Accustomed to mining the Bible for "proof texts" to defend current Church teachings and practices, it took me a while in my Scripture studies to appreciate the message the sacred authors originally were trying to convey; in contrast to the message we Catholics "found" in their writings.

This is certainly the case with the first reading on Sunday (Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17). We use this text to justify our Catholic custom of reserving the ordinary conferral of the sacrament of Confirmation to bishops, but that's not the point Luke's making in this narrative. Peter and John go down to Samaria not because the Holy Spirit can come only upon those on whom the Apostles lay their hands, but because of Luke's belief that no Christian community can exist without a relationship with someone who has experienced the risen Jesus.

When the Apostles in Acts can't personally visit such communities, they send a representative. For instance, they'll dispatch Barnabas to Antioch in chapter 11, thus assuring an apostolic tie-in with all the churches which Paul, a missionary of the church in Antioch, later establishes.

Unity with others

Listening to the other two readings, it's easy to understand why Luke is so concerned with "apostolic unity." Following Jesus can quickly become a solitary endeavor if one zeroes in only on a few statements in I Peter (3: 15-18) and John's Gospel (Jn 14: 15-21).

"Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts," the author of I Peter writes. "Christ... suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that He might lead you to God." Though these verses mirror orthodox belief, taken out of context, they could easily be used to justify a "Jesus-and-me" type of belief.

The same could be said of the promises which John's Jesus makes in the Gospel. Almost the whole passage can be employed as a proof text to defend an asocial type of Christianity. "I will ask the Father," Jesus assures His followers, "and He will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows Him. But you know Him, because He remains in you....Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him."

To paraphrase Helen Reddy, "It's just you and me, Jesus, against the world."

All of us

Our sacred authors consistently condemn an individualistic, self-centered faith. The earliest Christian writer, Paul, frequently reminds his communities that they're the body of Christ only when they're interacting with one another and that each church is simply a local manifestation of the whole Church. Christianity can never be a faith for rugged, solitary individualists.

History has demonstrated how easy it is to forget that, for John, Jesus' first commandment is to love one another as He's loved us, or how I Peter last week concentrated on the whole community being "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God's own." Luke is insisting that the Apostles in Jerusalem send Peter and John to Samaria to "validate" Philip's ministry.

One need only glance at Acts to realize no one can determine how or when the Spirit breaks into our lives. There's no set ritual, no prearranged time or place, no special person who can control the Spirit's arrival. Yet especially when that Spirit is leading the early Church down new roads -- as happens when Philip dares to convert "heretical" Jews to the faith in Samaria, or when Cypriot and Cyrenean Christians begin to evangelize non-Jews in Antioch -- the whole community, rooted in the based Christian belief that Jesus is alive among us, must come into play.

Those who today limit the "real" Church to the hierarchy might have to reread Luke's Acts of the Apostles.