This is the last day with the ‘Easter’ label, as we come to the final events of the season, the Ascension of Jesus shortly followed by the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The readings again move between the experience of the first Christians and the words of Jesus at the Last Supper.
Acts 8:5-18, 14-17
The background to this selection is not heard in the liturgy. Luke, the author of Acts, has shown previous to this selection how the eager reception of the Christian message in Jerusalem in the first days after Pentecost changed into persecution by some of the Jewish authorities. This caused a migration of the Christian community out of Jerusalem. Philip we heard of in last week’s mass as one of the Hellenists chosen for the distribution of food. Whether he decided to go to to Samaria or was sent we are not told. He seems to be alone and now is preaching, healing and doing other kinds of ‘miraculous’ works Jesus had done in his ministry. Earlier Luke had said the preaching of the word was the task of the Apostles but clearly now, others are also taking on that ministry. Some difference in authority, however, may explain Philip not baptizing in the name of the Holy Spirit as well as Jesus and Peter and John doing the ‘laying on of hands’ for the coming of the Spirit on the Samaritans.
There is a sense of the new communities being bonded together with the Jerusalem Christians when Peter and John come to pray for them. The final focus on the account of their receiving the Holy Spirit is leading us towards the feast of Pentecost in two weeks’ time.
Psalm 65/66:1-7, 16, 20
The psalm is another one of Easter joy, with a special reference to ‘tremendous deeds’ which fits the healings and exorcisms of Philip.
1 Peter 3:15-18
In the reading from Acts, we heard how miracles brought people to faith in Jesus. In Peter’s letter, he focuses on another means of evangelizing: how the lived-out daily dedication to Jesus is an example that will bring others to belief. There is also an emphasis on the potential for suffering that comes with holding to the faith – something close to Peter after the events in Jerusalem told in Acts and he himself living later under the persecution of Nero. Martyrdom is still happening in our times for Christians in various parts of the world. It is easy to resent any persecution when you have been innocent, so Peter reminds them that this is better that being guilty! The example of Jesus’ own suffering is one that has inspired many martyrs.
Again we are hear from the Farewell Address of Jesus John sets at the Last Supper. Today we have Jesus’ promise of the coming of the one who will replace for the disciples his physical presence as he is about to return to the Father. The Greek word used, which can be translated ‘Paraclete’, is discussed in detail in Raymond E. Brown’s commentary on John. He says no one English word can capture ‘the complexity of the functions that this figure has’. He goes on to list witness in defence of Jesus and a spokesman of the disciples in the context of his trial by his enemies, a consoler, a guide and thus a teacher and helper. The ‘Advocate’ used in our reading comes from the Greek legal background of one who helps a person in a trial. In later parts of this long discourse of Jesus, he spells some of these aspects out. Here Jesus speaks of a ‘Spirit of Truth’ and we most often use the term ‘Holy Spirit’ for this powerful presence in our lives and in the Church.
Throughout the whole of this long speech, Jesus speaks of the interrelationship of Father, Spirit and Jesus himself in various ways that are different from the kind of ‘definition of the Trinity’ later theologians will attempt. (One example of that wording is the creed from the Counsel of Nicaea in 787 that we profess at Sunday masses.) Instead Jesus describes how we experience the presence of each ‘Person of the Trinity’ and how we are drawn into that relationship in our own lives. It is a more concrete way to approach what must remain mysterious to us –the nature of God.
Important throughout all of this part of John is the emphasis on the commandments of Jesus which he summarizes as loving not only God, but loving others as Jesus himself loves them. Brown says Jesus’ commandments ‘are not simply moral precepts: they involve a whole way of life in loving union’. This is a demanding challenge when we think of the depths of the ways Jesus showed his love and forgiveness ‘to the end’, with his suffering and death before resurrection. It is the presence of the Spirit, of Jesus, and the Father in us that makes it possible for us to share that same love.
When you have time for reflection, you can read more of the Farewell Address, running from Chapter 14 to 17, ending in Jesus’ prayer for all his disciples as he goes to his death. That is a good preparation for Pentecost.