This week continues the cycle of readings from Acts and Apocalypse – reflections on themes related to the Resurrection. The Gospel is again from John, and points forward to the Ascension which will be celebrated this year on Thursday May 30th.
Acts 15:1-2, 2-22-29
This follows on from last week’s reading when Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch and stayed for some time among the Gentile converts. Now some Jewish converts come from Judea to tell the new Christians they must be circumcised according the rites set out in the Pentateuch, the book of Law coming from Moses. Male circumcision had marked one as belonging to the people of God from the time of Abraham. Paul and Barnabas did not believe it was required of those becoming new disciples of Christ, but it appears the community was disturbed and uncertain about what to believe. The solution was for the two teachers to go to Jerusalem where they could consult with the other apostles. Our reading omits the early part of this ‘council’ meeting, when Peter and James spoke against imposing the ‘burden’ of the Law on the converts with its many detailed rules about living, which Peter notes ‘neither we or our ancestors were strong enough to support’.
We pick up with the letter given to Paul, Barnabas and two others to take back to Antioch. Meats that had been sacrificed to idols was sold to the public but for disciples to eat these might be seen as accepting idolatry and so scandalise some of the community. The other restrictions may be related to Leviticus 17:8-9 which lists the things that Gentiles living among the Jews should observe. The word translated ‘fornication’ may mean sexual laxity, but here it may be traced to the rabbi’s use of it to forbid sexual relations in marriage between very close relatives. The implication of these rules seems to be that such behaviour would be a scandal to outsiders and bring the Christians into disrepute. Our reading oddly ends before the verse saying the Christians in Antioch were pleased and comforted by the message.
Psalm 66/67:2-3, 5-6, 8
We respond a short psalm of praise, which stresses God’s blessing on the entire world, and so fits well with the theme of bringing in the non-Jews without the non-moral burdens of the Law.
Apocalypse 21:10-14, 22-23
This is a continuation of the vision of the New or Heavenly Jerusalem, again in symbolic rather than realistic descriptions. The city based on the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles stands for the continuity of God’s people, the original chosen people and those who were drawn into the Christian church by the preaching of the apostles. Our reading omits a detailed description with more elaborate symbolism and cuts to the essential part: no temple will be needed because God is totally present now to the people he has called and God no longer is thought to be encountered mainly in a dedicated building.
Light is a potent symbol with various resonances, among them, being able to see and understand – like our word ‘enlightenment’. Light also represents the radiance or glory of the divine. The Lamb (as Jesus is called in this book) is also like a lit torch or candle. In our Easter season it recalls the liturgy of Holy Saturday with the lighting of the Paschal candle, which is kept burning at our masses now.
This is more from the ‘Last Discourse’ written in John as spoken by Jesus before his death. These chapters are full of ways in which Christ, although leaving this earth through death and ascension, is still present to the faithful disciples – the ones hearing his words at the Last Supper, but also to all those who are to come. ‘Home’: earlier (14:2) Jesus had used the same Greek word for the ‘many rooms’ in his Father’s house where he goes to prepare a place for his disciples. Now he says that the idea of ‘dwelling with God’ is something that can happen in this life. It means God being as close to us as those living together as a family or household. Jesus stresses that this happens when one has ‘kept his word’ or his commandments, which in the same discourse was the command to love one another. Modern use of ‘love’ is often for a romantic emotion and for a feeling that may not last long, but its scriptural meaning is more the total orientation towards God and also to others and to their welfare.
After the presence of the Father and Jesus, comes the promise of the Holy Spirit, called the ‘Advocate’ in our translation. It is sometimes written ‘Paraclete’ from the Greek term used in the text. This word had an origin in legal usage for one who takes up the cause of another, but was broadened to include any sort of ‘helper, comforter, or counsellor’ – all these different English words have been used by translators for the Spirit, trying to capture the guidance and protection given to us. Here Jesus speaks particularly of the Spirit’s role as a teacher, one who has the power to bring to mind all that Jesus has taught. Bruce Vawter: ‘John’s Gospel itself is a result of the fulfilment of this promise.’
Scripture does not spend time defining the Trinity as later theologians would try to do, rather the writers give us examples of how the early Christians experienced the actions of the Father, and then Jesus during his life and in eternity, and the Spirit working within believers.
Peace – shalom – was the common greeting and like such common terms was not always said with full meaning. Jesus distinguishes his peace which is a true gift which becomes real in the interior disposition of the disciple. Drawing on some Old Testament texts, it also has a depth which makes this peace not just an emotion but more like ‘harmony and communion with God’, and thus much like ‘salvation’. (Vawter)
‘The Father is greater than I’: Jesus has earlier spoken of being one with the Father, and John’s Gospel begins with a statement of their unity. But here, Jesus is speaking of his role as the agent of the Father sent into the world, carrying out perfectly the saving will of the Father. (This is Pheme Perkins’ explanation of the distinction which takes away the idea of a contradiction.)
This selection has much in it, and will not be easy to take in with one hearing or reading, and so it is well worth spending time to reflect on each of the promises. Written as if it was encouragement to those at the Last Supper, it has been a source of comfort and encouragement to all Christians, especially at times when Jesus seems absent from the world with problems and suffering.