Substance Versus Style

Substance Versus Style

A girl named Betty was visiting her grandmother down South, and on Sunday morning they went to the only church nearby—one having a free-spirited, charismatic or Pentecostal congregation. The service was very emotional, with people expressing their feelings by jumping about and shouting “Praise the Lord!,” “Hosanna!,” and “Amen!”—something which might be described as a “Holy Roller” service. Betty had never seen anything like this, and she looked on in silent amazement. Afterwards, she asked her grandmother if all the jumping meant the Holy Spirit was really there. The wise old woman answered, “Honey, it don’t matter how high they jump; it’s what they do when they come down that’ll tell you if it’s the real thing” (Stories for All Seasons, p. 108).

Enthusiasm for religious experiences can be a useful and even honorable response to the Lord’s goodness, but it’s not enough in and of itself; in fact, we might say it’s just the icing on the cake—and we’re all aware that a diet of only sugary things has little nutritional value. As far as God is concerned, substance is always more important than style. The true sign that we’re filled with the Holy Spirit isn’t how loudly we can shout “Amen!,” but how faithfully we follow Jesus and live out our religion, day after day.

The Holy Spirit is supposed to make a real and lasting difference in how we live. When Jesus appeared to the apostles on the evening of Easter Sunday, He first gave them His peace; He next showed them the nail marks on His hand and side, and then bestowed the Holy Spirit upon them and gave them the authority to forgive sins. Because we have received the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation, we too are called to live in the peace of Christ, not giving in to excessive worry or nursing grudges against others. Furthermore, just as the wounds of Jesus symbolize His faithfulness to His mission in spite of great suffering, we too must be willing to bear the price of following Him—and the Holy Spirit will help us do this. The apostles were given a ministry of reconciliation, and we also share this duty to some degree—primarily by forgiving those who sin against us, and by humbly confessing our own sins and seeking pardon for them. All these values are contrary to the ways of the world, so living in this peaceful, faithful, reconciling, Spirit-filled manner may very well attract attention and bring about opportunities to share our faith—not as dramatically as the apostles did on the day of Pentecost, but in a vitally important way, nevertheless.

St. Paul (1 Cor. 12:3-7,12-13) tells us that it’s only through the Holy Spirit that we can proclaim Jesus as Lord, both in our words and deeds; he further states that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” and that “to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some [common] benefit. In his Letter to the Romans (8:8-17), he reminds us that we did not receive a spirit of slavery and fear, but a Spirit of adoption making us God’s children and entitling us to share in Christ’s glory.

Thus, we’re not supposed to keep the spiritual gifts we have received to ourselves; we’re called to let them make a difference by sharing them as the opportunity arises, thereby showing our unity in Christ.

In the latter half of the 19th century an elderly, aristocratic lady, who was a niece of Napoleon Bonaparte, lived in the city of Rome. She had been renowned when younger for having very beautiful feet and ankles, and she was inordinately proud of them, even in her old age—so much so that when she rode in her carriage through the streets of Rome, she would hang her feet out the carriage window so that everyone could see them (homily notebook, “Appearance”). This may be an amusing case of an eccentric old lady acting in a strange manner, but it symbolizes the experience many people have of religion. Feet are meant to be used for walking, not for showing them off by dangling them outside a window, and in the same way, religion is meant to be an experience of coming closer to God and serving Him, not of trying to win the admiration of others. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit aren’t intended for our own glory, but for God’s, and the benefits we receive from these Gifts are meant to be shared with other people. Only when we truly understand this will we be able to make real spiritual progress.

When Jesus appeared to the apostles, He told them, “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you”—in other words, they were to follow His example. The same thing is true for us, and if we ask exactly what that means, the answer becomes quite evident. To be sent forth in the Name of Jesus means spending regular time in prayer and in worshipping God, as Jesus did; it means following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and striving to glorify God’s Name, instead of seeking personal glory. Going forth in Christ’s Name means trying to be a living sign of peace, reconciliation, and love; it means treating others as we wish to be treated, and helping others in need whenever we have the chance to do so. Following after Jesus means giving a higher priority to His truth than to our values, while doing our best to make this a better world by letting God’s grace flow through us. All these things are utterly impossible if we rely only upon our own knowledge and strength; all of them are quite possible if we let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit—and if enough of us use the Gifts of the Spirit in the way God intends, our world will be transformed.

Betty’s grandmother spoke an important truth when she observed that it doesn’t matter how high we rise when we’re caught up in the Holy Spirit; it’s what we do when our feet are back on the ground that makes the difference. Religion isn’t primarily intended to make us feel good, but to help us live well. The Holy Spirit will provide the necessary Gifts and graces and opportunities, but the effort must be ours.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Written by
Fr Joseph Esper