May 19, 2019: 5th Sunday of Easter (C)

1st Reading – Acts 14:21-27

After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news
to that city
and made a considerable number of disciples,
they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.
They strengthened the spirits of the disciples
and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying,
“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships
to enter the kingdom of God.”
They appointed elders for them in each church and,
with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord
in whom they had put their faith.
Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia.
After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.
From there they sailed to Antioch,
where they had been commended to the grace of God
for the work they had now accomplished. 
And when they arrived, they called the church together
and reported what God had done with them
and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

This week we resume the account of Paul and Barnabas’ missionary journey.

After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city

Verse 20, immediately prior to this reading, tells us that this city is Derbe.

and made a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.  They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith,

Paul and Barnabas retrace their steps through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia. The stated reason for this is to strengthen the converts they had previously made there.

saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

You may recall from last week’s reading that Paul and Barnabas had been persecuted in and expelled from Antioch of Pisidia.  Many other difficulties are outlined in the book of Acts.

This statement does not mean that God requires suffering and then rewards it with citizenship in God’s reign.  It means, rather, that suffering is inescapable.

The Greek word used here for hardship (thlipsis) usually refers to the period of tribulation that precedes the ultimate appearance of God’s reign.  Such hardship is considered the “birth pangs” of the Messiah, the inevitable suffering that occurs when one passes from “this age” to the “age of fulfillment.”  This passage brings its own distress.

They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.

In the cities they are revisiting, the apostles establish a kind of administrative structure not unlike that found in the synagogues.  The need for organization is yet another evidence of the growth of the Church.

The word for appoint (cheriotoneō) means “to stretch out one’s hand” or “to lay hands on” in an official way.  As was the case with the officials of the synagogue, these elders were probably entrusted with oversight of worship, discipline, instruction, and administration.  This was not an innovative move on their parts, as such structure seems to have already been established in the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30).

Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished.

The apostles were not independent missionaries.  They had been sent forth by the Church in Antioch (in Syria), and it was to that same Church they returned and to which they reported what had been accomplished by God through them.

A map of the ancient world shows the ambitious scope of their daring apostolic adventure. Their journey, which began around the year 45, lasted for four years.

And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them

Note that the success of the mission is again credited to God.

and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

This figure of speech, “door of faith,” is intimately associated with the ministry of Paul.  He himself uses it in his own writings, in 1 Corinthians 16:9 and 2 Corinthians 2:12.

It was through Paul that the door of faith, an opportunity to believe in salvation through Jesus Christ, was opened for the Gentiles.

2nd Reading – Revelation 21:1-5a

Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The former heaven and the former earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more.
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.
He will dwell with them and they will be his people
and God himself will always be with them as their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,
for the old order has passed away.”

The One who sat on the throne said,
“Behold, I make all things new.”

For the past three weeks, our second reading has been an account of John’s series of privileged visions of heaven.  The portion of the vision in this week’s reading employs several images to characterize the new reality that will be brought forth in the age of fulfillment.

The passage has a chiastic structure, which suggests a focal point:

a1) a new heaven and a new earth

b1) former heaven and earth are gone

c1) the sea is no more

d1) the city descends as a bride

d2) God dwells with the people

c2) death is no more

b2) former things are gone;

a2) God makes everything new

This pattern indicates that the middle elements are the most important ones; that is, the indwelling of God in the midst of the people.

Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth.

The new heaven and new earth recall the prophecy of Isaiah (65:17; 66:22), which promises a restored world for Israel after the Babylonian Exile.

The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

Some interpreters believe the newness described here is one of transformation or renewal.  However, there is enough evidence to conclude the vision is describing something entirely new in nature.  First, the Greek word used for new (kainós) indicates newness in nature, as distinct from new in time (neos).

Second, the disappearance of the sea is significant.  In ancient Near Eastern mythology, the sea was one of the most frequently employed symbols for chaos.  It represented the primordial forces of evil that were defeated and restrained at the time of creation but never thoroughly destroyed.  Even moments of genuine renewal were unable to completely eliminate the powers of evil.  However, at the consummation of the world, when the final battle is won by the forces of good, the sea, the symbol of chaos will be no more.  Something completely new will then be established.  This understanding of newness is substantiated later in the reading (verse 4) by the statement that there will be no more death.

I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,

The new Jerusalem fulfills for the people of the new age what the former Jerusalem meant for the people of the past.  It was a sacred place, the place where God dwelt in their midst in a special way (see Isaiah 65:17-20).

Beyond its importance as a place, the name “Jerusalem” also stood for the People of God, whether they lived in the city or not.  In this vision, Jerusalem probably represents the redeemed in whose midst God dwells.

It comes down from heaven, therefore it is of divine origin (James 1:17). God is the architect and builder of the city (Hebrews 11:10). It is holy because it is definitively consecrated to God.

prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

To characterize the city as a bride signifies not only its state of pristine innocence but also the intimate relationship of love that exists between God and the people (see Isaiah 61:10; 62:5).

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.

The intimacy between God and his people is underscored by a version of the technical covenant formula: I will be their God and they will be my people.  See Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 34:30; 36:28.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”

The old order has passed away, along with death and tears.  In fulfillment of the prophetic promise (Isaiah 25:8; 66:18f), God will comfort the people who mourn, wiping away their tears.

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

This is the only passage in the book of Revelation in which God himself speaks.

The present tense of the verb is prophetic of God’s new creative action. Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The messianic times, the end times, have begun.

Gospel – John 13:31-33a, 34-35

When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself,
and God will glorify him at once.
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”

Today’s gospel takes us back to Holy Thursday, after the washing of the disciples’ feet and the announcement of Judas’ betrayal.  Why, five weeks after Easter, go back to the terrible hours before the crucifixion?  Because now we understand the horror of the cross in light of its effect: the destruction of sin and death. Can this give us a new perspective?

When Judas had left them, 

Having been exposed, Judas flees.  The revelation that Jesus knows our hearts need not cause us to run and hide, but to move deeper into the safety of his company.  If only Judas had cried out at the very moment: Kyrie, eleison! Christe, eleison!  Instead, tragically, he distanced himself from Jesus.

His departure sets into motion the machinery of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution.  There is no going back now.  The die is cast; the events of salvation are about to begin.  The hour of eschatological fulfillment has come.

Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.

While it looks like only suffering and death are on the horizon, this is in fact the moment of glorification.  Lifted up in ignominy, Jesus will really be lifted up in glory, for surrender, death, resurrection, and exaltation are really all one event. Jesus is in complete control.

If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and he will glorify him at once.

Having announced that this is the hour of his own glorification, Jesus explains how it is also the hour of the glorification of God.  The Son of Man is glorified both in his own willingness to obey God even unto death, and in the fact that God will glorify him by making his sacrifice effective for the salvation of all.

Glorification does not cancel suffering.  Rather, it is precisely at the moment of his being lifted up on the cross that Jesus will be lifted up in glory.  Jesus’ willingness to suffer also glorifies God, for it reveals the extent of Jesus’ love for God and God’s love for humankind.  This mutual glorification flows from the intimate relationship that exists between God and the Son of Man.

My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.

Jesus addresses the remaining eleven apostles with affection and tenderness.

I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. 

If the old law (Leviticus 19:18) already teaches us to love one another, why does Jesus call it a new commandment?  This commandment is new (as with our reading from Revelation, kainós) because Jesus distinguishes it from earthly affection. This isn’t the love with which men love one another, but the self-offering love (agapē) that Jesus gives us.  They are to love one another with the same self-sacrificing love Jesus has shown them.

This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This new kind of love will be the universal sign of discipleship of Jesus.

It is not miracles or mighty deeds that become the mark of being Christ’s disciples, but charity: Jesus’ own love active within us.

Connections and Themes

The several presences of the risen Lord we saw on the Second Sunday, the different ways of witnessing to this Lord that occupied our attention on the Third Sunday, and the various ways that unity can exist in the midst of diversity that were made plain on the Fourth Sunday, all point to the same reality: Everything is new!

There is a new law of love, a new heaven and earth that is established in the Church, a new depth of communion there, and a new glory of God that shines forth from its members.

New commandment. The new commandment is the law of the new heaven and the new earth established in the Church. Standards are entirely different there.  The greater ones serve; the meek possess the earth; happy are the poor; woe to those who laugh.  In the new heaven and the new earth, children are cherished rather than ignored, those who are disabled are cared for rather than discarded, women and men are equally respected, all nations and tongues are welcomed.  This is clearly a city that comes down from heaven, not one made by human hands.  It is a city that embraces all who come to it.  It is a city well beloved by God.

New depth of communication.  God dwells in the midst of this city, in the heart of this people.  God dwells with them and they dwell with God.  Because of this special indwelling, they are God’s special people, and God is their special God, a God who is with them and for them.  Previously they were considered children of God, born of the love that is God.  In the new city, they are joined to God as a bride is joined to her groom, in a love that reproduces itself, thus creating new life.  Because of this love, disciples go out to proclaim the good news, and other communities of love are established.  Communities that so bind themselves in love become the living sacrament of God’s presence.

New manifestation of God’s glory.  Through this new love, this new heaven and new earth, this new depth of communion, the glory of God is manifested in a new way.  The eschatological future is anticipated in the present.  The age of fulfillment has dawned.  Because the glory of God is manifested in and through us in a startling new way, it is not necessary for the risen Lord to be tangibly present to us anymore.  From now on, Christ will remain in the Church in an entirely new way: through us as much as for us.

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