Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, May 2, 2021

Before the first reading:

The whole Book of Acts tells how the early Christians overcame their fears, solved their internal disputes, left their ancestral religion, and reached out to others, eventaully to all people. Those themes are present in today's selection.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

The early community that first needed this letter was split by people who claimed great authority, taught falsely about Jesus, and severely judged other members. The writer reassures them with ways to ward off these unhealthy influences.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Jesus teaches here that tight bonds with him and the community are the only way to avoid disaster, even death. Those bonds sometimes feel like one is being pruned.

First Reading, Acts 9:26-31

The Historical Situation: The Saul described here appeared briefly in Acts 7:58-8:3, as a minor accomplice in the murder of Stephen and then a major persecutor of the church. Earlier verses of Acts, chapter 9 tell the famous story of his conversion. We, of course, know him by the Greek name "Paul" ("Saul" is the Hebrew equivalent). That background explains why the disciples were afraid of Saul. (In his Letter to the Galatians, chapter 1, Paul says he spent three years in Damascus between his conversion and his first visit to Jerusalem. Acts 9:19b just says "Saul stayed some time with the disciples in Damascus.")

The Theological Background: Remember that the program of Acts is to tell the second generation of Christians the story of the first generation of Christians:

This passage illustrates most of those themes: Most disciples feared Paul, but the ones who knew him better defended him. Paul is already a vigorous witness for Christ, but Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) try to kill him. Paul is to become the principal missionary to non-Jews.

Though transformed by baptism, the earliest Christians had not had their human natures washed away. They retain their innate wariness of enemies, and their society still required that members prove themselves trustworthy. And though filled with the Holy Spirit, they were not privy to the details of what, in hindsight, would eventually be seen as God's plan all along.

Proclaiming It: Decide ahead of time how you're going to pronounce all the place names in this passage. The issue is not a "correct" pronunciation, but a confident one. Your hearers ought to sense that you prepared for this proclamation. If you stumble, you scandalize them.

The first sentence describes a dilemma. Read it and pause. Don't rush into the next sentence. Your pause expresses the quandary of the Jerusalem disciples, unable to decide what to do about Saul.

In the second sentence, a disciple takes responsibility for resolving the dilemma. Name Barnabas clearly. Then pause briefly after "to the apostles," and accent the "he" that follows. This is because "he," the subject of the second clause is Paul, not Barnabas the subject of the first clause.

Speak boldly yourself when you report that Paul spoke boldly. Pause again after the sentence about their sending Paul to Tarsus, for the subject changes altogether.

To prepare to proclaim the last summary sentence, imagine how gratifying it was for Luke to write. He was remembering a happy time of peace and spiritual growth. We are, too, and the lector should sound grateful.

Second Reading, 1 John 3:18-24

The Historical Situation: "Never quit a winner," quoth my father, a recreational poker player. If he won a hand of stud and the deal then came to him, he'd declare another game of stud. On that principle, Lector's Notes borrows again from the Introduction to 1 John in The New American Bible:

To the best of our knowledge, the original recipients of the first letter of John were specific Christian communities,

  1. some of whose members were advocating false doctrines (2:18f-26; 3:7).
  2. These errors are here recognized and rejected (4:4);
  3. although their advocates have left the community (2:19),
  4. the threat posed by them remains (3:11).
  5. They have refused to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ (2:22),
  6. the Son of God (2:23)
  7. who came into the world as true man (4:2).
  8. They are difficult people to deal with,
  9. claiming special knowledge of God
  10. but disregarding the divine commandments (2:4),
  11. particularly the commandment of love of neighbor (4:8),
  12. and refusing to accept faith in Christ as the source of sanctification (1:6; 2:6-9).
  13. Thus they are denying the redemptive value of Jesus' death (5:6).

Today's verses from the letter suggest that the recipients were confused about how to know where they stood with God (point 4, above). Had they heard rival doctrines (points 1 & 9) about how to love in the way God wants us to love? Were they made to feel condemned because they didn't reach the standards declared by the heretics (point 8)? So how are simple Christians to know they "belong to the truth"?

The author compassionately offers them reassurance, although his bare words in verses 20 and 21, at first glance at our translation, are more confusing than comforting. Two alternate translations (The New Jerusalem Bible (1985) and the 1970 edition of The New American Bible suggest that it means: "If we love in deed (not just in word), that's how we know we've grasped God's truth and can be at peace with God, even if our hearts still feel guilty."

The author continues to reassure by stating God's requirements simply and directly: "Believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ" (contra points 5 & 6 of the heretics), and just love one another (see point 11).

Proclaiming It: Even if you master the subtleties above and accept this interpretation, it's too much to hope to get across in your proclamation without serious help from your assembly's preacher. And though lector and preacher might collude to expose and explain it well, if it's just an intellectual exercise it won't profit the listeners in their struggles to hold the truth, stand right with God, love their neighbors and not be discouraged by false guilt.

So I suggest praying for those who will hear your proclamation, praying that they and you enjoy the same reassurances and clarity of direction that Saint John wanted for his readers. Pray that you all hold the truth humbly, as a gift received from God, not as an idea asserted arrogantly (like heretics' failing #9). We can know all mysteries, but if we have not love, well, we know what that's worth.

On the other hand, do your listeners the immense favor of speaking s-l-o-w-l-y. These are hard words to grasp. And while loving is more important than knowing, God gave us an intellectual nature. God's grace perfects that nature, and never takes it away (Saint Thomas Aquinas). Respect that nature by understanding the passage and giving your listeners a chance to understand it. Don't write them off either, intellectually or spiritually, by a hasty proclamation.

Finally, emphasize the phrase "for God is greater than our hearts." If that's all someone hears, even if it's taken out of context (and it will be if that's all one hears), that's a gem of a one-liner that can only do that listener good.

Comments powered by Disqus

Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:
True Vine, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 14, 2018]. Original source: Anthrovik, Flickr Creative Commons.

This page (the first published as mobile-friendly, on April 24, 2015) updated April 2, 2021