May 21, 2017: 6th Sunday of Easter (A)

1st Reading – Acts 8:5-8, 14-17

Philip went down to the city of Samaria
and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip
when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.
For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice,
came out of many possessed people,
and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured.
There was great joy in that city.

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem
heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God,
they sent them Peter and John,
who went down and prayed for them,
that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
for it had not yet fallen upon any of them;
they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Then they laid hands on them
and they received the Holy Spirit.

The description of the early Christian community, which has been the theme of the first readings of this Easter season, continues with an account of the spread of the gospel.

Thus Philip went down to the city of Samaria

Philip, one of the seven men appointed by the Jerusalem community to attend to the needs of the widows of the Hellenists, travels north to Samaria.

The city of Jerusalem is on a mountain; regardless of the geographic direction, one always traveled up to Jerusalem and down from it.

and proclaimed the Christ to them.

The Samaritans were regarded as holding unorthodox views by the Jews.  The animosity between these groups can be traced back to the period after the death of Solomon, when the northern Israelite tribes withdrew their allegiance from the southern Judean monarchy (ca. 722 B.C.).   Nevertheless, they retained many of their common traditions, among them being a belief in the coming of a Messianic figure, the “Returning One.”

With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it

Their shared expectation of a messiah explains their openness to Philip’s proclamation of Christ.

and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed and crippled people were cured.

His proclamation was supported by exorcisms and healings, wondrous signs of the dawning of the eschatological age.  Note that even one of the assistants performs the miracles that Jesus promised his disciples would work (see Mark 16:17).

There was great joy in that city.

The joy they experienced would have sprung both from their happiness for having been cured and from the knowledge that the new age had come.

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John,

The centrality of the Jerusalem community is seen in its response to the news of the Samaritan conversion: the ruling body sends Peter and John to Samaria.

It is unclear why Philip was sent first, and then Peter and John followed.  Why didn’t they all go together?  Perhaps it would have been easier for a Hellenist like Philip to go to the Samaritans than for men like these two who probably belonged to the “Hebrew” segment of the Jerusalem church.

Whatever the reason, there is no evidence that the delegation from Jerusalem has been sent out to ensure proper protocol in the conversion.  This is clearly a mission of goodwill, a demonstration of Christian solidarity.  The visit itself shows that the conversion has been sanctioned by Jerusalem.

who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

As with the ordination of the seven in last week’s reading, once again there is a question about the function of the laying on of hands.  The Samaritans had been baptized in the name of Jesus, and so they had already been incorporated into the People of God.  The fact that the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen upon any of them does not infer that their baptism was not a sacramental one, but rather points to the difference between baptism and confirmation.

The fact that the two apostles do not re-baptize but confirm bears witness to the existence of baptism and confirmation (“gift of the Holy Spirit”) as two distinct sacramental rites. The most important effects Christian baptism has are the infusion of initial grace and the remission of original sin and any personal sin; it is the first sacrament one receives, which is why it is called the “door of the Church.”  There is a close connection between baptism and confirmation, so much so that in the early centuries of Christianity, confirmation was administered immediately after baptism.

However this sacramental element is understood, the principal focus of the account is on the reconciliation in Christ between Jews and Samaritans.

2nd Reading – 1 Peter 3:15-18

Beloved:
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.
Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.

For Christ also suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.
Put to death in the flesh,
he was brought to life in the Spirit.

Having heard in the introduction to our first reading about the start of the persecutions of the Christian Church, we now hear Saint Peter explain the Christian approach to persecution.  As Christians, we are to use this kind of suffering in a way that will enhance the spread of the Gospel.

Beloved: Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.

The reading opens with an exhortation to sanctify (hagiázō) Christ in their hearts, to acknowledge his holiness.

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,

It seems that the suffering of the early Christians has not squelched their hope, and this has raised questions in the minds of others: What motivates these Christians to live such hopeful lives?  The author exhorts them to be ready to offer an explanation (apología) whenever asked.

“We must be so well instructed in the knowledge of our faith that whenever anyone asks us about it we may be able to give them a proper answer and to do so with meekness and in the fear of God. For whoever says anything about God must do so as if God Himself were present to hear him.” [Didymus the Blind (ca. 381), Catena]

but do it with gentleness and reverence,

Though they are asked to defend, they should not be defensive.  Christ should be their model for this.  He suffered for his principles; he did not strike back.

keeping your conscience clear,

In other words, give no one justification to finding fault with them.

so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.

If there is no fault found with them, they will be regarded as innocent sufferers, and those who might accuse them will have done so unjustly.  They will give witness to their righteousness through both their words and deeds. Such circumstances will reflect favorably on the Christians and shamefully on those who persecute and accuse them.

“Act in such a way that those who revile you because they cannot see your faith and your hope for a heavenly reward may see your good works and be put to shame by them, because they cannot deny that what you are doing is good. For it is quite certain, my brothers, that those who despise your good behavior will be put to shame when the last judgment comes and they see you crowned along with Christ, while they are condemned along with the devil.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 416), On 1 Peter]

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.

An echo of the message in the readings two weeks ago: suffering can be used in a way that will enhance the spread of the gospel.

For Christ also suffered for sins once,

Peter proposes Christ’s example as a model of patience in persecution.  His death was a kind of sin offering, a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of others.

the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,

Christ’s sacrifice was perfect and inclusive, effecting redemption for all — for all are unrighteous. No other sacrifice of atonement need be offered in the future.

that he might lead you to God.

Christ’s death was not only a model for believers to follow, but gave men access to the royal throne of God. By taking upon himself the covenant curse brought upon mankind by the sin of Adam, Christ broke down the barrier between God and man.

All of this is explained to remind Christians of the good that can be brought about through innocent suffering, both that of Christ and of themselves.

Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.

The reading ends with a traditional formula of Christian faith in the resurrection built on the classical contrast between flesh (sárx) and spirit (pneúma).  The focus here is not anthropological, concerned with two aspects of human nature.  It is a christological statement, referring to the human and the divine in Christ.

It means that though dead in the human sphere, Christ is alive in the sphere of the spirit.  Once again, Christ can be set before Christians, this time as a reason for their hope.  If they continue to follow his example, even should they die in their suffering, they have hope they will be brought to life in the spirit.

Gospel – John 14:15-21

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.
Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”

Our reading for today is a continuation of our gospel reading from last week.  At the Last Supper, Jesus has just told the apostles that he must soon leave them.

Jesus said to his disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

Love is the fundamental message of Jesus.  However, he calls for a demanding love, one that is self-sacrificing as was the love of Jesus himself.  Only those who follow his example and obey his directives can be said to truly love.  Obedience is not the requirement for love, it is the consequence of it.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate

The Holy Spirit is “another” Advocate because Christ himself has been the first.  Some translations use the term Paraclete instead of Advocate; “Paraclete” is a legal term that had been taken into Jewish use, signifying an advocate/ helper/ mediator.

to be with you always,

The Holy Spirit will not leave them as Jesus is about to, but will remain with them forever.

the Spirit of truth,

This term partially defines the role of Advocate, to guide the Church in truth.

which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it.

The world is captive to materialism, open only to what is tangible. In contrast, the disciples are motivated by love and they respond to Jesus in obedience.

But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.

The Holy Spirit will be both in the Church and in the early Christian.

I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.

Of which return does Jesus speak?  Is he referring to the resurrection, after which the bond between master and disciples will be forged in such a way as to endure all things?  Or is his return to be seen in the gift of the Spirit, the gift that promises the abiding presence of God?  Perhaps he is speaking of his final coming at the end of time, when believers will be united with him forever.

It is actually better not to choose one interpretation to the exclusion of the other two, because each of them opens an aspect of Jesus’ relationship with us.

In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live.

Jesus will not be absent from them because he and his disciples share life: the life of the Father.

On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.

While today’s reading cannot provide us with a complete trinitarian teaching, it does offer us some insight into the mystery of God.  We have seen in earlier verses that there is definitely an intimate relationship between Jesus and his Father.  In fact, the very metaphor of Father, which Jesus uses, is evidence of this.  Although they are intimate, they are distinct.  Jesus prays to his father and the Father hears his prayer.  The Spirit, who is sent by the Father, is not a substitute for Jesus but is sent to abide with the believers.

And here, we have a description of mutual indwelling: Jesus is in the Father; Jesus is in the disciples and they are in him; both the Spirit and Jesus will remain in the disciples.

Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.

It is not sufficient merely to acknowledge the law of Christ, one must also observe it in their life. Obedience is the proof of love, which in turn makes possible the communion between God and man. The condition of the shared life which is promised is love and obedience.

And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”

He will also not be absent because they share a common love, again in the Father.

Connections and Themes

Hope.  It is because we have been blessed with the opportunity of participating in the exaltation of Jesus that we live in the hope that this exaltation will be brought to its final conclusion at the end of this age.  This is extraordinary, because we possess a vision of an endtime of fulfillment in a world that has no hope.  This is why we are called upon to give an explanation of this hope.  We live in a hope based on promises: the promise that we will not be left orphaned when Jesus returns to his Father, the promise that we will be comforted by the Spirit, whom Jesus will send.  We hope, not because we are trusting people but because God is trustworthy.  It is trust in God that enables us to live in this world as if the promises have already been fulfilled, for in fact, it is precisely such living that fulfills them.  That is why true Christian hope is so remarkable.

The Spirit. We have not yet celebrated the feast of the Ascension, yet all three readings speak of the Spirit.  It was the Spirit who quickened the resurrected life of Jesus, and it is the same Spirit who enlivens us.  The Spirit is our Paraclete, our Advocate, the reason for our hope.  It is the Spirit who strengthens us, comforts us, guides us, and inspires us.  It is the Spirit who works through us for the transformation of the world.  It is because the Spirit has already been given to us that, in the midst of our journey of life, we are able to live the promises into fulfillment.  The exaltation has already taken place; the glory has already been given; the Spirit has already been bestowed upon us; we are already living in the new age.  We may be considered foolish by those who live without this hope, but it is the foolishness of the Spirit of God.

Life in the Spirit. Life in the Spirit requires that we conform our lives to the commandments of God, not in a legalistic or constraining way but out of love.  Love prompts us to pattern our lives after the model of Jesus, the one we love.  This means we will live with clear consciences, with gentleness and reverence.  The love that comes to us through the Spirit will overflow into the lives of others.  We will be agents of God’s love in the world.  Through our kindness and our commitment to righteous living we will case out the unclean spirits that inhabit our world, the spirits of greed and selfishness, the spirits of deceit and manipulation, the spirits of hatred and violence, the spirits of disinterest and disdain.  Our lives will be evidence of the presence of the Spirit in our midst.

The Spirit given by Christ is mediated through the laying on of hands.  This sill happens in our day in the gentle touch of friends, in the loving touch of parents, in the healing touch of those who cure both the body and the spirit.  The Liturgical Year is preparing us for the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and Jesus is preparing us for life in the Spirit here on earth.  This is the reason for our hope.

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