First Reading: Acts 8:5-8,14-17
Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 1-7,16,20
Second Reading: 1 Pet. 3:15-18
Gospel Reading: John 14:15-21
“I will not leave you orphans”
The liturgy of this Sunday (the Sixth Sunday of Easter) which anticipates the Promise of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost Sunday, invites us to discover the discreet, effective, and reassuring presence of God in the Church’s historic journey. Jesus’ promise to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading – “I will not leave you orphans” – can be a good summary of this Sunday’s theme. The word “orphan” is very significant: in the Old Testament, the “orphan” is the prototype of the underprivileged, the helpless, of what is totally at the mercy of the powerful and who is the victim of all injustices. Jesus is clear: his disciples will not be defenceless, because he will be beside them. This promise of Christ in the gospel reflects across the first and second readings. How can we understand this?
To begin with, this Sunday’s Gospel reading continues in the same context in which the Gospel of last Sunday placed us. The decision to kill Jesus was already made by the Jewish authorities and Jesus knows it. Death on the cross was certain. On the night before he surrendered willingly to that death, Jesus had to say goodbye to his disciples by giving them the last recommendations. Jesus’ words sounded like the “final testament”: He knows that he will leave for the Father and that the disciples will continue in the world. Jesus then speaks to them of the path he has travelled (and which he still has to travel, until the completion of his mission – his Ascension to the Father); and invites the disciples to follow the same path of surrendering to God and of radical love for their fellow man. It is by following this “path” that they will form part of the “family of God” (cf. Jn 14,1-12). The disciples, however, were restless and disconcerted. Will it be possible to walk this “path” if Jesus does not walk beside them? How will they maintain communion with Jesus and how will they receive from Him the strength to donate, day by day, their own lives? However, feeling their fear and restlessness, Jesus assures them “I will not leave you orphans”. Inasmuch as He goes to the Father; nevertheless, he will find a way to continue to be present and to accompany his disciples’ journey, step by step through another “Advocate” that the Father would send through him. The word “Advocate” only appears in John, where it is used both to designate the Spirit (cf. Jn 14.26; 15.26; 16.7) and Jesus himself (who in heaven fulfils a mission of intercession – cf. 1 Jn 2,1).
As a fulfilment of his promise, Christ did not leave his followers “orphans” as seen in the first reading but continues to be present in their midst through the Holy Spirit. When the early Church was first struck with persecution (Acts. 8) leading to the dispersal of her members from Jerusalem, they were not left as “orphans”. It can be understood that the persecution (triggered after Stephen’s death) did not affect all members of the community in the same way (because the Apostles were still in Jerusalem), but it was especially directed against the Hellenist-Christians from Stephen’s circle. Nevertheless, the Hebrew-Christians, who maintained faithfulness to the Law and Judaism, were – until further notice – protected from persecution. Therefore, the persecuted Hellenist-Christians did not settle for a useless death; they left Jerusalem and spread to other regions of Palestine. It was a providential fact inspired by the Holy Spirit, allowing the spread of the Gospel to other Palestinian regions.
It was in the light of the foregoing that the first reading tells us about Philip – one of the seven deacons, from the same group of Stephen (cf. Act 6:1-7) – who, leaving Jerusalem, went to announce the Gospel to the inhabitants of central Palestine, the Samaria. Interestingly, Samaria was, for the Jews, a practically pagan land. The Jews despised the Samaritans for being a mixture of Israeli blood with foreigners and considered them heretics in relation to the law of purity of Judaism. The proclamation of the Gospel to the Samaritans shows that the Church has no borders and announces the next step: the evangelization of the pagan world. Apparently, Philip worked wonders through the Holy Spirit in that town leading to great rejoicing; and in verse 12 of this event, we are told that they came to accept Philip’s preaching of the Good News about the kingdom of God and were baptized. As a result, the Apostles had to send their delegates Peter and John, to pray and lay hands on the newly baptized in that town that they might receive the Holy Spirit. In the words of Scott Hahn, “This is the origin of our Sacrament of Confirmation (see Acts 19:5–6), by which the grace of Baptism is completed and believers are sealed with the Spirit promised by the Lord.” The reception of the Holy Spirit by the Samaritans reflects the promise of Christ: “I will not leave you orphans,” but will remain with us forever.
Dear friends in Christ, persecutions, difficulties, sufferings, pains, challenges, etc., continue to happen every day in our world, in the lives of each of us. We feel powerless in the face of war, terrorism and pandemics; we are unable to predict and prevent natural disasters; we suffer because of injustice and oppression; we see the world being built according to the criteria of selfishness and materialism; we cannot avoid sickness and death. We believe in the “Kingdom of God”, but it never seems to come, and we feel discouraged and frustrated towards a future that we do not know where humanity will lead. However, we believers have reasons to hope: Jesus assured us that he would not leave us orphans and that he would always be with us through the animating presence of the Holy Spirit; as such, we should never be tired of bearing witness for Christ in a troubled world, just as Peter encourages us in the second reading. Here, he exhorts believers – faced with the hostility of the world to have confidence in the risen Christ, to give a serene witness to their faith, defending the faith and hope they received, show their love to all men (even to persecutors), and never depart from the “Way of Christ”.
Apparently, the “Way” that Jesus proposes to his disciples (the “Way” of love, service, truth, etc.) seems, in the light of the criteria with which most of the people of our time evaluate these things, a way of failure, which leads neither to wealth, nor to power, nor to social success, nor to material well-being. However, Jesus assured us that in keeping his commandment of love we would find a new, definitive and fulfilled life guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit, our second Advocate.
Today’s message also makes it clear that “God writes straight through crooked lines”: from a bad situation (persecution of believers), the possibility of taking the Good News of liberation to other communities is born. Sometimes God has to use drastic methods to force us out of our comfortable corner and into commitment, as the present COVID-19 pandemic tends to reveal. Often, the apparent dramas of our lives are part of God’s projects. It is necessary to learn to look at the events of life with the eyes of faith and to learn to trust our God who has not left us and will never leave us as orphans. On this ground, today’s Psalmist invites us to cry out with joy to God, singing to the glory of his name, rendering him glorious praise. A God who works tremendous deeds among men, and turns the sea into dry land. Let our joy then be in him; he rules forever by his might.
© Fr. Chinaka Justin Mbaeri, OSJ
Paroquia Nossa Senhora de Fatima, Vila Sabrina, São Paulo, Brazil
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