If your parish celebrates the Ascension of the Lord this Sunday, click here to find those Lector's Notes.
Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2020
The reading that follows is a kind of honor roll of the heroic first generation of followers of Jesus. Saint Luke includes it because his goal is to give courage to his own later generation, persecuted as they were, and to our generation.
Peter proposes ways to handle suffering, insults and shame, ways not customary but coming from their new faith in Jesus.
John the Evangelist lived a long time in a maturing community of early Christians. In his distinguished wisdom, John gives us a portrait of Jesus crystalizing his message to its deepest essentials, a portrait conditioned by John's own community experience.
Our Liturgical Setting: On the Sundays of Easter our first readings have taken a zig-zag course through the early episodes of Acts of the Apostles. Today we're back in chapter one. The editors of the lectionary clearly want us today to anticipate Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday. Commentator Jude Winkler, O.F.M. Conv., suggests that today's passage depicts a kind of retreat. The earliest disciples needed time to pray and wait for clearer direction from the Holy Spirit, before undertaking the dynamic mission that had always been their destiny. The choice of responsorial psalm today confirms the retreat idea.
The Historical Situation of the Writer: Remember that Acts was written not as the various acts happened but decades later. Its purpose was not the purpose of a modern newspaper. Rather, Luke wrote to encourage late first-century congregations to keep the faith, to cherish their roots, to see their own struggles in the light of God's great plan. The congregations included Jewish and Gentile converts, who brought to the situation a long history of mutual hostility. The Jewish members struggled with nostalgia for traditions they had to forfeit and the loss of old Jewish friends. The Gentiles struggled because some of their old ways (magic, idolatry, all the ways people try to control the unknown) were incompatible with the gospel. They all feared persecution.
Your Proclamation: In that light, the naming of the apostles and Mary is a reading of the honor roll of the community. Though Jesus sets the standards ultimately, the heroism of these disciples, named and unnamed, is an inspiration and example for the readers. The first readers of Acts already knew the names, and may have known some of the apostles themselves. In proclaiming this passage today, you might try to name the heroes reverently, with love and warmth, the way some families speak of dear, happily remembered ancestors. Granted, not all of your listeners will get your point. But some will, and others will wonder why they don't get it, which is a good outcome, too.
How the Original Audience was Different: This reading asks its audience to handle its suffering in an interesting way. The original readers were not in today's analgesic society, full of ways to relieve our pains, or at least distract us from them. They must have faced suffering in a more head-on way than we, and taken it for granted more than we. So Peter's suggestion may have seemed novel to them, too. Take your sufferings as an opportunity to identify with Jesus, he says.
To understand this, recall the early church's preoccupation with the sufferings of Jesus. Count the words, and note the detail, of the "passion" chapters of the gospels, compared to the "teaching" chapters and the "miracle" chapters. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, that is, the restorer of the glorious kingship of David, a monarch above all suffering. But his throne turned out to be the cross, his strength was in his submission to the evil others did to him. Everything in ungraced human nature rebels against this. Indeed, the early church rejected several "gospel" manuscripts because they skirted the passion issue and over-emphasized Jesus' material powers. The Spirit prompts the church not to skirt suffering, Jesus' or its own.
(To make Peter's suggestion a little clearer, here are two contemporary examples of identifying with the sufferings of another person. I once attended a piano recital given by a friend. When he muffed a few notes, I felt the hot, red flush of embarrassment shooting up my own neck, all the way to my scalp. Another time, I heard a speaker tell the story of a migraine headache that kept him home from work, made him irritable with his family, and finally sent him to bed in the middle of the day. After a while, his four-year old crept carefully to the bed, climbed in, lay down and asked, "Daddy, can I hurt with you a while?")
Peter is not suggesting that greater faith makes one proof against suffering. Crucifixion always hurts, even if you are the Son of God. But a believer has this way to give the suffering meaning.
Your Proclamation: So speak the second phrase of the first sentence as if you're announcing something totally unexpected:
Rejoice to the extent that you [pause ...] share in the sufferings of Christ [!!!]
Insults are meant to offend us; they fill us with rage and send our minds scrambling for a one-up retort. So it's remarkable to hear:
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, [pause ...] blessed are you, ...
Use your voice and timing to make clear all the startling contrasts between our day-to-day assumptions about what is normal and what the writer is urging on us. People who hear you should be taken aback.
Mount Olivet (Mount of Olives) outside modern Jerusalem. The picture is from this page, from the "Jerusalem 101 course" of the website generationword.com. The page contains a survey of many, maybe all, of the Bible's references to the mountain.
This page updated April 23, 2020