Lectionary commentary: seventh Sunday of Easter, year A
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 1:12-14
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 27:1. 4. 7-8. R/. v.13
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 4:13-16
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 17:1-11
Times have changed. For God only knows how long Catholic Christians were not encouraged to read the Bible. Now we are deluged with Scripture. Many people hearing the four pieces of Scripture appointed for today’s Sunday Mass will listen without understanding. How can we expect that everyone grasp the meaning of what was written two thousand or more years ago and in languages that few understand? How can preachers, God help them, open up what St. Francis of Assisi called “God’s holy words” so that “our hearts burn within us” (Luke 24:32)? How can these ancient documents inspire us, guide us in the way we live, and lift our hearts and minds to God?
In this blessed time of Easter, as we prepare to rejoice at the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day, our Lectionary has six readings from the First Letter of St. Peter. Leaving aside the fact that St. Peter did not write this document, there is much in this letter to encourage and inspire. But consider this passage that is not in our Lectionary:
Likewise, wives, be submissive to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him “lord”. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
I Peter 3:1-7
There are Christians across the world that believe this text has the authority of God and defines the place of women today as it did in he past.A woman’s place is in the kitchen and not, for example, in any ministry in the Church. God has defined the rôle of women in the Church and in the world. There is no more to be said.
Of course, there are many who have washed their hands, hearts, and minds of such demeaning texts and abandoned a Christianity that seems so inconsistent with the attitude of Jesus of Nazareth. Is this the attitude of the Jesus who met May Magdalene beside the empty tomb, of the Risen Jesus who in every Gospel first made himself known to women and instructed them to go and tell the men, even the apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John and the rest, that “he is risen”?
There are others, women and men, who realise that the Bible must be read, not as if it was written for people of the 21st century, but that our holy books must be read in line with the times in which they was written. Catholic Christians must realise that a fundamentalist attitude to the Bible (“if it says in the Bible it must be right”) is dangerously at odds with God’s holy words.
This is what an official document of our Church has to say about that all-to-common mind-set:
The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious but illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide.
Consider this quotation:
The biblical word comes from a real past. It comes not only from the past, however, but at the same time from the eternity of God and it leads us unto God’s eternity, but again along the way through time, to which the past, the present and the future belong.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
That quotation comes from the same document that condemns fundamentalism. Cardinal Ratzinger insists that to understand Scripture as a document of faith we must dialogue with its pastness in order to understand how it calls us today into God’s future.
The author of I Peter wrote this:
Be submissive … to every human institution, whether to the king (emperor) as supreme, or to governors as sent by him …
I Peter 2:13
Slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.
I Peter 2:18 (my translation)
It is important to note that the Greek text uses precisely the same verb translated as “be submissive to“ in the case of total deference to political authority, that is, to the imperialistic, exploitative, and coercive Roman authorities. The verb is applied to slaves who must be submissive even to cruel masters. And wives are ordered to be submissive to their husbands. Now consider these sentences:
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
First Letter of Timothy 2:11-15
From such sentiments in our Bible we inherited Kids, kitchen, church to describe the rôles of women in our Church.
Two things must happen. Everyone in the Church must be brought to understand how the good news of “the gospel of God” enriched Christians in ancient times, and how, as God’s holy words, can transform Christians of today and every day. To have solidarity with our sisters and brothers we meet in the Bible we must learn how to read words that come to us from a distant past. Our ancestors translated Jesus as Saviour within the confines of their world. How do we today, gifted with “God’s holy words” in our Bible, translate God and Jesus into our time and place?
There are many women scholars who try to redress the imbalance in our understanding of the Bible. The Church has an official word on their efforts:
Feminist exegesis [interpretation] has brought many benefits. Women have played a more active part in exegetical research. They have succeeded, often better than men, in detecting the presence, the significance and the role of women in the Bible, in Christian origins and in the Church. The worldview of today, because of its greater attention to the dignity of women and to their role in society and in the Church, ensures that new questions are put to the biblical text, which in turn occasions new discoveries. Feminine sensitivity helps to unmask and correct certain commonly accepted interpretations which were tendentious and sought to justify the male domination of women.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 1:12-14
[The apostles] returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
The word of the Lord.
The Gospel of St. Luke provides the story of the Ascension of Jesus. None of the other Gospels do so. The difficulty is that Luke has another and different account in his second work, the Acts of the Apostles. According to his Gospel, the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and the appearance of the Risen Jesus to the Eleven took place on “the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1), that is, on Easter Sunday as we know it. Jesus gives a final instruction to those who are to be his witnesses. They are to remain in the city of Jerusalem “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). The final sentences of the Gospel are these:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
When we turn over the page to read the Acts of the Apostles, we discover that Jesus spent 40 days on earth after his resurrection “speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). We can grow old trying to reconcile the contradiction between the two accounts. What is more important is that the apostles and those with them (“the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers”) waited in prayer in that upper room (Acts 1:14). It was this tiny community that was filled with the Holy Spirit and that “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Their first instinct was to tell the story. The Holy Spirit transformed everyone in that upper room into proclaimers of the gospel of God.
The explanation of all this has been with us from the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, if we allow ourselves to enter the world of Luke’s imagination:
Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
The Spirit that descended on Jesus is the same Spirit that rested of each of those “who were together in one place” (Acts 2:1. Both Jesus and those who waited in prayer were baptised into a ministry of preaching the wonderful works of God:
…. 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.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 27:1. 4. 7-8. R/. v.13 R/. I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? R/.
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to meditate in his Temple. R/.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, Lord, do I seek.” R/.
A soul in distress prays that the Lord be a saving light, a rescuer, one who saves. If the Lord comes to the rescue, there is no cause to be afraid.The security that will come if the Lord becomes a saviour reaches a pinnacle of safety if the prayer translates the one who prays to the house of the Lord, to the Temple in Jerusalem where dwells the Presence of God.
To seek the face of the Lord is to seek what God granted Moses:
… the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks to a friend.
The prayer ends in an affirmation of utter faith and hope, faith that God will save from enemies and hope that God’s protection will endure throughout life. The Christian will want to add “and beyond”.
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 4:13-16
Rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
The word of the Lord.
This paragraph in Peter’s letter begins with “Beloved”, as did the section dealing with a similar intimate address:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you.
I Peter 4:12
Both sections appeal to those who “have been grieved by various trials” (I Peter 1:6). What follows both “”Beloved” addresses is an account of “the fiery trial” that come to these ”exiles” and how to bear such inevitable pain. To be sure, their sufferings must test their faith. Indeed, the Greek word translated as “the fiery trial” in 4:12 (quoted above) refers to the fiery furnaces used to separate impurities from metals of all kinds. The word used here echoes lines found elsewhere in the Bible:
And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
The prophet was referring to the little remnant of the people (after exile?) refined by God and “tested as gold is tested”. The Book of Revelation (3:18) counsels the Laodiceans, meagre in faith, to buy from God “gold refined by fire so that you may be rich” (in faith). The image occurs in the Psalms:
For you, O God have tested us;
You have tried us as silver is tried.
You have brought us into the net;
You laid a crushing burden on our backs;
You let men ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;
You have brought us to a place of abundance.
The author of I Peter is suggesting that the misfortune inflicted on these “exiles” is a testing in fire so that their “impurities” are removed and they become pure gold in the sight of the Lord.
The joy that sustains these suffering people is that they share Christ’s sufferings. The solidarity in suffering of these believers mirrors their solidarity with Christ, a fact emphasised throughout the letter:
… if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. I Peter 2:20-21
… even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed.
I Peter 3:14
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God …
I Peter 3:18
It is this solidarity with Jesus that carries those who suffer to glory. This is a teaching with wide acclaim in the writings of the New Testament:
… since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
This suffering carries all who endure to glory. Glory does not come through the doing of murder, theft, or any evil. There is a magnificent claim by the great theologian and pastor, St. Paul of Tarsus that, in the simplest of language, discloses all that is said in I Peter:
Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
I Corinthians 15:49
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 17:1-11
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.
The Gospel of the Lord.
There is an ancient hymn that originally comes to us from Christians of Cappadocia. Cappadocians are named in the First Letter of Peter as belonging to ”the elect exiles of the dispersion”. There were Jews from Cappadocia in Jerusalem on Pentecost Day who “were amazed and perplexed” at what they heard. Some of these took the message of Jesus back to Cappadocia and that church of Cappadocian Christians produced great saints and theologians. It also gave us, in its own language, our most famous Latin hymn:
Gloria in excelsis Deo …
Glory to God in the highest …
We pray Glory be to the Father, again, like the Gloria, a prayer that is frequently on our lips. It is a prayer that concludes many of our prayers. The word “glory” occurs at the very beginning of the Gospel of Saint John:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The words “glory” and “glorified” occur 8 times in chapter 17, when Jesus “lifted up his eyes to heaven” to his Father. A former teacher of mine, Leopold Sabourin, SJ, provided a useful clarification of the word:
While holiness expresses God’s transcendence, his glory concerns rather his immanence to the world.
His sentence implies that “holiness” proclaims the otherness of God. “Glory” announces God’s nearness.
Our Bible recognises that God is holy:
I the Lord am holy.
The word “holy” in Hebrew means “separate”, especially “separate” from the ordinary, from the worldly. Literally, holiness is unique and belongs exclusively to God. The very first hymn in the Bible sings of the holiness of God:
“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness …
The prophet Isaiah provides us with another hymn:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!
The Psalms are full of God’s holiness:
The Lord reigns;
let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the Lord our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he!
Glory and Glorify
The first step in understanding “glory” and “glorify” is to realise that these words initially refer to the uniqueness of God.We recognise the otherness of God. God alone is creator. God alone is the One who saves. God alone is steadfast love. We recognise this glory in hymns of praise, in prayers, and in doing on earth, as far as we can, what is done in heaven. If glory is, first of all, humanity’s recognition, it cannot end there. Recognition can never be a matter of singing hymns and arias.
We might plot what must happen once we recognise the holiness of God. To know God is holy is to know that we come from God. Recognising that we come from God demands a response.
Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.
The glory of God—creator, sustainer, and destiny of all that there is—once made known to humanity demands a response. We can plot the path from knowing the glory of God to responding to that glory. That is to say, we can discover how we are glorified. We must grow from recognition into proclamation:
Glory leads to recognition.
Glory leads to response.
Response leads to prayer
Prayer leads to appreciation.
Appreciation leads to mission.
Proclamation is telling the story.
We are glorified by vocation.
From Glory to glory
The very first line of John’s Gospel reveals the eternal identity of the Word who became flesh and dwelt amongst us:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him,
and without him
was not any thing made that was made.
Yet the Word who was with God, the Word who was God, was the light of humankind. Yet though he was in the world, and the world was made through him, the world did not know him. Yet there were some who did receive him, who believed in the reality of his presence among them (= “who believed in his name”). In believing in the Word who dwelt among us,
… we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ... And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Thus the one who was God revealed his heavenly glory to those who believed in his presence amongst them. This Jesus (for it is he!) showed his glory to his disciples in the sign at Cana and in all his signs. But what is astonishing in John’s Gospel is that that the glory of Jesus is most gloriously revealed in his death:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.
There is further clarification of the earthly glory of the Word that became flesh:
Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. ‘Father, glorify your name’.
Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” … And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die …
John 12:27 passim
The death of Jesus, as the writers of John’s Gospel understand, is his glory. What iis displayed on the cross is the glory of the Father. It is this glory that must be declared to the world. In proclaiming to the world the crowning glory of the Son, the disciples are glorified. For in proclaiming that glory they manifest the glory, not only of the Son, but of the Father. In proclaim the glory of God-in-Christ disciples participate in the glorification of God. They are glorified by proclaiming.
It is not necessary to explain the words Jesus speaks to the disciples, having washed their feet. The words that Jesus speaks to the Father reveal the identity of all who tell the story:
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
To be sure, it is a daunting burden to know that we are called to be proclaimers of the Word made flesh and to reveal that his dying gives life to the world. Or it would daunting if Jesus did not promise to give us the Holy Spirit. We need but wait for Pentecost Day, to pray for Pentecost Day, to power from on high. In that power we can tell the story. We can speak the glory.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.
[P.S. A detail not to be missed. The chapter numbers and the headings over paragraphs in our printed Bibles are helpful but, of course, are not part of the words of our holy books. The heading over chapter 17 in the EVS is The High Priestly Prayer.
The only High Priest in John’s Gospel is Caiaphas. For the priesthood of Jesus in the New Testament we must turn to the Letter to the Hebrews. Secondly, chapter 17 is not a prayer. We are told that Jesus “said” (17:1). In verse 9 it says “I am asking for them. I am not asking for the world”. The point is not pernickety. In John’s Gospel Jesus talks to his Father; he does not pray to the Father. He is, after all, the Word of God. The Word made flesh does not cease to be God and does not need to pray. They know each other.]