Tuesday in the Sixth Week of Easter: Acts of the Apostles 16:22-34, John 16:5-11.
Today’s readings may seem like standard Easter season fare: miraculous things happen with Paul as he evangelizes throughout the Near East and in the gospel, Jesus talks about His impending death and Resurrection. But we have to stop and examine them closely because they reveal some important aspects of the Holy Spirit, and therefore about the Holy Trinity, God Himself.
In the gospel reading, Jesus clearly references each Person of the Trinity separately. He says, “Now I am going to the one who sent me,” referring to His journey back to the Father. He proceeds to guide them through a new way of viewing a departure from this world. This is the psychology of the New Covenant, wherein death no longer has finality for us. First, he marvels a bit that “not one of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” as a way to signal that something greater resides in the place He is going. This is a gentle way of telling the apostles (remember, this is John’s account of His long speech during the Last Supper) that they are still focused on the wrong thing (i.e., death) and should be focused on the right thing (i.e., everlasting life with God). He notes that “grief has filled your hearts,” and this psychology of grief is one that we struggle with to this day when we think of a loved one who has passed.
Jesus then describes the unfolding of the Church in the final days and tells them how His passing will benefit them more than if Jesus stayed on earth. This is rather incredible, and something that we don’t consider much as we think about our Savior. Jesus says, “it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.” Thus, the first thing we hear about the Trinity is that the Persons act separately in the world, according to their time. Let’s consider how logical this is: God is One and indivisible. Thus, while God’s essence is incarnate on the earth in bodily form (i.e., Jesus), He is also not actively working in the form of His Spirit. As we are taught, a human has a body and a spirit, united and given life by God. So I can speak of myself and refer to my body (Michael’s body) and my spirit (Michael’s spirit). Let’s apply this to Jesus. He has His body, which He will offer up as a sacrifice, gathering all the world’s sin to be sacrificed in His Body on the Cross. He also has His Spirit, which in the case of God incarnate, is the Holy Spirit itself. Let’s repeat: Jesus’s Spirit is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. This wonderful mystery is what makes our salvation possible. The immortal takes on mortality so that it can burst into this world and give us a share in immortality, defeating death, which can never take God. The world-changing realities that Jesus is revealing to this small band of his apostles are truly mind-boggling, and He acknowledges this in the verses following today’s reading: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” They cannot bear them because of their sadness and also because they have not yet seen him risen from the dead. The realities must begin to unfold on their own for the apostles to grasp what’s going on.
Jesus tells His apostles that while the Holy Spirit is bound to the Body of Christ in the world, it cannot be active in the world apart from Him: “if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.” Jesus’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension to the Father mark (at the very least): 1.) the salvation of humanity from the reign of death, 2.) the beginning of a new age, the “final days,” when we can sacramentally participate in the life of the Trinity and the reign of God, and 3.) the release of the Holy Spirit into the world as God’s primary way of interacting with humanity.
Jesus expounds: “if I go, I will send him to you.” Again, once Jesus ascends, the Spirit can be sent to them. Note that we reflect Jesus’s statement in the Nicene Creed: the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Jesus can send His Spirit just as the Father can because “All that the Father has is mine” (Acts 16:15). Yet notice how Jesus maintains the autonomy of the Spirit as a Person of the Trinity. He continues to refer to the Spirit as “him” and “he.” In His ministry, He calls the Spirit the Paraclete and the Advocate. How mysterious and wonderful that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, is granted personhood in the way that the Son is granted personhood. The Spirit is undoubtedly a part of God and a part of the Son (indeed, the very spirit of the man Jesus Christ), yet Jesus speaks of Him as an independent actor in the world. This is consistent with how Jesus acknowledges that everything He is given is a gift from the Father — He does not even speak of His own Spirit as something that He has ownership over. And this seems right and just, for how can a man “own” his spirit, even if that man is the Son of God? The spark of divinity, the Breath of God, is not owned or subservient to any being. And here the Person of the Holy Spirit is not inferior or subservient to the Person of the Son. All Persons of the Trinity are united in God’s love, which grants autonomy and truth above all.
Then Jesus gives us some incredible insight into the action of the Spirit in the world: “And when he comes he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation.” What can this mean? Is the mission of the Spirit to “convict the world”? When we look at the original Greek, we indeed see the verb ἐλέγξει (elenxei), and according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, this means: “1. to convict, refute, confute, generally with a suggestion of the shame of the person convicted; 2. to find fault with, correct.” How can this be, since the Spirit is known also as the Consoler? Does a consoler convict people? Also, how does this jive with the fact that God is ultimate goodness and love?
Let’s consider that Jesus is doing some consoling of His own with His apostles when He shares this promise of the Spirit. He explains in the next verse, “sin, because they do not believe in me; righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me; condemnation, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” He is telling them that the Spirit will uphold the fact that Jesus is, in fact, the Savior of the World. There is a certain consolation for them to know that they are following the true path, the true Son of God. So the Spirit will convict those who willfully do not believe in Christ (their sin is convicted), will uphold the righteousness of those who do believe (he will do it because Christ who has ascended cannot be there to do it), and condemnation of the chief priest/Pontius Pilate (“the ruler of this world”) for executing the Savior.
We can start to see how “Consoler” is an appropriate title for the Spirit who will uphold the mission of Christ in the world, thus consoling Christ’s disciples. But how about reconciling this action of convicting the world with the nature of God being goodness and love?
I think the key to understanding this seeming paradox is found in the verses immediately following today’s gospel reading. Jesus continues to give the apostles hope by describing the close guidance the Spirit will provide them: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth.” Just as Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law, the Holy Spirit is the very truth of God, active in the world. We must understand this aspect of the Spirit if we are to understand how He works in the world. The truth of God is not something that is “maybe this, maybe that.” It is not equivocal, up to interpretation. It is “what is right,” which means that there are things that are wrong. How unpopular in today’s world where the prevailing axiom is “this problem is not black and white, it’s many shades of grey.” Let’s not deny that there is complexity in the world and that most problems are multi-faceted. But that’s not the same thing as saying that right and wrong don’t exist. Sure, problems can be multi-faceted but at the same time, the individual choices that make up a solution to complex problems can be right or wrong. Since the Creation, God has been sharing with us His truth, His commandments, in order to teach us the right and wrong that make up goodness in the world. Do we have the intellectual space for God’s truth when we demand that everything is nuanced and no “truth” exists that can transcend everyone’s specific context? This is the central claim of the postmodern world, that specific perspectives are the only real thing and there is nothing universal, no “truth” that can transcend or supersede specific contexts and perspectives. (Of course, this claim is itself a universal “truth,” oh, the irony!). Yet the history of salvation demonstrates the opposite: there is universal truth, and that universal truth is God.
Let’s return to the question of love and “convicting the world” coexisting in the Spirit of God. I am reminded of our reflection about the Purifying Love of God (see The Purifying Fire We Call God’s Wrath). God’s love, uncompromising in its truth, has a terrible aspect to those in sin, who cannot stand its purity. This is how we can speak of the “wrath of God.” Simply put, there is no room for evil, sin, and wrong thinking in the presence of God. God’s ultimate goodness, truth, and love vaporize those things in his purifying fire. This is why no one could look at God when He was with Moses on Mt. Sinai. This is why His Spirit appears as a cloud that obscures our sight, protecting us from a fire that none of us is truly able to bear.
So it is the truth that the Spirit brings that is both loving (after all, His message is that of Christ) and convicts those in the wrong. Only truth points out right and wrong. All human legal systems try in an imperfect way to get to “truth” in order to convict those in the wrong. Jesus shares with us that the Holy Spirit is really the only one who can do this infallibly. We must live in Him and with Him in order to access the truth.
This brings us around to today’s first reading where St. Paul and Silas are unjustly stripped, beaten with rods, and imprisoned in Philippi. We don’t hear the verses leading up to this, which explain why they are treated in this way. I don’t mean to make light of anything, but it’s a little funny that what causes all of this is Paul being annoyed by a spirit that inhabits a slave girl. The scene is this:
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. (Acts 16:16-19).
So Paul releases the girl from spiritual possession, the power of which is a gift from the Holy Spirit, but the consequence is that the greedy owners want retribution. This is quite the commentary on truth. The spirit of divination is something that evidently brings truth into the world. After all, it correctly identifies Paul and Silas as slaves of God who “proclaim a way of salvation.” But this spirit has possessed a human in what must be understood as a type of enslavement; after all, she is an actual slave, which is not a coincidental or accidental aspect of the story. The spirit of truth is being used not to free people to make their way to God but instead as a way to make greedy people rich. This is not the objective of truth, it is against the nature of truth as found in God. Thus, Paul’s exorcism is just, and it tells us something of the fact that even when truth is found, it must be used appropriately, with reverence to God and His plans for humanity.
The way truth is enslaved in the girl is again enacted when Paul and Silas are imprisoned under the care of a jailer who “put them in the innermost cell and secured their feet to a stake.” Now that’s a depiction of the entrapment/imprisonment/enslavement of truth! But this is against the very nature of God. It simply cannot stand. No force of man or nature can capture and silence the truth of Jesus Christ.
I love the fact that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God for the other prisoners to hear. What light in the darkness! Does this not remind you of Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael as they are put in the fiery furnace by Nebedchunezzar? Or Esther during her three-day petition to the Lord? Paul and Silas are so full of the Holy Spirit it swells in my heart just to read it. And of course they are — only as such, as ones fully embracing and being embraced by the Spirit, could the earth be shook, their chains broken, and the doors of the jail flung open. Let us all take heed: this is how we must be, not wavering in our joyful embrace with God despite beatings and jailing. The truth of Jesus Christ must be so much a part of who we are that nothing stops the truth that we pour out of ourselves into the world. The truth comes with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
What’s more, the truth comes with love. For what does Paul immediately do but shout out in a loud voice to the jailer: “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” He does not blame or seek retribution on the jailer who was simply doing his job. He meets him with love and an offering of salvation: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” In an almost storybook ending, the jailer takes them home and bathes their wounds, they, in turn, catechize and baptize him and his family, and they all “rejoiced at having come to faith in God.”
Speaking the truth, that is, convicting the wrong and upholding the right, is part and parcel of the loving work of the Holy Spirit. There is no contradiction here. In this way, the first reading is the real-time reporting of the work of the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised He would come. St. Paul is a fantastic, enduring figure of one who intimately knows the Holy Spirit and brings the Word of God to the world fully within the embrace of the Spirit. That is why his letters make up such an important part of our scriptures and why we should read them over and over as we slowly gain more insight into God’s love for us.
So we have explored Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit and how the Advocate will come to convict those rejecting the truth of Christ and uphold those who have embraced the truth of Christ. Logically, our next question is: so what? How does this make me a better Christian?
I think the first repercussion of this knowledge in our lives is that we must allow ourselves to be conformed to the truth. The truth is no small line item in Christianity. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” so it is clearly THE central item of what He brings to us. This emphasis on truth does not end with the Cross — He promises us “the Spirit of truth” when He speaks of the Holy Spirit. Thus, this way we’ve discussed of understanding truth as something that reveals and upholds Godliness and righteousness and at the same time reveals and condemns sinfulness must be central to who we are in the world. This is the Way that is Christ. I am not a neo-Inquisitionist; I don’t think we should imagine we as individual people have a monopoly on truth (see my second repercussion below). But I do think that we have become rather limp in our modern Christianity. We have accepted too much of the postmodern insistence that there is no universal truth. When we conform ourselves to the truth that is Christ, we uphold the clear commandments he gives and condemn the sins that he condemns. There is nothing wishy-washy about Christ and His ministry. He fulfills the law that God has given His Chosen People. There should be nothing wishy-washy about our faith and the truth we bring to the world, either.
The clearest embodiment of being “conformed to the truth” that strikes me is our approach to morality, in other words, doing right vs. doing wrong. For perhaps the last 400-500 years, our understanding of morality has been dominated by a sense that we should do something, often against our own inclination. This is a dangerous road we’ve been on, and one that doesn’t lead to God. This sense of should inevitably leads to guilt and a feeling of sinfulness rather than living in the embrace of God. In other words, morality has become an external obligation rather than an internal desire to unite and conform oneself to God. Morality has become a bugbear. Why would we turn morality into something we frankly loathe because it makes us feel bad about ourselves? Morality is supposed to be about goodness, about Godliness. And perhaps here is where we can pivot. If we have been emphasizing an obligation where what is right is often opposed to what we want, we can pivot to contemplating the right as the very thing we want.
This is the act of conforming ourselves to the Truth that is Christ: morality is knowing what Jesus would do and what Jesus would say. It is an embrace of the good in the world and a rejection of sin. It is a willingness to be led by the Spirit as opposed to being led by our base desires, our greed, our lust, and our pride. We willingly change and mold ourselves to the model of Christ, and we are given so many gifts to do it: our conscience, the Holy Spirit, and the Church.
This brings me to the second repercussion that strikes me from today’s reflection. Let’s suppose that we want to open ourselves to the Spirit. Let’s assume we are also surrounded by secular pressures and ideas … work, “me time,” healthiness, politics, etc. It can be tricky teasing apart the Spirit’s action and God’s voice in our lives from everything else. Meditation in a goat yoga class might seem equivalent to adoration at church. But these things are definitively different. How can we discern the voice of God, the action of the Spirit in our lives? In short, sure, even if we want to conform ourselves to the truth that is God, how do we know and uphold the truth in any given situation? Well, myriad books have been written on the subject, and in the end, the Church herself gives us the tools: prayer, the sacraments, especially the Mass, and the Word of God. These might seem humdrum, but only by training ourselves with the history of God’s saving work and feeding ourselves on the Word and Body of Christ can we begin to commune with the Spirit.
There is a specific aspect of the Holy Catholic Church that is fundamental to our recognition of the Spirit and truth in our lives: the Magisterium. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the Magesterium is the authority of the Catholic Church to provide for us the authentic interpretation of the Word of God. This is something that the Protestant Churches have rejected. But for me, whatever historical and political complications made that seem like a good idea, rejecting the authority of the Church is a horrible overshot, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The fact is that the Holy Spirit is a mysterious force in the world, and He has made Himself intimately known to the Apostles, the great saints like Paul, and many of our popes and martyrs. These figures began to assemble the discernment, knowledge, writing, and teaching of the Catholic Church as early as the first days of the Church and the Council of Jerusalem. Their accumulated teachings continue to this day. Who are we — what kind of mad pride do we have — to insist that we would have a better interpretation of the Word of God or more faithful/truthful/honest knowledge of the Spirit than the incredible tradition of Fathers and Saints that have made the Magisterium what it is? Friends, the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ, the physical and spiritual manifestation of Christ in the world that has been guided by the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onward. This body is also a body of knowledge and authority, a guide for us in our messy lives. The most obvious and available manifestation of the Magesterium is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s not a pick-and-choose catechism. We can’t just agree with the things we like and quietly decide to ignore those that trouble us. We must study and come to grips with the teachings of our Church in order to fully conform ourselves to the truth that is God. There is no other way; the Church was established by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. May we fully embrace the Way, the Truth, and the Life!