So we have arrived at the sixth Sunday of Easter, and Pentecost is only two weeks away! It is hard to believe that this blessed season has traveled by so quickly. Yet we are approaching the end, now is the time to prepare more seriously than ever to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit on this upcoming Feast.
Our Readings for this Sunday are filled with instruction and narrative about the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the First Reading, we have the account of the “Samaritan Pentecost,” as the Holy Spirit falls on these much-maligned descendants of northern Israel. In a way, it is the “Israelite Pentecost”, because the Samaritans referred to themselves as “Israelites” rather than “Judeans.” The Holy Spirit fell first on Judeans and converts to Judeanism in Acts 2, but in today’s first reading He falls on the children of the other ten tribes. In the Second Reading, Peter encourages us that, though we be maligned and persecuted in this life, we will be brought to eternal life in the Spirit with Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches us about the Spirit, who communicates to us the Life and the Love of the Father.
1. Our First Reading is 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.
This account is significant for biblical theology in several ways. First of all, the gift of the Spirit to the Samaritans is the fulfillment of many prophecies that God would restore the relationship between himself and the northern tribes of Israel. We recall that the kingdom of Israel was split in two after the reign of Solomon, with roughly ten tribes forming the Kingdom of Israel to the north, and two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) remaining loyal to the House of David and Jerusalem in the south. Around 720 BC, the northern kingdom was destroyed and most of the inhabitants deported. But some remained, intermarried with Gentile groups brought in to resettle the land, and became the Samaritans.
Jews in the first century despised the Samaritans because, among other things, they were regarded as having a mixed bloodline or even being Gentile imposters. But Jesus always remained open to them, as we see in John 4 (The Samaritan Woman at the Well) and in Luke 10:29-37 (The Parable of the Good Samaritan).
Jesus remembered the prophecies that were aimed at all twelve tribes of Israel. Ezekiel, for example, prophesied to the “whole House of Israel” (i.e. all twelve tribes, Ezek 36:10) that God would “sprinkle clean water” upon them and put his spirit within them (Ezek 36:25-27). That’s precisely what we see in this passage, as the descendants of the northern tribes receive the “sprinkling of clean water” of baptism and then accept the Holy Spirit given to them at the hands of the apostles.
This Reading is also significant because it represents a pivotal point in the development of the Book of Acts. At the beginning of Acts, the Apostles ask Jesus about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, and Jesus tells them that they will be his witnesses (lit. martyres, from which we get “martyrs”) from “Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is the pattern of the Book of Acts, as Acts 1-7 details the spread of the Gospel in Jerusalem, Acts 8 recounts the movement into “Judea and Samaria”, and from Acts 9 on the Gospel begins to go to the “ends of the earth,” especially through the ministry of St. Paul.
We also see in this passage the beginnings of the form of the sacrament of confirmation. We observe that the Samaritans had been baptized, but not received the fullness of the Spirit. Luke says the Spirit had not yet “fallen” on any of them. St. Luke cannot mean here that the Samaritans had no experience of the Spirit whatsoever, because St. Paul will later say, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). So the very fact that the Samaritans had confessed Jesus as Lord and received baptism indicates that the Spirit was present to them in some way. But the “falling” of the Spirit seems to refer to a great filling. And this must take place at the hands of the Apostles. In this way, St. Luke stresses the close connection between the Apostolic ministry and the working of the Holy Spirit. As Joseph Fitzmyer has observed, the Spirit in Acts is poured out only at the hands of the Apostles, in their presence, or through someone authorized by them. Luke is trying to teach us to keep together the hierarchical, visible Church with the charismatic Church. We should not adopt the attitude that the visible Church, with its priesthood in succession from the apostles, is somehow opposed to the “spiritual” or “Pentecostal” church with various extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit. Those gifted with extraordinary gifts of the Spirit should ever strive to unite those gifts with the visible ministry of the successors of the Apostles (the bishops), because God desires the unity of his Church, and both the authority transmitted by Holy Orders and the special manifestations of the Spirit are gifts of God to his one body.
In the Latin Rite, we try to emphasize the link between the Spirit and Apostolic Succession by having the bishop come personally to perform confirmations. Thus, just as Philip could baptize the Samaritans but needed the apostles Peter and John to come personally to bestow the Spirit in its fullness, so the bishop travels through his diocese to personally confer on each confirmand the completion of their baptism.
P. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20:
R. (1) Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
Shout joyfully to God, all the earth,
sing praise to the glory of his name;
proclaim his glorious praise.
Say to God, “How tremendous are your deeds!”
R. Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
“Let all on earth worship and sing praise to you,
sing praise to your name!”
Come and see the works of God,
his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.
R. Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
He has changed the sea into dry land;
through the river they passed on foot;
therefore let us rejoice in him.
He rules by his might forever.
R. Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare
what he has done for me.
Blessed be God who refused me not
my prayer or his kindness!
R. Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
This psalm gives voice to the joy we experience as recipients of the Holy Spirit. In a particular way, it connects with the First Reading and the experience of this northern Israelites, the Samaritans. The psalm recalls the Exodus: “He changed the sea in to dry land, and through the river they passed on foot.” This is the memory of God’s great act of liberation by which he formed Israel into a nation for the first time. But now, the reception of the Spirit is a kind of “New Exodus,” the fulfillment of various prophecies (e.g. Isaiah 11:10-15) that God would bring Israel back to himself, no matter where they were scattered. For the Samaritans, who for so long had been estranged from God even if living on their ancestral land, the reception of the Holy Spirit was a great liberation, a great Exodus from a life of bondage to sin and Satan into the freedom of children of God. In fact, Philip’s ministry among the Samaritans is marked by various acts of liberation: freeing people from bondage to Satan (exorcisms) and disease (healings).
2. The Second Reading is 1 Pt 3:15-18:
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.
This is a key passage for the conduct of the Christian life. The advice is timeless, and it is a set of verses well worth memorizing.
This text explains to us one of the basic principles of evangelism by means of the laity. In the First Reading, we saw Philip as a dramatically effective evangelist who proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus publically and confirmed it by working miracles.
Most Christians do not have the vocation or opportunity to preach the Gospel formally and in public to great crowds, as Philip did. Nonetheless, even we lay Catholics can participate in the spread of the Gospel. One of the ways we can do this is by living lives of hope. So many of our neighbors are living without hope in anything more than perhaps enjoying themselves on the next weekend. Peter calls us to live lives of such hope that people will ask us the “reason” for that hope. In other words, our demeanor, our way of live is so marked by the optimism and cheerfulness that comes from a lively hope in eternal life, that people ask us, “What’s with you? Are you on something? How come you are always so cheerful?” And that gives us a unique opportunity to talk to them about Christ.
So Peter says, “Always be ready to give an explanation …” That is, always be ready to witness to what Christ has done in your life, to anyone who might ask. And we all of us should be ready, at any time, to say something about what Jesus has done for us or to explain why we are a Catholic Christian. But, St. Peter say, “Do this with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear.” That is, when explaining your faith to another person, do not become overbearing and condemnatory of others. Testify to Jesus, not to the sins and mistakes of others.
St. Peter wants us to avoid sin at all times, so that when we are persecuted, it is clear that the persecution is not from any evil we have committed, but only for the sake of the Gospel. We ought to suffer for doing good, not for doing evil, because we are followers of Christ, the one who was put to death for being good, yet through his death won our salvation.
G. The Gospel is Jn 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.”
One of the themes of this Gospel that we can highlight is the unity of Love and Law. Sometimes Christianity is presented as if Jesus came to free us from moral obligations, such that, provided we believe in Jesus, we are released from all restrictions on behavior provided we “love” God. This is such a classic mistake most often made by so-called “liberal” Christians, and the key error is not to recognize that the law of God guides us toward behavior that is loving. Thus, there can be no final contradiction between love and law. The Ten Commandments, for instance, instruct us in how to love God (the first three) and how to love our neighbor (the next seven). When we love others, obviously we will not kill, rob, or deceive them. Thus Jesus says: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. One gets tired of Christians who ignore the commandments of God and yet still claim to “love Jesus.” It is a case of self-deception. Love is shown more through behavior than through words.
Love is also connected to the Spirit. St. Paul will later say in Romans 5:5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to love God and also to keep his commandments.
Moreover, the Spirit bonds us and unites us to the Father and the Son, enabling us to experience communion with God. “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” This kind of inter-dwelling of the persons of the Godhead and our own persons is only possible because the Spirit of God flows through us, uniting us to the other persons as well. Our communion with God cannot be realized prior to our experience of the Spirit, because it is only made possible by the Spirit.
Love, communion, obedience, indwelling—all of this comes about through the gift of the Holy Spirit. As we enter into the last days of Pentecost, especially from this coming Thursday (Ascension Day) on, let us make greater efforts to set aside time for prayer in our daily life, and ask God fervently to renew in us his gift of the Holy Spirit at this upcoming Feast.
Ever wanted to make a pilgrimage to Israel? It may seem counter-intuitive, but now is a good time to go: due to the world-wide crisis, travel prices are at historic lows, and the suffering Christian communities in the Holy Land are only too eager to receive the pilgrims that bolster their livelihood and economy. My June 14-21 pilgrimage has been rescheduled to August 20-30, and we have capacity for more pilgrims: www.JohnBergsma.com/pilgrimage