Sixth Sunday Of Easter
The first reading is a watershed moment in Luke’s Acts of Apostles – the conversion of Gentiles to the Christian faith. The background: Cornelius was a Roman military officer at Caesarea on the Mediterranean seacoast. He was a devout man, generous to the poor, and prayed constantly. An angel spoke to him in a vision – God was answering his alms and prayers. He was to send for Simon Peter in a nearby city. Peter was staying at the home of Simon, a tanner of animal skins. This is a key phrase because a Jewish tanner since he works with parts of dead animals is ritually unclean as is everything about him. Yet Simon Peter, a pious Jew, is staying at the tanner’s house. The point: this story will be concerned with the abolition of Old Testament distinctions of ritual uncleanness and cleanness. Peter is on the tanner’s (flat) roof praying at noon. He has a vision of a large sheet filled with all kinds of animals, reptiles, birds, clean and unclean. A voice tells him to eat. He replies, “No, Lord, I have never eaten anything…unclean.”
A key principle of the voice: “What God has made clean you must not call unclean.” This principle legitimizes the Jewish-Christian mission to the Gentiles. Cornelius’ messengers arrive. Simon Peter needed one more nudge from the Holy Spirit to get going, “for I myself have sent these men.” Contrary to Jewish custom, Peter enters the house of the Gentile Cornelius. He is introduced to a full gathering of people in the house. After Cornelius explains how through his obedience to a vision this encounter came about, Luke depicts Peter proclaiming the most
“liberal” statement in the New Testament, “I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” A standard but brief catechesis follows during which “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.” Peter commands the first baptism of non-Jews, “seeing they have received the Holy Spirit, just like we did.” The way was now open to begin the work of the Apostle Paul to all nations.
The Responsorial Psalm (98) picks up the theme of universal salvation – the opening of the Christian mission to the whole world. “The Lord has made his salvation known in the sight of the nations,” and “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God.” All lands of the earth are invited to “sing joyfully to the Lord.” The people’s response confirms the universal theme, “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.” A brief second reading, once again from the First Letter of John reminds us again of the difficulty this Johannine Christian Community had with love for one another. They probably share this problem with almost any Christian Community throughout history. It is simply the human condition that we all fail in love, if not always, then at least sometimes. The author of this letter has a solution: “God loved us and sent his Son as an expiation (atonement) for our sins.”
The gospel is taken from Jesus’ long Last Supper discourse in the Gospel of John, chapters 13 through 17. The part we have today is the immediate sequel to last Sunday’s gospel reading, the parable of the vine and the branches. One can understand this meditation on love as an explanation of the life flowing from the Vine (Jesus) into us, the branches. The ultimate source of that life/love is the Father. It flows from the Father through the Son to us, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.” But the branches must remain on the Vine as the limb must remain on the body to be nourished by its life-juices. Therefore Jesus says, “Remain in my love.”
The subject of this meditation passes on to commandments. But are commandments needed where there is genuine love? Yet the Lord is depicted saying, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” Jesus’ obedience to his Father is the vital link that legitimizes the presence of commandments even in genuine love. “…just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” The meditation describes genuine love as self-giving for others.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” For Jesus, this meant a tortuous death on a cross of wood. It can mean the same for Christian martyrs from Stephen the Deacon about the year 35 A.D. to present day martyrs. For most of us, it can mean the daily crosses people bear in relationships with family, with others, with jobs or the lack thereof, etc. A prime example of imitating Jesus in self-giving love which involves giving one’s whole life for others is the love of good parents who bring children into the world, then give their whole lives to feed, clothe, educate them as citizens of the City of God and the world.
Next Jesus reminds his disciples of the intimate knowledge he has shared with them, something one does only with friends. “I no longer call you servants because a servant does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Such an opening to intimate friends is another form of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. The next statement can cause some consternation for a Christian, “It was not you who chose me, but I chose you, and appointed you to bear much fruit….” This aligns with an earlier statement in the Gospel of John proclaiming the initiative of God rather than our own,
“No one can come to me unless the Father draws him,” John 6:44. This had to do with belief in Jesus as Bread of Life. Nevertheless, we are not compelled. God respects the free will he has given us and awaits our consent. Even the Incarnation took place after Mary gave her consent.
Even our consent comes from God’s grace, as Paul writes, “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” Philippians 2:13.