The Easter Season is passing quickly. Already it is more than half over, as we progress toward the great Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. We want the Season to slow down, so that we may savor the joy and consolation of these readings from Acts and John that dominate the Easter Cycle, but tempus fugit.
The Readings for this Fifth Sunday of Easter describe the growth of the Kingdom of God, which is manifested on earth as the Church. The first two readings and the psalm are tied together with Kingdom images, and the Gospel reminds us that this Kingdom is characterized by God’s love.
1. The First Reading is Acts 14:21-27:
After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news
to that city and made a considerable number of disciples,
they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.
They strengthened the spirits of the disciples
and exhorted them to persevere in the faith,
saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships
to enter the kingdom of God.”
They appointed elders for them in each church and,
with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord
in whom they had put their faith.
Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia.
After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.
From there they sailed to Antioch,
where they had been commended to the grace of God
for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together
and reported what God had done with them
and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.
The key line from this reading of Acts is: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”
If we had read through Acts continuously to this point, we would notice that the narrative has switched from following Peter (Acts 1-12) to following Paul (Acts 13-28) by this point in the story, and the theme of suffering to enter the Kingdom actually enters the Book of Acts at this point. The word for “suffering” here is the Greek thlipsis, often translated “tribulation” by the KJV-RSV tradition, and associated with the hardship preceding the final judgment in the Gospels and Revelation. It is also a favorite term of St. Paul throughout his Epistles.
It is not accidental that “tribulation” crops up in St. Paul’s preaching precisely at this point. In the verses immediately preceding today’s Reading (i.e. Acts. 14:19-20), Paul is stoned to death by a mob incited by some Jews, yet he more-or-less miraculously “rises from the dead,” returns to the city, and continues preaching in the region.
As Paul was preaching this message of “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God,” he was still visibly cut and bruised in a most awful way from his recent near-fatal (or truly fatal?) stoning. Standing mangled, bruised, bloody, and bandaged in front of the believers, his words must have had added power. Truly, he knew what tribulation was.
Empowered by the Spirit, the Apostles in Acts are growing in their understanding of the mystery of the Gospel. Though the element of suffering for the sake of the Good News had been present from the beginning of Jesus’ own preaching, Paul is realizing just how true this is. So many years before, Jesus Himself and pronounced on an mountaintop:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:10-12)
So Paul’s preaching shows strong continuity with Jesus’. Through his preaching, the Kingdom continues to grow among the Gentiles. The ancient kingdom of David and Solomon included many Gentile nations within it, as vassal states in the empire (1 Kgs 4:21). Now the Kingdom of David, which is also the Kingdom of God, grows by the preaching about Jesus, Son of God and Son of David. And so it goes today: the preaching continues, conversions continue, and “tribulations” continue.
Poper Francis has spoken often of the modern world as an age of Christian martyrdom. Most recently, at a daily mass last Tuesday (04-12-16), he said:
"There are bloody persecutions, like being torn to pieces by wild beasts to the delight of the audience in the stands or being blown up by a bomb at the end of Mass” and there are "velvet-gloved” persecutions that are "cloaked in politeness": the ones that marginalize you, take your job away if you fail to adapt to laws that "go against God the Creator. Persecution, I would say, is the daily bread of the Church. Today, on Easter Sunday, just three weeks ago… Those Christians who were celebrating Easter in Pakistan were martyred because they were celebrating the Risen Christ. Thus, the history of the Church goes ahead with its martyrs
The Pope pointed out that in addition to bloody persecutions, there is a subtle form of persecution consisting of a refusal to allow conscientious objection to the pro-death laws of Western societies:
"But there is another persecution which is not much spoken about," a persecution "camouflaged by culture, by modernity, by progress in disguise: It is a persecution I would 'ironically describe as polite. It’s when someone is persecuted for wanting to manifest the values of the Gospel: "It’s persecution against God the Creator in the person of his children!”
"It’s the kind of the persecution that deprives one of freedom, and of the possibility of conscientious objection. This is the persecution of the world."
Before we leave the First Reading, we should note a small but important feature of the Apostles’ ministry: “they appointed elders (presbuteroi) for them in each church.”
The leadership of the Church needs to be appointed, not elected, because the authority comes from Christ through his representatives, not from the people, as if the Church were a democracy.
These elders appointed by the Apostles were the first bishops (episkopoi) and priests (presbuteroi). In the very early Church, the terminology for the roles that we now distinguish as “bishops” and “priests” was not yet regularized. In certain NT passages, episkopos and presbuteros were used roughly synonymously. Later, the Church became more conscientious about reserving the title episkopos (bishop) for the presbuteros (priest) who was in charge of the whole local church. Keeping that in mind, we see here in Acts 14 how the Apostles, while they were alive, were conscious of the need to appoint leaders to continue their ministry and exercize their authority in their absence. These episkopoi and presbuteroi in turn appointed replacements for themselves, down to the present day, with Pope Francis and our local bishops and priests. So we are still “living in Acts.” The Church we see forming in this holy book is the one we still inhabit. The successors of St. Paul continue their ministry among us!
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13
R. (cf. 1) I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD,
and let your faithful ones bless you.
Let them discourse of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your might.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
Let them make known your might to the children of Adam,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is a kingdom for all ages,
and your dominion endures through all generations.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
This Psalm is unique in that it mentions the kingdom (Heb. malkuth) of God four times. Only one or two other Psalms even mention God’s kingdom (103:19, possibly 45:6), and then only once each. So Psalm 145 is the “Psalm of the Kingdom of God.” This Kingdom is to be proclaimed to “the children of Adam,” that is, to all people, to all nations. That is precisely what Paul and Barnabas were doing in the First Reading. This kingdom is characterized by God’s grace, mercy, kindness (hesed), goodness, and compassion. This reminds us of the Gospel Reading, where Jesus gives the “new commandment” of love, which will characterize the new community he has established.
3. The Second Reading is Rev 21:1-5a:
Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The former heaven and the former earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more.
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.
He will dwell with them
and they will be his people
and God himself will always be with them as their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death or mourning,
wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”
The One who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Jerusalem was the capital city of the Davidic Kingdom, and several times in the nation’s history, the extent of the kingdom was reduced by invasion to the capital city alone (Isa 1:8; 36:1-2). Jerusalem is the mystical center of the Kingdom. This New Jerusalem is often identified as an image of heaven, but it is more accurate to see it as a vision of the Church. The “Church Triumphant” and “Heaven” are virtually coextensive concepts, so there is a great deal of overlap. Nonetheless, the identification with the Church can be made with the help of St. Paul, who calls the Church both the Bride of Christ (Eph. 5) and also the Temple of God, built on the foundation of the Apostles (Eph. 2). Likewise, this New Jerusalem of Revelation is Bride of Christ (Rev 21:9), a giant Holy of Holies (21:16), built on the foundation of the Apostles (21:14).
In the Church Triumphant, truly all tears, death, mourning, wailing, and pain will be removed. We may rest assured that there will be an ultimate end to the “tribulations” we suffer for the sake of the Kingdom. Nonetheless, even now, through the ministry of the Church and the Sacraments, we receive a great deal of comfort and consolation as we “strive to enter the Kingdom.”
Covenant concepts are implicit in this reading. The city is a “bride,” married to the Lamb, and marriage is one of the primary forms of covenant. Furthermore, this phrase, “they will be his people and he will be their God,” is often called by scholars the “covenant formula” or “covenant formulary,” because it is the most succinct Old Testament expression of the essential covenant relationship between God and Israel.
A covenant is the extension of family ties by an oath. Families are bound by love. This Second Reading uses an image of very tender love: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” This is a very intimate gesture. It is human nature to resist another person touching one’s face, especially around one’s eyes. If a stranger approached us and reached for our eyes, we would react violently and defensively. This is only something we would accept from a father, a mother, a spouse. God promises us this level of intimacy forever in the Church Triumphant, the life to come.
In his recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis describes the family as an image of the Holy Trinity, and speaks movingly about the tenderness of love that should be expressed between spouses and family members. The love we experience in family life should be a foretaste of the divine “wiping of every tear from the eyes.”
4. The Gospel is Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35:
When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The Gospel of John is full of paradox, almost from the beginning of the Gospel, where we read:
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.
He came to his own, and his own received him not.
We would expect, of course, that when the maker comes to what he has made, he would be received with joy—but paradoxically, such is not the case.
There is paradox in today’s periscope as well. We have reached one of the darkest hours in Jesus’ ministry: Judas has just left the upper room to carry out his mission of betrayal. Judas, one of the most capable and trustworthy of the disciples, the one entrusted with the common purse, is intent on selling Jesus to those who want him dead.
So is Jesus morose at this moment? Far from it! Instead he says:
Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him …
Why is this moment considered the “glory” of the Son of Man? We may offer many different perspectives on that question, but perhaps it is because Jesus has just consented to the will of the Father, consented to the total act of self-gift that will lead to the cross. This is the true glory of God: not simply that he is the all-powerful creator, but that his love extends to the point of giving up his divine prerogatives and giving himself into the hands of his creatures, to make them his sons and daughters (Phil. 2:5-11).
So the “glory” of the Son of Man is the glory of the total self-gift of love.
At this point, we see the logic of Jesus’ discourse, and why he moves from speaking of his glorification to the command of love:
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
As many commentators have pointed out, the command of love by itself is not new. The Old Testament already commanded one to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). What is new here is to love as Jesus has loved, which is to love more than self.
The community of disciples that Jesus has formed and is forming, which can also be called “the Church” and “the Kingdom,” should be marked by this love:
This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
We see here how love is tied to evangelism: “This how all will know … if you have love.” This is a truth we tend to forget. When we take up efforts for evangelization, we tend to think of strategies for outreach, of door-to-door canvassing, rallies, crusades, passing out brochures, parish missions, etc. All of things are fine, but more fundamental is whether the local Christian community actually demonstrates love for each other.
Is our local parish a community of love, or a religious center where people greet each other in passing while heading in or out of worship? Is it any wonder, then, that the world doesn’t recognize us as the disciples of Jesus?
It is a hard saying. We have a great deal to do in order to implement our Lord’s command this day.