May 12, 2019: 4th Sunday of Easter (C)

1st Reading – Acts 13:14, 43-52

Paul and Barnabas continued on from Perga
and reached Antioch in Pisidia.
On the sabbath they entered the synagogue and took their seats.
Many Jews and worshipers who were converts to Judaism
followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them
and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.

On the following sabbath almost the whole city gathered
to hear the word of the Lord.
When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy
and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.
Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said,
“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it
and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,
we now turn to the Gentiles.
For so the Lord has commanded us,
I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.”

The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this
and glorified the word of the Lord.
All who were destined for eternal life came to believe,
and the word of the Lord continued to spread
through the whole region.
The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshipers
and the leading men of the city,
stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas,
and expelled them from their territory.
So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them,
and went to Iconium.
The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

Today’s reading depicts the animosity that arose between the apostles and certain segments of the Jewish community.  This animosity precipitated a transition in Paul’s ministry, addressing no longer the Jewish community but now the Gentiles.  We must be very careful to interpret the message of this passage carefully, lest we allow it to create or nurture any anti-Judaic sentiments, which are more in the hearts and minds of the readers than in the biblical passage itself.

After the initial establishment of the Church in Jerusalem, it spread outward with
Philip going to Samaria and Peter going to Lydia and Joppa and then to Antioch. Paul traveled more widely than the other disciples, undertaking three missionary journeys, each more extensive than the previous one, and then a final journey to Rome to join Peter.

Today’s reading is from Saint Paul’s first missionary journey.

Paul and Barnabas continued on from Perga and reached Antioch in Pisidia.

Antioch in Pisidia was the administrative center of the Roman province of Galatia, comprised primarily of Gentiles.  Coming from Perga, Paul and Barnabas would have had to cross the Taurus mountains to get there.

The city boasted a military garrison with soldiers, who upon their conversion would be able to spread the gospel as they moved from assignment to assignment throughout the Roman territories.

On the sabbath they entered the synagogue and took their seats.

It was the Jewish custom to invite visitors to speak in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  The address Paul makes is detailed in the intervening verses excluded from this reading (v. 14-43).

Many Jews and worshipers who were converts to Judaism

This particular synagogue was made up of both Jews who had been born into the faith and proselytes who were in the process of converting.  Unlike Gentile “God-fearers” (Acts 13:16) who participated only minimally in Jewish religious practices, proselytes were allowed to worship.

followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God. On the following sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.

Paul and Barnabas made such an impression that crowds returned to hear them on the following Sabbath.

When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.

The success of Paul and Barnabas engendered envy in the hearts of some, and in response they questioned the content of the apostles’ preaching.

Note that the message of good news did not seem to bother them the first Sabbath, but only as its popularity became obvious.

Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,

That is, to the Jews first.

but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,

He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me (Luke 10:16).

we now turn to the Gentiles.

Their refusal to believe frustrates God’s plan for his chosen people; however, no adverse judgment is made here concerning their ultimate destiny.

For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

Paul quotes the Septuagint version of Isaiah 49:6, part of one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  It declares that salvation will come to the Gentiles through the agency of the People of God.  Paul reinterprets the passage to mean that he, Paul, will be God’s light to the Gentiles.

The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this and glorified the word of the Lord.

While the text makes it sound as if all the Jews rejected the message and only the Greek proselytes were open to it, it’s more likely that only the leaders of the synagogue contradicted Paul and blasphemed Jesus.

All who were destined for eternal life came to believe, and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region. The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshipers and the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory.

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account (Matthew 5:11).

Their opposition could have stemmed from a theological sense that the requirements for salvation offered by Christianity were much too easy.  On the other hand, they might have feared that their congregation would choose to abandon them, which might have financial repercussions.

So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them 

Since the Jews have rejected the gospel, Paul follows Jesus’ injunction and will turn away from them. (Luke 9:5: And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.)

and went to Iconium.

About one hundred miles to the east.

As strong as this statement might be, it is clear that Paul does not totally reject the Jews.  As he moves from territory to territory, he continues to go first to the synagogues to preach (Acts 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8).

The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

Despite these hardships, the new converts were filled with the joy associated with the Holy Spirit, which they experienced in their newfound faith.

2nd Reading – Revelation 7:9, 14-17

I, John, had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.

Then one of the elders said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

“For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Like last week, today’s second reading is a portion of Saint John’s vision of the heavenly liturgy.

I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.

John sees an unnumbered multitude, one that cannot be counted.  The scene calls to mind the promise made by God to Abraham that he would be the father of a multitude too numerous to count, like the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore (Genesis 22:17).

Note that this multitude is diverse, coming from “every nation, race, people, and tongue.” This fulfills another promise made to Abraham, that he would be the father of a host of nations (Genesis 17:4).

They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,

The scene is one of extraordinary solemnity.  The vast throng stands as a sign of respect and homage.

The respect even extends to the reference to God: “the throne” is a circumlocution for the divine name.  God’s personal name is here given the highest respect by not being pronounced.

Next to the throne stands the Lamb, the one whose blood enabled the throng to stand victorious and pure in the heavenly courts.

wearing white robes

White robes are a sign of both victory and purity.

and holding palm branches in their hands.

A sign of victory and of the thanksgiving of the elect (1 Maccabees 13:51; 2 Maccabees
10:7).

Then one of the elders said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;

John enters into the vision by carrying on a conversation with one of the elders who himself is part of the scene.

“The time of great distress” usually refers to the tribulation believed to precede the time of eschatological fulfillment.  For John, that time had not come; however, his vision was a proleptic glimpse into the end-time, and those who constituted the multitude had already passed through their own period of distress (persecution and perhaps martyrdom).

they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

To be washed in the blood of the Lamb can be understood in several ways:

  • a reference to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, the blood of which atoned for the sins of all, and/or
  • a reference to the baptism of the individuals gathered together, for it was through baptism that they were incorporated into Christ’s death, and/or
  • an allusion to their martyrdom, having paid the ultimate price for their commitment to Christ and shedding their blood as he shed his.

The first two explanations are obviously assumed regardless of what is specifically meant, but there is no certainty given about their martyrdom.

Whatever the reference may be, it is clear that this multitude has been made worthy to participate in the heavenly worship.

“For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple.

It is because they have endured and have been made pure by Christ that they can stand before God and worship day and night without end.

The greatest blessing is to be in God’s presence.

The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. 

They are now protected from adversity.  The description of their safekeeping is taken from the prophet Isaiah (49:10), who looks forward to the day of return from worldly exile, the day that is fulfilled in John’s sight.

For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water,

Heavenly happiness is described in a series of Old Testament expressions: Exodus 15:13;
Deuteronomy 1:33; Wisdom 9:11; Jeremiah 2:13.

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

It is God who will wipe away tears (Isaiah 25:8).

This vast throng is sheltered by God and shepherded by the Lamb.  They have endured, and now they can rejoice.

Gospel – John 10:27-30

Jesus said:
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”

The frequent characterization of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has many dimensions. Today’s gospel reading reveals two of them: the relationship Jesus has with those who follow him and the relationship he has with God.

Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

Jesus’ sheep are those who hear his voice, recognize it, and follow him.  This image originates in the world of herders and would be very familiar to Jesus’ audience.  Sheep do in fact recognize the voice or sound of the one who cares for them, and they trustingly follow that voice, and that voice only, even into danger.

Correspondingly, shepherds can recognize their own sheep as distinct from sheep belonging to someone else.  This is because the shepherds and the sheep are together constantly.  When applied to the relationship between Jesus and his followers, the image implies intimate knowledge on the part of both and unquestioning trust on the part of the followers.

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.

Jesus makes two bold promises, the first being that he will give eternal life to those who are his sheep.  He can promise this because he has power over death.  Previous to this passage, in John 10:17, Jesus said he can lay down his life and then take it up again.

No one can take them out of my hand.

The second bold promise is that he will not allow anyone to take his sheep away from him.  If he has power over death, the ultimate peril, his hold over his sheep will certainly not be threatened by lesser evils.

My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.

Jesus has the right to exercise this kind of authority over the sheep because they have been given to him by God.  The Father’s omnipotence is the guarantee of the gift.

The Father and I are one.”

The Greek word for “one” (hen) is neuter in form, suggesting the reference is to the identical manner in which Jesus and God care for the sheep.  If the author wanted to say Jesus was identical with God, most likely a different form would have been used.

Note that Jesus consistently calls God “Father,” the trinitarian designation that signifies distinction in divine union. Although the primary focus is on how Jesus cares for the sheep entrusted to him by God and in the same manner as God cares, it is clear that all Jesus says and does is the actual embodiment of God’s will and not just behavior that conforms to it.  Jesus and his Father are so closely associated that more than function is presupposed here.  The shepherd who cares for the sheep is indeed one with God.

“The Father and I are one” is an extremely difficult saying, and one that provokes the wrath of the Jews, as we hear in the verse that immediately follows this reading: The Jews again picked up rocks to stone him.

Connections and Themes

This Sunday is traditionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  However, the readings for today focus more on the flock than on the shepherd.  The overarching theme appears to be unity in diversity.  Placing this theme within the context of the Easter season, we might refocus it slightly and suggest that today we celebrate the presence of the risen Lord in communities of difference.

Trinitarian unity. Unity in diversity is first found in the primordial divine union of the Trinity, the relationship between Jesus and the one he called “Father.” United in the Godhead, they are still distinct.  This is the foundational unity: all other models of unity flow from it.  It is difficult to talk about this trinitarian unity.  All we know about it are glimpses we can glean from the sayings of Jesus and the faith of the early believers.  In the gospel, Jesus describes the intimate relationship he has with his sheep, a oneness that cannot be undermined by another.  No one will snatch the sheep out of his hand.  The same is said about the Father.  From this, one can conclude that Jesus and the Gather exercise the same kind of oversight, thus making the relationship of the sheep with the Father similar to the union they enjoy with Jesus.

Communal unity.  Both the first and the second readings depict communities made up of people from every nation, race, people, and tongue, Jews and Gentiles alike.  This is precisely the makeup of most communities today.  Parishes and religious groups born with a particular cultural identity have slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) changed in complexion and composition.  Thriving young groups have given way to retirement communities; monocultural parishes are now bi- or tri-lingual.  The melting-pot mentality, which frequently forced acculturation on newcomers, has been replaced by the image of the mosaic, where diversity is retained as a vital contribution to the entire design.  Jesus’ prayer that all might be one seems to have been heard.

Despite the obvious differences, all are children of the one God, all are joined in their common confession of faith, all share the same aspirations for final peace and fulfillment.  Just as we must learn to look beneath the familiar to discover the presence of the risen Lord, so we must learn to look beneath the unfamiliar to find a sister or brother in Christ.

The price of diversity.  Not everyone is happy with diversity.  Some within the early community resented the success of Paul and Barnabas and tried to turn the people against them.  These opponents may have resented their popularity, or they may have contested their teaching.  Conflict could have arisen simply from what they perceived to be the threat of possible change.  People generally like things the way they are and see no need to accommodate themselves to different people with different customs and ideas.  Whatever the case may have been, some of the people instigated dissension among those listening in the synagogue, and they drove Paul and Barnabas out.

This sounds strangely familiar to us.  Religious groups born out of struggle and hard work, lovingly nurtured as they grew strong, often resist what they perceive to be the invasion of foreigners.  Rather than see this new group as a companion with gifts that can enrich them, they view them as usurpers, as people with little or no appreciation of the established form of life, manner of expression, or way of perceiving God.  If these people could only take as their model the company of the blessed revealed in John’s vision, they would see that those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, who are garbed in white robes of purity, and who carry palm branches of victory come from every nation and race and people and tongue.  They would see that, in the end, unity in diversity will win out.  In the end, all will be united yet distinct, as are Jesus and the one he calls “Father.”

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