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The Spirit gives Life

An address by Fr John Slater on

07 September 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I spoke last Sunday about St Paul and his conversion to Christian faith from a background as a scholar of the Hebrew Bible in the tradition of the Pharisees. The Hebrew Bible - which we know as the Old Testament - reached its present form at about the time of Jesus. An important part of the process was its translation into Greek in the first century BC. Another stimulus was the destruction of Jerusalem shortly after the time of Jesus when Jews needed to hold on to the biblical text since they could no longer find their identity through living in Judea or worshipping in the Jerusalem temple.

The work of the Pharisees at the time of Jesus was followed by what we recognise today as the scholarship of a succession of rabbis who studied the biblical text and interpreted it for succeeding generations. Over the centuries there has built up an enormous body of rabbinical commentary on the Hebrew Bible. The rabbis always treat the biblical text with the utmost seriousness but at the same time they are usually very open to fresh interpretations - finding new implications to fit the needs of succeeding generations.

In our reading today from St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, he gives us the marvellous comment that the letter kills but the spirit gives life. Here he is contrasting his old life as a teacher of the Law of Moses with his new vocation as an apostle of the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. History was to show that in the future many rabbis would be as open as Paul himself to radical reinterpretation of the Law, but that was not obvious at the time when Paul was writing.

Paul gives us the image of Moses whose face shone with glory when he had been in the presence of God and received the Law. But Paul calls this a ministration of death written and engraven in stones - since we all fail to live up to the demands of the Law and so are condemned by it. But Paul has now discovered the New Covenant which he calls the ministration of the Spirit and of righteousness - something far more glorious than the Old Covenant of the letter of the Law.

What Paul experienced was not just an intellectual conversion from an old life built on the Law of Moses to a new life with Jesus at its centre. On the Damascus Road he encountered the Risen Christ and shortly afterwards he was filled by the Spirit. This was a profound and life-changing experience. The old Law had taught him about God - and God’s dealings with the human race were written down for the study and reflection of scholars and for teaching the people. There was, if you like, a real glory about Moses who was the vehicle of this divine revelation. But in the end that glory could not begin to be compared with the glory revealed through Jesus who gives us, not a text to be studied but the Spirit who transforms our lives. The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.

But of course, we are all capable of changing the Christian faith from the life giving of the Spirit back to the letter which kills. Perhaps we all feel safer with a religion of law which is written down and which looks unchanging. The religion of the Spirit is less predictable and certainly more challenging. There is a real struggle going on in the Church today and many do seem to want to impose on Christians a rigid adherence to the strict text of the Bible, with no room for interpretation in the light of modern scholarship or adaptation to the demands of life in the twenty-first century.

But this is to elevate the biblical text to a place in the Christian religion it has never held in the past. At the heart of Christian faith is not the Bible but Jesus Christ in whom the Word is made flesh. Like Paul on the Damascus Road, we encounter the Risen Christ who is made present to us through the working of the Holy Spirit. The Bible remains important, of course, informing us about God’s dealings with the human race in the past and telling us the story of Jesus and the apostles. But at the heart of the religion of the New Covenant must be our experience as Christians of God active in our own experience through the Holy Spirit.

Reading and studying the Bible will always be important for us. But so also will prayer when we set aside time and attention to being conscious of the reality of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What brings us new and eternal life is not the text of the Bible, important thought that is, but rather our openness to the transforming power of the Spirit. By prayer we make ourselves open to that transforming power. And the Eucharist in which we share each Sunday is itself a dramatic form of prayer when we demonstrate our openness to God by kneeling at the altar with our hands outstretched to receive his gift of himself.

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