We often hear people say that they are “religious but not spiritual”. If we were to ask them what they mean they might say that they pray, however they do not attend religious services or consider themselves a member of an organized religion. Others might say that they try to find God everywhere not just in church. Still others might claim that they try to take what is good and true in any religion and seek to live by it without following just one tradition.
Some people even quote Jesus in support of these views. They point to His criticism of the religious authorities of His day and His condemnation of hypocrisy. Quoting the Sermon on the Mount, they remind us that Jesus said that when we pray we should hide ourselves in our rooms and pray to our Heavenly Father in secret.
However, what we often fail to realize is that Jesus, despite these criticisms, was very religious. The gospels tell us that when He was a child He observed the law of Moses. Mary and Joseph had Him circumcised and presented in the temple in accordance with the law. Jesus was raised to love His Jewish faith and the people of Israel. When He gathered His first disciples, He chose all Jews and urged them to preach only to “the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel”. When He spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, He told her that “salvation comes from the Jews.” Furthermore, even though He sometimes harshly criticized the religious authorities of His day, He told His disciples to obey them.
Finally, as a good Jew, Jesus would observe all the Jewish festivals, traveling to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. In today’s passage from the gospel of Saint John, He is in the holy city to celebrate the Festival of Booths which is sometimes also called the “Festival of Tabernacles.” During this feast, the Jewish people recalled how God provided for His people during their forty year sojourn in the desert toward the promised land.
Saint John tells us that it is the “last and greatest day of the feast.” On that day, the priests would pour water over the altar in the temple to recall how God provided water from the rock for the Israelites to drink when they were thirsty in the desert. Jesus uses the opportunity to tell the crowds that He is the living water come down from heaven. “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.” Saint John goes on to tell us that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit which He would be pouring out on His people after He was glorified in His death, resurrection and ascension.
We can link the idea of “thirst” to what we today commonly call “being spiritual”. As human beings, there is a thirst within us for something more. We live our day-to-day lives with a feeling of incompleteness. We strive for more. As Christians, we understand that this “thirst” is our desire for God. We were created with a thirst for God that no other person, career or amount of material possessions can quench. Saint Paul puts it best in today’s second reading where we hear, “we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Jesus tells us that He is the only one who can meet that deep need we have for communion with God. As the Son of God - true God along with the Father - He alone can reveal to us who God is. When we see and hear Jesus, we see and hear God. When we receive Jesus, we receive God Himself. Therefore, only He is capable of filling the God sized hole in our heart.
Jesus meets our spiritual need by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon us. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is also God Himself. He is God living within us, inspiring us, strengthening us and giving us all we need to lead good and holy lives. When we welcome Him into our hearts, He is poured into our soul like cool, refreshing water to quench our thirst.
That is the spiritual side of the equation. However, there is also a religious side. To receive the gift of the Spirit, we have to be part of a community of believers.
Consider this. How would we know about Jesus if no one had told us about Him. If the apostles decided that they would just be “spiritual and not religious” they would not have bothered to write the New Testament and pass on Jesus’ teaching to us. Much less would they have given their lives to establish churches throughout the Roman empire. If they had not, by the power of the Spirit, spread the good news, the story of Jesus would have died with them. Instead, they understood that to foster the life of the Spirit within them, they had to observe some religious practices, set down some moral rules and establish some structure to ensure that the saving message of Jesus would be carried on through the centuries.
It is in our nature as human beings to be spiritual. Because we are created in the image and likeness of God we seek truth, beauty and goodness. Because God has made us to be in a relationship with Him, we thirst for friendship with Him. However, because we are human beings, we also need religion to teach us who God is and to lead us to Him. We need someone to baptize us, confirm us and preach the good news to us so that we can receive the Holy Spirit, the river of life-giving water we long for.
Tonight, the Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate that the promised gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us in abundance. God has provided for us in our weakness. He has shown us the way home and supplied everything we need to get there. His Spirit within us leads us to believe that there is salvation in no other name than in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and that we are to follow Him along with our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church. For all these gifts, we rejoice and are filled with zeal to proclaim this truth to others so that they may join us in celebrating the love of our Heavenly Father.