May 9, 2021, Sixth Sunday of Easter, year B
Strangers, rivals, even enemies? Can God bring them together? That is the question in Acts of the Apostles.
In a community split by doctrinal disputes, the author gives a standard for deciding what is really from God.
John wrote a gospel for people tempted to abandon the community of Jesus during persecution. Here he has Jesus describe persuasive reasons for staying.
The Literary Background: One of the church's first struggles was to decide its scope. Was God calling the early Christians to be a sect within Judaism, or to reach further? The Acts of the Apostles has a clear opinion about this, and today's first reading dramatizes it. The episode begins earlier in Acts, Chapter 10, where both Peter and the Roman officer Cornelius have separate visions. A heavenly messenger instructs Cornelius, a good man though a pagan, to summon Peter, whom he doesn't know, to a meeting. In Peter's trance, a voice bids him eat non-kosher foods. Peter calls this unthinkable, but the voice insists that what God has purified, no one is to call unclean. Then Cornelius' messengers fetch Peter. When the Jew and the Roman meet, Peter says, "You must know that it is not proper for a Jew to associate with a Gentile, or to have any dealings with him. But God has made it clear to me that no one should call any person unclean or impure."
The Historical Situation: Acts was written for people quite like the people described there. That is, the late first-century skeptical Gentile converts were surprised to find themselves drawn into a new religion with manifest roots in ancient Judaism. They had questions. So the evangelist Luke tells them the story, in his gospel and then in Acts, of their new faith's origins. The decision to yoke Jews and Gentiles together was still remarkable, so Luke shows how it was a struggle for those who had first reached the decision a generation or two earlier. Luke's goal is to burn into the hearts of the new converts the same zeal for the spread of this faith that overcame the traditional exclusivity of the first followers of Jesus.
Proclaiming It: Before you proclaim this, try to understand the astonishment of the already-Christian, ethnically Jewish characters like Peter and "the circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter." Read all of Acts, Chapter 10. They've been asked to accept that:
This is a lot for anyone to accept. You can be sure they didn't discuss it in hushed tones. Use the whole range of your voice to capture the controversy and drama. And when you say, "The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles," sound astounded.
Then pause. Your pause expresses the quandary of the people described, thinking "Whoa! what does this mean and where do we go from here?" After two beats, assume the confident voice of Peter, who now knows, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people ..."
The Historical Situation: To the best of our knowledge, the original recipients of the first letter of John were specific Christian communities,
The inspired writer, of course, wants to ease the pains caused by these rifts, and assure his readers that the saving truth is open to them and clear.
|Examining the verses of the reading in this light, we notice:|
Beloved, let us love one another,|
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
|This insistence on the primacy of love could be the writer's response to points 10 and 11 in the indictment of the heretics.|
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:|
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
|The heretics claimed special knowledge of the things of God (item 9, above). The writer refutes them by stating that the important things of God were revealed by the public presence in the world of God's Son. This refutes them on point 6, also.|
In this is love:|
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
|Here the heretics get their comeuppance on point 13.|
Proclaiming It: These staccato sentences are packed with meaning. The meaning may be lost on your hearers if you proclaim it too quickly.
To prepare for the proclamation, you might write the reading out, one sentence at a time, one sentence under another. Pretend your paper is a classroom blackboard, and you're presenting a proof to an algebra class. You make one declaration at a time, each building on the previous. Finally, you present your inescapable conclusion with a great flourish.
That's how this reading should sound to the congregation. Whether you make it sound so or not, the logical flow of the reading will escape many of your listeners. But if you're reading slowly and deliberately, the fragments of the reading that are free-standing gems will have a chance to sink in, too.
Credit for the picture at the top:
Lyre, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54149 [retrieved April 28, 2015]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/b_g/2315594297/
Kitty Taylor, a curator of the library site, noticed the lyre shape in the online photo, and connected it with Psalm 98:5, "Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody," part of today's responsorial.
This page updated April 3, 2021