NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 14:23-29
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
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.”
I have neglected to mention over the past few weeks that my prime source for the Gospel of John has been and remains Father Raymond Brown, whose two volume commentary on the Gospel of St. John in 1970 is the gold standard of English language Johannine commentaries of the twentieth century. He was teaching at Catholic University during my seminary years in Washington, but I was not fortunate to have him as a professor. One day I was having coffee in my seminary friary with my scripture professor friend “Corky” and he told me that he was off to the University for a distasteful assignment. Corky had been designated by Catholic University to settle an academic dispute; Father Brown was accused of heresy by another professor of teaching heresy, specifically regarding Mary in the Gospel. The protagonist was refused tenure, ultimately, and became something of a martyr of the Catholic Right, which still to this day conducts war against Father Brown, a fine priest and scholar who died almost twenty years ago. Corky told me that Brown, accused by his enemies as too liberal and progressive, was upset to see Coke machines in seminaries.
Father Brown, in his commentary of today’s Gospel, begins with a reminder that in the previous paragraph two questions had been posed to Jesus during this Last Supper discourse. Thomas, upon hearing that Jesus was going on to prepare a place for the disciples, asks plaintively, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. So how can we know the way?” Jesus replies with his powerful “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Philip follows up with another question, “Lord, show us the Father. That’s enough for us.” Jesus, demonstrating his own frustration, replies in his own famous way, “Philip, here I am with you all this time, and you still don’t know me?”
These questions, of course, provide the framework for Jesus to describe the oneness he enjoys with the Father. But it might be a mistake to write off the questions of Philip and Thomas as literary devices for more thorough “doctrinal” explanation of Jesus’ identity and purposes. John’s Gospel was written as much as seventy years after the life of Jesus; the Last Supper Discourse appears only in this Gospel and it is certainly not unreasonable to say that texts from the Discourse, such as Sunday’s Gospel, both interpret the struggle of the early Church to do theology (as “faith seeking understanding” in St. Anselm’s later famous phrase) and as a combination doctrinal/pastoral exhortation of the divine plan for later generations of Christians.
In our text at hand Jesus returns to the bedrock of Christian identity: to love Jesus is to “keep my word,” and the result will be that the Father will love him (who keeps the word. There is a strong Trinitarian cast to this reading. The lover of Christ will be visited by Christ and his Father, and this will not be a quick encounter, as Jesus adds that they (Father and Son) will “make our dwelling with him.” John has used this phrase before in Chapter 1, where “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus adds that his words are actually the words of the Father who sent him. Unspoken, of course, is the fate of those who choose to reject the Word of Jesus and the Father.
In the next paragraph Jesus goes on to say, in so many words, I personally will not be around indefinitely to pull your chestnuts out of the fire. Thus he introduces the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in Jesus’ name to teach and remind the disciples (and presumably all of his followers to come) everything that Jesus has already taught during his earthly sojourn among them. In his commentary Father Brown reports that many scholars of his time and earlier in the century had seen this sentence as a kind of revelation of the Trinity. (II, 642ff) Brown is not quite prepared to go that far, but he does comment that there is a three-fold reference to God’s presence. The human Jesus, the ever-present Paraclete, and the Father with whom they are one would seem to indicate a full presence of God in all his persons in the drama of Redemption.
When Jesus bids his disciples “peace,” Brown argues that the best way to understand “peace” is as a term for salvation, and that an interpretive way of reading this text is “I wish you eternal life.” (II, 653) Faulty interpretations of peace would include peace as an absence of war or psychological tension, and sentimental feelings of cheer. John’s Church, with its years of difficult experiences, would have had a fair idea that John’s use of “peace” conveyed something far beyond current day experience. The word “peace” also carried futuristic tones, as in wishing the recipient the full future glory of the delivering God. Personally I was struck by these insights on peace, as I suspect the universal Catholic understanding of the “Kiss of Peace,” for example, is understood more for its symbolism of fellowship (as it is) than as a fervent wish for future and everlasting life, a fitting rite prior to consuming the Bread of Eternal Life.
Jesus returns to the theme of farewell. Father Brown notes the similarity between Jesus’ farewell remarks and those of Moses in Deuteronomy 31. The fact that Jesus has announced that this night (Holy Thursday) marks his ultimate battle with the evil of the world makes fear an appropriate response. Jesus’ words that his disciples should be truly happy for him to go is not a rebuke of the disciples as much as a counsel that their love of him is possessive and conditional. His return (or Ascension) to the Father in eternal glory—on Easter Sunday, in St. John’s chronology—is an event that should bring the disciples inestimable joy, if their love was truly altruistic.
The final lines include Jesus’ declaration that “the Father is greater than I,” a phrase that would stoke contentious debates in the Fourth and Fifth centuries when the Creed of the Church and the formal doctrines of the nature and work of Jesus were effectively stated. This is an issue more appropriate to the branch of theology known as Christology. For the moment, one may consult Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus by Gerald O’Collins, S.J. For our purposes, suffice to say that Jesus’ words are best described as an expression of love, not as a statement of identity.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 13:31-33A, 34-35
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself,
and God will glorify him at once.
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”
The Fifth Sunday of Easter puts the Church closer to the observance of the other great feasts of the Easter Season, the Ascension and Pentecost. The Ascension is celebrated this year on May 5 (Thursday) or May 8 (Sunday) depending upon where you live. In the 1990’s the Vatican gave permission to countries where the feast is not a national holiday to transfer its observance to the following Sunday. There was an old joke that some bishops resisted the move because they would lose the holy day collection on Thursday, but in fact there is considerable wisdom in moving the feast to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, since few people attend Mass on weekday holy days and the Ascension is too important a feast to lose.
With these major feasts approaching, there is a shift in the Easter Season Gospels in preparation for what is to come. After three Sundays of Resurrection appearances, last Sunday’s Gospel turned to the nature of the relation of Jesus to his disciples and future followers with the imagery of the Good Shepherd. This Sunday’s Gospel is set at the Last Supper, from the opening line in which “Judas left them.” This phrase is double entendre: Judas has indeed “left” in the sense of rejecting the brotherhood of believers he has belonged to for some time, and his departure of course is timed to set in motion the arrest of Jesus a few hours later. The evangelist John has already pegged Judas as a scoundrel, commenting earlier that Judas had no regard for the poor and frequently pilfered from monies set aside for them. (John 12: 5-6)
Scholars and churchmen have often divided the Gospel of John into two parts: the book of sign and the book of glory. The book of signs (chapters 1-12) features a handful of detailed miracles which introduce a lengthy discourse or debate over the meaning of the sign, and more to the point, the nature of the man who performed it. A classic example of this model is the story of the man born blind, a text from the A Cycle used during the final formation of the catechumens during Lent, where the act of healing leads to an angry and protracted response by Jewish leaders who actually summon the man’s parents to certify that he was indeed born blind. The first half of the Gospel depicts Jesus declaring himself to all persons—those of good will, those on the fence (Nicodemus?), and those who would have a murderous response (Caiphas).
The book of glory, opening at the Last Supper at Chapter 13, is more private and depicts exchanges between Jesus and those he truly considers his sheep. It is a time where Jesus will no longer work individual miracles for others but will undertake his greatest work of all, the free laying down of his life as the ultimate Passover sacrifice. In this he will be glorified by his father, as he knows he and the Father are one.
Thus, when Judas leaves the supper room and Jesus does nothing to stop him, Jesus is fully aware that the Rubicon has been crossed, that by allowing Judas to leave and prepare for the arrest, he has given his full consent to all that will follow. For Jesus, of course, this moment marks the beginning of the revelation of his glory as the Son of Man. At first glance such a statement would sound like excessive self-aggrandizement, but since the Father and the Son are identical (consubstantial, of one substance, as our Nicene Creed at Mass would put it) Jesus knows that the perfect work he is about to complete is actually a reflection of his Father’s glory. That Jesus would give all as a testament of his Father’s glory, and the Father in turn would raise Jesus to a place of eternal glory, we have the essence of the importance of the Ascension, which is actually about Jesus’ destination, and not about his manner of conveyance.
Despite the brevity of the passage this weekend, Jesus also introduces the role of his on-going presence in his community through his gift of the Spirit. He explains a reality that perhaps his disciples had been reluctant to face, that one way or another Jesus would not be with the disciples much longer. There are things he needs to say, and the most important is that the disciples (and those to follow) “love one another.” Interestingly Jesus describes his teaching as a new commandment. Perhaps this phrasing was intended to indicate a change from the legal emphasis of the Hebrew Scripture. But more likely, Jesus is emphasizing a new intensity of love, that they “love one another as I have loved you.” This was a command, after all, coming from one who was about to die for them. In the final line of Sunday’s text, Jesus emphasizes that this love will be evident and evangelical for outsiders who behold Christian communities in their midsts: people who love each other enough that they would die for each other.
Such a love would not be possible without divine presence, and in reflecting upon the Gospel this week, we may be wise to look down the road at the third great feast of Easter, Pentecost Sunday on May 15. Although described differently in the Gospels of Luke and John, the central fact remains that Christianity cannot live without the “breath of God,” the divine presence of the Holy Spirit, also consubstantial with the Father and the Son.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 10: 27-30
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
April 16-17, 2016 FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”
I have to confess that my office library on St. John’s Gospel is not as deep as I wish it was. I presently own only two classic commentaries on the Fourth Gospel. Father Raymond Brown’s two-volume set on this Gospel in the Anchor Bible commentary series is a venerable work that I have used before, but I noted today that it dates back to 1966! It is a tribute to the quality of this work that it continues to remain an Amazon best seller. It is still a worthy addition to your library to augment newer works published since then, if you can find it at a bookshop or on-line service that may not appreciate its historical value. I purchased a one-volume Dante this past summer for $1—or excuse me, one Euro—in a tiny Irish island town to help pass a rainy afternoon.
John’s Gospel is not in the A-B-C Cycle of Sunday readings in the Catholic Lectionary, but many of its texts appear on our high holy days such as Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. Moreover, one can make an argument that John’s theology—his understanding of Christ—is indispensable to the life of the Church and the ministry of teaching and catechesis. While there are some brief primers on the Gospel that every religious publisher carries, I might recommend Father Francis Moloney’s Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (1998) published by Paulist Press, for the serious student. The Sacra Pagina series of commentaries seems written for both scholarly insight and personal reflection, preaching, and teaching. Father Moloney is also the author of the St. Mark commentary we used last year.
John’s Gospel is one text that requires a solid commentary. Its arrangement and themes differ greatly from the other three Gospels, and the segments from John like next Sunday’s Gospel are not always what they seem to be. For centuries the fourth of the Easter Sundays has been known affectionately, if not officially, as Good Shepherd Sunday. All three cycles contain a portion of Jesus’ self-description as the shepherd of his fold. At first glance this sequence from John may seem inviting—particularly in light of St. Luke’s parable about the little lost sheep and the kindly shepherd who “gathers it gently in his arms” in the words of our smarmy present-day Mass hymn, “Like a Shepherd.”
The sheep business is a dirty business. Not for nothing did Pope Francis exhort churchmen to “smell like their sheep.” In Jesus’ day the shepherds behaved pretty much like cattlemen in the old American west when the closest sheriff was hundreds of miles away in Dodge City. Jesus himself states that he would give his life for his sheep. Shepherds were routinely mauled or killed by predators and probably other shepherds. (Luke’s account of angels appearing to shepherds on Christmas Eve is all the more remarkable in this light.) Sheep are not docile nor are they conformists; again, while in Ireland I had an opportunity to meet some sheep en masse and noted the dye markers in their fleece to keep them in the right flock for the right owner. Sheep are not the poster animals of the environment, either; as I understand it, sheep eat the grass down to the roots which creates soil instability and exacerbated stress for other herdsmen in U.S. western history on public grazing lands.
To this background we have the narrative of St. John, a Gospel written apparently in a time and place where Jewish and Christian relations were difficult to say the least. The destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 A.D. was being interpreted by Christians as God’s rejection of the Jewish people for their failure to accept the Christ as the Messiah who comes to give eternal life. John’s Gospel is noted for its discourses between Jesus and in most cases Jews which share the common thread of accepting or rejecting the true identity and the life-giving works of the Word made flesh.
The identification of Jesus as a “shepherd” is rare in the New Testament. Hebrews 13:20 is the only other site besides the references here in John to speak of Jesus as a shepherd. In our Sunday text, the actual life and death scenarios of this rugged profession become metaphors for the relationship of Jesus to his sheep. Note that “my sheep” hear my voice; that Jesus “knows” them and they “follow me.” Jesus gives them “eternal life” and allays all fear of perishing. No one can steal them from Jesus since they are his by the Father’s gift, and “the Father and I are one.”
Moloney observes that although the text is written in the positive, in terms of the good things that will happen to the sheep, it must also be read in the negative. The sheep who do not hear Jesus’ voice and fail to follow him will not attain eternal life and will certainly perish. (p. 315) This is a pattern of teaching consistent throughout St. John’s Gospel: “he who feed on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal….” “He who believes in me will never die….” At the time of composition, the very late first century, it is easy to imagine that the Christian-Jewish struggles colored the author’s emphasis upon the ultimate importance of listening to the right authority figure speaking for God (“for the Father and I are one.”) and believing his return from the dead in glory.
In the flow of John’s Gospel, the Good Shepherd narrative takes place during the public ministry; but here the Church inserts it into the post-Resurrection narrative, and appropriately so, for we have seen that faith in the Resurrection did not come easily even to the disciples. Last weekend’s Gospel highlighted the struggle of Thomas, though as the homilist in my church correctly observed, the other disciples—even after seeing the risen Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit—remained in seclusion behind locked doors. Three weeks into Easter we still wrestle with faith in the vision and the word of Jesus. There is a message here.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 21: 1-19
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius.
He revealed himself in this way.
Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus,
Nathanael from Cana in Galilee,
Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples.
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”
They said to him, “We also will come with you.”
So they went out and got into the boat,
but that night they caught nothing.
When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore;
but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat
and you will find something.”
So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in
because of the number of fish.
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord,
he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad,
and jumped into the sea.
The other disciples came in the boat,
for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards,
dragging the net with the fish.
When they climbed out on shore,
they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.”
So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore
full of one hundred fifty-three large fish.
Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.”
And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”
because they realized it was the Lord.
Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them,
and in like manner the fish.
This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples
after being raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Before plunging into Sunday’s Gospel, it is worth noting that the first and second readings through much of the Easter Season follow a thoughtful sequence. Easter is the only season in which Sunday’s first readings are not taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, the selections from the Acts of the Apostles from St. Luke trace the history of the early Church’s great apostles in the time immediately after Pentecost, as they go about proclaiming that Christ is risen and sits in glory at the Father’s right hand. The second readings are drawn from the Book of Revelation: the mystical visions of a man named John who put his experiences to paper to encourage a Church under Roman persecution with the promise that God will deliver it in a resounding lasting victory. (Revelation’s apocalyptic literary style has led many to misinterpret the book; at some point down the road I will provide an introductory commentary on the blog.)
Our Gospel reading at hand is intriguing for a number of reasons, not least of which is the strong possibility that Chapter 21 was a late addition to the body of the text. Last Sunday’s Gospel, from John 20, concluded with a literary “sign-off” after Thomas’s act of faith:
30 Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
This is a very fitting ending in every sense for the Gospel of John, and thus it is puzzling to find an additional chapter (next Sunday’s reading) which in its place and content does not seem to fit. For starters, the author identifies five disciples by name and two other indirectly, and notes that Thomas was known as the twin, a fact already stated in the previous chapter. It is peculiar, to say the least, that after everything that transpired between Jesus and the disciples in Chapter 20, they would fail to recognize him in Chapter 21. Maybe most surprising is the fact that after receiving the Holy Spirit in Chapter 20, the disciples are back to the fishing nets in Chapter 21 rather than preaching in Jerusalem (as they are described doing in Sunday’s first reading!)
The mystery of Chapter 21 is complex, but for our purposes here it is sufficient to say that Chapter 21 was added to the Gospel to resolve remaining difficulties and misunderstandings in the early Church, specifically involving Peter. The Catholic Scholar Father Raymond Brown was a leading advocate among scholars who believe that the early Church may have had some difficulty sorting out questions of leadership, with the majority of Christians recognizing Peter and his successors as enjoying a primacy of authority, while another group of Christians looked to “the disciple Jesus loved,” most likely the Apostle John. Both men were probably dead at the time of this composition, but the author attempted to establish both order and unity in Chapter 21.
The miracle of the miraculous catch is very similar to Luke’s account of the same miracle before the Resurrection. Peter takes the lead in both accounts, as here it is his idea to go fishing in the first place, and the others follow. While it is the beloved disciple who recognizes Jesus first, it is Peter who jumps into the water to get to shore first, and Peter who answers Jesus’ request to bring some fish to the meal Jesus was preparing.
The post-meal discussion between Jesus and Peter is well known to us, where Jesus thrice asks Simon Peter if he loves him, and then bestows upon him the command to feed his sheep. Thus we have Peter’s rehabilitation and his commissioning as first among equals. Sunday’s Gospel stops here, but if we continued Chapter 21 further, we would find this:
20 Peter, turning around, *saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” 21 So Peter seeing him *said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” 22 Jesus *said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” 23 Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
It is interesting that after this ultimate endorsement from Jesus, Peter would still wonder about “this man,” a term which is hardly one of endearment. Jesus responds with hyperbole—even if this disciple lives until the Second Coming, this does not change Peter’s ministry or his relationship with the Master. Again, scholars suspect that this text is reflective of a strain between Christian communities more than between the two men. Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple (1978) remains an interesting and helpful source on this question.