Monday in the Second Week of Easter
Acts 4:23ff. The first Christian community prays for help to survive the threatened persecution.
John 3:1ff. Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, on being born again.
The Spirit shakes at our roots
When and where the Spirit comes upon a person, with what signs and consequences, cannot be determined ahead of time. “The wind blows where it will…. You do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” In both Hebrew (ruah) and Greek (pneuma) one and the same word means wind and spirit. Nor can a previous reception of the Spirit determine how it will happen the next time. In today’s gospel, as again in Acts 10:44-48, the Spirit descends unexpectedly. In fact, the sudden gift of the Spirit to the unbaptized household of the Roman cohort, “religious and God-fearing,” yet non-Jewish and non-Christian, took even Peter by surprise. Yet immediately Peter exclaimed: “These people have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have! What can stop them from being baptized with water?” Peter is willing to accept the consequences, by immediately baptizing pagan Romans, without first imposing the Jewish law about circumcision. In this he anticipated St. Paul in opening the doors of the Church to gentiles.
The convergence of many circumstances, leading up to the gift of the Holy Spirit, may also take us by surprise. Some of these details will not be holy or spiritual! In their prayer the Christian assembly refers to people who conspired in folly against the Lord and to others who “gathered in this very city against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed.” Jesus speaks with Nicodemu, who attempts to neutralize Jesus’ highly spiritual statements with very earthly ones. Nicodemus hints to the foolishness of this talk! “How can a man be born again once he is old? Can he return to his mother’s womb?” Despite such opposition, whether it be sinful or violent, or bordering on sarcasm, nonetheless, the Holy Spirit suddenly and wondrously manifests God’s presence.
The gift of the Spirit shakes a person’s life to its roots; it induces new birth. It overcomes all opposition, be it military, political or religious. It states positively and unmistakably: you are an entirely new person. You live a new life. Everything about you will look different. Your responses to friends, your hopes for yourself or for your family and community, your ideals, your scale of values, all these vital aspects of life will look different. Your eyes will look out with the wonder of a newly born infant. You will run in all directions like a child and find that everything brings adventure. You will be accompanied with “cures and signs and wonders to be worked in the name of Jesus.”
At the same time, you remain the same person you were before. What the Spirit achieves is not the birth of a new person but a rebirth of one already in being. A person does not reenter his mother’s womb. Rather an interior transformation takes place which activates hidden potential, enlightens what was covered over with darkness (Jesus said, “I am the light!”), and sharpens what had become dull and boring (Jesus said, “I am the salt of the earth!”).
This same sense of continuity is manifest in the quoting of Scripture. To be more at peace with what is happening, the community prays in the words of ancient Scripture. It quotes Psalm 2, originally composed for the coronation of a Davidic king at Jerusalem. The Christians reach as far back as the moment of creation: “Sovereign Lord, who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.” God has been preparing for this moment since the dawn of creation. This eternal reach, from beginning to end of the universe, in time and space, begins to characterize the Christian prayer more and more, as we notice in such passages as Acts 14:15; 17:24; Revelation 10:6; 14:7. This outreach to creation is probably addressing the same mystery as Jesus’ words to Nicodemus that a person must be reborn or re-created.
Once again, continuity does not mean repetition. While we remain the same person, now and into eternity, now and through each rebirth or conversion-experience, still we must be open to surprises. “The wind blows where it will…. You do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” To prepare us for colossal surprises and heroic transitions, the spirit will form within us that special type of “confidence” with which the Acts of the Apostles concludes today’s reading. The Greek word hypomone implies an interior strength, a firm assurance, a sense of holding things together, a calm fearlessness.
First Reading: Acts 4:23-31
After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
Gospel: John 3:1-8
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”