Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A



Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

First Reading: Acts 6:1-7; Response: Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:4-9; Gospel: John 14:1-12

Despite Luke’s upbeat description of the first Christian community of Jerusalem earlier in his Acts of Apostles (Acts 2:42-47), he soon recognized that it did not take long for humanity to assert itself and give birth to internal problems. First, there was the case of Ananias and Sapphira. It was the custom among the Christians to sell a piece of land and give the money to the Christian community.

It seems they had made a kind of pledge to do the same. Then, they decided to keep part of the money. They lied about it to Simon Peter. Result: both fell dead at his feet. Not a pretty picture (See Acts 5: 1-11).

In this Sunday’s first reading, we encounter another problem. Christians inherited, from the Jewish synagogues, a widow-care program. Since there was no social umbrella protecting widows, the community brought food to them daily. In that Christian community, there were widows of various origins. Our story mentions Hellenists (Greek speaking converts) and Hebrews (Aramaic speaking converts). The Hellenists complained that they were being neglected in the daily distribution. They may all have been Jews, but more than likely there were converts from paganism among the Hellenists. Thus, a racial problem or just a language barrier, or both.

Something had to be done for those who felt neglected. The apostles called the community together. They said they could not personally distribute the daily ration because of their work of proclaiming the word and prayer. They suggested the community choose seven men of good reputation, filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, who could take over this earliest of Meals on Wheels programs. The community agreed. They chose seven, beginning with the future martyr Stephen; also Philip and five others. All have Greek names. We may assume they all spoke Greek and could communicate with the widows (the Hellenists) of Greek or pagan origin. The apostles prayed over them and imposed hands on them (the laying on of hands). Luke, however, does not give us the whole story. The Greek word Luke uses for their mission of distributing food to poor widows is diakonia. Thus, they eventually were called deacons. Their mission must have included preaching and baptizing. How do we know? In next Sunday’s first reading, the deacon Philip is not distributing bread, but rather preaching and baptizing. In Acts 7, we read the long homily given by the deacon Stephen that resulted in his martyrdom (The length of the homily was not the cause of his martyrdom!).

Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise accompanied by a harp or 10-stringed lyre. A lyre is a form of harp. There were many types. The number of strings varied from three to 12. Young David strummed a lyre to soothe the madness of King Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:14-23). Lyres accompanied chanting in the temple. The oldest form of lyre recovered by archaeologists dates back to the 20th century B.C. A note for those who claim that only the pipe organ is a legitimate musical instrument for Mass – in ancient times, God enjoyed music from many kinds of stringed instruments; horns of many kinds, especially trumpets; plus drums, tambourines, etc.

The second reading is a foundation text for the priesthood of the laity (See Catechism of the Catholic Church Nos. 784, 901, 1141-44). Our reading meditates on two Old Testament passages: Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22. In Isaiah, the Lord speaks of laying a chosen cornerstone. Whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame. He combines this cornerstone with the well-known passage from Psalm 118 about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone. Both texts are interpreted to indicate Jesus as that cornerstone. But a building consists of more than a cornerstone. Therefore, the author speaks of Christians as living stones built into a spiritual house, “to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices….” In Romans 12:1, Paul defines spiritual worship as, “presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy to God….” Returning to our second reading, St. Peter quotes Exodus 19:5-6 – a text that, in the Old Testament, incorporated all Israelites into a priesthood. He adapts that text to all Christians, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation….” What is the mission of the priesthood? “That you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

The gospel reading takes us back to the Last Supper in John’s gospel. The theme is Jesus’ departure from his disciples. He tries to console them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God. Have faith also in me.” Here, John strikes a theme of the equality between Father and Son – a theme on which he is about to expand. The consolation continues. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” He is going away to prepare a place for them, then come back and take them with him to those dwelling places. He assures them that they know the way. Thomas, the future doubter, replies that they do not know the way. This leads to Jesus’ famous statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Why? “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

We return to the theme of equality between Father and Son. Jesus points out that those who know him already know the Father; that they have even seen the Father. This time, the apostle Philip intervenes: “Lord, show us the Father….” Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father, because I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Everything Jesus has is from the Father, even his eternal generation as Son. Jesus, or the author of the gospel, calls upon hearers to accept Jesus’ works, as witnesses to the truth of what he is teaching them here. What is next revealed is so difficult to accept that Jesus begins with an oath, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and even greater works.” What would such works be? A possible answer: the conversion of the whole world. Why is this possible? “Because I am going to the Father.” How will that help them in this task? Jesus adds their empowerment in next Sunday’s gospel. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you … the Spirit of truth,” the Holy Spirit.