Sunday Scripture: Fourth Sunday of Easter (YEAR C)




Welcome to this, the thirty-ninth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Mission of the Shepherd of the Sheep.

The Heart of the Good Shepherd (19th century Russian icon)

Almighty ever-living God,
lead us to a share in the joys of heaven,
so that the humble flock may reach
where the brave shepherd has gone before.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity if the Holy Spirit
one God for ever and ever.

This week's readings are:
  • First Reading: Acts of the Apostle 13:14, 43-52.
  • Psalm 99: 1-3, 5; Response: v. 3. 
  • Second Reading: Revelation 7:9, 14-15.
  • Gospel: John 10:27-30.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Acts of the Apostles I have written a detailed exposition of Acts which you can read here.

This week: We move into the second part of Acts (13—28) which narrate the missionary efforts of St. Paul in expanding the Church. The story unfolds exactly as Jesus states in Acts 1:8, with the Apostles preaching in Jerusalem (chaps 1—7), then in Judea and Samaria (chaps 8—12), and then all throughout the Roman world (chaps 13—28). Luke's open-ended conclusion, with Paul still preaching the Gospel (28:31), makes the entire book of Acts a fitting prologue to the rest of Church history!

We can see the way in which the Apostles prioritised the evangelisation of Israel (13:46) before reaching out to the Gentiles (i.e. the non-Jews, see 3:26). Despite these efforts, the leaders of the Antiochene synagogue are hardened against the Gospel, as we see evidenced in Paul's preaching to the Jews in the very next episode (14:1) where a great many believed. Paul quotes Isaiah 49:6 to support his mission to the Gentiles, where YHWH commissions His Servant first to restore the dispersed tribes of Israel and then to spread His salvation far and wide to all nations. As in Isaiah, where the Servant symbolises both the redeemer and the redeemed of Israel, Paul contends that Jesus, the Servant (3:13) continues His mission through the servant apostles who are sent to enlighten the Gentiles (26:17-18, 23). Paul & Barnabas shake the dust off their feet as they leave, this was the symbolic curse gesture adapted from the Jewish custom of shaking dust from one's sandals before re-entering the land of Israel from Gentile territory (see Mt 10:14).

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

This week: the last of the enthronement hymns is a call for all the nations to worship YHWH.

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the canonical New Testament even though II Peter was the last book to be composed. It was written by John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8) an exile on the island of Patmos (1:9) one of the northernmost islands of the Dodecanese group. There is an array of ancient authors who offer testimony that this is John the son of Zebedee (Mk 3:17). It is the only book of its kind in the New Testament: a work of Christian prophecy that has much in common with the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Yet it is also an apocalyptic book with clear similarities to Jewish religious writings called apocalypses, which date from the same contemporary period. Dominated as it is by apocalyptic and prophetic symbolism, the book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret. Even St. jerome the most learned Biblical scholar in the early Church was compelled to admit that it "has as many mysteries as words" (Letters 53, 8). We need to take an integrative view of Revelation which recognises that the presence of multiple themes and perspectives which compliment one another serves to add richness and depth to the book. Christianity's struggle with the mighty Roman Empire is certainly part of the picture, as are the spiritual challenges to faith and fidelity that confront believers bombarded by the claims of the world. In this context, one must accept that Revelation offers a message of ultimate hope that looks ahead to the consummation of history and the heavenly glorification of the saints.


This week: The saints in heaven constitute "a huge number, impossible to count" which I always finding comforting! The uncountable throng represents the spiritual offspring of Abraham, i.e. those who imitated his faith (Rom 4:11-17). The Lord has promised to make Abraham the father of many nations (Gen 17:5) and to give him progeny to numerous to count (Gen 15:5). The faithful who endured the purifying trial of tribulation wear white robes (Dan 11:35; 12:10). They wave palm branches which were waved at the ancient Feast of Tabernacles in the liturgy of ancient Israel (Lev 23:40; 2 Mac 10:6-7). The international celebration of Tabernacles has its background in Zech 14:16. 'The great tribulation' is a prophesied time of great distress triggered by the opening of the seals (6:1-17; Dan 12:1). Some scholars link the 'great tribulation' Jesus spoke of which would engulf the Roman Empire. This event is connected with the violent destruction of Jerusalem (Mt 24:21). However, others consider that it is linked with the Domitianic persecution of Christians near the end of the first century. The blood of Christ whitens the robes of the saints (6:11). The rite of priestly ordination in Israel included the purification of priestly garments with blood (Lev 8:30). The sacrificial blood of Jesus similarly consecrates believers for service in the heavenly temple (5:9-10; 7:15).

The Gospel According to St. John: I have written a detailed exposition on the Gospel of St. John which you can read here.

This week: Jesus uses the image of the Shepherd to explain His mission. "Pasturing sheep" is an image used by kings of the ancient near east to describe their task as ruler. Thus when Jesus uses this image, as He does in both John and the Synoptics, He is shedding light on His kingship. Of course, the immediate precedents for Jesus' use of this term are found in the Old Testament, where God Himself appears as the Shepherd of Israel. This image deeply shaped Israel's piety, and it was especially in times of need that Israel found a word of consolation and confidence in it. Probably the most beautiful expression of this trustful devotion is Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd..." The image of God as Shepherd is more fully developed in chapters 34-37 of Ezekiel, whose vision is brought into the present and interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus' ministry both in the Synoptic shepherd parables and in the Johannine shepherd discourse.

The protection that Jesus provides for His sheep is equivalent to the Father's divine protection (10:29). This means that, from the perspective of the Old Testament, Christ wields the sovereign power of YHWH to shield the righteous from the threats of enemies (Deut 32:39; Wis 3:1; Is 43:13).

Finally, we are given a beautiful insight into the living Trinity. The Father and the Son are united in the loving embrace of the Spirit. We cannot, therefore, divide the essential unity of the Trinity when we distinguish between the three Divine Persons.

Drawing them all together...

Witness has led to apostleship (being sent), and this to ministry (making God's love present to others in healing and forgiveness). Now ministry finds its wider dynamism in mission, the carrying of God's message to all who will listen. The power of the Holy Spirit is the main principle at work here, the power if the Spirit working in paradox, to bring good out of evil. The rejection of the message in Jerusalem led to the preaching of the Gospel to the Samaritans; the persecutions led by Saul led to the birth of Paul, the greatest of all missionaries and preachers, who begins to spread the life-giving word outside Palestine, to Asia Minor and from thence to the whole world.

As we have seen, this is in fact the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies of Isaiah: all of mankind is called to the saving light. But the paradox continues: the rejection becomes controversy, which becomes insult, which becomes violence, which becomes imprisonment and finally death. The witness which becomes the mission is now indeed martyrdom, written down and preserved to encourage the persecuted. But the paradox is that far from fearing failure, or the absence of God's love, the Apostles are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. Their joy and eagerness to spread the Word in the face of opposition is a sign, an infallible sign, of the transformation that has taken place, of a love greater than they that is working in their lives. So in spite of Nero and Domitian, and a whole host of persecutions through the ages, they have found this love and cannot stop responding to it.

The symbolic rapture of our anticipated future joy is found in the vision of Revelation where the Lamb (see last week's commentary on the Second Reading for more on Jesus the Lamb) is enthroned. This ancient pastoral image is enriched when Jesus the Lamb of God proclaims Himself also the Shepherd, the one who guides, leads and cherishes His flock, the flock that listens to His voice. To listen to Jesus is to become involved in His words and deeds: "Know that He, the Lord, is God. He made us, we belong to Him, we are His people, the sheep of His flock." Not only is He loving but merciful, and will be true to His promises forever. This is the heart of Easter joy.


Face of Jesus from the Shroud of Turin


Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Hahn, S., The Lamb's Supper (London: DLT, 1999).
Harrington, W. J., John: Spiritual Theologian (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2007).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kereszty, R., O. Cist., Jesus Christ—Fundamentals of Christology (New York: Alba, 2010).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 5/ March 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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