May 21, 2017
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
Philip in Samaria
Ps 66:1-7, 16, 20
Shout to God, all the earth
1 Pt 3:15-18
Better to suffer than do evil
Another advocate, the Spirit
As we come closer to the Feast of Pentecost, we hear more about the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, the Spirit comes under the title of “Advocate.” The traditional term, you will recall, was “Paraclete,” which is a rather straightforward transliteration of the Greek word, parakletos. It is a rich concept and can be translated in different ways. In the ancient world, it often shows up in legal contexts, which would be a good reason to translate it “Advocate.” It also can mean “Comforter,” and in the context of John’s Gospel, where we see Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples, and assuring them that they will not be “orphans,” that they will be cared for, the term “Comforter” also seems appropriate.
The word “paraclete” seldom appears in the Bible. It is mentioned once, in the Old Testament, in Job 16:2, where it refers to Job’s visitors, who come to “comfort” him, and in the New Testament, only in this Gospel, in four places (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7—all in Jesus’ farewell), and in the letter of 1 John 2:1. In this case, it refers to Jesus (!), our advocate before the Father. First came the Word, who is now returning to the Father. He will have the Father send another advocate, another paraclete, the Spirit.
This application of the term to Jesus should probably not surprise us. After all, the Gospel passage shows Jesus saying that he will ask the Father, who will send another advocate. Throughout the Gospel, attributes of the Paraclete are also mentioned in regard to Jesus. In her fine little book, “Wisdom’s Friends: Community and Christianity in the Fourth Gospel,” p.87, Sharon H. Ringe mentions the following common themes: They were both sent from God into the world, which did not receive them. Identified with truth, they teach and give testimony, reveal, disclose, proclaim, speaking not of self but of what is heard.
The Gospel refers to the Spirit in the four “Paraclete” passages mentioned above. Similar language concerning Jesus shows up in the primary debates between Jesus and his opponents, in chapters 3, 5 and 7-8 of the Gospel. (More specifically, if you wish to make the comparison, see John 3:16-20; 5:24-43; 7:14-17; 8:12-29.) But John does not continue the language of “Word” beyond the first chapter. Here the familial language of Father and Son prevails.
In addition to the Gospel, the Spirit also appears in the reading from Acts 8. The “deacon” Philip is among those who first extend the good news beyond the city of Jerusalem into the surrounding area. In this case, it is Samaria. Philip proclaimed, healed and baptized many in Samaria. After this, apostles—specifically Peter and John—came from Jerusalem, and there was a Pentecost-like visitation of the Spirit upon them.
There are actually four other “Pentecosts” in Acts, in addition to that in chapter two. In Acts 4:31, the Spirit comes again upon the Jerusalem community, following the bold proclamation of Peter and John before the Council. In Acts 8:17 (today’s account), the community in Samaria receives the Spirit. Again, in 10:44-45, it is the household of Cornelius, in Caesarea, on the coast receiving the Spirit. Later, in 19:6, it happens to the community in more distant Ephesus. The pattern ripples outward, in sync with the outward mission of Acts.
And in each case, there are three elements: Individuals are baptized. At a larger scale, communities receive a Pentecostal experience of the Spirit, in something like a community baptism. Thirdly, apostles link the event with Jerusalem, reporting in, like Peter in Acts 11:1-18. Luke is telling his reader that even as the movement expands, it keeps in contact with the origin, showing the many communities still belong to one church.
For reflection: In what way is the Spirit an “advocate”?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.