As the Easter cycle moves to Ascension and Pentecost, the readings foreshadow the ongoing life of the church. Acts describes an early conflict in the community and the choice of seven men filled with the Spirit. One is Stephen, who immediately afterward is put to death. This leads to the spread of the church outward from Jerusalem. Peter exhorts his community of chosen sojourners who suffer persecution by recalling their dignity as followers of Christ, and Jesus begins his final instructions to his disciples with the simple exclamation, Do not let your hearts be troubled; you have faith in God, have faith also in me.
Despite the idyllic picture of the church early in Actsas a community of friends who shared all in common so that there was no needy person among them (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35)with growth comes dissension over the daily food distribution between the Hebrew- and Greek-speaking members. The Twelve ask the whole community to pick seven people filled with wisdom and the Spirit to supervise the charitable work, so that the Apostles may devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.
There are some curious elements in this account. Though this procedure is commonly called the choice of deacons, this term is not used, and the phrase to serve at table can mean to supervise the distribution. Also, none of the seven are mentioned again apart from Stephen, who is martyred because of his mighty works and powerful preaching (not his inner-community service), and Philip, later called the Evangelist, whose four daughters are prophets (Acts 26:7-10). The important element in this passage is the presence of the Spirit in the church, which leads the Twelve to consult and follow the decision of the whole community as new needs and ministries emerge.
Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper (John 13-17) prepares the disciples for the future, when he will depart and the Paraclete (or Advocate) will come. They are instructed more deeply about who Jesus is and what kind of community they are to become. The discourse contains some of the most memorable of Jesus’ sayings. It is difficult to extract portions of these chapters for reading on Sunday because they are repetitious (John 16 repeats much of John 14) and yet carefully structured.
Today’s Gospel follows Jesus’ statement that he is going where the disciples cannot follow until later. (Johannine irony permeates this passage: Jesus is going to his crucifixion, where the disciples will not follow, but they will do so later.) After Jesus tells his disciples that they know the way, Philip naively asks, in another instance of misunderstanding leading to deeper truth, how they can know the way if they do not know where he is going. Jesus responds, I am the way, the truth and the life, which can be understood as the way that is truth [that is, the unveiling of God] and lifethemes that have permeated the Gospel and culminate when Pilate stands before Jesus and says, What is truth? as he prepares to deprive Jesus of his life.
The next section shifts to Jesus’ relation to the Father (one of mutual knowledge and indwelling) and the need for faith and trust in him and concludes with the remarkable statement, Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and greater than these, because I go to the Father. These words anticipate the coming of the Advocate (14:25-31), who is the continuing presence of Jesus in the church. The greater works have long puzzled commentators but seem to be the disciples’ works of faith and love, to be done through the centuries in imitation of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit.
Both John and 1 Peter offer a lofty vision and challenge for the church today. Peter tells his beleaguered community that they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people of his own, who will proclaim the praise of God. These past months have been the worst of times, a season of discontent, as the daily papers chronicle ever more cases of sexual abuse by priests and the sad history of fumbling attempts by church leaders to deal with this, along with the heartrending reactions of victims and God’s own people. Earlier in his letter Peter described the faith of his community as more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire. The present crisis is an opportunity to reflect on the deepest ground of our faith. Lives of faith and hope offered to God are the sacrifices that make of us all a royal priesthood. The thousands of people who entered the church this past Easter and the millions who live and hand on the faith do so not because a particular bishop, pastor or teacher is virtuous, but because they find Christ, who leads us along the path to truth and life.