By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:5-8; Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21
In last Sunday’s first reading we were introduced to the earliest form of the diaconate. In the commentary on the reading it was pointed out that Luke, the author of Acts of Apostles, did not give us the full story. He described their function as “serving at table.” In the Greek vocabulary Luke uses, this term is expressed in Greek as diakonia. He gives us the background which led to the establishment of a diaconate — to provide the daily “Meals on Wheels” program for Greek-speaking widows of the Christian Community in Jerusalem. The Aramaic-speaking widows had no complaint. They received their daily allotment of alms. This correctly leads some scholars to assume that a diaconate already existed — but it was slanted toward the Aramaic-speaking majority of Christian widows. Luke omits this part of the story, but especially the part that he could have mentioned — that the function of the new deacons was more than overseeing the distribution of alms. They shared with the apostles the duty of proclaiming the word of God. Deacon Stephen met his martyrdom precisely for engaging in that function.
In this Sunday’s first reading we encounter Deacon Philip. Through him the word of God was spreading northward into Samaria. Luke writes, “All the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip.” His preaching was accompanied by “the signs (miracles) he was doing,” casting out demons, healing paralytics and those with other physical limitations. Result: “There was great joy in that city.” Word about Philip’s success traveled fast, either by foot or “Donkey Express,” and reached the apostles in Jerusalem. The Christian community in Jerusalem overcame their long-held prejudice against Samarians. They sent Peter and his new associate John north to Samaria. The two apostles prayed over the new converts and “laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” Here we see a foundation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. How or why did Peter team up with John? It is probable that the apostolic brothers, James and John, were first cousins of Jesus, who had a special attachment to these two teenagers. After Jesus’ departure (Exodus) the role of guardian fell to Simon Peter. This is evident in the case of John. There also is evidence that John’s brother James was close to Peter and worked with him. Acts 12:1-3 informs us of the arrest and martyrdom of James. King Herod Agrippa I was the murderous perpetrator. His next target: “. . . he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”
The Responsorial Psalm 66 is a hymn of joy and praise of God. It responds or corresponds to the joy the Deacon Philip’s ministry brought to the city of Samaria. The people’s response sum it up, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.” The Psalmist invites all to “come and see the works of God.” There is a sudden flashback to the Book of Exodus, “He changed the sea into dry land; through the river they passed on foot.”
The second reading is the final installment of five readings from the First letter of Peter. The author challenges us, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” The answer to that challenge is called “apologetics,” or how to defend the faith we hold. Here is Peter’s method: Be gentle and reverent in your answers. This excludes harsh refutation with condemnation and ridicule. It’s a legitimate question to ask if we still have sufficient catechesis for children and especially for adults, so that Christian Catholics can defend with conviction what they claim to believe. If we can do this, says Simon Peter, we may put to shame (gain the respect of?) those who defame us.
Just as last Sunday, today’s gospel reading is part of the Last Supper Discourse in the Gospel of John. Last Sunday Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples began with a request for faith in him just as they have faith in God. This Sunday’s initial exhortation is centered on love, proven by deeds, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If they pass the test of love, doing Jesus’ commandments, the Father “will give you another Paraclete (Advocate, lawyer for the defense), to be with you always.” The “Paraclete” is the Holy Spirit, here called “the Spirit of Truth.” In Jewish context of the time, this idea echoes Jewish writings which attribute to Moses pleading before God for his sinful people. Why “another” Paraclete? In the literature originating in what is called the Johannine School, from which we have the Gospel of John and three Letters of John, in 1 John 2:1 we read, “I am writing to you so that you may not sin, but if anyone does sin, we have a Paraclete with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” John therefore teaches us that we have two lawyers for the defense, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. That’s some powerful advocacy! The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, which seems to have some connection to the Gospel of John, describes the role of Jesus as our defense lawyer, “Because he hold his priest-hood permanently. . . , he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them,” Hebrews 7:24-25. “Another” Paraclete is related to a major theme of the Last Supper Discourse — that Jesus is leaving his disciples. However, he will not leave them as orphans, but with a kind of Holy Stepfather. Although in this section of the Discourse, the job description of the Paraclete is not detailed, it is given considerable detail in other parts of the Discourse. Things get a bit confusing. Jesus is leaving, but then again not quite. “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.” John wraps up this part of the Discourse by returning to the theme of his disciples love of him, the proof of which is in the doing of his commandments. His commandments in summary: “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you,” John 15:12.