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Readings: 6th Sunday of Easter

01 May 2015


That they may be one: Jesus and the Apostles, from a 12th- century Cappadocian fresco

That they may be one: Jesus and the Apostles, from a 12th- century Cappadocian fresco

6th Sunday of Easter

Acts 10.44-end; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

God our redeemer, you have delivered us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of your Son: grant that as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his continual presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

EASTER 6 brings us within sight of two feasts, the Ascension (14 May) and the commemoration of St Matthias, the apostle elected to replace Judas Iscariot (15 May, transferred from 14th. See Acts 1.15-26). Both events look backward to the end of Jesus's earthly presence among his closest followers, and forward to the strengthening of their number and the coming of the Spirit to empower them to spread the gospel. These pivotal occasions illustrate the importance of endings that give permission for something new to begin.

John 15.9-17 is part of a movement towards the ending of one sort of life and the beginning of another. There must be continuities, however, as Jesus's repeated exhortation to mutual love insists (John 15.12, 17). There is some evidence to suggest that the 11 had perhaps not been exemplary in this respect. John's snide reference to Judas's pilfering from the common purse (John 12.5-6), and the unseemly competition for priority in the kingdom recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 18.1-5; Mark 9.33-37; Luke 9.46-48), hint at self-interest and pettiness at the cost of the kind of love Jesus is urging upon them. If they were serious about bearing fruit in Jesus's name, they were going to have to learn to love one another and rely on one another in a way that showed them to be rooted in the life of God.

Jesus acknowledges that they probably wouldn't have found themselves together, in this dangerous situation, if he had not chosen them (John 15.16). Perhaps they wondered why they had responded to his call. Now he is entrusting them with everything the Father has made known to him (John 15.15), admitting them as "friends" (John 15.14-15) into that mysterious relationship. Here, as in the last moments of his life on the cross, Jesus inaugurates a new family, related not by blood but by a bond of love and belonging, deepened by knowledge of God and a shared determination to "bear fruit" in the name of Jesus (John 15.15-17; John 19.25-27).

Later, he will pray for them - not that they might be protected against the world, but rather that they might be kept safe in their action in the world. Above all, he prays that they will be one (John 17.15-21). From something as small and fragile as this precarious bond of love among 11 men had to come a way of communicating God to the world.

THE First Letter of John works with similar language and ideas. Its triple play on forms derived from the Greek verb "to beget" (masked in the NRSV, as Judith Lieu points out in her commentary on 1 John 5.1-2*, but equivalent to "begotten" and "begetter") stresses the idea of this non-blood kinship. But this time closer bonding among believers prefaces not a preparation for engagement in the world but a turning away from it (1 John 5.5). By the time the Letter was written (around 100 CE) the world was not comfortable for Christians, and it was clearly hard to convince sceptics of the humanity as well as the divinity of Jesus -baptised in water, but born and executed in blood (1 John 5.6).

Such challenges had not arisen at the time of the events recorded in Acts 10.44-end. The passage returns us to the house of the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea, which we last visited on Easter Day. Peter has not finished his proclamation of Jesus before the Holy Spirit descends upon his audience of Gentiles and Jews. The writer beautifully captures the fastidiousness of the "circumcised believers" (Acts 10. 45), astonished at the Spirit's undiscriminating behaviour. Peter - recently convinced that God's generous self-giving is not fastidious (Acts 10.9-35), and seeing that the baptismal gift of the Spirit had preceded the outward sign - speedily completes the formalities with water (Acts 10.48). In this way his companions find themselves made one in baptism with people on whom they had previously looked askance.

Baptism into God's family responds to God's calling to us (John 15.16); it does not allow us to choose our relations. Families are hard training grounds. Before we can "bear fruit" in the world, we have to demonstrate the deep unity, domestic and ecclesiastical, that shows the world what the message of the Gospel really means.

*Judith Lieu 1 John, 2 John, 3 John in John Barton & John Muddiman (eds) The Oxford Bible Com-mentary Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001

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