Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Acts of the Apostles again provides the first reading for a weekend in the Easter season.
As it grew, Christianity not only expanded beyond its original base in the Holy Land, but it also drew gentiles as well as Jews. Diversity was a characteristic early in the evolution of the Church.
This increasingly multicultural nature of the Christian community, however, presented problems, and these problems are evident in this weekend’s reading.
A dispute arose in Antioch, located on the Mediterranean Sea north of the Holy Land, at the time one of the major cities of the Roman Empire.
In Antioch’s recently formed Christian community, people from all backgrounds were present. Jews would have been among them, but others were not of Jewish background. Still, the major figures among Christians at the time, most certainly including the Apostles who had known Jesus, or their earliest followers, were Jews.
The argument was about circumcision, the ancient and requisite ritual followed in Judaism for Jewish males even to this day. Evidently, some Antioch Christians were demanding that converts from paganism submit themselves to this ritual.
Neither Antioch’s Christian leaders, nor Antioch’s individual Christians, resolved the dispute. The debate raged. It was a source of division, and probably hard feelings, for the Christians. Apparently, things were not improving. So the question was sent to Jerusalem for review by the Apostles.
Replying, the Apostles called the Antioch Christians “brothers,” one and all, without any distinction. The Apostles said that this Hebrew ritual need not be imposed upon converts. They based their decision on their own authority, conferred upon them by the Holy Spirit.
The Book of Revelation furnishes the second reading. This reading is poetic and highly symbolic. The city, of course, is heaven, but it is called the “heavenly Jerusalem.” This heavenly city awaits all who love God. On each of its four sides are three gates, open and available to anyone wanting entry. Three was a perfect number. The four sides refer to the four corners of the earth. In other words, everyone is welcome.
The names of the 12 tribes of Israel appear on the city’s walls, another symbol to say that salvation is offered to all. No tribe is excluded.
St. John’s Gospel gives this weekend the third eloquent reading. It makes three points.
Jesus calls upon the disciples to love each other. It will not be easy all the time, but following Christ will not be impossible, as the Holy Spirit will assist and strengthen the faithful.
Finally, for those who truly love God, peace will be with them. Peace is not simply an absence of conflict, or necessarily involving only societies or nations. It is the reward enjoyed by an individual human heart and soul that comes from knowing that God is present and merciful.
The Church is directing us to Pentecost, but it is far from merely pointing us to an anniversary. The Church is telling us that if we accept Jesus and live by the Gospel, God will be with us in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Church gives us very practical advice. Since being with God in the heavenly Jerusalem is the only true source of peace, and being separated from God is death, we reach God’s heavenly Jerusalem by our daily decisions to follow Jesus.
The route to heaven requires voluntary commitment to Christ but also letting the Lord illumine each step of our personal path. Relying upon Christ and upon the Lord’s Apostles, the Church now shows us the way, guiding us with Christian faith and love.
As we look ahead to Pentecost, the Church calls us to strong faith, but also to realism. We need the Lord’s guidance. Without Jesus, we stumble and wander.
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