The Spirit in the Church


LK 1:1FF.; 4:14-21; 1 COR 12:12FF.

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul which concludes the Week for Christian Unity. The time between the public appearance of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth and St. Paul’s conversion was only a few years. About twenty years later Paul was counselling the fractious Corinthians on the nature of Christian unity. St. Luke has given us what he knew about Jesus, and apart from Paul’s own epistles he has told us most of what we know about Paul through The Acts of the Apostles. In Christian unity week he is most important for tracking what happened in the Church between Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth and Paul’s arrival in Rome, accentuating the role of the Holy Spirit in it all.

From the Village Synagogue to the Universal Church

Luke tells us that the villagers in Nazareth were astonished at one of their own, well known to them, speaking marvellously to them. He was there in the synagogue –as was his custom- on the Sabbath day, only this time he is magisterial. He had no more obvious education than any of them. He presumably was not all that different from most of them. Yet now he is different. To appreciate this we need only imagine someone from any local village, a farmer, a carpenter, a builder, able to read like most who went to the local school, coming out with this extraordinary proclamation: this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen. Did it really happen like that? Luke did tell us that before his appearance in public in Nazareth Jesus had been with John the Baptist, and he had been tempted in the desert. He had found his vocation and fought his battle. After those experiences he came home ‘and full of the Holy Spirit’ addressed himself to the folk who knew him best. They did not take him seriously and wanted to kill him -Luke again- but the public mission was now launched.= 

Luke’s Witnesses

In the opening paragraph of today’s Gospel Luke tells us for whom he is writing and why he is writing his work. His addressee, Theophilus, is presumably a convert to Christianity. Luke is giving him the theological and historical evidence for belief in Jesus. This involved witnesses and tradition and the experience of the Church that Luke belonged to. The security of the faith depended always on the reliability of those who handed on the tradition from the beginning. And of course that is foundational for the continuity of the community. This is the very point being made by St. Paul to the quarrelling Corinthians in his list of gifts: first the apostles, and then the prophets, then the teachers. As one recent commentator has put it: “If teaching can be said to ‘develop’, it is by the threefold process of sifting and reintegrating by teachers, fresh pastoral applications by prophets and continuous testing against the fundamental criteria laid down by the apostles” (Anthony C. Thistleton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The Pater Noster Press, Carlisle,2000, p.1018). This is essential to the ecumenical movement which the Catholic Church totally embraced at Vatican II as a work of the Holy Spirit (Decree on Ecumenism, Introduction). 

The Role of the Laity

One of the many encouragements coming from Vatican II and the ecumenical movement, is acknowledgment of the manifold gifts of the lay faithful in fostering the unity of the Church. Let us go back to St. Paul again. To his Corinthians he enumerates these many gifts and the order of their importance. In those days there was no articulated division between clergy and laity, only between those with first order responsibilities and auxiliary commitments. But all believers should support each other to make a happy harmony in the one body of Christ. That is how St. Paul understood Christianity based on the way Jesus lived and taught and died and rose again.

The Churches participating in the ecumenical movement pray in the Holy Spirit for the reintegration of the full unity of Christianity. The ultimate goal of the Church is to accomplish the restoration of the lost unity of mankind in the kingdom of God. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:18). In his Gospel and in The Acts St. Luke sorrowed that so many Jews had rejected Christ- would it be forever? And Christians divided by post Reformation experiences now ask: must it be like this forever? This disposition is not obviously shared by those considerable numbers of Catholics who did not really accept Vatican II. Why did things change, they ask? Were we not doing very well already? 

The World Changed

It seems that the answer must be that the world changed. And the Church must change too- as Cardinal Newman wrote in The Development of Christian Doctrine, Sheed and Ward,1960, p.30: “to be perfect is to have changed often.” Many Catholic institutions with their missions, once providing private education, private health, and so much else, find it impossible to keep pace with state subsidised institutions. Secularisation and hostility to faith-based institutions have become increasingly frequent. But with the ecumenical movement and the Vatican Council we are encouraged in the Body of Christ, as a local Church and a universal Church, to be faithful in love and honour love’s demands. And many positive things are happening. Here in England at the civic level we note that now the Chancellor and Vice-chancellor of Oxford university are both practising Catholics (a man and a woman). The head of the Bank of England is a Canadian Catholic. Such represent the wishes of the Council’s decrees on the Laity and The Church in the Modern World. Not long ago our negative Reformation experiences still painfully inhibited our access to full participation in civic and social life.

But to look back on today’s biblical readings, who would have thought that despite the rejection in Nazareth, and the divisions in Corinth, the Church would flourish as it did? It is far more than a sociological institution; it is a mystery. That is precisely what St. Luke was telling Theophilus. It cannot be repeated too often. A happy Sunday to you all. 

Rev Richard J. Taylor

Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International

Cumbria, UK