May 14, 2017: 5th Sunday of Easter (A)

1st Reading – Acts 6:1-7

As the number of disciples continued to grow,
the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
because their widows
were being neglected in the daily distribution.
So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said,
“It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men,
filled with the Spirit and wisdom,
whom we shall appoint to this task,
whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer
and to the ministry of the word.”
The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,
so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit,
also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,
and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
They presented these men to the apostles
who prayed and laid hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread,
and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly;
even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

Today we begin a new section of the Acts of the Apostles. The episode recounted furnishes us with a picture of the early Christian community that is quite different from those of the preceding Sundays of the Easter season.  Previously, we saw a community of one mind and one heart (Acts 2:42-47), and were told how the preaching of Peter resulted in numerous conversions (Acts 2:41).  Today we observe tension within the community and how the members resolved that tension.

As the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews

Hellenists were Jews who had been born and lived for a time outside Palestine. They spoke Greek and had synagogues of their own where the Greek translation of Scripture (the Septuagint) was used.

The Hebrews were Jews born in Palestine; they spoke Aramaic and used the Hebrew Bible in their synagogues. This difference of backgrounds naturally carried over into the Christian community during its early years.

because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

This most likely refers to the day-to-day survival effort by the unworldly, enthusiastic Christian community rather than to any assistance program to the Jewish society at large.

Why the widows of the Greek-speaking members were slighted is not stated, but you 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.  At issue is some practical matter, not a point of doctrine.

So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.

Peter does not stand as the sole leader as he is depicted in the readings of previous Sundays.  Instead, the entire group of apostles addresses the problem.

Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task,

In addition to the collegial leadership model, note the principles of subsidiarity also at work: it is the community that selects the men for the ministry, which the apostles then commission.

whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Prayer and ministry versus “serving at table.”

Saint Luke uses the Greek word diakonía (service) in three different ways: daily “distribution” (v. 1), “ministry” of the word (v. 4), and “serve” at table (v. 2) all come from the same word.  The first suggests distribution of alms; the second refers to evangelization; the third describes the distribution of food.

However, Luke doesn’t call the seven “deacons” (diakonoi), nor do later ancient writers imply that these seven were deacons in the sense of the word today. We know that both Stephen (Acts 7:2) and Philip (Acts 8:5) preached, so these ministries cannot be rigidly classified as either priestly or diaconal.

The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.

It’s interesting that the complaint came from the Hellenists, and the seven men who were appointed to remedy the situation all had Greek names.  It is as if the mixed community chose members from the complaining segment in order to ensure there were be no reason for future complaints.

They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.

Although “laying on of hands” eventually came to refer to ordination, that is probably not its meaning here.  The practice was a Jewish ritual for transferring function and investing someone with power or authority (see Numbers 27:18-23). These men had already received the Holy Spirit, as it was a prerequisite for their selection.

The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

Like the readings of the previous two Sundays, this reading ends with a statement about the growth of the company of believers.

The mention of Jewish priests combined with the earlier account of Hellenists and Hebrews point to the growing diversity and complexity of this community.  While this diversity brings tension, the value of the diversity is not questioned.  Rather, the reading demonstrates how to resolve it in an equitable and satisfactory manner.

2nd Reading – 1 Peter 2:4-9

Beloved:
Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it says in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion,
a cornerstone, chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.”
Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone, and
A stone that will make people stumble,
and a rock that will make them fall.
They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.

You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises” of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Borrowing an image from building construction, Peter here develops both a christological theme and an ecclesiological one.

Beloved: Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God,

The words of Psalm 118:22 (revised with inclusive language) are applied to the Risen Christ.  He was rejected by humans but chosen by God for a particular purpose.

and, like living stones,

In contrast to the inanimate blocks used in pagan temples, those who are “alive in Christ” are living stones.  This is an intentionally peculiar phrase — these stones are unique, set apart from all other stones.

let yourselves be built into a spiritual house

By sharing the life of the Risen Lord, Christians become with him a household formed by the Holy Spirit.

“This is how Peter describes the way in which those who have been accepted by God are integrated into the Church. It is by sharing a common origin, and by being in harmony with one another, by thinking and saying the same things, by having the same mind and the same thoughts, that we are built into one house for the Lord.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 430), Catena]

to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

The author is employing a literary technique called chain quotation, similar to one used by the rabbis.  Biblical passages or images are strung together, one after the other.  Here, “living stones” is followed by “spiritual house,” a new kind of temple.  This invites mention of a holy priesthood, which suggests the offering of sacrifices.  There is no logical progression of thought, only a rich tapestry of related themes.

The product of this tapestry is an image of Christians, viewed as a new body of priests, presenting their lives of faith and love as a sacrifice to God (see Romans 12:1; Ephesians 5:2; Philippians 4:18).

“The temple which Christ built is the universal Church, which He gathers into the one structure of His faith and love from all the believers throughout the world, as it were from living stones.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 416), Homilies on the Gospels, 2,24]

For it says in scripture: “Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone, chosen and precious, and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.”

An adapted form of Isaiah 28:16 from the Septuagint. This stone is a foundation stone, one that acts as the underpinning of the building.  Applied to Christ, this feature would illustrate the building’s (that is, the Christian community’s) total dependence on Christ.

Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”

Psalm 118:22 is again referenced.

and “A stone that will make people stumble, and a rock that will make them fall.”

Isaiah 8:14.

They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.

Those who believe in Christ are not put to shame; those who reject him will stumble.

The image of stumbling fits nicely with the metaphor of darkness, which will be employed in the next verse.

But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises”

The first three titles (chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation) are from the Mosaic covenant: titles promised to Israel prior to the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 19:6). The final title (“a people of his own”) is a combination of Isaiah 43:21 and Malachi 3:17.

Those who have accepted the living stone are not only a spiritual house, they are a People of God.

“All who have been born again in Christ are made kings by the sign of the cross and consecrated priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.” [Pope Saint Leo (The Great) I (after A.D. 461), Sermons, 4]

of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Here the frequently used theme of darkness (ignorance and sin) and light (wisdom and acceptance of Christ) is employed, once again applying elements of the Israelite tradition to the Christian experience.

Gospel – John 14:1-12

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.
Where I am going you know the way.”
Thomas said to him,
“Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him,
“Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time
and you still do not know me, Philip?
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,
or else, believe because of the works themselves.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,
and will do greater ones than these,
because I am going to the Father.”

Today’s reading takes place at the Last Supper.  Judas has departed and Jesus has told the remaining eleven that he must soon depart, too.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.

The discourse opens on a note of tender concern.  Jesus seeks to strengthen his followers, who appear to be troubled at the thought of his departure.

You have faith in God; have faith also in me.

He attempts to calm their hearts by urging them to trust, first in God and then in himself.  Jesus has never hesitated to put himself on the same level with the Father in the common work of salvation, thus he and the Father are equally the object of faith.

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.

Jesus does not conceal his imminent departure, but he interprets it in a very positive way.  He is going to the dwelling place (oikía) of God, which he has described as a large mansion with many guest rooms.  This is usually interpreted (even in ancient times) to mean the heavenly kingdom to which Jesus is returning — although there are no grounds for understanding “many” to mean “many kinds” or “many degrees.”

However, John probably intends another meaning as well: In one way, Christ has never left heaven and consequently need not return. The Father’s house is where God is, and whoever is with God is in his house — one of Paul’s favorite metaphors for the Church is this “House of God”. In this sense, the “many” would refer to the many members of the Church on earth, where Christ will also be. This too is an ancient interpretation.

If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?

There is ample room where Jesus will be; therefore, they need have no fear that they will not find a place in his company.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.

There is a bit of ambiguity here.  He promises to return for them, and then they will all be together again.  This could refer to the parousia (the second coming, at the end of time), but could also refer to his Resurrection and subsequent gift of the Spirit.

It would all sound so benign were it not that the manner of his leaving will be a brutal execution.

Where I am going you know the way.”

In the Wisdom tradition, “the way” refers to the manner of living: the way of the wise (Proverbs 4:11) and the way of the wicked (Proverbs 4:19).

Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

As usual with the apostles, Thomas has understood the meaning of “way” in a literal sense: the path one takes in order to reach one’s destination.

Although Jesus has repeatedly told the disciples that he is going to the Father by way of his sacrificial death, which is the model that all must take if they would follow him, Thomas reflects the ignorance of all the disciples.  The disciples have shown themselves to be as obtuse as Jesus’ Jewish opponents — what saves them is their good will.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.

In John’s gospel, “truth” is the divinely revealed reality of the Father manifested in the person and works of Jesus. The possession of truth confers knowledge and liberation from sin (John 8:32).

No one comes to the Father except through me.

The one Jesus calls Father is the destination, and he, Jesus, is the way to that destination.  Only by living life in conformity with Jesus can one hope to arrive at God.

If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

The kind of union that Jesus claims here is often referred to as high christology, christology that focuses on Jesus’ divine prerogatives.

Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”

Thinking he has understood Jesus, Philip asks to be shown the Father.  He is asking for a theophany like Exodus 24:9-10; 33:18.

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?

Jesus repeats almost word-for-word what he has stated on other occasions (John 7:16; 8:28; 10:38).  Jesus claims a manner of union with God that implies mutual indwelling and equality — and he is very aware of the boldness of this claim.

The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves.

Jesus invites Philip and all who are listening to recall the wondrous deeds he performed.  If they cannot grasp the meaning of his words, they certainly cannot deny the significance of his deeds.

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these,

It follows from this that the Christian will also perform the works of God, even as Christ has done on the same principle. These words, as addressed to the first apostles, refer not only to the fact that the works of the Christian believer are performed within the supernatural order, but, first and foremost, to the Church as possessing and continuing Christ’s divine power for salvation.

Performance of greater deeds does not refer primarily to miracles, though these will continue, but to the far greater scope, geographically and numerically within which the Church will exercise its salvific power.

because I am going to the Father.

The condition of this activity is Christ’s glorification and the giving of the Holy Spirit.  Said another way, his believers will be able to do these great works in the power of his death and resurrection.

Connections and Themes

The exaltation of Jesus. Jesus died, rose, and is exalted at the right hand of God in glory.  This is the heart of the gospel message.  It has already happened; it is a fact.  Only in the gradual unfolding of the Liturgical Year do we commemorate separately each stage in this drama as if the reality were being revealed gradually before our eyes.  These fifty days of Easter provide us with an opportunity to probe the depths of this mystery and to savor the insights we discover. It is a time to celebrate as we await the final glorification of Jesus.

The exaltation of Jesus should cause us to wonder by what standards God chooses to glorify.  This Sunday, Jesus speaks of going to the God that he calls Father.  However, it is through his death that he goes to God.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is exalted as he is raised up in crucifixion.  The author of the epistle declares him “chosen and precious in the sight of God,” but it is as the stone that was rejected that he is also honored.  Although some claim Jesus is exalted as a reward for having suffered such disgrace, these readings suggest he is exalted by God despite the fact that he was rejected by others.  This should encourage us who might be tempted to fall victim to the standards of acceptability espoused by the world.

Life in the community.  If we ever wonder how the exaltation of Jesus will affect us, we have Jesus’ own words of explanation.  He promises to go ahead of us and make arrangements for us to share in his exaltation in the house of the one he calls Father.  All we need do is follow him.  The epistle reading characterized him as the cornerstone that holds the house together.  The first reading shows us how the reconciliation of tensions within the community can prevent the house from being divided.  Taken together, these readings suggest that the exaltation of Jesus is most dramatically manifested in the character of the community of those called by his name.  It is revealed in the way Christians settle their differences so that all parties are treated fairly.  Jesus is the cornerstone upon which this community is built, and the community mirrors his influence in its life.

Proclaim His Praises.  Not only do the Christians participate in the exaltation of Jesus by living as a community of reconciliation, they also do it by spreading the good news to others.  The reading from Acts shows how the witness of their lives and their preaching of the word of God increased their number.  The gospel may be using hyperbole, but in it Jesus claims that his followers will accomplish deeds even greater than those he himself performed.  This promise remains a challenge for followers of every age.  What is the challenge for Christians today in a world broken to pieces by war, a world that values possessions more than people, a world that finds it difficult to admit its limitations?  What in the gospel message for today is good news? And how can today’s Christians proclaim it?

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