The Gospel selection today from John, is long and complex, and when we are not able to be physically present at Mass we may find more time to absorb and meditate on the words of Jesus as he prepares for both his death and resurrection.
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 despite all 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 to join them, even among the Jewish priests. This is a lesson for our times as well when there is a lot pressure, both within the churches and in the secular world, for people to ‘take sides’. What can we learn from this example – listening to each other, praying over the problem, find new ways to work together?
There is some irony in that the Seven are chosen to serve and distribute food but two of them will shortly (as the story of Acts continues) be preaching and evangelizing as well. This fits the emphasis of Pope Francis that all of us share in the mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus and his Resurrection.
Psalm 32/ Greek 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 in applying it to a person, Peter explains its spiritual meaning as 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: we are ‘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 officiate at mass, they use words that associate all present in their actions, stressing (in the words of the canon of the mass) that it is ‘we’ who make the offering. There has been a tendency at times to ‘leave it all to Father’ in many parish activities, and it is easy to emphasize the priest’s role at worship as well, while ignoring our own responsibility. Mass is meant to be our offering of bread and wine, our praise to the Father, Son and Spirit. When we are not present at mass in these days of seclusion, we still can express our priesthood in prayer and in joining the intentions of the service.
This time of pandemic and economic hardship has many needs for the priestly efforts of making God present in the world around us. There are many ways to reach out to others, as people are discovering in a time of lockdown. We may, for example, use the internet, our phones, and we can make donations to those dealing with needs at home and abroad. If we are closed inside, prayer has no limits or boundaries – it is not ‘locked down’ but reaches all the earth, and rises to heaven.
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 of various sayings of Christ – with its length, repetitions and even an ending in the middle (4:31) before continuing for several more chapters. This suggests a final editor was combining two or more texts. While based on material John had from the tradition, it is written in the author’s distinctive style of dramatic dialogues and misunderstandings that allow Jesus to explain more fully. I have found especially useful for understanding its complexities 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 been facing his painful death then, now for the disciples, Marsh explains, ‘once his own death was accomplished, the situation was totally different.’ They can rely on his conquering of death and need not feel anxious. 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 so we might think of it as a ‘home’ being prepared for us in the presence of God, symbolized by calling it ‘God’s house. This is made possible because Jesus has opened it up for us. In a typical dialogue of misunderstanding, Thomas thinks literally of a physical ‘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 despite its simplicity sums up his presence among us: ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.’
The relationship of the three words requires much reflection. Jesus explained in several images how he is a ‘way’ – the Greek word like the English has various shades of meaning. Last week we heard he was the ‘gate’ of the sheepfold – and other images of going out also show how we can move from our present state to something deeper and farther. But there is more here: as Marsh points out, Jesus is not showing a way, a path or direction, he is in himself that way. Similarly, he is ‘Truth’ and Life. Both expressions are frequent in this Gospel – ‘life abundant’ was in last week’s reading. The meaning of truth and the related Greek adjective go beyond the idea of ‘facts’ as often used these days where fact checking for ‘fake news’ is a daily problem. For John, ‘truth’ is the deepest reality of being.
All three words together show what Jesus is, what God is, and suggest how we relate to Jesus the Father. We can 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’, with his own life in us, and finding the meaning of our lives in the ‘truth’ that grounds all creation in the love and power of God. As Jesus is in and with God, we are in and with Jesus, and with him also united to the Father. (The place of the Spirit in our lives will be taken up in next week’s reading.)
The ‘even greater works’ is not likely here 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 now in love and care as Jesus works in and with and through us. As Jesus is related to the Father, we too find our deep relationship with God for we are related to Jesus in ways no one can take from us.
We do not need to let anything, closed doors, illness, small or great hardships, even loss of those we love – nothing at all need come between us and the love, the life and the presence of God made possible for us by Jesus in his life-death-resurrection.