The Way, The Truth, and the Life
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
As I have mentioned on other occasions, St. John’s Gospel was written as many as sixty or seventy years after Jesus had returned to the Father. Consequently, we need to read the Gospel with an awareness of certain historical facts which color the words of Jesus as they are reported by John. If you had attended daily mass this week, you would have heard the words of today’s Gospel passage three times: once on the feast of Saints Philip and James, a second time on Saturday of the Fourth Week of the Easter season, and thirdly, today, the Fifth Sunday of the Easter Season. It is obvious in this passage that the community is fearful. They are fearful because those who profess their faith in Jesus have been excluded from the synagogue and from temple worship. To calm their fears Jesus makes four strong statements: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” “You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” “I am going to prepare a place for you.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.” These statements are made in answer to the questions asked by the apostles. While they are set in the context of the Last Supper, St. John is really addressing the fears of the Christian community at the time that this Gospel is being written.
The event that has caused the most fear affected not only the Christian community but also the Jewish community. The Roman occupying army has destroyed the temple because of a rebellion by the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. We have to understand that the temple was the most important unifying element for this population. It was in the temple that sacrifice was offered to their God. It was in the temple that the rabbis would interpret the Scriptures for the people. The temple had also become an economic force in the community. Consequently, it’s destruction not only deprived these people of a place to offer sacrifices, it also destroyed the center of their educational and economic systems.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles admits that life in the community of believers is fraught with internal as well as external difficulties. Even in the first golden moment of the Church’s existence, human rivalries and prejudices, that are supposed to be left behind with entry into the community of the resurrection, crop up again in virulent forms. Typically, the passage relates, when the numbers increase, problems emerge.
The first of these problems concerned the widows within the community. The Gentiles who had become believers maintained that the apostles unfairly distributed the resources of the community to the Jewish widows while the Hellenistic widows went without. Because of this difficulty the apostles asked the Hellenists to present seven men of virtue to be appointed as ministers to the community. They were to be exemplars of such radiant and evident goodness and integrity, exemplars of spirit and wisdom, that there would be no doubt about trusting them, so that the apostolic task of the community would not be hindered by internal dissension. These seven men became the original deacons of our faith.
In his first letter, St. Peter also tries to calm the fears of the community by identifying them as, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, and the people claimed by God for his own, to proclaim the triumphs of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” These appellations are drawn from Israel’s sense of vocation. He acknowledges the importance of the temple in their midst by telling them that they are the new temple with Jesus as the cornerstone or foundation. He tells them that they are all priestly people whereas before only the members of the tribe of Levi were considered priests. However, he also reminds them it is the community as community that is to mediate the possibility of worship in spirit and in truth. He also reminds them that this community, built upon the relationship of its members to Christ, must have that sense of dedicated solidarity which was and is the hallmark of faithful Israel. As it was in the first Exodus, the emerging priesthood of the followers of Jesus must be a proclamation to other peoples to lead them triumphantly out of darkness to light.
Jesus leads the way, Jesus is the way; those who follow him will enter into his own task of making the Father known. They will do what Jesus has done, and even more, even greater deeds, because it is in his name that the work of redemption goes forward among the peoples of the earth.
The readings for this particular Sunday, therefore, speak to the question of our own Christian vocation. Jesus Christ calls us to holiness, to being a people set apart for the work of the Kingdom of God. We are to carry God’s Kingdom into the workplace, into our cultural settings, and most especially into our families. Each of us is to make Jesus known so that all people can find their way to the Creator who is the Father of all people. If we are true disciples, we will not be able to leave our faith on the bookshelf or in our pews. We have been given a truly important task of bringing the Word of God to all people.