“[Y]ou will receive the power of the Holy Spirit which will come on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to earth’s remotest end” (Acts 1:8).
Growing up in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, there was a great emphasis on living a “Spirit-filled life,” one that was set on fire with the love of God enkindled in us by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (evidenced by speaking in tongues) was proclaimed as being very nearly a sacrament in that non-sacramental tradition. I personally experienced this transforming event in my own life when I was 14. While there are many aspects of the Pentecostal theology surrounding the experience, I cannot deny the very real effect that surrendering myself to the Holy Spirit made on my life. In fact, when, years later, I began seriously investigating the Catholic faith, I needed to know what the Church taught about the Holy Spirit and the Charismatic Gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 12). After all, if a denomination flat-out rejected speaking in tongues, prophecy, or miracles, then how could I entertain the notion that this denomination really was true? As I investigated various traditions in the Church, several groups like Baptists, Presbyterians, and the Church of Christ immediately failed that test, believing, as they do, in the doctrine of “cessationism”—that is, that such miraculous gifts ceased either with the death of the Apostles or with the closing of the canon of Scripture.
When I turned my focus on the Catholic Church, and began investigating her claims, I was relieved to discover the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, and, while I never came to consider myself a “Charismatic Catholic” as such, their presence in the Church assured me that the Holy Spirit was indeed active, and welcome, in Catholicism. In fact, contrary to the claims of the cessationists, Catholicism can point back throughout every generation of its history to saints great and small who worked miracles, prophesied, spoke in tongues, and all sorts of other “Spirit-filled” phenomena that served to confirm the Church’s message and authority. The miraculous working of the Spirit has been a constant in the history of the Church!
This notion of miraculous powers and exotic spiritual gifts can seem rather fantastic, leading us to either be a bit fearful of them, sceptical of them, or covetous of them! Each of these reactions comes from a misplaced emphasis on the gifts or the power of the Spirit without focussing on the reason for the gifts in the first place. When we focus too much on what God can give us or do for us, it becomes very easy to fall into spiritual pride at the graces God has given us, or a hypocritical faking of the gifts in order to appear more spiritual. When such fakers are exposed as frauds, otherwise faithful people can become skeptical and disillusioned with faith all together (not to mention those who already were doubtful to begin with!).
The Church in Corinth had issues with the proper focus on the spiritual gifts. St. Paul had to write to them in order to correct their focus. Instead of focussing on the tantalising and exotic display of God’s power in their midst, St. Paul reminds them that their focus should be on Christ Himself, who sent His Spirit in order that we would come to know God better and love Him more—and in so doing, to love our neighbour more and lead them to love Him as well (cf. 1 Cor 12-14). As in every other dimension of the spiritual life, God’s graces aren’t given to us to puff us up and enable us to lord it over others, but to make us better able to serve others and build them up.
That was precisely Jesus’ point when He promised the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the first place—that they would receive power precisely to be witnesses to His life-changing love!
Have a blessed and Spirit-filled Pentecost Sunday!