First reading: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 66
Second reading: 1 Peter 3:15-18
Gospel: John 14:15-21
Link to readings.
In these final weeks of Eastertide the thought of the liturgy turns increasingly to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. This is foreshadowed today both in the First Reading, which tells of a ‘mini-Pentecost’ occurring in Samaria, and in the Gospel, where Jesus speaks of ‘another Paraclete’ which the disciples are to receive.
Central to the vision of the Acts of the Apostles is a sense of the Gospel as fanning out from Jerusalem, to all Judea, Samaria and (at the hands especially of Paul) to ‘the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). Today’s First Reading, Acts 8:5-8, 14-17, describes both the evangelizing activity of Philip (not the apostle Philip but one of the Seven elected to assist the Apostles, as told last week [Acts 6:1-7]), and the follow-up activity on the part of the leading Apostles Peter and John. The Samaritans had received the Word and been baptized ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’. But it was only when the Apostles laid hands on them that they received the Holy Spirit. This rather curious ‘separation’ between baptism and the coming of the Spirit in a way foreshadows the sacrament of Confirmation. However, the ‘separation’ should not be pressed too rigidly. Fundamentally, Christian Baptism does impart the Spirit. The narrative of Acts at this point probably has in mind a more experiential (‘Pentecostal’!) awareness of the gift.
The Gospel, John 14:15-21, presents a further extract from Jesus’ long discourse at the Last Supper. As we noted last week, the discourse oscillates back and forth between two understandings of Jesus’ ‘going away’ and ‘return’. On the more immediate level there is the ‘going away’ of his death and the ‘return’ of his appearances as risen Lord on the third day. At another level, the discourse addresses his more permanent ‘going away’ and absence from the disciples following his final return to the Father. The return ‘on that day’ of which he speaks would then be his return on the last day at the end of time.
But here there is more to say. The Fourth Gospel plays down the traditional expectation of Jesus’ coming at the last day in the direction of emphasizing his abiding presence in the community. This lies behind the statement: ‘In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live’. In contrast to ‘the world’ (unbelievers), for whom Jesus after his death will cease to exist, believers will ‘see’ him and ‘also will live’ in the sense of here and now experiencing his presence in the community and sharing his risen life.
Thus the passage continues to address directly the situation of the disciples in the period when his appearances as risen Lord have ceased, the situation of the Church that prevails to this day. Naturally, the disciples will feel the loss of his comforting physical presence. But if they grasp the sense in which he will continue to be present, they should not feel ‘orphaned’.
In this connection Jesus speaks of ‘another Paraclete’ that he will ask the Father to give. (The implication is that Jesus himself has been a ‘Paraclete’ for the disciples during his earthly life.) The essential idea behind ‘Paraclete’ is that of someone who stands beside you in time of difficulty, providing a comforting, supportive and encouraging presence. One thinks perhaps of a highly respected person whom you might ask to go to court with you and act as character witness. Such is the idea that the Gospel applies here (and in several other places) to the Spirit. Though Jesus may no longer be physically present, the comfort and assurance his presence gave the disciples during his lifetime will continue in the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the face of constant trial and rejection from the world, the Paraclete will be for the disciples ‘the Spirit of Truth’ in the sense of imparting to them a conviction that what they believe and hold on to is indeed reality in the most profound sense. We come close here to the fine statement in the Second Reading, 1 Peter 3:15-18: ‘Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that is within you’.
Finally, we should note the way in which the Gospel begins and ends with the sense that believers ‘have entered into the same reciprocity of love that unites the Father and the Son’ (C. K. Barrett). Though the language may suggest it to be the case, the Gospel does not mean that God’s love is conditional upon human observance of the commandments. The essential commandment is that of love. What the Gospel is saying is that when the community is indeed one where love prevails, the atmosphere of love that it experiences is nothing other than a sharing in the communion of love that is the Godhead.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media.