Last Sunday we heard about the Church’s first deacons. They had been appointed to serve the needs of the poor of the community, but two of them, Stephen and Philip, almost immediately began to preach instead! St. Stephen’s fiery words led to his martyrdom, as well as the first sustained persecution of the new Christian community (led by Saul, who after his conversion would become St. Paul – see Chapters 8 & 9 of the Acts of the Apostles).
Yet even this persecution worked to fulfill God’s purposes, because it led to the spread of the Gospel outside of Jerusalem: “All were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles” (Acts 8:1). Philip, as we hear in our 1st reading today, proclaimed Christ to the people of Samaria, many of whom were converted.
The region of Samaria, north of Jerusalem, was once known as the Kingdom of Israel; it had separated from the southern Kingdom of Judah after the death of Solomon in the 10th century before Christ. The northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC; much of the population was deported (the 10 “lost tribes”), while many people from other parts of the Empire were resettled there. Thus began a long period in which Jewish and pagan practices were intermingled in the conquered territory, and hostility between Jerusalem and Samaria became increasingly bitter. Jesus Himself was once refused entry into the region because He was headed to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-53).
It is here, in this place which had long feuded with mainstream Judaism – represented by the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood – that a new period of reconciliation finally begins. Hearing of Philip’s successful ministry, Peter and John come from Jerusalem to rejoice with their new brothers and sisters in Christ; to seal the new relationship, the Holy Spirit is called down upon them, bringing healing and peace after centuries of animosity. (Note that it is necessary for the Apostles to be present before the gift of the Holy Spirit is sent upon the Samaritans, prefiguring the Sacrament of Confirmation conferred by the Bishop, a successor of the Apostles.)
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”
(2 Corinthians 5:18). These words were written by St. Paul, who was once Saul the persecutor before experiencing reconciliation through an encounter with Christ.
Our feuds are not as enduring as the one between Jerusalem and Samaria, nor are they as intense as Saul’s hatred for the Church – so how can we not trust that the Holy Spirit will help us to find reconciliation and healing in our own relationships?