Lectionary commentary: fifth Sunday of Easter, year A
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 6:1-7
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 33:1-2. 4-5. 18-19. R/. v.22
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 2:4-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 14:1-12
What of the little people? What about the ordinary people, many slaves among them, who came to embrace the vision of Jesus of Nazareth? People who struggled to learn their prayers. Even to learn the Lord’s Prayer off by heart? What about widows and orphans, always on the edge in ancient societies?
Orphans and Widows
Orphans are mentioned three times in the whole of the Bible. Probably the 42 times that the Hebrew Bible mentions the fatherless it implies that such children were to be cared for as if they were orphans. When the Book of Lamentations laments the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (c.587 B.C.) it grieves God had departed and left behind a city of orphans, fatherless, and widows:
Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to foreigners.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
our mothers are like widows.
Widows are mentioned 93 times in the Bible and therefore
deserve consideration, not least because of the 32 references in the New Testament, 14 are to be found in the writings of St. Luke. The First Letter of Timothy mentions widows 9 times. the Letter of James has one amazing sentence about widows and orphans (see James 1:27).
The most famous widows in the Hebrew Bible are, of course, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi and I commend their story to anyone who wants to learn how impoverished women might survive in a man’s world. Jewish tradition names the four most beautiful women who ever lived or will ever live (all Jewish, of course). Three you can guess. The fourth and my favourite is the newly-widowed Abigail of Carmel whose story is told in the First Book of Samuel 25:3-42. As they say, a canny lass.
Every chapter of the Book of Exodus is devoted to Moses as he posts instructions on how God’s people must live. Notice this:
You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
The Book of Job rails against evildoers of this world for,
they wrong the barren, childless woman,
and do no good to the widow.
When he comes to examine his conscience, Job lists what must be confessed:
If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,
or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
or have eaten my morsel alone,
and the fatherless has not eaten of it …
But it is the Book of Deuteronomy, the repository of God’s Torah, God’s teaching on godly living, that demands justice for the orphan and the widow. It is important to realise why God makes the demands that are commonplace in our Bible. Listen:
You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.
Deuteronomy 24: 17-22
If you are redeemed from slavery, if you are fed and watered as you make you way through barren deserts, and if you are brought to a land flowing with milk and honey, then you have been baptised to be a redeemer. The redeemed become redeemers. If you have experienced the godliness of God, then you must thereafter be godly. No wonder the teaching of Deuteronomy was ever in the mind and heart of Jesus.
A final word from a very demanding prayer for what the Lord does is what God’s people must do:
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin …
On the very day Jesus declared himself in the synagogue in Nazareth he reminded everyone of a widow of Zarephath and how the prophet Elijah attended to her needs (Luke 4:25-26). Soon after Jesus gave a dead son back to his widowed mother (Luke 7:11-17). In a Jesus parable giving justice to a widow is enjoined on a godless judge (Luke 18:1-8). Wealthy and exploitative scribes are condemned for “devouring widow’s houses” as they plied their business (Luke 20:46-47). A poor widow’s tuppence-ha’penny is acknowledged before the offerings of the rich (Luke 21:1-4). In Acts, however, widows become an issue and a story. According to St. Luke, the first row in the history of the Christian Church was about widows.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 6:1-7
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The word of the Lord.
The first controversy in the 2000 year history of the Christian Church was about widows. It is necessary to put the controversy into the context of Luke’s understanding of Jesus and of the Jesus communities as they made their way in the world. If some widows were being neglected, the first question to ask is why, in Luke’s perspective, is why are they of such concern?
The Gospel of Saint Luke
Consider the people who turn up in the pages of Luke’s Gospel. We might begin by noting that being born in a stable and laid in a manger make one something of an outcast.Jesus lived, for the most part, on the margins of society. He was a champion of outsiders.
Turn over Luke’s pages. You will meet a leper who asks to be made clean and the hand of Jesus is stretched out to touch and to heal (Luke 5:12-13). A reject is thus restored to the synagogue.
Holy people and those learned in the ways of religious observance (scribes) are irate because “a tax collector named Levi” is conscripted to join the Jesus enterprise. But Jesus shocks them even more with a policy statement:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
The same scribes and Pharisees are against healing on the Sabbath but a man with a withered hand is healed (Luke 6:6-11). A Roman centurion’s slave, sick and dying, is made well (Luke 7:1-10). A Roman centurion! How outsider can you get?
Then the funeral of a widow’s son is stopped. The bier is touched and Jesus gives the son back to his mother. A dead man! An impoverished widow! Even theses are not outside the embrace of Jesus (Luke 7:11-17).
Then there’s a list of outsiders—people with diseases, people afflicted by plagues and evil spirits, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf are healed, the dead are raised, the poor have good news preached to them—all are blessed by the man from Nazareth (Luke 7:21-23). Such people are what they are, it was believed, because of sin. But Jesus does not subscribe to that doctrine. In Luke 7:34 the charge against him is this:
A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.
Luke’s verdict: Guilty as charged.
Jesus knew “what sort of woman this is who is touching him” but her sins are forgiven and she is send away with the greatest of all gifts: peace (Luke 7:36-50). The same gift of shalom is given to the woman with the unfortunate discharge of blood (Luke 8:40-48) and a dead daughter is given back to her parents (Luke 8:49-56).
Astonishingly, women are conscripted into the Jesus project—in a society where women were outsiders in almost everything (Luke 8:2-3). Indeed, it is true, in the Jesus enterprise “the one who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48). And that includes Samaritans, outsiders who are far outside (Luke 9:51-56). Then one of them turns up in a parable and becomes eternally famous for being an unimaginable contradiction: a good Samaritan. Everyone is told to go and do likewise (Luke 10:25-37).
The Jesus world is topsy-turvy:
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
In the Jesus world lost coins must be found, lost sheep must be carried safely home, and whoring sons must be celebrated with afatted calf. Lazarus (and his dog?) must be brought to comfort and the rich man reminded that listening to Moses and the Prophets is a wise counsel (Luke 16:19-31). But Jesus demands more. The rich ruler is advised to sell everything and follow the rejected Nazareth prophet (Luke 18:8-30).
The last person Jesus meets before he makes his fatal entry into Jerusalem is a tax collector up a tree. The people may grumble, again like their complaining desert ancestors, but,
Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
The Church of Saint Luke
Luke’s Church begins with waiting. But on Pentecost Day “there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2). The coming of the Holy Spirit (“they ere all filled with the Holy Spirit”) marks the foundation of Luke’s Church. The very first instinct of those filled with the Holy Spirit is to speak and multitudes come and hear the proclamation. They do not understand but Luke’s readers and hearers will realise that people from the east as far as Parthia, south into Egypt and Libya, even west to Rome are hearing “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). People from the back of beyond are the very first to hear the Galileans proclaim “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).
The business of Peter and the eleven is to proclaim. Luke presents a carefully constructed address founded on a quotation from the prophet Joel (Acts 2:14-36).The Spirit, Joel imagined, is to be poured out on all flesh, the whole of humanity, young and old alike. But then comes the utterly unthinkable. For the Spirit will be poured out on the very lowest in society, on male slaves and even on female slaves. If that unthinkable revolution were not enough,
… it shall come to pass
that everyone who calls upon
name of the Lord
shall be saved.
The first surprise, envisioned in the prophetic vision of Joel, is that what Jesus declared before he was taken up is coming to pass:
… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
The outreach of God has no boundaries. It is to include all peoples everywhere, including such non-people as male and female slaves (Joel). The reach of God goes out to “all who are afar off” (Acts 2:39). No matter how far that is.
A lame (so unclean) beggar is carried each day to ask for alms of those who were entering the Temple But in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth Peter bids him rise, and,
… leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the Temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
In his second address to the “Men of Israel” (see 2:22 and 3:12), Peter appeals to what God spoke through the holy prophets from of old, to Moses, to “Samuel and those who came after him”. He points out a total, unthinkable heresy. Reaching back to the time of Abraham and quoting God’s word to the Father of the nation, Peter reminds every Jew of the unthinkable:
in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.
Acts 3:25, quoting Genesis 22:18
We must realise that the despised Gentiles, the pagans of this world, the utterly unclean, are to be blessed and admitted to the family of God. To be a Jew was to belong to a holy people. To proclaim that Gentiles, that is, everyone except Jews, are called into God’s family is the ultimate heresy. But this is what God is doing. The deacon Philip proclaimed the Messiah in the city of Samaria (Acts 8:5), the Jewish neighbours who are truly beyond God’s pale. But, following Philip, Peter and john are dispatched to complete the missionary outreach to the old enemy:
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
There remains the ultimate outsiders, the imperialistic coercive, exploitative Romans. God, in no uncertain matter, directs Peter to the house of Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort. Luke’s readers and hearers must have been as amazed as Peter:
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.
With great care Luke has plotted the work of the Holy Spirit but he has stressed that there are no more outsiders, no more marginalised, no more strangers in the family of God. That is why the widows are so important.
The widows are a test case. Luke demonstrates the outreach of the Holy Spirit across the world, bridging racial, political, religious, and sexual divides. His story is plotted with delicacy and precision. From the synagogue in Nazareth to the city of Rome, the Holy Spirit works to reach out to the world of humanity and to cross all lines of division. The vision of Luke shines through this first Christian controversy. What is at stake is the care of the most needy. What is at stake is the rejection of discrimination on any grounds in the community that claims to be witnesses to Christ Jesus. From his first pages Luke has insisted that God hears the pain of the people. Nobody maybe left on the margins; nobody may be on the outside of God’s love. The community adopted into God’s love must be a community that adopts “all who are afar off”:
for the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are afar off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.
Serving at Tables
How the solution to meet the complaint of Jewish Christians who normally resided outside the land of Palestine (Hellenists) was met by the laying on of hands on “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” is not clear. While “the full number of the disciples” took part in the discussion and while “the whole gathering” approved of the agreed solution, none of those chosen began to serve at tables.
Stephen, “a man full of the faith and of the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power and signs among the people” set about preaching “this Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 6:14). He was quickly put to death. Philip went to proclaim Jesus to the Samaritans, then to the African eunuch making his way home to Ethiopia, and, on his return, in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. None of the others are mentioned again in the New Testament.
What is to be noted is that the Twelve summon the multitude of disciples to discuss the matter and the solution meets with unanimous approval. Secondly, the Twelve and the assembly is fully empowered to meet the crisis by appointing people to share the burden of community needs. Jesus did not provide for the day-to-day structural administration of the community of believers. There must be discernment, a search for the will of the Holy Spirit. There must be prayer and appointment, a laying on of hands. Thus community unity is maintained and mission is served. In the language of Pope Francis this is known as synodality.
It is hardly necessary to point out that the men chosen were not deacons as in our ministerial vocabulary. The verb διακονειν (diakonein, to serve, to attend to, to render service) is used of those who serve at table (verse 2). διακονία (diakonia, ministry, service) is used of those who must devote themselves to the ministry of the word (as in verse 4). Both tasks are services inspired by the Holy Spirit in order that the unity of the community is maintained and its purpose in the world is served.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 33:1-2. 4-5. 18-19. R/. v.22
R/. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song. R/.
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. R/.
Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
that he may deliver their soul from death
and keep them alive in famine. R/.
Psalm 33 has all the marks of a choral hymn with instrumental accompaniment. Notice the lyre and harp in the first verse. The Response verse is the last line of the hymn and the prayer to which the whole psalm is directed:
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.
Thanks must be given to the Lord for many reasons:
The word of the Lord is upright,
it utterly dependable, utterly true.
The Lord’s doings are totally trustworthy.
What the Lord loves is justice,
all in creation that mirrors the justice of God.
The vocabulary of God is love. The words of the Lord are spoken to all creation. God is love and God does as God is. That is what the justice of God means, God being God. In today’s song we can pray to be rescued—even in days of famine.
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 2:4-9
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.
So the honour is for you who believe,
but for those who do not believe,
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone, and
A stone of stumbling,and a rock of offence.
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
The word of the Lord.
People on the margins?Outsiders? Were the people addressed in I Peter exiled from their native place, uprooted because of military disturbances or economic pressures? Or were they internal exiles, cut off from society because of their newfound faith? Whatever the explanation, the people who received this letter were marginalised.
Jesus was rejected, “the living stone” rejected by human beings but “chosen and precious in the sight of God” (I Peter 2:4). These believers are rejected but their rejection is as that of Jesus. Jesus is not a futile, discarded stone. He is the stone put in place by God to be the very foundation stone of a new enterprise. These outsiders, marginalised people, “have tasted that the LORD God is good” (I Peter 2:3). The Jesus they have accepted into their miserable lives is “a living stone”, as the prophet Isaiah revealed,
… thus says the Lord God,
“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation …
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Not only is Jesus “a living stone”. These marginalised people are like the living stone that is Jesus for they are being built into a spiritual house. They are elected by God, chosen by God and enlivened by God’s Spirit. People regarded as of no account are given a new identity. They are not outsiders; they are on the inside, “born again to a living hope … to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, being guarded through faith for a salvation to be revealed in the last time” (I Peter 1:3-5 passim).
This new edifice, this spiritual house, is “to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:5).
A holy priesthood
This “spiritual house” is “a holy priesthood” ordained to offer “spiritual sacrifices”. That the Church, “the spiritual house” is “a holy priesthood” has given rise to misunderstandings. There was a time when the “holy priesthood” was understood as “the priesthood of the laity”. But that does is nonsense. There is no priesthood in the writings of the New Testament except the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The key text in understanding the uniqueness of this priesthood is in the Letter to the Hebrews, the most theologically sophisticated document among the 27 books in the New Testament. That letter was written for Jewish Christians and they were more in tune with the Hebrew Bible than Christians who did not share that rich inheritance.
For the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is truly and fully a man:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
This “high priest’ is “the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14), “the source of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:9). He is the one, the only, priest, who “by a single offering … has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
The priesthood of Jesus is unique. But, as our reading today maintains, there is “a spiritual house” that is “a holy priesthood”. That priesthood is “the priesthood of all believers”. It is a priesthood, a community of the ordained,
to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
I Peter 2:5
There is no other priesthood in the New Testament for this priesthood of all believers embraces the whole Church. For everyone is baptised into priestly service. Every Christian participates in this priesthood. That is to say, everyone is required to give priestly service, to live a life to God in all that we do and all that we say. It is in this sense that the writer of 1 Peter can appeal to the identity of the people of Israel as expressed by Moses on Mount Sinai:
… if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
While the people of Israel, from the days of Moses to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., had a priesthood distinct from “ordinary” people, nonetheless the Book of Exodus demanded that the whole people be a holy nation. That holiness was measured by the holiness expected of the priests who served in God’s presence. Exodus is not referring to status or office; it is insisting on holiness.
Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and some other Christians are used to ministers of the Eucharist being called priests. However, there is no evidence in the writings of the New Testament that the word “priest” was used for any minister or official. The term does not become a feature of Christian vocabulary until the end of the second century. The Greek text of the New Testament uses the word hiereus to denote a Jewish priest serving the Jerusalem Temple. Otherwise the word is used only of Jesus when he is designated,
a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek
Moses on Mount Sinai insisted that everybody in God’s holy people must exhibit the holiness expected of those who served before God. It is that holiness of service, sacrifice, compassion, and obedience that must mark those called priests in the community of the Christian faithful.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:1-12
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. 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, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to 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. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? 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 authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.
The Gospel of the Lord.
There are two possible ways of interpreting this reading from the Gospel of St. John. The first and, I suspect, the more familiar understanding, reads the passage as an insight into the eternal life, into life beyond the grave, the very future life promised by Jesus who is “the way, the truth, and the life”.
Such an understanding is readily demonstrated. The key to the passage is the emphasis on departure:
I go to prepare a place for you.
… and if I go and prepare a place for you …
... and you know the way to where I am going.
The departure can be and most often is, understood to refer to the death of Jesus. His going, his death, will open the gates of paradise. In the Father’s house they are more than enough rooms and Jesus will return (on the last day?) “to take you to myself” (John 14:3).
An Alternative Understanding
As often in John’s Gospel, when Jesus states his purposes, there follows difficulties and misunderstandings, expressed often enough, by his disciples. Here it is Thomas who is first to be bewildered:
Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?
Consider the reply. It is hardly that bristling with clarity:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.
By way of introducing an alternative understanding of this puzzling exchange between Jesus and his disciples, let me quote two statements of Jesus to his disciples. The first is an assurance by Jesus that his departure, that is, his death, will not be a cause for unending sadness:
Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
Following that assurance of sorrow turned into joy, comes an explanation:
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 of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.
I want to suggest that the fulfilment of these promises to bewildered disciples who are troubled by Jesus announcing his departure will be fulfilled in the meeting of Jesus and Mary Magdalene when she clings to the Risen Lord in a rapture of love.
To begin, we must consider Philip’s request to see the Father:
Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.
It is the desire of Philip to see the Father that calls into question the understanding that Jesus is speaking about taking the disciples to heaven, to a “place” where the Father dwells.
It is difficult to believe that in this passage, often read at funeral liturgies, Jesus is talking about heaven as a “place” where God is and we are not. Jesus say simply,
Believe in God; believe also in me.
This simple statement is not quite so simple. There are four possible ways to translate the Greek words:
You believe in God. Therefore you believe also in me. You believe in God. So (now) believe in me! Believe in God! If you do you must therefore believe in me. Believe in God AND believe in me.
No matter which way you translate these simple sentences, there is ambiguity. But the fourth option is more in keeping with what we know of the Father to whom Jesus refers. The disciples must believe in God. That belief must not be isolated from the person of Jesus. In a trite phrase, you can’t have one without the other. Or in the utterly profound revelation in the Gospel’s first sentence,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
As Jesus insisted,
The Father and I are one.
Jesus will depart, that is, he will die. But the truth that sets us free is that his death will not be a separation. What Jesus is saying, if we use our conventional language, is that heaven is where God is known and experienced as Father. God the Father is not a postponed future but an ever-present reality:
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
The going away of Jesus to prepare a place does not create a vacuum. There is never a time when the Father is absent. The word traditionally translated “mansions” actually refers to “stations”, that is, ”resting places” where travellers rest up and are renewed before continuing their journey. The departure of Jesus is the first station of his permanent return.
Briefly, remember what Jesus says to Mary as she clung to him beside the empty tomb:
Do not cling to me, for 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.
At last! The one called “Father” and “My Father” throughout the Gospel of John is now proclaimed, not only to be “my Father” but to be “Our Father”. It is when we have come to understand that God was, is, and ever will be Our Father that we know that we are in heaven. There may be many “stations” along the way, many of them “stations of the cross”, but at each station the Father is there refreshing, sustaining, and supporting our steps to the next station. In this world we are besieged by eternity.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.