Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

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Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB homily at online Mass on 5th Sunday of Easter:


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Here we are still in beautiful Eastertide: 50 days, 8 Sundays, 7 weeks.

One feature of the season is that the readings all come from the New Testament. If you hear an Old Testament reading in Eastertide, it shouldn’t be there! Another element is this: essentially only seven New Testament books are read in Eastertide. This would be good matter for a quiz! The seven are the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John, the Acts of the Apostles, the 1st Letter of St Peter and the book of Revelation (or Apocalypse).

Here’s a further twist to the tale: from last Thursday – the 7th of May – until the Thursday before Pentecost – the 28th of May – all the Gospel readings, on Sundays and weekdays, are drawn from Chs. 13 – 17 of the Gospel of John. If I’m not mistaken, that makes 27 readings – another mystical number, 3x3x3!

Lest you think lockdown is beginning to tell on me, let me come to a point for today. Let’s put side by side – compare and contrast – the Acts of the Apostles and chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel. I think something helpful emerges.

To take the Acts first. How full of movement this book is! The Apostles and their companions may sometimes end in prison, but never for long. They are the opposite of locked-down. They are out and about. The whole book is a movement from Jerusalem, the holy city, to Rome, the centre of the unholy world. It opens with Pentecost: the Holy Spirit revealed in wind and fire, and with that wind in their sails and that fire in their bellies, off these first disciples go. We find them in synagogues, army barracks, public squares, market-places, town-halls, in prisons and court-rooms, on board ship or on the road passing from town to town, city to city, talking to, arguing with Jews and non-Jews. They are active in modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, Malta, Italy, Rome. St Paul is calculated to have travelled, largely by foot, more than 10,000 miles. He was later described as short, thin-haired, bandy-legged, shaggy eye-browed, with a hooked nose, and “full of grace”; we know he had some mysterious “thorn in the flesh”. But on he went. And all the time, says the Acts, “the word of God grew and multiplied” (12:24). We glimpse that in the 1st reading. We see the early Church adapting to growing numbers, meeting the challenges, improvising, creating a new ministry to respond better to the poor. And “the word of the Lord continued to spread” – that word being at its core, “Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead.”

Let’s now contrast the Gospel, contrast chs. 13 to 17. They take us back in time: to what we call Holy Thursday, the day before he suffered. We are in a single, furnished, upstairs room, somewhere in Jerusalem: the famous Upper Room. Here Jesus takes his last meal with his disciples, keeping the Passover. Here he institutes the Eucharist, washes their feet, talks to them so openly and intimately of his relationship with his Father and with them, promises them the Paraclete, prays with them and for them, then leaves for Gethsemane. How different the feel from the Acts of the Apostles! All is indoors; all is preparation; all is intimate. And this Upper Room probably features at least twice more. It’s there, three days later, he appears in his risen body to the Eleven. It’s there, forty days later, after his Ascension, that the early Christian community, with our Lady too, goes to pray for the promised Holy Spirit. It all has the same character as John 13 to 17. There is that same sense of enclosure and inwardness and of secret gifts being awaited and given.

Later, when what was thought to have been the Upper Room was turned into a church, it was called the Mother Church of Mt Zion. Rightly. These five chapters of St John, and the other references mentioned, show us the Church in the womb. They show the Church receiving her being, her DNA, her constitutive elements, her sacraments, her mission, her understanding of Scripture, her spirituality, her prayer. It was the place of gifts, for breathing in the perfume of Christ. This is where it all began, where foundational events occurred, where the seeds were first sown in the disciples’ hearts. Then, with Acts chapter 2, comes Pentecost. The Church is born, the movement enters human history and the wide, wild world of the Roman Empire. What was received is now given on, what was breathed in is now breathed out, what was sown is planted out, communities of believers spring up. In the world, century after century, there’s now this new faith, hope and love; this new social entity; this new “music”, new presence. And here it is still today, in reality more numerous and more widespread than ever before in its history. The Church is alive.

Upper Room and Roman roads, there are lessons and questions here.

  1. Our faith, our Christianity has this innate duality. It’s about receiving and giving, being indoors and outdoors, sitting at table and serving at table, contemplation and action. Peter’s feet are first washed in John 13, and then take him, walking, walking, walking, till he’s crucified upside down.  Our faith-life has these two sides, Upper Room and public square.
  2. Then, a question, a challenge, from the Upper Room of our lockdown. Imagine all Christians in Aberdeen, our Church of Scotland and other Christian friends too, were spirited out of the city, would people sense a lack? Or would they just see more night clubs with Gothic windows? Would a difference be felt? Some surely, thank God. But I think of our 1st reading, the seven Spirit-filled men, and I wonder: are there other tables in our city we could be serving? Could we have more of a social presence?
  3. In today’s other reading, St Peter speaks of Christ’s work – the Church – as a temple of “living stones making a spiritual house”. It is a house of prayer (St John) and a space to gather and shelter the whole world (the Acts). It is an inestimable grace to be part of this wonderful, crazy, simple, complex thing: our faith, our Church, our Lord. Brothers and sisters, thank you for being living stones. And let’s be so even more!