May 27, 2012 - Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2.1-11
Psalm 104:1+24, 31+34, 29-30 Resp. 30
1 Corinthians 12.3b-7, 12-13 or Galatians 5.16-25
John 20.19-23 or John 15.26-27; 16.12-15

In the first article of question one hundred and six of the first part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas takes up the question of what exactly the new law is, and concludes that it is the grace of the Holy Spirit. When I first learned this I found it very confusing because I did not understand how the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is to say the action of God in our lives, could be called the law.

In the old covenant there were 613 commandments which formed the law. There were 365 “thou shalt not”s, one for every day of the year, and 248 “thou shalt”s, one for every part of the human body, as they used to say. Today we celebrate the feast of the sending and reception of the Holy Spirit. This is the day that all that changed. If Jesus only came to give us some more commandments nothing would really be different. Christianity would just be a harder version of Judaism. But Jesus Christ did not come with more commandments for us. He came to give us the Holy Spirit.

In the gospel today Jesus uses two different names for the Holy Spirit. The first name he uses is translated here as “Advocate”, which is in the Greek “Paraclete”, which means attorney for the defense. In the ancient languages, “Satan” means prosecutor, accuser. So the image here is of a courtroom, and God is the judge, and Satan is for the prosecution, and the Holy Spirit is defending us. Before, the prosecutor had his way, because he could point to the law and he could point to us and say “you did that and you did not do that and you did this and you did not do that.” But now when Satan comes out with all his accusations, we have a lawyer, a good lawyer, a really good lawyer, like even better than Matlock. He will not deny that we are guilty of breaking the law, because we are, and he is the Spirit of Truth, but he will make the case that Jesus Christ died for us for the forgiveness of sins and that we have sought out that forgiveness.

This does not mean that we can do whatever we want and expect the Holy Spirit to get us off on a technicality. In our reading from Galatians today, St. Paul explains what it means that the Holy Spirit is the new law. Instead of just being commandments about what we should and should not do, the Holy Spirit is our guide, leading us on a mission. In the old framework of the law, each of those 613 commandments were like walls being put up. People were free to walk around within the walls as long as they did not try to cross over one of them.

This is the framework of the old law, but it is not how we should understand the new law, because the new law is not a lot of commandments, the new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is the action of God in our lives. The new law is not about what we have to do or what we cannot do but rather what God is going to do and how we can cooperate with that. The old law set limits, but the new law give life a purpose.

St. Paul writes, “if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” If we are not under the law then we must be above the law. That usual meaning of that phrase “above the law”, someone ignoring the law and disobeying it, is not right. They are not above anything at all. They wallow in sin. They are enslaved to sin. Sin tells them what to do each morning, and sin lets them know when they can go to bed at night.

We, however, are above the law. Our law is the Holy Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we love our neighbor. If I love someone, I do not need a law that tells me not to kill them or steal from them. If I love God above all things, with all my heart, with all my mind, and with all my strength, I do not need a law to tell me not to worship other gods. This ought to be our attitude toward every sin. If we looked at our lives as an opportunity to serve the Holy Spirit, an a long string of opportunities to know, love, and serve God, then what meaning does the law have? None.

To be above the law means to be too good to obey the law. To be above the law means that we do not have the slightest inclination to disobey it. To be above the law means that our lives are not framed by decisions like whether to commit perjury. We Christians are above the law; we live guided by the Holy Spirit rather than sinful desire. We love God and our neighbor. We are free to be good. We Christians are above the law, or, at least, we should be.

Because we know that this is in some way simply the ideal situation, the way it should be. Even with the gift of the Holy Spirit we are still inclined to break the old law; we wish to follow the Holy Spirit, but we end up doing what we did not want to do. As St. Paul says, the flesh and the Spirit are in opposition and we often do not do what we want. We do what we desire in the moment but not what we want for ourselves.

The Christian life is not really a question of what we have done or failed to do. What is important is what we are trying to do. If, every time we sin, we condemn our actions and go to Confession, then the one who loves us will find a way to get us to himself. If we commit ourselves right now to the new law who is the Holy Spirit, making the purposes of God the purpose of our life, following the Holy Spirit as a sure guide to all truth, then when we stand someday in that courtroom, before the judge who loves us, accused of all our sins, the Holy Spirit will come to our defense and get us into heaven.