The three readings this week are a strange mixture, seeming to jump from some of the early history of the Church, to a vision of heaven at the end of time, and back to the ministry period of Jesus with one of the shortest Gospel selections we hear at mass.
Acts 13:14, 43-52
Just before our reading begins, there is a short section about the church at Antioch when the community has been praying together. They heard the Holy Spirit say, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for a work I have to do.’ ‘Sent by the Spirit’ they first went to Cyprus, and at that point our reading begins.
Perga and Pisidian Antioch are among the many places Luke will mention in Acts as he details Paul’s journeys around the Mediterranean – many like these are not names known today. This Antioch in Pisidia was a major city, the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and third city of the empire; that area now is in Turkey. Our reading omits the address Paul first gives in the synagogue, but notes the result of that talk was that some were interested – these were converts to Judaism – while most of the Jews opposed Paul and his words on Christ. They along with other Gentiles – spoken of as the ‘whole town’ – listen and many accept the teaching. Here we see Paul’s usual missionary method laid out: to start with the Jews in whatever area he came to. Usually he would find them opposed to his teaching, and he would then move on to the pagans and set up a church among them. In our reading, the opposition continues to the point of getting the two missionaries expelled, but the new disciples in the city remain ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Paul and Barnabas move about 20 miles east to another major city, Iconium (modern Konya in Turkey).
Psalm 99/100:1-3, 5
A short psalm of joyful praise, on the everlasting love of God. The middle verse points ahead to the shepherd theme of the Gospel.
Apocalypse/ Revelation 7:9, 14-17
This scene follows a description of ‘End Time’ with warnings of disasters on the earth, including war, famine and plague. But John is quick to say that God will spare those faithful to him, who will be gathered into His presence. He first lists those of the Twelve Tribes of Israel giving them a number, then more from the entire earth, ‘too many to be counted’. The palms they carry represent victory. Much of the imagery of this book is hard to imagine in a literal way, as is the paradox of washing garments white in red blood. It can be understood as combining baptismal imagery (when the newly baptized were clothed in white) with salvation from the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood. It may also hint that some of this multitude had suffered martyrdom.
‘The Lamb’ is used frequently in this book as a representation of Christ, who had been called ‘the ‘Lamb of God’ by John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The ‘One on the throne’ is God; that single word is usual in Revelation for the one we call ‘God the Father’. As in last week’s reading, heaven is presented a court happily attending God and the Lamb. With the quick changes of imagery that is typical of both prophetic and apocalyptic writers, the Lamb becomes the shepherd, and heaven like a place of perfect pasturage. Images of food, water, comfort are piled up to show complete human happiness.
From now till the Feast of the Ascension, we will have no more accounts of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples but instead selections from various parts of the Gospel of John that offer reflections on the meaning of Christ risen and now with the Father but still present within the Church. In Chapter 10 of the Gospel, Jesus is in a long dispute with the Pharisees, and he uses some complex imagery drawn from shepherding to point out how the rulers have failed the ‘sheep’ who represent the people of God. Jesus in contrast is the ‘Good Shepherd’ or ‘model of a shepherd’ whose care for them is perfect, even to laying down his life for them. In just this short passage near the end of the discourse, there is much interplay with the shepherd theme.
The Jewish people traced their origins to the ‘Patriarchs’ – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel – who were pastoralists tending large flocks of sheep. In some ways, this simple life represented an ideal even in later times of more complex agriculture and city life. Imagery surrounding sheep and shepherds was widely used in a number of books in the Old Testament – our psalm in this mass is one example. Rulers, both religious and royal, were called shepherds, and the problems of bad shepherds – that is, leaders who fail to care for the ‘flock’- are especially prominent in the book of Ezekiel. All of this would have been the common background of the listeners when Jesus talked about flocks, sheepfolds and sheep-gates, and how the shepherd relates to his animals.
In our reading, Jesus first stresses the closeness he feels with his sheep, and how well he knows them, and how they recognize and follow him. He is coming close at this time to his death, so he next assures them that no matter what happens they will not be lost or left. He has previously spoken of the neglectful rulers as ‘thieves and bandits’ who come to steal away the sheep, but now insists his disciples cannot be stolen from him.
Next comes statements about the greatness of ‘the Father’ and then the claim that Jesus is one with the Father. Lines such as these form the basis for later theology on the Trinity. The emphasis here is on giving comfort to the disciples, and assuring us of Jesus’ intimate relationship with all of us – just as the risen Jesus is close – ‘one’ – with the Father.