Saturday, May 28, 2011

Structure and Spirit are Not Opposed: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

The Readings for this Sunday’s Mass are here.

Throughout this Easter Season, we follow the growth of the early Church through the Acts of the Apostles.

The key points of development of the life the early Church remain paradigmatic and instructive for the Church today, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).

So we see in this Sunday’s First Reading pivotal point in the Book of Acts and in the growth of the Church, as Philip, one of the first deacons, goes down to Samaria to preach the Gospel to them.

Philip went down to the city of Samaria
and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip
when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.
For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice,
came out of many possessed people,
and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured.
There was great joy in that city.
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem
heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God,
they sent them Peter and John,
who went down and prayed for them,
that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
for it had not yet fallen upon any of them;
they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Then they laid hands on them
and they received the Holy Spirit.

Keep in mind that the Samaritans are the mixed-race descendants of the northern Ten Tribes. 

The New Covenant is clearly not limited to the Jews (descendants of Judah) but also to those of northern Israel, as Jeremiah clearly says:

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jer 31:31)

Therefore, Philip’s ministry to the Samaritans and their positive response is of tremendous importance from a biblical-theological perspective, and for the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to his people.  It also marks a stage in the progress of the Gospel spoken of by our Lord at the beginning of Acts: “You shall be my witnesses (lit. martyrs) in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Interestingly, the Holy Spirit is not given in its fullness apart from the apostolic ministry.  Joseph Fitzmyer and others have noted that, in the Book of Acts, the Spirit is not given except by the Apostles, or in their presence, or by one appointed by them.  St. Luke seems intent on demonstrating the connection between the work of the Spirit and the ministry of the Twelve, who are the “embryonic stem cells” of the Church’s hierarchical structure.

Form and content, structure and Spirit, are not opposed to one another.  In American Christianity there has been a tendency to seek “the Spirit” in unstructured or formless worship experiences apart from those upon whom hands have been laid, investing them with the authority to lead the Body of Christ.  For St. Luke, this division between the work of the Spirit and the ministry of the apostles (or in our case, their successors) would not have been comprehensible.

Needless to say, the Church has traditionally seen in this passage of Acts the paradigm and model of the Sacrament of Confirmation.  There is Scriptural precedent here for a fuller post-baptismal reception of the Holy Spirit, which is the essence of Confirmation.

The Samaritan believers, then, experienced the gift of the “Advocate” and “Spirit of Truth” of whom our LORD speaks in John 14:15-21, the Gospel Reading for this weekend.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“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 always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.
Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
The Gospel reading speaks of the union of the believer with the God the Trinity, which is a mystery that is more to be experienced in prayer than discussed in a blogpost: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”

It is to foster this union, this intimacy of the soul with the Father and the Son in the Spirit, that the visible Church with its structures, sacraments, and ministries exists.  They are all necessary and legitimate, but penultimate, which is what Balthasar meant to convey by insisting “the Petrine is ordered to the Marian,” in other words, the ministry of the hierarchy (Peter, his successors and collaborators) is ordered to mystical union (Mary, who ponders all these things in her heart).  It is a disorder to lose sight of this fact, to forget why these things exist.

Nonetheless, structure and content, form and Spirit are not opposed.  “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”  There are concrete behaviors and objective criteria that give form to love.  Jesus is not advocating some Hippie-ized version of Eastern religion that combines mystical experiences with a dissolute lifestyle.

“Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”

When I was about fifteen, an official representative of one of my denominations’ sister churches in the Netherlands came to address our Synod, and informed us that our Dutch sister church “no longer construed her relationship with God in terms of obedience” but rather in terms of something like “dialogical love.”

I read about it in our denominational magazine, and all I could think of in response was:

“Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”


Ernie said...

Was wondering why Philip didnt lay hands on the Samaritians while he was there and administer the spirit?

Cubby said...

Yes, that sounds like one of those Netherlands churches. I have heard about how liberal the Reformed are getting over there. I think it's typical of Europe.

My Uncle, a minister in said American denomination, once took an assignment from the denomination to observe how the churches in the Netherlands were doing Home Missions, and he found that they did a lot of, like, relief or assistance, with chaplains on duty along with other staff, but there was no evangelism being done.

citizen DAK said...

Ernie, I had the same question until I noticed (in last Sunday's reading of Acts 6) that Philip was a deacon instead of an Apostle.