No doubt Sunday's first and second readings were chosen to help us prepare for the soon-to-be-celebrated feast of Pentecost.

Accustomed to a hierarchical authority structure and one approved theological system, we're often amazed at how the sacred authors emphasize the Spirit's work in the everyday activities of Jesus' first followers. We're uncomfortable with such a constantly changing situation.

On the other hand, we probably feel "at home" when we hear Luke narrate how the newly-baptized Samaritans received the Holy Spirit through Peter and John's imposed hands (Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17). Yet, as Richard Dillon explains in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Luke is not trying to convey an "'early Catholic' conception; the Spirit is not controlled by ritual or office."

Spirit at work

At this point in salvation history, the third evangelist is simply trying to show that "the Holy Spirit operates only where there is communion with the apostles, who as 'witnesses of Jesus' resurrection,' certify the risen one's continued activity on earth."

That's why this passage is an exception to Luke's "normal theology" that the Spirit comes with (or even before) Baptism. Without Jesus' dying and rising, there is no Spirit.

The conviction that the risen Jesus is constantly active in the Christian community determines how John narrates some of Jesus' Last Supper words (Jn 14: 15-21). "If you love me," Jesus promises, "and obey the commands I give you, I will ask the Father and He will give you another Paraclete to be with you always: the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, since it neither sees Him nor recognizes Him; but you can recognize Him because He remains with you and will be within you."

Shortly before His death, Jesus assures His followers that they're not going to be alone. They'll carry on His ministry with His Spirit operating within them. Yet, remember what He says about the "world" not being able to recognize the Spirit.

Though His Spirit permeates the universe, only those who obey "Jesus' commands" are able to surface and fall back on the Spirit's help. In other words, only those who attempt to become other dying and rising Christs will perceive the Spirit around and within them.

Listen carefully to the advice in the second reading (1 Peter 3: 15-18) to the newly baptized in his community. "Venerate... Christ in your hearts," he writes. "Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours, be ever ready to reply, but speak gently and respectfully." Jesus is so much a part of them that His dying and rising comes through even in the way they respond to questions about their faith.

Why death?

The author goes on to say that those who imitate Jesus are constantly mirroring His death and resurrection.

"If it should be God's will that you suffer," he adds, "it is better to do so for good deeds than for evil ones. This is why Christ died for sins once for all, the just one for the sake of the unjust: so that He lead you to God."

Now it makes sense why Luke calls on those who witnessed Jesus' death and resurrection to bring the Spirit down on the Samaritans. No theological system or Church office can replace the power that enters our lives when we die and rise with Jesus. The Apostles are witnesses of this phenomenon in Acts; the whole community causes it to happen in John.

Given human nature, some of us will always try to replace the dying-rising heart of early Christian faith with theological systems or Church structures. Such individuals are content to pray for the Spirit to enter their lives only while they're taking school exams.

Those who refuse to die and rise with Jesus constantly keep the Spirit at arm's length. It's the only way they can continue to call themselves Christian without actually imitating Jesus' death and resurrection.