(See the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1)
“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid,” Jesus says to his disciples and to us. The context in which he speaks is his departure. He will return to the Father when he is “lifted up” from the earth. Only after his death and resurrection will he ascend to the Father.
Jesus knows that his return to the father is not simply like someone leaving friend or family to go on a trip. He will undergo his passion and death in the return to the Father. His disciples will naturally be shaken, disturbed, filled with fear and sorrow. So he speaks these words before hand to prepare them for his departure.
These are not merely words of comfort or consolation, they are words that inspire confidence and faith. And so Jesus continues: “You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.”
Jesus’ return to the Father will happen in victory. He will be victorious over sin and death. His faithfulness to the Father, on our behalf, will be rewarded with life — life for Christ, life for us.
When we think of a loved one’s departure from us the thought of absence leaves us with sorrow. “I’ll miss you,” we often hear when a child goes off to college or a young family has to move for work. While there may be similarities in the feelings, Jesus’ departure entails something more. He will never be entirely gone. While the disciples may not “see” him, he promises an abiding presence among them, among us. Today he speaks of this presence as he promises the “Paraclete.”
“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate [Paraclete], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Jesus abides with his Church through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Earlier in his discourse, he says: “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” (John 14:18-20). Jesus is always with us through the Spirit and his presence brings us peace.
Throughout the Easter Season we have been hearing readings from the Acts of the Apostles both on Sundays and weekdays in the liturgy. You may recall that very early in the Acts of the Apostles the gift of the Spirit is given at Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead. The presence of the Spirit in the life of the Church is manifest in the lives of the apostles and disciples.
They are filled with courage and peace. They go forth proclaiming the Gospel and inviting others to share in the life that Christ won for us and to have faith. Right from the beginning the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church impels them forward — caring for the sick, gathering them in prayer and leading them deeper and deeper into the mystery of divine love.
Sunday’s passage from Acts gives another insight into the Spirit’s presence and is very much related to Jesus’ words in the Gospel. In the Gospel passage he tells us that the Spirit will “teach” us everything and “remind” us of all that Jesus told us. This particular role of the Spirit in the life of the church is manifest in the discussions and deliberations of the apostles in Jerusalem as they consider the “Gentile” situation.
As the Gospel is embraced by many Gentiles a question arises as to the relationship between the Mosaic law and Christian life. It is good to recall that at this point in the growth of the church the distinction between Jew and Christian is not all that clear. Most of the early Christians were Jews. The relationship between the covenant with Moses represented by the law and the new covenant or “new law” instituted by Christ will have to be clarified.
This comes to the fore in a very practical way with the Gentile population. Simplifying the question, one might phrase it this way: “Do Gentiles have to be circumcised and follow the food laws to be a Christian?” The question is a serious one. So serious that “there arose no little dissension and debate” regarding it.
To answer it Paul and Barnabas are sent from Antioch, where the question first arises, to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles and elders. Here they, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, consider the question. In the reply to the faithful at Antioch the answer comes: “‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’”
Notice that the Apostles say that the answer to the question is “a decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.” The Spirit is clearly present albeit unseen and directs the movement of the discussions. Jesus abides with his church through the Spirit and continues to teach us his Way.
We see that presence continue in the life of the Church. Questions arise as to living the Gospel in different times and centuries, different cultures and locations. The Spirit continues to be present. When questions arise the Church invokes the Holy Spirit and through the successors to the apostles, our bishops, deliberates the questions. Through the discussions and deliberations the truth and teaching of Christ becomes more pronounced and clarified, which helps draw the faithful into a deeper experience of life.
Pentecost is two weeks away. We continue to celebrate the resurrection and the life Christ won for us. We also pray for that continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit — that the church and her faithful may experience the peace of Christ’s abiding presence, may find relief from fears and anxieties, and may be taught the Way that leads to life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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