Sermons

Summary: We can learn much about the reception and exercise of the spiritual gifts from both the Blessed Virgin and the heresies rejected by the Church.

Pentecost (Whitsunday) 2015

Extraordinary Form

One of the pleasures we derive from living in a southern climate–especially this year–is our ability to take the Easter lilies we buy at the grocery store and replant them in our gardens. But, as it happens most year, the lilies we replant do not bloom at Easter. More likely, they are blooming at Ascension and Pentecost. So, like the Church in general, we get a floral celebration throughout the Easter season. This year, our Arboreans have planted Easter lilies from our sanctuary just outside the church on the walk near our grotto deck. We can hope to see these lilies blooming next year during the Easter season or Pentecost.

Pentecost commemorates two events. The first is the giving of the Law on Sinai. But the Law, as St. Paul taught in the Letter to the Romans, cannot justify. The Law tells us what to do and mostly what not to do, but it gives no power to keep the Law. That’s why the Hebrews, from the time of Abraham all the way until the passion of Jesus, over and over again disobeyed the Law and suffered the consequences. St. Paul saw this tragedy in the life of his people, and even in his own life: the good he wanted to do, he did not do, and the evil he did not want to do, that he did. The second Pentecost, which we celebrate today as a living memory and present grace, empowers those who receive the Holy Ghost to keep the Ten Commandments, and even more. The gifts of the Holy Ghost fill us with the power, not just to avoid evil, but to do good. Think of the first four gifts of the Holy Ghost: charity, joy, peace, patience. Are they not exactly what this world of sin and selfishness need? Even the old song tells us that “what the world needs now is love. . .for everyone” Think of what is wrong with the world today: violence on a massive scale, people walking around in ennui and gloom, riots in the city streets over real or perceived injustice, and an unwillingness to work patiently toward a resolution of problems. These are the curses of what the apostles called the “spirit of this world.” They are precisely what the world does not need now.

When it comes to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the charismatic movement has brought the ones meant for church-building into our attention over the past five decades. But the Catechism puts them into perspective: “Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world. (799)” If someone believes he has a charismatic gift, the gift and its exercise are for the edification of the faithful, and are subject to the authority of the Church. That is why those of us who write and preach in public do so with the express or implicit permission and support of the bishop.

G. K. Chesterton wrote an awesome chapter a century ago called “The Witness of the Heretics.” In it, he said that most of the accusations leveled against Christianity and Catholicism could be refuted by appealing to history, specifically the history of those whose teachings were formally rejected by the Church. For example, to those who say that Jesus was just a very good and wise man, raised up to high status by God, Chesterton held up the heresy of Arius, who was condemned for saying the same thing at Nicaea. Rejection of his heresy is so important that we bend our knee when we recite or sing the profession in the Creed: “He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

I think we can learn much about the charismatic gifts from heresy. Martin Luther claimed to be a prophet to the Church, one who encouraged reformation. But prophecy must build up the Church, and be subject to the discipline of the hierarchy. Luther proved the necessity of that order because his teaching, his prophecy, tore the Church apart when he refused to subject it to the authority of the Pope and bishops. In a previous age, no Catholic was to be published until he or she had a nihil obstat from the priest whom the bishop appointed to review such things. Today, the way you can be pretty sure what you read is orthodox is to read publications like National Catholic Register, Homiletic and Pastoral Review or Today’s Catholic that are well supervised by orthodox editors and bishops.

Another “showy” gift is what St. Paul calls charismata iamaton, “gracious gifts of healing.” The abuse of this gift is one of the excuses given by atheists for their unbelief. Some preachers claim this gift and make big bucks off real or fake healings. Here we can learn a great deal from them and from Christian Science. When you grasp a gift or teaching too tightly, you can squeeze Jesus out of it. That’s what the word “heresy” really means–adhering to one idea to the exclusion of Christ. Not quite a century and a half ago, Mary Baker Eddy, who was abused as a child by her father and seems never to have recovered from the experience, concluded that one should never use drugs, herbs or doctors since Jesus hadn’t done so. Her teaching relies only on divine power to heal sickness, and appears to support the notion that the physical is a kind of illusion, and that if we just change our minds, we will always be healthy. I recall our next-door neighbor over on Nottingham street as a devout Christian Scientist whose death from cancer drove her surviving husband to totally lose faith. As Catholics, we should always pray for healing for ourselves and others, but don’t forget to take your medicine. All of the charismatic gifts need to be exercised prudently and wisely, and under the direction of our pastors and spiritual guides, or they may just be making us look good, and subtly tearing down the Church community.

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