“Fear of the Lord, Comfort of the Holy Spirit” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, April 28, 2024

I was struck as I perused our readings today by the statement in that first reading from the Acts of the Apostles to the effect that the early Church was living “in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” and, as a result, it “increased in numbers”. That seems to me to indicate an important principle in church growth, which every pastor wants to see happen in his parish or community. So I thought I would explore with you what it means to live like that, i.e. “in the fear of the Lord, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit”.

To begin with, the fear of the Lord is not how the average person thinks of fear, as something that causes us to tremble and be reduced to a quivering wreck. Clearly , there are instances in the Bible where an appearance of God , or even an angel, is enough to terrify someone. We think of God manifesting himself to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai with great drama, thunder and lightning, trumpet blast, fire and smoke all around and we are told in Exodus 19: 16ff, that “all the people in the camp trembled”, and who could blame them? Or there is the story of Daniel being visited by the angel Gabriel in Daniel 10: 2-9. So glorious and awesome is the vision that all the men with Daniel , we are told, “fled and hid themselves” while Daniel felt “my strength left me ,and my complexion grew deathly pale, and I retained no strength…and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance , face to the ground”. Again, who could blame him? And what about, in the book of Acts, the story of St Paul, or Saul as he was known at the time, being blinded and thrown to the ground by the appearance of a flashing light and the words of Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9: 1-9))

Overwhelming as these experiences are, they are not really what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord”. When the Bible uses the phrase “fear of the Lord” it links it to other words: Thus in the book of Sirach in the Old Testament we read :”the fear of the Lord is glory and exultation, and gladness and a crown of rejoicing / The fear of the Lord delights the heart and gives gladness and joy and long life/Those who fear the Lord will have a happy end ; on the day of their death they will be blessed” (Sirach 1:11-13). Not bad, eh? I wouldn’t mind receiving a dose of the “fear of the Lord” myself- what about you, brothers and sisters. No wonder Sirach goes on to add that it “it is a gift from the Lord”. 

The fear of the Lord is much less to do with emotion, more to do with action and behavior. It is not so much to do withbeing as with doing. The prophet Micah gives us a neat word-picture of what the fear of the Lord involves: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you: but to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). So, fear of the Lord includes awe, reverence, respect, holiness, righteousness, love, humility, obedience, gratitude, praise and glory. To live a life  in that spirit  makes you attractive to others, and , remember, Pope Francis says in his encyclical: “The Joy of the Gospel”, that we Christians must live in such a way to make our lives attractive to non-believers, such that , when they see us displaying these virtues, they will draw close and want to know what is the source of such a life-style. And so, as the book of Proverbs says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7) and, as the book of Psalms underlines: “the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever” (Psalms 19:9).

So much for living “in the fear of the Lord”. What about the other part: living “in the comfort of the Holy Spirit”?  One of the titles of the Spirit is “Comforter”. But most of us, including myself, might object that living with the Holy Spirit of God within you and trying to follow his lead is not always the most “comforting” experience in the world.  The Spirit can lead us into circumstances that are anything but “comfortable”, particularly when we are trying to share our faith with others, or when we find ourselves having to defend our beliefs as Catholic Christians in a group discussion when those beliefs are under attack. But that is precisely when the Spirit comes to our aid. As Jesus promised his disciples in Luke 12: 11-12. “Don’t worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

In this sense, the Spirit can, indeed, be a great “comfort” to us. He is the one who speaks through us to others, he rehearses us in the arguments to use when debating matters of faith and gives us the exact things to say to overcome doubts and objections. So, the Spirit acts, not so much as a “comforter”, as we understand the term, but as an “advocate”, in the legal sense of someone who is on our side, takes our part, advances evidence on our behalf to convince others. In fact, that is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John, when he says to his disciples:“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you “(John 14: 26). No wonder Jesus goes on to link the Spirit with the gift of peace, as he says in the next verse: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (ibid, verse 27). 

You see, I doubt whether the world has ever known a time of just peace, a time when nowhere on the planet are there any wars or conflicts. But, though we, as disciples of Jesus, are “in the world”, yet we do not “belong to the world”, as Jesus affirms, in John 17: 16. In other words, we are not tied down, and blinkered, to worldly concerns, and values. Our concerns and values are those of God, of his mind and heart, according as we have received them from Jesus, and are enabled to live them out daily, thanks to the abiding Spirit of God, which the world cannot receive or understand, because it does not abide in Christ. As such, we can always, wherever we are, no matter what the circumstances, have that abiding “peace of God” in us, because we have the Spirit of God in us. As Jesus states , again in John’s gospel :”when the Spirit of truth comes to you, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come “. (John 16:13). Again, pretty neat, eh, brothers and sisters? I certainly could do with more of that kind of “comfort” – to be able to hear from the Spirit, on a continuous basis, what God is thinking and feeling, and so know how to steer my life in accordance with that same mind and heart. That is eternal life, brothers and sisters, that is salvation, that is glory, that is to know that we are headed to heaven, and that is the “comfort” of the Holy Spirit. 

Thus, to be an individual , or to be a community, who is living “in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” is to be an individual or community , who is bound for heavenly glory, who is able to come through the wild water ride of life ,  in peace with one’s God and with oneself, and be able to enjoy the ride. Because we are in the hands of the supreme navigator and guide , Jesus, and others will see how attractive that is in the kind of world we are called to live in, and they will want to come in and join us in our boat of life, which we call the Church. 

Christ compares the relationship between himself and his disciples as like that of a vine and its branches, which is even closer and more intimate than that between a shepherd and his sheep, which Jesus spoke of last week. In the image of the vine, Jesus sees his heavenly Father as the vine-grower or vine-dresser, whose job is to prune the branches.