Commentary to the Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year C
FROM THE GOSPEL THE SPIRIT ALWAYS DRAWS NEW THINGS
In the face of ‘rampant religious ignorance,’ someone proposes to revive the Catechism of Christian Doctrine, published by Pius X in 1913, with its 433 questions and answers, a synthesis of all the themes of theology and morality. This booklet certainly marked an epoch, but we ask ourselves if it would make sense to re-propose the truths of faith in a language and with images that are now worn out, belonging to an era so far removed from our own.
In his opening address to the Council, Pope John XXIII recalled a fundamental principle: ‘The truths of the faith are one thing, but how they are formulated is quite another.’ The mission of the Church is to translate, to make these same truths intelligible to people of all times and places, using their language, their culture, their images, their way of thinking. This is an arduous and delicate task because tensions and misunderstandings inevitably accompany it. Still, it is indispensable and can be accomplished because the Spirit of truth that animates Christ is present in the Church.
A retreat into the past, a fear of what is new, a pessimistic view of the present, and gloomy predictions are not signs of love and fidelity to Tradition but symptoms of a lack of faith in the work of the Spirit.
Pope John XXIII dissented from the ‘prophets of doom.’ He invited us to contemplate ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ present not only in the Church but wherever "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control" blossom (Gal 5:19-22).
To internalize the message, we repeat: "I believe in the work of the Spirit who renews the whole earth."
First Reading: Acts 15:1-2,22-29
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.
The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers. This is the letter delivered by them:
“The apostles and the elders, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings. Since we have heard that some of our members who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey the same message by word of mouth: ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’” —The Word of the Lord.
Tensions between traditionalists and innovators are not new in the post-conciliar period but have always existed in the Church from the time of its origins. Although painful, they are inevitable and become a reason for growth if handled with wisdom, respect and charity. The reading refers to the tensions that surfaced in the first-century church. In the communities, Jews and pagans were distinguished (and often pitted against each other). Relations between these two groups were not at all smooth, to the point that in some places, they even went so far as to celebrate the Eucharist separately.
The reason for the disagreements is easily explained: the Jews who had embraced the faith demanded from Christians of pagan origin the scrupulous observance of all the provisions of the Old Testament law and the rabbis. The pagans, of course, did not want to hear about these very complicated precepts and argued that faith in Jesus was sufficient to save themselves. They believed that every people had the right to live according to their traditions and culture. If the Jews wanted to be circumcised, they could do it; if they thought it was horrible to eat pork, they could abstain from it without bothering those who were not disturbed by such problems.
Discussions on these topics were never calm and peaceful; tempers were easily overheated, words became heavier and heavier, they came to insults, and some hot-headed people even resorted to blows.
The friction was exacerbated by the fact that the Jews could count on the favor of the ‘hierarchy’: Peter, the apostles, and especially James, the ‘brother of the Lord,’ were ‘traditionalists.’ The situation threatened to become explosive. What to do? A meeting was held to examine the problem, and an agreement was reached: the pagans could feel free from all the traditions of the Jews; however, in mixed communities, they had to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols, blood and suffocated animals and to contract marriages between people linked by some kinship (v. 29). These were four actions that were very repugnant to the Jews, and so that their sensibilities would not be hurt, the pagans were asked to avoid them. Even today, we would consider it improper to celebrate the conversion of a Muslim with a banquet of cold cuts and whiskey. Certain customs are deeply rooted and deserve respect.
The message of the reading is important and timely: it is easy to confuse the Gospel with the cultural envelope with which it is clothed, and distinguishing between the two is not always easy, as the history of evangelization in mission countries shows. Cultural conditioning leads people to consider as evangelical what is deemed customary, reasonable, and right by the people to which they belong.
In such a complicated matter, perhaps a straightforward rule can help: the baptized person is obliged to abandon what is clearly contrary to the Gospel (revenge, polygamy, adultery, abortion...). On the other hand, what conforms or is indifferent can be kept, even if it may seem illogical or irrational to people of different cultures. Finally, one must be very careful not to judge as anti-evangelical that which is incomprehensible to one's own culture.
Second Reading: Revelation 21:10-14,22-23
The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal. It had a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. There were three gates facing east, three north, three south, and three west. The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. —The Word of the Lord.
The book of Revelation is addressed to Christians in difficulty because of persecution. To instill courage, the author tells them about the vision he had regarding the end of time. In last Sunday's passage, he pictured God's people as a beautiful bride. Today he compares it to a beautiful city, Jerusalem (vv. 10-11), of which he describes all the details: the walls, the foundations, the twelve gates, distributed on four sides. This last note is significant: the number four in the Bible indicates universalism and the door, of course, refers to the possibility of entering.
The value of the image is clear: the people of God are wide open to the world, north and south, east and west, it welcomes everyone, it abolishes every separation, it rejects everything that divides or discriminates. Very significant is the fact that in this city, the temple is absent. In heaven, there will be no more rites, ceremonies, religious practices; man will no longer need mediations; we will meet God face to face.
Evil, pain, darkness will be eliminated. Even our temples, our liturgies, our solemn, sacred gestures are all destined to disappear. Let us not forget this so as not to absolutize them and grasp the call they make to us to the temporariness of our lives. They remind us of our condition as pilgrims in this world, our situation as strangers still far from our definitive abode.
Gospel: Jn 14:23-29
Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.
“I have told you this while I am with you. 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. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
A hasty reading of today's Gospel may give the impression that we are faced with a series of sentences unrelated to each other and the problems of our lives. However, the passage is not at all confused or abstract; it is just very dense. Let's try to translate it into simple terms.
Let's begin by clarifying the phrase in v. 25: “These things I told you when I was still among you.” We are during the Last Supper, and it is at least surprising to hear Jesus say: ‘When I was among you.’ It is evident that here it is not the historical Jesus speaking, but the Risen One, the Lord. He is addressing the Christian communities of John's time, subjected to a hard test by persecution, troubled by defections, infidelities, incipient heresies and, above all, disappointed by the missed, awaited return of the Lord. With this in mind, let us now examine the passage.
The initial statement: "If anyone loves me..." must be placed in context. One of the disciples—Judas (not the Iscariot)—asked Jesus a question: "Lord, how is it that you have to manifest yourself to us and not to the world?" (v. 22). In Israel, everyone expected a Messiah who, by performing spectacular wonders, would amaze the whole world. Faced with the humble and humble attitude with which Jesus always presented himself—he did not shout, he did not make his voice heard in the public squares (Mt 12:19), he did not want his miracles to be known—the apostles often asked themselves the question that Judas asked on behalf of everyone during the Last Supper.
Even Jesus' family members who lived in Nazareth never understood his absurd quest for concealment. One day they said to him, "Don’t stay here; go instead to Judea and let your disciples see the works you are doing. Anyone who wants to be known doesn’t work secretly. Since you are able to do these things, show yourself to the world" (Jn 7:3-4). Even the Christians of the communities of Asia Minor, at the end of the first century, did not understand why the Lord did not return on the clouds of heaven to manifest, in a resounding way, who he is and what he can do.
To these doubts and uncertainties, Jesus answers: "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (vv. 23-24). Jesus wants to manifest himself, together with the Father, not through prodigies but by coming to dwell with the disciples. We must be careful not to materialize this statement. It is necessary to refer to another phrase pronounced by Jesus during the Last Supper to understand it. Responding to Philip, he says: "The Father who is in me does his works. Believe me: I am in the Father, and the Father is in me; if nothing else, believe it for the works themselves" (Jn 14:10-11).
Jesus brings as evidence of his oneness with the Father the works he performs. He does not refer to miracles, as we may be led to think. He never appeals to wonders to demonstrate that he is ‘one’ with the Father; he refers to everything he does. His gestures are always and only works of love; they tend to liberate people from all the slavery to which they are subjected: that of sin, of sickness, of superstition, of religious and social discrimination. But this work of liberation is the same one that the Lord accomplished on behalf of his people. Israel knew its God as the protector of the last, of the weak, of foreigners, of orphans and widows. If Jesus performs these same actions, it means that God is in him and he in God.
What does it mean then that Jesus and the Father dwell in us? It means that, after hearing the word of the Gospel, we receive the life of God, his Spirit, and are led to do the same works as Jesus and the Father, becoming in our turn liberators of man. Therefore, it is not difficult to recognize if and when Jesus and the Father are present and working in people.
In the next verse, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, "the Comforter who will teach and remind" all that he has said (v. 26). There are two functions of the Spirit. We begin with the first, that of teaching. Jesus said it all, leaving nothing out. Yet, there is a need for the Spirit to continue to teach. Jesus could not make explicit all the consequences and concrete applications of his message. He knew that in the history of the Church, new situations would arise, and complex questions would be asked. Let us consider, for example, how many concrete problems today await a light from the Gospel (bioethics, interreligious dialogue, difficult moral choices...).
Jesus assures us that his disciples will always find an answer to their questions, an answer in conformity with his teaching if they know how to listen to his word and keep in tune with the impulses of the Spirit present in them. They will have to have a lot of courage to follow his indications because he will often ask for unexpected and radical direction changes. But the Spirit will teach them nothing other than the Gospel of Jesus.
In the light of other Scripture texts, however, the verb ‘to teach’ acquires a deeper meaning. The Spirit does not instruct as the professor does in school when he explains the lesson. He teaches dynamically, becomes an interior impulse, induces irresistibly in the right direction, stimulates the good, and leads to making choices in conformity with the Gospel. "He will guide you into all truth"—Jesus explains again during the Last Supper (Jn 16:13)—and, in his first letter, John clarifies as follows: "The anointing you have received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you; but just as his anointing teaches you all things, is truthful and does not lie, so stand firm in him, as he teaches you" (1 Jn 2:27-28).
The second task of the Spirit is to remind. Although found in the Gospels, there are many words of Jesus that run the risk of being overlooked or forgotten. It happens, above all, with those evangelical proposals that are not easy to assimilate because they contrast with the ‘common sense’ of the world. An example: until not so many years ago, many Christians still distinguished between just and unjust wars and even spoke of ‘holy wars,’ approved the use of arms to defend their rights, and supported the lawfulness of the death penalty for criminals. Today, fortunately, those who think in this way are less and less.
How is it possible that Christ's disciples have forgotten for so long the unambiguous words of the Master forbidding any form of violence against their brother? And yet it happened. Here then is the Spirit intervening to remind them, to remind the disciples of what Jesus said: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you... If anyone strikes you on the cheek..." (Luke 6:27-29). For many centuries Christians have managed to close their ears to the calls of the Spirit. Still, today those who attempt to justify the use of violence find themselves increasingly alone and more pressed by the voice of the Spirit who... reminds them of the words of the Master. I have insisted on non-violence, but the examples of ‘forgetting’ the words of Jesus could be multiplied, and it would be opportune that, in the light of the Spirit, everyone should try to make an exercise of memory.
Jesus passed on to his disciples the commandment of love, and now he also leaves with them the gift of peace: "I leave you peace, I give you my peace. Not as the world gives it do I give it to you." (v. 27). Jesus speaks these words when the Roman empire is at peace; there are no wars, all peoples are subject to Rome. Yet this is not the peace he promises. This is the peace of the world, based on the strength of legions, not on justice. It is the peace that approves of slavery, marginalization, the oppression of the defeated, the hubris of the powerful. The peace promised by Jesus is realized when new relationships are established among people when the desire to compete, dominate, and be the first gives way to service and selfless love for the last. Christian communities are called to be the place where everyone can verify the beginning of this peace.
The last part of the passage (vv.28-29) is somewhat enigmatic: it is not easy to understand why the disciples should rejoice at Jesus' departure and why he claims that the Father is greater than he is. Let us begin to explain the joy. Let us first note that it is experienced only by those who ‘love’ Jesus. "If you loved me"means: ‘if you were in tune with my feelings, if you shared my thoughts and my plans, you would rejoice because I am about to fulfill the mission that the Father has entrusted to me.’ The death of the Master frightens the disciples because the Spirit has not yet enlightened them; they do not understand that his gesture of immense love will start the new world, characterized by ‘his peace.’
The language used by the rabbis explains the affirmation about the inferiority of Jesus concerning the Father. They spoke of superiority and inferiority to distinguish the one sent from the one who sends him. As long as he is in the world and has not completed his mission until he returns to the Father, Jesus is ‘the inferior,’ that is, the one sent by the Father.