May 17, 2020: 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.

Between last week’s reading and this week’s reading, Saul launched his campaign of persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and Stephen became the first martyr (Acts 7:54-60). Luke tells us that on the day of Stephen’s death “there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

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.)

As previously mentioned, the Gospel was spreading, but the believers were scattered. So Philip set off on a one-man mission to preach the good news of Jesus to the Samaritans.

and proclaimed the Christ to them.

Just as Luke used a geographical scheme to organize his gospel (Jesus had a Galilean ministry, a trip to Jerusalem, and a Jerusalem ministry), so does he use a geographic scheme to organize Acts.

As Acts begins, just before Jesus ascends to heaven, he says to the apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Acts is the story of the gospel spreading first from Jerusalem to Samaria, then to the then-known “ends of the earth” i.e., Rome.

Today’s passage tells the story of the spread of the gospel to Samaria.

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

It’s quite extraordinary that Philip has come to Samaria to preach, and the Samaritans “pay attention” “with one accord.” The Samaritans hated the Jews, and the Jews — even the Jewish Christians — still thought salvation was only for themselves.

The Samaritans were the descendants of the Jews who intermarried with the Assyrians. The Jewish people considered them “half-breeds,” an unclean people with unorthodox views. 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 BC).

Nevertheless, they retained many of their common traditions, among them being a belief in the coming of a Messianic figure, the “Returning One.” This shared expectation of a messiah might explain their openness to Philip’s proclamation of Christ.

This mission to the Samaritans is the first crossing of the threshold into the non-Jewish world, indicating that God’s gift is not merited by race, prior religious commitment, or deserving deeds.

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.

It is obvious that the Holy Spirit is working through Philip. Otherwise, he would be unable to proclaim the messiah with power and authority, and unable to back up his words with mighty acts of healing and exorcism.

There was great joy in that city.

Because Philip loved enough to sacrifice himself for God, many crippled of mind and body were cured. As happens throughout salvation history, love had worked miracles among people who hungered for it.

The joy they experienced would have sprung both from their happiness for having been cured and from the knowledge that the new eschatological age had arrived with the coming of the Messiah.

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 to check things out and help formally incorporate the Samaritan converts into the Church.

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.

Here and in Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 19:1-6, Luke distinguishes between baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus and the reception of the Spirit. In each case, the Spirit is conferred through members of the Twelve (Peter and John) or their representative (Paul). This may be Luke’s way of describing the role of the church in the bestowal of the Spirit. Elsewhere in Acts, baptism and the Spirit are more closely related (Acts 1:5 and 11:16).

Some commentators point to this passage as highlighting the difference between baptism and confirmation. Others insist that Luke is outlining how the church formally affirmed the extraordinary change of direction that occurred under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

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 noted in our study of today’s first reading the start of the persecutions of the Christian Church, we now hear Saint Peter explain the Christian approach to persecution.

Beloved: Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.

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

Peter is advising his audience to realize that Christ is not absent — he is within them.

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 is the model for this — he suffered for his principles; he did not strike back.

Too often when people try to give witness to their love of God by their lives, they appear to be smug, proud, conceited, and closed to differing points of view. However, gentleness doesn’t mean weak; true love manifests itself in a selfless radiance of joy.

keeping your conscience clear,

In other words, they should give no one justification for 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 (and should) be used in a way that will enhance the spread of the gospel.

For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,

At times of suffering, we often ask, “Where is God? Why doesn’t he intervene and change things?” Peter is pointing out that suffering cannot possibly be a sign of God’s absence because Jesus himself suffered.

Not only did Jesus suffer, he did so as a kind of sin offering, a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of others. This sacrifice was perfect and inclusive, effecting redemption for all — for all are unrighteous.

When we feel were are being persecuted unjustly, we need only to look to Christ.

that he might lead you to God.

Christ’s death was not only a model for believers to follow; it gave humankind 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).

Although Christ is no longer present in the human sphere, he is alive in the sphere of the Spirit. If Christians follow his example, even if they die in their suffering, they have hope they too 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. Jesus continues his long theological discourse at the Last Supper, having 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.

Note that 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

A reference to the Holy Spirit. 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.

The Holy Spirit is “another” Advocate because Christ himself has been the first. Jesus will soon no longer be with his followers physically; the Advocate will continue Jesus’ work.

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 illuminates one aspect of 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.

Christ’s presence, though real, is not visible to everyone because not everyone obeys and loves.

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 Christian.

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

Of which coming 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’s 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.

Throughout John’s gospel, there are two levels of teaching occurring simultaneously. On one level, John is teaching his audience about the identity of Christ and the nature of God; on another level, he is speaking to his contemporaries who are feeling Jesus’ absence and wondering why he has not yet returned in the Second Coming.

In this passage, John is teaching his fellow Christians that when they look for the presence of the risen Christ, they should not look toward a future event that will occur “out there.” Rather they should look to the present, and within, because the Advocate dwells within them.

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 still 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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