Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A

The Fifth Sunday of Easter A
(Revised common Lectionary)

Acts 7: 55-60; Psalm 31:1-5; I Peter 2:2-10; John 14: 1-14

As a leader of a minority (the Hellenists) within the early community of believers, Stephen could attract critics from other factions within the church. As Raymond Brown observes, Luke's description of the death of the first martyr parallels Luke's description of the death of Jesus in his gospel. (A Once and Coming Spirit at Pentecost, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994, pp 49-50)

Using recurring images and even complete phrases from other psalms, the books of Jeremiah and Jonah, the psalmist composes a model supplication to God. The image of God bending down to help is intimate and vivid.

Drawing directly from the psalms and Isaiah, the writer of this epistle re-shapes the familiar proclamation about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as once rejected but now the chief cornerstone. Now, he writes, those who believe are to be "living stones" of a new entity, the church, whose mission is to "proclaim the mighty acts" of God.

Believe/trust God; believe/trust me, John's Jesus tells his disciples as he introduces some key teachings, which get a little more audacious than the last until they reaching a startling climax.  His fate (death/resurrection) is "the way" he travels so that those who follow him will come along, too, and arrive at his "Father's house" where rooms have been prepared.  Thomas is baffled. "Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?" John's Jesus explains that he is "the way, the truth and the life."  Then he intensifies the claims:  "If you know me, you will know the Father also."  Now Philip is confused.  "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied."  Jesus becomes exasperated: "Have I been with you all this time. Philip, and you still do not know me?"  This exchange leads to a further intensification of the equivalency between himself and the Father: "whoever has seen me has seen the Father."  John's Jesus then identifies the criterion by which they can/should know for sure his actual identity: the words and works of Jesus are identical to the Father's.  "I am in the Father and the Father is in me...."  What guarantee does Jesus offer to back up this claim?-- "the works themselves."  But these words/works of the Father, which are identical to the words/works of Jesus do not stop when he returns to the Father.  Now comes the unexpected climax:  "the one who believes in me will also do the work I do, in fact, will do greater works...." (!)  Indeed, the return of Jesus to the Father will enable him  to grant "whatever you ask in my name." 

For all is dazzling innovations and unique amendments, John's narrative has a single, clear, consistent message: Jesus, who was present at creation, and, after his execution and resurrection returned to the Father, was the exact replica among us of the Father in word and deed, which John sums up in one irreducible trait: "Gos is love."  This is the claim that cuts through every bit of malarkey (religious or otherwise) that has or ever will be produced and gives the Christian gospel coherence.  What is God's nature? Love.  What is God's method? Love.  What is God's purpose? Love.  And if all that were not enough, you, dear reader/follower, can achieve even more than Jesus did!  (Luke's Acts of the Apostle's provides the first such example in Stephen.)
The scriptures are wily, clever, creative, effective, worldly (in the sense of a thorough knowledge of human nature), but rarely subtle. John's claim is daring, blunt and clear: God's mission embodied in Jesus is now transferred to those who follow him! Just as God entrusted this mission and message to one man, Jesus, who was subjected to flawed humanity so now God entrusts that mission and message to the same people who enabled the execution of Jesus! Their (our) connection to God is directly through the knowledge and love of Jesus. What a glorious promise to such unlikely people. Citing Von Balthasar's insistence that the church is the body of Christ only because (and when?) Christ is the head, Michael Jinkins writes: "While speaking of the church as the Body of Christ, we at the very same time speak of the church, universal and particular, as a social and historical fact among other social and historical facts, as principality and a power among other powers, as a center of political agenda-making and scheming, as a community of human beings fraught with frailty in whom the Spirit of God dwells like a priceless treasure in an earthen vessel. To recognize the facticity, frailty and falleneness of the church need not take away from the faith-full recognition of the church as the Body of Christ (any more than the christological recognition that God was incarnate in our humanity takes away from the wonder of Christ indwelling our actual fallen human flesh.)" (The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context, pp 94-95)  The scriptures chronicle staggering examples of human failures, and still make such an audacious claim on our behalf!