Today’s readings are an example of how the liturgy holds the full presence, in various aspects, of the whole Christian message. Being between Easter Day and Pentecost, we are reminded ‘Christ has died, has risen, will come again’ as is celebrated in every mass. We are also as individuals and as a community living as Christ lives. The middle reading opens this out, while the first shows that community brings challenges, and the Gospel places it all in Jesus’ farewell address at the Last Supper.
A few weeks ago we read an earlier passage in Acts with these words: ‘They shared their food gladly and generously.’ In the New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary, Richard J. Dillon, says, ‘After the idealized portrait of the apostolic community, we are unprepared for the conflict that breaks out here.’ It is however, an example of the way in which in all human interactions and good intentions, harmony can be disturbed and ‘sides taken’. The ‘Hellenists’, Dillon explains, are one of the two separate language groups of Jerusalem Jewry, the one speaking the Aramaic of Palestine, the other consisting of immigrants who had returned to Judea and speak mostly Greek. ‘We can easily imagine why widowed immigrants faced special economic hardships and why they might be “overlooked” in a food distribution run by the native contingent.’
The new Christian community works together to solve this problem and comes up with a solution that suits all. Harmony is restored and this is an inspiration for more converts, even among the Jewish priests. This is a lesson for our times as well when there is a temptation both within the churches and between churches to ‘take sides’ about both faith and action. Here the example of listening to each other, praying over the problem, shows that people can find new ways to work together.
There is some irony in that the Seven are chosen to serve and distribute but two of them will shortly in the book of Acts be preaching and evangelizing as well. This fits the current emphasis of Pope Francis the all of us share in spreading the Good News of Jesus and his Resurrection.
Psalm 32/33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19
The Easter theme of joy fills the psalm selection. Being ‘called to praise’ will find an echo in the next reading. The rescue from ‘famine’ fits the food sharing of Acts, and the rescue from death, Christ’s Resurrection.
1 Peter 2:4-9
In this section of his letter, Peter takes up an image from Psalm 117/118: verse 22: ‘The stone which the builders’ rejected has become the foundation stone.’ Jesus used this same quotation to refer to himself and/or his new community of God’s chosen people. (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10-11, Luke 20:17.) A cornerstone is a solid object, but when applied to a person, Peter explains it has a spiritual meaning – he calls it a ‘living stone’. Because Christ takes us into his ‘building’ of the church, we are also ‘living stones’. He finds another cornerstone passage to quote in words of Isaiah 28:16.
His conclusion takes up a series of Old Testament designations of the Chosen People of Israel and applies them to Christians: ‘a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing praises of God.’ This is the biblical source for the Church’s belief in ‘the priesthood of all believers’. Catholics do have a specially consecrated ministerial priesthood, but even when priests offer mass, they use words that associate us, such as ‘which we offer’. There has been a tendency at times to ‘leave it all to Father,’ in many parish activities, but our presence at mass is meant to be our offering of bread and wine, our praise to the Father, Son and Spirit.
This week and the next, we hear selections from the four chapters of the Farewell of Jesus to his disciples the night before he died. This has all the signs of being a literary construction by the evangelist, with its length, repetitions and even an ending in the middle before going on. This suggests a final editor was combining two earlier texts. It is probably based on material John had from the tradition, but casts in his distinctive style of dramatic dialogues and misunderstandings that allow Jesus to explain more fully. There are various questions the scholars raise. I hope only to show a few helps towards the reflection that its depth calls for. I have found useful commentaries by John Marsh and Raymond E. Brown.
Jesus begins by telling them not to let their hearts ‘be troubled’ – as Marsh notes, ‘a strange word from one who three times recently has been ‘troubled in spirit’ (11:33, 12:27 and 13:21). Jesus had then been facing the conditions of death, now for the disciples, ‘once his own death was accomplished, the situation was totally different.’ They can rely on his conquering of that obstacle and need not worry. This will be borne out as he continues to assure them of his presence in their life. He begins with what most see as a reference to heaven: ‘many rooms’. The Greek verb has a sense of ‘abiding’ and it seems better not to think of it in a spatial sense, but of being in the presence of God, made possible by Jesus opening the way to the Father. In a dialogue of misunderstanding, Thomas is thinking more literally of a ‘place’ to which one must find the ‘way’ – like a road to a house. C. K. Barrett: ‘Thomas appears in John as a loyal but dull disciple, whose misapprehensions serve to bring out the truth.’ Here it leads to one of the most famous sayings of Jesus, one which in its simplicity sums up much of the whole speech: ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.’
The relationship of the three words is much discussed. Jesus himself speaks in several images of how he is a ‘way’ – the Greek word like the English has various shades of meaning. Last week we hear he was the ‘gate’ of the sheepfold, ‘gate’ and ‘way’ are openings to go in deeper and farther out. Both truth and life are often in this Gospel – ‘life abundant’ was in last week’s reading. Truth and the related Greek adjective go beyond ‘facts’ as the meaning often used these days where ‘fake news’ is a problem. The ‘true’ is the deepest reality. All three words together show what Jesus is, of what God is and how they relate to us. We could see them as pointers to what is impossible to express fully in language. We learn what Jesus means by living with Jesus as our ‘way’, finding his life in us, and choosing to find the meaning of our lives in the ‘truth’ that grounds all creation – all life – in the love and power of God. As Jesus is in and with God, we are in and with Jesus, and thus also united to the Father. (The place of the Spirit will come in next week’s reading.)
The ‘even greater works’ is not likely to mean ‘miracles’ but comes from the way Christ-in-us is not limited – as Jesus was while in this world – to one time and place. We all have the power of reaching out in love and care as Jesus works in, with and through us and we go in, with and through him to the Father.