Father Donald Senior, CP

The early apostles courageously proclaimed God’s abiding love

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

April 24: Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 14:21-27; Rv 21:1-5a; Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35

The readings for this Sunday are filled with the names of cities and urban regions: Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Pisidia, Pamphylia, Antioch, Jerusalem. Some years ago a fellow religious of mine and a great scholar, Passionist Father Thomas Berry, organized a conference on urban development at the United Nations titled, “The City as Sacred Place.” The Bible would agree with that.

If one views the whole biblical saga of God’s people Israel, it can be thought of as a movement from the desert to the city. After their flight from Egypt and their long desert trek, the Israelites enter into the promised land and begin to build their cities, with Jerusalem as the ultimate center point. The Christian Bible ends with the Book of Revelation and its climactic vision that we hear in our second reading today about the “New Jerusalem” — a glorious and dazzling city where God dwells with his people and wipes away their tears, a place “where there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.”

As Christians we appreciate the “desert” places of quiet and solitude as respites from the din of everyday life, but our true place is in the midst of the human family not apart from it.

This is not to say that the Bible favors urban over rural areas. No, the city is sacred from the Bible’s point of view because it is a gathering of people, joined together to build the common good. It is, in ideal terms, to be a community bound together in care and justice and love.

Thus, in the Book of Revelation, the “new Jerusalem” does not stand for a “city in heaven”; this city renewed by God “comes down out of heaven from God” and renews the earth. The focus of the Book of Revelation — like Christianity itself — is not just life after death, but healing the world and bringing the reign of God to reality in the present.

Two of the cities mentioned in the readings today are particularly important for the birth of the Christian mission. Jerusalem, of course, is the place where the heart of Jesus’ mission takes place — the city where he gives his life on the cross out of love for us and the place where he also triumphs over death in his resurrection — the core of Christian faith that we are celebrating in this Easter season. And Antioch, a major city in Asia Minor, the third largest city in the Roman Empire in the New Testament period, was the place where Paul, together with Barnabas, began his missionary career.

The second reading today from the Acts of the Apostles describes the conclusion of Paul and Barnabas’ first journey into the heart of Asia Minor and their return to their home base in Antioch where they gather the church there and report about their amazing new mission.

Both of these cities exist today and both know both beauty and tension, as they did in ancient times. Jerusalem, in many ways, is the epicenter of the chronic and often violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The modern Turkish city of Antioch (Antakya) stands on the border with the anguish and tragic violence of Syria. Those of us who live in Chicago also know too well the tragedy of violence and racial tension.

The early Christians who were formed in Jerusalem and in places like Antioch were not content to wring their hands in fear and anxiety, even though they were a fragile minority. As has been the case all through the readings of this post-Easter season, the early apostles, fired by the Spirit, courageously proclaimed their message of God’s abiding and reconciling love — the fundamental Christian message proclaimed in John’s Gospel today: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In that spirit they dared to challenge the people they met, invited them to transform their lives and to live justly and in peace. This is the same mission entrusted to us.


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