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MAY 6, 2007: Fifth Sunday of Easter


Acts 14:21-27
Revelation 21:1-5a
John 13:31-33a, 34-35

Luke mentions some significant items in today’s Acts reading. Perhaps the most significant is most frequently overlooked. “After proclaiming the word in Perga (Paul and Barnabas) went down to Attalia. From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”

The evangelist is narrating the end of what many believe is Paul’s first missionary journey. Where do Paul’s evangelizing junkets begin and end? Most falsely guess Jerusalem. Today’s Acts pericope tells us it’s Antioch.

Paul’s made such a lasting impression on Christians that we regard him to be an independent faith contractor: a proselytizing Lone Ranger, answerable to no one but God. Luke paints no such picture. In Acts, Paul is a member of the church in Antioch. He and Barnabas are sent out by that community, and, as today’s reading tells us, the pair report back to that community.

If modern Scripture scholarship teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t properly understand any biblical text without understanding the community behind the text. Early Christianity only exists within the context of communities. These churches are at the heart of the faith Jesus’ first disciples passed on to us.

The author of Revelation informs us that such communities are a prefiguring of the “new heave and new earth” which many first century Christians anticipated. They were convinced of the message which the “loud voice” proclaims in our liturgical selection. “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”

The only problem was that this old order didn’t instantly disappear. It continued to show itself both in the external persecution which those for whom Revelation was written endured, and in the internal tensions which threatened to tear the community apart for whom John’s gospel was composed.

This latter situation is clear from the many times the evangelist has Jesus, during the Last Supper, reminds his followers to love. “I give you a new commandment,” he states, “love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should have love for one another.” Jesus gives this command against the background of a foot washing. As I’ve mentioned before, Sister Sandra Schneiders’ 1961 Catholic Biblical Quarterly article pointed out that Jesus’ actions that night not only demonstrate that it’s the Christian community norm for “superiors” to serve “inferiors,” but, as Jesus demonstrates, such service should extend beyond the superior’s “field of expertise.”

Jesus wasn’t an expert foot washer. Yet he chose that form of service to demonstrate his command of love. As his encounter with Peter showed, he wasn’t in total control of the situation once he picked up the basin and poured water into it.

Sister Sandra insists that true Christian communities are based not just on people doing things for others, but people doing things which at times cause insecurity for the doer. That’s true love of one another - the kind of love John longs his church to experience; the kind of love Paul must have encountered in hisAntioch community.

It’s interesting to speculate what Paul would have done and been had he not committed himself to that specific group of Christians, and they to him.