A Story, an Exhortation, and a Promisw
Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
We have reached the Sixth Week of the Easter Season. The liturgy for today directs our attention to the Holy Spirit as the parting gift of the risen Jesus. Each of the readings has a different character – the reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a story, the reading from the First Letter of St. Peter is an exhortation, and the reading from the Gospel of St. John is a promise.
In order to grasp the meaning of each of these readings, we must remember that the Christian community of Jerusalem has just experienced its first taste of an intensive persecution. Stephen has been stoned to death. Members of the church were being arrested in their houses and dragged off to prison. The apostles encouraged the remaining believers to flee from Jerusalem to avoid their own imprisonment.
It is in this context that Philip, another of the seven deacons, finds himself in Samaria, proclaiming that Jesus is the expected Messiah. The Samaritans seem to have been very receptive to the message which Philip preached. They were also impressed by the wonderful works of God performed through his ministry of healing and exorcism. After Philip has baptized these new members of the community, he sends for Peter and John so that they can call down the power of the Holy Spirit upon the newly baptized Christians. This detail is included to tell us of the importance of unity and continuity within and for the expanding Church.
The passage from the First Letter of St. Peter exhorts the followers of Jesus to be mindful and aware that because of the persecution of the Church, they need to live their lives at a level of spontaneity in the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the text urges Christians to be watchful of their own behavior so that when they are accused or attacked, their innocent behavior may testify to the real reason for the persecution. This includes modest, respectful, but persistent readiness to give an account of one’s hope. Those who really live and act in the Spirit of Jesus will inevitably invite ridicule, discrimination, opposition, and various subtle kinds of persecution. In fact, Peter’s advice and warning becomes more daunting the more we reflect on its appropriateness for our own times. Christian life as envisioned in this text is so daunting that it is difficult not to be thoroughly discouraged or conveniently to turn a deaf ear to it. Our society has become so thoroughly secular that of the Christian lifestyle is completely ignored. We live in a time when our morality and ethic is questioned and ignored.
The text from today’s Gospel gives us words from the farewell address that Jesus gave the apostles after the Last Supper. When he speaks of leaving and returning to the Father, they respond with fear of what will happen to them when he departs. Their faith is portrayed for us as the faith of children who depend upon the continuous presence of one who personally sustains that faith for them. Their love for Jesus is portrayed as a childish love that consists of a clinging dependence and a sense of panic at the very suggestion of his leaving them to face their own responsibilities. In response to their panic and fear, Jesus promises them that not only will he return, but he will also send them an Advocate who will always be with them. That advocate will be the Holy Spirit who will constantly remind them that Jesus is always present with them. The presence of Jesus and the indwelling of the Spirit are mentioned interchangeably in this text, and that should give us food for thought. It suggests new insights as we pray during the final weeks of this Easter Season for the sending of the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate, our source of strength, our reason for hope, and the one who will instruct us in what it is that we must and should be doing.
The story that we hear in the Acts of the Apostles, the exhortation that is given to us in the First Letter of St. Peter, and the words of Jesus from the Gospel of St. John all work together to provide us with the means to live according to the commandments which will identify us as people who love God, and, as Jesus says, those who love God will be loved in return with a love that will never fade or leave us alone as orphans.