The Risen Jesus, Ethiopian Crosses, anon., Handpainted on Leather.
Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way and the truth and the life.” John 14:6.
A few interesting items first before heavier things. In the earliest days of the post-Pentecost church, the followers of Jesus were not called Christians; that name had not been created yet. They were called followers of the “Way”, a name you can find very often in the Acts of the Apostles. The expression might well have come from Jesus himself when he said, as reported in today’s gospel: “I am the Way…..” Saul, a rabid persecutor of Jesus’ followers, later to become St. Paul but before his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, asked permission from the Jewish authorities to travel to Damascus “so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). Secondly, in today’s gospel there is the strange expression Jesus often uses to begin a statement rather than conclude it, “Amen, amen I say to you”, in some scholarly opinions, these are “ipsissima verba” of the Lord, which is to say, an exact quotation from the time he said it. Almost everything else he said had been handed down from speaker to speaker, retaining the substance, but the actual words might not be exactly what the Lord said, especially as he spoke Aramaic, and our gospel texts are all in Greek. People back then were used to aural histories, and could repeat them accurately, but not necessarily verbatim. So this strange expression, out of place compared with common usage, almost certainly means they are directly from the lips of Jesus. Then there is a third interesting event in today’s readings, the first reading from Acts, reporting the first flair up, or conflict, within the fledgling community called the Way. Apparently back then there were two early Christian-Jewish communities, one native Hebrew-, or Aramaic-speaking, and the other spoke the universal language of the time, Greek, the “Hellenist” speakers. These latter speakers complained that their widows were not getting their fair share in the “daily distribution” (presumably food) compared to the Hebrews. The 12 apostles were somewhat exasperated over this, as they considered their work to be “prayer and the ministry of the word.” That could very likely mean the liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Word, today’s Mass. So they appealed to others to handle these more mundane matters, and seven acceptable men were appointed to deal with all the other things which concerned the community. And the apostles “laid hands on them”, commonly (though not by everyone) taken to be the institution of the order of deacons. Diaconos, Διάκονος, the Greek word for them, means servant or assistant. Interestingly, St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome later, commends to them a certain woman called Phoebe as διάκονος, not διακόνισσα, the Greek word for deaconess…. You’ll find that at Romans 15:16; English translations rarely say “deacon” but deacon is what the original, Greek, text says….and that is the reason scholars must always base their findings on the original Greek for their New Testament work, and original Hebrew if they talk about the Old Testament (plus the Septuagint, its ancient and respected Greek translation), Finally it seems that the community could have elected those first seven deacons…. But that’s enough revolutionary talk for now.
The First Deacons (possibly), Clarity, “Selecting the Seven”.
This fifth Sunday of Easter is still located in the time between the Resurrection and Pentecost, the time when all of Jesus’ disciples were either shivering behind locked doors in fear, or were running away, like the two men last Sunday, doing a bunk to Emmaus before Jesus himself caught up with them and managed to change their minds, and they returned to Jerusalem. I have compared that time to our own moment, hunkered down behind locked doors for fear of the corona virus. Unhappily our problem will not be resolved by Pentecost on 31st May. If only. Putting today’s gospel in that context makes for a powerful statement. Look at the way it begins: Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” One giant invitation there for us today, to escape the tedium, fear, mistrust in the world and instead to nestle in the warmth and protection of Jesus’s love. Within that love is divine strength, “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these.” Now we are not divine as he was, so no raising from the dead for us, but we have the gifts that God has given us, and I believe Jesus is referring to these. Fully developed and used in the service of our neighbor, these can achieve great things. Even in our isolation, resolutions can be made, backed up with good planning and perhaps even an optimistic timetable, so that when this is all over we can emerge with eagerness and determination. That might also count towards searching for a new job if that is necessary. In that way, once we are released from our home imprisonment, we will touch the ground running, with the fire and strength of the Lord himself, as he himself said.
Joy of the Righteous in the Lord, Viktor Vasnetsov, Saint Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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