The first six Chapters of Acts tell the story of the foundation and building up of the Church in Jerusalem. In today's first reading (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) and again in Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 19:1-6, Luke distinguishes between baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus and the reception of the Spirit. In each case, the Spirit is conferred through members of the Twelve (Peter and John) or their representative (Paul). This is most likely Luke's way of describing the role of the church in the bestowal of the Spirit. Elsewhere in Acts, baptism and the Spirit are more closely related (Acts 1:5; 11:16).
What can we learn from this experience? Luke's writings in the Acts of the Apostles make clear that the gift of the Spirit is not a personal privilege. Nor is the proclamation of the Scriptures a mere cerebral process involving theory and intelligence. Rather, it is a process that demands an experiential knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen one. No apparent obstacle - whether physical defect, race or geographical remoteness - can place a person beyond the saving call of the good news. God is actively fulfilling his purposes for the scope of the Church's mission (Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8). The Lord Jesus sets his eyes on potential witnesses and does all he can to form them, empower them and send them out on the roads of the Word.
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts
Today's second reading from the First Letter of Peter 3:15-18 reminds us that by Christ's suffering and death, the righteous one saved the unrighteous (I Peter 3:18); by his resurrection he received new life in the spirit, which he communicates to believers through the baptismal bath that cleanses their consciences from sin. As Noah's family was saved through water, so Christians are saved through the waters of baptism (I Peter 3:19-22). Hence they need not share the fear of sinners; they should rather rejoice in suffering because of their hope in Christ. Their innocence disappoints their accusers (I Peter 3:13-16; cf Matthew 10:28; Romans 8:35-39).
Peter's words to the early Church continue to speak powerfully to us two thousand years later (I Peter 3:15ff): "Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame."
What is the reason for our hope? I wish to recall the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his homily
for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome on June 29, 2009:
Very briefly, I would like to call your attention further to two other affirmations in the First Letter of St Peter which concern us in a special way in our time. There is first of all the sentence, today discovered anew, on the basis of which medieval theologians understood their task, the task of the theologian: "in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you". (3: 15). Christian faith is hope. It paves the way to the future. And it is a hope that possesses reasonableness, a hope whose reason we can and must explain. Faith comes from the eternal Reason that entered our world and showed us the true God. Faith surpasses the capacity of our reason, just as love sees more than mere intelligence. But faith speaks to reason and in the dialectic confrontation can be a match for reason. It does not contradict it but keeps up with it and goes beyond it to introduce us into the greater Reason of God.
As Pastors of our time it is our task to be the first to understand the reason of faith. It is our task not to let it remain merely a tradition but to recognize it as a response to our questions. Faith demands our rational participation, which is deepened and purified in a sharing of love. It is one of our duties as Pastors to penetrate faith with thought, to be able to show the reason for our hope within the debates of our time.
The new advocate among us
In John's Gospel, the sense of loss among the apostles is palpable as Jesus prepares to take leave of them. Peter asks: "Lord where are you going?" (Jn 13:36) and "Lord, why can I not follow you now?" (Jn 13:37). To this poignant longing Jesus responds: "If you love me you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever" (Jn 14:15). Then Jesus identifies the new Advocate (paraclete) as the Spirit of truth, unknown to the world but an abiding presence within the disciples (Jn 14:17). This then is the foundation of our trust in the guidance of the Spirit.
The Greek term “paraclete” has its roots in legal terminology, meaning advocate or defense attorney. It can also mean spokesman, mediator, intercessor, comforter, consoler, although no one of these terms encompasses the meaning in John. The Paraclete in John is a teacher, a witness to Jesus, and a prosecutor of the world, who represents the continued presence on earth of the Jesus who has returned to the Father.
Jesus is the first advocate (paraclete); see 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is an advocate in the sense of intercessor in heaven. The coming of the Paraclete in the Christian community signals the start of a worldwide mission impelling the early Christians beyond their geographic boundaries. If Jesus was Advocate during his earthly presence, the Spirit now is a new Advocate, the presence of Jesus until his return. This Advocate is not a stranger, but is the guarantee of fidelity to Jesus: "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have sent to you" (Jn 14:26). Again he adds that the Advocate will testify on his behalf and enable the disciples also to testify. As background to these passages we recall the uncertainty and fear of the disciples at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. With the coming of the Spirit they are enlightened and emboldened and become witnesses with clarity and courage.
Not trapped in the past
The Advocate will not only be the assurance of faithfulness and the source of bold proclamation but also the guide into a veiled future: "I have still many things to say to you, but you cannot hear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come" (Jn 16:12-13). This assurance of the presence and guidance of the Spirit empowers the disciples to move into the future, to meet new challenges in creative ways. Authentic disciples are faithful to the person and message of Jesus yet they are not trapped in the past. It is the Spirit that enables flexibility, adjustment, adaptation and newness to occur, always within a context of fidelity.
The Church's living memory
The new Advocate is not a kind of a proxy sent to replace the absent Lord: on the contrary, it assures his presence as well as the Father's. They will "come to" the one who remains faithful to Jesus' word, and they will dwell "with" him. Not with the others -- those who do not love the Lord and do not keep his word. The Paraclete dwells in everyone who loves Jesus and keeps the commandments, and so his presence is not limited by time (14:15-17). The Paraclete is just as present in the modern disciples of Jesus as he was in the first generation. No one should think that Jesus has abandoned his Church in our times. Jesus continues to send us God's Spirit of Truth. We are told in the Gospel that the one whom the Father will send will teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us (v. 26). This reminding or calling to memory is beautifully expressed in a new term used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe the work of the Paraclete: "the Holy Spirit is the Church's living memory" (#1099).
The coming of the Paraclete signals the start of a worldwide mission impelling the early Christians beyond their geographic boundaries. As Christians, the person of Jesus Christ is our "starting-point", our hope and our goal. Christ asks the Church to "make disciples of all nations." (Mt 28:19). To guide the work of the Church in its mission, Christ sends the Holy Spirit into our midst. Jesus identifies the new Advocate as the 'Spirit of truth', unknown to the world but an abiding presence within the disciples (Jn 14:17). This then is the foundation of our trust in the guidance of the Spirit. Jesus was Advocate during his earthly presence with the disciples. The Holy Spirit is a new Advocate, the presence of Jesus guiding the Church until His return. This Advocate is not a stranger, but is the guarantee of fidelity to Jesus: The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you (John 14:26).
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
The readings for this Sunday are Acts 8.5-8, 14-17; 1 Peter 3.15-18; John 14.15-21.
Watch Fr. Rosica’s reflections:
Image: The Fresco, The Sermon of St Stephen by Fra Angelico, 1447-49.