Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year A
Today’s first reading continues the Christian story in Acts and features Philip, who was one of the seven we read about last week appointed to take care of the finances and material needs, particularly of the Greek- speaking members of the Jesus community in Jerusalem. Philip’s Greek name indicates he is one of the Hellenist Jews of this community. It is important to remember that the infant church at this stage was Jewish and the Jesus people were becoming branded as heretics for their belief in Jesus as Israel’s messiah. One significant figure who vigorously opposed the Jesus people at this time was Saul of Tarsus, who, known later as Paul, became one of the most outstanding Apostles of Christianity.
Philip, commissioned by the Jerusalem community, travels north to take the gospel message to the people of Samaria. Luke makes the point repeatedly in his volume of Acts that those sent on mission make a significant impression by healing people of various physical and mental complaints. These ‘signs and wonders’ as Luke calls them drew listeners to the missionaries and were instrumental in bringing people to Jesus Christ. Luke is also noted for attributing the success of missionary work to the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit emerges as a kind heroic character in Luke’s writings.
Church decisions were made by the communities themselves
The elders of the Jerusalem community, struck by Philip’s success, sent Peter and John to Samaria, not to preach or make converts but to endorse the baptizing work of Philip with the laying on of hands that bestowed the gifts of the Spirit. As a cultural aside, it is worth noting that the Jerusalem church was governed by a committee of elders (in Greek: presbyteroi). Respect for wisdom and age has always been an outstanding feature of Jewish culture. This is before the rise of a centralised Christian hierarchy or priesthood as we know them.
Throughout his writing, Luke informs us that church decisions were made by the communities themselves in collaboration with their elders. This is the kind of synodality that Pope Francis is attempting to restore in today’s church.
The poet of the responsorial psalm is bursting with joy and gratitude and calls on all the earth to praise the creator of the unfathomable beauty that makes up our world. When writers of the ancient Hebrew text mention the ‘name’ of God the reference is to Moses’ experience at the burning bush. The name of God was revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14) as describing a spirit reality that is infinitely mysterious, compassionate, far above human comprehension, powerful and sacred beyond all imagining. It was never meant to portray an old person in the sky made in the likeness of limited human imagination. For the psalmist, God is a reality that has given him help and reassurance in his life.
By the time we get to the period when the second reading from 1 Peter was written we notice that church conditions had changed. Communities were growing in numbers and more organised methods of administration had to be employed. We also note that the Greek of this letter is of such high quality that it is fairly certain it was not written by the Galilean fisherman himself. We can say, however, that the two letters, 1 and 2 Peter, were very probably written by a disciple of Peter who was faithfully reflecting the teachings and spirituality of Peter. Today’s extract was written at a time after the first generations of Christians when hope in the imminent coming of Christ was fading and when Rome was referred to with the codename ‘Babylon’ – years after Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in 70 AD. Peter was martyred around 64 AD. The writer is encouraging his people to endure suffering, ridicule and accusations of disloyalty to the Empire for their commitment to Christ. He urges them to keep a clear conscience and never cease striving to do good.
A good conscience is not guided by popular opinion
The Second Vatican Council promoted the importance of conscience and was careful to state that conscience needs to be informed so that it can make decisions according to proven wisdom and the values of goodness and justice. A good conscience is not guided by popular opinion nor does it follow the line of least resistance but seeks to be honest in its genuine search for truth. The writer of the first letter of John encourages his community to test points of view, human action groups, lobbies, movements, trends so that they do not fall prey to ideas and behaviour that are merely fashionable or popular. He writes:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1)
A conscience that is a reed shaken by the wind of fashion, trendy ideas and what seems OK without careful examination by the yardstick of truth, justice and proven wisdom is an unreliable conscience. It is dishonest and fake.
The gospel reading is taken from John 14 which forms part of the farewell discourse of Jesus given to those disciples who were present at the Last Supper. Today’s extract begins ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’ Virtually every English version of the Bible has a rendering almost identical to this. What is missed is the subtlety of the original Aramaic that Jesus would have used. The Aramaic poukdáni is rightly translated as ‘my commandment’ but it also contains the idea of a trust or something guarded for safekeeping. Jesus is not saying, ‘Do as I command!’ he is saying ‘Keep everything I have said and taught to you as a sacred trust, this is how you will show your love for me.’
The verb for ‘love’ here in Aramaic is rakhem which also means to have compassion, empathy and friendship towards another. In fact, rakhem is based on the verbal root rakhmah which means innards and womb. It describes love coming from the depths of one’s being as well as the love, nourishment and tenderness provided by the womb.
In his last will and testament Jesus leaves everything to his closest friends
This fits into place when we appreciate that John is presenting in this farewell discourse the last will and testament of Jesus. In Jewish tradition, a husband longs to have a son who can inherit his name and possessions. This is an important cultural aspect of Jewish social heritage. But Jesus has no house or goods to pass on and no son to carry on his name and his work, so he leaves everything, his teachings, his attitudes and values, and his very self, to his closest friends.
The promise of Jesus is that he will not abandon his friends but will send the Spirit who will be their support. The Greek word used here is paraklētos and there are some fancy theological words for this term, such as, Paraclete, Advocate, which don’t actually mean a lot to the average reader, and other variations like Helper and Comforter. However, the Greek word describes one who goes into bat for someone, acting as a support, negotiator and go-between. Jesus did exactly this in the flesh and will continue to do it in spirit through the Holy Spirit. John gives voice to the conviction of Jesus that his values and those of his followers will be rejected by people who live selfish and materialistic lives. We could almost hear Jesus warn us to beware of those who are driven by consumerism and whose aim in life is to acquire more, waste the planet and be obsessively taken in by whatever is on their Smartphone.
At this point, Jesus is quite mystical in his words to his closest friends when he tells them he will be with them in spirit and when he says, ‘On that day you will realise that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.’ He is talking about a oneness that exists between himself and the Father (this stands as an often- repeated motif in John’s gospel) and a further relationship of union between Jesus and the disciple.
The climax of this discourse is Jesus’ articulation of the ideal that we become one with him as he is one with the Father. Here, we are reading a literary expression of a cycle of intimate relationship involving God, Jesus and us.
Applying this to our own lives we may well ask, ‘How do I recognise the Spirit in my life?’ Another way of putting this is, ‘Can I recognise the spirit of Jesus Christ in the persons and events of my life?’ Remember, Jesus is not remote. He is as close as the person next to us, the ones we share our life with, the stranger in the street. Do I express the kind of love (= friendship, courtesy, empathy, compassion, appreciation) that Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel? Will I encourage someone today, this week? Will I make a phonecall or send a text or email to be a support to someone? Will I tell someone I appreciate them for who they are, not just for what they do?
God did not make us to be eaten by anxiety, but to walk erect, free, unafraid in a world where there is work to do, truth to seek, love to give and win.
Joseph Newton (20th century Baptist minister and inspirational author)
Pete goes to his girlfriend’s house for the first time. Sharon shows him into the living room and excuses herself to go into the kitchen to make them a drink. As he is standing there alone, he notices a colourful little vase on the mantelpiece and picks it up. Sharon comes back with the drinks and Pete asks,
‘What’s this?’ Sharon says, ‘My father’s ashes are in there.’
Embarrassed and lost for words Pete stammers, ‘Golly...um...I...er...
‘Yes,’ says Sharon. ‘He’s too lazy to get up off the couch and go into the kitchen to get an ashtray.’