ACTA COMMENTARY on THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER  

YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK      Download >>>> 7th Sunday of Easter Year B

The Gospels were not written for us. The Gospels were written to address particular issues relevant to a Christian community  (church) or communities in a time and a place far distant from our world. If we were to give a title to each of these ancient documents it might be something like this:

 

Living God’s Word:

The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus

for our Time and Place.

First, the title:

Living God’s Word.

We can be forgiven for thinking that the word of God refers to matters that God said.  The Book of Genesis, after a sentence of introduction, begins “And God said …”. Throughout the Old Testament the phrase “Thus says the LORD” occurs frequently.  Between chapter 45 and 49 of the Book of Isaiah, to take an example, the phrase crops up a dozen times.  We are familiar with the phrase in response to a reading in church: The word of the LORD.    But we must not run away with the idea that God is all talk.  A sentence oft repeated in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel teaches quite the opposite

I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.

Ezekiel 17:24

What God says, God does.  

Two thoughts come to mind.  First, when, after a reading in church, the reader announces “The word of the LORD”, LORD refers to God, not to Jesus.  This is confusing for Jesus is called Lord.  Some, but by no means all, English translations of the Bible print LORD with upper case letters when the Hebrew text has Yahweh.  This avoids using the name designated by Jewish faith as God’s holy and unutterable name.  When Lord refers to Jesus, it uses lower case letters. I follow this time-honoured convention.

Secondly, the mistaken impression may be given that God speaks but doesn’t do anything.  But in the Bible God communicates through word and action. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.  Of course, we have to use human words to describe the activities of God in relation to creation and human beings.  The Bible is full of words but these are human words trying to convey God’s concern for all that God has made. So the Bible presents God speaking and acting.  

To be sure, what God says, God does.  But when we hear the reader announce The word of the LORD, we must realise that that is a call to action, that what has been read is addressed to us with a demand to do what has been read.  The word of the LORD reaches out to us with the force of a command.

What God does and says provides humanity with a prescription for living according to God’s design.  Each Gospel, and indeed every book in our Bible, seeks to instruct its ancient audience in how to live according to God’s design.  We have inherited our ancient Scriptures as the word of the LORD handed down to us so that we may know how to live on God’s good earth.   The Gospels were each written to teach, to guide, to admonish, to warn, to excite Christian communities that lived far away and long ago.  Further each Gospel mirrors a particular kind of Christian community. The community Mark wrote had concerns far removed from the concerns that we see mirrored in Matthew’s Gospel.  Each contains the living word of God but each applied that word to very different circumstances.



The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus

The Gospels have a pattern of how this life can be lived.  The pattern is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To live Jesus is to live by God’s design.  The exaltation of Jesus to God’s right hand is the destiny of all humanity. Jesus, the pattern of God-like living, must, as I noted above, be lived in different places, in different times, in different conditions.   That is why scholars spend sleepless nights trying to identify who, when, where, and why each Gospel was written. But if we hold fast to the foundation stones, to the life, death, and

Who wrote this Gospel?  What do we know about the author?  Was he a Jew? Was he a non-Jew who became a Christian?  When did he write? What was going on in the world around him and around the people he sought to address?  What kind of Christians was the writer? What were his religious concerns? Where did the people he wrote for live?  What were their concerns? Were they rich or poor, slaves or free, male or female? Were they Jewish people who had a deep religious faith and a knowledge of their Bible?  Or were they mostly ex-pagans who adored any of the gods of paganism and turned to Christianity as the sure way to God? Or were they a Christian community made up of both?  What brought them to Jesus in the first place? Were the Christians addressed in some danger from within or without? Were some going astray in their understanding of what Jesus said or Jesus did?  And in all this how do we confident that the words of the past can become words for our present and our future.

All of this is important if we are to come to an understanding of what Jesus means to us, in our day, in our world.  Through the centuries the people of God have listened and learned. They have tried to hear the word and to do it. Each generation of Christians must do the same: listen and learn.   We learn how to live and with that learning comes the command to go and tell: every learner is turned into an apostle. This is how Pope Francis puts it:

The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth”.   Abraham receives the call to set out for a new land (cf. Genesis 12:1-3).  Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Exodus 3:10) and led the people towards the promised land (cf. Exodus 3:17).  To Jeremiah God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jeremiah 1:7).   In our day Jesus’ command  to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new   challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us   are called to take part in the new missionary “going forth”.  Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out , but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone to reach the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.

Pope Francis: The Joy of the Gospel §20

Scholars translate the Scriptures from the languages they were written in, the Old Testament from Hebrew into English, the New Testament from Greek into English.  Our task is to translate Jesus into our lives and then to tell the story..

For our time and place …

Our mission is to translate the story of Jesus so that it becomes our story.   And then to teach the world to sing.

Each generation learns from what has gone before.  Each generation, faced with new challenges and new opportunities, must sift what has been handed down to us.  Chaff will have to be thrown on the fire. The fundamental non- negotiable understanding of Jesus will not change but new insights will come to challenge.  Churches throughout the world must be guardians of the past and heralds of enriching new insights. No one generation has heard the last word from the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will always have something new to say and the wise will take from the Spirit’s store what is old and what is new. If Christian communities become sterile closed to the call of the Spirit, then they will die.

It has been said that the nineteenth century has proved to be the longest century in the history of the western Catholic Church.  It started in 1789 and has not yet come to a close. The Second Vatican Council attempted a pastoral renewal programme but it has not been accepted with either enthusiasm or alacrity.  Thank God, there are signs that the will of Christian people may prevail and we will drag ourselves into the twenty-first century. Then we will be empowered to show the true face of Jesus to the people of our time and our place



THE READINGS

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                     1:15-17. 20-26

Responsorial Psalm                      Psalm  102:1-2. 11-12. 19-20.  R./ v.19

A reading from the first letter of St John                           4:11-16

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John             17:11-19

~          ~ ~

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                      1:15-17. 20-26

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers [and sisters], the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.  For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.

“For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,

and let there be no one to dwell in it’;  Psalm 68:26

and

“‘Let another take his office.”’                Psalm 108:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

The word of the LORD.

Our Lectionary, as I have remarked elsewhere, uses the Jerusalem Bible translation which appeared in 1966.  The aim of the translators was to produce a readable text and a text that would read well in church. The style was intended to make the ancient writings as accessible as possible.  These are worthy aims but carried too far they can obscure what the authors intended to convey. In some cases, indeed in many, the JB attempt to be colloquial obscures the original meaning.  A good example occurs at the very beginning of today’s first reading.

“One day Peter stood up to speak to the brothers…” sounds plain and simple.  Except that it is wrong. What the ancient text says is this:

And in those days, standing up in the midst of the brothers and sisters, Peter spoke—now the crowd of people together was about one hundred and twenty—

So what’s the difference?  First, is “one day” as opposed to “And in those days”.  Whoever wrote the Acts intended to refer to a particular time, not any old time.  He intended to refer to those days of waiting from the ascension of the Lord Jesus to the fulfillment of the promise the departing Jesus made:

And while staying with them [Jesus] ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.                                                                 Acts 1:4-5

  

We are meant to see these people anxiously and hopefully waiting.  These are days of expectation, and of prayer:

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.   

Acts 1:12-14

It is important to get it right for the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles and all the other men and women, including Mary the mother of Jesus and the brothers of Jesus.  It is upon these—all of these—that the Holy Spirit descends on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. This is a remembrance of the days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, the charter by which the people of Israel were to live with their God.  The coming of the Holy Spirit on these assembled men and women will be told in the words and images of that ancient and celebrated story.

Secondly, it is important to note that these men and women—all one hundred and twenty or more—were devoting themselves to praying together.  We who wait for the day of Pentecost are thus told what our waiting must be: a waiting together in prayer.

The story of the election of Matthias insists that a replacement for Judas must be one who travelled with Jesus   and so can act as a witness to the resurrection. But none of the Twelve were witnesses to the resurrection for they had betrayed, denied, cursed, and run away.  Some witnessed the empty tomb and some, but not all, of them encountered the Risen Lord. While the Twelve as a group were important in the early days of the Christian story it is not clear why.  We do not know for sure the names of all the Twelve. We do not know what they all did in the early days. Apart from Peter, James (the brother of John), and James the brother of the Lord, we know next to nothing about the others.  This matter will crop up again. And we will have much to say about the Holy Spirit who is the real star of the show.



Responsorial Psalm               Psalm  102 (103) :1-2. 11-12. 19-20.  R./ v.19



The Lord has established his throne in the heavens.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name!

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and forget not all his bountiful gifts.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens.



For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,

and his kingdom rules over all.

Bless the Lord, O you his angels,

you mighty ones who do his word,

obeying the voice of his word.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens.




Psalm 102 (103 in the Hebrew Bible) is a glorious hymn of praise for all that the LORD God has done and forever continues to do.  The LORD blesses us and we in turn bless the LORD.

First, God showers blessings upon us.  For we are the work of God’s hands and to list the blessing given us is to rejoice, to thank, and to praise.  Consider the whole of the psalm and note the blessings:

The LORD forgives all our sins.

The LORD heals all our ills.

The LORD redeems us from the Pit.

The LORD surrounds us with steadfast love.

The LORD surrounds us with mercy.

The LORD rights wrongs.

The LORD has made known to us his ways.

The LORD is compassionate.

The LORD is gracious toward us.

THE LORD is slow to anger.

The LORD will not nurse his anger for all time.

The LORD abounds in steadfast love.

The LORD will not deal with us according to our sins.

The LORD will not pay us back for our evil ways.

The LORD removes our sins from us.

The LORD is to us as a father to his children.

The LORD has compassion on us who fear him.

    — for the LORD knows how we are formed;

he remembers that we are but dust.

The phrase “for those who fear him” in verse 13 may give us reason to pause, perhaps to dash our hopes in reflecting that all these blessings come on condition that we live in fear of the LORD.  Not so.  Turn the pages of your Bible to Psalm 147 and read,

For the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,

in those who rely on his steadfast love.

Psalm 147: 11

A feature of Hebrew poetry (and the psalms are Hebrew poems) is known as parallelism.  This means that what is said in one line is repeated in the flowing line in different words but meaning the same thing.  Here is an obvious example:

He guides the humble in right judgement,

to the humble he teaches his way.

Psalm 25:9

Clearly the second line means the same as the first.  So read the two lines quoted above from Psalm 147 and work out how “those who fear him” equals “those who rely on his steadfast love”.  What God says to the world is: Trust me!

Fear of the LORD in the Bible means living in that kind of reverent awe of the wonders God does for those who know that we are safe in God’s hands.  Indeed, for all who walk on this earth. Of course, you may fear that you might fall out of that love which is lavished upon you. But even if we are not steadfast, God’s love is.  For his love, unlike ours, endures forever. This is the gospel of God, the whole of the gospel. We are baptized to tell this simple sentence to the world: You are safe in God’s hands.

The final stanza of William Cowper’s poem God moves in a mysterious way makes the point for me:

You fearful saints, fresh courage take:

The clouds you so much dread

are big with mercy, and shall break

in blessings on your head.

A reading from the first letter of St John                              4:11-16

Beloved, if God so loved us,

we also ought to love one another.

No one has ever seen God;

if we love one another,

God abides in us

and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him

and he in us,

because he has given us of his Spirit.

And we have seen and testify

that the Father has sent his Son

to be the Savior of the world.

Whoever confesses

that Jesus is the Son of God,

God abides in him,

and he in God.

So we have come to know

and to believe

the love that God has for us.

God is love,

and whoever abides in love abides in God,

and God abides in him.                             The word of the LORD.

This reading gets off to a bad start.  The Jerusalem Bible translation opens the reading with “My dear people”.  The latest edition of the Jerusalem Bible has changed this to “My dear friends”.  The Greek has one word, not three, and it is ’Aγαπητοι (agapētoi  - think of the word “agape”, a love feast).  This means “Beloved”.  This may sound somewhat old fashioned but it is full of meaning.

The word “love” occurs 26 times in the  Gospel of John. The word “love” occurs 43 times in the four pages the three short letters attributed to John in the New Testament.   By way of contrast, the Gospel of Mark mentions the word “love” only three time and all three are in quotations from the Old Testament.   So, to begin to fathom what our Gospel today has to say about love, “my dear friends” or “my dear people” do not cut the mustard. “Beloved” does - for two reasons.

First, love is the very centre of the kind of community or church that grew out of an understanding of God’s love coming into the world in the person of Jesus:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  John 3:16

God so loved the world that he gave his Son to the world.   God is love, Jesus is love and Jesus begged his followers to love one another.  For this community love makes the world go round.

Secondly, and precisely, “Beloved” means that they are beloved by God.  God’s love is the source and life of their very being. God’s love is the love poured out upon them so that their love must be poured out on all who embrace their understanding of what it is to be in their community of love.  Love is from God. To know God is to know love. This is what Jesus taught, as they have read in the Gospel of John from which they drew their understanding of Jesus. He lived and taught love and his followers lived as he lived.  Jesus offered his whole life as an offering to God. So his followers must offer their lives to God, loving as Jesus loved. “Beloved” says it all.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John                17:11-19



… [Jesus] lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said,

Holy Father,

keep them in your name,

which you have given me,

that they may be one,

even as we are one.

While I was with them,

I kept them in your name,

which you have given me.

I have guarded them,

and not one of them has been lost

except the son of destruction,

that the Scripture might be fulfilled.

But now I am coming to you,

and these things I speak in the world,

that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

I have given them your word,

and the world has hated them

because they are not of the world,

just as I am not of the world.

I do not ask that you take them out of the world,

but that you keep them from the evil one.

They are not of the world,

just as I am not of the world.

Sanctify them in the truth;

your word is truth.

As you sent me into the world,

so I have sent them into the world.

And for their sake I consecrate myself,

that they also may be sanctified in truth

The Gospel of the LORD.

The Gospel reading provides the background to the teaching we met in the second reading.  The love which gives life to Jesus comes from his Father. That love Jesus gives to those whom he calls friends.  Those friends are empowered by this love to love one another. But just as the love they have is love they received, love given them through Jesus by God, they in turn must give this love to each other.  John’s Gospel is not concerned with baptism, with apostles being sent, with the Eucharist, or with community cohesion, with community authorities. For them, love is all you need. What is emphasized is each individual as a recipient of love.  As Jesus and the Father are one in love, so each Christian must be true to that pattern of love. That love binds individuals together as a reflection of the love of Jesus and the Father.

Pope Francis, as usual, points to the truth of the matter:

The Church’s closeness to Jesus is part of a common journey; communion and mission are profoundly interconnected”.   In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, to all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear.  The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.  That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.  (Luke 2:10)

Pope Francis: The Joy of the Gospel §23

We have thousands of commandments in our Church.  It is no wonder that the greatest commandment is smothered in the avalanche of does and don’ts.  In enforcing the pages of laws preachers often miss the one law writ large in our Gospels, writ large on the Cross, writ large by God: love one another.  By forgetting the one commandment, the God who gave that commandment is forgot.  And so love and compassion, mercy and forgiveness are hid from the pain of the people.   There is no “great joy for all the people”. People do not turn their backs and walk away from love, from mercy, from joy.

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Joseph O’Hanlon  

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