“We have been given the Holy Spirit”

“We have been given the Holy Spirit” May 17, 2016

shutterstock_88010986Jesus returned to Nazareth, the town where he had been brought up. And on the Sabbath day, he went to the synagogue, as was his custom. On this particular day, he was appointed to read, and the passage for the day came from Isaiah — the same passage we heard, just a few minutes ago.

Jesus unrolled the scroll, and found the place where the following words were written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

But every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. By this time, Jesus already had at least a regional reputation as a teacher, a healer, a prophet. So even there in his home town, folks wanted to know what was on his mind. And so he said words that would lead ultimately to the crowd rejecting him.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

At first they all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. But it went downhill from there.

So for us who follow Jesus, almost two thousand years after that ordinary sabbath day in Nazareth, what are we to make of this passage, when again it is read in our midst? We are not scandalized at what Jesus had to say. We affirm that in Him these words have been fulfilled.

But we also know the whole story. We know that Jesus does not just claim the anointing of God’s spirit for himself. We know that, later in his earthly ministry, he will breathe on his friends and give them the Holy Spirit. We know that he will make this promise to his followers:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you… The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. (John 14:16-17, 26-27)

What is Jesus saying? Simply this: the Spirit of the Lord is not just on Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord is given to us all.

He has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is true of all the Baptized; indeed, I believe you can make the argument that this calling: to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit — is meant for everybody. But this evening I want to focus on your community: the Worker Sisters and Brothers, your Companions, and Friends: for all of you, knit together in this consecrated community, are united in your devotion to the Holy Spirit — to the one who has brought you together, empowered you for mission and ministry, and who tonight calls two new Companions and four new Workers to join the dance.

One of my favorite musicians is Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie. There’s a monologue on one of his live albums where Arlo makes an interesting comment: he says, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” In saying this, he reminds us that even darkness has its place in the order of things. And for Christians, this is a subtle invitation to resist the urge to judge some parts of our lives as “good” and others as “bad.”

With this in mind, I’d like to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, and make this observation: at least here on earth, at least on this side of eternity, you can’t have a Spirit without a Body to stick it in. Just as Christ needed the body that emerged from Mary’s womb in order to make his incarnation manifest, so the Holy Spirit needs the Body of Christ, in a collective sense, but also each of us, as individual members of that Body, in order to make a difference in our world.

Once again, this is true for all of us, but how especially true for your community of brothers and sisters, workers and companions, who seek to bring the love and joy and peace and all the fruit of the Holy Spirit to our world that so desperately needs it. The great mystic and saint, Teresa of Ávila, once said,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

And if you are getting confused by whether we are called to embody Christ, or the Holy Spirit, the answer is “YES.”

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was like many of my peers attracted to the adventure and the excitement of what was then called the charismatic renewal. The gospel passage which we have just heard — “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” — was often cited to proclaim that a life filled with the Holy Spirit is only a request away. Forty years have gone by, and I still believe that God’s generosity is far greater than our willingness to ask for what we need, or for what we secretly believe we don’t deserve.

I’ve heard it said that angels surround us all, but they are so respectful of our autonomy that they will not step in to intervene in our lives — unless we ask them to. And so it is with the blessing of the Holy Spirit. God eagerly waits to transform our lives, but will not do so without not only our consent, but our desire.

Of course, there was a downside to my youthful engagement with the charismatic movement. Unfortunately, I was more attracted to the gifts of the Holy Spirit then to the Holy Spirit herself. Perhaps that was just the folly of youth — and perhaps it is not that uncommon of a mistake that young spiritual seekers make. After all, Saint Francis de Sales once remarked, “There is a great difference between being occupied with God, who gives us the contentment, and being busied with the contentment which Gods give us.”

Carl McColman with Sr. LaVerne Peter, WSHS, spiritual director of the Worker Sisters & Brothers of the Holy Spirit
Carl McColman with Sr. LaVerne Peter, WSHS, spiritual director of the Worker Sisters & Brothers of the Holy Spirit

So as we reflect on how the Spirit continues to call us into a deeper sense of our call as members of the Body of Christ, maybe this is a warning worth keeping in mind. Do not seek the lower gifts, as Paul warned us. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, and may we both as individuals and as a community of faith grow to recognize that the greatest gift that is there for the asking is not a manifestation of the Spirit but rather simply the Spirit present and our life in transforming and enlivening ways.

Which means, of course, that sometimes the Holy Spirit will act in our lives without our conscious awareness of the fact. After all Isaiah reminds us that God is a God who hides — so sometimes we experience God precisely by experiencing mystery, unknowing, the dark night of the soul. “You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it,” as Thomas Merton ruefully put it.

But this is not a cause for concern. On the contrary, it is a cause for profound joy. We know that the Holy Spirit has been given to us, regardless of how happy or joyful we may feel — or not. God is present even on the bad days. This is a message we hear in today’s Psalm:

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)

We have been given the Holy Spirit, and on our best days we will be breathless with wonder and joy, as we recognize the subtle hints of how the Spirit works in our lives. But the Spirit is present all the other days of our lives as well. And with this great gift there comes a great responsibility.

It is up to us how we choose to conduct the affairs of our life, and whether or not we shall live in a manner worthy of the gift we have been given. And what does this entail? In one word: Love. For God is love; Christ is love; the Holy Spirit is love. When we love, we say “Yes” to God. When we love, we praise the One who has fearfully and wonderfully made us. When we love, we manifest the Spirit for the common good.

Congratulations to the six of you about to take an important step in your lifelong adventure of responding to the Love of God. May your association with this community bring your heart ever closer to that grace which will give you “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” so that you may “be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Isaiah 61:3)


N.B. The above homily was delivered on Friday, May 13, 2016 at the annual retreat for the Worker Sisters and Brothers of the Holy Spirit, an Episcopal/ecumenical religious order. At this Eucharist, several new “Companions” and “Workers” were admitted into the community. Here are the lessons for this homily:

Isaiah 61:1-3

1 Corinthians 12-4-14

Psalm 139:1-17

Luke 11:9-13

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  • Ellen N. Duell

    This is so good to read. I think of your daughter, Rhiannon, and how she was blest with such a glowing spirit of love and faith. I liked so much to see her pictures, with you and her mother.

    I am 87, and am grateful to be well. I moved recently in order to make my home with my daughter and her husband. This is major transition, and we are all conscious of God’s love and blessings throughout.

    Blessings, with gratitude,

  • Carl, congratulations on the new book and thanks for the reminder – that God often hides! (Night shall be my light…” Ps 139: 11). “You can’t have a Spirit without a Body to stick it in…” Most apt. As to being embodied, I am not sure we’ll ever be (long) without one, as God seems to have fashioned our temporary clay with such care that I am convinced that the intricacy and craft carries over into the state of resurrection. It’s all so carefully woven together. Just thinking my way through Ps 139. Pax, JMG

  • Paul Hierholzer

    Thank you for sharing your gift Carl. Many have grown spiritually through your writing.

    Many are the gifts in our lives. Many are the invitations to commune with God. But something I ponder in your citation from John 14 (the chapter of the Bible with intense personal meaning for myself and for many others of course).

    “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

    As wonderful and beautiful and ecstatic as that is for us, it begs the question (for me anyway): Why does God not give the grace needed to receive the Spirit of Truth to everyone? You say “The Spirit of the Lord is given to us all.” We obviously do not all receive it. You and I CHOSE to know Him and see Him and feel Him, but the choice was INSPIRED, and scripture tells us that we cannot choose God unless we are graced to do so. I can’t help but think it is not as inspired/graced for everyone, for the simple fact that so many people on earth are apparently unaware of the invitation. I’m not judging or mourning here, simply observing. There is probably no answer to the question, I suppose it’s one of those many Christian paradoxes you have described previously, but do you have any insights to offer?

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks for your perceptive question, Paul. I believe grace is in fact freely and lavishly bestowed on all God’s beloved children, but in that freedom we are all utterly free to accept, resist or reject grace according to the dictates of our own will. For what it’s worth, I think we need to remember that grace inspires us but never forces us. By its very nature, the freedom to resist grace implies that for some people (and maybe for many people at some times), grace will in fact be resisted. It’s a great mystery, because of course those of us who have tasted the nourishing waters of Love want everyone to share in this joy, and we have difficulty understanding why all do not respond as we do. And I for am troubled by the language of punishment that has emerged within the western tradition in response to those who resist grace. But as St. Isaac the Syrian reminds us, God’s love does not punish us, but to those who resist it, it burns. Of course, there’s also the question of culpability: perhaps many, maybe even most or even all, people who resist Divine grace do so because of constraints or wounds that have impaired their ability to freely respond. Which is why we are counseled never to judge (as you wisely have observed). Anyway, I always fall back on Julian of Norwich, whose colloquy with Christ over the mysteries of sin and redemption, heaven and hell led to his assuring her that in the fullness of time “all shall be well.” When things look bleak for us today, it’s helpful to remember the story isn’t over yet!

      • Paul Hierholzer

        Indeed! Thanks brother.

  • The Lion, the Dove and the Lamb, are the central focus of the Churches life.

    We need to gather our spiritual strength around the “TRINITY”, the Gift of God to the Church, we have for far too long, separated the God head into 3 entities, rather than see them as one indivisible gift from God, “begotten” not made of one being with the Father.

    The Church, is the community of the Trinity, every “thing” we do as Christians is based on the love of God the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ, and The Holy Spirit. We gain strength every day when we as Christians give our lives and souls to the community of love , The Holy Trinity, God bless and keep you, Carl.