ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C
Year of Luke
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A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 97:1-2. 6-7. 9. R/. vv.1. 9
A reading from the book of the Apocalypse 22:12-16-17. 20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 17:20-26
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Notice the number of strange things in today’s readings. And not only in today’s readings. We need constantly to be aware that the books of the Bible were not written for us. The Gospels were not written for us. The psalms are not our prayers: we borrow them and make them our own. Unless we are aware of the distance between these ancient writings and ourselves, we will never realise how close they are to us.
Acts of the Apostles and Luke
First, consider the reading from St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Some questions might immediately spring to our minds today:
Who was Stephen?
How do you gaze into heaven?
How can anyone “see” God who is spirit?
What is “glory”?
How can you see “glory”?
Does God have a right hand?
How do the “heavens” open?
Are there gates?
Had those who stoned him a reason for doing so?
Luke wrote towards the end of the first century when the followers of Jesus had been making their way in the world for about 70 years. From the crowded room in Jerusalem the story of Jesus had moved into the streets of Jerusalem and travelled a thousand miles to the city of Rome. It had travelled out of its native land, changed its language from Aramaic to Greek, and begun to organise its structures. Above all it had begun to absorb the Hebrew Bible as its own and to produce a body of writings that would, over a few centuries, become what we call the New Testament. It had adapted as much as it could of the Jewish culture in which it was born and to have the flexibility to confront the Greek culture so prevalent throughout the eastern Roman Empire. Jesus, and the story of Jesus, was translated into new languages and cultures; they were proclaimed to Jew and Gentile alike, not without considerable discussion, contention, and heartbreak. It was, as Luke records in Acts, “in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), the followers of Christ. That designation (not a name in its origins) was rooted in the ancient Hebrew word for Messiah, moving into Aramaic, then to Greek and into Latin. It moved from being a word for a “messiah”, someone “anointed with perfumed oils” to signify that a particular task was been entrusted to “the anointed one”. By the time Paul and Luke got down to writing it had become just part of a name, Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ, or simply Christ. How did that happen?
When Luke writes his story of Jesus and of the first beginnings of Christian missions, he was writing about a progression from a manger in Bethlehem to the locked doors through which the Holy Spirit entered, and on to the coming of the Jesus story to Rome. How did a story that began in the backwaters of Palestine, on the borders of the Empire, come to the capital of the world? As he plotted the story from the little town of Bethlehem to the house-churches in Rome, Luke was much more interested in the success than in the failures. He tended to paper over the cracks. He had his own theological agenda.
His Gospel begins with delightful accounts of mothers and babies, of angels and shepherds, and choruses of heavenly choirs. No nasty King Herod, no killings of children in Bethlehem, no flight across the desert sand to Egypt. Acts too begins with a huge success. One homily by Peter and the fisherman’s catch was “about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Paul helps out at the stoning of Stephen but is swiftly promoted to be the apostle who eventually is brought to Rome and set about “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).
Why is it that so many activities in Acts mirror what Jesus is recorded as doing in Luke’s Gospel? Why do the dying words of Stephen echo the dying words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel?
We need to be aware that Luke has an agenda and we need to know what it is and how it governed his telling of the story. In short, in reading Luke, we need to know why Jesus died saying,
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46
Psalm 97 and the Psalms
Psalm 97 also contains statements that are not factually
true. Consider these:
God is not a king.
God is not surrounded by clouds.
God is not hidden in thick darkness.
There is no throne in heaven.
There is no fire burning up adversaries.
There is no lightning lighting up the world.
No mountains have melted.
God is not high above the earth.
There are no other gods.
How do we translate the images and metaphors into factual statements about the God? If God is not a king, why call him so? We listen to readings and declare ”The word of the Lord”. But the words we hear are human words. These words are in our dictionaries. Before we declare with St Francis of Assisi that the words we hear are “God’s holy words” we must realise they are words we hear on our streets.
What we enter into in every psalm is the imagination of someone skilled in the writing of poetry and someone deep into the way of praying. Every psalmist was a songwriter, as the Hebrew name for the collection of the 150 psalms proclaims. Tehilim means “songs of praise”. The Greek word psalmos is a translation of a Hebrew word mizmor which means “a song sung with a stringed instrument for accompaniment”. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls expresses what singing the psalms meant to the Qumran community down at the Dead Sea. Until the Romans came and killed everybody. These monastic people longed for a renewal of religious faith and prayed with great intensity and fervour:
With powerful voice give glory to God,
in the assembly of the Many proclaim his Glory;
among the throng of the just give glory to his Name
and with the faithful sing his greatness.
Unite your souls with the good and perfect people
to glorify the Most High.
Join together to make his salvation known
and do not hesitate to proclaim his power
and his glory to all ordinary people.
The Psalms have played a significant rôle in the liturgy of ancient Israel and are important (but not central) in modern Jewish worship. They reflect every human emotion, thanksgiving and joy, anxiety and sorrow, indeed, every movement of the human heart. They are the work of poets and songwriters and must be prayed with the insight of poets and sung by people aware they are singing with the heavenly choirs.
The strangeness of the reading from the Book of the Apocalypse is not only due to the very nature of this kind of visionary literature. Trying to see the future, especially God’s future, is a hazardous business. Consider the strange things we are called upon to believe in today’s reading:
How did John, the seer, hear and see these things?
Who is speaking?
What does he “bring with him”?
What do Alpha and Omega imply?
What robes need washing?
What tree is ‘the tree of life?”
Where is this city with gates?
How soon is “soon”?
Perhaps the strangest thing about today’s reading is what is
left out. The reading skips from verse 14 to verse 16. This is the first omission:
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. Apocalypse 22:15
The second omission has been done by very brave men:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Apocalypse 22:18-19
I do not wish plagues on anyone. But how those who drew up our Lectionary could dare to leave out the words that the Word of the Lord insists must never be omitted is beyond me.
The end is nigh! At least so says the First Letter of Peter (4:7). But, as many of us will have noticed, it hasn’t happened yet. Making predictions concerning the future is a hazardous occupation. The last book in the New Testament claims to be a disclosure of God’s secrets, especially those relating to the future and the finality of things.
Revelation stands out from all other books in the New Testament because it claims to be an account of a series of extravagant visions and revelations. Its opening lines boldly proclaim its heavenly origins:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. Apocalypse 1:1-3
Notice that the Apocalypse is a three-in-one. It claims to be a “revelation”, a “prophecy”, and a communication or a “letter” or “epistle” to the churches. This calm introduction is a frank claim that what is written here comes from heaven. It is, it claims, a message that discloses heavenly secrets about the future. What it discloses, if we can give it a brief summary, is a revelation of a conflict between God and Satan, a cosmic conflagration. The advice given to the churches is that the Jesus people must live a life of utter loyalty to God; they must worship God and no other. The hero going into battle against Satan is Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God. Jesus is the model of fidelity unto death that must be imitated by all who desire to be admitted to the New Jerusalem, the city of God, to be with God forever. A declaration from the throne of God announces to the seer the glorious victory:
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. Apocalypse 21:1-4
To put the matter in another way, the Apocalypse has the same message as the Gospels and all the other New Testament writings. All of them declare that the future belongs to God. Humanity is safe in God’s hands. Evil will not prevail and has no future in the destiny of creation. What distinguishes the Apocalypse from the other 26 books in the New Testament is the way it announces the gospel of God. The medium is different, not the message. It is the outrageous flights of imagination by which the story is revealed that makes it so odd to us today. Yet its imagery and fantastic visions are found in such prophets as Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel, and a host of other Jewish writings that emerged in the centuries immediately before the coming of Jesus. It did in its day what science fiction does in ours. Arthur C. Clarke’s A Space Odyssey is a retelling of the Book of Exodus.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60
[Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The word of the Lord.
For many reasons Stephen is currently much in the news. He was one of the seven chosen to supervise “the daily distribution” to the widows of Hellenists, that is Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1). Apparently the Hebrews (Jews native to Jerusalem) were getting more than their share. It is a fact that elderly and wealthy Jews from the Diaspora retired to Jerusalem to be near the Temple and to be buried near the Holy City. The prophet Joel places God’s final judgement of the nations who have persecuted God’s holy people:
For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there. Joel 3:1-2
So it was a good idea to get buried where, in God’s future, the final judgment would take place. The rich always claim the best seats.
It is the apostles who are called upon to right the wrong but they claim that their priorities lie elsewhere:
It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.
So they suggested the problem be dealt with by the whole community of disciples:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
Everybody thought that this was a good idea. The brothers and sisters came to a decision:
They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
There are a number of details in this passage that call for attention. First, the dissension broke out over “the daily diakonia” of the widows. The word obviously has to do with the distribution of the food. It is a word that refers to the domestic work of serving at table. The service of distributing food to the poor was a feature of poor-relief in Jerusalem. That the followers of Jesus had introduced their own system of poor-relief would indicate that a break from the Temple and synagogue had taken place.
When the choice is made, Stephen is named first as “a man full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit”. These they presented to the apostles and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Were these seven men ordained deacons? The question is loaded because of the very specific meaning of “ordained” and “laying on of hands” that came into being with the practice of episcopal ordination. In any case, the Twelve are never called bishops; nor are they ever called priests. The first deacon we meet in the New Testament is a woman named Phoebe who was a deacon of the house-church in Cenchreae near Corinth (Romans 16:1). Elders and deacons had supervisory positions in the churches in Philippi (Philippians 1:1). There is no indication that these “deacons” were entirely male or, for that matter, female. The same Greek is masculine and feminine, as Romans 16:1 indicates. Given the origins of the first house-church in Philippi (Acts 16:11-15), it is very likely that “deacons” the first verse of Philippians includes women and men. There is no evidence that these supervisors and deacons were ordained, and especially not in the understanding that we give to the word “ordination” in our time. That is more a 12th century conception.
The practice of laying on of hands is noted several times in the Hebrew Bible. In Numbers 27:18-23 we read that God instructed Moses to commission Joshua, son of Nun, to take charge of the people of Israel when they cross over into the Promised Land. Moses had to present him before Eleazar the priest and the whole people. But it was Moses who laid hands on him, not the priest. Moses was not a priest.
Numbers 8:5-22 records the appointment of Levites. When those chosen have been ritually washed and shaved, they are brought to the Tent of Meeting (the desert prototype of the Temple) and the whole congregation of the people is assembled:
And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. When you bring the Levites before the Lord, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the Lord. Numbers 8:9-11
What is clear when we read such texts from the Hebrew Bible is that a blessing and power are being given in order that a particular service may be done. A blessing is the order of the day in the Hebrew Scriptures when work is to be undertaken:
… the Lord your God will bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. Deuteronomy 14:29
In the account in Acts, the noun “deacon” is not used. The apostles devote themselves to “the ministry, service, diakonia of the word”. The duty devolved upon these seven men is “to serve at tables” (6:2). What is of note is that there is no record of them doing so and some of them immediately take on the work of proclaiming the word of God. Clearly, Stephen, a man full of grace and power (6:8) was one of these.
The sentence before today’s reading begins, records the reaction to Stephen’s speech by those present who were accused of betraying and murdering of the Righteous One:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth against him.
As ever, Luke turns to the Hebrew Bible for his words. Job complained against God:
He has torn me in his wrath and hated me;
he has gnashed his teeth at me.
But filled with the Holy Spirit, the leading actor in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, Stephen looks into heaven. At this moment of torment and death, the Holy Spirit comes to comfort and strengthen with a vision. Stephen sees the glory of God. What exactly does this mean? How can we see “glory”?
Christians joyfully sing as they celebrate Glory to God in the
highest. Many know the Latin, Gloria in excelsis Deo, and delight in the wonder that great composers have made of this ancient hymn. But our hymn does not originate in its Latin dress. Our Gloria was first sung by Christians on the mountains of Cappadocia in eastern Turkey where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers begin their journey to the sea. There is a second century reference to the hymn and a fourth century text, almost identical to the Gloria we sing.
The word “glory” is the English attempt to translate the Hebrew word kavod. This word denotes the “weight” or “heaviness” of a thing. It came to express the status of someone who has achieved distinction among his neighbours on account of his wealth. Those who wrote the songs that God’s people sang did not consider riches to be the be-all and end-all of life:
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
The prophecy in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah is quoted by Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth as an outline of his programme:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to those who are oppressed.
Further on, in chapter 61, Isaiah holds out the prospect of future prosperity for faithful Israelites who listen to the word of the Lord:
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your ploughmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
Isaiah 61:1 and 61:5-6
The kavod or wealth of the nations is what gives them distinction and glory. When they are brought low their glory
fades as their “weight” is taken away.
Personal kavod or weightiness, that is, true glory, is a gift of God:
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God
It is worth meditating on the glory God gives to Israel’s king, as God’s representative , the shepherd of God’s people:
His glory is great through your salvation;
splendour and majesty you bestow on him.
For you make him most blessed forever;
you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the Lord,
and through the steadfast love of the Most High
he shall not be moved.
Not, of course, that many of the kings lived up to God’s expectations, as Ezekiel 34 testifies.
Glory, true glory that is, is not a human possession nor does true glory have its origins in human achievement. Kavod describes the very character of God as that character is revealed to humanity. The weight, the glory of God’s character is that God of Israel is a God who saves, a God who delivers its people from all that is evil, a God who guides God’s people in the way of peace. Since “glory” embraces all that God is in relation to humanity, when we sing “Glory to God in the highest” we are acknowledging all that God is to us. Or, to put it the way we can see the glory of God, a God who sends to us his Son, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. Around his manger a multitude of the heavenly host sang our song:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth
among those with whom he is pleased.
The highly imaginative line (the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God) confirms that the crucified man from Nazareth has been raised from among the dead. God has set him on his right hand, a vindication of all that he had achieved on earth and a divine assurance that what was done on earth was in accord with heavenly wishes. Those who heard these words recognise that Stephen was declaring that the truth of all that was being proclaimed by the followers had God’s approval. Jesus, his story, and his preachers were from God and vindicated by God. That is why they took up stones.
So Stephen died as Jesus did:
Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
Our reading records that the garments of the stone-throwers were looked after by a young man named Saul. Keep an eye on him.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 97:1-2. 6-7. 9. R/. vv.1. 9
R/. The Lord is king, most high above all the earth.
The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad.
righteousness and justice
are the foundation of his throne. R/.
The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all the peoples see his glory.
worship him, all you gods! R/.
For you, O Lord,
are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
R/. The Lord is king, most high above all the earth.
A group of psalms (Psalm 93 and Psalms 96 to 99) sing the same song: The Lord is king. While there is much debate as to whether the translation should be “The Lord reigns” or “The Lord has become king”, there is good reason to accept “The Lord is king”. For there is good reason to believe that these psalms come from the period after the return from exile in Babylon (around 537 B.C.) when there was no earthly king. So the shout that God is our king is a shout of faith, a declaration that no matter who oppresses this small nation, its people are God’s people. Their king is powerful, his kingship lasts forever, and at the heart of God’s kingship is righteousness and justice. No matter that foreigners who know not God, lord it over God’s people. One day the entire world will know this God who is exalted above all other gods. One day all peoples will see his glory.
A reading from the book of the Apocalypse 22:12-16-17. 20
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. (And he said), “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The word of the Lord.
In today’s reading Jesus addresses the readers and hearers, speaking to them through John the prophet to whom the revelations contained in this book are made. So the voice we hear is the voice of Jesus who announces that his coming is imminent. This coming will be a judgment, for it signals the reward of those who have remained faithful. The whole point of this Apocalypse is to be a blessing, to reveal to those suffering persecution that there will be an end to suffering and that quite soon. What this book reveals even in its most fantastical words and images is God’s perspective on the way of the world.
Jesus declares that he is the Alpha and the Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), that is, the Beginning of all things and the End to which all things are destined. Those who have remained faithful (“wash their robes”) will be blessed. The Spirit speaking to the churches has already disclosed what washing the clothes means:
The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Revelation 3:5-6
Referring to the Garden of Eden and the tree of life that grew in that paradise, Jesus again discloses that those who endure to the end will eat of the tree that gives eternal life:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
These things have been revealed to the churches, revealed by God through the Holy Spirit, and revealed by “the root and descendant of David”, that is, by God’s Messiah. These words recall words of the prophet Isaiah:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.
In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. Isaiah 11:10
The “bright morning star” also reflects Isaiah:
How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low.
As throughout the whole of the Book of Revelation, the words of the ancient prophets are employed to paint the glory that will come to those who have kept faith. Here all the faithful are called to enter the city, to come forward to receive their reward. When Jesus comes, those who belong to him will be brought to their reward. So the cry is on the lips of all who are enduring their time of suffering:
Come, Lord Jesus
Of course, if you want a glorious introduction to the Book of Revelation, start by listening to Handel’s Messiah:
King of Kings!
Lord of Lords!
He shall reign forever and ever!
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 17:20-26
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
Today’s reading from the Gospel according to John is, to say the least, full of surprises. Chapter 17:1 announces that Jesus concluded his words to those whose feet he had washed and then “Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven”. At the tomb of Lazarus he “lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me”. That was a prayer of thanksgiving. So in chapter 17 “he lifted up his eyes to heaven” introduces a prayer. His prayer closes the farewell address to his disciples. It is, however, a strange prayer. For the moment, note that in today’s reading Jesus prays, not only for those around him but “for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one”. We may well ask: Was this prayer to the Father answered?
If you were to ask the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, what was the teaching of Jesus the answer would be “the kingdom of God”. The preaching of Jesus as he made his way through Galilee and on to Jerusalem was full of parables illustrating what “the kingdom of God” is and how one is to live in order to live the kingdom values. This is not what happens in John’s Gospel.
The Gospel according to John is very different from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. These three Gospels tell the story of what Jesus said and did. The emphasis is on healing and proclaiming a way of life that mirrors on earth what is done in heaven. That is to say, Mark, Matthew, and Luke present a Jesus who recommends the doing of God’s in order that justice and peace be done on earth. Their Gospels are not about the person of Jesus. He does not advertise himself. He proclaims the kingdom of God, inculcating the values that build a world that lives by the will of God.
The Jesus in Mark, Matthew, and Luke proclaims the kingdom of God. The Jesus in the Gospel of John proclaims himself. Instead of a good new preached by Jesus, we have a Gospel about Jesus.
This is what came to be reflected in our Creeds. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed do not pay attention to the teaching of Jesus. Nor do they refer to his healing or to his miracles.
In my experience, the Gospel of John is the favourite among most Christians. Yet consider the following:
There are no parables in John’s Gospel.
There are no “works of power” (miracles).
There are seven “signs”.
There is little mention of “the kingdom of God”.
The public life of Jesus begins with an incident
between Jesus and his mother.
The rôle of women is prominent.
His life ends with another incident involving his
His mother is never named.
Those who challenge Jesus or who oppose him
are called “the Jews” or “the Pharisees”.
There is no blessing of the bread or the wine at the
last meal with his disciples.
There is a washing of feet.
Jesus conducts his trial before Pilate.
Jesus dies as the paschal lambs were being killed.
Most of the time Jesus talks about himself.
The Fourth Gospel begins before time began,
not in history.
The Fourth Gospel is an amazing piece of writing, full of beauty, of uplifting images and poetic beauty. It is founded, not on the facts of what Jesus did on earth, but on the Jewish idea of wisdom as it emerges in such books as Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is personified and named Sophia, the Greek work for wisdom. Wisdom resides in the mind of God and human wisdom is a gift of God:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honour.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed.
God’s every act is an act of divine wisdom:
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.
Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself,
but he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded.
The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,
that one may turn away from the snares of death.
Notice the vocabulary here and notice how it is to be found in John’s Gospel: word, life, death. The very first sentences in the Fourth Gospel are memorable:
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
Remembering that “by wisdom” God made the earth, notice,
All things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made
that was made.
In him was life,
And the life was the light of men.
The great hymn, as we all know, reaches a glorious conclusion:
And the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.
It is quite clear that the Fourth Gospel does not set out to present the bare facts of the mission of Jesus. What we read is a meditation on the meaning of Jesus. Jesus is the divine
Presence, the Wisdom of God, made flesh, who dwelt amongst us, and made God known to us. Everything that Jesus does and says in John’s Gospel is meant to reveal our God:
No one has ever seen God;
the only God,
who is at the Father’s side,
he has made him known.
What Jesus does, what Jesus is, reveals the glory of God. For in becoming flesh, in dwelling amongst us,
We have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son of the Father,
full of grace and truth.
In the glory of the Son we see the glory of the Father. If we have any doubt about this, then Philip’s shares our doubt. Jesus said to to Thomas,
I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. John 14:6-7
Philip was as perplexed as we may well be. Indeed, he may not have been much enlightened by the reply:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? John14:7-10
In the passage that forms the Gospel today, the pronoun “I” occurs 9 times and the pronoun “me” occurs 13 times. No paragraph in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, or Luke comes near that revealing total. The danger is that our faith may become an adoration of who Jesus is and not a determination to do what he did and does in our world.
May they all be one
The prayer of Jesus is “May they all be one”. The “all” here are those who come to faith in Jesus through the words of the disciples around the table with him. Why would it have been necessary to pray for unity? The only reason to pray for unity is when there is disunity.
It is sad but it is true that the Christians that we can identify as Johannine Christians did not last long. Their writings disclose an ever increase of disruption and disunity. This is clear, not only in John’s Gospel, but in the three letters that have survived the demise of those who produced them. Read the First Letter of John 3:11-24 and ask why does the writer have to go on about loving each other? Is there something wrong in the community he is writing to? Why is the short Second Letter of John an incisive if brief reminder that holding fast to love is the only way to survive as a Christian community? Why is it that the Third Letter of John reveals a serious dissension in the community?
The prayer of Jesus in today’s Gospel is a heartfelt prayer that the very love Jesus experienced from his father may be the love that fills the hearts of those for whom he prays. His disciples are embraced by the very love with which the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. His hope is,
… that the world will realise that it was you who sent me
and that I have loved them as much as you love me.
Look around your local church; look around the Church throughout the world. Do you see a community of love, love of the depth and intensity with which Jesus loved those whose feet he washed? And if what you see is not “the glory you have given me” (to quote the words of Jesus), what must be done to mend what is broken?