John 17:1-11a, 6th Sunday of Easter
In a sense, the readings for this Sunday anticipate the approaching Feast of Pentecost. The readings alert us to the presence of the Holy Spirit among us and to the signs of that presence.
Is the Spirit of God truly with us? What are the manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit among us?
These questions are of fundamental importance. We need to know that God is truly with us, that he is truly Emmanuel even when it is not Christmas. Otherwise there is no way for a believer to keep moving on, no way for a pilgrim to persist in the arduous journey. We need to know that God accompanies us through the Spirit as there is no one else on which to anchor our ultimate meaning.
What are the signs of the presence of the Spirit? The readings give us at least three of these signs. The first sign can be found in the first reading. There we are told about the preaching of Philip in the city of Samaria. The people of Samaria listened to him. They saw him doing exorcisms and curing the lame or crippled. And then we are told that there was great joy in that city. Other translations say “the joy in Samaria reached fever-pitch”.
One of the signs that God is present, that he dwells among us in the Spirit, is this “experience of joy”. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit scientist, once said that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.
The experience of joy can have several faces. A few evenings ago, I had a meeting with seminary formators in our dining hall in which we were joined by no less than the bishop. We were discussing how the pandemic-induced “new normal” would look like in the seminary setting when the academic year reopens in August. Even when the issue was complex and unprecedented, even when there were variables we could not possibly predict, despite the lack of answers to all the what-ifs, the air was filled with hopeful joy. It was something difficult to describe but too real and palpable to ignore.
That joy must be similar to what St. Paul experienced. His joy was unshakeable even when in prison, stoned, shipwrecked, beaten, or in hunger and thirst (Phil 4:4; 2 Cor 11:24-28). Because it was brought about by the Spirit, that joy stays even when our lives are filled with unfavorable circumstances. For St. Paul, no matter what happens, we can rejoice in the Lord (cf. 2 Cor 6:10). Our lives may change but God remains the same. He is always good, and right, and gracious. His love never fails.
The second sign of the presence of the Spirit of God is found in the second reading. There we are told to be ready to give an account of our faith to anyone who asks, to explain our faith not just convincingly but with “gentleness and reverence”.
I think the word which denotes both “gentleness and reverence” is “kindness”. Aristotle defines it as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself…” but solely for the good of its beneficiary.
Despite all the negativity emanating from the news and from social media these days, we continue to see “kindness” with names and faces. We see food freely given out at check points and in the streets. We see supplies untiringly sent to hospital frontliners. Is the Spirit of God present in these dark and turbulent times? If the amount of kindness is to be an indicator, God must be here, manifesting himself through a hundred thumbs-up and a thousand smiles.
Finally, the Gospel gives us the third sign, which is “love”. The love which is described here is not one of pure emotional sentimentality. Love here is understood in its deepest sense as commitment. Jesus says, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.
The third sign of God’s presence then is the experience of commitment. To commit to something or to someone is oftentimes difficult, sometimes even impossible under certain circumstances. Yet when the Spirit is at work in us, we can make commitments. We can keep our word. We can pursue the good even when it is not easy.
We end our reflection today with a prayer. “Lord, help us to experience joy, kindness, and love, so that we may in turn become instruments of your presence in the world”.
*image from the Internet