Receiving the Spirit: 6th Sunday Easter
The Acts of the Apostles gives us a totally fascinating glimpse into the first days of the Church, from the Ascension, to Pentecost, to the incredible missionary travels of St. Paul. This is how we started! It’s interesting for two reasons. One is simple curiosity; it’s like finding a super-old family photo album. But there’s an even more important reason, which is that we want to know that we’re part of the same thing. That historical connection is vital to Christianity, because Christianity is a historical religion. It isn’t just a philosophy or technique. Everything depends on whether Jesus really rose, and whether He really founded One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church, and whether that Church exists today, and whether we’re in it.
The little episode we heard in the first reading related a truly amazing event. Phillip ventured into Samaria, and they converted. I’m sure you’ve heard many sermons about how Jews and Samaritans had this terrible feud, and how irreconcilable they seemed to be. Our Bible Study over the last few weeks has explored the roots of that division six centuries before Christ. If you know the context, this really is a stunning development. Jesus’ work of gathering the tribes of Israel is really happening. Days after the Holy Spirit came upon the Church, Phillip preaches the Gospel in Samaria and they simply convert. Phillip baptizes them.
Then something interesting happens. Word gets back to the Apostles in Jerusalem that Samaria has received the Gospel, and the Sacrament of Baptism, but they haven’t yet received the Holy Spirit. So they send Peter and John... talk about heavyweights!... to lay hands on them and call down the Holy Spirit upon them.
Does this remind you of anything? Think of what’s happening around our Diocese this week, as the Bishop travels around the parishes to lay hands on Baptized Christians and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit on them. Still today, we have a group of baptized Christians who are trying to follow Jesus, and need the help of the Holy Spirit. We have the bishops, who are the successors to the Apostles, who travel to accomplish this. And it happens the same way, by the laying on of hands. In modern Confirmation, the laying on of hands is subtle as the Bishop may simply extend his hands over the group and pray. But it’s the same gesture, the same Sacrament, the same Spirit.
Now in Acts of the Apostles it doesn’t say that Peter and John were Bishops and they went down to do a Confirmation in Samaria. It doesn’t use those words. But if you read the story, you realize that this is exactly what’s happened. The English word “bishop” simply translates the Greek “episcopos” which describes the Apostles and their successors. The English “Confirmation” is the name we have given to this very same event that’s described in Acts Chapter 8.
This matters. What the Church did in the those first days, we still do today. The Sacraments that Jesus himself instituted and entrusted to the Apostles, we still live them today. And the Holy Spirit that accompanied them through amazing evangelization, horrific persecution, and everything in between... that same Holy Spirit is with us right here, right now.
Now remember this if you’re ever tempted to think “we don’t really need Bishops,” or “Belleville should stay out of our business” or whatever. What that’s really saying is that we should stop being the Church of the Bible. The Church of the Bible is organized hierarchically with different levels of centralization, up to and including one man who is the head of the Apostles. I know it sounds drab and uninspiring when you put it that way, but read the Bible and you’ll find that it’s true. Someone will object “but the Church is so much more than that,” and they’re right. Having a hierarchy is far from the most important thing we could say about the Church. But whatever else the Church is, it is organized around the Apostles and their Successors, with Peter as their head. And these leaders, despite their human weakness, teach the faith in Christ’s name and by Christ’s authority. They oversee the Sacraments that Christ instituted, like Confirmation. There’s only one Church on Earth that looks like that.
That’s one of the greatest gifts of reading the Acts of the Apostles, to see how much our daily life as Christians is reflected in the life of the Church from the very beginning. One Church, one Baptism,… and it couldn’t be otherwise, because there is One Lord.
And while we’re listing all the things we have in common with those first days, let’s not forget the most important of all. It’s the Holy Spirit. That’s what’s driving the whole show, then and now. And everyone here who’s been Confirmed, take a minute to remember what a big deal that is. The Spirit that gave Phillip such power in Samaria, that gave the Apostles strength to give their lives, that led the Church through all these centuries teaching the very same Gospel,… that’s the Spirit that was called down on you.
You’ll notice that the Sunday liturgies are now turning full focus on the Holy Spirit as the Church prepares to celebrate Pentecost. We’ve just had Easter, the high point of the year of grace, and now it’s like we’re watching the fallout, the power of the Resurrection cascading out through time and space. The challenge I want to issue you today is to make it personal. We’ve heard, and will continue to hear, about the power of the Spirit at work in the world. What about that power at work in you? Are you bold enough to call on it? That’s a risky move, because suddenly the stakes are personal. But they have to be. Christianity isn’t a passive thing. The Holy Spirit is depicted often as fire, and like fire, it either burns or it dies. The one thing it can never be is passive.