In the first reading (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29) we hear of an important development in the early Church. Jesus was a Jew, it was the God that the Jews believed in Who was the God of Jesus, and He and His Father were equally God. It was this God who chose the Jews and gave them certain guidelines by which to live and to distinguish themselves; among other things the men were to be circumcised. But now, with the preaching of Paul and Barnabas, many non-Jews had come to believe in Jesus and join His followers. It seemed to most Jews that if Gentiles accepted their God, then the they should accept His requirements, including circumcision. But this was not the view of Paul who had come to see following Jesus as a radically new phase in God’s plan of salvation – salvation for all. It was because of the great increase in the number of Gentile converts that the issue became urgent and was taken to the centre for Christianity at the time in Jerusalem. The reading omits verses 3-21 where Luke tells us how the matter was considered. The reading we have takes up again with the letter that was sent accompanied by delegates to confirm the message – circumcision was not required of male Gentile converts. This gives us a hint of how Luke saw the development of centralized authority in the early Church.
The second reading as last week is from the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse (21:10-14, 22f). It is a further description of the glorious completion of God’s creation in heaven; some verses which elaborate on the description are omitted from our reading . It is a vision of a place somewhat in terms of the city of Jerusalem, which was a recognised symbol of God’s chosen people considered as a whole community; but this is the ideal, the heavenly Jerusalem. It is seen as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, the heavenly gathering of the twelve tribes. But it is renewed since the work of Christ through his apostles who are spoken of as the foundations of this new Jerusalem. It is a city that has entrances in all directions throughout the world; the six verses that follow our reading indicate its openness to all nations. It is a city of light, a further symbolic word for all that is open and wonderful; it is a city with no need for a special temple where God may be found, a city suffused with God’s presence. The whole description is a vision of what this world in which we live today is in process of becoming.
The gospel of John is a well-developed exposition of the life and death of Jesus and consequently often has a depth that we cannot easily plumb. But this passage (14:23-29) chosen for the reading today is perhaps meaningful to us for two reasons. Because of the celebration this week of the feast of the Ascension and also because in two weeks’ time we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the reading Jesus tells his disciples that he will be leaving them and they will no more have Him to teach them in the way that he has up to now. But the Holy Spirit will come to them once he has gone; they will be supported in their work as disciples by this Advocate who speaks now for Jesus just as Jesus spoke the words of the Father. Those who live by these words will be loved by God. The passage also is copied in the prayers used just before the Peace in our Sunday service ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.’ The common Hebrew word shalom’ for peace has also the rich and deep meaning of fulfillment and completeness.
See Jeff’s Jottings on the feast of the Ascension.