May 16, 2021: 7th Sunday of Easter (B)

Introduction

In most of the United States, today is the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (click here for those readings). However, the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha celebrated the Ascension last Thursday; today they celebrate the 7th Sunday of Easter.

1st Reading – Acts 1:15-17, 20a, 20c-26

Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers
(there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons
in the one place).
He said, “My brothers,
the Scripture had to be fulfilled
which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand
through the mouth of David, concerning Judas,
who was the guide for those who arrested Jesus.
He was numbered among us
and was allotted a share in this ministry.

“For it is written in the Book of Psalms:
May another take his office.

“Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men
who accompanied us the whole time
the Lord Jesus came and went among us,
beginning from the baptism of John
until the day on which he was taken up from us,
become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
So they proposed two, Judas called Barsabbas,
who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.
Then they prayed,
“You, Lord, who know the hearts of all,
show which one of these two you have chosen
to take the place in this apostolic ministry
from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.”
Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias,
and he was counted with the eleven apostles.

In today’s first reading, the apostles take on their first task after the ascension of Jesus: selecting someone to replace Judas Iscariot.

This takes place in the upper room, where Jesus’ followers had gathered. Jesus had commanded them: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).

Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers

Peter takes the lead in seeing that Judas is replaced. This assumption of leadership in the community fulfills Jesus’ claim that Peter would be the one on whom he would build his Church (Matthew 16:18).

(there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons in the one place).

One hundred twenty was the number required to set up a local Sanhedrin (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:6). Saint Luke is showing that the governing body of the early community was constituted according to Pharisaic standards.

He said, “My brothers,

Luke tells us in Acts 1:14 that women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, were also in the assembly.

the scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand through the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who was the guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was numbered among us and was allotted a share in this ministry. 

Peter outlines two requirements. The first is that it is necessary that the Scriptures be fulfilled.

For it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘May another take his office.’

Peter quotes Psalm 109:8, which provides the foundation of apostolic succession that still adhered to today in the Church.

Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection.”

Peter states his second requirement: to be eligible, a person had to have been among the company of disciples from the time of Jesus’ baptism to his ascension. He also points out that the basic role of the apostles is to be witnesses to the resurrection, the core of our belief.

Interestingly, the literal meaning of the word martyr is “witness” and all the apostles except Saint John were martyred for the faith.

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.

Since Jesus is not present to select Judas’ successor, the apostles devise a method of choice that involves both human judgment and divine providence.

After defining the criteria for eligibility, the apostles nominate two candidates. Nothing more is known about these candidates than what is provided here.

Then they prayed, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.” Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.

The apostles leave the final choice up the God by drawing lots.

This process is one of selection, not election. Casting lots might appear to be a process of chance; however, it was an ancient Israelite method of determining God’s will (see Leviticus 16:7-10).

The prayer that precedes the casting of lots illustrates the faith of the assembly. They knew that only God can read the sentiments of the human heart; only God knew which of the two men should be selected. They were confident that God would determine the outcome.

2nd Reading – 1 John 4:11-16

Beloved, if God so loved us,
we also must love one another.
No one has ever seen God.
Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us,
and his love is brought to perfection in us.

This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us,
that he has given us of his Spirit.
Moreover, we have seen and testify
that the Father sent his Son as savior of the world.
Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God,
God remains in him and he in God.
We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.

God is love, and whoever remains in love
remains in God and God in him.

Today, the last Sunday of the Easter season, we complete our six-week study of 1 John. In this passage, John makes an exhortation to replicate in the Christian community the love that God has for believers.

Beloved,

Throughout this letter, John addresses his audience as “beloved,” which in Greek is agapētoí, meaning “loved with agapē love” — that is to say, divinely loved. This term of endearment makes a connection between the love God has for them and the love they should have for one another.

if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

The love that believers must have for one another is the same divine love that God has shown for them. Just as God’s love was manifested in the unselfish and salvific sacrifice of Jesus, so Christians must love others with agapē: an unselfish and forgiving love.

No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.

Such love cannot be seen itself. However, it does manifest itself as works of love. It is the fruit of such love, namely love for others, that can and must be made visible.

We cannot see God directly, but we see him in those who love us.

This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit.

The passage then proceeds to develop the idea of the mutual abiding of God in believers and believers in God. This presence manifests itself in two ways. First, the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that inspires unselfish love, is evidence of God’s abiding presence and love.

Moreover, we have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as savior of the world. Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God.

Second, believers’ acknowledgment of Jesus as the Son of God who was sent by God to be the Savior of the world is also evidence of God’s abiding presence. This knowledge should not be confused with some kind of Gnostic insight that by itself guarantees a form of mystical union. This passage clearly insists on active love of others as a manifestation of the authentic love of God.

We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.

The reading ends with the remarkable statement of God’s identity: God is love! From this flows the mutual indwelling that so marvelously characterizes Christian life.

Gospel – John 17:11-19

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one just as we are one.
When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me,
and I guarded them, and none of them was lost
except the son of destruction,
in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you.
I speak this in the world
so that they may share my joy completely.
I gave them your word, and the world hated them,
because they do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world
but that you keep them from the evil one.
They do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.
As you sent me into the world,
so I sent them into the world.
And I consecrate myself for them,
so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”

From the time of Cyril of Alexandria (5th century), John 17:1-26 has been known as the High Priestly Prayer. Every year on the 7th Sunday of Easter, we hear a section of this prayer; this year, in Cycle B, we hear the middle section.

In the prayer, Jesus speaks of having accomplished his work and of returning to his father; it is clearly a farewell message. The interweaving of various theological themes makes it a rich yet complex prayer.

The prayer takes on profound significance when we realize that Jesus offered it at the Last Supper, shortly before his death.

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed 

The action of looking up to heaven as he prays is typical of Jesus (John 11:41, Luke 11:2).

saying: “Holy Father,

In the gospels, Jesus routinely refers to God as Father, a designation that addresses origin. Especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to have used the term in a more intimate manner.

keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are.

Jesus prays that the disciples may be united, that “they may be one” just as he and the Father are one. The bond of unity among Jesus’ followers is to be modeled on the unity between the Father and the Son and grounded in love.

The protection of God’s name (which recall, in a Semitic context, is a dimension of God’s very being) will foster this unity.

When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, 

While Jesus was with them, he was able to protect them.

and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.

See Psalm 41:9 (Psalm 41:10 in the New American Bible). While Jesus had foreknowledge of Judas’ betrayal, Judas’ actions were by choice and of his own free will.

But now I am coming to you. I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely.

Despite the division and persecution they will face, Jesus wants the disciples’ hearts to be full of joy.

I gave them your word, and the world hated them, 

Having sketched the contours of union with God, Jesus acknowledges the resistance that God’s word encounters from the world. Because of this word, Jesus himself was hated by the world; now, because of the same word, his followers will suffer the same fate.

because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one.

A very interesting dynamic is described. The world is antagonistic toward God’s word, toward Jesus, and toward his followers. This is a world to which neither Jesus nor they belong, yet both he and they are sent into it.

Jesus does not pray that they be taken from the world, but that they be protected from the evils of it. We must not forget that this is the world that, despite its sinfulness, God loves (John 3:16).

They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.

Jesus repeats the phrase about not belonging to the world. His followers are to live in the world but not to be of the world, to affect the world but not to be affected by it. (See also John 15:19, Romans 12:2.)

Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.

At the beginning of the reading, Jesus referred to God as “holy” (hágios). Here, Jesus prays that his followers will be “consecrated,” a word from the same Greek root. God’s word is truth; it is in acceptance of God’s word through Jesus that the disciples share in this holiness.

As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.

The apostolic mission of the Church is the same as Christ’s mission from the Father; therefore the consecration is the same. The actual mission of the disciples is not revealed in John’s gospel until 20:21ff (“As the Father sent me, so I send you…”) but the perspective of this prayer sees the future as an accomplished fact.

And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”

Christ is the great mediator between God and humanity (Hebrews 8:6, 1 Timothy 2:5). He, as both the priest and altar, sanctifies himself as the sacrifice.

Connections and Themes

We are still in the liminal time in between, a time of change and tradition. The readings describe the apostles in that kind of time trying to cling to what they have known while realizing that things are no longer what they were before. For them, the in-between time is very frightening. It demands that they rethink their priorities, reorder their lives, and reconstitute their community. If they are to further the teachings of Jesus and continue his ministry, they will have to learn how to deal with this period of transition. They will have to negotiate two major issues: acceptance of the in-between time and fidelity to the religious tradition.

In-between times.  We all go through major transitions during our lifetime. Some of these are quite common, like marriage and childbirth, illness and diminishment, or separation through death. Other changes are startlingly thrust upon us, like displacement because of war, sudden unemployment, or loss through natural disasters. Such times force us to look anew at circumstances in order to discover how we will rebuild our lives.

Religious transitions can also be very traumatic. When the theological grounding of our beliefs is questioned, or the practices that have nourished our spirits seem to be empty of meaning, we might feel like we are adrift in a sea of chaos with no compass to guide us and no port in sight. We might be tempted to abandon the entire religious enterprise and to allow superficial realities to dictate our actions. We might see only the ruptures in our lives and not the points of continuity. In-between times like these challenge us to re-examine the religious tradition itself.

Fidelity to the religious tradition.  When we are in the midst of religious turmoil, it is important to retain some form of continuity. The apostles did just that. They realized that the bodily absence of the Lord did not mean the end of the community of believers. They had already endured the denial of Peter, the betrayal of Judas, and the scattering of a large number of followers. Rather than give up, they reconstituted themselves as the Twelve after the pattern of their immediate past as well as their tribal past.

This furnished us with a model for our own reinterpretation of tradition. Not willing to relinquish their religious reality, the apostles interpreted it in new yet faithful ways. They clung to the fundamental message of Jesus, remembering that he had prayed for them. If on the threshold of his passion he had been their advocate before God, how much more would this be the case now that he was exalted! Jesus had not abandoned them, he entrusted them to one another.

Rather than surrender to despair, the early Christians opened themselves to the great love out of which they had been fashioned and into which they were now formed. This love of God and of others enabled them (and enables us) to be confident in the throes of anxiety and to be faithful in the midst of confusion. We too will be able to cling to the traditions that continue to bind us to God and to one another.

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