May 10, 2015: 6th Sunday of Easter (B)

1st Reading – Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him
and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
“Get up. I myself am also a human being.”

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.”

While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Our first reading today is set in the home of Cornelius, a newly converted Roman centurion, several years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Cornelius was the centurion in command of the Italian cohort stationed at Caesarea, and a proselyte — a person who accepted Jewish Law but did not become full members of the Jewish community by circumcision.

Cornelius’ conversion is an important event because until then, the Gospel had been preached only to Jews.  The disciples believed that the people of Israel were the only people chosen by God to be bearers of the divine promises.

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.

Cornelius’ deference to Peter shows that he recognizes Peter as a messenger of God.

It is worth noting that an observant Jew would not normally enter the home of a Gentile.

Peter, however, raised him up, saying, “Get up. I myself am also a human being.”

Peter’s response is an acknowledgement that he is indeed only a messenger, not a god.

The apocryphal Acts of Peter tells us that this form of greeting was not unusual because those who met the apostles did not regard them as mere humans.

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see

The first words of Peter’s discourse indicate that he was not always open to the truth he is about to proclaim.

that God shows no partiality.

Literally, “God is not one showing favors.” This is an allusion to Deuteronomy 10:17 and 2 Chronicles 19:7.  God shows no partiality, and therefore, neither should he.  All are acceptable to God, Jew and Gentile, man and woman.

Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.

One who acts uprightly is one who practices righteousness, implying that this can be done even if one is not a Jew.

While Peter was still speaking these things, the holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.

Peter’s courageous preaching is interrupted by the action of God.  In fact, the real power of the narrative is not in Peter’s disposition but in the action of the Holy Spirit.

The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter

Some Jewish-Christians had traveled there with Peter from Joppa.

were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.

The righteous, God-fearing Gentiles gathered in the house of Cornelius receive the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues, notably without the agency of Peter or his companions, and also notably without having been baptized.

This is a kind of Gentile Pentecost scene.  As with the original Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21), the prophecy of Joel is fulfilled: the Spirit is poured out (Joel 3:1-5) and there is a miracle of speech (Acts 2:5-12).

Here, speaking in tongues is less important as a supernatural gift in itself than as a manifestation of the presence of the Spirit.  There would have been no way of knowing that the Gentiles had received the Spirit had there been no objective external sign.

Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?”

Peter has just insisted that God shows no impartiality; now all in the house have witnessed the truth of this gospel message.

Peter recognizes that the Gentiles have received the Spirit “even as we have.” Accordingly, he concludes that God has clearly accepted the Gentiles; the Church can do no less.

He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Notice that the ritual of baptism here is a sign of the Church’s acceptance of God’s action, not an agency of that action.  Those who received the Spirit at the first Pentecost and those who have received it at the second Pentecost are joined by a special bond, the shared outpouring of the Spirit.

2nd Reading – 1 John 4:7-10

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

In these few verses we find some of the most profound theological, christological, soteriological, and communitarian tenets of the Christian faith.

Beloved, let us love one another,

Although the author addresses the hearers as “beloved” (agapētoí), the communitarian exhortation that follows, “let us love one another,” is as applicable to the author as it is to the audience.

because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.

The heart of the message is the teaching about love.

The motive for us to love one another is the fact that love originates in God.  Whoever loves demonstrates their origin in the same God with whom they have fellowship.

Whoever is without love does not know God,

The knowledge of God that accompanies being begotten by God is not merely knowledge “about” God.  Even unbelievers can acquire this.  Rather, it is experiential knowledge, knowledge that comes from touching and being touched deeply in one’s own divinized nature.  Those who have no love have not been begotten by God, and consequently, they lack this inner knowledge; those who do not enjoy such knowledge have never been begotten by God and, therefore, do not live in such love.

for God is love.

The most startling statement John makes about God is that God is love.  This divine love is the fundamental theological reality.

Love not only comes from God as though from a source, it is itself the very essence of God.

In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.

Although his proper name is not mentioned, Jesus is identified as the Son of God, who originated outside of the world of history, and was then sent into that world.

In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

God initiates this love, and the unbelievable extent of God’s love for the world is best exemplified in Christ’s own selfless offering of himself.  He became the expiation (hilasmón) for the sins of others and won for them a second chance at life.

Nothing can compare with this love; it is, in fact, almost impossible to comprehend.  Nonetheless, this is the love that is presented to believers for their contemplation and ultimately, their imitation of it.

Gospel – John 15:9-17

Jesus said to his disciples:
“As the Father loves me, so I also love you.
Remain in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and remain in his love.

“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best known discourses on love.  It is a continuation of last week’s reading, when Jesus taught his disciples with the allegory of the vine.

As the Father loves me, so I also love you. 

The Greek word used is neither ’erōs, the passionate love that seeks some form of possession of the beloved, nor philía, which denotes the love of kin of those very closely related.  The word used is agápē, a word that in itself is very similar to philía but which in John’s gospel has special theological meaning.  It is the only word used to describe the love for God, and it carries this connotation when applied to love for neighbor.

The word appears nine times in this reading, weaving together the love that God has for Jesus, the love that Jesus has for his friends, and the love the friends have for one another.

Remain in my love.

The disciples are invited to live in this love, to abide there.  The verb ménō means “to stay in a place.”  It suggests a permanence associated with God.  The union that is offered is not intended to be a passing occasion; it is to be a lasting state of being.

If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

This permanent union will be accomplished through obedience.  In this, Jesus is both the model and the mediator.  As he was obedient to the commandments of God, so the disciples must be obedient to his commandments.  In fact, it is through their obedience to him that they will be obedient to God.

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.

Jesus promises the disciples that if they abide in his love and obey his commandments, they will abide in his joy as well.  Although the passage does not describe the character of this joy, we can presume that it flows from union with God.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.

The source of the love he commands is divine love itself: As the Father loves me, so I also love you…. love one another as I love you.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Jesus’ own sacrifice is the example which we are all called to emulate. Not senseless death, but the giving of our very selves for others. The love of Christ gives us the ability to do this.

You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.

The friends Jesus speaks of are the disciples.  They are not slaves who obey blindly, but were personally chosen by Jesus to participate in his ministry.  They have heard and accepted God’s will as spoken by him.  They have responded freely, as friends would respond.  Thus he calls them friends, and because of his love for them he is willing to lay down his life for them.

They, in turn, must similarly love one another, and presumably, be willing to lay down their lives for one another.

It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit 

The love described here is an active love, reaching out to others: God to Jesus, Jesus to the disciples, the disciples to one another.  But it must not stop there.  This active love must move outside the confines of the group of chosen ones into the broader world.  Those who have been chosen for love have also been elected to mission.  They must go forth, and their love and obedience must bear fruit in the lives of others.

that will remain,

This fruit will endure (the Greek has a form of the verb “to abide”).

so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.

The circle will be completed when God grants the requests made by the disciples in the name of Jesus.

This I command you: love one another.

The reading ends with the injunction that sums up the entire proclamation: “Love one another.”

Connections and Themes

Easter. The readings during the Easter season all geared toward the mystagogical catechesis, the instruction that unpacks the hidden mystery experienced in the sacraments of initiation received or renewed on Easter. The chosen readings provide us an extended meditation on the mystery of the resurrection and on our own incorporation into that resurrection through the mysteries of initiation.

This week, the mystagogical catechesis continues with a consideration of the boundless love of God, which brought the Church into being in the first place and which has continued to sustain and strengthen it down through the ages.  This is a love that cannot be circumscribed by human boundaries but is universal in its scope.  It is a love that completely transforms us.

The boundless love of God.   The boundlessness of God’s love is seen in the fact that God loved us even before we were deserving of God’s love.  In fact, it was God’s love that made us able both to receive and to give love in return.  Love is of God; love is God.  How easily we can think this thought of speak these words, yet how difficult — even impossible — it is to comprehend what they mean.  Even the most sublime human love has boundaries beyond which it cannot pass, limits beyond which it will not go.  It can wax and wane, ebb and flow; it can flare up and die out.  Without diminishing our love in any way we can be distracted from it; without doubting its presence we can question its reliability.  Not so the love of God.  It has no boundaries, no limits.  It is constant and trustworthy.  God is love, and so all the attributes we assign to God can be assigned to love.

The boundless love breaks boundaries.   Talk of love can either be so abstract as to be removed from human experience or so embellished as to be empty of meaning.  We can only really recognize love in its many concrete manifestations.  Love is patient, kind, and forbearing; it believes, it hopes, it endures.  The love of God is also universal; having no boundaries, it includes all.  It breaks down the barriers between Gentile and Jew, between slave and free, between the poor and the prosperous, between women and men, between the healthy and the ailing, between young and old.  God’s love is boundless, without perimeters; distinctions are not divisions.

God’s love transforms us.   Embraced by such love, we are gradually transformed.  We begin to recognize God’s love in places where we never suspected it would be found.  We discover that what we once judged unclean may merely be an unfamiliar openness to God’s truth.  We discover that our own insistence on legitimate religious practice may really be spiritual elitism.  Our eyes are opened to ways we have tried to confine God’s love to the conventional boundaries that we ourselves have set.  As we are drawn into God’s love, we can eagerly embrace the commandments that help us to live righteous lives.

As the Church of the risen Lord, we are to give witness to God’s love wherever we find it.  We acknowledge that this boundless love extends to all nations and to all peoples.  We realize that the power of our Easter experience bring with it a certain universality of grace and gift.  The Christian community bears witness to this by its own loving inclusivity.  God is love, and to the extent that we can love as universally as God does, we will know that we live in God and that God lives in us.

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