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Door of the baptistry,
Basilica of San Giovanni, Florence.
Click here for more about the art.
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Scripture readings,
Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 7.


It seems an unlikely destination, but ...

Today’s reading from Acts tells us the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem sent their first missionary to Samaria. That’s an odd detail, but a scripture-writer’s intentions can be revealed by the surprises.

But wait, how does a modern leader benefit from knowing the intentions of a very old evangelist? Well, the ancient writer was closer to the Source, and the writer’s community, provoked by Jesus, forged its new identity by declaring its differences from the cultural, economic and religious regime they would otherwise have passively inherited. If today we would do better than just passively inherit, we can get guidance from the people who first let the Christ provoke them to grow and change. The first generation made the changes and the second generation wrote about it all and the third generation looked back and said, “Wow, that was inspired.”

If we would lead in an inspired way, we can ask, “How are the challenges confronting us analogous to the early Christians’ challenges? How did they let the Spirit guide them? Are we called to similar conversions?” The same Spirit is guiding us in our transformations, so the patterns will be similar. So we’ll look at the change implied in the mission to Samaria, and to criteria for being confident that we are, indeed, heeding the Spirit.

(Don’t tell this to everyone, but this is a very conservative endeavor. Some of today’s conservatives want to conserve things that go back only 50 to 500 years. We’re more ambitious than that.)

Back to the Samaritans. Christian scripture assumes its first readers knew enough about the rocky relationship between Judeans and Samaritans, so there are few details in our Bible. Historical study shows there were doctrinal differences between the parties: Jews and Samaritans shared large swaths of religious history, scripture and moral teaching. Both believed in Moses and both honored the same 95% of the Pentateuch, which both credited Moses with writing. But while Jewish followers of Moses revered the priesthoods that went back to Aaron and to Levi, Samaritans saw Eli as the first in their priesthood. Jews worshipped on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, but Samaritans said their biblical texts directed them to offer sacrifices on Mount Gerizim. Really? Is that all there is to this fight? Is that grounds for the obvious antipathy between the tribes?

Our sources are silent on that. I wonder: Were there other causes of the rancor? Did the questions about priesthood and temple placement get exaggerated because the deeper reasons were unspeakable? It wouldn’t be the last time. It can challenge us to be as honest as possible about the reasons for most passionate positions, and our worn-out feuds.

Now back to the mission to the Samaritans. Here are some possible reasons for it. You can rank them in the order of how each is worthy or our imitation:

  1. Did they do this in honor of and imitation of Jesus? He made a Samaritan character the hero of a famous parable, found faith in a cured Samaritan leper but not in Jews cured at the same time, and broke numerous taboos in a conversation with a Samaritan woman?
  2. Is the early Christian church taunting mainline Jews, saying, in effect, “You could never make peace with the Samaritans but we can.”?
  3. Were the missionaries from the Hellenist Christian group (see last week’s scripture-for-leaders essay; Philip was a Hellenist.), because they were always less bothered by the Samaritan heresy than the Hebrew Christian group?
  4. Were the missionaries of the Hebrew persuasion and, in Christ-driven, high-minded generosity, out to heal a very old rift with a bold, new appeal?
  5. Does Luke just mean to show us that Christianity was bound to bridge numerous old enmities that had long seemed irreconcilable? The Samaritans are not Gentiles in the sense that Greeks and Romans are, but the Samaritan mission is a good start. This is consistent with the to-the-ends-of-the-earth motif from Acts 1:8.
  6. It could mean that, in Christ, some old doctrinal disputes ought to be left to fade away.


Do we have the Spirit of Truth? How do we know?

The late scholar John J. Pilch, commenting on today’s gospel from John, reminds us that our scriptures come from a culture where people didn’t trust each other readily. In that world, one always suspected others of lying to get ahead, of dissembling to increase their prestige. You could trust your immediate family, for the most part, but no one else.

There were ways to raise your credibility, though; one way was to invoke God as your witness. That’s behind how John portrays Jesus bidding farewell to his disciples. He promises them another Advocate, the Spirit of truth. The world, hostile as it is to the followers of Jesus, will not recognize the Spirit. But those who do will live and not be overcome by that world (their fear). Further, John describes Jesus as asking all his diverse disciples to treat each other as family members, to whom you speak the truth and from whom you expect truth.

Our institutional truth-concealment problems are well known, as are our political lying problems. If we ever had a chance of earning trust by saying “God is our witness,” that’s over. But there’s still a way to give Spirit-driven witness to the truth. Roger Karban, friend and mentor of many of us, citing his teacher Carroll Stuhlmueller, says,

The Spirit always demands we leave where we're comfortably ensconced and move to a place where we'd rather not be, a place which makes new demands on us. The Spirit never tells us, “Stay right here! Don't move a muscle!”

According to our sacred authors, only when we're disturbed about what God expects us to do can we be certain the risen Jesus' Spirit is actually at work in our lives.”


Introduction to this Message Series

I'm Greg Warnusz, of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, since 2005; author of Lector's Notes at since 1999; and web steward for FOSIL since about 2010.

This, the 9th message in a weekly series, aims to help you apply the Bible readings you'll hear in church (or would hear if your church weren't locked down) to the life of the parish (or other Christian community) that you hold dear.

These are not devotionals (which are everywhere). I'm offering what I learned in the seminary, this intellectually honest way to read the Bible:
  1. Learn what the writer of the Bible passage was trying to help his or her ancient community cope with (my specialty).
  2. Ask how your own community today is dealing with something like that (your specialty).
  3. Suggest the connections, craft a biblical approach to your community's mission.
  4. Remember Bible passages were composed for whole communities, not just for individuals.
  5. Then the rest is up to you (readers / listeners), your communities, and the Holy Spirit.
Step 1), above, is the hardest. I offer this because I'm grateful for the seminary education I received and the continuing education I enjoy. Step 2) is my passion because my beloved parish community faces serious demographic challenges and will soon face ecclesiastical ones.

This is a new endeavor, likely to improve with age. Next week's may be shorter. It takes 3 years for Catholic and most Protestant churches to complete their Sunday surveys of the whole bible. Stick with me. Thank you.

Picture credit: Smithsonian magazine in 2007 wrote of these doors: Michelangelo likened the gilded bronze doors of Florence's Baptistery of San Giovanni to the "Gates of Paradise." The phrase stuck, for reasons that anyone who has seen them will understand. Combining a goldsmith's delicacy with a foundryman's bravura, sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti condensed the Old Testament into ten panels to produce one of the defining masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance."
Read more about the baptistry and the many artists who contributed, at
Today's 2nd reading, from 1 Peter, is part of a very old baptismal catechesis.
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