The Gospel of John tells us that on Easter Sunday evening, the newly risen Jesus breathed upon his disciples and conferred the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sin (20:22f). That same gift of the Spirit not only healed the human chasm of separation from God because of our sins, but also brought a new sense of restored unity and courage to the disciples, men and women alike, who had been hiding in the upper room, fearful of Jewish authorities.
During the period of time since the terrible tragedy of the death of Jesus on the cross, whether three days as John tells the catechetical story or 40 as Luke would understand it, the disciples were bitterly divided, fractured and splintered by guilt and shame.
Should they have seen it coming? Could they have prevented its catastrophic ending? Should they have been more courageous and stayed rather than running away or hiding at the edges of the crowd? Peter’s bitter denial haunted everyone.
Then something happened. They experienced a new and profound sense of forgiveness. With that pardon came a healed respect for each other, no matter what their individual sins of commission or omission may have been.
The only explanation they could imagine for the bond of renewed unity was a new gift of the Holy Spirit with all the graces which only that Spirit could give! Then … the final age must have begun! Then … Jesus, the wonder working prophet from Nazareth, was confirmed in their minds as the promised Messiah who had ushered in the final age of fulfillment!
Thus was born the community of believers through which came the Good News of redemption and forgiveness. The fundamental gift of the Spirit was the creation of a community, identified with Jesus himself, through which God’s many diverse gifts continued to be available.
On the way to Damascus, Paul’s shattering and transforming vision of Jesus insisted that Jesus was identified with the very people Paul had intended to arrest and persecute (Acts 9:4f). That unique identity between the Risen Jesus and his followers became the Apostle’s fundamental insight: one body but many members (1 Cor 12:12; Rom 12:3-8).
Peter went from Jerusalem to the home of the gentile Roman Cornelius in Jaffa (Acts 12:1-18). Paul and Barnabas went from Antioch (Acts 13:1-3) to countless communities in what is now modern Turkey, proclaiming Jesus as Risen Lord and Messiah.
It was, therefore, through the entire community and its delegates that forgiveness was offered and baptism administered. Through the imposition of frail, feeble and very human hands, God’s Spirit was shared, but the hands were empowered by the mission given to them by the community of believers whom we call “church.” God’s Spirit creates, animates and unites that church.
Our Catholic tradition believes very firmly, like the entire biblical history of God’s people, that forgiveness and grace come somehow through the community which was chosen by God to serve as its medium, not merely its occasion.
Our ancient creed believes in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Note the word “catholic” is printed in our missals in lower case because we know that membership in the Body of Christ is not limited merely to those who claim personal affiliation with the Catholic Church (and have parish envelopes), but includes all those baptized into Christ, and even implicitly the countless folks who under the gifts of the Holy Spirit’s grace yearn for union with God.
We who live in North America, like most of Western Europe, suffer from the disease of pervasive individualism. While it is important to understand our personal responsibility before God (Ez 18), we live flawed lives if we never see ourselves as first and foremost members of God’s people, and only secondarily as unique individuals. That virus came into our culture during the late 15th century. It represented a serious mutation from the vision of our sacred Scripture which sees the social group, be it tribe or people, as the primary object of God’s election.
Last week on Holy Saturday countless individuals throughout the world chose to either be baptized into Christ or to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. Not only did they become members of that vast crowd of the disciples of Jesus the Christ over 20 centuries, they first and foremost become members of his body, the church.
Genuine disciples are members of a community with whom they hear the Word of God and celebrate the Eucharist. Together they are bound, generation after generation, in the work of transforming their culture and their world.
By the will of Christ and by our own experience, we learn that true disciples need each other for mutual support, challenge and witness. We also need others for the unique gifts they each possess to complement our personal limits as we journey through life. The refrain of “many parts, but one body” should be sung over us every day.
By the grace of baptism we become members of God’s people, and we journey together with them in Christ throughout life’s pilgrimage. This is the great Easter gift of the Holy Spirit.