Seventh Sunday of Easter May 24, 2020
The season of Easter draws to a close with this, the 7th and last Sunday of Easter. We have heard stories detailing how the early Christian community responded to the Resurrection event and grew in their faith and devotion in spite of obstacles and persecution. The Gospel message could not be silenced. This week's readings prime us for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, which remind us that our work is far from over. As partcipants in the salvific accomplishments of Christ Jesus, each of us is called upon by virtue of our Baptism to continue to build the Kingdom of God, spread the Gospel message in word and deed, and work in tandem with Christ to help bring to full realization the victory he won for us. Our journey begins to become the saint God created us to be, and our journey towards heaven is ongoing. To succeed on our journey, we need an advocate, helper, and guide. We need the Spirit of Truth, and God does not disappoint in fulfilling his promises or meeting our needs.
The First Reading
Luke separates the Resurrection event into three parts: Jesus' resurrection, his ascension, and the decent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The events unfold over a 50 day period following Jesus' resurrection. Whereas in John's gospel, John has all of the events take place on Easter. Luke prolongs the events in order to show how the Church grew following the death and resurrection of Jesus and how they prepared to continue his work of building the Kingdom of God.
In this week's reading we see the Apostles return to the upper room following Jesus' ascension. Luke notes that they traveled "a Sabbath day's journey" back to Jerusalem. Why the distinction? Luke is making it clear that the Apostles and disciples were living in harmony with their Jewish faith and their faith in Christ Jesus. As Jesus stated himself, he did not come to abolish the law, but rather fulfill it (Matt 5:17-20). The early Church in the first century saw both as complementary. Just how far is "a Sabbath day's journey?" The answer is 3000 feet or just over a half mile.
Luke also notes that the apostles are not alone. Other disciples, Mary, some other women, and even relatives of Jesus are present. The passage states that Jesus' brothers were present. Much ado is made about such passages, especially by non-Catholics who refute the Church's doctinal teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary. The simple fact is that the Greek word, adelphoi (pl.) or adelphos (sing.), is ambiguous. It can mean brother in a biological sense, as delphus means "the womb," but it can also imply a more remote relationship such as cousin, relative, or even someone who belongs to the same group. Paul uses the exact same word when referring to 500 "brothers" who witnessed the Resurrected Jesus. By no miraculous means was Paul stating that Jesus had 500 biological siblings. He is using the term in a broader sense to imply those who were brothers in the Lord, that is, disciples. In fact Jesus uses the word when referring to his apostles in some passages (see Mt 12:46-50), and the early Christians used the word when referring to each other. The argument is a distraction, as the nature of the relationship being implied can never be answered with any degree of certainty in the Gospels.
What is important is that the apostles and the others present in the upper room return not under duress or fear following Jesus' ascension, but rather in community, devoting themselves to prayer. They have witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. They have come to understand his role as Messiah. They have spent the last 40 days learning from Jesus in light of the resurrection experience. Now they understand. The fear of the first three days following Jesus' death is gone. Now they gather in prayer as they await the promised Paraclete.
1 Peter continues its treatise concerning persecution of the early Church. Tensions continued to mount between the synagogue and the Christians. The Christians were refusing to conform to the demands of the local synagogues that they stop preaching Christ's gospel and his resurrection. They were accepting Gentiles into their ranks and not requiring them to be circumcized or adhere to certain ritual purity practices. The religious leaders of Judaism and numerous Judaizers (those Christians who felt that adhereance to Mosaic Law must be maintained) were trying to preserve Judaism. These Christians where challenging everything they held a sacred with and replacing it with Jesus. They failed to recognize Jesus as the long awaited Messiah and that his coming led to the fulfillment of Mosaic Law. The Christians on the other hand recognized the purpose of the Law and the prophets as the means to prepare the hearts and minds of the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah. Now that the Messiah was here the Law and the prophets had fulfilled their purpose and were no longer necessary for salvation. Christ alone saves, not the Law. This persecution and infighting among Christians and the local synagogue would escalate once the destruction of the Jewish Temple occurred in 70 AD. The Jewish response was ingenious. Up until around 86 AD, Christianity had been a sect within Judaism, but then the Christian movement would be cast out of the synagogue making Christian practices and those who followed them an illegal sect prohibited under Roman law. In one simple declaration, the Christian community moved from internal persecution from fellow Jews to State sponsored persecution at the hands of the Romans.
In this portion of Peter's letter he reminds Christians of the glory that is found in suffering for Christ's sake. Suffering for Christ demonstrates the depth of love and devotion that one has for Christ and the depth of conviction to which he holds fast to his relationship with Christ. True love requires a willingness to sacrifice, and true love always encompasses suffering. In this pericope we hear how it is that Christians are able to endure the insufferable treatment cast upon them. It is through the Spirit of God that rests upon them. This serves as a sobering reminder of the potency and power of the Holy Spirit which will not only be celebrated next week with Pentecost, but which we all possess through our reception of the Spirit in baptism and our strengthening in the Spirit through Confirmation. The glory of God, i.e., the Holy Spirit, resides within us. Rejoice exultantly.
When we think of Jesus praying we typically think of the "Our Father," but John provides us with a beautiful example of how Jesus prayed in our Gospel passage for this week. Jesus raises his eyes to heaven (a posture emulated by the celebrant during the Eucharistic liturgy), and prays for his and his Father's glory, which will be accomplished through his death and resurrection. Jesus has the full authority of the Father, and uses that authority to give eternal life to all those entrusted to him by the Father. Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus, the living and true God made flesh, is praying for your eternal salvation. And what is eternal salvation? Jesus defines it as knowing God and knowing him. The act of "knowing" doesn't simply imply "knowing" about God or about Jesus. Most of the world knows about God and about Jesus, yet many of these same people do not believe that Jesus is God's only Son. Rather, "knowing" implies a level of intimacy that comes only from living in union with God. We know God because we know Jesus. Our knowledge is imperfect while on earth, because even though Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, God has not revealed himself completely. God will not reveal himself to us completely until we meet him in heaven. Then we will be in perfect intimate union with God.
Jesus prays for those entrusted to his care. He does not pray for the world. Why? Because the world in John's gospel represents those who have rejected Christ Jesus. Their decision has been made of their own free will. Like the rich man who walked away from Jesus because he had too many possessions that he was unwilling to part with, Jesus does not pursue those who have rejected him. God gifted us with free will. The first words God speaks to man in Genesis are "You are free.." God offers us an incredible gift, the gift of himself who is nothing less than perfect love, but we need to be free to accept or reject that gift. In Jesus' prayer, he focuses his efforts on those who have accepted him because the world can lead them astray and away from God. If we make the decision to love, and follow Christ Jesus, then Christ Jesus will do all he can to help us remain in his love. How reassuring is that? Jesus walks with us and supports us simply because we have said yes to him. We belong to Christ Jesus. Allow yourself to be loved and possessed by him.
As disciples of Jesus, living in union with him, and allowing ourselves to be possessed by him we too must accomplish the work we have been given to do, namely to go forth and make disciples of all nations. We must proclaim the Gospel through word and deed to our children, our families, to those in our neighborhoods and community and to the world at large. We can do this simply by giving witness to our faith in Christ Jesus in how we live our lives and interact with those around us. We can let his mercy be our mercy, his heart be our heart, his love be our love in all we say and do. When we do we give glory to God and Christ Jesus.
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