Whether or not it still seems like Easter to us, it is for the church. In one sense, every Sunday is a commemoration of the Resurrection for it is central to our Christian faith and hope. Thursday this week celebrates the time when Jesus physically walked no more on earth, but ‘ascended’ to his Father.
Acts of the Apostles 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-49
This reading is only a part of a longer passage. In the story of Cornelius Luke gives a lively tale, which like many a good storyteller, he repeats the highlights as it leads to the conclusion. For the full story, read all of Acts chapter 10.
Cornelius, a centurion in a Roman regiment stationed in the Holy Land, is ‘God-fearing’ – the designation at that time for a non- Jews who accepted the basis of the Jewish religion usually, however, without male circumcision. He has been outstanding in offering charitable help to others and leading an exemplary life. During prayer, he has a vision telling him to send for a’ Simon surnamed Peter’. Before the messengers from Cornelius reach Peter, he too has a vision, in which he is told to eat foods that will break the Jewish dietary laws. (These rules are in Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament.) He is puzzling over the meaning of this when the messengers arrive, but he agrees to visit the centurion.
Today’s selection picks up when he arrives at the home of Cornelius. Now Peter understands that the vision about forbidden food was telling him that there is no longer to be Jewish exclusiveness, rather ‘God has no favourites but anybody of any nationality’ can be acceptable to him. As Peter is speaking ‘the Spirit came down’ on the household; this means in a way that was visible to those with Peter. The charisms mentioned are those described on Pentecost: speaking God’s praise in various languages. This is called ‘speaking in tongues’ in 1 Corinthians 12, and in the modern groups or churches which adopt the name ‘charismatic’ or ‘Pentecostal.
As Nicholas King points out in his notes to the New Testament, it is hard for us now to appreciate what a challenge it was to the Jews who were the first Christians to give up the detailed regulations of the old Law, and to receive into their communion Gentiles without demanding they also take on all of the Law. Luke, probably a Gentile himself, had been forecasting this event from the first chapter of his Gospel, but it would still be an issue even after Peter’s vision and decision about Cornelius and his household (In Chapter 15 of Acts the problem arises again.)
This a joyful psalm of praise, first celebrating what the Lord has done for Israel. Our verses pick up where God is shown reaching out to ‘all the ends of the earth’ and calling all peoples, which fits well with the story of Cornelius. The Hebrew phrase here translated ‘his love and truth’ is a complex one that is related to the Covenant promises and to a loving God faithful to those promises, but it also is widely used in the Old Testament to describe how God approaches humanity. It is variously translated – ‘love and fidelity’, ‘steadfast love’, and ‘everlasting love’ – and this love of God is at the heart of the Hebrew religion we inherited, as the second reading will spell out for Christians.
1 John 4:7-10
The Letter can be hard to follow, as the form of reasoning differs from modern explanations, and can seem repetitive. It circles around the concept, looking at God’s love and our response from various directions. ‘Love’ can seem an easy word and much used casually around us, but reading 1 John, we are shown that the source of all love is God, – that indeed God is love. Next comes the depth of what it means for us and the challenge to live in that sort of loving relationship. Each sentence alone can therefore provide a fruitful topic for meditation.
This selection comes from the long talk that John places at the Last Supper. With Jesus’ ‘commissioning’ his disciples to carry on when he has returned to the Father, it is like his ‘last testament’. It is helpful to remember that follows on from last week’s vine symbol, and the love that Jesus commands is possible because we are as closely joined to Jesus’ as branches on the stem of a plant, drawing our life and love from him. The teaching circles around, as it does in the Letter, drawing us to see various aspects of the interrelationship between the love of the Father, the love of the Son, and the love we are enabled to share.
Raymond E. Brown, in his commentary on this Gospel, finds the word translated as ‘friend’ as too weak for the biblical meaning, for modern ‘friendship’ can be casual. (Since he wrote, it has become even more casual, when by ‘clicking’ on on an internet site, people are said to have made a ‘friend’.) The Greek word used here, is from the same root as the word for ‘love’ (philos) and so a truly close relationship is meant. Brown translates it as ‘I have called you my beloved’. This better explains the deep intimacy that allows us to ‘bear fruit’ and pray in Jesus’ name. The theme of bearing fruit also recalls last week’s vine comparison.
This discourse of Jesus can be both comforting and challenging. It is leading us towards the feast of Pentecost when we focus on how the first disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to ‘bear fruit’ by reaching out to others in the name of Jesus.