By Father Donald Dilger
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
We saw a few Sundays ago how Luke, the author of Acts, described the perfect harmony of the early Christian Community in Jerusalem. It did not last because fallen humanity asserted itself. Such is the case in today’s first reading. Luke notes that the number of disciples continued to grow. A division appeared with names reminiscent of sport teams — Hellenists versus Hebrews. Hellenists were Greek-speaking Christians. Hebrews were Aramaic-speaking Christians. It was natural that in Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, there would be a majority of Aramaic speakers. Early Christians inherited from their Jewish foundation organizations for almsgiving. This was especially active with poor widows and orphans. There may have been something like Meals on Wheels bringing a loaf of bread to the homes of poor widows. The Hellenist widows complained that they were being neglected. It may have been a language barrier, or a matter of origin — outside of the Holy Land or within the Holy Land, or converts from paganism vs. converts from Judaism, or all three. The Hellenists saw the situation as discrimination.
The Apostles called together an assembly of Christians in Jerusalem— a town hall meeting. They explained that their job description was to proclaim the word of God, but not “to serve at table,” or Meals on Wheels. They asked the gathered Christians to select seven men from among them, men with good reputations, to oversee “serving at table.” After the community selected the seven, they presented them to the apostles, “who prayed and laid hands on them,” the beginnings of ordination to the permanent diaconate. Interesting that the seven chosen all had Greek names, thus supposedly were Greek speakers. The problem of the neglect of Greek-speaking widows was solved. The Greek word Luke uses for “serving at table” is diakonia. The newly ordained seven men were therefore called deacons. Here we see the origin of the permanent diaconate — a blessing restored to the Church in our time. Luke adds, “The word of God continued to spread.” What connects the new deacons and the spreading of the word of God? Luke did not tell the whole story! Soon we see some of the seven involved in preaching on the road and in Jerusalem, especially Deacons Philip and Stephen. So we know that their job description was more than “serving at table.” It included proclamation of the word of God, just as it does today.
The Responsorial Psalm 33 does not stand out as a specific response to the first reading. It is simply a hymn praising and thanking God for his mercy. What catches the eye, however, is the use of musical instruments, “Give thanks to the Lord on the harp, with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praise.” For hyper-conservatives opposed to the use of musical instruments other than the pipe organ, in ancient times God enjoyed music from every kind of stringed instrument imaginable, plus horns of many kinds, especially trumpets, drums, tambourines. Has God changed?
The second reading is from the First Letter of St. Peter. The subject: the new priesthood. The author refers to “a living stone rejected by man, but. . . chosen and precious to God.” That would be Jesus. Stones were used for buildings. Therefore, the author speaks of Christians as “living stones built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” An astounding statement, difficult to grasp for those who limit priesthood to the ordained priesthood. This is the priesthood of the laity, an office all Christians receive in baptism. Paul writes, “. . . present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” See Catechism of the Catholic Church 784, 901, 1142-1144.
The gospel reading takes us back to the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. In the other three gospels, Jesus says very little. In the Gospel of John, the material of the Last Supper Discourse runs through five chapters. There is some repetition. This tells us that authors or editors had material they did not want to discard, so they repeated much of chapter 14 in chapter 16, though at times expressed quite differently. The theme of this Sunday’s gospel reading is Jesus’ departure. Since the context is the Last Supper, the “departure” cannot refer only to his ascension, but must include his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return with the gift of the Holy Spirit. John has a name for this whole process — the glorification of Jesus. As the gospel reading begins, Jesus reassures his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust God, so trust also me,” a claim to equality with the Father. He is leaving them to prepare a place for them, since there “are many rooms in my Father’s house.” He promises to come back and bring them to his Father’s home. When Jesus assures them that they already know the way to get there, John resorts to a favorite teaching tool — the use of a naïve question, (at least from the author’s point of view). The question allows a clarifying answer. Thomas, (later, the doubter), asks, “We do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” This leads to Jesus’ answer, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” John returns to the subject of equality between Father and Son by a naïve statement of Philip. Jesus had already teased him by asking him about the possibility of feeding five thousand in the wilderness. Philip says, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Then comes John’s profound theology about relationship within the Trinity, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus affirms that even the words he reveals are the words of the Father, that even his deeds are the deeds of the Father. Finally, the great puzzler introduced as a double oath by opening with a name of God, the Amen. See Isaiah 65:16; also Revelation 3:14, where it is also a name or title of Jesus. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and do even greater works.” What are these greater works to be done by believers?