By Father Donald Dilger
Sixth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Response: Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-10; Gospel: John 15:9-17
An overriding theme of Luke’s Acts of Apostles is to narrate and legitimize Christian outreach to the Gentiles (non-Jews). In today’s first reading, Simon Peter is in the home of Cornelius and family. Cornelius is a high-ranking Roman military officer. How did Peter, a strictly observant Jew, find himself in the home of a Gentile? Normally, an observant Jew would have considered such a visit as a ritual defilement. Luke sets out to convince his readers that Gentiles are just as acceptable to God as Jews. Here is how he does it. Peter was lodging at the home of Simon, a tanner of animal hides. This is a hint of what Luke intends to teach because a tanner, even if he is a faithful Jew, is ritually defiled by handling the skins of dead animals, and so is his house. An additional source of defilement — dog poo was used as an ingredient of the tanning process. Now we know the story is going to be a rejection of an ancient taboo of ritual defilement. But before that taboo is rejected for humans, it must be rejected for foods. That is the rest of the story.
Peter is at prayer on the tanner’s roof, (a flat roof obviously). He falls into a trance in which he sees the sky opening and a large canvas is lowered to the ground by its four corners. The canvas is full of food, both kosher and non-kosher. No observant Jew would eat non-kosher food. A voice commands Peter to eat. Peter responds with a “Lord, read my lips,” declaration. “No way, Lord. These lips have never touched unclean food.” For a hardhead like Peter, the vision had to be repeated twice more. The Lord’s response, “What I have made clean, you have no right to call unclean!” In the meantime, Cornelius had a vision. An angel commanded him to send for Simon Peter. A delegation from Cornelius knocked at the tanner’s door. Here the story moves from unclean foods to unclean people. Nothing to do with hygiene. A stubborn Peter is still not convinced. It takes a command from the Holy Spirit to go to Cornelius’ house. Peter cannot resist the Holy Spirit. As Peter enters the home of this Gentile, therefore an unclean house, he is finally convinced. The first words out of his mouth, "Now I know for sure that God shows no partiality, that in every nation whoever fears God and acts rightly is acceptable to God.” With those words, Luke justifies the Christian mission to the Gentiles. Luke was fighting the monster of racism, a monster still alive and strong in our time.
Psalm 98 abounds in the universal theme of the first reading, that God is the God of all nations. Therefore, the people’s response, “The Lord has revealed to the nations (Gentiles) his saving power.” Within the three sets of Psalm verses, the same theme stands out. “The Lord has done wondrous deeds. The Lord has made his salvation known in the sight of the nations. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands.”
The second reading is the fifth and final selection of readings from the 1st Letter of John. The same theme of preceding Sundays continues — love one another. The community the author addresses, and of which he seems to have in a pastoral position, had a considerable problem with love of neighbor. The author may have had the same problem, therefore also preaching to himself. There is evidence for this conjecture. His 2nd Letter has the same theme of love. But within the letter hear this: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine (John’s instructions), do not let him into the house or even greet him, for he who greets him shares in his wicked work.” How much like ourselves, or like Matthew, who writes so much about forgiveness and love of neighbor in the Sermon on the Mountain. But read Matthew 23!
The gospel selection is part of John’s very long narrative of Jesus’ Last Supper discourse. It is really John’s meditation on the words and actions of Jesus on that occasion. The discourse or the meditation begins in John 13 and runs all the way through John 17. Was it any wonder that John attributes to Jesus these words in 16:12, “I have much more to say to you, but I do not think you can bear it now.” Then John adds a chapter and a half! Just as in the Letters of John, here too there is much talk about love. The headline of today’s gospel is very consoling, “As the Father loves me, so do I also love you.” Here we see a major theme of John’s gospel. The Father extends to humanity his love of his Son. As was said earlier in the gospel, the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus invites his disciples to remain in this love and tells them how to do it. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” He speaks of his own way of showing his love for them. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Jesus promotes his disciples to a status which in the Scriptures was said only of Abraham and Moses, friend of God. See Isiah 41:8 and Exodus 33:11. Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, but I have called you friends because I have told you everything I heard from my Father.” The Book of Wisdom 7:27 notes that wisdom (knowledge of the Torah) makes people friends of God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is God’s ultimate and perfect Torah (revelation), therefore also God’s wisdom. He has shared that wisdom with his disciples, so now they are friends of God. The discourse moves on to the call of Jesus and his disciples. “It was not you who chose me, but I chose you.” The four gospels all include an episode of Jesus calling disciples to follow him. To one man who took the initiative, the Lord replied, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” Jesus’ friends receive their commission to continue his mission. “I chose you . . . and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.” The reward of their work: ‘. . . so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give it to you.” Our gospel reading closes with another statement of the theme with which it opened, “This I command you, that you love one another.”