May 24, 2020: 7th Sunday of Easter (A)

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 1:12-14

After Jesus had been taken up to heaven the apostles
returned to Jerusalem
from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem,
a sabbath day’s journey away.

When they entered the city
they went to the upper room where they were staying,
Peter and John and James and Andrew,
Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew,
James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot,
and Judas son of James.
All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer,
together with some women,
and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

Our first reading for today occurs immediately after the account of the Ascension, which we heard on Ascension Thursday.

After Jesus had been taken up to heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away.

Mount Olivet is east of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley on the way to Bethany. It is said to be the distance Jews were allowed to travel on the sabbath, which was about three-quarters of a mile (one kilometer).

When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying,

Although the text is not explicit about this, a long-standing tradition identifies the upper room as the place Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples (Luke 22:12), the house of the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12).

Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.

The eleven are listed and this list agrees with Luke 6:14-16, with the exception of Judas Iscariot. Simon is identified as a member of the Zealots, a militant wing of the Jewish independence movement.

The order of the apostles has been changed with Peter, James, and John listed first – it is these three about whom more is told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer,

This is the first passage that tells of the spiritual life and devout practices of the disciples. Significantly, it places emphasis on prayer, in keeping with Jesus’ own practice (see Matthew 6:5; 14:23; etc.).

Notice that although Jesus has just commissioned them to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), they do not go right out and teach. Rather, they devote themselves first to prayer.

together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

The women might be their wives or women followers of Jesus who had come with him from Galilee and who attended to his burial (Luke 23:55). It is typical of Luke to mention those whom others often overlook. Exactly how all these people were accommodated is not stated; the important point of the account seems to be their gathering together for prayer.

Overall, this reading is anticlimactic. Jesus has ascended into heaven. A chapter in the story of salvation has closed and another (i.e., Pentecost) has not yet opened. Jesus’ followers are not described as bereft or bewildered; nor are they waiting in anxious expectation. The passage simply states that they devoted themselves to prayer.

We must remember that the apostles did not immediately have a full understanding of Jesus’ divinity. That Jesus preexisted before his time on earth, and that his death was not a defeat but a victory through which he was returning to the Father: these are realities which took time for them to grasp. Their comprehension came through prayer, reflection, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

2nd Reading – 1 Peter 4:13-16

Beloved:
Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ,
so that when his glory is revealed
you may also rejoice exultantly.
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you,
for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
But let no one among you be made to suffer
as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.
But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed
but glorify God because of the name.

This is the last week of our six-week study of 1 Peter. In this passage, we see that Peter is still trying to help his audience find meaning in suffering.

In the time of our first reading from Acts, the Church was embryonic and relatively safe. This letter from Peter was written later, probably in the time of one of the persecuting emperors, Nero or Trajan, when Christianity was outlawed and martyrdom was more than just a possibility.

Beloved: Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ,

Since Christians are called to suffer for Christ, they give witness to their faith in him by the way they face suffering.

so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.

Those who share in Christ’s suffering will also share in his glory. This echoes Romans 8:17: “We suffer with him in order to be also glorified with him.”

The eschatological character of this message can be clearly seen in the language used. Although apokálypsis simply means “revelation,” it has come to be associated with the end-time.

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

Peter is very clear about the reason for the suffering of the Christians. They are either defamed for the name of Christ, as mentioned here, or harassed for being Christians (verse 16, the last verse).

Since their religious teaching and values frequently prevented the Christian believers from engaging in behavior that was part of pagan culture, they often had to endure misunderstanding, mistrust, and resentment. Their way of living was considered antisocial at best, treasonable at worst.

But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.

In order to make clear what he means, the author gives some examples of the behavior that will not earn future glorification for the Christians.

The term translated as “intriguer” is a very rare Greek term indicating a person who meddles in another’s business; a busybody.

These kinds of behavior do not merit eschatological glory.

“Our suffering must not be like that of the thief on the cross, who suffered because he was a murderer, even though he himself confessed that Christ had done no wrong. Nor should we be like Ananias and Sapphira, who tried to steal what belonged to God. Even less should we imitate Simon Magus, who denounced the apostles to Nero and who tried to buy their gifts with gold and silver.” [Saint Hilary of Arles (ca. A.D. 428), Commentary on 1 Peter]

But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name.

This is one of only three places in the Bible where the followers of Jesus are called “Christians” — the others are Acts 11:26 and 26:28. While the term marks one as a supporter or follower of Christ, it may well have been originally intended as a name of scorn.

Recall that the title “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the word mashiach, or Messiah, in Hebrew. While the term “Christian” might be literally interpreted as “Messiah follower,” the Christians claimed the Messiah they followed was a man who had been executed as a felon. To call them “Christian” might have been comparable to calling them “felon-follower.”

In the face of this, Peter tells them to bear this name proudly and endure any misfortune that might befall them because of it.

“If you suffer as a Christian, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Think of James the son of Zebedee or Stephen. However awful the trials you suffer may be, learn to glory in them, not to be upset by them. Christ’s glory is revealed in the Church when it suffers.” [Saint Hilary of Arles (ca. A.D. 428), Commentary on 1 Peter]

Gospel – John 17:1-11a

Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said,
“Father, the hour has come.
Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you,
just as you gave him authority over all people,
so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him.
Now this is eternal life,
that they should know you, the only true God,
and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.
I glorified you on earth
by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do.
Now glorify me, Father, with you,
with the glory that I had with you before the world began.

“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.
They belonged to you, and you gave them to me,
and they have kept your word.
Now they know that everything you gave me is from you,
because the words you gave to me I have given to them,
and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you,
and they have believed that you sent me.
I pray for them.
I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me,
because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours
and everything of yours is mine,
and I have been glorified in them.
And now I will no longer be in the world,
but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.”

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 A, we hear the beginning.

In the prayer, Jesus speaks of having accomplished his work and of returning to his father, hence 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.

Jesus raised his eyes to heaven

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

and said, “Father, the hour has come.

Jesus is not speaking to his disciples directly; he is praying to his Father. They, and we, overhear his prayer.

Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him.

One theological theme of this passage, upon which most of the others depend, is the nature of the father/son relationship between Jesus and God. It was from the Father that Jesus was sent (verse 3) and it is to the Father that he returns (verse 11a). The Father is also the source of Jesus’ authority.

The “hour” that has come is the hour of Jesus’ glorification, which we will explore in further detail below.

Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.

By eternal life, Jesus is not referring to the duration of life, but the quality of life. He defines this as knowledge of God and of Jesus as the one sent by God.

But what does it mean “to know”? Certainly an intellectual grasp of Christian teachings plays a role in faith — but, alone, that doesn’t lead to eternal life. To “know” someone in the biblical sense refers to an intimate experience: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1). What Jesus means here is that a life of quality is a life of intimacy with God.

The title of Christ was clearly added by the gospel writer as a reflection on the preceding verse; nowhere else does Jesus refer to himself as Jesus Christ.

I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do.

Jesus has glorified the Father by revealing God perfectly in all the words and deeds of his life and the ministry he performed. By means of the authority he received from God, he was empowered to grant them eternal life through the Eucharist.

Most commentators agree that the culmination of the work the Father gave Jesus to do is the crucifixion, when Jesus is lifted up (see John 12:32). The crucifixion will be the ultimate moment of Jesus’ glorification.

Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.

The glory for which Jesus prays is seen within the context of his unique relationship with the Father. The glory is already his; he enjoyed it with the Father before the creation of the world. It is as if he laid it aside when becoming human, and now the hour has come for him to take it up again.

Note how the glorification of Jesus is linked to the glorification of God by Jesus. It is in the accomplishment of God’s work that he glorifies God, and it is in the accomplishment of this same work that God glorifies him.

I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.

After having prayed for himself, Jesus transitions to praying for his disciples.

“I revealed your name” could be a broad reference to Jesus’ revelation of God to humanity, since in Semitic usage, “name” is equivalent to the person. Or it is possibly referring to the divine name I AM, as in John 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19.

They belonged to you, and you gave them to me,

As God’s creatures, the disciples of Jesus belonged to God the Father. The Father gave them to Jesus as sheep to the shepherd, to be kept; as patients to the physician, to be cured; children to a tutor, to be educated.

and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.

The disciples did not yet fully understand the reality and implications of the gospel; however, Jesus knew them better than they knew themselves and passes his word for them that they did believe.

What was it that they believed?  That Jesus Christ came from God, that he is the Son of God, that he is the image of the invisible God.

Note how — despite many instances of his disciples’ slowness to understand and general weakness, which grieved him — their constant adherence to him, their gradual improvements, and their eventual attainments were his joy. Jesus is a rabbi that delights in the proficiency of his students. He accepts the sincerity of their faith and graciously overlooks their deficiencies.

I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours,

Another theme in this reading is Jesus’ attitude toward the world (kósmos). He mentions the world in several places, but he does not intend the same meaning in each instance.

The first mention of the world is in verse 5: “the glory that I had with you before the world began.”  There, Jesus was referring to the created universe; there is no moral judgment passed on the world in that statement.

However, it is clear in the next two instances (verse 6: “those whom you gave me out of the world” and here in verse 9: “I do not pray for the world”) that he is pitting himself and his followers against the world. In this context, “world” refers to all that opposes God and the things of God.

and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, 

Though in some ways Jesus appears to be subordinate to his Father, they share all things.

and I have been glorified in them.

Jesus has been glorified by his disciples by their fidelity, and possibly by their future works in his name.

And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.”

A return to the “world” theme. Jesus is leaving the world, although his disciples remain within it. The reference here is probably to human life in general: he faces death, while they continue in this life the work he has begun.

They will need divine protection in an exceptional way, now that Jesus’ visible presence is about to be removed from them.

Connections and Themes

As we come to the end of the Easter season, we realize that we are in a liminal time, a time “in-between.” Even the readings do not present a consistent representation of time. In the gospel, Jesus prepares his disciples for his departure; in the first reading, he has already ascended into heaven; the second reading speaks of the revelation of his glory. Time has been radically changed for us. We are now living in God’s time, when future fulfillment has already come to pass.

Already, but not yet.  This last Sunday of Easter sums up the tension we have felt throughout the entire season. In one way, we have celebrated the mystery of the resurrection and the exaltation of Jesus as if it were a progressive unfolding. In another way, we have celebrated it as an event that happened once for all. There is no confusion here. Rather, the apparent disparity points to the fact that we always live in the tension of “already, but not yet.” We see this tension in the readings; we see it in the liturgical season; we see it in life itself. We wait in anticipation for something already in our midst. In a very real sense, the unfolding occurs within us. We are the ones who have been saved already but have not yet experienced the fullness of that salvation. We have already been transformed into Christ, but this transformation is not yet complete. The glory of the risen Christ has already been revealed in us, but not yet totally. “Already, but not yet” is the way we live out our lives in God, not the way God lives in us. The tension is ours, not God’s.

This tension is at the core of much of our frustration and suffering. We think we have made some progress in reforming our lives only to realize that with each step forward we discover more steps that need to be taken. We resolve to eliminate from our lives those attitudes and habits of behavior that diminish our character — impatience, resentment, small-mindedness — only to find that wholehearted commitment has not yet eradicated them from our lives. Because we live in the tension of “already, but not yet,” we are always in need of salvation; we must always plunge ourselves into the death of Jesus so that we can rise again with him. While in this liminal state, we must remember that even if we become frustrated, God does not. God is always at our side.

Living in-between.  Living in-between the times is a special kind of living. It is a combination of rejoicing in the future that has already come and waiting for it to dawn. Though Christ is exalted in the heavens, the glory of Christ shines forth in us through our commitment to the message of the gospel. The readings for today show us that the radical nature of this in-between living requires the support of a community. After Jesus ascended into heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem as a community, and they gathered as a community in prayer. Knowing the difficulties his followers would have to face, Jesus prayed for them. This prayer was made within the context of Jesus’ declaration of oneness, oneness between him and the one he called Father. At this same time, he described the participation of his followers in this oneness.

We need community, but not only for help in the ordinary experiences of life. We need a community of believers with whom we can pray, who will understand our spiritual aspirations, who will support us in our Christian commitment, who will challenge us when we stray from the right path. We need a community of believers who are companions with us on our journey through this in-between time, who experience the same struggle to be faithful in a world that does not share our values or our insights. We need a community of believers through whom shines the glory of the exalted Lord.