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Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 21, 2017

Click here to listen to this homily! (mp4 file)

    As we move closer to the great feast of Pentecost, now just two Sundays away, there is more and more talk in the readings about the Holy Spirit.  And we should welcome that because sometimes the Holy Spirit gets short shrift!

     Today, in the reading from Acts, we got the story of Philip going to Samaria, that hotbed of heretics (or so the Jews considered them) - Samaria where, because the people hadn’t welcomed Jesus, his disciples had wanted to destroy them by raining down fire from heaven. But now it’s all different. Philip preaches there and works wonders, driving out unclean spirits and healing lame and crippled people, and the Samaritans listen to him and believe.  And when word of this reaches ‘headquarters’ in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem community responds by sending two of the apostles Peter and John to Samaria so they can do what only the apostles can do: lay hands on the new believers for an outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

     This laying on of hands for the imparting of the gifts of the Holy Spirit was the practice of the early church and it’s something the Church does to this day. It happened right here in the Cathedral last week when the Archbishop confirmed our young people, and it will happen again next week when our new auxiliary bishop is ordained. Luke, the author of Acts, always connects the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the physical and prayerful laying on of hands by the apostles.  And there was good reason for this. The apostles were the ones who had witnessed the risen Christ, touched him and ate and drank with him, so they were in a unique position to be the channel whereby new believers would be able to touch Christ and receive his life-giving Spirit.

     But it’s worth observing that in today’s reading from John’s gospel, part of the Last Supper discourse, we got quite a different view about how people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says nothing at all about the role of apostles or the laying on of hands in passing on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Instead, he speaks about love and he says that it is love that will bring about the presence of the Holy Spirit. Listen again: “If you love me, he says, “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.”  In John’s gospel love is the key to receiving the Holy Spirit – love, and the keeping of Jesus’ commandments, the greatest of which is love.

     So what are we to make of this?  Are Luke and John at odds?  No. They had different purposes in writing and they were writing at different times for different communities. Luke had his own good reasons for stressing the need for order and organization in the community, and John had his own good reasons for stressing love. But order and love are not in opposition. They just need to be in balance because we need both!

     Why make a point of this?  Well, I think it’s timely. Timely because of this moment in which we find ourselves as a Church -- this Pope Francis moment. For a long time, we have tended to stress Luke’s side of the story: the organizational side of the Church, the hierarchical, carefully ordered side, if you will. Very often, in speaking of the ways the Spirit works in the Church, we have tended to start with the hierarchical structure of the Church, viewing the Church as a pyramid, with the bishops and priests at the top and everyone else at the bottom. Call it “trickle-down theology.” It has elements of truth but it has its limits!

     Pope Francis tends to start at a different place. He starts with the whole Church - lay people, priests, vowed religious, bishops – all of us together, and he awakens us to our call to be missionaries, our call to live and preach the Gospel of Joy. He reminds us that Jesus was speaking to the whole Church when he said “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…. You know [this Spirit] because he remains with you and is in you.”

     So, my friends, the point I’m making is not an academic one. It’s quite practical and has practical implications.  It explains, for instance, why Pope Francis, in preparing for the Synod on the Family a couple of years ago, wanted to hear from the people in the pews. He was eager to hear firsthand the stories, the concerns, the joys and struggles of actual families. So a detailed questionnaire was made available on line and many of you participated.  It’s going to be the same for the next meeting of the Synod which will take up the subject of the youth of the Church. Pope Francis doesn’t presume to know what the needs and challenges of young people are. He knows, of course, that young people differ significantly from continent to continent, from culture to culture, and he knows, too, that the digital world in which we live has changed everything. So before anything else, he’s looking for ways to hear from young people themselves.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?

     Let me return to where I began.  To the Holy Spirit - the one Jesus calls Advocate, Comforter, Teacher, Friend; the Spirit of love whom God is breathing into each of us even now, the Spirit of truth who enlightens the whole body of believers and who wants us to do a lot more than just ‘pray, pay, and obey,’ as they saying goes. What the Spirit really wants is to spark that ‘revolution’ I spoke about at Easter. It’s time!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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