The action of the Holy Ghost: sermon on the fourth Sunday after Easter

“When he comes, he will convince the world of sin, and of justice, and of judgement.”

This gospel is full of mysterious words. We shouldn’t be surprised by that, since Christ is telling the apostles about the Holy Spirit. That is, one divine Person is speaking about another divine Person, and about what that divine Person will do. How could such a speech not be mysterious for us? Yet our Lord is not seeking to mystify the apostles, or us. He is, as St John says, “the true light who enlightens every man coming into this world.” So let us ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten us so that we may understand His words.

Christ speaks of two different groups upon whom the Spirit of God will act when He comes: the world and the apostles. What does He say about the world? “When he comes, he will convince the world of sin, and of justice, and of judgement.”The word convince, here, could also be translated as convict, in the sense of “convince the world that it has been wrong until now”. So, the Holy Spirit or Paraclete will convince, or convict, the world of three things: sin, justice and judgement. The world needs to be convinced about three things so that it can be converted, so that it will no longer be the world, but will rather become the body of Christ. 

“He will convince the world of sin … because they have not believed in me. 

Before an unbeliever can become a believer, he needs first of all to gain the sense of sin. You might say, “Surely everyone has a sense of sin, by nature, except perhaps for a few persons whom we call psychopaths.” But no: everyone has some sense of what is right and wrong, and the capacity to feel some shame when they are discovered acting badly. But the sense of sin is more than this: it means that I see my sin as an offence against God, the God who loved me enough not only to make me in His image but to become a man and search for me when I had gone astray. For as long as people have not believed in Christ, they do not grasp the true nature of sin.

So, that is the first thing which the Holy Spirit will do for the world. He will cause many unbelievers to believe that Christ is truly the Son of God who died for us. Then they will understand that their sins were not just mistakes or imperfections or offences against their fellow men, but acts done against God Himself. This is the first stage in the conversion of the world.

What is the second stage? “He will convince the world of justice … because I go to the Father and you will see me no more. Justice, here as often in the Scriptures, means holiness. When people have first been brought to a sense of sin, there is a danger. The danger is that they will despair of themselves, and imagine that they will never be pleasing to God. So, having convinced the world of sin, the next thing which the Holy Ghost will do to convince it of justice; He will convince it that justice, that is, holiness, is really possible. How does He do this? He brings them to faith in Christ’s Ascension to the right hand of God; “because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more”. Remember that Jesus Christ is a man, of the same nature as ourselves. Of course, He is God also; but it is not in His divine nature that He has ascended to the Father. In His divine nature He cannot be distant from the Father. He has ascended into Heaven as man. 

This gives us hope. There is a man, in Heaven. But He does not want to be the only one there! He wants us, His friends, the members of His mystical body, to be there also, in His Father’s presence. So, the Holy Ghost inspires hope into those who have believed; the hope that supernatural justice — holiness — is possible and that therefore it is really possible to enter Heaven. 

Then, the third stage. “He will convince the world of judgement … for the prince of this world is already judged.” The prince of this world, of course, means the devil; not that he has really any right, having rebelled against his own Creator, to do anything in the world, but that people put themselves into the devil’s power unknowingly by sin. In this way, the devil usurped control over the world, by an enormous coup d’état. 

And this was the third obstacle to be overcome before the world could be converted: the fear of unclean spirits. People in pagan lands, before they received the gospel, were worshipping beings whom they called gods, in order to flatter them, but who were really demons. And their worshippers were frightened of them, and of what would happen if they stopped worshipping them. In fact, if we read about missionaries who evangelised tribes in the depths of the Amazon forest in the twentieth century, we find that those tribes, before they heard of Christ, were living in fear of what they worshipped. 

Thus, when the Holy Spirit was sent from Heaven at Pentecost, He taught those who heard the apostles that these fallen spirits are weak. They have no power over those who are in Christ. Even before His Passion, Jesus could say: “The prince of this world is already judged.” And this judgement is constantly being repeated, every time that a child or an adult is baptised.

This is how the Holy Ghost was to convert the world and make it into the body of Christ. As for His action on the apostles, we do not have much time to consider that. But Christ promises in this gospel that the Paraclete will teach them every truth and reveal that which was to come. And this is what He did: all the mysteries of the faith were revealed to the apostles, and so the bishops and the pope have nothing to do except to preserve what has been handed down to them. And He revealed what was to come. In fact, we have a whole book in the bible which tells us about the history of the world from the Ascension to the second Coming: it is the last book, called the Apocalypse. Of course, it is not easy to understand: Christ did not promise that. But we can learn from it, if we wish, provided that we read it with faith.

The feast of Pentecost will soon be here. Each year, it is like a new coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. So let us ask that we may be ready for Pentecost; that the Spirit of Christ may live in us, and that our own conversion may be completed.