6th Sunday of Easter Acts 8:5-8, 14-17 1 Peter 3:15-18 John 14: 15-21
IT is Ascension Day next Thursday, and the Church edges into the mood of anticipation which portends the coming of the Spirit, that pledge that Jesus leaves us to tell us we are not alone, even though he is no longer there.
The first reading speaks to us of the Spirit-filled work of Philip, whom last week we saw appointed deacon, to look after the widows among the "Hellenists". Now he has moved to a different work, performing miracles of healing in Samaria, as he "proclaimed the Christ to them". The Spirit here gives his aposotolate a vigour and a power that clearly shook the Samaritans, whose dealings with Jews could at best be described as uncertain. So dynamic was his preaching that "the people united in welcoming the message", and "as a result there was great rejoicing in that town".
The joy and the irresistible driving force are marks of the work of the Holy Spirit. Oddly enough, though, Philip was not able to mediate to them a full encounter with the Spirit, for Peter and John had to be sent to pray "for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit".
So far "they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus". There are those who see in this story the distinction between the two Catholic sacraments of baptism and confirmation. This may be so, provided we remember how powerful a notion for the early Church was "recieving the Holy Spirit".
The second reading, continuing the First Epistle of Peter, gives another view on what the Spirit does, when it describes Jesus as "in the body put to death, in the Spirit . . . raised to life".
This is a rather middle-aged set of teachings after the youthful exuberance of Acts.
In the third reading, today's gospel, the Spirit is likewise presented with a certain moderation of the primal vigour that we encountered in the first reading. Instead the Spirit is seen as a kind of timeless stream, flowing from Jesus to the disciples of Jesus. Here, the Spirit is a gift from God: "I shall ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever, the Spirit of Truth".
This Spirit has nothing of the eye-catching quality that brought about the miracles through which the Samaritans came to believe. This Spirit is simply not accessible to everyone: "whom the world cannot receive, since it neither sees him nor knows him". On the other hand, for Jesus' disciples, it is a force of great importance: "but you know him; because he is with you, he is in you".
It is the Spirit that marks the difference between those who are and those who are not disciples of Jesus, when Jesus is not physically present: "I will not leave you orphans", he says; in other words, the disciples (whatever it may feel like) are not alone: "you will see me, because I live and you will live".
It is worth saying, perhaps, that this understanding of the Spirit may be of more help to us who live in the modern world than those spectacular miracles in which the early Church seemed to abound. For this Spirit is expressed, not so much in terms of remarkable phenomena, more as a power of loving: "if you love me, you will keep my commandments", says Jesus, opening the teaching, and the gospel concludes with the same idea: "anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be one who loves' me".
This may still be difficult to achieve, but at least it is easier for us to imagine loving Jesus and keeping His cornmandments than it is to see ourselves in the role of miracle-workers. And the whole of life in Christ seems to come together at this point: "anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him".
This, down the centuries, is what Christians have experienced, this profound unity between Father and Son, which we call the Spirit, and which enables us to stagger on as Christians.
Nicholas King SJ