19 May 2019 (C) Fifth Sunday of Easter

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: A New Heaven and New Earth yet to come. The kingdom of God already present.

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Acts 14:21-27). They gave an account to the church of all that God had done with them. During the Easter period the first readings for the Sundays for all three years of the cycle are from the Acts of the Apostles, from the beginning as far as the Council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15). These readings invite Mass goers to familiarise themselves with Luke’s account of the growth of the early Church. Today’s reading is a continuation of last Sunday’s and recounts the return journey of Paul and Barnabas in what is known as Paul’s first missionary journey. Some of the place names mentioned have already been encountered in last Sunday’s readings. Paul and Barnabas began their mission at Antioch on the Orontes, went from there to the island of Cyprus, then on to the mainland (present-day Turkey), to Perga in the district of Pamphylia, on to Antioch in Pisidia, then to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Today’s reading recounts the return journey. Paul and Barnabas were concerned with laying the foundations of the Church, preparing the communities for future developments. All these communities had already experienced difficulties and persecutions. The two apostles encourage them to persevere; persecution is part of Christian life. Luke also mentions the appointment of elders. What the function of these elders (also mentioned for Ephesus, Acts 20:17) had is not clear, but it indicates some form of church administration was set up by Paul and Barnabas. Paul seems to have done somewhat similar at Philippi which had bishops and deacons or overseers and helpers (Philippians 1:1; the exact translation and their function are not clear). Governance in the early church will become more organized after the death of the apostles (1 and 2 Timothy; Titus, with “bishops and deacons/overseers and helpers). Paul and Barnabas arrive at Antioch, and report to the church there on their successful mission among the pagans.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 144[145]). I will bless your name for ever, O God my king.

Second Reading (Apocalypse 21:1-5). God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. The apocalyptic section of this book (the Revelation of John) is about the conquest of evil by the Lamb that was slain, the victory of God over evil and the advent of the kingdom of God. After a description of the fall of Babylon, the city of sin, and marriage of the Lamb and a reign of a thousand years (hard to interpret) John has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth to replace the present imperfect ones. In this new reality there would no longer be any sea, the sea in old cogmogenic tradition of cosmic origins being the site of primordial chaos, the dwelling place of the powers of the abyss and the enemy of divine power. The “holy city and the new Jerusalem”, and the bride of Christ are the Church in her ultimate heavenly existence. The city has no temple, since as will be said later (21:22) its temple is God himself and the Lamb. The people of God will then have no experience of pain or worry. These will belong to the past and the world of the past will have gone. God will have made all things new.

Gospel (John 13:31-35). I give you a new commandment: love one another. The depth of this reading is best understood when set in its immediate context, which is Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, a setting characterized by Jesus’ immense love for his disciples and the world. The section begins thus (John 13:1). “Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to his Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end”. “His own” were his disciples then with him, but also his disciples through all ages of history. To indicate what love meant for Jesus the narrative goes on to recount the washing of the disciples’ feet, its import made clear by Jesus himself: “If I, then, Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you”. There follows the account of Judas’ exit to betray him, leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. For John this is really Jesus’ glorification, and the glory of his Father. Jesus is soon to depart, but before doing so he leaves his followers a new commandment: to love another, as he has loved them, in a loving service that will have them known as his disciples.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: A New Heaven and New Earth yet to come. The kingdom of God already present.

1. New Heaven and New Earth. One of the articles of the Creed is that we believe in life everlasting, where the just enjoy the presence of God in the Beatific Vision, the trials, persecutions and worries of this present life behind them. It is obvious to believers, and has been down the centuries, that this world cannot be as God would have it. Paul has said as much to the Romans (Romans 8:20-23): “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies”. There arose the belief that after history had run its course, there would be a new creation, as expressed in the Second Letter of Peter (2 Peter 3:13): “13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” This belief is also clearly expressed in today’s second reading (from John’s Apocalypse). The Church takes note of this expectation, both in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes ,“Joy and Hope”), paragraph 39,2, with the reminder that rather than take from, it should add to, our concern for the world in which we live: “Therefore, while we are warned that it profits a person nothing if he gain the whole world and lose himself, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age”, themes taken up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1049).

2. The kingdom of God is among us. The expectation of a new heaven and a new earth should not lead us to forget that the kingdom of God is already active among us. At his baptism Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and in the power of this Spirit went around doing good, destroying the power of Satan, healing the sick, bringing hope and comfort. He himself plainly said that this activity was a sign that the kingdom of God was among us. Humanity would be transformed by the presence of his grace and the spirit of the Beatitudes. His kingdom would mean care for one another after his example and his command. He made this clear by washing the feet of his disciples and his explanation of the meaning of this. “I have given you an example”. He came to bring life in its fullness, life here and life hereafter. This life was about one’s soul, one’s true inner self, with a knowledge of the meaning of life and the handling of trials. Despite occasional lapses, the Church, that is t he body of believers, has been true to the message of the kingdom preached by Jesus. The same message is still proclaimed in the Easter liturgy, as in the following text from one of the prefaces for the Easter Mass: when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed: “For with he old order destroyed, a universe cast down is renewed, and integrity of life is restored to us in Christ. Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exults in your praise and even the heavenly Powers, with the angelic hosts, sing together the unending hymn of your glory, as they acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy”.

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