The Acts of the Apostles is planned to trace the expansion of the Church’s mission from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The campaign undertaken by Philip, one of the seven, after the martyrdom of Stephen marks, for Luke, a decisive stage in the execution of this plan (Samaria).
Equally important for Luke is the concern that each successive stage should receive the imprimatur of the original Jerusalem community and its apostles. Hence the curious anomaly that in this story baptism does not convey the gift of the Spirit, as is normally the case in Acts, but has to await the arrival of Peter and John to lay hands on the Samaritan converts.
In later times, especially in Anglican thought during the past century and in revisions of the Book of Common Prayer produced in the 1920’s, this passage was taken as the Magna Carta for the episcopal confirmation of children baptized in infancy.
This exegesis has thus passed into the theology of the average Anglican parish priest without question. Let it be said with all emphasis that such an interpretation has no foundation in this passage, in the rest of the New Testament, or in the early Fathers.
The author of Luke-Acts knows nothing of “confirmation” as a separate rite, distinct from baptism, performed by the apostles or their successors (however justifiable such a development may have been in later times, granted the practice of infant baptism).
Rather, he is concerned with one of his major theological themes—the maintenance of the ties between the expanding mission of the Church and the Mother Church at Jerusalem as the center of salvation history.
Precisely the same selection of verses from Psalm 66 is used on the fourteenth Sunday of the year in series C. The only variation here is the optional substitution of the Easter Alleluia for the refrain.
However, this is an excellent example of the way in which the liturgical use of Scripture is itself an exegetical act.
The psalm originally celebrated some historical deliverance of the nation. It picks up the traditional language of the Exodus: “He turned the sea into dry land; men passed through the river on foot” (stanza 6).
Now, in this season, the mighty acts thus described as an exodus become the resurrection of Christ and our participation in it through baptism.
The baptismal material in the first part of 1 Peter, which runs through 1 Peter 4:12, includes warnings of possible persecution (after 1 Peter 4:12 the tone changes and the persecution becomes actual). The references to persecution in the present passage are contingent in character: “Always be prepared ... when you are abused ... if that should be God’s will.”
The newly baptized, thrilled at their admission to all the privileges of the people of God as detailed in last Sunday’s Second Reading, are here reminded that it will not be smooth sailing all the time. They must know what they are in for.
Indeed, how could it be otherwise, since the Christian life is a following in the footsteps of Christ? That is why the passage ends with a quotation from an early Christian hymn about the death and resurrection of Christ (the hymn continues beyond the present reading through 1 Peter 3:15 to 22).
The words “the righteous for the unrighteous” are thought to have been added to the hymn so as to adapt it to its present position (see 1 Peter 3:14, ibid.16), in which the passion of Christ is treated as an example for the persecuted Christians to imitate.
In this way we see how a hymn receives new applications by being taken up successively into new contexts, namely (1) into a baptism homily; (2) into a letter warning Christians for whom persecution is an impending reality; (3) as used in today’s liturgy, where the whole passage receives yet another interpretation.
We see here the same kind of spiral thought that characterizes the farewell discourse throughout and of which we spoke in our comments on last Sunday’s gospel. The points made are:
1. Love of Christ means obedience to his commandments.
2. The promise of the Paraclete (RSV: “Counselor”) sent by the Father in response to the prayer of the Son.
3. The Spirit, whom the world cannot receive, will dwell in the community.
4. The coming of the Spirit is equivalent to the return of the Son and almost completely fulfills the primitive expectation of the parousia.
5. The world will no longer see the Christ, but the community will (a) see him, (b) live because he lives, (c) know the mutual indwelling of Christ with the Father and of Christ with the community.
6. This indwelling is a relationship of mutual love that includes obedience to Christ’s commandments.
It will again be noted how point 6 brings us full circle to where we were at point 1. Yet, the spiral leads to an enrichment of understanding.
The Christian life is not an external observance of Christ’s commandments but an intense relationship of the community to the three Persons of the Trinity, each with a specific role to play in this relationship.
The Spirit conveys the presence of the Son, who reveals the Father.
But this intense personal relationship is not dissolved into mere emotion; it is concretely and soberly manifested in a life of obedience to Christ’s commandments.
The departure of Jesus does not mean that he is now absent. It means his ever-renewed presence through the coming of the Spirit to the community. That is the Easter message of this Gospel reading.