Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2013
Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the encyclical of Pope John XXIII discussing peace and human rights. It was the first encyclical addressed beyond the Catholic community to “all men of good will.” And it was written by one who would soon depart; John XXIII was dying of cancer and passed away less than two months after Pacem in Terris was issued.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, we hear words of peace from another who will soon depart. Jesus speaks to his disciples, saying:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ (Jn 14: 27-28)
In the readings from this Sixth Sunday of Easter, we not only hear words of peace, but like Pacem in Terris, we hear a message directed far and wide, to all nations, to all women and men of good will.
The passages from Acts 15 and Revelation 21 are especially powerful reminders of the universal reach of God’s love and fulfillment. In the First Reading, questions of identity and belonging are resolved when the Jerusalem Council affirms the membership of Gentiles in the early Christian community. It is not necessary for Gentiles to be subject to circumcision and the entirety of the law. God’s grace opens salvation to Gentiles and Jews alike. Thus, even the boundaries of identity that help to cultivate a relationship with God are open to revision and re-examination. As we see time and again in the biblical narrative, there is a movement toward widening communities and integrating the once-marginalized. Just as soon as we become comfortable with the designations of insiders and outsiders, we are challenged by God to reconsider them entirely.
Thus it was possible for the Prophet Isaiah, speaking to the chosen people of God’s covenant, to speak also of a vision of all nations:
In days to come,
The mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it.
Many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem…
House of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!
This image of the mountain is echoed in Sunday’s Second Reading from Revelation where we encounter Jerusalem on a high mountain. There, God’s splendor infuses the entire city:
He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb (Rev 21:10, 23).
The verses of Psalm 67, echo a call to all nations as well:
May the nations be glad and rejoice; for you judge the peoples with fairness, you guide the nations upon the earth. May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you! (Ps 67:5-6)
An insight into the extensiveness of God’s embrace need not rely on quotations from Scripture or even the address of John XXIII’s encyclical. This grand call to recognize that God’s hope is intended for all people can emerge in unassuming places. I can recall praying with women in prison on a particularly contentious unit. One woman, taken aback with a new appreciation of the words, said it simply: “It’s true. We really all have the same Father.” And I recall working with a young boy from an impoverished immigrant family. He had drawn a picture of God and had colored in the pupils of God’s eyes with rainbow colors. When I asked him, he explained that “God sees everyone with everyone-colored eyes.”
It is no small feat to imagine the breadth of God’s vision. We may effortlessly appeal to universal human rights and a shared dignity, but the fact is that we derive much of our identity by defining it against others. We find much of our own success by gazing upon those who have fallen short. We locate much of our own security in designating those of whom we should be afraid.
In Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf writes,
At the very core of Christian identity lies an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures. A response to a call from that God entails rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances.
Christian identity is paradoxically stabilized in the destabilizing of identity, widening communities and integrating the once-marginalized. Time and again we must re-examine and re-imagine boundaries to which we have become accustomed. In this we are not being asked to erase particularity and difference. But what seems clear is that we are being called away from using them as barriers to a shared identity within God’s love.