More from Luke’s account of the first days of the church, with one of his typical summaries, and an almost breathless account of the geographic progress Paul and Barnabas took through areas of ‘Asia Minor’ (now in modern Turkey). The Gospel selection from John points toward the coming feast of the Ascension.
This concludes what is often called ‘the first missionary journey’ of Paul, estimated to be in the years 46-49 BC. With the large number of localities he had evangelised, his practice was to set up community structures to carry on after his departure, appointing leaders to teach and serve. Paul and Barnabas have experienced persecutions along the way and so they find it important to stress that such trials are to be expected. As they leave, they want to encourage the new Christians left on their own. Then travelling to Pisidian Antioch – from which they had been expelled earlier – they finally end back in Syrian Antioch from where they set out on this mission. They have a good account to give of how ‘the door had been opened’ for pagans to become the people of God, along with Jews.
The full psalm has an ‘acrostic’ form, with each verse beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet – a form which doesn’t show in translation. In poems with an artificial construction like these, the ideas do not always follow a logical development, but this response works well as a variety of descriptions for God’s goodness. The ‘everlasting kingdom’ points toward the next reading.
This section is the high point near the end of the book, presented as a vision in words that express total renewal, salvation, and intimacy with God the Father and the Lamb – which is the word for Jesus in this book. We are not meant to take all the images literally, rather we can reflect on how these symbols correspond to our deepest needs and feelings. St Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9 adapts Isaiah, saying ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard’ what God has prepared for those who love him, and John’s mystic descriptions may be seen as a way of reminding us that the ‘new’ will be different in ways we can hardly even imagine.
The symbolism draws much from the Old Testament ideas and images. ‘The sea has disappeared’: in this book, as was typical of the Hebrew land-based way of thinking, the sea has been a symbol of chaos, danger and even evil, all of which will have no foothold in the new creation. The ‘new city’: When John was writing this, the old Jerusalem had been destroyed, and there was scant hope of its restoration. The new city of God will entirely different from that of the old temple worship. In Isaiah 49:18, the prophet speaks of the gathering of all people to Jerusalem and these new people of God are the adornment which is ‘like a bride’. In Isaiah 61:10, a person redeemed by God is wrapped in integrity ‘as a bride adorned with her jewels’, so there are multiple resonances to the imagery here.
‘Make his home among’: The Greek text uses the word for ‘tent’ [skene] which was a memory for the Jews of God’s presence in a special ‘tent of meeting’ carried during their wandering in the desert. The word later was applied to the inner most sacred part of the Temple and is also used in the Prologue to the Gospel of John for Jesus coming to live among us. ‘To pitch one’s tent with’ is for a nomadic people an example of being in close community with them. The word also is associated with ‘Shekinah’ – the Hebrew word meaning the ‘glory’ of God, which is a manifestation of powerful presence.
The translation we use from the Jerusalem Bible has used hyphens in ‘God-with-them’ recalling the prophecy of Isaiah (quoted by Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus) that the Messiah will be called ‘God-with-us’ – ‘Emmanu-el’. These various images point toward the reality of the greatest imaginable intimacy with God. The ‘One sitting on the throne’ is God the Father, and we hear that voice speaking in summary recalling the first words of the reading. The Hebrew Bible opens ‘in the beginning’ with the creation of our universe and these words, close to the end of our Scriptures, predict a totally new ‘beginning’.
There are some who feel we live in ‘apocalyptic times’ and that is understandable as daily many human atrocities continue around the world, and we read continued scientific warnings of possible disasters such as effects of global warming. But there have been other fear-filled times in the past, and all we can be sure of is that whether it ‘be now or it be to come’, God has determined a future of unlimited love and happiness.
This section in the Gospel opens the long ‘Last Discourse’ of Jesus extending to the end of chapter 17. It is set at the Last Supper, and directed to the remaining disciples after the departure of the betrayer. For John, the moment of Christ’s ‘glorification’ is not just the Resurrection, but begins on the cross. Therefore, the moment when Judas leaves the Last Supper is the ‘now’ when Christ’s glory begins.
The concept of ‘glory’ is a vague one. Useful is the idea of language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that sometimes we need such vague words that don’t have a precise definition. Here they can suggest what is beyond language to express. Raymond E. Brown (in his two-volume commentary on John) says that in the Old Testament there are two important elements. Glory ‘is a visible manifestation of [God’s] majesty in acts of power’. These may be natural, like a thunderstorm, or in history as in the Exodus. Brown says these two are combined in Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, shown first by the ‘works’ or ‘signs’ in the first part of the Gospel, and then in his passion, death, and resurrection as one total act of salvation. Here there is a special interaction in this ‘glorification’, which gives us a glimpse into the mutual interactions, as it were, of the Trinity with the Father glorifying the Son and the Son glorifying the Father.
‘Little children’: this form of address is only here in the gospel, though frequent for disciples in the Letters of John – suggests both tenderness, and possibly the way the Last Discourse is like the last testament a father leaves his children to pass on his legacy and blessing. ‘A new commandment’: the command to love others was in the Old Testament in Leviticus – ‘love your neighbour as yourself – and that is in various places in the Gospels. What makes it ‘new’ here is the comparison to the love that Jesus has for his disciples. John Marsh in his commentary says ‘it is to be love of the kind that will “reverse the role” and bring the leader to serve as a slave, and the innocent to serve the guilty, in the love will bring peace to world by its sacrificial quality. It will be a love that, like Christ’s love for his own, does not ask questions about worthiness, but simply gives itself in humble service.’
It is meant to be so visible among the disciples of Christ, that those outside the Christian faith will recognize it as a sign of a follower of Jesus. This is a tough challenge or even an impossibility; the key to carrying it out is in the words ‘as I have loved you’. It is because Jesus pours out his love on us that we can love others as he asks and this is possible only with the power of his love within us.