Holy Spirit

ACTA  LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C

Year of Luke

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READINGS

 

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                 14:21-27

 

Responsorial Psalm                     Psalm 145:8-13.  R/. cf.v.1

 

A reading from the book of the Apocalypse               21:1-5  

                                                                         

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John  13:31-35

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Identity is at the heart of every word we hear proclaimed today.  But there are two in this identity parade that must be given close scrutiny: God and everyone who may be identified as followers of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas offered baptism to Jew and Gentile so conferring on them a new identity.  Paul never calls those who came to believe in Jesus by the name Christian. Nor did the movement he served come to be called Christianity. These names began to appear long after Paul was dead. But in the understanding of the great apostle baptism was a passing from one identity to another.  Baptised people were “in Christ”; they were a people empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus people were God’s people, called to a new life, a life of engagement with God in the service of the world. These were the Jesus people, whether Jew or Gentile.

 

   There is an ancient document that nearly made it into the New Testament, named The Shepherd of Hermas.   Written by a man named Hermas, it imagines angelic Shepherd guiding the life of the Church’s people and teaching what must be done if the true identity of a Christian is to shine forth in the world.  The Shepherd paints a portrait of the “the deeds of goodness” that must be done if the world is to see the glory of God in every Christian life and so be brought into the new family of God. The Christian is appointed by baptism,

 

… to minister to widows, to look to orphans and the destitute, to redeem from distress the servants of God, to be hospitable … to be gentle, to be poorer that all others, to reverence the aged, to practise justice, to preserve community, to submit to insult, to be brace, to bear no malice, to comfort those who are oppressed in spirit, not to cast aside those who are offended by {our] faith, but to convert them and give them courage, to reprove sinners, not to oppress poor debtors.             

                                                        The Shepherd, VIII. 10.

 

Such is the identity of those who are baptised into Christ.  Listen carefully to what the Gospel of John proposes to us today as an identity marker by which,

… all people will know that you are my disciples.

 

   But before we can absorb all that we must be and all we must do, we need to identify who God is, the one who calls us through Christ Jesus to be a mirror of God in the world.  For in the identity of God we will discover the identity of ourselves.

 

   Paul and Barnabas (who, it must be said, subsequently went back on Paul’s vision) proposed that the God who called Abraham thereby called everyone on earth to dance the dance of the merrymakers.  But who is this God? Is this God a warrior god, mighty in battle? Is he a harvest god, who ensures food every year without fail? Is he a god who lives in fine temples, who gives good health? There were gods aplenty in Paul’s world.  What face did the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, the God of Paul show to the world? And in seeing the face of God, what demands does humanity hear from the divine lips?

 

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                 14:21-27

 

   When they had preached the gospel to that city and had

made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

   Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.              The word of the Lord.

 

Whether we are familiar with the geography of the Roman province of Asia Minor (mostly modern Turkey), whether you can readily identify Iconium, Lystra and Derbe as places in ancient Galatia, the big central bit of Asia Minor, is of no great importance.  But what happened in these places in response to the preaching of Barnabas and Paul must not be forgot. For it was here that these intrepid apostles nailed their colours to the theological mast: God in Christ addresses the world, not to perpetuate division between Jew and Gentile but to insist that all humanity is one in the eyes of the heavenly Father.

 

   The most obvious identity marker of Jewish people was circumcision.  To Gentile, that is, pagan people, of all the differences that marked Jews off from the general population, their practice of male circumcision that defined who they were in the public domain.   Those people who looked to Abraham as their father had many peculiarities but it was circumcision that, as it were, defined their peculiarity as far as Gentiles were concerned. It was to these people, to one of their own, that God sent his Son, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God’s promises were given to this people as God spoke through Moses and all the prophets and were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

 

   Yet St Paul, a scholarly and profoundly religious Jew declared to those “foolish Galatians” an astonishing fact at the very heart of what God intended in sending his Son:

 

… in Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.                                                    Galatians 3:26-29

 

Paul insisted in his teaching to those argumentative Corinthian Christians that division was at an end,  

 

… for in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink

of one Spirit.                                           I Corinthians 12:13

Though we cannot be sure that Paul wrote to Christians in Colossae, that letter reflects the very heart of Paul’s teaching:

 

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.                                                Colossians 3:11

 

   What Paul came to believe was that the promises made to God’s people down through the ages were intended to be fulfilled in all peoples and not exclusively in the Jewish people.   The children of God were to be recipients of all that was promised to the Jewish people. Indeed, the children of Abraham were the children of the world. They were all those who came to the kind of faith that Abraham had in God.  In the face of many difficulties, not least the barrenness of his wife Sarah, he stubbornly trusted God and that faith was what was demanded by all who had faith in Christ Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile. What Paul came to believe was that the promises made to his people were, in fact, blessings for all people.  Paul never abandoned the faith story of his own people. What he did was to declare that the gospel of God was that the faith story of his people was always intended to become the faith story of every people. That, for Paul, was the revelation disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the words of today’s reading from Acts, God … opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.  

 

   That then is the first clue to the identity of God.  God is a God of and for all peoples. All that God is, all that God does, is for the world.  There is no privileged nation; rather, all people are privileged to be of infinite concern to God.    



Responsorial Psalm                     Psalm 145:8-13.  R/. cf.v.1

 

R/.  I will extol you, my God and King,

and bless your name forever and ever.

 

The Lord is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord is good to all,

and his mercy is over all that he has made.     R/.

 

All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,

and all your saints shall bless you!

They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom

                  and tell of your power

to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,

and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.    R/.

 

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,

and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

 

R/.  I will extol you, my God and King,

and bless your name forever and ever.

 

The psalm we sing today discloses the very heart of the God who claims all peoples as his own.  The Lord is,



gracious

merciful

slow to anger

abounding in steadfast love.

 

This much we learn in our Responsorial Psalm.  In these words our psalm reveals who God is. Each world tries to do what it is impossible to do, that is, to define God.  It is not possible to capture the fullness of God in human words. In the Jewish Study Bible translation Psalm 145 opens its hymn of praise with an early caution:

 

His greatness cannot be fathomed.

 

But what is revealed to us in our Scriptures and especially in the life death and resurrection of Jesus we can grasp who God is in relation to “all that he has made”.  

 

   Gracious

 

Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic poem.  That is, each couplet begins with a letter of the alphabet, beginning with aleph (the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet) and goes through the whole alphabet to end with tāw (the last letter).  Every verse adds to the picture.  The Responsorial Psalm today begins with verse 8, the letter hēt, and announces four identity clues in a mini-crescendo, going from “gracious” to “steadfast love”.  

 

    Exodus 34 describes one of many awesome visions granted to Moses on Mount Sinai.  In this account the Lord commanded Moses to come to him on Mount Sinai with two stone tablets on which were to be inscribed the Ten Words, or as we say, the Ten Commandments.  On the mountain YHWH reveals who God is:

 

[Moses] rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

                                                                     Exodus 34:4-6

 

The phrase “the name of the Lord” indicates that God’s name (YHWH), mysterious though it be, discloses the identity of God, the attributes that God shows to the world.  Humanity has only human words to attempt to describe the nature of God. The word “gracious” is taken from its human application. It is the word indicates the gracious favour that a patron shows to people who have come under his protection and to whom he has pledged to safeguard.  It survives even to this this when we address people as “Your grace”. This is intended to emphasise the protective care that the patron is obliged to give. The essence of lordship is not power; it is graciousness, protective responsibility. YHWH declares to Moses that being YHWH means constantly exercising eternal protection to those he has pledged to grace with his care.   On many occasions the Hebrew Bible sings the praises of YHWH, the Lord God whose very being is revealed to creation in terms that seem like a constant refrain in Israel’s prayers and it is no surprise to learn that Psalm 145 is recited in the three daily synagogue services.  Psalm 86 is a prayer begging this gracious God for help when life itself seems all but lost:

 

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,

for I am poor and needy.

Preserve my life, for I am godly;

save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God!

Psalm 86:1-2

 

It is to the gracious God that the prayer is offered.  The prayer “reminds” God that his graciousness means that God has responsibility for “the poor and the needy:

 

Be gracious to me, O Lord,

for to you do I cry all the day.

Gladden the soul of your servant,

for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,

abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.

                                                                       Psalm 86:3-5

 

   Merciful

 

Given that humanity is inclined to wayward ways, God must do mercy.  Forgiveness is essential. Psalm 146 offers a truly beautiful metaphor:

 

The Lord makes those who are bent stand straight.

                                                                         Psalm 146:8

 

Mercy is what God does.  The word “mercy” is everywhere in our Bible, occurring about 212 times from Genesis to Jude (where, in what is no more than a postcard, it occurs four times).  Who God is determines what God does.

 

   The plea for God’s mercy is everywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Indeed in the plans for the House of God, the future Temple the throne on which God will sit is the seat of mercy.  The divine architect says plainly,

  

You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold.

                                                                    Exodus 25:17

 

The Psalms have mercy prayers in abundance.  Psalm 51 (50) is well known by those in most need of God’s mercy:

 

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin.

                                                                Psalm 51 (50):1-2

 

The Greek prayer known to all who pray the Mass is not a simple cry for mercy.  It is a command to God to be God and thus to do what God does, to do mercy:

 

Κύριε, ἐλέησόν με.

Kyrie, eleison me!

 

Lord, mercy me!

   

   Anger

 

There is a lot of anger in the Bible.  The occurrences of the word “anger” in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament number 336.  The word “wrath” turns up 215 times. There are instances of God’s anger from Exodus to Revelation.  When Moses, wisely, tried to get out of confronting the Pharaoh on God’s behalf, claiming that he had a stammer and useless at speech-making,

 

… then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses

Exodus 4:14

 

In the Book of Revelation the rider of the white horse (that is, Jesus, the victorious King of kings and Lord of Lords),   

 

  … will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.   

                                                                 Revelation 19:15

 

God’s wrath is often kindled on behalf of the poor, the weak, and the helpless:

 

Pour out your indignation upon them,

and let your burning anger overtake them.

Psalm 69:24

 

The faithful who stray may encounter God’s anger but it is fleeting and whereas God’s anger “is but for a moment”, his favour, that is his graciousness, “is for a lifetime”:

 

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,

and give thanks to his holy name.

For his anger is but for a moment,

and his favour is for a lifetime.

Weeping may tarry for the night,

                  but joy comes with the morning    Psalm 30.4-5

 

    Steadfast love

 

Grace, mercy, and slowness to anger are what God does.  Steadfast love is what God is. A single Hebrew word hesed

Is used in the Hebrew Bible almost exclusively of God.  The few occasions when it is used of a human being it is usually a celebration of God’s grace

 

My heart is steadfast, O God!

I will sing and make melody with all my being!

Awake, O harp and lyre!

I will awake the dawn!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;

I will sing praises to you among the nations.

For your steadfast love is great above the heavens;

your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.

                                                                  Psalm 108:1-4

  

Hesed needs two words in English to get to the bottom of

  1.  God’s love is not like any other love.  God’s love is as old as God, for God is love, a love with no beginning and no end.  It is steadfast love. Nothing can resist the force of the steadfast love that is God.  The fires of hell may burn but they cannot consume any who are loved by that steadfast love which endures forever.

 

   Hesed, steadfast love, is everywhere in the Hebrew Bible, even in match-making.   Abraham send a servant back to the country he had left at God’s command to find a wife for his son Isaac.  The servant came to a well and hoped that there he would meet a woman of worth, he prayed to God to get involved in this match-making venture:

 

And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.                                            Genesis 24:12

 

   It is in the Tehilim, the Songs of Praise, better known as the Psalms, the prayers of Israel’s people, the word hesed occurs 129 times.  A few examples may stand for all

 

Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,

for they have been from of old.

Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;

according to your steadfast love remember me,

for the sake of your goodness O Lord.

                                                                       Psalm 25:6-7

 

Notice that mercy (what God does) is anchored to what God is (steadfast love).  Notice, too, that “according to your steadfast love” is equated with “for the sake of your goodness”.  Steadfast love is God’s goodness. God’s goodness is steadfast love.

 

    A morning offering must include a thank-you for steadfast love that endures forever:

 

But I will sing aloud of your strength;

I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.

Psalm 59:16

 

Because your steadfast love is better than life,

                            my lips will praise you.      Psalm 63:3

 

Better than life itself is to know steadfast love.

 

Has his steadfast love forever ceased?

Are his promises at an end for all time?

                                                                          Psalm 77:8

 

The greatest of all disasters would be if God withdrew and his steadfast love ceased.  What would become of God’s promises?

 

Whoever is wise, let [them] attend to these things:

let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

                                                                       Psalm 107:43

True wisdom is to know God.

 

Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD,

your salvation according to your promise.

                                                                       Psalm 119:41

 

The outpouring of steadfast love is an assurance of salvation and that salvation is for all.  If God is to be God and God’s love to be steadfast, then it cannot be gainsaid even by the most grievous sin.

 

    It is to Psalm 136 that will surely convince the most sceptical that God’s love is forever, cannot be overcome, and will love everyone into eternity.  Otherwise, God is not God. The psalm opens with an emphatic thanks:

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

                                                                   Psalm 136:1-3

 

Then lists the great deeds of God from the act of creation to the feeding of “all flesh”.  It is a Jewish hymn that sings of what God has done for “his people”. But it is surely a hymn for all humanity for it was steadfast love that created a home for all who dwell on this earth.   Twenty-six times the refrain is repeated and that surely is enough to overcome the sternest critic.

 

   When we have collected all the names and all the adjectives, and all the statements that we apply to God to name God aright, we are left with the simplest: God is love.  And it last forever.

 

A reading from the book of the Apocalypse               21:1-5

 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new”.                      The word of the Lord.



The Christian understanding of the story the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, may be stated in four essentials.  The first is the creation of all that there is by God. The second is what Christians call the Fall, the descent of Adam and Eve into disobedience.  The third is the redemption brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Messiah. Finally, there will be a consummation of all things when creation comes to its appointed destiny.   

 

   The Apocalypse of John works its way through these four elements with the most fantastic images.  What he presents is the evil world that resists God’s will and persecutes God’s people. The King of kings, the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, conquered all that is evil. The whore of Babylon (Rome) and Satan are undone and the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven dressed as a bride adorned for her husband.

 

   The image of the New Jerusalem follows the vision of the prophet Isaiah when he imagines a time of unending peace for his people.  He envisions a future for the people of the God’s Covenant. Through Israel’s peace, peace will come to all:

 

For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,

and your offspring will possess the nations

and will people the desolate cities.

                                                                           Isaiah 54:3

A new future will be created by God:

 

In slight anger, for a moment,

I hid my face from you;

But with kindness everlasting (hesed)

I will take you back In love

—said the Lord your Redeemer.

                                                                          Isaiah 54:8

 

The city of everlasting piece, from which “my steadfast love shall not depart”: (54:10) is strongly built:

I will make your pinnacles of agate,

your gates of carbuncles,

and all your wall of precious stones.

All your children shall be taught by the Lord,

and great shall be the peace of your children.

In righteousness you shall be established;

you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;

and from terror, for it shall not come near you.

                                                                    Isaiah 54:12-14

 

What the imagination of the seer who wrote the Apocalypse painted so vividly may be translated into plain speaking: the future belongs to God, the God whose steadfast love endures forever.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to John  13:31-35

 

When he had gone out, 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 glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

                                                      The Gospel of the Lord.

 

On the night before Jesus died, according to John, Judas, “after receiving the morsel of bread, straightaway went out.  He has departed because Jesus dismissed him. With characteristic dramatic effect, the author signals readers and hearers: And it was night.  This is not merely a time check. The time of darkness has come, the time when the Light of the World will be extinguished.  

 

   But before that darkness descends, Jesus has a word for his “little children” (13:33).   Jesus confirms his departure but with assurance that his absence will be brief. The language Jesus uses here has the cadences of Sophia, the wisdom that is praised in the books of Wisdom.  The figure of Sophia, as she appears in the Book of Proverbs, crying in the streets, hovers over what Jesus is saying in his last address to his little children:

 

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,

in the markets she raises her voice;

at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;

at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?

How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing

and fools hate knowledge?

                                                                 Proverbs 1:20-22

 

The spirit of wisdom is for all who turn from the darkness:

 

If you turn at my reproof,

behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;

         I will make my words known to you.     Proverbs 1:23

While Jesus must depart, his disciples are consoled that they will not be left orphans (John 14:18).  As Proverbs proclaims,

 

… for whoever listens to me will dwell secure

and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.

                                                                      Proverbs 1:33

 

Jesus gives to this little flock a new commandment that will glorify him and the God who sent him.  “Glory”, a very difficult word to tie down, is the word Jesus uses to describe his death. It is his glorification, that is, it is an event by which God is glorified, made manifest, in the world.  How can death on a cross be a signal that God is present, that God is in control, that God is to be acknowledged when his Son is nailed to a cross? This is a matter that will deeply concern us when we stand and watch as Jesus hands his life back to his Father.  For now, those who will eventually grasp the meaning of that death to come, his disciples, must know how the world will come to know the mystery of that death. They must love one another:

 

Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.

 

How has he loved them?  He has loved them as the Father loves the Son. He has loved them with that steadfast love that endures forever.  As he says,

 

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.

                                                                      John 14:18-21

The burden of discipleship in John’s Gospel is that disciples are required to love as God loves.  It used to be that you had to love your neighbour as yourself. Now, in Jesus time, you have to love as God loves.

 

Joseph O’Hanlon  

 

 

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