May 26, 2019: 6th Sunday of Easter (C)

1st Reading – Acts 15:1-2, 22-29

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers,
“Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice,
you cannot be saved.”
Because there arose no little dissension and debate
by Paul and Barnabas with them,
it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others
should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders
about this question.

The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church,
decided to choose representatives
and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.
The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas,
and Silas, leaders among the brothers.
This is the letter delivered by them:

“The apostles and the elders, your brothers,
to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia
of Gentile origin: greetings.
Since we have heard that some of our number
who went out without any mandate from us
have upset you with their teachings
and disturbed your peace of mind,
we have with one accord decided to choose representatives
and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So we are sending Judas and Silas
who will also convey this same message by word of mouth:
‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us
not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities,
namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols,
from blood, from meats of strangled animals,
and from unlawful marriage.
If you keep free of these,
you will be doing what is right.  Farewell.’”

The debate over conditions for membership was one of the most serious disputes that raged in the first years of the Church.  As early as the first wave of Gentile conversions, it threatened to separate Christian from Christian, missionary from missionary.  The reading for today gives us a glimpse into this matter and the way the leaders of the various churches resolved it.

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.”

It seems that some of the Christians from Judea provoked dissension within the church in Antioch, insisting that circumcision was necessary for salvation.

Because the Jesus movement was originally seen as an internal Jewish renewal, the Jewish Christians continued to observe the religious practices of their former faith.  There had always been Gentiles who were attracted to the fundamental integrity of the Jewish faith, such as the God-fearers (Acts 13:16) and proselytes, or converts (Acts 13:43).  Since there seemed to be no problem with their assuming the religious practices of Israel, most Jewish Christians expected Gentile converts to Christianity to do the same.

Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, 

The question at hand is, “Do you have to become a Jew before you can become a Christian?”

Two major factors brought this issue to a crisis point: 1) Paul allowed his Gentile converts to refrain from Jewish observance, and 2) Gentile converts were multiplying rapidly, while the mission to Israel did not seem to be as successful.

Some may have feared the movement might be taken over by pagans who knew very little, if anything, about the God that Jesus called “Father.”  However, by insisting that circumcision was necessary for salvation, they were challenging faith in Jesus as the sole means of salvation.

it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.

The beginnings of church structure can be seen here.  It’s obvious that the church in Jerusalem enjoyed the place of prominence among the other churches, since a matter that was probably much more an issue in Antioch was being settled in Jerusalem.

Galatians 2:9 tells us that Saints Peter, James, and John were in Jerusalem.

Then the apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers.

Just as the Jews had a ruling religious council (the Sanhedrin), the early Christian church would gather to work out a common answer which was applicable to all. The Council of Jerusalem, described here, is the first known of these councils for the Christian Church.  Since that time there have been many local councils and 21 universal (ecumenical)
councils. (To be considered an ecumenical council, the works must be approved by the Pope.)

After reaching a decision, the council sends an official letter back to Antioch with the original delegation, along with Judas Barsabbas (a member of the Hebrew segment of the Jerusalem church) and Silas (a Hellenistic member of the church who later became a companion of Paul).

This is the letter delivered by them: “The apostles and the elders, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings. 

The letter is addressed to the churches is the combined provinces of Syria-Cilicia.  Although the problem appeared in Antioch, the audience of the letter includes its expanding mission territories.

Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, 

The letter opens with a rebuke of the Judaizers responsible for instigating the dissension.

Note the implication is that the conduct was unauthorized. This would indicate that there was a central authority within the Church, even at this early date.

we have with one accord

The decision was unanimous.

decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth:

The language that introduces the actual decision resembles the wording used in imperial and other official decrees.  It shows that the leadership of the church in Jerusalem believed that it was the vehicle of the Spirit, and that its decisions were one with the will of God.

‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us 

Church authority does not act on its own power or agenda; it is legitimate only in carrying out the saving will of God.

not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.

The Gentiles are not required to be circumcised; however, they were bound to four abstentions:

  1. From eating meat that was first offered to idols and then sold in the market,
  2. From meat that had not been drained of blood,
  3. From animals that had been strangled,
  4. From marriages within the degrees of blood relationship and affinity forbidden by the law (Leviticus 18:6-18).

Not only did this decree affirm the belief that salvation came only from Jesus and not even indirectly through the law, it also opened membership wide for women, who, under the regulation of circumcision, belonged to the Jewish community only through the membership of their closest male relative.

If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’”

In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither male nor female.

2nd Reading – Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23

The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain
and showed me the holy city Jerusalem
coming down out of heaven from God.
It gleamed with the splendor of God.
Its radiance was like that of a precious stone,
like jasper, clear as crystal.
It had a massive, high wall,
with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed
and on which names were inscribed,
the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites.
There were three gates facing east,
three north, three south, and three west.
The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation,
on which were inscribed the twelve names
of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

I saw no temple in the city
for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.
The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gave it light,
and its lamp was the Lamb.

Last week we heard the beginning of John’s description of the Heavenly Jerusalem,
which continues today.

The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 

The vision the holy city Jerusalem coming down from heaven recalls several prophecies of ancient Israel, particularly from the prophet Ezekiel (40:2; 48:30-35). The author probably wanted to present the already-constructed city as the fulfillment of what was envisioned in the earlier prophecy.

Note that although the seer is taken to a high mountain, the traditional site of the dwelling place of God, the city is coming down from heaven, a sign of divine condescension.

It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.

God’s presence, filling the city, transfigures her.

It had a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites.

Certain features of the city are given particular attention in this passage: the high walls, the gates, and the foundation stones.

Numbers often have symbolic meaning, especially in apocalyptic literature like the Book of Revelation.  Twelve suggests fullness, probably because of the number of months in the year and the number of astrological points in the zodiac.  Therefore, the number twelve is grounded in the very structure of creation.  It’s no coincidence that both the tribes of Israel and the apostles of Jesus number twelve.

There were three gates facing east, three north, three south, and three west.

The number four also has symbolic significance.  Based on the four cardinal points of the compass and the four directions, it too signifies totality and is considered a fundamental feature of creation.

Note that there are twelve gates in total.

The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

The meaning of the twelve tribes and twelve apostles has been variously interpreted.  It’s important to note that the latter do not replace the former: each forms a very explicit part of the city.  It is clear that the new Jerusalem is founded on apostolic teaching, but the meaning of the tribes of Israel is not as evident.  Perhaps they reflect an element of Jewish eschatology that expected the restoration of the twelve tribes at the end-time.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.

The visionary seems surprised that there is no temple in the city.  This is understandable since the rebuilding of the Temple was (and continues to be, for some) the most concrete expression of hope for the future.

However, Christian faith insists that the risen Christ is the place where God and human beings meet.  Temple symbolism is thus fulfilled in God and the Lamb. God’s presence in the heavenly Jerusalem is not bounded by temple walls (John 4:21,24).

The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.

The splendor of God gleamed through the city so completely that there was no need for light from the sun or moon.  This too was something that had been predicted earlier (Isaiah 19-20).

Even natural creation has been completely transformed in this wondrous eschatological event.

Gospel – John 14:23-29

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;
yet the word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me.

“I have told you this while I am with you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.

You heard me tell you,
‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’
If you loved me,
you would rejoice that I am going to the Father;
for the Father is greater than I.
And now I have told you this before it happens,
so that when it happens you may believe.”

Having heard last week of Jesus’ new commandment to love one another, we rejoin Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper for his farewell wish of peace.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him,

Love is the fundamental message of Jesus.  However, he calls for a demanding kind of love, one that is as self-sacrificing as was the love of Jesus himself.  Only those who follow his example and obey his directives can be said to truly love, and those who love as Jesus did will in turn be loved by his Father.

Such love is more than an emotional response.  It is a state of being, a disposition within which one lives.

and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

The dwelling Jesus and his Father make with those who love like this is an abiding dwelling (monē), not just a transitory state.

This promise from Christ is all that we need to be truly happy in life.

Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;

Those who do not keep the word of Jesus will not be so blessed.

Note that it is lack of love and obedience that precludes the world from having a part in this manifestation of Father and Son.

yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.

Since the word of Jesus is really the word of the one who sent him, to reject that word is to reject both Jesus and his Father.  They will not dwell with such a person.

I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name

Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father, but the Spirit is sent in the name of Jesus, not in the name of the Father.

he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.

The Spirit is not a substitute for Jesus but is an emissary, participating in the mission of Jesus by reminding the disciples the things Jesus taught them.  To so remember is more than an intellectual act; it is a call to bear witness to the word of God.

After Christ’s ascension, it will be the function of the Holy Spirit to complete the revelation
of Christ by enlightening the Church concerning the true and full meaning of what Jesus had done and said. This function was not completed when the New Testament was written but continues today as the Church continues to guide and teach.

While this passage cannot provide us with a complete trinitarian teaching, it does offer us some insight into the mystery of God.  There is definitely an intimate relationship between Jesus and his Father.  In fact, the very metaphor of God as the Father is evidence of this.  Furthermore, Jesus and God the Father together dwell with faithful believers; yet despite this intimacy they are distinct from each other, as we will see later in the reading.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. 

Jesus’ words end on a note of assurance: he bequeaths his peace.  This is more than a wish, it is a blessing of shalom, a Hebrew principle of peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility: all the benefits of the resurrection.

The peace of Christ is utterly different from the peace of the world, the Pax Romana, which was won and preserved at the point of the sword.  His peace is grounded in his relationship with his Father and his self-sacrificing love of the world.

This peace is the legacy Jesus leaves with those who love him.

You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’

It’s not clear how the departure and return of Jesus is to be understood here.  From a human point of view, one can think either of his death and return in resurrection, or of his ascension and return at the end-time.

If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.

Despite the intimate relationship between Jesus and the Father, they are distinct persons.  Jesus was sent by his Father, and it is to his Father that he will return.  Jesus proclaims the word of his Father, and his Father sends the Holy Spirit in his name.  Jesus even insists that his Father is greater than he is.

This statement has led some to question Jesus’ full divinity; in fact, during the Arian controversy (4th century), this verse was used to support a subordinationist christology. However, the Church teaches that it merely points to the Father as the fountainhead of the Trinity.  Though Christ is one with the Father (John 10:30), as the Son he has been sent by the Father to do his will, and in this relationship, the Father is the greater.

And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.

Essentially, he is instructing the apostles on how to dwell with him and the Father until he returns.

For us, this is a great comfort as we live in Christ while we await his second coming.

Connections and Themes

Our reflection for this Sunday both carries us back to the themes of last week and directs our attention to the ascension of Jesus, which lies ahead of us.  We consider again the radical newness the resurrection brings, but we are also made aware of Jesus’ departure.  One might say that this week we examine Jesus’ farewell gifts to us.

The new city. The new city of God is remarkable.  It is built on the foundation of the apostles, but on its gates are inscribed the names of the tribes of Israel.  There is no substitution here, one group of believers replacing another.  There is only inclusion.  Even if the names and numbers are symbolic, they represent openness to all nations, races, peoples, and tongues.  Such inclusiveness will be radically new for people who are accustomed to privilege or discrimination based on gender or race or social class.  In the city of God, there are no foreigners, no undocumented immigrants.  Whoever have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb are welcome in the city of God.

In this city the indwelling of God will be so complete there will be no need for a temple, a special meeting place for God and the people.  The glory of God will be so encompassing that all other sources of light will vanish in its brilliance.  The resurrection of Jesus has radically transformed the way we live together and the way we live with God.  It has assured us that regardless of outward appearances, we have even here and now a foretaste of this heavenly city, if we but choose to live in the power of the resurrection.

A new manner of membership.  What must we do to be saved?  The question put to Jesus centuries ago is still asked today, and the answer is still the same.  We must believe and we must love God and love one another.  This sounds so simple, and yet is so radical.  We will be recognized as resurrection people by our active faith and our unselfish love, not by an exterior mark, regardless of how sacred.  Ceremonial marks too often identify some as belonging while excluding others.  They separate men from women, the young from the old, one race from another.  What once may have been essential for membership has now lost its meaning.  However, all obligations are not put aside.  While we are still in this age of anticipation of the fullness of the end, we must live together with uncommon thoughtfulness.  Along with strong religious conviction, we must be willing to make compromises for the sake of others.  As Pope John XXIII taught us, let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything.

This change in requirements for membership does not diminish the rigor of our religious obligations.  Rather, it suggests that we may always have to reinterpret the law, for what is appropriate at one time and in one place may be inappropriate in another.  Actually, the ability to discern God’s will in new situations may be much more difficult than any consistent compliance with religious custom.  With the early Christians, we will need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in this delicate process.  This is why the departing Jesus assures us that the Spirit will come to teach us all things.

Christ’s peace.  The final gift Jesus promises to give is his own peace.  This cannot be a reference to safety from distress because the one who promises it is the one who faced humiliation and crucifixion.  The peace Jesus bestows is a peace he has won by overcoming sin and death.  While this peace probably does embrace human concord, it really encompasses salvation in the deepest sense.  It issues from the union Jesus enjoys with God, a union we are now invited to share.  It is a peace in which we can rest even while in the throes of life’s struggles.  Jesus bequeaths his peace to us just after he has assured us that God will send the Spirit to be with us in his absence.  This is the greatest of his farewell gifts.

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