Summary: “the absence of the Holy Spirit in the Church creates all the divisions.”
Thursday of the 21st Week in Course 2017
Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonika is likely the earliest letter we have from him. He and his band of missionaries are on his second missionary journey, one that took him to western Anatolia and Greece. The church in Thessalonika was his first community in Europe, and at this point it was very young, enthusiastic, and hungry for teaching. So Paul sent Timothy back to strengthen and encourage them. This was particularly important because preachers of all kinds of religions were going all over, looking for recruits and donors. Moreover, many of the Thessalonikans were converts from Judaism, and the Jews were hounding and persecuting them because they embraced this new Way of Christ. Paul’s words here are encouraging. He is gathering as many believers as he can and exhorting them to remain as one community, so that all could some day be gathered into the kingdom of Our Lord. As St. Matthew says, we all have to be ready for the unknown moment when the Lord will come. We will all have to account for our stewardship of the many graces with which He has saturated us.
St. Paul’s communities were Spirit-filled, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit were being exercised. They are for the upbuilding of the Church, and they are attractive to those who are spiritually malnourished. Some, like the gifts of tongues and miracles, are pretty spectacular. Others, like discernment of spirits and healing, are more subtle. They are also more important, because if someone claims to say something under inspiration, how otherwise would we know that they are true, or just making it up?
I found a passage in Cardinal Sarah’s recent book on silence that says it very well: “the absence of the Holy Spirit in the Church creates all the divisions.” He also says about people who divide: “in their imagination and in disregard of the will that intends that we be one, some men, on their own initiative, create their own churches, their own theologies, and their own beliefs, which in fact are only petty subjective opinions. The Holy Spirit has no opinions. He only repeats what Christ taught us in order to lead us to the whole truth.”
“Truth?” Pilate asked, “What is that?” Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Satan began his conquest of the newly-born humans with a lie: “did God command you not to eat from any of the garden’s trees?” Eve responds by saying that God forbade even touching the fruit, another lie. All the lies led to the fall of humans from grace, and in His mercy, after a promise of a Savior, He stationed the fearsome cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life. So Jesus’s words, that He is the way, the truth, and the life reverses the curse of Eden.
How do we know what is true doctrine, and what is false? True spirit-inspired teaching simply repeats, perhaps in new ways, “what Christ taught us in order to lead us to the whole truth.” The whole Truth, however, is not a list of statements or commands, but rather is a person, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ Himself.
Today we begin what I intend to be a one-year excursion into the sixteenth century. But before we do that, we must remember that, with rare exceptions like the Hussites, the Church entered the sixteenth century, in the West, in unity. When you thought of a church, you thought of a building and people who professed the Catholic faith. A hundred years later, England and most of northern Europe were no longer united with the Catholic Church, and the whole of Europe was on the brink of war, a war that lasted thirty years and murdered eight million human beings.
Now, five hundred years after Luther began what we’ll see was more of a revolution than a reformation, the Catholic Church lives on in almost every nation on earth, while Protestantism has splintered into an unknown number of denominations. Some estimate as many as 40,000 different ones. And that division is an ongoing scandal, particularly in mission lands, because those who are open to Christ may wonder why a Church that Jesus prayed would “be one” appears to be impossibly divided.
So there is a double dynamic here. Because humanity without Christ is mired in sin and rebellion, Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus would be a “sign of contradiction” conflicts with the divine intention that we all be one in Christ. But we know who is the victor, and we will see that even five hundred years ago, Jesus was exercising His Lordship over His people.