Brief synopsis of the readings: Yes, we keep reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Here Phillip evangelized the Samaritans. They were open to his word as unclean spirits left the possessed, the paralyzed, and the crippled. When those left in Jerusalem heard this they sent Peter and John who prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit, which they did. John’s Gospel continues last week’s reading where Jesus tells his disciples that if they keep his Commandments they will be granted an Advocate that the world does not know. But their faith in this Advocate will allow them to be accepted by his Father who will them love them (and us).
Last week I spoke about how the Hellenist followers of Jesus felt their widows weren’t being treated well. I think many of us, all these years later, think of the Jews of that time as a self enclosed, insulated group where they all knew each other. Alas, this isn’t true. From their earliest days the Jews were a diverse group with different histories, practices, and beliefs.
Our first reading from Acts begins with Phillip, one of the Twelve that began with Jesus. He travelled to a Samaritan town to preach Christ to them and he was wildly successful. And when I read this, I’m struck with a question: Why did he do this?
The first followers of Jesus were observant Jews like himself. By and large they hailed from small towns around Jerusalem and they were poor and uneducated. We have to give them credit for standing up to (and ultimately standing down) the Pharisees and other leaders. They were small fish in a small pond with bigger fish. I have to imagine Jesus’ first disciples were hoping to become the bigger fish in the same pond.
But something drew Phillip outside his small pond. I’ve spoken about this before, but the word “Samaritan” means different things to different people. When we see this word we think about the “Good Samaritan” but Samaritans of Jesus’ time were hated. Jews didn’t think of them as good, but instead as illegitimate and they were mortified at Jesus making a Samaritan the hero of his parable.
Perhaps the seeds of Phillip’s odd behaviour can be found in the Gospel. One of Jesus’ first lines was a promise to ask the Father to give his followers another Advocate “to be with you for ever.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit.
Last week I spoke of the role of Jesus, and perhaps we can look at today’s reading as a completion of the Holy Trinity. Much as the role of a Redeemer makes us unique among world religions, the concept of another member of a Trinity does the same. The concept of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit formed into our understanding of the Holy Trinity came only after several centuries of debate and discernment. As a matter of fact, even today the Christian sect the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the teaching of the Trinity.
And so how do we understand this Holy Spirit? The Hebrew word “ruah” appears 389 times in the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 1:2 and is often translated as “spirit” or “wind.” As we look at the Holy Spirit many of us hearken back to this. And we all recognize, along with John 3:8 that “the wind blows where it wills.”
And so perhaps with Phillip, the wind blew toward the Samaritans. The wind blew into the courage of Phillip and led him toward Samaria. Let’s not discount this courage. The versus between last week’s reading and Acts and this week’s readings skip over the fact that Stephan (one of those appointed last week to care for the Hellenist widows) was martyred by those who refused to believe in Jesus. Phillip and all the others had every reason to hunker down and protect themselves.
But they didn’t. The wind of the Holy Spirit filled the sails of Phillip and the other apostles and gave them the courage to look beyond the body of Stephan and keep moving. They were small fish, pushed to the edges by larger fish, in a small pond. And they decided to move into a larger pond, into an ocean. They began the process of going out to the entire world, and we benefit from this.
I know I do. This past Christmas I spit into a tube and sent it away to see where I came from. In addition to being 1.2% Neanderthal (which explains a great deal) I learned that thousands of years ago my ancestors lived in what is now Northwestern France and Southern Scandinavia. At the time of Jesus my ancestors worshipped pagan gods and knew nothing of God. Had it not been for Phillip (and the Holy Spirit) I could well be worshipping the Roman God Jupiter and or the Norse God Thor. Personally I’m glad I instead worship the God of Jesus. The Holy Spirit’s decision to blow beyond the confines of the Middle East has grown us into the global religion we all recognize.
And decisions like Phillip, inspired by the Holy Spirit, continue to our day. When I was a priest I belonged to an order called the Paulist Fathers; we devoted ourselves to evangelization, and as part of our mission we ran a Catholic publishing house, Paulist Press, that continues to this day. One of the priests who worked for this publishing house was a priest I got to know in the 1990s, Fr. Alvin Illig. In the 1950s and 1960s we saw a virtual explosion in the expansion of Catholic churches, and also Catholic schools.
And while many publishers recognized that these new Catholic schools would need a library and ramped up the number of children’s books they published, Fr. Alvin saw something much bigger. He recognized that many of these new Catholic schools lacked a librarian who knew what books to order. He essentially marketed a “Catholic school library” that any parish could order. Much like Phillip, Fr. Alvin looked beyond the small pond to the great ocean that lay before him.
True enough, he was a moderate fish in a small pond, but he looked beyond his size relative to the pond. Instead of wishing to grow himself into a big fish, he dreamed of growing this small pond into a gigantic ocean. And he did. Paulist Press grew exponentially from this and countless schoolchildren had access to the library books they needed.
For Phillip, for countless evangelists throughout our history, and for Fr. Alvin, The Holy Spirit we find in John’s Gospel continues to this day. The Spirit lived in Phillip’s view of Samaritans as possible disciples. The Spirit lived in unnamed evangelists who reached my distant ancestors in Europe and Scandinavia. And the Spirit lived in Fr. Alvin’s recognition that Catholic school students in the last 60 years needed access to school libraries. Bravo all!