6th Sunday of Easter (Year C)
First Reading: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 Second Reading: 21:10-14, 22-23 Gospel Reading: John 14:23-29
GOD ALWAYS KEEPS HIS PROMISES.
Billy, a young man and only son from a wealthy family was about to graduate from high school. It was the custom in that affluent neighborhood for the parents to give the graduate an automobile. Billy and his father had spent months looking at cars, and at last a week before graduation, they found the perfect car.
On the eve of graduation, Billy's father handed him a gift wrapped Bible. Billy was so angry that he threw the Bible down and stormed out of the house. He and his father never saw each other again. It was the news of his father's death that brought Billy home again.
As he sat one night going through his father's possessions that he was to inherit, he came across the Bible his father had given him. He brushed away the dust and opened it to find a cashier's check, dated the day of his graduation – in the the exact amount of the car they had chosen together. Billy was stunned and sat there with his mind shattered. His father had kept the promise.
God, our Father also has promised us the riches of heaven through His Son Jesus Christ. Moreover, God always keeps His Promises. And still some of us live as if we do not believe His promise.
Today is the 6th and the last Sunday of Easter. The Gospel Reading of today from St. John continues the Farewell Discourse of Jesus. Ideally situated in the liturgical year to anticipate the coming feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, the reading tells both of Jesus’ immanent departure and his promise of the Paraclete. Moreover, the other two Scripture Readings are also a continuation of last Sunday's respective readings. All three readings hold together by well connected themes - wrapping up and bringing us to the transitional end point of the Easter season with the blessings of peace.
Again, today's readings are full of promises – the promise of divine indwelling, the promise of the gift of peace, the promise of the Paraclete, and finally, the promise of the New Jerusalem. Perhaps it will not be wrong, therefore, to call this Sunday – 'Promise Sunday.'
In the Gospel Reading, we have Jesus talking about his immanent departure. But at the same time, he also assures his disciples that he will not leave them uncared for, abandoned. They are promised a divine indwelling, the Paraclete to guide them and the gift of peace.
A Divine Indwelling:
Firstly, Jesus continues to speak on the topic of love and gives his disciples a defining mandate. He speaks of love, the pivotal Christian virtue, and links it with being true to his word. To love Jesus and to keep his word are the same. Jesus' 'word,' of course, is his whole life. It includes all his words and actions and his teaching. If we truly love Jesus, we will 'keep his word,' i.e. we will try to be like him in every way, sharing his vision, his attitudes, his values. Moreover, to receive his word is to receive the Father and the Son, since abiding with the word of the Lord testifies to the reality of divine presence. Indeed, the specifically Christian dimension of love is the intimate communion and indwelling of the Father and the Son with the disciples.
The Paraclete to Guide Them:
Secondly, abiding with the Word of God, with its consequent communion in the love of the Father and the Son, is made possible when the Holy Spirit comes into the hearts of the disciples. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit will the disciples be empowered to 'keep the word' of Jesus. That is why, referring to his immanent departure, Jesus, in his farewell discourse, made this astounding promise, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” When Jesus is no longer physically present, God's Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be with them. 'Advocate' is a translation of the Greek word 'Paraclete' and it carries a range of meanings. It literally means 'one called alongside to help' whenever necessary. In other words, the disciples need not be troubled or afraid because they are never alone. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is always with them to defend them, to intercede for them, and to comfort them.
The Gift of Peace:
And thirdly, central to the passage are the words of Jesus concerning the peace that he gives to his disciples, and he links it with the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. Peace is his farewell and his gift to them. It is 'his' peace, a kind of peace the world cannot give. This world’s peace involves absence from war. Jesus is talking about an inner peace, the peace of having God with us in our walks through life. Jesus' peace is not just on the surface; it is not just a feeling of pleasure. It is something deep down which can be there even in time of hardship and suffering.
'SHALOM!' 'PEACE!' This customary Jewish greeting and farewell evokes the perfect happiness and the deliverance that the Messiah would bring. It is the perfect benediction and farewell blessing that Jesus could give to his disciples. The peace that he bequeaths is the spiritual serenity and certainty that comes from harmony and profound communion with God and His saving will. Each Mass we recite those words before the Kiss of Peace. Have they become almost too familiar to us?
Furthermore, the leave-taking of Jesus is associated with a call to rejoicing. Those who truly love Jesus would experience that his 'homecoming' into the bosom of the Father is a cause for rejoicing. Christ’s return to the Father is a glorious moment and font of joy for his disciples.
THE EARTHLY EARLY CHURCH – A VIVID EXAMPLE
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early Church sought to live in love and share the gift of peace, Jesus’ final gift. We have a vivid example of this in the First Reading of today from the Acts of the Apostles. The first disciples of Jesus were, like Jesus himself, Jews. In the beginning they tended to keep all the regular customs of the Jews. They did not see themselves as starting a new religion; they were a continuation and development of the traditions of their ancestors. Jesus himself said he had not come to abolish the Law but to bring it to fulfillment.
However, today's reading records the first crisis that the early Church faced. As we know, Paul was commissioned to preach the Good News to the Gentiles. He baptized them without requiring them to observe the law of Moses, specially that of ritual circumcision and its dietary laws; i.e. not to eat forbidden food. With this approach, he was able to win over many converts. But his ministry was disrupted when some traditional Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who visited Antioch compelled the Gentiles to follow the Mosaic law. Paul opposed this vehemently. He argued that salvation is won by faith in Christ, not by the works of the law. There was so much dissension that Paul and Barnabas went on a peace-mission to Jerusalem to meet with the church leaders there and hash it all out. This gathering was later called the Council of Jerusalem, the first of the Church's Councils.
The final outcome was that the community leaders in Jerusalem approved of what was happening in Antioch. After intense debate, the Council decided that converts were not obliged to observe the Mosaic law in its entirety. However, to facilitate social contact with Jewish Christians, they were to observe certain minimum Jewish practices like 'abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.' This decision which vindicated Paul was received with great joy by the Gentile community. What is significant here is that the leaders' decision was made explicitly under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. In a 'peace-treaty' letter to the Gentile converts in Antioch the Church leaders wrote, "It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden," viz. that of being circumcised.
The issue tackled in the Council of Jerusalem may appear to us as a non–issue. But for the early Church, the issue was crucial - it could mean the end of the ministry to the Gentiles. It was a major breakthrough for the early Church and only the first of many over the centuries. And we see it happening again and again. And thanks to its timely resolution, the ministry to the Gentiles was able to proceed. Unknown to most of us, it was because of this Council decision that the Good News had reached our shores.
THE NEW JERUSALEM – OUR ULTIMATE DESTINATION
One of God’s most wonderful promises to those who love Him is the creation of the new Jerusalem, a place of unimaginable magnificence, enormity, beauty and perfection, wherein shines the glory of God. In fact, Jesus promised to go ahead of his followers and prepare a place for them in the new Jerusalem, and the Old Testament heroes who exhibited unwavering faith in the Word of God had their eyes trained on this future city, a place where justice would reign, peace would flourish and righteousness would endure for all of eternity.
In the Second Reading of today from the Book Revelation, the Apostle John describes a vision of new Jerusalem and it is so filled with symbols that gleam and sparkle that we will never run out of them. As we review the architectural and mathematical details of this magnificent pictorial structure, we notice how it would be absolutely impossible to design it without divine inspiration. But the most glorious aspect of the new Jerusalem has nothing to do with its material splendor. The best part of the new Jerusalem will be that God Himself will dwell among men.
Again, the vision of the New Jerusalem links the Jewish heritage of the Church (twelve gates on which were inscribed the names of the twelve tribes) with the apostolic preaching (twelve courses of foundation stones with the names of the twelve apostles). Christians have no need of a fixed location for their worship, however, because in this new city “the temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.” Moreover, in this new dispensation of grace, the new Jerusalem with three gates that are open to those from the North, South, East and West without distinction or discrimination speak of the universality of faithful believers.
God is ever faithful and He always keeps His Promises. All the above promises which St. John mentions, the Risen Jesus fulfilled on the very day of Resurrection when he made his first appearance to his disciples, where they had locked themselves in the Upper Room in Jerusalem for fear of Jews. After his typical greeting of “Peace be with you,” Risen Jesus showed them his wounds and sent them on his mission to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Then “He breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Today, when we come to the end of Easter Season, Jesus challenges us to keep the Word of God. He promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit who will empower us to do so as well as fill us with joy and inner peace that will calm our anxieties and fears.
The Holy Spirit is Jesus' gift to us as individuals. We listen to him specially in prayer, guided by the words of Jesus. But, we live our faith not only as individuals but also as a community of believers, as a Church. The Holy Spirit is also Jesus' gift to the Church. It is through the Holy Spirit that the Church's fidelity to the teachings of Jesus has been assured over the centuries and continues to our day and into the future, viz. 'the Heavenly Jerusalem.' And this is the Good News of today.