Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Fear and Comfort

There’s a kind of summary statement that St Luke gives about the early Church: the believers were “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31). How do those two things go together to make for the Church's blessed and dynamic life?

There are two kinds of fear, as we wrote about in a previous post. The fear that is more like terror was experienced at least once, in the incident concerning Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). They lied to the apostles and immediately dropped dead, and therefore “great fear came upon the whole church.” But the other fear, the one that is encouraged by the word of God, was also (and more often) present, that reverent awe which accompanies the experience of the presence and mighty works of God. This is more like the “wonder and amazement” they experienced at God’s power working through the apostles (3:9-10).

The comfort of the Holy Spirit is evident throughout the Acts of the Apostles. St Luke repeatedly directs us to the unceasing activity of the Spirit in the early Church. In fact, to receive the Holy Spirit was a sign that one belonged to Christ and the “New Way” that his death and resurrection inaugurated. “Repent and be baptized…and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38). “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31). “We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). “Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (8:17). The Holy Spirit is the way that God comes to his people once Jesus ascended into Heaven. So the Spirit is God present in his Church, the Lord and Giver of Life, and the Source of every gift. It is by the Spirit that we have the Holy Eucharist as well, but I’ll save that thought for another post.

So this is the way we are called to live: in fear and comfort. Not the servile fear of slaves under a harsh master, and not the comfort of rich, self-indulgent hedonists—that enervating fear and that paralyzing, corrupting comfort. The fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit are invigorating, ennobling, and revitalizing. The fear of the Lord roots us in truth and filial love, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit enlightens and strengthens us, and communicates peace and hope. The two work together, and the Christian life would be unbalanced and hence unfruitful if one or the other were omitted or neglected.

We seem to be missing something in today’s compromised, relativized, bland and spiritually vitiated Church. (Not that it’s like that everywhere, but it is so in far too many places.) We’re missing whatever it was that won 3000 converts in a single day (2:41). We’re missing whatever it was that enabled mere men to heal the sick, raise the dead, and wake up souls to glorious truth of salvation through Jesus Christ. We’re missing whatever it was that emboldened St Stephen to testify to Christ before his enemies, and to forgive them as he sacrificed his life for his beloved Savior.

I think we’re missing the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that this will return in abundant measure to the Church today to purify and reanimate her. What have we to offer the world if the Church adopts the values, the agendas, the methods (and hence the madness) of the world? Something radically new entered the world with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and with the sending of the Holy Spirit. And we are called to testify to it by word and example, to live it through prayer and worship and love and forgiveness. Let fear and comfort be your double-edged sword to defeat the devil and win souls for Jesus.

Today’s Church can be as fresh and vital as the Church of the first Pentecost, for it is the same Spirit who is poured into our hearts from the love of the Lord. Stand in awe of God and be filled with the Holy Spirit. You shall be invincible, and the Church will flourish anew.