MAY 21st, 2017: SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
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.
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.
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."
Many of us have a built-in problem keeping us from correctly understanding today’s three readings. Our catechism-oriented education assured us we’d always know we’re doing what Jesus wanted us to do as long as we’re following the teachings of the institutional church. The Galilean carpenter deliberately set up that organization during his earthly ministry to guarantee his message would always be presented the way he intended it to be presented.
There’s just one problem with that reasoning: modern Scripture scholars – like the late Raymond Brown – are unanimously convinced the historical Jesus never intended to found a church as we know it today. More than anything, he was simply a reformer of Judaism, not the founder of a new religion.
So if he didn’t create a formal institution to carry on his ministry, what did he do to guarantee it would always be done the right way? As we hear in today’s liturgical passages, he gave his followers his Spirit.
John’s Jesus couldn’t have said it better. “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.” According to John, only those who give themselves over to Jesus’ Spirit are authentic other Christs.
That’s why Luke believes it’s essential for Peter and John to travel from Jerusalem up to Samaria to make certain that community’s newly baptized actually have received Jesus’ Spirit. Philip – knowing nothing of our modern Trinitarian formula - had only baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” By the laying on of the apostles’ hands, Jesus’ Spirit also comes upon them. Their conversion is complete.
We have no idea what formula the author of I Peter employed in baptizing those to whom this homily is directed. But he certainly takes for granted they’ve received the Spirit in whatever action preceded his speaking to them. Just as the historical Jesus could defend his ministry and message, so they should be able to follow suit. This is important since suffering is always an integral part of carrying out that ministry and conveying that message. In the author’s mind, a person’s defense of being another Christ doesn’t come in a harmless school exam, but in the midst of suffering. No reason to defend it unless we’re in pain because of it. Our unknown writer is convinced that just as Jesus was “put to death in the flesh and was brought to life in the Spirit,” so his Spirit gives us life especially when our suffering is most severe.
In some sense, it’s easy to understand why many Christians quickly traded the Spirit for an institution. The late Carroll Stuhlmueller always taught that there are two rules to know when the Spirit’s actually talking to us. First, what suddenly comes into our mind is an insight, not a process of reasoning. Two and two equals four, for instance, probably isn’t from the Spirit. Inspiration from the Spirit comes out of nowhere. One instant there’s nothing, then suddenly . . . !
Second, actually following through on what pops into our mind will cost us big time. The Spirit always demands we leave where we’re comfortably ensconced and move to a place where we’d rather not be, a place which makes new demands on us. The Spirit never tells us, “Stay right here! Don’t move a muscle!”
According to our sacred authors, only when we’re disturbed about what God expects us to do can we be certain the risen Jesus’ Spirit is actually at work in our lives.