Weekdays of Eastertide
The Bible readings for Mass, following the Irish Liturgical Calendar. Texts from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) are marked by consistently inclusive language. Homily notes, from a wide variety of sources, have already appeared in the ACP website, in the section edited by Fr. Patrick Rogers, Dublin, Ireland.
Peter announces the dawning of a new age, with the resurrection of Jesus
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
"You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know, this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.
For David says concerning him, "I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life;you will make me full of gladness with your presence."
"Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, "He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption."
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.
While the disciples worship, the priests bribe the guards to deny that Jesus has risen
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, "You must say, "His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep." If this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Our New Testament writers attempt in varied ways to describe the miracle and mystery of our Lord's dying and rising. As Peter's sermon at Pentecost was addressed to Jews from different countries but all sharing a Jewish identity, he sets Jesus within the framework of Jewish history. Just as the living God guided the people's national history, so He directed the life, death and resurrection of his chosen Messiah. The act of divine power that raised Jesus from the dead was already predicted in an inspired psalm of king David, a thousand years before. In Peter's view, David's prediction of victory over death applied directly to Jesus, to whose resurrection "all of us are witnesses." In this sermon, therefore, God was being true to his biblical word, in raising Jesus from the dead.
Where, we may wonder, did Saint Matthew get his story, reported by none of the other Gospels, about the guards at the tomb, who were bribed to claim that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body? Probably from the fact that some such claim was being made, in his vicinity, by enemies of the Christian movement. Knowing that such a slanderous claim was in the air, Matthew may even have invented the bribery story as a suitable rejoinder. At any rate his unusual account draws attention to the varied ways whereby the Evangelists and the author of the Acts sought to express to the inexpressible, the mystery of One who had passed beyond death, and was still a vital presence among his faithful followers.
The mood of Easter is very well captured in today's gospel, "Filled with awe and great joy the women came quickly away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples." Easter is a feast that fills us with wonder and joy because it tells us that God's love is stronger than human sin, and the life God gives is more powerful than the death humans often inflict on each other. Easter also tells us that we do not walk through life alone. As the risen Lord says to the women in today's gospel, "Go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there." As the risen Lord went ahead of his disciples to Galilee, so he goes ahead of us to all the places that we journey to and find ourselves in.
There will always be people who will try to deny Easter and all that it means. That was so from the very first Easter Sunday, as is clear from today's gospel. The chief priests and the elders put out a story, to the effect that the disciples of Jesus stole his body while the guards were asleep. You will find modern versions of that anti-Easter story in our newspapers today at times. There will always be those who want to deny what God has done and put something trite in its place. This Easter week, however, we rejoice what God has done, the story of Easter, of life's triumph over death, of love's triumph over evil.
Peter calls those who crucified Jesus to repent and be saved
[In his Pentecost sermon, Peter said to the crowd],
"Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus, but fails to recognise him at first
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord;" and she told them that he had said these things to her.
A fascinating side of the Easter stories is how they convey a sense of gradual recognition of the risen Jesus, by his closest friends and followers. John's vivid portrayal of Mary Magdalene challenging the gardener to hand back the body of Jesus conveys some sense of their stupor and confusion. At first, all they hoped for was to be able to show honour to his mortal remains. But when he calls Mary by her name (Miriam, its Hebrew form), she makes the joyful leap of recognition: that he is truly there, alive! An interesting point is their eagerness to tell each other about him, to share their religious experience. "Go and tell" is a recurring theme in these Easter episodes. Magdalene will tell the rest of the group, not just that he is alive, but that he is going back to the Father, his Father and theirs, with whom he enjoys a more intimate union than can any other human being. The uniquely special relationship conveyed by the phrase "my Father and your Father" is what the Magdalene recognises and passes on.
Then we have Peter, the church's principal public witness, trying to help his Jewish people to recognise Jesus as their Messiah and saviour, even those who had called for his death and supported his crucifixion. The kind of Messiah that they had come to know was one intent on calling everyone to salvation, with all their sins forgiven. All they need do, in order to draw close to God, is turn to Jesus with faith, express this conversion through baptism, and receive an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And we ourselves, in this Easter week, can come to recognise anew the various ways that Jesus is still living among us, not only in the holy eucharist and in the Gospel we read, but also in our fellow-Christians, in the blessings of this world, and in whatever is best in our own selves.
There is mention of sadness in today's gospel, when Mary Magdalene stood outside the tomb weeping. The angels asked her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Then Jesus also asked her the reason for her tears. She grieves because she cannot find the Lord. We too may grieve when we lose someone who is significant for us, or when we cannot seem to connect with someone important to us, no matter how hard we try. We search and we cannot find, and, so, we grieve. In the case of Mary, she searched and she found, or, rather, the Lord for whom she was searching found her, and he called out to her by her name, "Mary."
We may not always succeed in finding our loved ones for whom we search, but we will always find the Lord if we search for him, because he is always searching for us. He is the good shepherd who calls his own by name. The Lord is calling our name, even before we begin to search for him. Our finding the Lord is always in response to the Lord's search for us. He came to seek and to save the lost, and we are all lost to some degree. The Lord seeks us out in his love. All we need to do is to put ourselves in the way of his searching love, as Mary Magdalene did. She has something to teach us about seeking the Lord in our pain and loss.
Calling on Jesus' name, Peter cures the lame man at the temple gate
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o"clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, "Look at us." And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." Then he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
The walkers to Emmaus gain a new understanding of Christ's passion
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was C leopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The Emmaus story is a living paradigm for Christian discipleship. It strongly suggests that if we travel life's journey with others, sharing our faith and our doubts with them, Christ will be with us, opening our minds to the truth. Just as he gave them deeper insight, so he does for all who listen to him. His promise remains, "I am with you, always!" In those early years they also had many proofs of his powerful presence, as Acts illustrates by various miracle stories. Today's is told with great satisfaction, dramatising Peter's healing powers when he called on Jesus' name. Not only is the crippled man cured, he jumps up, begins to walk about, and then enters the temple with them, "leaping and praising God." The people's awe and amazement gives Peter a chance to explain the source of his healing gift: he has it from the risen Christ, now more even powerfully effective than he was during his mortal life.
In truth, we are all on an Emmaus journey, a camino or pilgrimage of faith. We may be perplexed by events in our own lives, disappointments, loss of a job, failure, collapse of a relationship, shattered dreams, betrayal by friends. We are certainly very, very deeply disturbed by things that are happening in our own Church. We are deeply disturbed by the lack of peace in our world, the injustices of society, worries about the future. Everything, indeed, may seem very, very dark. And we may feel as helpless and as hopeless as those two disciples did.
If so, we need community. We cannot fight depression alone. We cannot make sense of things alone. We need to lean on one another for support. We need to search the Scriptures together to see what answers they may have for us. And then we can go out and spread this good news.
We tend to walk away from situations and places that have painful associations for us. Sometimes that can be the right thing to do, but perhaps not always. The gospel shows two disciples walking away from Jerusalem, because the city now had very negative associations for them. It was just outside the city that the one they had been following, to whom they had given their lives, was crucified. Jerusalem was the city that killed not only Jesus but also all the hopes they had invested in him. They wanted out of it as quickly as possible. Yet, they should really have stayed put, for the Lord wanted them to remain on in that city.
Although they didn't realize it at the time, not along was Jerusalem the city where Jesus was put to death; it was also the city where he was raised from the dead and it would be the city where the risen Lord would pour out his Holy Spirit upon the disciples, the city from which his message would begin to be spread to the world. The Lord journeyed with these two disciples to help them to see that there was more to the city of Jerusalem than they realized. It is often the case in our own lives that the places we try to get away from, when we see them as dreary and dark are the very places where the seeds of new life are to be found, and where God is mysteriously but powerfully at work in the darkness.
Peter describes Jesus as holy and righteous, the One who is victorious over death
While the cured man clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's Portico, utterly astonished. When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
"And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Moses said, "The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people." And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, "And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed." When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways."
The risen Christ sits at table with his friends, and outlines their future missionary calling
The disciples told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Peter shares his conviction that Jesus embodies and fulfils all that the Jews had hoped, over many centuries. According to him, "All the prophets have announced the events of these days." This echoes what Jesus himself said on the evening of Easter day, "Everything written about me in Moses and the prophets had to be fulfilled." The underlying belief is that God's plans and predictions are thoroughly enmeshed in human existence, and are being carried out, across the long sweep of history. Generations of people have found their hopes sustained, their trials overcome, their laws and habits purified, under the influence of God's prompting Spirit. We in turn ought to become witnesses to this, to our generation.
In a spirit of reconciliation, Peter maintains that the people acted "out of ignorance." It is perhaps easier for us to admit that our lives are guided by divine providence than to accept that this providence-led journey of ours can sometimes include such awkward features as ignorance and malice. But if we are to be sincere, our past ignorance and that of our church has to be admitted and dealt with, not ignored. In our church's recent past, how much harm was caused by misguided attempts to cover up wrongdoing, rather than dealing with it. Thankfully, having leaned from bitter experience, under the leadership of Pope Francis our church has adopted more effective practices for protecting the weak from abuse, no matter what. As St. Peter says, God will not condemn us for what we never intended to do. He asks us to be peaceful in the face of many events that are outside of our control. The Scriptures tell us that the redemption of the world by Jesus was achieved in spite of the ignorant and impulsive actions of those who rejected him. God can indeed write straight, even with crooked lines!
Luke's account in today's gospel shows the great difficulty the disciples had believing that it was the same Jesus they had come to know and love who was now standing before them. They thought they were seeing a ghost and their joy was so great that they could not believe it, and they stood dumbfounded. Clearly it took the disciples a while to take in the good news of Easter. They had been so scared by the crucifixion a few days earlier that they struggled to believe that Jesus was alive with a powerful new life. It was too much for them.
Even today we struggle to take in the good news of Easter, to really believe it. We find it easier to identify with the death of Jesus than with his resurrection. We can easily connect with his suffering because of the suffering in our own lives. Like the disciples we stand before the good news of Easter dumbfounded, struggling to believe. Perhaps that is why we need the seven weeks of the Easter season to take it all in. We need time to recognize that the risen Lord is indeed standing among us, saying to us what he said to his disciples in the gospel, "Peace be with you." He offers us that peace of mind and heart which is the fruit of his love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. As we allow ourselves to receive this gift of his reconciling love he sends us out as agents of reconciliation, as his peacemakers, just as he sent out the disciples in the gospel.
Peter's belief that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone." There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
Through the miraculous catch of fish the risen Christ is recognised
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
The apostles went back to where they started, to Galilee, where they continued their work as fishermen. But their lives had been transformed by their contact with Jesus, and when they met him by the lake-shore, they recognised him, hauled in the net at his advice, and heard his guidance for their future, building on the past. Many traits of a person's earlier life contribute now to his or her apostolate. These apostles must now go out as fishers of men. Peter's special trait as an impulsive, generous leader, is now taken up by Jesus, to make him shepherd of the whole church. He may have denied our Lord in the panic of the Passion, but his heart is loyal, and his personal experience of weakness makes him all the more suited to lead a church of sinners, on the way towards sainthood. Aspects of our own past too which we may tend to dismiss as trivial, can be turned by God into pillars of our future career.
In the same way, just as the disciples returned to their native place (Galilee) and to their old trade (fishing), we ourselves should not forget our own ancestry and heritage. We need not be ashamed of our past, nor feel crippled by any part of it. If we discover the grace of God in our own lives, we can pass on the reassuring message to others, that "the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone." And as St. Paul puts it "for those who love God, all things work together unto good!" (Rom 8:28)
The disciples returned to their occupation as fishermen, as reported in today's Gospel. Some years earlier Jesus had called them away from this profession, inviting them to follow him and to share in his work of drawing people into God's kingdom. However, now that Jesus had been crucified, there was nothing to do but go back to what they knew best. Seeing no way forward they would return to their past. But like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus they were heading in the wrong direction. Instead of heading back to where they had been before, they were redirected. The risen Lord now stood on the shore of the Lake of Galilee to renew the call he had made to them by the lakeshore some years earlier.
First he established communion with them, the communion they had broken by abandoning him in the hour of his passion and death. He did so by the simple invitation, "Come and have breakfast." We are often tempted to go back to where we have been, even if it is only in our memories. Yet, the Lord is always calling us forward. Even when we have failed him in various ways, he continues to call us to begin afresh, and to cast our net in a different direction. Our relationship with the Lord always has a future that is full of hope. Easter is a season when we are invited to recognize the Lord on the shore of our lives calling out to us to follow where he is leading us.
Risking their lives, Peter and John tell about what they have seen and heard
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, "What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name." So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard." After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened.
Mark's summary version of some well-known resurrection encounters told in other Gospels
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.
The Sanhedrin, Judaism's supreme ruling body, found it impossible to imagine that Jesus could be the Messiah, and that he had really risen from the dead. To believe in him would demand a major change in the whole furniture of their belief-system; nothing less than a total reinterpretation of their Scripture and cherished traditions. Yet these two Galilean fishermen, Peter and John, stood there, insisting that the crucified Jesus was alive again, and now present for everyone as a living force for healing and renewal. They made this claim on peril of their lives, heedless of the Sanhedrin's prohibition ("ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.") The message was too important to be repressed by any human authority.
One might say, his resurrection rolled away more stones than the one blocking his tomb; it also flung wide the doors to the future and gives us a glimpse of what lies beyond. The Sanhedrin, the disciples and we ourselves are asked to accept, in God's most mysterious ways, that Jesus really is the Saviour, who throws light on all our lives and lets us reevaluate all that we previously thought we knew. Are we willing to allow the love of Jesus to cast its bright rays on our understanding, so that we shape our whole future in relation to him. If He has risen at the core of our existence, then our lives will be as transformed as were those of his disciples at the beginning.
The disciples refuse to believe that others had seen the risen Lord. Eventually Jesus himself appears to them and reproaches them for their failure to believe. It seems that nobody, not even his closest associates, was prepared to believe that he had risen from the dead unless they could see him for themselves. They struggled to bring themselves to believe such good news. We can be more prone to believing bad news than good news. We too can doubt the reports of others contained within the New Testament that the Lord has risen. We can be as incredulous and obstinate as the first disciples. Yet every Easter the Lord calls out to us to believe that he is risen, with all that this good news implies for us. Easter is the season when we allow ourselves to be touched by the almost unbelievable good news that the Lord is alive and that we are destined to share in his risen life, not only beyond this earthly life but already, by the power of faith.
The first Christian community prays for help to survive the threatened persecution
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.
Jesus's words about being born again, of the Holy Spirit
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."
When and where the Spirit comes, and with what consequences for our lives, 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 and Greek one and the same word means wind and spirit. Nor can a previous reception of the Spirit determine how it will be done 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 exclaims: "What can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?" Peter is prepared for the consequences of immediately baptizing pagan Romans, without first making them undergo Jewish circumcision. He thus anticipated Saint Paul in opening the doors of the Church to gentiles.
John portrays Nicodemus as one whose mind is clouded and who attempts to neutralize Jesus' highly spiritual statements with his own earthly ones. Nicodemus finds this talk about re-birth quite foolish! "How can a man be born again once he is old? Can he return to his mother's womb?" Despite such opposition, bordering on sarcasm, the Holy Spirit can manifest 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."
Yet at the same time, you remain the same person that you were before. What the Spirit achieves is a spiritual rebirth. A person does not re-enter his mother's womb. Rather an interior transformation takes place which activates hidden potential, which enlightens what was covered over with darkness (Jesus is " the light!"), which sharpens what had become dull and boring (Jesus is "salt of the earth!").
Many different kinds of people meet with Jesus in the course of John's gospel. In today's gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He was a Pharisee, a member of that group who are consistently hostile to Jesus in John's gospel. Yet, here was a Pharisee who stood out somewhat from his peers. He was attracted by Jesus, and he allowed himself to be drawn to Jesus, even though it meant going against the prevailing current. His first approach to Jesus is tentative, coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. His last appearance in John's gospel is much less tentative; along with Joseph of Arimathea, he sees to it that Jesus is given a dignified burial. Nicodemus journeyed closer to Jesus in the course of the gospel of John. His story encourages us to make progress in our own relationship with Jesus, even when that means going against the prevailing tide. Even if our relationship with the Lord seems tentative at times, Nicodemus encourages us to believe that it can become less so. Jesus' words to Nicodemus in today's gospel remind us, however, that our growing towards the Lord is not just our own doing; it is ultimately the work of the Spirit in our lives. Jesus declares that we need to be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. As a sailing boat needs the wind, we need the Spirit at our back if we are to make our way towards the Lord. That Spirit is available to us all. The season of Easter is a good time to invite the Spirit afresh into our lives.
The sharing spirit among the early Christians
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement"). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
Only the Son of Man, who descended from heaven, can reveal heavenly things
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."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus aswered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The Acts passage raises the issue whether a fair sharing of property can be achieved within the church. We see how, at least for a while, the early Christians at Jerusalem pooled all their resources, and there was no one in financial distress. Later, however, their destitution was such that Paul has to take up a collection during his travels in Greece for the sake of the Jerusalem community. Communal sharing of goods remained an ideal but was quickly abandoned as a prescribed way of life.
The idealism of the early Christians can rouse our desire to relive such an idyllic experience of community. How wonderful if we shared all our goods, cared for one another, were equal in wealth and poverty, and found our greatest contentment and strength in community and God's providence. But isn't it more often that our gifts and talents divide us one from another? We are too demanding that our personal priorities and insights which differ from others should prevail. The artist seems too impractical, the talented person too dominating, the capable leader turns dictatorial, the scholar demands our consent before we have time to think out the question.
Peace comes by humbly realizing that no one has a corner on all the gifts. Tensions can then be healthy and prevent us from speeding in any single direction and overlooking other turns and possibilities. Tensions remind us that gifts are given not just personal fulfilment but rather to be shared in the joy and love of family. None of us, no matter how gifted, can be saved unless our talents are shared with others and balanced by others' gifts. Community balances us, lest our gifts get out of hand, and can bring extraordinary surprises into our lives. The best growth takes place within community, because there is where the Spirit dwells.
We can notice a stretch in the evenings these days, now that it is bright beyond 7.00 pm. Most of us like the light. We are pleased to know that the daylight is lengthening every day at this time of the year. Our heart sinks a bit in Winter when we see how the days have begun to get shorter. Even though most of us like the light, the gospel notes how people seem to prefer darkness to light. The evangelist is referring there not to daylight, but to the one who declares himself to be the light of the world. Our calling is to "come out into the light," in the words of the gospel. Today's gospel makes the very generous statement that all who live by the truth come out into the light. All who seek the truth are already standing in the light of Christ, even though they may not be aware of it. The gospel suggests that people of faith, those who seek to be guided by the light of Christ, will always have something very fundamental in common with all who seek the truth with sincerity of heart.
The Temple police arrest the apostles, but without violence
Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, "Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life." When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.
When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, "We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside." Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. Then someone arrived and announced, "Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!" Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
"For God so loved the world" the basic axiom of our faith
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
Peter and John are caught in a conflict that involves the high priest and the entire Sanhedrin besides the temple guards. The apostles are imprisoned, and God sends angels to intervene. This same struggle is echoed at universal level in John's gospel about God's sending his only son as the light of this world. Light and darkness clash, leading to a judgment for the world. After being freed by an angel, Peter and John are again in the temple courtyard, preaching to an enthusiastic audience. They seem to ignore their recent escape, acting as though nothing had taken place, forgetful of their deliverance by an angel. And when the police intervene, they must do so "without any show of force for fear of being stoned by the crowd." Somehow or other, these ordinary people without any weapons except the stones on the ground, bring the police to peaceful submission,
Likewise, in the gospel Jesus seemingly asks for nothing other than sincerity, to act "in truth," and to live in the light of his presence. The deep intuitive faith of people at large then turns out to be the stable ingredient of religion. Their matter-of-fact response, their enthusiasm, their spontaneous rallying around defenceless Peter and John, their ability to call everything and everyone by their right name, their continuing loyalty, their confidence in Jesus' presence in their midst, their spirit of hope in the goodness of God's creation, here is where the difference is made between success or failure in accomplishing God's will for our salvation.
Jesus not only promotes love in our lives, but nourishes that life by his hidden presence and by the Eucharist. His presence surrounds us on every side. And yet like the sunlight, he is never really under our control. Gently the Spirit of Jesus coaxes us to grow in love and trust; he endorses a warm enthusiasm for life, trust in others, quickness to rally around whatever is good, noble and worthy of faith (Phil 4:8).
We can notice a stretch in the evenings by now, in the northern hemisphere that is. Most of us like the added light. We are pleased by the extra daylight every day at this time of the year. In Autumn, our heart sinks a bit when we realize that the days have begun to get shorter. Even though most of us like the light, the gospel declares that people have shown they prefer darkness to light. The evangelist is referring there not to daylight, but to the one who declares himself to be the light of the world. Our calling is to 'come out into the light', in the words of the gospel. Today's gospel makes the very generous statement that all who live by the truth come out into the light. All who seek the truth are already standing in the light of Christ, even though they may not be aware of it. The gospel suggests that people of faith, those who seek to be guided by the light of Christ, will always have something very fundamental in common with all who seek the truth with sincerity of heart.
What Peter and the apostles told the Jewish council
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
The Father loves the Son and has put all things in his hands
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.
How to distinguish inner strength from a stubborn love of confrontation? How to know if our convictions are from God and should be obeyed at all costs? Could our resistance to authority be just stubborn pride? Direct revelations from above must be quite rare, so how can we tell if God is really prompting us? To follow Jesus and speak in his name presumes that we are ready to walk the way of the cross with him, radically. We cannot forget that Jesus was nailed to a tree, the most public and painful of deaths, in defence of his convictions.
Today's text from Acts offers a clue about whether we are courageously following Jesus : "We testify and so does the Holy Spirit." We regularly invite the Holy Spirit into our hearts through personal prayer, on a regular basis. We can also consult the Holy Spirit by checking out our ideas with an honest mentor. It is good to have someone who will tell us the plain truth, on request. Prayer and spiritual guidance can help us grow beyond our own obsessions and our comfort zones. Another test of validity is suggested by Peter's reference to the God of our ancestors. So, do I pay heed to the Bible and listen to it, to have my spirit in tune with the early church's faith? We need this kind of listening to acquire a valid, integral spirituality. If we just pick and choose texts to suit ourselves, we may be just reinforcing our own oddities and stubborness. We must respect our origins, so that our present position can be a flowering of the seed that was planted in the past. Then our word, like Jesus' own, will witness to what we have seen and heard.
John the Baptist says that Jesus comes "from above," and that the Father has "entrusted everything to the Son." None of those things can be said about the Baptist himself. He profoundly appreciates the uniqueness of Jesus, which is why he can say, "he must increase, but I must decrease." In this life we cannot fully appreciate the specialness of Jesus. The more we see, the more we recognize what is yet to be seen. The closer we come to him, the more we realize how much deeper our relationship with him could be. There is always a sense in which we can use with John the Baptist's words, "he must increase; I must decrease." As he increases in us and we decrease, we don't cease to be ourselves. Rather, the more Jesus increases in us, the more we become our true selves, our Christ-selves, the person God is calling us to be.
Gamaliel prudently advises his colleagues against condemning Jesus' followers
But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them, in that case you may even be found fighting against God!"
They were convinced by him, and when the had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
Multiplication of loaves and fishes. But Jesus won't let himself be made king
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months" wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When the people proclaim him as the prophet foretold by Moses, Jesus is uneasy. If the church is right in seeing him as the fulfilment of Israel's hopes, then why, we wonder, does he react so negatively when the people want him as their king? Maybe they wanted to harness his miraculous powers for their own aims. The miracle that Jesus performed on a single occasion, the people wanted to turn into an everyday handout. The request is perfectly understandable, for he was born to be a king. But the reason for Jesus' displeasure must be in the people's motivation.
In the reading from the Acts, we see how various messiahs had arisen and many people had been confused and misled by them. A member of the Jewish council then proposed a wise standard for judging the issue: If a work is of merely human origin, it will not last for long; but if it comes from God, no one should try to stop it. Even so, the apostles were not fully exonerated. The Sanhedrin decided to flog them before releasing them. But on their release they continued to preach in Jesus' name, fully willing to suffer for his sake.
In the end we may trust in Providence. If what we are doing is God's work, it cannot end in failure. No worthy project is wasted energy. And as we look about us at people who have survived tests of endurance or at institutions that have continued to serve the church over the centuries, we ought to be convinced that such things are part of God's plan. There are many such institutions which deserve much more respect than we often give them; and this thought can be a real spur to ecumenism.
Today we find Jesus and his disciples faced with a hungry crowd and little or no means of feeding them. In this situation of need, people reacted in different ways. Philip made a calculation: on the basis of the number of people and the amount of money available to buy food, and decided that nothing could be done. Andrew recognized that one of the crowd had a small amount of food but he dismissed this small resource as of no value. There were two other reactions in the story. There is the reaction of the small boy who willingly handed over the few pieces of food that he had. This is the reaction of the generous person, prepared to share all he or she has, even though it appears far less than what is needed. He gave whatever he could. Then there is the reaction of Jesus himself. He took the slim resources the young boy was generous enough to part with and, having prayed the prayer of thanksgiving to God over this food, he somehow fed the enormous crowd. The gospel teaches us that if we give generously from our resources to others, the Lord will work powerfully through those resources, small as they may seem to us.
Selection and ordination of the church's first deacons
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Jesus calms a storm on the lake
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
This gospel implies some moments in life when we forge ahead without reference to Jesus … and then find ourselves engulfed by waves that threaten to sink us. But then it shows Jesus alongside us to put us back on course again. Seeking to link today's scriptural texts, in the gospel we see a decisive intervention of the Lord, while in the Acts we see how the apostles succeed in healing a crisis in the Christian community by compromise and common sense. The Greek-speaking early believers find that their widows were being neglected by church officers, in favour of the native Hebrew-speakers born in the Holy Land. The Twelve asked the community to nominate seven men who were both spiritual and prudent, to oversee the care of the Greek-speaking widows.
The appointing of the first deacons suggests a possible solution for a major need facing our Church today: how to ensure continuation of sacramental service to the People of God. It is clear that the apostles did not seek to end all debate on disputed issues by dogmatic decree, forbidding all further discussion! And their process of selecting the deacons, seeking consensus among the faithful about worthy candidates, has much to recommend it, over and against today's overly-centralised methods of episcopal selection . We are expected to make good use of our intelligence and common sense when seeking solutions. The apostles did not act like curial dictators, imposing decisions from headquarters to rectify a local situation. While they made a prudent decision, still they left the discernment about its implementation to the community, or as we might say "those on the ground." The Twelve could not neglect their duty of preaching and teaching, so they asked the Greek-speakers to select their own representatives, seven deacons, known for their prudence, who were then publicly ordained by the laying on of hands.
Of course, we cannot to rule out the possibility of miraculous intervention on God's part, if necessary reforms in the Church seem to be blocked by obstinacy or lack of insight among the magisterial office-holders. God can step in and immediately change the situation from one of desperation to one of new life. In the gospel the disciples immediately found themselves safely on the shore; their fears of drowning at sea quickly wiped away. Despite widespread discontent with aspects of church leadership today, the faith can continue. There's much encouragement in this episode of Jesus walking on the water. We do not know exactly what God will do, to heal the Church of our present widespread malaise. Miracles are not predictable, still less discussed and voted on; they simply happen! Belief in miracles presumes an attitude which surrenders both our individual and social/ecclesial wellbeing to God. It is a state of mind that does not demand total clarity and control. It is willing to live a risky existence, that adventure of faith whereby God can step in at crucial moments and shift gears for us.
Continuity is needed too. And when problems arise, our first recourse ought to be humanly planned and discussed with others. As a priority, we determine to remain within our faith community even if we have to sometimes raise our voice in loyal protest. We do not stomp out because of frustration, or respond so angrily that a shouting match breaks out! In the Acts we are impressed by the quiet, non-dominant style of the Twelve. Along with prudence and common sense, they have recourse to prayer and they consult the faithful before taking decisions that affect the whole community. That is how authority was exercised in the early Church. Would that the same moderate style could be seen replicated in today's Church.
Jesus had sent his disciples away in their boat, to cross the Lake of Galilee, while he himself went off into the hills to pray. The gospel suggests that his communion with God in prayer did not remove him from the needs of h is friends. He became aware of the disciples struggling in their boat against a headwind, worn out with the rowing. If our own prayer is genuine, it will deepen our awareness of others. As we enter into communion with God in prayer, we are drawn up into God's love for people. When prayer is a real opening up to God, it leaves us more open to others, especially any who are struggling and feel overwhelmed by the storms of life. In this morning's gospel, Jesus gets into the boat with his struggling disciples and, with him in the boat, the wind dropped and the disciples found themselves in a much calmer space. We too must open ourselves up to the Lord's calming and strengthening presence. We go out from our prayer strengthened to be channels of that life-giving presence of the Lord to others.
Stephen's preaching stirs the crowd: Is he against Moses?
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen as it was called, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us." And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
We should work for the food that endures for eternal life
The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. or it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."
We only see a character in its true nature if we take the trouble to really look . The members of the Sanhedrin looked on the face of Stephen, and it seemed like that of an angel. Jesus tells the crowd: "You are not looking for me because you have seen signs but because you have eaten your fill of the loaves." Each of us looks outward in many different ways: with wide interest or with narrow bias, with a large heart open to goodness everywhere or with a narrow focus limited to personal concerns, with faith that accepts even miracles or with pessimism that sees only the worst, with wonder that peers beneath the surface to teeming possibilities or with a dull shrug of the shoulders that hardly pays attention to miracles! Somehow or other, our present world and all the more surely our future existence turn into what we see, at least so far as our own personal life is concerned.
A saint like Stephen, ordained to care for the poor and for neglected widows, was endowed by God with such a large heart that he overlooked trivia and did not allow himself to be caught on the sticky paper of petty worries. Instead of such narrow-mindedness, he reached out to the needs of the helpless. Yet he was dragged before the court for acting against the customs of the people. Important, intelligent people were willing to argue about customs when the poor were going hungry. The members of the Sanhedrin looked at a saint and turned him into a sinner. They saw the face of an angel and twisted it into that of a devil.
When Jesus fed the hungry in the desert, they were concerned only about stuffing food between their teeth. They did not ask about the goodness and generosity of God who cares for them; they did not inquire about their ways of sharing with others and so of imitating the goodness of Jesus. They did not stop to listen to the words of Jesus, ponder them prayerfully and ask for their implications in their daily lives. They simply wanted more food. Eventually, John's gospel links this miraculous multiplication of bread and fish with the Eucharist, Jesus' very own body and blood given for the life of the world.
Jesus distinguishes between food that grows stale with time and food that endures to eternal life. He has fed the people in the wilderness with bread and fish, aware that hunger must be satisfied; but as people continued looking for more of this physical food, he invites them to look for the food that gives eternal life and satisfies the deepest of our hungers. He came not just to give people physical food but to give them the spiritual food of God's presence, God's life and God's Spirit. The gospel reminds us that, while the physical and material is vital because we are physical and material beings, our searching must not stop at the physical and the material. There is a great deal more to life than the satisfaction of our physical needs. We have deeper, spiritual hungers and thirsts as well that we need to attend to if we are to live a truly balanced life and be at peace within ourselves. In the gospel Jesus offers himself to us as the one who offers us the food that endures to eternal life. He can satisfy the deepest hungers and thirsts in our hearts. Our seeking must ultimately be directed towards him; it cannot stop at or be satisfied with anything less.
Stephen's temple-criticism stirs up the mob, who put him to death by stoning
"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.
My Father gives you the true bread from heaven
So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
In Acts, Luke compares Stephen's martyrdom to Jesus' death on the cross. Each of them, accused of blasphemy, is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. Each sees a vision of someone coming on the clouds, at the right hand of God. Each asks God to receive the spirit and each prays for the forgiveness of the executioners (See Luke 22-23). Stephen becomes the proto-martyr of Christianity. Yet paradoxically, when one's death is modeled on that of Jesus, such a death turns into a moment of triumph and glory! The final moments of Stephen seemed anything but glorious and joyful, at the time. A pall of sorrow must have descended upon the small Christian community. Luke even adds how that day saw the beginning of a great persecution of the church in Jerusalem. All except the apostles scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Soon afterwards, Saul began to harass the church.
Even one as well meaning as Saul of Tarsus approved of stoning one who was promoting heresy. But Stephen himself accepted his fate peacefully, "filled with the Holy Spirit." Even when dragged outside the city amid a vortex of hatred, Stephen did not answer anger with anger, nor frustration with rage. He rose above the unbelief and violence by the strength he drew from the risen Lord. Self-possessed, he reasoned with his judges in the court of the Sanhedrin. He recognized God's providence and design where others were caught in anger, frustration and violence. Stephen stayed in possession of himself because he had surrendered that self to the Lord Jesus.
In Acts we read about the execution of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr. Luke, who wrote this account, describes Stephen's death in a very similar way to how he had described the death of Jesus in his first volume, the gospel. Just as Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," so Stephen prays, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Just as Jesus said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit," so Stephen prays to the risen Lord, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." It is as if Luke is saying that the fundamental attitudes of Jesus are to be reproduced in that of his followers. The risen Lord seeks to continue living in and through his followers, and that includes us all. Because the Lord wants to live out his life in us, he invites us to come to him as our bread of life, in the words of this morning's gospel, "I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry." Our coming to the Lord in faith, and our receiving nourishment from him, creates an opening for him to live out his life in us, so that, in some way, we can continue to give flesh to his fundamental outlook and attitudes.
After Stephen's burial, Saul starts persecuting the church
And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
Jesus says, "I am the bread of life -- I will raise them up on the last day."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day."
Jerusalem, which had been a special place of Jesus' ministry, now violently rejects his disciples, while outsiders, particularly in Samaria, listen to the word, are willing to accept miracles, and are converted to the Lord. Sophisticated Jerusalem with its religious schools and centuries-old traditions, never gives Jesus or his disciples a fair a fair hearing; while Samaria, despised, yet open and spontaneous toward good news, listens to the disciples, responds with joy to the gospel message.
Comparing Jerusalem with Samaria alerts us to the fact that receiving the gospel is more than just an intellectual assent. In Jerusalem the sacred tradition of Moses was preserved, by the central governing body of Judaism. Yet, Jerusalem violently rejected Jesus and his first disciples. There was a direct simplicity about the Samaritans that made them open to new possibilities. They were not afraid of saying Yes to something new and then, suddenly, the flower of faith blooms among them.
Truly, the Bread of Life is most readily received by the humble of heart.
Philip shares the gospel in Samaria and his message is welcomed. In Luke's first volume, Jesus tries to speak to the Samaritans but they reject him because he is heading for Jerusalem. But later they welcome his gospel gladly, from the lips of Philip. The gospel can blossom even where it was first rejected. Even though we may turn from the Lord at times, he never turns from us. This is in keeping with what Jesus says in this morning's gospel, "Whoever comes to me I shall never turn away." Easter celebrates the faithfulness of God to his Son Jesus, and the faithfulness of Jesus to all of us. The Lord's faithfulness encourages us to keep turning back to him, to keep coming to him, even after we have turned away from him. Even when we fail to respond to his coming, he offers himself to us as the bread of life and he continues to promise us that if we come to him we will never hunger and if we believe in him we will never thirst.
Philip's joyful spreading of the faith
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a desert road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
Now the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."
The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
A promise of life: "Whoever eats this bread will live forever."
Jesus said to his disciples, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
God was already drawing the Ethiopian toward faith. This highly-placed eunuch was a God-fearing gentile who believed in Israel's God, and followed whatever Torah rules were compatible with his family life and culture. The Spirit was attracting this man to a deeper understanding of life, through reading Isaiah's Suffering-Servant Songs. As Philip the deacon headed south along the route taken by the Ethiopian's chariot, Providence was clearly at work. The man was grappling with the Scriptures, but still felt unable to understand their mysterious message. "Do you really grasp what you are reading?" asks Philip, and the African politely replies, "How can I unless someone explains it to me?" When he heard how the mysterious Suffering Servant Song points to Jesus' death on the cross, the Ethiopian asks to be baptized and he is at once welcomed into the church. Notice the steps of his conversion, not so much as a progression from sin to grace, but as grasping the opportunity offered by grace, and wanting its full realization.
Like the Ethiopian we must be "God-fearers," reverencing what God is doing in our lives. Like this foreigner, we should join regularly in worship, as he did in the temple. The Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah Chapter 53 which he felt to be profound even while he did not understand to whom or what it referred. He waited for the Lord to enlighten him. When he met Philip he was very soon ready to be received into the church. The Ethiopian asked for baptism, and the door of the church was opened wide for him. This hospitable church is the ideal persuasively urged on us by Pope Francis -- a desire to let the joy of the Gospel shine on the lives of all who are ready to welcome it. And then we see how the good news was spread, when the Ethiopian journeyed home to bring the faith to his own country.
Through the church we receive not only baptism and new life in Jesus but also the bread or nourishment to sustain that life strong and vigorous. The gospel tells us: "I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread that one shall live forever.
In the first reading the Ethiopian returning home from his pilgrimage stops to read the Scriptures and is very touched by a passage in Isaiah. This leads him to ask questions which later leads to his receiving baptism into the church at the hands of Philip. Then in the gospel Jesus speaks of the bread that he will give for the life of the world, a clear reference to the Eucharist. We have the elements of word, baptism and eucharist in our two readings. Each of them is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In our own lives, the sequence is usually: baptism, word, eucharist. We were baptized as infants; then introduced to Jesus through the stories in the gospels, with pieces of the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, and the great texts of the Jewish Scriptures. That in turn led to receiving the Eucharist. For us who have been baptized, the connection between Word and Eucharist remains very close. At every Mass we first have the Liturgy of the Word, and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Word nourishes our faith, and it is out of that nourished faith that we come to the Eucharist. The bread of the Word prepares us for the bread of the Eucharist. The bread of the word is a necessary first course, as it were, preparing us to receive the Eucharist well.
On the road to Damascus, Saul converts to the Way
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lordsaid to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."
A promise of life: "Whoever eats this bread will live forever."
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
St Paul's conversion is here presented for the first of three times in the Acts of the Apostles (see also 22:4-26; 26:12-18). Here it highlights the movement of the church beyond Judaism to the gentile world. This account is preceded in Acts by the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by deacon Philip and then followed by the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius. Both the Ethiopian and Cornelius were baptized without going through the full procedures of becoming Jews by circumcision and by accepting the Jewish dietary laws. The conversion of these foreigners shared an important feature with Saul's conversion. Each took place because of special, miraculous intervention by God.
Up till now Paul had been persecuting the church, in Jerusalem and now (he had thought) in Damascus. His conversion, however, would bring an entirely new type of suffering to the small group of disciples. In becoming an apostle to the gentiles, Paul insisted that it was not necessary to be circumcised nor to follow Mosaic laws like those for food and drink, in order to be a follower of Jesus. This action on Paul's part split the church right down the center. The controversy comes to the surface in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians and in a later chapter in Acts. Paul, therefore, was considered a traitor by his own Jewish family and coreligionists, and he was to be isolated and calumniated even by his Christian community. When Jesus announced to Ananias that Paul "will have to suffer for my name," he was referring not just to Paul's eventual martyrdom in Rome but even more to a life of martyrdom within his own church!
Wherever then we bring the good news of Jesus and the family love of the Eucharist, we are also instruments of suffering. Our lives are intertwined as closely as flesh and blood. Blood brings the strength and vigor for flesh to suffer crucifixion. Flesh keeps the blood circulating within a single body where we are all united.
Once Paul was converted, both he and the church took the consequences. Each would suffer the effect of the other's gifts, insights and apostolate. And as each one is strengthened further by Jesus' eucharistic bread come down from heaven, each will be clearer in insights, more forceful in demands and expectations, even more impatient at the slow or indifferent reaction of others. This process of life, into death, for a new and greater life is the story of Jesus, Paul and each of us.
Many questions are asked by people in the course of the gospels. Some are posed by Jesus; others are asked by those who meet him. Today it is the Jews who ask, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Far from pulling back in response to that scornful, dismissive question, Jesus goes on to speak of the need not only to eat his flesh but to drink his blood as well. The language of eating the flesh, the body, of Jesus and drinking the blood of Jesus is shocking. Yet, it is the language of John's gospel. Jesus, who gave his life for us on the cross, gives himself to us as our food and our drink in the Eucharist. Jesus goes on to state that he gives himself to us as food and drink so that we might draw life from him. "Whoever eats me will draw life from me." The life which flowed from the side of Jesus as he hung from the cross, symbolized by the blood and water, is conveyed personally to each of us when we eat his body and drink his blood. We come to the Eucharist to draw life from the Lord, as branches draw life from the vine. We are then sent from the Eucharist to live with his life, to live his life.
During Peter's ministry in Lydda he restores Tabitha to life
Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!" And immediately he got up. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay." So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
"We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.."
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
Through the Easter season the risen Christ is summoning what seems dead within us, to make it bud forth into new existence. But despite this inner transition within ourselves, we continue to be recognisable the same as before. The lady whom Peter called back to life was the same Dorcas whose "good deeds and acts of charity" had established a family bond with many of the poor and oppressed, particularly with the widows in the city of Joppa. "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless, The words I spoke to you are spirit and life." "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." If I decide to follow Peter's example and to kneel in prayer, believing that God can work miracles, if he wills. Do I accept that God can achieve what seems impossible for weak human nature? "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh cannot do it."
We are inspired by the story of Peter's missionary efforts to bring the faith to the wider world. On his journeys he often had the power of working miracles. God does not ask the ordinary person to such heights. Still, all of us are summoned occasionally to things out of the ordinary. The wonders we are called to do may not be as startling Peter bringing a dead person back to life. But God may suddenly ask me to forgive another person, or to be silent and no longer make an issue out of an unpleasant situation, to accept the loss of a friend or relative, to live silently and patiently with an ailment. Moments of heroic faith come occasionally. We think that God is asking the impossible, but "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh cannot do it."
In John's gospel, Jesus often asks very probing questions. We find one of them today, when he asks the Twelve, 'What about you, do you want to go away too?' In the previous verses many of his followers are depicted as leaving Jesus because of his words about needing to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Their leaving is the occasion for Jesus to place the twelve before a moment of decision, 'Do you want to go away too?' He was probing, looking for them to make a personal decision as to whether they would stay with him or leave him like so many others.
The risen Lord looks for a similar personal decision from us, asking us, 'do you want to go away too?' In the culture in which we live not everyone has chosen to respond in faith to the Lord's presence and call. As a result, we each have to make a more personal and more deliberate decision for the Lord than was needed in the past, the kind of decision the Lord looks for in this morning's gospel. As we strive to make that decision we can do no better than to make our own the response of Peter to Jesus' question, 'Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.'
By inspiration, Peter baptises the first pagan converts
The apostles and believers in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." But I replied, "By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth." But a second time the voice answered from heaven, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, "Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved." And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who keeps his sheep safe from harm
"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are proactive, reaching into the depths of our personality, summoning us to new possibilities of life. Peter learned how to be a pastor by practice, on the hoof, as it were. Going out from Jerusalem to coastal Caesarea to tend Christ's flock, he found himself baptizing a gentile household not to give them the Holy Spirit but because he saw them already graced by the Spirit in visible ways. Although Peter was an observant Jew, like Jesus, obeying the laws and observances of his people, he could not refuse baptism to those he recognised as chosen by God. Without hesitating, he baptized them!
What creative, courageous leadership he showed, pointing the way forward for the church. At the same time he showed courageous leadership in another way, equally vital for today. When challenged by other members of the church for his daring initiative, Peter patiently explained the reason for his action. His leadership is not dictatorial but a blend of inspiration and dialogue. On the question of how gentiles could belong to the church, Peter had decisively opened the door. We may discern that flavour of openness and encouragement also in pope Francis' first year of leadership of the universal church; long may it last!
This dynamic in the church where questions are worded out theologically with an eye to tradition while yet being open to new and startling manifestations of the Holy Spirit, was anticipated by Jesus in the parable of the Good Shepherd. This Shepherd knows each sheep by name, calls each one by a sound which reaches into the depths of the person. Each change in life, whether for the group or for the individual, must be in continuity not only with our past life but also with him from whom our spiritual life is received, the Good Shepherd who calls us by our name. In times like ours too the Spirit may intervene surprisingly and lead our bishops and other leaders to new decisions beyond our expectations, as happened to Peter in the days of the Apostles. As we approach Pentecost, we and our church leaders must seek to be attuned to what the Spirit wants to change in our church, to make us more effective instruments of the grace of Jesus for the men, women and young people of our day.
Peter asks the question, 'Who am I to stand in God's way?' When the Holy Spirit came down upon the pagan Cornelius and his household Peter realized that God was doing something in the lives of these pagans and, at the very least, Peter's role was not to get in the way of what God was doing. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the gate. Far from getting in God's way, Jesus was the gate through whom God came to people and they came to God. Jesus is the open gate onto God. People can go freely in and out through him and experience the life of God. As Jesus says in that gospel, 'I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.' There is a sense in which we all share in that role of Jesus to be the gate. We too are called to be openings for God, people through whom God can enter people's lives, just as the Spirit of God entered the lives of Cornelius and his household through Peter in the first reading. At the very least, this will mean, in the words of Peter, not standing in God's way. We have a role to play in each other's lives but we also have to leave room for God to work. There is a time to be the shepherd and a time to be the gate.
Barnabas goes to Antioch and sees the grace of God at work
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians."
Jesus shows himself as the Saviour in whom we must trust
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
The initiative for faith and discipleship must come from God, Jesus says. From him we receive eternal life, and through him we are caught up into the Holy Trinity. United with Jesus, we are joined to the Father and the Holy Spirit; and we inherit our Lord's promise: "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."
Jesus speaks these profound words about our eternal future in answer to a question put to him while he taught in the Temple. Somebody demanded to know: "How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are really the Messiah, tell us so in plain words." Many people tended to reject his mystical language about union with God, demanding a plain answer, Yes or No, to the question, "Are you the Messiah?" What they meant was, "If yes, then we can begin the revolt against Rome."
God can brighten the mystery of our lives only if we allow the time to be perceptive and contemplative. These are qualities that characterized the apostle Barnabas, virtually canonized even in his lifetime as "a good man filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith." Elsewhere his name is interpreted as "son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36). Originally named Joseph, he was called Barnabas because of his encouraging style and supportive personality.
The openness of Barnabas to God's gifts led him to Tarsus to search for Paul and bring him to join the church in Antioch. If it had not been for him, Paul might have been lost in the silent sands of some desert solitude. Taking a cue from today's gospel, we reckon that through Barnabas Jesus called by name this straying sheep "Paul" and led him into a path that transformed the missionary enterprise and the very nature of the church. We need to think how we too can be instrumental in helping others to perceive their dignity, their potential and the service they can give when called by God.
Many of us are concerned about break-ins to our home, anxious that someone might steal from us or do us harm. We take security precautions to prevent that from happening. In our gospel today, Jesus refers to breaking in and stealing; and goes on to declare that no one will ever steal his followers from him. It is as if to say that he has such a strong grip on his followers that no on will ever take them from him against his will. When you reflect on that, it is indeed very reassuring. Jesus will do all in his power to keep us united with himself and to prevent us from being taken away from him or falling away from him.
There is something we must do as well, for he also declares, "The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice." We need to pay attention to the Lord. We try to hear what he may be saying to us; we seek to follow where he is leading us. If we do that, the gospel suggests that we can be assured that the Lord will do the rest. Our Lord's contribution to the relationship between us and him is much more powerful than our own. Our ultimate salvation is much more the Lord's doing than ours. Therein lies our confidence and hope.
The growing church sends Barnabas and Saul on mission
The word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them.
Whoever believes in Jesus is trusting in the One who sent him
Then Jesus cried aloud: "Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as ligh into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me."
Today's texts offer a glimpse of the community of life between Jesus and his heavenly Father, and between the members of the church in Antioch among themselves and with God. "For I have not spoken on my own; no, the Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to speak." Jesus' personality is formed by this obedient regard to the Father, this receptivity to the Father's will and wisdom, this total community of life with the Father.
In the church at Antioch, the community gathers for liturgy while fasting from food and drink. This would remind them that their strength comes from God, not from themselves. Fasting also induces a bond of compassion, a willingness to suffer together, a sense of being one with all the world's poor and oppressed. As such, they are thoroughly open to God for guidance and for strength. That was when the Holy Spirit inspired a prophecy: "Set apart Barnabas and Saul." The language reminds us of great prophets, like Jeremiah, called and set apart from his mother's womb, or the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, called from birth to be a light to the nations (Jer 1:5; Is 49:6).
Through Barnabas and Paul a new and wider community is to be established. The bond of Jesus' disciples is to spread across the Roman empire, during this first missionary journey to the island of Cyprus. The Holy Spirit did not give precise, detailed instructions, only a call to proceed forward on the journey. At first they proclaim the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. Yet, all the while God's main purpose was to attract more and more gentiles so that Christianity can bring the message of Moses, the prophets and Jesus to all the world.
Just as Jesus and the Father formed one intimate life and as the disciples were united among themselves through the Holy Spirit, so the church at Antioch was to reach outward toward the world to unite people as one family in Christ. At the heart of this growing and increasing family was the word of life from the heavenly Father. It is this outreach toward others in love that keeps us from over-controlling the word of God. As we share this word with others, it always seems to become something new, fresh, demanding, upsetting, as whenever new life is added to any family. Yet, this life is in continuity with the word of the Father to Jesus. This mystery of God's hidden message, spoken in Jesus and heard through the prophets within our midst, is the most deepest, truest voice we will ever hear. It comes from the Father, and sends us on a missionary journey of kindness and love to others.
Frequently in John's gospel, Jesus speaks of the God who sent him. The eternal God sent his Son among us out of love for the world. This sending was an act of generosity on God's part, involving a real giving for John speaks of God as giving his Son. In the first reading, the church of Antioch send two of their most gifted members to parts of the Roman Empire where Christ had not yet been preached.
The sending of Barnabas and Paul on mission involved a real giving on the part of the Antioch Christians, who were sacrificing two of their most valuable assets for the sake of others. Over the centuries the Irish church has sent and given some of its most gifted members to proclaim the gospel far from home. That is the nature of our Church and the nature of our call as Christians. We give away what is most precious to us so that others can benefit from our resources. Each local church, each parish, is called not just to serve itself, but to serve other local churches whether next door or far away. We are to be generous with each other as God has been with us.
Paul's summary of Israel's history, up to the time of Christ
Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem; but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, aying, "Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it." So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:
"You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. For about forty years he put up with them in the desert. After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, "I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes." Of this man's posterity God has brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, "What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet."
Whoever receives one whom I send receives me; I know whom I have chosen
Truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, "The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me."
I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me."
In today's readings a line of continuity stretches through Israel's history right through to ourselves. Jesus is sent by the heavenly Father, with a message not just in words but in his very person. He himself is a message from the heart of the Godhead; he is the great I AM. This I AM title not only identifies Jesus with the eternal divinity, but also involves him in the long history of Israel. God was revealed to Moses at the burning bush as the mysterious I AM (Ex 3:14) "I am who I am." Put into the third person, it reads: "He who is always with you." As a Hebrew name it takes the form of Yahweh.
God revealed Godself as the one who will always be with his people. In some way the ongoing, merciful divine interaction with the lives of his people determine who God is: He is as they find him in their questions and answers, their hopes and struggles and triumphs. This sacred I AM is adopted by Jesus as his own: "that you may believe that I AM," linking himself to the entire history of Israel, and of mankind.
While preaching in Pisidian Antioch (not the Sryian Antioch of Acts 11:19), Paul reviews some great moments of Israel's history, with special attention to Moses, David and John the Baptist. The line of continuity extended from heaven to earth, then from the Patriarchs and Moses on to David, to John the Baptist, and to the one John announced, Jesus.
Within this line all through Israel's long history from the eternal God to Jesus of Nazareth, some very disruptions disruptions and new situations occurred. Israel was persecuted and oppressed in Egypt. Then their entry to the land of promise was delayed for forty years while they wandered in the desert and even when it was won by conquest there was a long period before they were securely rooted there, with a united monarchy. Their first king, Saul was rejected as from the throne; and some centuries later the Davidic dynasty had also disappeared from history. This series of ups and downs, of rejection and renewal continued within the life of Jesus and of the church. One of his own disciples betrayed him, when Judas "raised his heel against me." But just after announcing his betrayal, Jesus added, "I tell you this before it takes place, so that when it takes place you may know that I AM."
Change of plans cuts across the line of continuity in history. At first, such interruptions seem to be a disaster. But in the life of Jesus such disruption marked the very presence of God: "that you may believe that I AM." God suddenly moves in ways never anticipated in advance. We are not in control! It is not that we should be totally passive. On the example of Jesus and of Paul we turn to God in prayer, and realize from the start it is God who has directed all the events. We believe and can then be inwardly at peace.
When Jesus told his disciples to welcome children in his name, it was an important lesson. They were arguing about which of them was most important. But Jesus insisted that seeking social status was not a value for him and had no place the kingdom of God. What is of value in God's kingdom is becoming servant of all, including servant of those whom the world does not consider of any standing or status, such as children. Like the disciples we can easily buy into a set of values that are not those of the kingdom of God. It is only by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and becoming more attentive to his word that we allow his values to shape how we think and speak and act.
Jesus was put to death, but raised and exalted by God
"My brothers, you descendants of Abraham's family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second Psalm, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you."
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
It was so good to hear our Pope say some months back that the doors of our church must be wide open and welcoming. This message is a fine antidote to any narrow, legalistic form of church, where the barriers to eucharistic communion were constantly reiterated. Today we can resonate to those Last Supper words of Jesus which are central to our faith: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." In some mysterious way, to be seeking is already to be found, to be on the way is to have arrived, to be reaching out to Jesus means that we are being sought by him. He draws us even before we feel inclined to look for him. The flower is touched by sunlight before it turns toward the sun.
In the epistle Paul roams through the Hebrew Bible, beginning with the patriarchs and Moses and ending with John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus. Some of this was in yesterday's reading. Now, in the second half of his sermon at Pisidian Antioch, Paul directly addresses the situation of his hearers. He turns from the words of Scripture, inscribed in a book, to those same words as spoken by the living God. Everything in Scripture, he maintains, can be read in the light of Jesus who gives each statement its full meaning. He moves from the book to a person, calling us to move from merely formal doctrine to bear personal witness to Jesus.
We are "on the way" as we move from the creed to personal encounter with Jesus who speaks to our hearts. We are also on "the way," strangely enough, when sin or misfortune forces us out into a desolate place. Even in times of turmoil for the church, we can be "on the way," with Jesus. Just as there are many mansions in the Father's house, so the ways that lead to those mansions are many and varied. The only absolute guideline Jesus gives about staying on the track with him is always couched in terms of love, that agapé which was the hallmark of Jesus' whole life on earth.
Today's gospel is often chosen to be read in the funeral liturgy and is easy to understand why that is so. Jesus assures his troubled disciples that while he is going away from them in death, he is really going back to his Father, journeying back to the one from whom he came into the world. He assures his disciples that the journey he is about to make is one that they too will make one day. He promises to return to take his disciples with him to the Father's house, so that they can be with him forever. Jesus promises the same to all of us, that he will take us to the Father at the end of our lives. He came among us to show us the Father, to reveal God to us. The whole purpose of his mission was and is to bring God to us and to bring us to God.
His description of his Father's house as having many rooms suggests the great hospitality of that house. Heaven, it seems, is not a confined space for a selected few; it is an open space for the many, just as Jesus himself did not come for the few, for the elect, but for all. Jesus is the Way to the Father for all who turn to him in faith. That is why he said, "when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself." We pray today that we would always take him as our Way so that at the end of our lives we would join him in his Father's house.
After failing to convert Jews, Paul and Barnabas turn to the Gentiles
The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'"
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers. Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus tells Philip, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."
Jesus said to his disciples, "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."
Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Adapting our understanding of God to large-scale changes in the surrounding culture can be difficult and divisive, as Catholics very well know. Our church found it so in the wake of Vatican II, and is still experiencing this tension fifty years later, with traditional doctrines being critically tested against widely shared values of our times. Such trends and changes can be a way of fulfilling Jesus' words to the apostle Philip: "Whoever believes in me will do the works I do, and greater far than these." How can our works be greater than those of Jesus? Is he teasing us with unreal praise or inviting us, prodding us to move on?
Here Jesus is expressing something that parents often think and say to their children: "what I couldn't do, you must do! Take up my dreams and make them real in your lifetime." Jesus dreamed of a mission to the entire world and yet in practice could not act upon it in his lifetime. He told the Canaanite woman, just outside the territory of the Jewish people, "My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." And when she persisted, he stood his ground against her argument, before saying, "Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass" (Matt 15:21-28). Your wish, Jesus seemed to say, is my wish, how I long to see us all one, joined around the heavenly banquet table. No one would then have to survive from crumbs that fall to the ground!
When Paul and Barnabas were excommunicated from the synagogue and expelled from the territory, it served the spread of the Gospel. On this occasion Paul quotes from Isaiah: "I have made you a light to the nations, a means of salvation to the ends of the world." We can reread this in the context of any personal crisis or change, in the conviction that the whole process is under the loving, guiding providence of our God.
You'll often hear parents say to children, "you are never satisfied." There is a sense in which that is probably true of all of us. We are never satisfied. Saint Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. In today's gospel, Philip expresses the same sentiment. He says to Jesus, "Lord, let us see the Father, and then we shall be satisfied." He understood that it is only in seeing God that all the longings of his heart would be satisfied. Jesus replies to Philip's words with the statement, "To have seen me is to have seen the Father." Jesus reveals the Father; he is the way to the Father. We won't see God the Father in this life, but God has sent us his Son. Although we cannot see Jesus in the way the apostles saw him, we can see him with the eyes of faith in this life. We can see him in his Word, in the Eucharist, in the other Sacraments, in each other. Such "seeing" of the Lord won't fully satisfy us but it gives us a glimpse of what awaits us.
At Lystra a crippled man is healed by Barnabas and Paul
And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.
In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.
When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good--giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy." Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
Jesus will send the Holy Spirit as Advocate, to keep his message alive
Jesus said to his disciples,
"They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them." Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?" Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you."
If we are led by the Holy Spirit, we can be instruments of healing power, like Paul and Barnabas. We may find faith strong enough to help and heal them, as they did. Today's Scriptures suggest this healing frame of mind.
First, we must be obedient to the Holy Spirit. This same Spirit reminds us of all that Jesus has said, relevant to our situation, and revives our capacity for prayer, love and helpfulness. Our vocation will be fanned to fresh life and bring back some of the freshness of youth when we were stirred by high ideals. The Holy Spirit touches us, reminding us that we are full of potential, meant to be instruments of love and so to reveal the wonderful presence of God.
Second, grace is near at hand, all around us. God's word is written everywhere. The Spirit enables us to hear God's word, as though spoken for the first time, directly to our hearts. The message comes from the Father and sent Jesus out on his ministry of healing. As Paul expressed it in today's reading: "the living God made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them. … In bestowing his benefits, he has not hidden himself from us. From the heavens he sends down rain and rich harvests; your spirits he fills with food and delight."
Thirdly, if the word is everywhere, it belongs to everyone. It cannot be hoarded as our private property. By its nature it must be shared or it dies. Just as the Father's word, as Jesus said, "is not mine" but is "to instruct you in everything," so the word we receive in our hearts must continuously flow through us to inspire new life in others.
Fourthly, we must trust God unconditionally. Each of us can be God's instrument, even to the extent of working small miracles. As God's Word infuses new life into our thoughts and expressions, it brings healing as to the crippled man at Lystra. Remember, Jesus promised that "The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit… will instruct you in everything."
The verb "to love" occurs very significantly in today's gospel. It speaks of our love for Jesus, Jesus' love for us, and God the Father's love for us. God the Father expresses his love for us by giving us the Son. Jesus expresses his love for us by laying down his life for us, and by making known to us all he has learnt from the Father. We express our love for Jesus by keeping his word, by living according to his teaching, which, in John's gospel, is summed up as "love one another as I have loved you." The gospel also makes reference to the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. As the Father expresses his love for us by giving us the Son; the Father and Son together express their love for us by giving us the Holy Spirit. The role of the Holy Spirit, according to our reading, is to be our teaching, to keep bringing to our minds the teaching, the word, of Jesus. The Holy Spirit helps us to keep Jesus' word, especially his command to "love one another as I have loved you." In that short gospel reading, there is a whole vision of the Christian life, of God's relationship with us as Father, Son and Spirit, and of our relationship with each other.
Paul is stoned and left for dead; but survives to continue his ministry
But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.
After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, "It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God." And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.
Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed. When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. And they stayed there with the disciples for some time.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you
Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, "I am going away, and I am coming to you." If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way."
Jesus speaks of going away, of returning to the Father. He directs his mind toward the cross, resurrection and ascension. After his sacrifice he will be with the Father and the Spirit, in heaven. Earlier, Philip requested, "Show us the Father and that will be enough for us;" and earlier still, Thomas argued with Jesus: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" In one sense, we cannot follow Jesus into the realm of God. Yet in some real way we must walk in his footsteps, for he said "I am going to prepare a place for you … I am the way."
One way to follow Jesus into his life with God is to grow in mindfulness, let our spirit become more aware within us. Here is where the temple of God is to be found; here is the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant rests, written in our hearts. Here is where we hear God's word, the "commandment" that requires our full response. This transcendent God speaks with us and calls us "friends." But only by faith can we know that way, and faith means a surrender in love to the unknown. This unknown aspect of faith becomes all the more mysterious and undecipherable because it is not a quality of an object but the love of a person. That person is God, Father, Son and Spirit.
Like Paul and Barnabas the door is opened for us to move out from old securities and live among people who may seem outside the range of God's grace but are not really so. From the word of God, we get strength and wisdom. Ideals take on the force of a divine commandment as they are spoken anew by God.
Following such apostolic ideals would ask a lot from us. As Paul said to the Christians of Pisidia, "We must undergo many trials to enter the reign of God." But along with the call to be brave, we are also called by Jesus to peace. And peace means forgiving others, accepting differences, building bridges. His words remain, "Peace is my gift to you. Do not be distressed or fearful."
What a fine description of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in the Acts, this morning. Visiting churches that were struggling in a pagan world, we are told that they put fresh heart into the disciples, encouraging them to persevere in the faith. In the gospel Jesus is described as doing something very similar. He turns to his disciples who are distressed at the prospect of his immanent departure, or death, and he says to them, 'Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.' There is a time when, as disciples, we need to be challenged, but there is also a time when, as disciples, we need to be encouraged. Jesus and Paul knew how to give encouragement when encouragement was needed. The risen Lord continues his work of giving encouragement to disciples today. Getting discouraged about how we are doing as disciples of the Lord can be a very life-draining business; it can drag us down. Such discouragement does not come from the Lord. The Lord is much more about putting fresh heart into us, what the gospel calls a 'peace the world cannot give.' Every so often when we are feeling somewhat discouraged about ourselves, and how we are doing, it can be good to turn to the Lord and to invite him to put fresh heart into us so that we can be joyful and energetic in the living of our faith. The Lord puts fresh heart into us through the Holy Spirit. That is why one of the names given to the Holy Spirit is 'Comforter'/'Consoler' and why we can turn to the Holy Spirit and pray, 'Heal our wounds, our strength renew; On our dryness pour thy dew.'
The Council of Jerusalem, on what is needed for salvation
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses." So the apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.
The Vine and the branches
Jesus said to his disciples; "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2). So were Peter, Andrew, James, John and Paul and indeed all boys from Jewish religious families, as a sign of submission to the Mosaic law. Then Paul came forward with a new idea about the practice of circumcision. True, spiritual circumcision, he maintained, is of the heart, where bonds of love and loyalty bind the people to their God. And Jesus belongs at the heart of this relationship. So to be baptised into Jesus is to be spiritually circumcised, bound in covenant to God.
He tells us, "I am the vine, you are the branches." But the question about circumcision was a very divisive one, early in the church's history. They hotly debated whether it should be required of all male converts to faith in Christ? And if female, were they required to undergo the ceremonial bath and to follow the strict dietary laws? Paul's theology triumphed, that Jesus had brought the Old Law to its final fulfilment, and because of his birth, death and resurrection, it was no longer necessary to first become a Jew in order to become a Christian. The impact of this question upon early Christianity and its relation with Judaism has a continuing resonance for our church and its decisions today. Things long held immutable can and sometimes must change.
We and our leaders are challenged by the Spirit of Jesus to have the courage for necessary changes, to open the Gospel to today's world. Just as the early church could reach beyond the actual practice of Jesus and no longer demand circumcision, our church may be asked today to leave behind some ideas that now separate us from many thoughtful, ethically-aware people of today and to make brave decisions for social justice and for the future of our planet? Surely this was the vision of Vatican II, for the pilgrim people of God. If our leaders openly discuss such matters with the active and concerned laity, the resultant decisions can be trusted as divinely guided just as was the decision to abandon circumcision. If we live deeply in God, there will be divine direction in our life.
Those who have roses will know that they need to be pruned if you are to get the best out of them. What is true of roses is true of most plants; pruning brings on new life. Jesus refers to that procedure of pruning in this morning's gospel. He suggests that in various ways God prunes our lives to make them even more fruitful than they presently are. There are some things we may need to shed if we are to become all that God is calling us to be. Some experiences of letting go, which can be very painful at the time, can help us to grow in our relationship with God and with others. Yet, during those painful experiences of pruning in our lives, the Lord is in communion with us. In the words of the gospel, he makes his home in us, he remains in us. We don't have to face into that experience of being pruned on our own, or in the strength of our own resources alone. The Lord who makes his home in us will sustain us in those times, and will lead us through the painful experience of pruning into a new and more fruitful life. However, for that to happen we need to remain in him as he remains in us; we need to keep in communion with him, as he is in communion with us.
Peter and James defend Paul's missionary practice
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
After they finished speaking, James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, "After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago." Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues."
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love
Jesus said to them: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."
A spirit of love and enthusiasm was found to exist among non-baptized gentiles by both Peter and Paul. What Jesus had prayed for among his disciples was found among foreigners even before their baptism. Peter recognised a second Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the household of the Roman, Cornelius, just as when the Spirit came to the disciples in the upper room. So he let these people be baptized at once in the name of Jesus Christ. They were not required to be circumcised first, or to obey the Jewish dietary laws. To baptize them immediately seemed the right thing to do, even though Jesus himself had submitted to circumcision and other Mosaic prescriptions.
We gain insight, when we are faced with a fait accompli, the fact of a person with undeniable gifts of the Spirit but who rebel against our Catholic tradition. These people are sincere, gifted with common sense, yet unable to agree about magisterial doctrine. They are like the "gentiles" who received the spirit in a way that clashes with Jewish traditions and customs. To put it bluntly, they seemed outside of God's law! So in what way can they be directed by the spirit of Jesus? Or, they are partly right and we partly wrong, partly blinded and biased?
The Bible offers two lines of advice on this point: First, we must never deny the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever kindness, patience and self-sacrifice for the sake of others are manifestly present. These are gifts of the Spirit, no matter what misconceptions may also lodge in the same person. The household of Cornelius may have still clung to many pagan, superstitious ideas. Yet, Peter allowed their baptism immediately.
The second advice is in what the Council of Jerusalem laid down. The gentile converts must respect some deeply embedded sensitivities of their (Jewish-) Christian brethren, procedures all somehow related to blood: not to marry with close relatives; not to consume blood directly, or indirectly in the case of animals improperly butchered; and not to buy meat that had been offered to pagan gods. Both sides were asked to make concessions for the sake of others. Conversion does not consist only in doctrine; it is a reconciliation with a family where Jesus is the head.
We often find reference to 'joy' and 'rejoicing' in the New Testament. St Paul often writes, 'I rejoice', and he refers to 'joy' as the fruit of the Spirit. In the gospel this morning Jesus says that he wants his own joy to be in us. Joy is very much at the heart of the gospel; it is not surprising when we consider that gospel literally means 'good news.' On the night before he dies Jesus says to his disciples that he wants his joy to be in them. It seems strange that Jesus should speak of 'joy' in that rather ominous setting, with hostility and violent death facing him. The 'joy' he refers to is not what would normally be considered joy by others. It is the fruit of knowing that he is loved by God the Father, no matter what happens, and it is the fruit of sharing that love with his disciples and with all humanity. The joy he wishes for his disciples, for all of us, the sharing is his own joy, is the fruit of knowing that we are loved by Jesus to the end and the fruit of sharing that love with others, of loving one another as he has loved us. Joy is the reverse side of authentic love, the Lord's love for us and our loving for one another with the Lord's own love.
The decision of the Jerusalem Council goes out as a circular letter
Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, with the following letter: "The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."
So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.
The disciple who truly loves will bear fruit, fruit that will last
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."
Today's readings combine high ideals with reasonable compromise and adaptation. A very demanding loyalty was required within the early church, but they could, in face of real difficulties, find workable compromises on what at first seemed insurmountable points of dispute. After vigorous debate, the Jerusalem disciples allowed that gentile converts to membership of the Christian church. Both the decision of the Jerusalem Council and the call to love without limit are at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Some people regard all compromise as tainted and asopposed to fidelity. Yet the message of the Jerusalem Council was: "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and ours too, not to lay any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary." The word strictly indicates some relaxing of the rules; but it was a Spirit-inspired compromise that helped resolve one of the sharpest threats ever faced by the church. If the conservative Jewish Christians had repudiated Paul's visionand held to a narrow view of church, Christianity would have remained a small satellite of Judaism, and never blossomed into what Jesus intended; the new covenant for the whole world.
The church faced this crucial test of her nature and mission by calling an assembly of the whole church in Jerusalem, under direction of the apostles and elders. That Council followed the policy of open discussion, so that everyone bore the responsibility of the decision. It also voted for freedom wherever possible. Conservative Christians disliked the compromise reached at the Jerusalem Council. Practices of piety and devotion, styles of worship and prayer that were received from their ancestors would no longer be binding on gentile members who would soon far outnumber the Jewish Christians. The torch was being passed to a new generation. If it is a moment of growth it was also a moment of pain and separation. It makes one wonder what kind of compromises are called for in our church, today.
Friendship is one of the great blessings of life. Friendships don't just happen; two people have to choose each other as friends, on the basis of a mutual attraction of some kind, a set of common interests, a shared way of looking at things. Friends tend to share deeply with each other. In today's gospel, Jesus calls his disciples friends, "I shall not call you servants any more.. I call you friends." He goes on to say to them, "You did not choose me, no, I chose you." The Lord has taken the initiative to befriend them; he has chosen them as friends. The Lord has chosen to befriend all of us. He has demonstrated his friendship by sharing deeply with us; he has revealed to us what is most personal to him, his own relationship with God his Father. He has also demonstrated his friendship by emptying himself on our behalf, by laying down his life for us. He has done his part, but if the friendship is to happen, we need to do our part. We need to choose him as he has chosen us; we need to befriend him as he has befriended us. We need to remain in his love, his friendship. According to the gospel, that will entail loving one another as he has loved us, befriending one another as he has befriended us.
Timothy, a half-Jew, joins Paul in the missionary work
Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
Servants are not greater than their master. Disciples must not expect an easy time
Jesus said to his disciples,
"If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me."
Adversity played big part in Paul's apostolate; and perhaps in ours too. Persecuted in one place, the disciples fled to another place; so the gospel moved onward and continued to spread across the Roman Empire. Local conditions threw road-blocks in Paul's way keeping him from preaching as he had intended; and St Luke offers this explanation, "They were prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message." This interpretation allows that even human intrigues, jealousy and misunderstanding such as later happened to Paul in Corinth, can be part of God's providential plan for apostolic workers. The Gospel spreads within a human setting, despite faulty human judgment and selfish motives, but the Holy Scripture still recognizes a mystery of salvation being achieved by the Holy Spirit, through human instruments.
Oddly it seems, Paul had Timothy circumcised "because of the Jews of that region." Yet, at the same time Paul was transmitting for observance the decision the apostles and elders had made in Jerusalem. Once it was settled that circumcision was not necessary for salvation, Paul felt free to circumcise out of respect for others! This procedure included some rather sophisticated reasoning, hard bargaining with the Jerusalem church, loyalty to principle and yet compromise on non-essentials. Now that circumcision was no longer a prerequisite for salvation, Paul could have his his assistant Timothy circumcised, so as not to scandalise the Jews of that region!
Called to go to Macedonia is how Paul (and Luke) perceived the decision to cross the Dardanelles. Yet it was a monumental decision, by which Christianity passes into Europe for the first time. The heart of biblical religion will no longer be located at Jerusalem but somewhere else. That step was induced by a set of human circumstances, some petty and insignificant yet all the while annoying, others more theological and reflective. Paul handled the situation with a combined reaction of stern principle and diplomatic compromise. All the while, he was convinced that he was being led by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus predicted the world's hatred for him and for his followers. The gospels show that he was realistic about the hostility that would come his own way and the way of his followers. Yet, he wanted his followers to relate to the world not on the basis of how the world relates to them but on the basis of how God relates to the world.
When he says, "A servant is not greater than his master," it can be read in two ways. One way is, "if the master experienced hostility so will the servants." The other way is, "if the master washed the feet of the servants, including the one who betrayed him, the servants must do likewise; they must reveal the love of God to others regardless of how they relate to them." That saying of Jesus, "a servant is not greater than his master" gives us much to ponder. It also brings home to us our dependence on the Holy Spirit, if we are to be like the master in every respect.
When Paul reaches Philippi, Lydia becomes his first European convert
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.
The Holy Spirit will support us in whatever comes; this is Jesus' farewell promise
Jesus said to his disciples, "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
"I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.
Arriving in Europe, Paul experienced a major transition in his life and ministry. Up till now in Asia Minor (modern Syria and Turkey), he had been plagued by Jewish Christians who challenged his credentials as an apostle and contradicted his understanding of the gospel. Summoned by a vision to come to Macedonia (northern Greece), Paul began a peaceful phase of in his ministry, on reaching the city of Philippi. There he was kindly received by a wealthy businesswoman named Lydia, who offered her home to the missionaries, as a working base.
Paul literally fell in love with the church he founded in Philippi. His later epistle to the Philippians is among the warmest of his writings. He wrote: "I give thanks to my God every time I think of you, which is constantly, rejoicing in every prayer I utter on your behalf? You helped promote the gospel from the very first? God knows how much I long for each of you with the affection of Christ Jesus! (Phil 1:3-8). Today's text from Acts, describing Paul's stay in Philippi, helps to correct any notion that he was a misogynist. If he had been that, how would a sophisticated, merchant woman like Lydia have come to faith through Paul, and then have offered him the use of her own house?
While living at Philippi, Paul seemed to be surrounded with contentment and success, at least at first. And yet today's reading from John's gospel mentions how Christians were to be expelled from religious assemblies and even be put to death by people who claimed to be serving God. This clash in themes may seem extreme, yet it is as real as life can be. Today, somewhere in the world, Christians are being driven from their homes and their churches, dragged before law courts and sentenced to long imprisonment and to death. The church remembers all these experiences of life. The Spirit who prompts all good actions and who consoles all sorrowing people, that same Spirit comes to us from the Father and bears witness on behalf of Jesus.
Three reflective points leap out from today's readings. 1. "The Lord takes delight in his people" (as the responsorial Psalm today reminds us). We are graciously loved through life, by God's fatherly good-will. 2. Secondly, Jesus promises us that at moments of special need we can rely on the great "Helper," the Paraclete or Advocate, that is the Holy Spirit. 3. Thirdly, we see in the interaction of Paul and Lydia how God blesses and helps us through one another. We are meant to be inter-dependent, to form a community of mutual love, care and assistance. Appreciating what others do for us, we are led by a kind of noblesse oblige to find ways of reciprocating, in return.
Lydia offered kindly hospitality to Paul. 'If you really think me a true believer, come and stay with us;' and she would not take no for an answer! Having received the gift of the gospel from Paul, she was moved to offer the gift of hospitality in return. After being graced by the Lord through Paul, she graced Paul and his companions by her offer of a place to stay. We have all been graced in various ways by the Lord. The first reading this morning suggests that the appropriate response to the experience of being graced is to grace others in return. Having received from the Lord, we give from what we have received. St John at the beginning of his gospel declares that from the Lord's fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. Because of that, we look for ways to grace others as we have been graced, to bless others as we have been blessed. Lydia knew what that meant for her - showing hospitality to Paul. The Lord will make clear how, concretely, we can give from what we have received.
By their courage, Paul and Barnabas win new converts, in the Philippi jail
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved you and your household." They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
His disciples must not be sad to hear that Jesus is going back to the Father
"But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?' But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned."
We can sympathize with Paul's annoyance in today's story, but may wonder if some more patience could have saved him a lot of trouble! Perhaps he was stirred with pity for the unfortunate girl being exploited for profit by her boss. In any case, after his protest the situation changed dramatically and Paul and Silas were flogged and thrown in prison. The flogging could not normally be inflicted upon a Roman citizen, so Paul would later demand and receive a public apology from the magistrates.
During the night as Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, an earthquake broke down the prison gates. While the missionaries could have escaped, they remained within the prison. The jailer woke up, saw the prison gates open and drew his sword to kill himself, afraid of the consequences. Paul calms him down and after a quick instruction about Jesus, baptizes the jailer and his entire household. Then there is a feast to celebrate his newly found faith.What a roller-coaster of experiences.
Like Paul and Barnabas, the modern Christian often stands in need of spiritual help, from the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus. Crises like those met by Paul are not just a test of our personal character but can be the occasion to renew our trust in the love of the Holy Spirit. The love of Jesus surpasses our predictions and fears. He is no less able now than then to bring things to a happy outcome. Even out of the most threatening vortex, good can emerge and, as Julian of Norwich serenely believed, "All manner of things will be well!"
Jesus assures us that when the Advocate, the Holy Spirit comes, he will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was in the right and about judgement. Those who were responsible for the death of Jesus concluded that Jesus must have been a sinner to have died in the way he did; his ignominious death showed that God had judged him. Therefore, those responsible for Jesus' death thought of themselves as in the right. They were right to put this sinner to death. Jesus declares that the Holy Spirit will demonstrate that this unbelieving world is totally wrong in these assessments. Jesus was not a sinner; he was not judged by God; those who put him to death were not in the right. We see here the enormous disparity between God's perception and human perception. The one whom God looked upon as a beloved Son, others looked upon as a sinner. The one whom vindicated was considered judged or condemned by God. Those who saw themselves as in the right were judged by God to be completely in the wrong. Our perspective can be very wide of the mark. We need to keep growing into God's perspective, to see as God sees, to judge as God judges. It is the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who gives us God's perspective. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to see as God sees, to know as God knows, to understand as God understands, to be wise in the way God is wise. That is why we desperately need the Holy Spirit to keep filling our hearts and our minds afresh.
Paul's clever sermon in the Areopagus, to lead the Greeks to the true God
Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; an after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities." (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means." Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus an said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, "To an unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him?though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For "In him we live and move and have our being;' as even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring." Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, "We will hear you again about this." At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.
All will be made clear, when the Spirit of truth comes
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
At the Areopagus in the heart of Athens, Paul recognized the wonderful, exquisite beauty of artworks carved out of marble. The Greeks admired perfect artistic expression of the human form and carved some of the finest of all statues of male and female deities. Their temples to Athena and other gods of their pantheon remain wonders of the world even today. By their statuary and architecture the Greeks sought to communicate with others and to commune among themselves about this wonders of the world and of human nature.
Addressing the Athenians Paul tried to win them over to appreciate the divine influence on all human life. He pointed to the altar inscribed "To a God Unknown." and declared, "What you are thus worshipping in ignorance I intend to make known to you." He ends his polished, well-articulated speech with an idea that leaped beyond reason and beyond any perfection of human nature as it appeared to the Greeks. When he affirmed that God has endorsed Jesus in the sight of all by raising him from the dead, he lost his audience. That was the point when "some sneered, while others said, 'We must hear from you on this some other time.'" At best he received a polite, condescending smile: maybe we'll get back to this later, but maybe not! Yet, a tiny minority did become believers in Jesus, a man called Dionysius and a woman named Damaris and a few others. They came to know that the unknown God, (agnostos theos ) of the Greeks does not dwell in statues or sanctuaries. Rather as Paul held, "it is he who gives to all life and breath and everything else." Jesus sends the Spirit to reveal the fullness of things little by little. By the Spirit we have within us the Person of God, the life-giving message of Jesus, the pledge of what we are to become by dying and rising with him.
There is only so much that people can learn at each stage of their lives. The great life-truths take a long time to absorb. This is certainly the case with the elements of our faith. We enter into those truths gradually, over time, with the unfolding experience of life. Jesus seems to acknowledge this in today's gospel. He tells his disciples that he has many things to say to them but that they are not yet ready to hear them, "they would be too much for you now." Jesus declares that the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who will be sent to them after Jesus' death and resurrection, will begin to reveal these things to them and will lead them towards the complete truth. The Holy Spirit is given to us all to lead us to the complete truth, the truth about Jesus, God, our world, ourselves. This is a life-long journey. Indeed, there is a sense in which we never attain the complete truth in this life. We are always on the way. We can never really afford to say, "I have the complete truth." Rather, we must always leave ourselves open to being led by the Spirit ever more closely towards the complete truth, towards the one who said of himself, "I am the truth."
The early days of Paul's mission in Corinth, and the friends he found there
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together - by trade they were tentmakers. Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks.
When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the officer of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.
Jesus is going to the Father, and promises to come again
"A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me." Then some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying to us, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" They said, "What does he mean by this 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about." Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, "Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy."
Paul left the capital, Athens, with its sophisticated audience and proceeded to the seaport of Corinth, notorious for its riotous atmosphere. Here he ran into fierce opposition within the Jewish community, yet one of the synagogue leaders came to accept Paul's Gospel message. As more and more Greek gentiles accepted the message and turned to faith in Jesus, Paul gradually focused his ministry away from the Jews and toward gentile audience. Significant changes also appear in today's gospel. Here it is expressed in terms of Jesus' presence, absence and new presence. Such changes remind us that no stage of our existence is permanent. "The world as we know it is passing away" (1 Cor 7:31).
Life transitions can often take us by surprise. No matter how well we think to be preparing ourselves, we seem to be caught unaware, at least unable to cope with all that happens. St Paul shows remarkable ability to adapt to change, in his travelling ministry. The work that needed to be done to spread the Gospel urged him to become "as a Greek with the Greeks, and as a Jew with the Jews." The same openness to change was required of the first disciples when Jesus told them he must go away. 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.' Their grief at his absence is real, but he taught them to wait with patience for his return. "You will grieve for a time, but your grief will be turned into joy."
A providential meeting helped St Paul to adapt to his new situation in tumultuous Corinth. The apostle met a couple who engaged in the same trade as himself; they were tent-makers. It seems they were also Jewish-Christians like himself. Not only did they help to keep Paul in contact with his roots, which could have been severed by his rejection in the synagogue, but they also kept him rooted and down to earth in the practical details of everyday life. With Prisca and Aquila he would work for his living, with his own hands. In the secular marketplace where everyone equally works for a living, Paul heard the Lord calling him to broaden his ministry and to gather the foreigners into the community of Jesus' disciples.
On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus speaks to his disciples about his going away, going to the Father. His death will involve a real departure which will cause his disciples to grieve. If they had their way they would have wanted him to stay. But he tells them that if they really loved him they would be glad, knowing that he is returning to the Father. If they really loved him, he says, they would not try to make him stay.
We are invited to rejoice at his departure, because in going back to the Father Jesus can do so much more for his disciples and for disciples of every generation than if he stayed. In returning to the Father he passes into a new and more glorious life, opening up a way to that life for all who believe in him. Through going to the Father, he will be able to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples. In this way, his departure is very much to their advantage and to the advantage of all of us. That is why if they really loved Jesus, they would willingly let them go. Sometimes the greatest expression of our love for others is to let them go, not trying to hold onto them, to letting them go to whatever God wishes and desires for them.
Paul's trial by Gallio the proconsul breaks down for lack of evidence
One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, "Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people." He stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal. They said, "This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law." Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, "If it were a matter of crime or serious villainy, I would be justified in accepting the complaint of you Jews; but since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I do not wish to be a judge of these matters." And he dismissed them from the tribunal. Then all of them seized Sosthenes, the officer of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things.
After staying there for a considerable time, Paul said farewell to the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow.
They will grieve when he goes to the Father - but he will return
Jesus said to his disciples,
"Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete."
Sometimes we migh be given the impression that all possible questions regarding faith or morals can be resolved from the Bible and tradition. Today's Gospel, however, suggests that we will have questions on our mind until the Lord's second coming. "[Only] on that day you will have no questions to ask me," says Jesus. Maybe such a statement might be expected from the earliest strands of the New Testament, say from the gospel of Mark, or the Epistle to the Thessalonians. Yet, the statement comes in the gospel of John, written some sixty years after the resurrection. Since the author of this gospel could survey almost the the whole New Testament, he should have had all the answers, we imagine. Yet he gives it as the mind of Christ that we must wait until the second coming of Jesus before all questions cease.
To balance this, we have the assurance that the risen Jesus is with us, as we seek answers to the questions that life continues to throw up. In a moment of uncertainty about how to go about sharing the Gospel message in Corinth, Jesus appeared to Paul assuring him: "I am with you." Yet after this initial promise Paul has some serious crises to face. He is dragged before the Roman proconsul, and then the Jewish protestors turn upon their synagogue leader, Sosthenes (who has supported Paul) and beat him up. Then Paul's loyalty to Mosaic tradition shows up clearly in his taking of the Nazirite vow (Num 6:1-21). He shaved his head and would not cut his hair again until the vow is completed. He would follow strict dietary laws and keep himself ceremonially pure. It looks as though Paul returned more fully to Jewis practice and immersed himself in traditional Jewish customs, before leaving Cenchreae (the seaport of Corinth) and beginning his journey toward Jerusalem.
Why would Paul continue living as a fervent Jew, while proclaiming the freedom of Jesus' disciples from these laws and regulations. Evidently, Jesus' will for Paul was taking a long time to be clarified - one might imagine that the way forward was gestating in the apostle's mind and heart. This brings to mind the words of Jesus about a woman in labour. She suffers pain and grief just before delivering her child. She may be anxious about the unborn child, about its sex, facial features, health, about its future. In some sense, we are all like that pregnant woman, for we are called to pledge ourselves to others and to our work, when often the future is not clear. But we have the assurance of Jesus that "your grief will be turned into joy." And when more questions arise, Jesus' presence gives us strength to live with our questions still longer!
Jesus is very honest about the impact which his death on the following day will have on his disciples, "I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing... you will be sorrowful." The death of someone close to us always generates strong feelings of sadness and loss within us. Jesus speaks to his disciples in the awareness that they will experience all these feelings when he is taken from them in death. Yet he also assures them that these feelings won't last forever. Their sorrow will turn into joy, a joy that no one will take from them, because Jesus will see them again when he rises from the dead. He reassures them that because his death will be an opening to new life, their sorrow and pain will be a prelude to joy, just as the pain of a pregnant woman is the prelude to the joy of new life. Jesus is assuring us all that sorrow and pain and death will not have the last word in our lives either. Because he has triumphed over death and has passed from death to new life all our sorrows, pains and losses will be ultimately transformed by him. Because he is present to us here and now in the power of his risen life this transformation can begun to be experienced here and now. Because he journeys with us as risen Lord, he can say to us, "your sorrow will turn to joy," not just in the life beyond death but on our present life journey. This was something the two disciples on the road to Emmaus discovered, and that we can all discover for ourselves.
Aquila, a learned convert from Judaism, helps the church in southern Greece
After spending some time there he departed and went from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.
Final promises: Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete
Jesus said to his disciples,
"On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
"I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father."
While the gospel implies our dependence on the Holy Spirit, the Acts takes a different slant: our faith also needs guidance from our fellow human beings. Apollos was certainly on the way toward being a disciple of Jesus and showed great goodwill, but he needed the help of others. In the plan of God, he would be led into the mystery of Jesus through the ministry of the couple Priscilla and Aquila. Remarkably, the wife is named before her husband, which indicates the strong role of this woman in the early Church's ministry. Texts like this help us to appreciate the attitude of St. Paul toward women and the teamwork of married people in the Church's apostolic work.
Prisca and Aquila not only provided a welcome for other Christians in Ephesus but served as educators in theology. To dialogue with someone as knowledgeable as Apollos and lead him beyond the message of John the Baptist meant that the couple were well informed, capable of dialogue and open to insights from the Holy Spirit. Apollos was risking his security and his renown as a learned preacher to be led beyond the borders of his eloquence. His journey of fuller conversion was made under the direction of Priscilla and Aquila. Evidently the Spirit is received while people share their faith with one another. A community of faith must be formed in which it becomes evident that all are open to what the Holy Spirit will reveal.
Jesus himself exemplified this process of transformation. He must leave this world in order to send the Holy Spirit. This offers a good comparison with the risks of leaving behind the tried and true, as experienced by Apollos. To belong to Jesus we must share in Jesus' total surrender to the Father. On making such a gift of oneself we will more fully realize where Jesus is leading us: "I have come from the Father, into the world. Now I am leaving the world to go to the Father."
Today's text from Acts describes members of the early church supporting and helping each other in their faith. Paul is shown encouraging all the followers, and reference is also made to Apollos, a member of the church in Ephesus, a very gifted man, but not fully formed in the faith. A married couple, Priscilla and Aquila, took a great interest in him and gave him further instruction in the faith, sharing their deeper understanding of the faith with him. Then when Apollos decided to journey from Ephesus to the church in Corinth, the members of the church in Ephesus encouraged him to do so. Since they realized that others could benefit from his gifts, they didn't want to keep him for themselves, and even sent a letter of recommendation ahead of him to the church in Corinth. When Apollos arrived in Corinth the Acts says that his knowledge of the Scriptures was a great help to the believers there. The reading paints a wonderful picture of the church at its best - believers helping, supporting and encouraging each other in the faith, helping one another to grow in the Lord. This is what the church is called to be in every generation; this is the church in which the Spirit of Christ is alive and active. As we approach the feast of Pentecost we need to pray for an increase of the gift of the Spirit among us, as Jesus says in today's gospel, "Ask and you will receive, and so your joy will be complete."
In Ephesus, followers of John the Baptist become full members of the church
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." Then he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They answered, "Into John's baptism." Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied?altogether there were about twelve of them.
He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God.
Approaching his Passion, Jesus says, Take courage; I have conquered the world!
His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God." Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!"
"I am speaking to you plainly," he said, yet the plain language of Jesus' discourse in John's gospel still baffles us. How will the disciples find peace in Jesus, once they are scattered, and Jesus is left alone? How does such a disintegration of friendship convince them that Jesus knows everything and has come from God? The "plain" language is scrambled still more when the disciples speak in tongues and prophesy. Such an extraordinary manifestation of the Spirit goes beyond rational discourse. When God's Spirit descends on a group, we can do one of two things: either declare it an illusion and walk away, or acknowledge that God is present, beyond our capacity to understand or explain. Earlier in the Acts (chapter 10), when a group of gentiles began to speak in tongues, Peter saw there was nothing to stop these people from being baptized. (Acts 10:47). And when he was later challenged about it Peter's defence was that "the Holy Spirit came upon them - Who was I to interfere with him?" The Church had no choice but to accept the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
Normally, plain speech moves with clear ideas and in logical sequence. We are able to obtain further clarification and refine our reasoning. We can express our difficulties about the logic of an argument. If we are alert and we are able to express our ideas clearly, our minds are in control. Tongues and prophecy, on the contrary, go beyond the limits of logic and plain speech. They are an ecstatic expression of the experience of the Holy Spirit. Their communication is more by experience, touching the strings of emotion and the fibres in the heart. They are not subject to logic; they just happen! And if they happen, one can only say: Amen! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Or say like Peter, "the Holy Spirit came upon them?. Who was I to interfere?"
Jesus' plain speech suggests the potential in all of us to act beyond reason (not against reason) and to do what can only afterwards be explained as beautiful and good. Even though the disciples scattered and left him alone, still his own steadfastness was such that we are not left alone; Jesus and the Father are with us. At no time does our Lord's example call us to forgive so much as during his Passion. when he exemplifies the meaning of forgiving seventy times seven (Matt 18:22) and of being willing to die for the sake of one's friends (John 15:13).
Jesus is very aware that those closest to him will soon abandon him. Rather than following his way, the disciples will go their own way, leaving him alone. Yet he speaks with the conviction that he is never really alone because God his Father is always with him. Even as he hung from the cross, God was with him, supporting him.
What Jesus says of himself we can all say of ourselves. There are times in our lives when we find ourselves alone. This is true especially of those who have never married or of older people whose spouse has died and whose families are away. Yet, even when we are alone, we can say with Jesus "I am not alone." God the Father is with us as he was with Jesus. Indeed the risen Jesus is also with us, as is the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts. Even when we are alone, we are always in the presence of the Trinity, we are living members of that wonderful family of love. Our awareness of that can bring us a deep peace, a peace the world cannot give. As Jesus says in today's gospel, even when in the world we have trouble, we will find peace in him.
Paul's testament to church leaders, on his way to Jerusalem
From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. When they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus. And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God's grace.
"And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.
The high priestly prayer of Jesus, for those he must leave behind in this world
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
"I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
In today's readings we have some famous last words from Paul and from Jesus. Each states that the substance of his work is done. Paul must proceed to Jerusalem and hopes, if he survives the dangers in that city, to sail westward to Rome and bring the Gospel to Spain. Jesus says he has finished the work given to him by his heavenly Father and now prays: "Father, give me glory at your side." Paul offers parting advice about the duties of pastors and religious leaders; while Jesus prays for them and for all who will join them in times to come.
Both Paul's sermon and Jesus' prayer look to the future with calm faith and both candidly state that they have done their very best. Paul says plainly: "You know how I lived among you from the first day I came here, how I served the Lord with humility through the sorrows and trials that came my way." And Jesus affirms the identity of his friends: "Those whom you gave me were yours; they have kept your word." Paul faces a future of uncertainty, knowing that prison probably awaits him at Jerusalem. Jesus did not predict exactly what lies ahead; he would only pray that his followers remain faithful to his person and to his teaching.
Their situation was no different from that facing priests, religious and committed laity today. We too should face the uncertain future with faith and calmness. For when we finish the work given to us by the Father, God will take us to Himself.
For the next couple of days we will be reading from Our Lord's prayer during the Last Supper. He begins by praying for himself, "Father? glorify your Son." Jesus is aware that the path to glory is through the cross. His lifting up on the cross is the cause of his lifting up in glory. Jesus is ready to return to the Father from whom he came because, as he says in that prayer, "I have finished the work that you gave me to do." We all have some work to do while we are on this earth; we have all been given some sharing in the Lord's own life-giving work.
Hopefully there will come a day when, like Jesus, we can turn to God in prayer and say, "I have finished the work you gave me to do. Now, take me to yourself in glory." In the meantime, we try to be faithful to the Lord's work, to the mission that the Lord has given each of us, the mission to make the Lord known to others by the way we live. In the carrying out of that mission we are not left to our own devices. The Lord works with us and is praying for us. In today's gospel, having prayed for himself, the Lord prayed for his disciples, who are to be his witnesses in the world. That includes you and me. The Lord lives forever to intercede for all us, so that we may be faithful to the work he gives us. When we find it a struggle to pray for ourselves, we can be sure that the Lord is praying for us.
Paul's final advice to the church leaders: shepherd the church of God
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. I coveted no one's silver or gold or clothing. You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive.""
When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.
Before leaving them, Jesus prays to the Father, Sanctify them in the truth
Jesus said to them, "And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth."
Paul offers his colleagues both advice and example. They are to remember his example of manual labour and of preaching the gospel tirelessly. Conviction and commitment are revealed in his words. Just as he worked ("with these hands of mine") to support himself and his companions he urges the elders to do the same. One of the values of work is to enable us to help the weak. Church leaders are there to serve the people, not exploit them, and to build up the community. Paul quotes Jesus as saying, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." This precise phrase is not found in any of the gospels, and it surprises us not to find it in Luke's first volume. But its inclusion here serves to illustrate the truth that if all that Jesus said and did were written down "there would not be room in the entire world to hold the books" (John 21:24).
Despite the difficulties we may foresee for our church, we are encouraged to live joyfully, for Jesus intends us to share in his joy. Trusting in him fits us well enough to face whatever the future may bring.
Jesus declares how he has watched over his disciples and protected them. Now his prayer to the Father on their behalf is a further expression of his loving care. His intercessory prayer is an extension of the many ways he had served them since they first began to follow him. In a similar way, our prayer for others is an extension of our care for them; it is another form of service.
By his intercessory prayer for his disciples - and that includes all of us - Jesus teaches us the value of all intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer has been at the heart of the church's prayer life since the time of Jesus. Paul in his letters reports on his intercessory prayers for his churches and he often called on his churches to pray for him. Both Jesus and Paul, of course, were heirs to a Jewish tradition that greatly valued this form of prayer. Praying for others is one of the ways we give expression to our communion with others in Christ.
Paul is cross-examined by the Jewish Council, in Jerusalem
Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them.
When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, "Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead." When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees" group stood up and contended, "We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks. That night the Lord stood near him and said, "Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome."
The final part of Jesus' high-priestly prayer, on behalf of his followers
Jesus said to his disciples,
"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."
Jesus calls unity the most characteristic mark of his disciples, a vital goal of true faith, when he prayed: "that they may be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me." Yet in the Acts, Saint Paul defends himself by deliberately stirring up debate, pitting the Sadducees pitted against the Pharisees on the subject of resurrection from the dead. Wherever he went there was controversy. Paul aligned himself with the Pharisees (23:6); however, he was not always stirring up trouble but eloquently appealed for peace and unity in 1 Corinthians and in Ephesians.
On the other hand, Jesus was not always a messenger of peace. He had put this question: "Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? - I have come for division. From now on, a household of five will be divided three against two and two against three; father will be split against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother" (Luke 12:51-53). His disciples were not united around the weak principle that nobody should ever dare hurt the feelings of anyone else, but rather around an intense desire to enable one another to seek and share the best.
Jesus urged his followers towards a shared vision of goodness, kindness, peace and justice. More than anything else, according to the gospel for today, this unity was to be modelled upon that of the Holy Trinity. Jesus in turn will share with his disciples the glory given to him by the Father before the world began, "so that your love for me may live in them, and I may live in them." Looking at some of the procedures and strictures of our Church leadership, one has to wonder if they remember that unity is to be generously striven for, not imposed in an authoritarian tone. Jesus puts before us a vision that leads us beyond what we consider possible. He states that desire as something that he personally holds dear, "with I in them, and you Father in me, may their unity be complete." If we love him, we must try to make that vision a reality.
"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love." Jesus speaks those words to all disciples of every generation. Just as God the Father's love for Jesus is a given, so Jesus' love for us is a given. All that is asked of us is that we remain in his love by remaining in communion with him. In the case of those disciples who were with Jesus at the last supper, they did not succeed in remaining in Jesus' love; they did not remain in communion with him. With the exception of the beloved disciples, they all went on to abandon him. According to John's gospel, the first question the risen Jesus asks Peter is, "Do you love me?" giving Peter the opportunity to come back under Jesus' love, back into communion with him.
The risen Lord gives the same opportunity to all of us, and gives us that opportunity over and over again. The question, "Do you love me?" is asked by the one who has loved us as the Father has loved him, who has loved us with a divine love. It is not an accusing question, therefore; it is more an inviting question calling us back into communion with the Lord if, for whatever reason, we have fallen out of communion with him. The Eucharist or Holy Communion, as we often call it, is a moment when we hear that question addressed to us in a special way; it is also an opportunity for us to respond to that question as Peter does in today's gospel, and to renew our communion with the Lord if we have broken it.
Paul, in prison at Caesarea, explains his predicament to king Agrippa
After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to welcome Festus. Since they were staying there several days, Festus laid Paul's case before the king, saying, "There is a man here who was left in prison by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me about him and asked for a sentence against him. I told them that it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met the accusers face to face and had been given an opportunity to make a defense against the charge. So when they met here, I lost no time, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. When the accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the crimes that I was expecting. Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges. But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of his Imperial Majesty, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to the emperor." Agrippa said to Festus, I would like to hear the man myself." "Tomorrow," he said, "you will hear him."
Jesus entrusts Peter with the responsibility: "Feed my sheep."
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."
In moments of fear we often fall short of our best. This happened even to Peter, our church's chief apostle and pastor, when terrified he denied Jesus three times. After the resurrection Peter returned to his former job as a fisherman, and Jesus appeared to him by the lakeside and three times asked the incisive question, "Do you love me?" Peter was no longer the brash, impulsive man of former days, for after betraying Jesus he tasted a flood of humility and remorse. He had returned to the work he knew best, sobered by failure and now ready to get on with his life, with new self-awareness. After tasting his own need for mercy he had learned compassion for others, and became the kind of man to effectively lead Christ's Church. Not once, not twice, but three times Jesus asks him, "Do you love me?" Only when Peter answers with humble love and total surrender, "Lord, you know everything," does Jesus commission him to "Feed my sheep."
Moving out from Jerusalem into a wider field of mission, Peter brought the Gospel message first to Joppa and then Antioch and later to Rome itself. Love, contrition and obedience to the Lord's prompting became the hallmarks of his ministry. As such, he is the rock of the Church and patron of all apostolic people. Even though Peter speaks with authority, there is a quality of patience about him, clearly reflected in his epistle when he writes "I, who am an elder myself, appeal to the church elders among you" (1 Pt 5:1). He is able to love and be loved, humble and open to others in their ideas and talents, aware of sin and able to appreciate the weakness of others, ready to obey Jesus at all costs. This is the authentic Petrine ministry our Church reveres and prays for. Jesus singled out Peter from all the apostles and particularly sent him to "Feed my sheep." He was to be the iconic pastor of the Church.
Before Jesus was crucified Peter denied Jesus three times. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to Peter and asked him three times, "Do you love me?" as we heard in today's gospel. The question on the lips of Jesus is not, "Why did you deny me?" but "Do you love me?" The question Jesus asked is not one that focuses on the past but, rather, one that focuses on the present. The past is past; it is the present that matters.
The question "Do you love me?" is one we can all hear as addressed to each one of us personally. That question calls on us to make the Lord the focal point of our love; he is to be our first and our deepest love. Earlier in John's gospel Jesus had said, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, remain in my love." That relationship of love between the Lord and ourselves is at the heart of our faith; everything else flows from that love and presupposes it. Peter could not be commissioned to feed the Lord's flock until he first declared publicly his love for the Lord. Our own personal relationship with the Lord comes before any work we might do in his name. Our life of faith, our sharing in the Lord's work of caring for his flock, for each other, is the living out of a personal relationship of love with the Lord.
Paul is imprisoned in Rome, for two years, awaiting trial
When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, "Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor--even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain." They replied, "We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against."
After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: "The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,
"Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn--and I would heal them." Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen."
He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
John concludes: the world could not contain all that could said about Jesus
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?" When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!" So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
The readings today are the final verses of Acts and of John's gospel. Acts rounds out Saint Luke's theological purpose, which extended from his earlier book (the Gospel) into his second book (Acts). In his Gospel Luke moves from Old Testament Jerusalem (chs. 1-2) via the Jordan River and John the Baptist (ch. 3) and a wandering ministry of preaching and healing, to complete the circle back again in Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified and glorified and where the disciples are back again in the temple, praising God (Chs. 22-24). A major section of Luke's gospel is the Journey Narrative (chapters 9-19, which sets Jesus' entire ministry as a "going up" to Jerusalem, on his way toward the cross and glorification.
Acts too begins in Jerusalem and its central section(chs. 13-28) reports Paul's "Journey Narrative," his travels through the Greek speaking world, founding churches and bringing people into the Christian community. All of Paul's activity leads up to Rome, where Israel's cherished hope now triumphs through the worldwide spread of the faith. Rome, then, is the new Jerusalem where the disciples praise the Lord.
The "Journey" theme of Luke's Gospel and Acts must find place in our lives. Every moment and every experience, good or bad, easy or difficult, is bringing us toward this new "Jerusalem," this "Rome." Here we praise God for his wonderful acts in our lives. Prophecies are fulfilled. Both the Gospel and Acts inflame our faith and confidence. All is part of a meaningful journey. There are stages of joy and of effort. Sometimes we have to go around a barrier, and even for a while seem to be going backward. There is the need for resting and recouping strength, such as are found in the gospel and in Acts. Jesus can turn each experience, no matter what it may have been, into a new stage of our road toward our destination, the heavenly Jerusalem.
"Wait until I come." Eternity will be the continuation of the final moment in our earthly journey. Jesus comes to us again and again. Our prayer now is a foretaste of heavenly joy. What Paul said to his Jewish visitors in Rome, he says to us: we too share the hope of Israel, as fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus at Jerusalem.
There are three characters in today's gospel, Jesus, Peter and the beloved disciple. Jesus had just given Peter an important role in the church, "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep," Jesus had said to him. Peter then asks Jesus about the beloved disciple, "What about him, Lord?" he said. In reply Jesus seems to say, "Look I have other plans for him. You follow me, in accordance with the work I have given you." Peter and the beloved disciple each had their own role to play, but they were different roles. Peter gave his life for Jesus in Rome. The beloved disciple was responsible for the fourth gospel and seems to have lived to an old age. The Lord has different roles for all of us. There is something each of us can do for the Lord that no one else can do. Rather than looking over our shoulders at others, as Peter was inclined to do in today's gospel, we have to try and discern the particular calling the Lord has given us and then be as faithful and as generous in our response to it as we can. We cannot be someone else; we can only be ourselves. The Lord wants us to be ourselves because he has a unique role in mind for each one of us.