By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
First Reading: Acts 14:21-27; Response: Psalm 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13; Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-5a; Gospel: John 13:31-33a, 34-35
Last Sunday’s first reading introduced us to the Christian community at Antioch, in Syria. There, we encountered Barnabas, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) and others being authorized (ordained?), through the laying on of hands, to leave on a missionary journey into Cyprus and what is today central Turkey. In those days, this area was divided into the Roman provinces of Pamphylia, Pisidia and Lycaonia. Paul became the chief spokesperson of the group. Paul had a peculiar talent of making enemies. In Cyprus, they encountered opposition from a magician. Paul dealt with him by a curse, which turned the man temporarily blind. Very convincing! It was enough to turn the Roman proconsul of the area into a Christian. His name was Sergius Paulus. Some think that Saul adopted the Roman name Paulus at that time to honor this distinguished Roman official. If that is correct, it was also a shrewd political move in a center of Roman power.
At Iconium, the missionaries were attacked by stoning. At Lycaonia, Paul cured a lame man. As a result, local pagans were convinced he and Barnabas were gods, and attempted to worship them as the gods Mercury and Zeus. The missionaries put a stop to that. But the next day, Paul’s enemies arrived from out of town and turned the people against Paul. The crowd stoned Paul and dragged him outside the town thinking they killed him. His new converts gathered around him. He stood up, and the missionary group headed back to Antioch, the Christian community that had authorized and sponsored this endeavor. The trip began with a sea voyage and ended the same way. Luke writes the conclusion to the First Missionary Journey, “When they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”
Psalm 145 is a hymn of praise to God the King. There is no obvious connection with the first reading, though one might see a connection between one psalm verse and “the door opened to the Gentiles,” “Let them make known your might to the children of Adam.” That would include all of us Gentiles who, to this day, enjoy the fruits of the work of those first Christian missionaries.
The second reading continues the Lectionary’s series from the Book of Revelation. We have reached the next-to-last chapter of the book. Those who have read this more-than-confusing book might understand how the Greek name for this book, Apokalupsis, seems a misnomer; though it is not. The word means, “removal of the veil.” The extensive use of metaphors seems more veiling than unveiling. The elder-prophet-author John experiences visions throughout. Today’s reading is all consolation. There is consolation throughout the book, but it is limited to the in-group. As to the outgroups, they encounter frightening destruction; war and battles to the death; mass killings; and eternal fire. All comes to a grand climax as, “the One who sits upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new!’” But what is new?
John sees not only the end of the former earth and sky but a new earth and sky. The sea is no more. In biblical lore, the sea is a symbol of chaos, full of huge monsters threatening humans. Even in the gospels, Jesus saved his disciples from the chaos of the sea. Its destruction symbolizes God’s victory over evil. A new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. It is adorned like a bride. The new city will be God’s dwelling with us. A word of consolation: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.”
On this Sunday, so close to Ascension and Pentecost, the Lectionary takes a leap backwards to the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It is the first chapter of John’s Passion Narrative. Preceding today’s reading, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. He explained the symbolism of this action. He recalls that he was the one who chose them, then startles them, quoting Psalm 41:9, “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” Then a bombshell, as Jesus swears, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me!” Consternation! Quietly to the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” Jesus identifies the betrayer. Jesus dips a piece of bread into the sauce and hands it to Judas, who consumes it. Jesus gives him a command, “What you are going to do, do it quickly.” Strange? Yes, but fitting perfectly into John’s principle that nothing happens to Jesus unless he commands it or permits it. At this point, our reading of the day begins. Judas left the supper. John added ominously, “And it was night.”
What does one expect at this moment of tension? Surely not a song or praise? That is exactly what Jesus says under the key word glorification. “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 do so at once.”
What does it mean? In John’s unusual theology, the glorification of Jesus, by which God will be glorified, begins with the betrayal and continues through the arrest, torture, trials, crucifixion, death and burial. It will be consummated by his resurrection/ascension to the Father and his return with the gift of the Holy Spirit — all on the day of the resurrection. Jesus, as father of the apostolic family, makes a last will and testament. He informs them that he will soon leave. His bequest: “I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.” The Church Father Tertullian (2nd-3rd centuries) noted in Apology 39:7 that pagans said of Christians, “See how they love one another.” Jesus points out in today’s gospel, “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”
Why does the Lectionary choose this episode from the Last Supper at a time when our liturgy looks forward to the ascension of Jesus? A reminder that the suffering and death of Jesus was as much his glorification as was his return to “the glory I had with thee (the Father) before the world was made” (John 17:5).