The first reading on Sunday came from Acts of the Apostles. It was a reading about a very specific set of people at a very particular time.
Now it speaks to us, who are in many ways very different, and live at a very different time.
What did we hear on Sunday? What do we hear today?
Philip went to a Samaritan town and proclaimed the Christ to them. The people united in welcoming the message Philip preached, either because they had heard of the miracles he worked or because they saw them for themselves. There were, for example, unclean spirits that came shrieking out of many who were possessed, and several paralytics and cripples were cured. As a result there was great rejoicing in that town.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, and they went down there, and prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet he had not come down on any of them: they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Philip’s proclamation of Christ, the acceptance of the word of God brings healing. However in this episode from Acts, that is only the start of things. Acts present the gift of the Holy Spirit as also needed for the fuller entry into the life of God, to live as Christ in our daily lives. There is a ‘new Pentecost’ for those perviously ‘outisde’ but who now come to faith in Christ.
The radical new unity between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is a work of Christ, effected in the Spirit. It is not that Samaritans join the Church, and are a part of it. The Church has changed, grown, and has to rediscover her meaning in this new diversity.
The (new) Christian community of Samaria is the Church in its locale, and so cannot be considered independent of the rest of the Church, defined simply by its (as it were, private) relationship with Christ. It needs to live by the Spirit, who binds and unites. The visible sign of the Spirit is given here by the apostles. Their ministry itself symbolising the unity of the Church, as well as the means by which, here, the Spirit is given.
Of course time are when the apostles need to grow and change and then the Spirit can even seem to work independent of them, to ensure the integrity and faithfulness of the Church and promote the integrity and faith of its ministers and institutions.
This, of course, is what we pray for at each Mass, when praying that the Holy Spirit will come upon us as the bread and wine, that together, but in our different ways, we become the Body of Christ.
Photograph (c) Allen Morris of Ivory carving of the Baptism of Jesus in the British Museum