Gospel of John Scripture and the Liturgy

Building the Temple of God: 5th Sunday of Easter A

Since the beginning of time, human beings have sought to construct buildings that would bridge the gap between the temporal and eternal, earthly and heavenly planes of existence.  These temples have taken widely differing forms in many cultures.  One of the greatest was the Jerusalem temple begun by Herod the Great (73–4 BC), an architectural marvel of the ancient world while it stood (finished in AD 66, razed in AD 70). 

The authors of the New Testament texts in this Sunday’s Readings were well familiar with Herod’s great temple, yet they were convinced that God had begun the construction new and greater dwelling place for himself in their own time, consisting not of gathered stones, but of a gathering (ekklesia) of human beings, first of whom was Jesus the Christ.  Thus, our Readings are filled with images of the building of the Church, the new sanctuary that would replace the old and continue to serve as God’s habitation on earth till the end of time.

1.  Our First Reading is Acts 6:1-7:

As the number of disciples continued to grow,
the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
because their widows
were being neglected in the daily distribution.
So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said,
“It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men,
filled with the Spirit and wisdom,
whom we shall appoint to this task,
whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer
and to the ministry of the word.”
The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,
so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit,
also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,
and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
They presented these men to the apostles
who prayed and laid hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread,
and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly;
even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

We tend to idealize the early Church, as if everything were perfect and “smooth sailing” for the first generation of Christians.  “Oh, if only the apostles were still around, performing miracles and preaching the Gospel, we wouldn’t be having all the problems were faced with today!”  Yet the Book of Acts is quite honest about the crises the early Church faced, even though she enjoyed the charismatic leadership of the Twelve.  This First Reading is a good example of such a crisis: dissent breaks out in the Church along ethnic lines.  The “Hellenists” complain against the “Hebrews” because their widows were not being fed in the daily distribution.  These categories refer to the spoken language of the two Jewish groups.  “Hellenists” spoke Greek; “Hebrews” spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew (thus sometimes called “Hebrew”) and the common tongue of Israel in the first century.

The Apostles’ reaction to this crisis is noteworthy for its indication of the priorities of the Church: “It is not right for us to neglect the Word of God to serve at table.”  In other words, the Apostles knew it was contrary to their vocation to neglect the preaching of the Gospel in order to manage the material affairs of the community.  The proclamation of the “Bread of Life” (Jn 6:51) takes precedence over the distribution of “bread which perishes” (Jn 6:27), because “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word the proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

The priorities of the Apostles should be the priorities of the Church as a whole.  Yet how often the Church in various times and places has given in to the temptation to neglect the Word of God in order to distribute food and medicine, thus becoming, as Pope Francis has described it, a massive “NGO” (Non-Governmental Organization).  The reasons for this are easy to understand.  No one objects to the distribution of food and medicine.  Everyone appreciates it, and it wins praise from society.  The preaching of conversion and faith in Jesus Christ, however, frequently meets with opposition, controversy, and persecution.  If the Church mutes her message and busies herself with distributing material aid, she can purchase for herself a safe role in society, but at the expense of her primary mission. 

Works of mercy and the attendance to physical needs are of great importance; indeed, they are integral to the Gospel message.  At the same time, they are not the unique contribution of the Church in the world.  Other organizations exist to distribute food.  No other organization, however, has the saving Word of God that can lead men to eternal life.  The Church alone has this treasure.  Furthermore, we underestimate the degree to which the preaching of the Gospel and conversion lead to societal change on the material level.  For example, rampant poverty in certain areas of the world are the result, not primarily of a lack of physical resources, but from warfare, greed, political and financial corruption, sexual promiscuity, and especially a failure to practice Christian marriage.  In these situations, the distribution of food and aid is only a temporary solution; for long-term change, there has to be a conversion of heart among the populace, a turning to God that can only come about from the preaching of the Word.  For example, when in a culture men habitually conceive children with women to whom they are not married, and then abandon those women (and their children) to fend for themselves, the introduction of international aid will never make a lasting change in the social and economic fabric of society.  There has to be a conversion of heart, and the embrace of the Gospel, with its vision of the human family as a reflection of the fidelity in personal relationship that constitutes the Holy Tirinity.

Returning to our Reading, we continue to observe the Apostles’ reaction to the crisis: they tell the Church, “select from among you seven reputable men … whom we shall appoint for this task.”  Traditionally, these seven men are identified as the first deacons of the Church.  This event is tremendous significance for the life of the Church, because it demonstrates how the Apostles responded to the need for leadership in the ekklesia beyond their sphere of personal influence, and establishes basic principles of Church government.

I myself used to cite this passage (when I was a Protestant pastor) as evidence that God intended the Church to be governed by Church officials elected by the laity.  “See how the lay people here get to choose their own leaders,” I would say.  But the truth is more complicated than that.  True, the Apostles consulted with the “laity” of the Church to identify the first deacons.  Yet, the initiative for this whole procedure, as well as the final authorization, all comes from the Apostles.  Ultimately, the “deacons” are not elected, they are appointed.  “Select from among you men … whom we shall appoint.” The authority flows from the top down, from Apostles to deacons.  Authority is not conferred by the local assembly.  These men do not become leaders until the Apostles “pray and lay hands on them,” i.e. ordination.  So we see that this passage does not model a form of “democratic” Church government, but illustrates a hierarchical authority structure and a basic principle of Holy Orders, namely, that Jesus entrusted the authority to govern to the Apostles, and this authority was in turn entrusted by them to others, when the growth of the Church exceeded their capabilities for personal oversight.  That same authority has been passed down from man to man, by the laying on of hands, to our present day.

As many have noted, all seven of the men chosen as “deacons” have Greek names.  Therefore, it appears that the early Church chose Hellenized (Greek-speaking) Jews to take over the distribution of food, so that the widows who spoke Greek would not be overlooked.  As these deacons take over the custody of the material affairs of the Church, the Apostles again devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the Word,” and the result is rapid growth of the Church.  We note particularly that “a large number of priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7b).  This conversion of a large number of the descendants of Levi is one form of fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to this priestly tribe: “the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence … to make sacrifices for ever” (Jer 33:18).  These converted Levites did not lose their priesthood when they entered the Church; they found their priesthood fulfilled, as they became part of the “holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices,” as the Second Reading will say.

To sum up, this event from Acts shows us a key step in the growth of the Church: the first time in which the Apostles bestow a measure of their leadership authority on others.  This is the beginning of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and those in Holy Orders (the clergy) form the “frame” or fundamental structure for the Temple we call the Church.  Like the skeleton which holds together the body, those in Holy Orders provide support and a place of attachment and gathering for the rest of the Body of Christ.

2. Responsorial Psalm Ps 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19:

R/ (22) Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
Exult, you just, in the LORD;
praise from the upright is fitting.
Give thanks to the LORD on the harp;
with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.

Like so many others, Psalm 33 is a song of praise to God that presumes the existence of a covenant relationship marked by hesed, “covenant fidelity,” translated “mercy” in the refrain and “kindness” in the second line of the third stanza.  God has shown his faithfulness to his covenant promises by establishing the Church upon the earth.  God had promised to Abraham that he would become a great nation, possess a great name (royalty), and bring blessing to the whole earth (Gen 12:1-3).  The Church, growing in Acts, is that “great nation” of Abraham’s descendants, a nation of royalty (see the Second Reading) that has a priestly role to bless the whole earth.  This fulfillment was unexpected and unforeseen; indeed, even today it goes unrecognized, like treasure hidden in a field or a valuable pearl mixed with fakes.  But when we recognize God’s plan in human history, and see that he has indeed been fulfilling his promises in unexpected and subtle ways, we are moved to awe and worship.  “Upright is the word of the LORD, and all his works are trustworthy!”

3.  The Second Reading is 1 Pt 2:4-9:

Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it says in Scripture:
Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion,
a cornerstone, chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.
Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone, and
A stone that will make people stumble,
and a rock that will make them fall.
They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.

You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises” of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

We are taking a tour of St. Peter’s First Epistle in the Second Reading this Easter Season.  This selection is full of Easter themes.  For most of this passage, St. Peter develops the theme of the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone, spoken of in Psalm 118:22-23.  We know how important Psalm 118 is to the Triduum and the Easter Season in general.  Psalm 118 is a todah (thanksgiving) psalm, the last of the set of todah psalms (113-118) sung during the Passover Seder as the Hallel hymn.  We recall that it would have been the last psalm sung by Jesus before he left the upper room to begin his Passion.  This is the Psalm that we sang on Easter Sunday and on Divine Mercy Sunday.  Now, St. Peter exegetes these key verses of the Psalm: vv. 22-23.  What is the building for which the “stone rejected” has become “the head of the corner”?  It is a Temple, built of “living stones,” that is, human beings.  This idea of a Temple of humanity rather than stone has a long history in Scripture and Israelite tradition.  The Jewish Esssene community, who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, also believed that their religious congregation constituted a Temple for God:

1QS 8:5-9: Then shall the party of the Community truly be established, an eternal planting, a temple for Israel, and—mystery!—a Holy of Holies for Aaron; true witnesses to justice, chosen by God’s will to atone for the land and to recompense the wicked their due. They will be “the tested wall, the precious cornerstone” (Isaiah 28:16) whose foundations shall neither be shaken nor swayed, a fortress, a Holy of Holies for Aaron, all of them knowing the Covenant of Justice and thereby offering a sweet savor.

So we see how the Essenes thought of themselves as a “human Temple” whose membership had a priestly role to “offer sweet savor” of sacrifice.  They even appeal to the “cornerstone” text in Isaiah 28. These ideas were available and current in Judaism in St. Peter’s day.  But St. Peter asserts it is the community established by Jesus, around the “new covenant” he established in his body and blood (Luke 22:20) that is actually the New Temple built on the “cornerstone” of Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 28:16: the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Those who join themselves to Jesus the cornerstone become “a chosen race, a royal priesthood.”  These are words taken from God’s promise to the people of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6.  Just before God bestowed on Israel the covenant at Sinai, he promised them: “if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples … and you shall be to me a royal priesthood (so LXX; alternately “kingdom of priests”) and a holy nation.”  That generation of Israel ultimately rejected the covenant by worshipping the Golden Calf, and subsequent generations were often scarcely any better.  Jesus is the True Israel; on behalf of the whole nation he embraces the covenant and becomes the True Royal Priest (that is, Priest and King).  Those who join themselves to him become part of Israel and share his royal priesthood. 

What does that mean for us practically?  Jesus throne in this life was his cross.  One of the paradoxes of the Gospels is that Jesus is proclaimed king publically while hanging on the cross.  The cross is also the instrument of atoning sacrifice: on it, Jesus performs his last priestly act, the sacrifice of his own body.  So we participate in the “royal priesthood” by reigning from our own crosses, that is, by accepting the suffering of each day and offering it to God for the salvation of the world. 

4.  The Gospel is John 14:1-12:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.
Where I am going you know the way.”
Thomas said to him,
“Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him,
“Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time
and you still do not know me, Philip?
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,
or else, believe because of the works themselves.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,
and will do greater ones than these,
because I am going to the Father.”

We want to comment on three aspects of this Gospel: (1) Temple imagery, (2) Jesus’ “arrogance” in proposing himself as “the Way,” and (3) the “greater works” to be done by the disciples.

Jesus says:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.

Several temple terms are used here. “My father’s house” is used as a designation for the Temple in other parts of the Gospels (Luke 2:49; John 2:16).  The Temple was the largest building in Israel, and was full of storerooms, antechambers, and other spaces roundabout, thus: in it there are “many dwelling places” (NAB) or “many rooms” (RSV).  Finally, in Judaism the word “place” (Gk topos, Heb maqôm) had a special connotation.  It often meant “the holy place,” that is, the “sanctuary” (see John 12:48 Gk; cf. Gen 28:17).  All this means that Jesus is departing to prepare a Temple for the Apostles to live in.

What is this Temple that Jesus prepares?  In one sense it is the Church, elsewhere identified as the Temple of God.  The disciples will live and abide within the Church, the Body of Christ, and there they will experience communion with the Father, the Son, and each other.  Jesus’ words also have an application to heaven, which is nothing other than the Church triumphant. 

The disciples want to know the “way” to make a pilgrimage to this Temple, and Jesus tells them: ““I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Isn’t that rather arrogant of Jesus, to claim that he alone of all the great religious teachers in human history is “the way to the Father”? 

Actually not.  No other major religious figure in human history has taught that God is a Father.  Muhammed denied the fatherhood of God, and the Buddha  taught no specific doctrine of God. (The Buddha’s name was Siddhartha Gautama; “Buddha” is a title meaning “Enlightened One.”)  In fact, technically the Buddha was an agnostic, and some forms of Buddhism are agnostic to this day.  Therefore, neither Muhammed nor Buddha even claim to be the way to the divine “Father.”  They claim to show you the path to Allah or to Nirvana.  Neither do the lesser-known religious founders of human history (Zoroaster, Guru Nanak) claim to show the way to the Father.

Only Jesus proposes that God is a Father.  He and his teaching are “the only way to the Father,” the only viable path to knowing God in this way. 

After emphasizing his own unity with the Father (“He who has seen me has seen the Father”), Jesus promises “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,
and will do greater ones than these.”  What?  Is everyone who believes in Jesus going to raise the dead and perform even greater miracles than Jesus himself?  How can this be?

I’m convinced that the Sacraments are at least a partial solution to what Jesus means by the “greater works” to be done by the disciples.  The miraculous “signs” of the Gospel of John have been told in such a way that we can see their resemblance to the Church’s sacraments: this is especially the case for the Water to Wine (Jn 2) and the Feeding of the 5,000 (Jn 6) with respect to the Eucharist; and the Healing of the Man Born Blind (Jn 9) with respect to Baptism.  But all the signs Jesus performs have some connection with the Sacraments.

Throughout John, Jesus warns people not to be overly impressed with the physical miracles, but to look to deeper spiritual realities (Jn 4:48; 20:29).  Seen from a spiritual perspective, the interior effects of the sacraments—like forgiveness of sins—are much greater miracles than the physical transformations affected by Jesus’ signs.  Some of the Church’s greatest theologians have insisted that the resurrection of Lazarus pales in comparison to the power of the confessional:

“But even the raising of the dead to life, the miracle by which a corpse is reanimated with its natural life, is almost nothing in comparison with the resurrection of a soul, which has been lying spiritually dead in sin and has now been raised to the essentially supernatural life of grace.”  Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, The Three Conversions in the Spiritual life (Rockford, Ill.: TAN, 2002), 15

Likewise St. Augustine teaches:

“The justification of the ungodly is something greater than the creation of heaven and earth, greater even than the creation of the angels.” St. Augustine, The City of God, Book IV, chapter 9.

The “greater things” the Apostles will do after Jesus is gone include the administration of the Sacraments, which have the power to forgive sin (John 20:22-23).

To sum up: all the Readings point to the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is the Body of Christ, which is the true Dwelling Place and Temple of God.  By extension, we who participate in the Eucharist are also incorporated into God’s Temple.  Those in Holy Orders, who bring us the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, are key to the structure of this human Temple.  These Sacraments are the “greater works” that the apostles will perform in Jesus’ name, that brings us to the “Father” so that we can dwell with Him and with the Son. 


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