As we move toward the end of the Easter season, the readings provided us suggest that there is still a good deal to learn about the Christ event that has preoccupied us now for several weeks. There seems to be a sense of urgency.
For example, we hear about the activities of the deacon Philip, who is one of those chosen by the church gathered in Jerusalem to provide some of the leadership needed to keep the highly active church a cohesive unit. Already the church is emulating the example of another deacon, Stephen, who earlier on had suffered martyrdom for preaching the gospel. Nonetheless, Philip strikes out on his own, going to Samaria, which had been suffering strained relationships with the rest of Israel, and he was quite successful in his preaching activity, persuading the church in Jerusalem to send Peter and John there to follow up on what Philip had successfully gotten underway. We get the impression that this embryonic church was gifted with some highly gifted personnel who were making their influence felt.
At the same time we are presented with some timely advice by St. Peter, who is aware early on that, along with the success that the young church was enjoying, there will be some kickback stimulated by this good fortune. He writes to his correspondents to ready themselves for some opposition and defamation by those apparently concerned about the headway the nascent church was enjoying among the people at large. Peter offers some encouragement about “hanging in there”, or, in his words, “it is better to suffer for doing good…than for doing evil.” This is good advice, comparable to what an insurance agent may offer a client complaining about the steep price he or she has to pay to get the insurance coverage needed. But just as the agent will likely admit it is costly, but then proceeds to point out the benefits gained by paying the fee, so Peter observes that Christ also had to suffer payback for the benefit accruing to each of us in his leading us back to God.
But at the heart of any restlessness the young church in Jerusalem may have been suffering was that unique privilege it enjoyed not too many months earlier when it had the actual personal presence of the Lord Jesus in its ranks, to guide and strengthen it in good times and bad. That may now seem to be a thing of the past. But in today’s gospel Jesus assures us: not so. Just love and keep the commandments and Someone Else of significance equal to that of Jesus Himself will be given to accompany the lonesome church. The church will come to see this if it continues to bear love for Christ through keeping the commandments, and this will provide a deep and abiding conviction about the presence of God’s spirit in its life.
So all the contingencies, all the “ifs and buts” hanging over the early church, have been foreseen, and will be addressed. A rich legacy awaits the young church if only it “hangs in there” long enough to experience for itself what is here foreseen and promised. And the same benefits await us, these many centuries later.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist Community in Louisville, Kentucky.