As we approach the feast of Pentecost, our readings increasingly reflect the marvel of the Spirit’s intervention in the gathering of the Church. In the reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus predicts that the disciples will fall apart under pressure and abandon Jesus, despite their very vocal profession of faith, which the text mentions a few lines earlier. It is noteworthy that this prediction of failure occurs in the same chapter where Jesus promises to send the Spirit to them who will instruct them “in all truth.” It would seem, from reading these words, that there is a way in which we can believe in Jesus without the Holy Spirit, but that there is no way that we can live into the truth of Jesus if the Spirit is not actively moving within us. Despite their belief, the disciples are powerless to move beyond their weakness. We know from the rest of the story that the “scattering” that Jesus predicted soon happens.
A similar insight comes to us out of the pages of the book of Acts. This particular text reflects the profoundly Jewish context that characterized the earliest Christian experience. As was his habit, Paul preached the good news about Jesus in synagogues, where he frequently received a poor reception. The details of Paul’s relationship with his co-religionists need not detain us here, but it is interesting to note that on this particular day, at least some members of that community were interested in hearing more. Like the disciples in the gospel of John, they were prepared to believe in Jesus. In fact, they were already believers, but they were believers without power, and they were believers without knowledge. They were, in a way, adrift. When they received the baptism of the Spirit, immediately they began to speak in tongues and prophesy. They moved from mere belief into the power of the gospel. They were able, really for the first time, to live the Christian life.
I am personally challenged by these stories. Belief in Jesus does not appear to be enough to propel a person to discipleship. Without the Holy Spirit, our belief is unfocused and ineffective. How many people in our own Christian communities are in this exact situation – they believe, but “they have never heard of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps we can recover some of the boldness of Paul and invite those among us who believe in Christ but do not know how to follow him into a deeper experience of the transforming power of his Spirit.
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