The story is told of the Irishman in Belfast who was approached on the street by two threatening individuals, who asked him belligerently whether he was with them or agin’ them, to which he loudly and clearly responded: "I am".
This forcefully ambiguous response may have saved him from some bodily harm-and it may not have. But it clearly is not in the spirit of our biblical readings today, as we approach the solemnity of Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit of Truth.
St. Paul took a step toward clarifying the truth of things when he found himself tossed about between Jewish and Roman tribunals regarding his witness on behalf of Jesus. The Roman governor/procurator, Festus, had Paul loaded on himself by his predecessor, Felix, who had sought some wiggle room to escape the entanglements of a case he did not comprehend, and which indeed frightened him. So when King Agrippa and his sister Bernice arrived for a visit with him in Caesarea, Festus hastened to submit Paul’s case to him, on the score that "I was at a loss how to investigate this controversy" and was eager to refer him back to Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. It was Paul who cut through the murkiness of the situation by appealing in Caesar in Rome. At this juncture, apparently felt that his prospects for witnessing to Jesus’ identity-the truth about Jesus-lay less with the Jews than with the Romans. And this gave Paul, at last, a chance to bear witness to Jesus in the capital of the world. It was a matter of the truth about Jesus-finding a venue where it could emerge unencumbered by the entanglements of Jewish-inspired controversy.
This poor excuse for judicial proceedings stands in stark contrast with the uplifting encounter between the risen Jesus and Peter, at the Sea of Tiberias. There we have the purification ritual of Peter, as Jesus led him through his triple affirmation of love, toward the kind of empowerment Jesus wished to confer on him: Feed my sheep, feed my lambs. Here we are privy to the transfer of power and authority from Jesus to Peter in a clear and humane way, so strikingly different from the dodging of responsibility, the muddling of the situation and the utter confusion enveloping the likes of the Jewish and Roman authorities in Palestine.
It is a question of the truth. How get at the truth about Jesus Christ? On the verge of liturgically celebrating the outpouring of the Spirit of Truth on Pentecost Sunday, we recognize both the problems at hand, and the emergence of a better way. The fiasco described in the Acts reading today is not a quirk of a particular place and time in the past. It is an ever-present reality. We are mindful of it in today’s memorial of Christopher Magallanes, and his fellow-priests and lay friends shot and hung by the Mexican government in the years 1915-1937 for their association with the Cristero uprising against the anti-Catholic policies of the government in the 1920s.
It is not always easy to disentangle the motives at play in the mix of religious and political factors we encounter today, whether on the streets of Belfast, or the countryside of Mexico, or the villages of El Salvador, where Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed. Apparently Rome ponders the "truth" of the situation in his regard, while more at ease with its judgment about the Mexican killings. They do not differ in any marked degree from what Paul faced in the tribunals of Jerusalem and Caesarea, and eventually Rome. They all bear upon the person of Jesus Christ, and persuade us that the better we know Him, the better we can witness to the truth about Him in virtue of the gift of His Spirit in our life.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.