Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 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

We begin with Acts 10, in which Peter orders that Cornelius and his household should “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” This is a truly momentous event in the history of the early Christian church – because Cornelius and his household were Gentiles. Peter was responding to the undeniable action of the Holy Spirit – that the Spirit had been “poured out” on these Gentiles. “Circumcised believers” (i.e. Jewish Christians) accompanying Peter had also witnessed this pouring out of the Spirit on the Gentiles. Neither they nor Peter could deny it. Thus Peter commanded that Cornelius and company be baptized – without them first becoming Jewish through circumcision.

The preceding verses (Acts 10:1-24) recount the events by which the Holy Spirit revealed God’s will. We are told about Cornelius – a Roman centurion who was a “God-fearer.” That is, he was a Gentile who observed certain Jewish religious practices, but without converting. Cornelius is described as both generous and devoted to prayer. Cornelius has a vision in which an angel of God instructs him to “send some men to Joppa and summon one Simon who is called Peter” (Acts 10:5).

Thus Cornelius sends three of his men to Joppa. The next day, as they are approaching the city, Peter has a vision on a rooftop terrace. In Peter’s vision, he is instructed to “slaughter and eat” animals that are considered “profane and unclean” by the Jewish law (which he observes). As Peter ponders this vision, Cornelius’ men arrive at the door of the house. After Peter is told about Cornelius’ vision by his men, Peter accompanies them back to the house of Cornelius in Caesarea.

This context explains the importance of Peter’s actions in today’s reading. As Peter says: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” Here Peter is reacting to Cornelius’ re-telling of his vision (Acts 10:30-33). Peter recognizes the action of God in Cornelius’ angelic vision. Peter concludes that God is offering salvation in Christ Jesus also to the Gentiles. What is remarkable is that Cornelius and company are not required to be circumcised to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. That is, these Gentiles are not required to convert and become subject to the Jewish law in order to be baptized. Peter reaches this conclusion when “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening” to Peter’s account of Jesus’ public ministry, crucifixion and resurrection (Acts 10:36-43).

Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, Cornelius and his household glorify God. Some receive the gift of “speaking in tongues.” Peter orders that the whole group of Gentiles be baptized in Christ. Later, the early Christian community will debate whether Gentiles can be baptized in Christ – and if so, whether they must first be circumcised and follow the Jewish law. Ultimately, the apostles discern that the Holy Spirit directing them to receive the Gentiles with minimal requirements. The experience of Peter with Cornelius and his household is essential evidence in the apostles’ discernment of God’s will.

The next reading, from the first letter of John, is an exhortation for Christians to love one another. “God is love” – thus we must know God in order to love. All love originates from God who is all good. These verses identify Jesus Christ as the revelation of God’s love. God’s Son became man, died and rose from the dead “so that we might have life through him.” This is the ultimate expression of God’s love for all human persons. Having received such love from God, why would we not “love one another?”

Today’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ “last discourse” to his disciples before his crucifixion. Jesus is preparing them for his departure from them. Jesus speaks of the love that unites him with God the Father, and then invites his disciples to participate in the loving union of God – Father and Son. He teaches them how to “remain in my love.” That is: “if you keep my commandments.” Jesus likewise has been obedient to the Father’s commandments. This expresses his love for the Father.

Next Jesus gives his disciples his commandment: “love one another as I love you.” Jesus specifies what this “love” means: “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus is teaching that his crucifixion is the greatest expression of love – although his disciples cannot yet understand this. Further, Jesus is commanding his disciples to imitate his way of loving.

Jesus calls his disciples “my friends” and then says “I no longer call you slaves.” This contrast shows that Jesus’ disciples are being invited into a more intimate relationship with him. Being Jesus’ “friends” requires loving as he loves in his self-sacrificial death. Jesus tells them “I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Jesus is giving them all that they need to be his friends – that is, to love as he loves. When they receive the Holy Spirit, they will have the supernatural faith and courage to love in this way.

Put plainly, Jesus is inviting his disciples to participate in his mission. Jesus became man so that he might redeem us from death through his death and resurrection. Jesus’ actions are a stunning revelation of God’s love. But if we are to receive this great gift, Jesus insists that we participate in his mission of redemption. Jesus insists that we love as he loved. Jesus insists that we participate in his suffering and death – if we hope also to participate in his resurrection.

Jesus tells his disciples: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.” After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples indeed knew this joy. They joyfully suffered and died in imitation of Jesus’ love for them. They loved in this way because they knew the joy of being loved by God in this way. May we too know such joy. May we too keep Jesus’ commandment: “love one another as I love you.”