SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – Acts 7:55-60 Rev 22:12-14, 16f., 20 Jn 17:20-26
Let Us All Be One, For Christ’s Sake! Recognition Christ in Our Midst; The Consolation of the Church; Results of Jesus’ Having Been Here.
The Gospel is taken from the end of Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper. The prayer ends as it began – solemnly, intimately, in the hearing of friends, with many references to love, and filled with hope. In the first part of this prayer (vv. 1-8), Jesus prayed for himself, in the second part (vv. 9-19) for his disciples, and in this last part – today’s – for us and all believers.
It is called Jesus’ High-Priestly Prayer, because in it he consecrates his body and blood for the sacrifice in which they are about to be offered and because in it he gives his blessings to the Church that he is about to bring forth. The end of the prayer differs from its beginning. What went before, Jesus had spoken to the disciples; what he is saying now is an intimate dialog with the Father, with the disciples being privileged to overhear. In this terrible time, Jesus didn’t lose faith in God or confidence in his people.
And his tender prayer was for his people’s unity. We needn’t be reminded for its need. We often witness breakdowns of communication in families, enmity among members of the same faith community dissension in civil society. Jesus’ unity – one of personal relationship – is to overcome all such divisions, especially those within the fold. Jesus wants a unity like that between himself and the Father – a unity that preserves individuality but which is close and intimate. That union of the Father and the Son is our model. It is a unity in which people will love and serve each other because they love and serve him; it is heart speaking to heart. Its key is love.
Unless the Church has the unity willed by God, it can’t perform its essential mission; that the world may believe (v. 21). That we may be one, as Jesus and the heavenly Father are one, as Jesus prayed, Jesus has given all of us the glory the Father gave him (v. 22). That consists, for one, in the cross, on which Jesus wasn’t so much crucified as glorified. Through suffering for God, we grow as in no other way. To carry Jesus’ cross for the Christian an honour and a glory.
Like Jesus, we find our glory in doing not what we will, but what God wills. When Christians preserve God’s unity in love that Jesus has given, we are the continuation of Christ as mediator and revealer of God. We show the world that he was sent by God (v. 25, who alone is perfectly righteous, will deal rightly with those who have accepted the revelation of God in Christ. And even as death approaches, he sounds a note of triumph that he shall live and, through the Paraclete who is to come, will continue to make known God’s name. (v. 26).
One answer to Jesus’ prayer began with St Stephen. Stephen was one of the first seven spiritual and prudent men chosen to be deacons, and to do what the first deacons had as their reason for being: to distribute charity to the needy. He’s celebrated as the Church’s first martyr. The word “martyr” means literally “witness”; and Stephen was a lesson to all of us to stand for what’s right and true – though our bearing witness is unlikely to be as hazardous as it was for Stephen. In witnessing to truth we should avoid being passive, lethargic, and indifferent; we should, to the contrary, form ourselves into a zealous people, eager to proclaim justice.
Implicitly, Stephen’s prayer for the forgiveness of his infuriated audience attempts to overcome to overcome the disunity between Stephen and them as well as between them and God; forgiveness is an essential element for achieving unity. Stephen saw beyond the faces of his audience distorted with rage; and he saw even beyond time, to the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (vv. 55f.) – a position of power and authority. The Church reminds us of this today, the Sunday following the feast of the Ascension, because it is the first example in the Scriptures of a vision of the risen and ascended Jesus.
Stephen’s audience was no more pleased at hearing his mentioning the significant term “Son of Man” – knowing its implication of the divine – than those who had heard Jesus use it. Considering it blasphemy, they shouted in fury, covered their ears to hear no morn of it, rushed him, dragged him out of the city, and stoned him to death (vv. 57f.)
None of this was an official act of Judaism, since in Roman times not even the Sanhedrin had the power to put anyone to death. It was a lynching. The custom for such a lynch mob then was to lead the condemned to a height and throw him off. If that didn’t kill him, they hurled boulders on him until he died. In Stephen’s case, it was ironic that the participants in their ugly activity laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul (v. 58), the future St Paul, who for his part concurred in the killing. Stephen died very much as Jesus had.
Both Jesus and Stephen were accused of blasphemy. Both were tried by a mob and a kangaroo court. Both were taken outside the Holy City to be killed. Both died violent deaths. As Jesus had prayed to his heavenly Father to forgive his murderers, Stephen cried the same plea (v. 60). And both Jesus and Stephen at the last commended their spirits to God.
In the trials of our lives, which are less intense than those of Jesus and Stephen, we can be consoled by the vision of John the Theologian in today’s section from the Book of Revelation. It is our seventh and last reading in the liturgy of this year from this mysterious final book of the Bible. This is the end of the book and the end of the Bible.
It has Jesus applying to himself the words used by God of Himself in the very beginning of the Bible (Gen 1:8): “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (v. 13). We call something complete when we say it goes “from a to z”. To mean the same thing, the Hebrews used the first and last letters of their alphabet, “from alpha to taw”, and the Greeks, as here, “From alpha to omega”. It means that Jesus – and not the Torah, as the Jews had claimed – is complete in every way, timeless, and with full authority.
Those people fortune enough to receive the right of entry into the City of God, his Church, his Church, are those who live through and in Jesus. They have the right to the tree of life (v. 14) – a very ancient metaphor indicating that anyone eating the fruit of life would become like the gods, having eternal life. In ancient pagan myths, the gods and goddesses didn’t want human beings to become immortal, so they capriciously kept moving the tree of life so that no mortal could find it. Here it brings us back to the beginning of the Bible with the tree in the garden of Eden (Gen 2:9). In the New Testament, those who suffer in Christ have access to the tree of life.
John’s vision next puts into Jesus’ mouth two messianic prophecies that Jesus has fulfilled. He is, for one, the root and offspring of David’s son, but also his Lord. In Christ, the King of kings, all hopes are realized. And John has Jesus speak of himself as “the bright morning star”. The morning star is the herald of the day that chases away the night’s darkness. For the Jews, it had the added meaning of symbolizing the “star” which Judaism saw as a sign of the Messiah’s appearance (See Num 24:17). That is what St Mathew intended by his use of the star that guided the magi to Jesus’ birthplace. Christ, the morning star, is the best and brightest of all hopes; before him the night, of sin and death, flees. Jesus, who had called himself “the light of the world” (Jn 8:12), is the conqueror of the world’s darkness.
This passage, and the entire Bible, ends fittingly with Jesus proclaiming that he is coming soon (v. 20) – that is to say, in his Church. And John’s response is the warm Aramaic expression recorded also by St Paul: Marana tha (1 Cor 16:22) – the most welcoming, “Come, Lord Jesus!” – a prayer for the coming of Christ in glory.
Finished with the sadness of the good-bye to Jesus at his ascension, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” We pray that he will come soon in glory – but we pray also that he will come in our trials to make into one all of our communities – our civic community, our local faith community, our work community, our family community. We pray that in the unjust ridicule we receive for advocating what is true and right and just – as for example, condemning abortion and euthanasia – we shall stand tall. We pray that all of us will recognize that largesse make only networks, not community; only sacrifice make community.
We pay to recognize that the catalyst that Jesus has given us for fostering and developing unity is the Eucharist. To share the Eucharist is to share the hurts and the joys of the community. And we pray for the awareness that unity goes hand in hand with Stephen’s kind of forgiveness. To forgive is to reopen the lines of communication and thus foster genuine unity.