Lectionary commentary: sixth Sunday of Easter, year A
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 8:5-8. 14-17
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 66:1-7. 16. 20. R/. v.1
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 3:15-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 14:15-21
The Bible — the Hebrew Bible of the synagogue and the Christian New Testament of the Church — are in-house productions. They were not written by outsiders nor were they written primarily for outsiders. They do not set out to record history with a passion for “what really happened”. Of course G. K. Chesterton had a point when he suggested that there is no such thing as history, only historians. But the authors of our holy books were not interested in unvarnished history (if such is ever possible). Their starting point was not fact but faith in God and in God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, enlivened in every way by the Holy Spirit. It would be more to the point to say that our gospel-makers were in the business of preaching rather than conveying mere facts.
The writings of St. Paul, the earliest of the material in the New Testament, have little to say about the Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee preaching to all and sundry. In fact, while Paul reports that Jesus was born of human stock and that he died on a cross, his letters reveal little of what Jesus did or, indeed, what Jesus said. Of course, Paul is the first to provide an account of the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:17-34) and thus indicates how central that was from the earliest days of Christian faith. But there is little else in Paul to help the biographer of Jesus. Paul is more concerned to teach the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than the details of his life or his teaching.
The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke provide accounts of the ministry of Jesus beginning in Galilee and ending with an empty tomb and appearances of the risen Jesus (not in Mark). There is a superficial impression that the same story is being told in all three Gospels but on closer examination we discover huge differences.
Mark shows not the slightest interest in the birth of Jesus. His Gospel begins with the baptism by John. Matthew and Luke have what are called Infancy Narratives but they are as different as chalk from cheese. We can’t even be sure that Jesus was a native of Bethlehem or Nazareth. Each Gospel has its own theological agenda and the stories they record serve those different purposes. They also appear to be directed to very different audiences.
To penetrate the meaning of each of these three Gospels, readers and hearers must be aware of their differences. For instance, the trial and death of Jesus appear to be the same in each of these Gospels.One only has to read the three accounts of the dying moments of Jesus as told in Mark, Matthew and Luke to realise how different even those precious moment are are when compared together. To take just one point, did Jesus die with a bitter complaint on his lips.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46
Or did he die handing his life back to the Father,
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit?
Of course, these differences are as of nothing when we turn over the page to the strange world of the Gospel according to Saint John.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 8:5-8. 14-17
[Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.] Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. 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.
Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.The word of the Lord.
According to Peter, in his very first address to the “Men of Israel”, the promise of the Holy Spirit was,
… for you and for your children and for all who are afar off, everyone whom the Lord God calls to himself.
Luke had already disclosed his belief that the Holy Spirit, “the promise of my Father” (Luke 24:49) was for the whole world. Recall all who were “amazed and astonished” on the Pentecost Day:
… Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians …
From the beginning of his Gospel Luke has stressed that Jesus is for the whole family of humanity, God’s purpose being,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
God’s peace is “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). Simeon, a righteous and devout man, took the child in his arms and saw the purposes of God:
…my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared
in the presence of all peoples,
a light of revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.
Indeed the very last words of Jesus before his ascension demands that,
repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
When on the day of the stoning of Stephen “a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” broke out, the instinct for mission overcame the fear. Philip went north to the city of Samaria and there openly proclaimed the Messiah (the very city where Jesus sat at the well and spoke with a woman carrying a bucket). Remember that Luke begins his Acts with “two men in white robes” addressing “Men of Galilee” (Acts 1:10). But Jesus had just given them a commission to be his witness far beyond the boundaries of Galilee:
But 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.
Having received the Holy Spirit, Peter, standing up with the eleven other apostles, begins his mission with an address to “Men of Judea, and all who dwell in Jerusalem”. By the end of Luke’s story the other great apostle, St. Paul himself, in the city of Rome, the capital of the world,
… welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Wherever Peter and Paul travelled to, they were always accompanied by the Holy Spirit. They never walked alone.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 66:1-7. 16. 20. R/. v.1
R/. Shout for joy to God, all the earth.
Shout for joy to God, all the earth.
sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise!
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!” R/.
All the earth worships you
and sings praises to you;
they sing praises to your name.
Come and see what God has done:
he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man. R/.
He turned the sea into dry land;
they passed through the river on foot.
There did we rejoice in him,
who rules by his might forever. R/.
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for my soul.
Blessed be God,
because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me. R/.
Whether a song or a psalm, the whole earth is bidden to sing.The song is a song of thanksgiving to God, a psalm of praise, a Gloria in excelsis Deo. The whole world must know and see and bow before the awesome work of God.
But for those who tell Israel’s story there are special remembrances. The sea that turned to dry land saved the slaves fleeing the hurt of Egypt. The torrent they passed through dry of foot was the Jordan that opened for Israel a land flowing with milk and honey. Causes both for rejoicing in prayerful song!
We are transfigured by listening. What we hear is forever a blessing. For God’s ear is never deaf to the sound of prayer. Every prayer is heard for the one who listens to our prayer is the one whose steadfast love endures forever.
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 3:15-18
In your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
The word of the Lord.
The Christians addressed in I Peter may have been exiles from their homelands somewhere in eastern Asia Minor (eastern Turkey). Or they may not have been immigrants in a strange place but people despised in their own town or city because of their faith. They may well have been internal exiles, misfits, marginalised, and despised by their neighbours because they had deserted the patronage of the local gods. The advice offered them in the letter was intended as to raise spirits and to remind them that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are open to prayer” (I Peter 3:12). They were not exiled from God. They are to be quiet but determined “to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15).
Such is the sure way to peaceful coexistence. Explain with gentleness and respect to all who ask so that those who despise your Christian way of life may be shamed. It is better to suffer indignity—if that is what transpires—than to dissemble for that cannot be God’s will.As ever the example to follow is that of Christ himself. For he suffered on behalf of sinners though he himself was guilty of no sin. What 1 Peter makes clear is that faith is what creates unity among believers. But it is also what divides believers from pagan unbelievers. To have faith in God and in Christ Jesus creates solidarity but it also creates separation and distinction.
I Peter demands deep study by Christians who live in a society that despises and rejects Christian values. Gentleness and respect must prevail. Conformity is not an option.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 14:15-21
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,
to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth,
whom the world cannot receive,
because it neither sees him nor knows him.
You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
Yet a little while and the world will see me no more,
but you will see me.
Because I live, you also will live.
In that day you will know that I am in my Father,
and you in me, and I in you.
Whoever has my commandments and keeps them,
he it is who loves me.
And he who loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and manifest myself to him.
The Gospel of the Lord.
The Gospel of John provides most of the Gospel readings from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Day. It is important to realise how different this Gospel is from the other three. Mark, Matthew, and Luke present Jesus the Teacher going around proclaiming the kingdom of God, or, at Matthew names it, the kingdom of heaven. Briefly, turning to Matthew’s version of The Lord’s Prayer, we can discover what is meant by “the kingdom of God” in the first three Gospels. Quite simply,
… thy kingdom come
thy will be done on earth.
In John’s Gospel there is little detail about the how, from day to day, people must live if they are to live God’s will. Jesus talks about little but himself. For example, that wonderful Samaritan woman is enlisted to go and reveal who Jesus is, not told how to live her life.
While statistics are often misleading, “I”, as in “I am a human being” occurs 17 times in Mark, 29 times in Matthews, and 23 times in Luke, a total of 69 times. The pronoun “I” occurs 135 times in John’s Gospel, almost all of them in reference to Jesus himself.
The Fourth Gospel does not begin with the birth of Jesus (as in Matthew and Luke) nor with the beginning of his ministry of preaching in Galilee (as in Mark). It begins in the eternity of God and with the Word who is God. This Word became flesh and dwelt among Christian believers to reveal his glory:
… for we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.
The purpose of making God known in the Son (see John 1:18) is to reveal divine glory: “we have seen his glory”. The seven signs strategically placed throughout the Gospel are done for that purpose.
To jump to the end of the Gospel, Johann Sebastian Bach is reputed to have composed five Passions. Two have survived. So different is the Passion according to John from that of the account in the other Gospels that we also have Bach’s Passion according to St. Matthew. Unlike the silent Jesus before Pilate in the first three Gospels, Jesus in John asserts has authority over that of the Roman prefect. What Jesus tells Pilate is that God and Jesus himself are in charge of what happens and he, Pilate, would have no power over him unless that was what the Father intended. Notice, too, that, at the beginning of John’s account of the Passion of Jesus, there is no “Agony in the Garden”. To be sure there is a garden— but no agony. Instead we have Jesus declare,
and the band of soldiers and officers who come from the chief priests to effect his arrest draw back and fall to the ground. The disciples do not flee in terror, deserting their friend. Instead Jesus negotiates their safe release.
John’s Gospel, so far from being in touch with the historical realities that we can establish from the other Gospels, is a theological exploration of the reality of the I AM who was made flesh.
In other words, John’s presentation of Jesus is utterly theological. We need only recall that God revealed his name to Moses:
I AM who I AM.
John explores the divine reality of the One “who is at the Father’s side” (John 1:18). The unknown authors of this theological treatise reveal their whole intent at the very end of their theological enterprise:
… these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Throughout Eastertide and beyond we are invited to go behind the symbols of wine, of bread, of light, of shepherd and sheepfold, of vine, of resurrection, and of life itself and hope to find the Word who became flesh. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus reveals the future that awaits his disciples. It is not a revelation bursting with clarity. It is going to need the help of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit
The reading begins with an assertion by Jesus that loving him requires keeping “my commandments”, whereas there is an overriding single commandment:
… love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another as I have loved you.
Readers and hearers will recall the “new commandment” given to his disciples who remained after Judas Iscariot has gone out from the supper at which Jesus had washed their feet:
When he had gone out, 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 glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come. ’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’
There is really no contradiction here. For Jesus insists that everything flows from that one commandment. The commandment to love one another is an outreach of their love for him and that, too, is an outreach of his love for the Father. As our reading today concludes,
Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.
Jesus in John does not issue the 613 laws one can find in the Hebrew Scriptures. He does not preach a Sermon on the Mount, three chapters long, that includes a multitude of dos and donts (Matthew 5:1 - 7:27). Father and Son and disciples are wrapped in the same bundle of love:
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I 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.
But to be loved and to love, to dwell in the divine realm of love, there must be a Helper, an Advocate, a Counsellor. The promise of the Spirit first appears rather mysteriously in chapter 7:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. ’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
The explanation of these enigmatic words comes in the four statements concerning the Holy Spirit that all appear in the long conversation Jesus had with his disciples after feet were washed and after the departure of Judas from the supper room. The first difficulty is the translation of the Greek word paráĸlētos and different translations are offered in English Bibles: an advocate, a counsellor, a helper. The author(s) of John’s Gospel presents the Holy Spirit as a teacher of truth, as the Spirit who reminds his disciples of the teaching of Jesus, as a witness to Jesus himself, and as a power capable of convincing the world about truth. What we are taught today is that disciples are not left to themselves, not left as orphans. Yes, Jesus will go away, that is, he will die. But though the world may wash its hands of the man who was crucified, his disciples will know that he lives. For the Spirit will come and will ”dwell with you and will be in you”. What Jesus promises is that the community of discipleship will be a community enlightened by the Holy Spirit. It will be a community that knows that it lives by the life of Jesus. This community is a community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.
While Luke’s Gospel was written ten or even twenty years before the Gospel according to John, it has a few echoes of the Fourth Gospel. For example, among the Twelve he lists a man named Judas, not Judas Iscariot. John’s Gospel, unlike the others, also knows of a “Judas, not Iscariot” (John 14:22). Whatever the explanations of these oddities, Luke, in his Acts, from his very first chapter, shows the Holy Spirit engaged in every initiative and on the tip of every disciple’s tongue. Paul appeals to the Holy Spirit on the very last page of Luke’s story (Acts 28:25).
While John’s Gospel is not easy to grasp in all its subtlety, Pope Francis manages to excite today’s disciples with his insight into the work of the Spirit in the people of God:
In all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization. The people of God is holy thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible in credendo [in its believing.] This means that it does not err in faith, even though it may not find words to explain that faith. The Spirit guides it in truth and leads it to salvation. As part of his mysterious love of humanity, God furnishes the totality of faithful with an instinct of faith—sensus fidei—which helps them to discern what is truly of God. The presence of the Spirit gives Christians a certain affinity with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression.
The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium §119.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.