Sixth Week of Easter (A)

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The Holy Spirit (depicted in the window of the apsis) dominates the Throne of Saint Peter -
by BERNINI, Gian Lorenzo, from San Pietro, Rome

 

Acts 8:5-8, 14-17

They laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. Philip went down to the town of Samaria and there proclaimed the Messiah. Without exception, the crowds that heard Philip and saw the miracles he performed attended closely to what he had to say. There were many who had unclean spirits, which came out shrieking loudly. Many others were paralytics or cripples, and these were cured. The rejoicing in that town rose to fever pitch.

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the Word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down to these people and prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit. It had not as yet come down upon any of them since they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The pair upon arriving imposed hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

1Peter 3:15-18

In the body He was put to death, in the spirit He was raised to life. Venerate the Lord, that is, Christ, in your hearts. Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours be ever ready to reply, but speak gently and respectfully. Keep your conscience clear so that, whenever you are defamed, those who libel your way of life in Christ may be disappointed. If it should be God's will that you suffer, it is better to do so for good deeds than for evil ones.

This is why Christ died for sins once for all, a Just Man for the sake of the unjust: so that He could lead you to God. He was put to death insofar as fleshly existence goes, but was given life in the realm of the spirit.

John 14:15-21

I shall ask the Father and He will give you another Advocate. Jesus said to His disciples:

"If you love Me and obey the commands I give you, I will ask the Father and He will give you another Paraclete -- to be with you always: the Spirit of Truth, Whom the world cannot accept, since it neither sees Him nor recognizes Him; but you can recognize Him because He remains with you and will be within you. I will not leave you orphaned; I will come back to you. A little while now and the world will see Me no more; but you see Me as One Who has life, and you will have life. On that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. He who obeys the commandments he has from Me is the man who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father. I too will love him and reveal Myself to him."

 

 Sixth Week of Easter (A)

by Father Charles Irvin, M.Div, J.D.

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crucifixion3.jpg (1600 bytes) We have been lingering these Sundays of Easter on a very consoling theme. The simple truth is that in the plan God has created for us, He came into this world at a certain period in history, took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and then returned to the Father — always with the promise that we would not be left alone. Clearly, Jesus spoke this promise to a group of people terrified of being left alone in a world that was not necessarily receptive to the teaching of Christ. They leaned very heavily upon Jesus. They realized that Christ was about to leave them, and they didn’t know how they were going to make it. Jesus’ words are always filled with compassion, encouragement, and understanding of their pain and anxiety. Jesus keeps saying, “Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Be at peace. I’mHolySpirit_small.gif (21176 bytes) going to be with you. I’m not leaving you. I’m physically going back to the Father. But, in another sense, I am going to enter into you and be with you.” I find it fascinating that the in-dwelling presence of Jesus manifests itself in the Holy Spirit. This mysterious gift personified in the Spirit is invited to be a part of every single thing we do. We describe the Spirit best as a kind of Advocate , a kind of Helper.

Just as Jesus walked and talked with His disciples — teaching and guiding them along the way — the Spirit , the Advocate, helps us. It’s a wonderfully consoling message for any of us who struggle to live the gospel. One of the most interesting aspects of our faith is that it always deals with mystery. Our faith always invites us into a place that doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. It’s very difficult to pin down the way things work. That’s because we are limited in fully comprehending what we are dealing with. That’s why our faith is based on what Jesus says, rather than on what we know.

Faith begins with Jesus’ words. Jesus says He wants to give us this power, this Spirit . But He also says that whenever He invites us to participate more fully in the life He has offered us, He wants us to participate in it with Him. The process is not magic. It’s not as if Jesus, when He invites us to be baptized, says, “Poof. Now the whole issue of sin is completely taken care of. Now you are fully aware of the greatness and goodness of God’s plan, and you live it fully as you receive the Spirit, which confirms your belief and enables you to live it all of the time.”

It’s not that simple. We are always dealing with the power of the Spirit that brings fullness of awareness, but we have to participate in the process of making that Spirit effective in our lives. We have to participate in the process of being drawn into the place of full awareness. That’s the point at which the readings for today begin. They begin by illustrating the struggle of the early Christian community. The disciples had to go out and bring new life to others. Remember the Scripture story a short while ago of the dilemma found within the early Christian community? There was a certain group of Greek-speaking Jews who felt their widows were not being cared for in the distribution of food. A group of people was called to help. Then, those who were really responsible for the way the services took place could focus on prayer and preaching. They could share responsibilities. This reminds me of an example from our Church today, where someone is invited to be part of a certain ministry within the Church. They might say, “Well, I will set up the chairs.” The next thing you know, they are involved in a major ministry.

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El-Greco's Saint Philip
 

One of the figures called to that “chair setting up” process was Philip. Philip was the one who was considered worthy enough to take care of the people who were considered outcasts. Philip is called forth by the community because he has a certain sensitivity to reach those who are outcasts (Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8,14-17). No sooner is he involved in this “chair” ministry than he is asked to go out and be the first to preach to the dreaded Samaritans.

The Samaritans were considered unclean and unacceptable. Just imagine any group of people in any culture that is considered second-class. I love the stories in the Acts of the Apostles. We sense that these ordinary men called into service were filled with something very extraordinary. The power is always described as if Jesus is the one doing it. Philip goes to Samaria to preach and teach. In his preaching, unclean spirits go shrieking out of people. Paralyzed and crippled people are cured. All of a sudden, it’s as if Jesus has returned. The listener of the story then understands that the promise of Jesus is that He is with His disciples, and He will go wherever they go. Philip is filled with this Spirit of Jesus. As Philip preaches and teaches the people, it becomes clear that they must become filled with the Holy Spirit before they are able to do the work Philip is doing.

Now we know that in order to be fully initiated in the Catholic tradition, we receive three sacraments: Baptism, the Eucharist and Confirmation. Those are the three steps in terms of entering the Church. The power we receive from God enables us to deal with life in a new way. We die to the old way, and we rise with Christ in Baptism, receiving the gifts of redemption. We need to be nourished and supported by the presence of Jesus through the Eucharist. But we also need this mysterious ingredient called the Spirit. And so, the Spirit comes and gives us the power to do the work. It’s interesting that Philip is not the conduit through which the people receive the Spirit. Others came and laid hands on the people so they could receive the Spirit.

In the reading from 1Peter (3:15-18), we hear about suffering. This is the hard part of Christianity. If we are to cooperate with the Spirit, the Advocate entering into us, we have to learn from the example of Christ. Christ was obedient. Obedience has to do with listening attentively to what God is asking, and then doing it. Always, always, in our tradition we are told that if we are to do the work of Jesus, we are going to suffer. I get caught, as maybe you do, in the misconception that if I were doing everything right, there wouldn’t be so much suffering in the world. If people were good Catholics or good Baptists or good Lutherans or Methodists, we wouldn’t experience suffering. Well, there may be some truth to that, in the sense that a lot of suffering in the world is due to sin. But here we have a sense that suffering is a key ingredient in the process of being transformed by the Spirit.

It’s the Plan. The truth in the reading from Peter is that since we all have to suffer in order to grow, it’s better to suffer for doing the right thing than for having done the wrong thing. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that if we are always doing the right thing, we are not going to suffer. People suffer for doing the right thing. Why is suffering so important? One of the great traps of our culture is always wanting things to be fixed and perfect. We fall into the trap of always wanting to be comfortable and in control. Those are just the natural instincts of human beings. Suffering is the experience that breaks the illusion of that kind of system. Everyone who tries to micro-manage or fix everything knows that there is a point where we can have some strong influence on making things better around us, but it’s a very frustrating, unhappy disposition overall. Ultimately, we experience frustration after frustration because we are not in control. We can’t make everything all right around us, especially if we are trying to fix things so that we can be in a comfort zone.

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Wisdom
Fortitude
Knowledge
Fear of the Lord
Understanding
Counsel
Piety

Peter reminds us that if we are to receive the Gifts of the Spirit and open ourselves to the Power dwelling within us, we will be empowered to endure the process that is essential. One of those truths is that we have to suffer. We are thrown up against the very hard truth that things are not always going to be the way we want them to be. We can’t make the world the way we want it to be. We have to submit. To suffer means to submit. The fact that life doesn’t go the way we want it is the most universal experience for those of us who are control freaks.

There are lots of us control freaks out there. We are supposed to give in to those experiences that are not what we wish they would be. That’s one of the dispositions of the Spirit that Christianity seeks to put us in touch with. When Jesus speaks to His disciples in the gospel from John (14:15-21), He asks all of us to be in a disposition of truly entering into the work that Jesus came into the world to accomplish. Jesus suffered a great deal. Through Jesus’ obedience and suffering, He learned to deal with life in the way the Father asked Him to do. Jesus was not so critical, not so judgmental. Jesus was filled with compassion, understanding, and forgiveness for all that was so messed up around Him. Where did Jesus get that? Unless Jesus somehow learned to give in to the way things are, rather than ranting and raving about the way things are supposed to be. Jesus never seemed to fall into that trap. Jesus was a human being just like us, but because He was free of sin, He wasn’t as resistant as we tend to be to the grace of God working through Him. We see in Jesus the perfect representation of the Father. Jesus was a perfect vehicle through which the Father worked out His mysterious plan. That mysterious plan includes embracing things the way they are.

How do we possibly love people? How can we be in this disposition Jesus invites us to be in, if we become too focused on trying to make things a certain way? Instead, if we embrace people for who and what they are, we are able to love. We learn from Jesus of the wonderful invitation to embrace all things.

It’s the Spirit that enables us to embrace all things. The Spirit gives us wonderful balance and focus. Jesus looks at people and wants them to be better. Jesus wants us to choose a way of life that brings life to ourselves and others. Jesus says over and over again that He is asking us to do these things not so that He can sit back and say, “Look what a great ambassador I have been for God the Father because I have had an extraordinarily effective ministry.”That’s a sickness that can creep into all of us who are involved in ministry. Instead, Jesus has come into the world so that He can give people a sense of hope. Jesus wants us to have this sense of hope so that we can be happy. Ultimately, Jesus’ ministry is to come into the world so that we will experience joy: “I have come into the world to show you the way, and I long for your joy to be complete. I long for your joy to be complete just as Mine has been complete, even though My life has been a mess at times. Even though I ended up being so misunderstood that I experienced a painful death.”

Even though all of that happened, Jesus was happy because He knew that what He was doing was the Will of His Father. Jesus took enormous joy in fulfilling His destiny. Jesus found His joy not so much in the way things were going on the outside, but in His deep, deep respect for His own ministry. For His own work. For His own authenticity. For His own submission to a wonderful plan God had given Him. This gives us a wonderful insight into the peace that Jesus always talks about. If there is one phrase Jesus used in His post-resurrection experiences, it was this one: “I want you to be at peace.” Life is hard. Life has a lot of pain and suffering, but it doesn’t have to be filled with anxiety. Life doesn’t have to be filled with experiences that rob it of the joy that is our inheritance.

Our challenge during this season is to embrace and love the message, which is so very hopeful. We all struggle in a Church that hasn’t always directly spoken the message of Jesus to us. Sometimes because of the weakness of all of us who are called to be ministers, we haven’t heard the fullness of the message. We end up living in a way that is more like our culture than the way of Jesus that we are asked to follow. And yet, I have hope that the message is so clear in the Scriptures that we can get past the misconceptions.

Jesus is filled with so much forgiveness and compassion that He doesn’t rant and rave at sinners and tell them that they have to stop or they have to get out. Instead, as sinners we are encouraged to avoid the sin. In order to be happy and full, we are told to avoid the sins that rob us of life. We need to embrace the Spirit that enables us to accomplish this wonderful task of finding the joy at the heart of the ministry Jesus calls us into. And as we embrace the way of Jesus, we will find the wonderful gift of peace

 

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