FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 6, 1-7
1Pt 2, 4-9
Jn 14, 1-12
The first reading (Acts 6, 1-7) narrates a significant moment in the life of the first Christian community, in whose midst the first difficulties began to emerge. Unexpectedly, Luke places us before a situation that forms a contrast with the ideal image of the community that he has presented previously, in which all were “of one heart and one mind” (Acts 4, 32) and in which “no one was ever in want” (cf. Acts 2, 44-45; 4, 34-35). The cultural and linguistic unity of the first community of Jerusalem is subjected into a trial for the first time with the appearance of the “Hellenists”, who were probably Judeo-Christians of Greek language and culture from the Diaspora, and who represented a new reality within the community.
Luke’s objective, however, is not to highlight the tensions and disputes of the moment, but to reveal the capacity of the community to solve the problem through the election of the “Seven”. The text of Acts 6, 1-7 is certainly complex, probably composed of different redactional strata, and from which the history of the composition is difficult to reconstruct. But the message is clear: the church knows how to face a critical and new situation with pastoral creativity and with a great sense of unity of the Christian community.
The text begins in v. 1 describing the life of the community with two verbs that recalls the experience of Israel that was increasing in Egypt and that murmured many times against Yahweh in the desert. On the one hand it says: “the number of disciples was increasing”; on the other: “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews” (cf. Ex 1, 20; 16, 2.7-10; 17,3; etc.). Luke uses the same verbs that appear in the Greek translation of the Exodus: increase, grow (plethynein) and complain, murmur (dia-goggyzein). The experience that the church lives is, therefore, similar to that of the people of the first covenant: the numerical growth is a sign of divine blessing, the complaints or murmurings disclose the exhausting human viewpoint of the way of the people of God.
The problem seems to be due to the Greek-speaking Judeo-Christians, who arrived from the Diaspora to reside in Jerusalem as it was the custom of many, who complained that their widows were neglected in the daily service of attention to the poor. The widows were socially marginalized persons, who lived in a situation of grave poverty and without any type of social security. The fact that the communitarian crisis is manifested precisely in the ambit of assistance to the poor is very significant; there where the effectiveness of the faith is expressed preferentially. The authenticity and strength of the faith of the church is measured, in effect, by the love and social commitment in favour of the outcasts and the poor.
More than the solution to the problem of the widows, the text wants to highlight also the function of the Twelve, to whom the “service to the word of God” (v. 2) corresponds first of all. They should not abandon such ministry since it is fundamental to the growth and expansion of the growing church, and above all because it is the responsibility directly received from the Risen Lord (cf. Acts 1, 8). For this reason, they are obliged to entrust the “service of waiting on tables”, that is, the attention to the poorer brethren in the community, to some men “of good reputation, filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom” (v. 3) whom the community has to choose. The conditions of the ones chosen does not only refer to good reputation; these men, dedicated to the service of the poor, should be similar to Jesus himself, “filled with wisdom” (Lk 2, 40) and with the Holy Spirit (Lk 4, 1.14).
We witness, therefore, a ministerial diversification motivated by the historical moment that the church lives, due to the desire to preserve its unity and above all, to the preoccupation of not neglecting the attention and assistance to the deprived brethren. There is a “service of the Word” which refers to the missionary preaching and which Luke places in direct relation with the Twelve, witnesses of the resurrection. The Twelve also appear as dedicated to “prayer”, a ministry that is developed above all within the community and which reminds of the liturgical celebration made of prayer and of catechesis.
Finally, it speaks of a new service of “the Seven”, who in a special rite receive their duty from the apostles (v. 6). It does not deal with the institution of the diaconate, nor should the Seven be identified as the first deacons of the church. Luke avoids calling them thus, even when in fact it deals with a true and proper “diaconate”, that is, of a new structure of service, assistance and solidarity in favour of the poorer brethren. We find two of them, Stephen and Philip, also doing a direct evangelizing work.
The text ends alluding to the dissemination of the Word of God (v. 7): “The word of God continued to spread and the number of disciples was greatly increased.” The verb “increase” (plethynein) is the same Greek verb that is used before in v. 1 in order to speak of the growth of the community. With the new structures of a community that knows how to adapt to new situations, the word of God spread powerfully, like an individual agent of the irresistible power of the Risen Christ.
The second reading (1 Pt 2, 4-9) also alludes to the structure of the church that was born from the resurrection of Jesus, which is defined as an “edifice of spirit”, in which, through a “holy priesthood”, “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (v. 2) are offered. In this spiritual temple which is the church, there is only one foundation that keeps the whole building solid and compact: the Risen Christ. He is, in effect, “the cornerstone, chosen, precious; he who puts his faith in it will not be disappointed” (v. 6). On this “stone” the people of God, also composed of “living stones” that make this temple to be alive and to be the body of Christ, is being built day after day.
The Christians, as living stones, offer to God through the action of the Spirit their own life as spiritual sacrifice. The life of every Christian is a living liturgy and priestly act. It is a liturgy that is not made of rites and rubrics, but of a life of obedience to God in communion with the Risen Christ and committed to the effective exercise of love. In remembering Ex 19, 5-6, which narrates the call of Israel to be a priestly people at the foot of Sinai, the first letter of Peter proclaims the priestly function of all the baptized, called to offer to God the spiritual sacrifice of their own existence and of a world transformed by the work of the Risen Lord.
The gospel (Jn 14, 1-12) belongs to the so-called farewell discourses of Jesus (Jn 14-17) which John places in the context of the last supper. In them the main theme revolves around the destiny of the disciples after the departure of Jesus. Thus, the familiarity with God as the ultimate and definitive destiny of the Church, the affirmation of the profound intimacy between Jesus, the Father and the disciples, and the works that the disciples will do “in the name of Jesus” after the resurrection are frequent themes. These chapters of the Gospel of John constitute, therefore, a true theological and spiritual reflection on the post-resurrection situation of the Church. Following a model already known in the Old Testament (cf. Gn 49; Dt 31-34), John presents the teachings of Jesus as a “spiritual testament” which attempts to strengthen the faith of the disciples and to make them understand the mystery of the resurrection event and its significance to the Christian community.
Firstly, Jesus invites his disciples “not to be troubled” (Jn 14, 1.27) before the tragic events of the passion and of the cross, which are signs of the rejection of the world and of the trials to which the followers of Jesus themselves will be subjected throughout history. In the Bible, what is many times opposed to faith is fear and anxiety (cf. Is 7, 9). Jesus invites his disciples to always live with a serenity that springs from their confidence in God: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and faith in me.” (14, 1) Even if he goes away physically, in fact he will always be with them after the resurrection, he will return to them and finally take them with him when their time comes: “After I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me, so that where I am you also may be.” (14, 3) Jesus encourages his disciples speaking to them of the ultimate destiny of the church: “my Father’s house” where “there are many dwelling places” (v. 2). This idea was popular in the Jewish religious milieu of the time of Jesus. It is a symbolic expression of eschatological character to refer to the familiarity with God in his own house.
The disciples, says Jesus, “know the way that leads where I go” (v. 4). To the question of Thomas: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (v. 5), Jesus proclaims a triple self-revelation about the mystery of his person: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (v. 6)
Jesus is the way that has to be followed because he is the personal mediator of salvation and of the law of life for the believers. Jesus is the way inasmuch as he is the truth, that is, the personal revelation of the Father to all men and women. He is not a simple teacher who teaches a doctrine. He is the truth. That is why it is not enough for a disciple to learn an accumulation of “truths”, but to be the truth, that is to say, to live in permanent communion with Jesus: “Anyone committed tot the truth hears my voice.” (Jn 18, 37) It is necessary to remain in a personal relationship with him in order to be of the truth and to perform the truth (cf. Jn 3, 21).
Through the way and the truth, life is attained. Jesus is, therefore, the way and the goal. By means of faith, the disciple attains life which is Jesus himself. He possesses life in himself like the Father (Jn 5, 26) and gives it abundantly (Jn 10, 10). In synthesis, Jesus is the mediator of salvation (“way”), through the divine revelation that he has communicated to men and women (“the truth”), and that leads to the life of God that Jesus himself possesses (“the life”). With this solemn declaration, Jesus expresses his mission: “No one can come to the Father but through me.” (v. 6)
Verses 7-11 are a kind of commentary to the triple revelation in v. 6. They speak of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, that is, in what sense he is the way that leads to the Father. All is summarised in the words that speak of the infinite communion and mutual immanence between Jesus and the Father: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (v. 10; cf. 17, 21) From the beginning of the Gospel of John, he has proclaimed, in syntony with the biblical tradition, the impossibility of our human condition in order to see God directly: “No one has ever seen God.” (Jn 1, 18) Only through the words and works of the Son can we “see” God. Only in knowing and following Jesus can we know something of the mystery of the Father. That is why Jesus says to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (v. 9-10)
In Jesus, the Son that can be seen, Philip can see the Father that cannot be seen, because the Father is in him and works through him. The Father, in effect, is revealed through Jesus by means of his words and works: “The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself; it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work. You must believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; believe it on the evidence of this work, if for no other reason.” (vv. 10-11) “Words” and “works” evoke only one Hebrew term: “dabar”, whose plural is “debarim”. In the Old Testament, “dabar” means word and event. The divine word is event inasmuch as it creates and unchains life and salvation. It is word and work. Only the words of God, like the words and works of Jesus in the gospel, are authentic “debarim”, in its full meaning.
The text ends with a promise that is linked with the theme of the divine works in the previous verses: “Whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself.” (v. 12) In the Gospel of John, the “works” of Jesus are the irruption of God as glory and life of men and women in their daily existence. The community is called to continue the liberating work of Jesus after the resurrection, serving life and truth in all its forms. The church should proclaim continuously Jesus’ work of giving life and life in abundance. But to do this call is not something that can be achieved through one’s own capacities and merits but in “asking in my name”, that is, with the power of the Risen Lord who reveals the glory of the Father.