5th Sunday of Easter

14 May 2019

Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35

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IN DIFFERENT ways, each of our readings describes the new creation that has dawned in Christ’s paschal victory: the victory of life and love over sin and death.

Jesus’s “new commandment” of love is given in the midst of his teaching on the glory of the cross. His Passion is instigated by the departure of Judas (this accounts for the “now” in his opening statement, verse 31). As St Thomas Aquinas explains, “When Judas went out to bring back the soldiers, this seems to be the beginning of Christ’s Passion, the Passion by which he was to be glorified.”

Jesus emphasises the point further by declaring that God will glorify him “at once” — locating the glory in the very moment of crucifixion. Commenting on this verse, Aquinas reminds us of Paul’s affirmation that the cross is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18).

The mutual glorification described in verses 32 and 33 “brings us face to face with the mystery of the divine unity, since the Father is glorified in the Son” (St Hilary of Poitiers). The triumph of Easter is the triumph of the life and love of the Trinity over the powers of sin and death.

It is into this self-giving love that Jesus now summons his disciples. They are not simply to love others — as the Mosaic law had commanded — in the way that they loved themselves. They are now to love others as Jesus has loved them. Yet, if human beings were unable to fulfil the lesser demands of the Mosaic law, how much less will they be able to fulfil this “new commandment” on their own?

Jesus calls his disciples “little children” (teknion, which might also be translated “learners” or “students”). In the following chapters, he explains how the disciples are to mature in love. They will become able to love as he has loved them — not through a process of verbal instruction, but, rather, by a process of divine indwelling. Christ will be present to them in the power of the Spirit (14.16), and through the Spirit they “will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14.20). The disciples’ common life and their relationship with Jesus will both reflect and participate in the self-giving love at the heart of the Triune God.

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Our reading from Acts describes the fruit of such a Spirit-filled life. It is not by arguing among themselves that the Christians in Jerusalem resolve their disagreements with Peter about table fellowship with the uncircumcised, and about the eating of ritually unclean foods. As Beverly Roberts Gaventa explains, God takes the initiative in resolving both issues: “God thoroughly directs the action, insisting that the church itself finally conclude that ‘God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (Abingdon Bible Commentaries: Acts).

It is God who reveals his will through Peter’s vision, and he who sends his angel to the Gentile man (identified in the previous chapter as Cornelius), telling him to send for the Apostle. It is his Spirit who directs Peter to go to the Gentiles; and that same Spirit “baptises” them as Peter speaks, thereby drawing them into the death and resurrection of their Lord. The process of mutual indwelling described by Jesus in St John’s Gospel is thus embodied in the Primitive Church. In this passage from Acts, we see the Church participating in the new creation that has dawned in Christ, as the believers allow their common life to be shaped by the life and love of their Triune God.

These same themes are at the heart of our passage from Revelation. The splendour of the new creation that it describes is not a result of the unilateral exertions of human beings. The new heaven and the new earth are a gift of grace: they are the culmination of God’s saving work in history, through Christ and his Church. In verse 2, the holy city is compared to a bride adorned for her husband. “Now,” Romano Guardini writes, “the splendour becomes all love. . . Through the Spirit, from the fullness of his love, Christ, the Beginning of all life, shapes creation, his bride, to awake at the end of time to the full maturity of love” (The Lord). Christ’s “new commandment” takes us to the very heart of this new creation.

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