of our family’s social calendar because they just didn’t seem to work as well anymore without dad to pull everyone together.  It wasn’t just that he was gone.  The life he brought into our social interactions had faded away as well. 

Today is the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on the apostles fifty days after our Lord’s resurrection.  While I’m sure that we are all deeply grateful for the gift of the Spirit, we sometimes find it very difficult to understand who the Spirit is and how He works in the Church and in our own souls.  The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the “forgotten person of the Holy Trinity,” because many Christians neglect to pray to the Spirit or to acknowledge his role in our spiritual lives.

I think in part that’s because the Holy Spirit is both a power and a presence, as Jesus clearly indicates in today’s Gospel.  In some ways it’s difficult for us to relate these two ideas to each other.  We might even see them as contradictory.  But I think that we get a helpful glimpse of what this is like in people like my late father, who have dynamic personalities.  Their social presence is weighted with power, and changes the lives of people they encounter.  But let’s unpack this a bit.

First, the Holy Spirit is a power, changing people’s lives by infusing them with supernatural strength and new insight.  When Jesus spoke to His disciples about sending His Spirit into them after His resurrection, this is probably where their understanding began.  Indeed, Saint Luke records Jesus as pointing ahead to the day of Pentecost as the moment when “power from high” would come upon them[1].  In the Old Testament, this is almost always how the Holy Spirit is described, as a power coming from God to equip people for a particular task.  The Spirit came upon Samson, and gave him strength to pull down the pagan temple onto the Philistines.  Solomon’s wisdom came from the Spirit, and the prophets spoke God’s word through insight sent by the Spirit. 

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the apostles that they will do even greater works than he has done after He has returned to the Father and the Spirit has been sent on them.  The Spirit will equip and sustain them to do far more than they were capable of accomplishing before. 

And indeed, the Pentecost story shows the Spirit coming down and sending out power in unmistakably dramatic ways.  The apostles are crowned with flames, and they speak in new languages.  It becomes clear, in an instant, that the good news of Jesus Christ is not just meant for Palestinian Jews like Jesus and themselves, but all the citizens of the world.  The apostles “do greater works,” just as Jesus had promised.  Peter probably made more converts with his single sermon that day than Jesus had made in his entire ministry.  It is clear that there’s a new power at work through them. 

What would have been new for the apostles in Jesus’ message, and probably what we also find more difficult to understand, is that the Holy Spirit sent on them is also a Presence, God with them as a Person, in a relational way.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises that the Spirit “will be with you forever.”  “He will abide with you,” Jesus says, “and will be in you.”  When God poured out His Spirit before the coming of Christ, it was almost always for a particular task, a limited time.  The Spirit would stay while the work was being done, and then would vanish again

But the Spirit rests on Jesus in a lasting, permanent way.  The Holy Spirit is the bond of love that united Jesus with the Father, the Source of Jesus’ words and works.  Jesus didn’t just use God’s power, God was present in Him and acted through Him.  He was never apart from God the Father, because the Spirit filled Him completely.

And the same Spirit is sent on the apostles and on each of us in Holy Baptism.  The Spirit that proceeds from the Father and the Son, abides in us and is in us, because He abode in Jesus and was in Jesus first.  We receive God’s strength to do His work, yes; but not as a fuel that is spent and needs to be topped up again.  God Himself has made His home within us.  We are filled with His Presence by the Holy Spirit who lives in us.  The strength to do His work flows out naturally from that Presence.  It’s not a reservoir but a fountain, ever fresh, ever new, inexhaustible.

You just can’t separate the presence from the power.  To go back to where we started, my dad’s social power had measurable effects.  You could measure the way the volume in the room changed, the way people moved when he walked into a room.  But that power was intimately connected to dad’s presence, his inimitable personality. When dad was gone, that power went with him. 

The gifts of God, in the same way, cannot be separated from the Presence of God, by His Spirit, within us.  We can ask God for specific gifts of course: deeper patience, greater insight, wider compassion.  But what we are really asking for is more of the Spirit.  We want the Spirit to reveal Himself to us more clearly, pushing past our own sinful desires and persistent bad habits, so that we come to feel and think and act as God does.   Spiritual growth means more of God and less of ourselves in our lives.  The opposite is true as well. When we see God’s power working through us, we feel closer to God, we know Him better.  That’s because the One who dwells within us is working through us.

Today, we rejoice that the Holy Spirit, who came down that first Pentecost, is among us, that He abides with us and in us.  We pray that we would see His power revealed in what we think, say and do.  And we ask that He would reveal His Presence to us more clearly each day, so we may know His joy, peace and love more fully.

[1] Lk. 24:29.

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