5th Sunday of Easter - The Way, The Truth and The Life

All three of the Liturgical Readings for this week focus specifically on the notion of service and ministry.

We see the Apostles asking the community to select some of its own members for the ministry of service, so that they could concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4) This fits a pattern for the early church: the priests would serve the community by being persons dedicated to prayer, teaching and presiding at Eucharist. Members of the laity, both men and women would take ownership of the other aspects of their community life.

According to scripture scholars, the First Letter of Peter was written between 70-90 A.D. to the Christian communities located in five provinces in Asia Minor, and addresses the difficulty of living the Christian life in a hostile, secular environment that upholds different values and subjected the Christian community to ridicule and oppression. The author reminds the people: "...let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."   And he assures them: "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."

The Second Vatican Council gave us the opportunity to rediscover this original model of church. More and more lay men and women have been invited to use their gifts and charisms for the service of the community of believers. More and more, the laity understands that they are the Church. Ordained clergy, priests and deacons, along with religious men and women, do have special roles within the community, but they are servants, and they are not the Church. We have come to understand that our faith rests not in the organization that we call "church" but in the Person of Jesus who gathers this community - this church - together.

There is enough in the passage from Acts to remind us of how far we still are from being the community Christ intends us to be:  there are deep divisions in our ranks; a scandal among our clergy that will never go away;  a comfortable life for many of us Christians of the first world;  a neglect of the poor;  an over-identification with consumer-culture and a reluctance to trust the freedom of the Spirit to allow people to think outside the box, to think for themselves.  There are conflicts and "turf wars," and divisions about liturgical practices, expenditure of funds, conservative and liberal ecclesiologies. 

But in our second reading, Peter calls each of us to look at the dignity of our vocation to service, of the dignity of that call and of the community into which we have been baptized. 

Today's Gospel is a scene from the Last Supper, occurring on the first Holy Thursday, which is seen as the traditional celebration of the institution of the Priesthood. Scripture tells us that Jesus did two things that night which define the sacramental nature of the priesthood: He commissioned his disciples to bring His healing power of forgiveness, allowing us to reconcile ourselves with one another and with God; and He commissioned them to gather the people around His table, break bread with and for them, and make present among them once again His Body and Blood.

The first disciples gradually came to understand their special role as "priests," and from what we find in scripture and tradition they had no problem sharing the other aspects of that priesthood with others.

Jesus says to those around that first table - and to those who continue to gather around the table - that he is "the way" to God.  Instead of all the legalistic observances that their religious leaders insisted upon in order for people to get right with God, believing in Jesus takes us into God’s grace-filled presence.  In truth, Jesus had little interest in religion at all, or in the trappings of it.  His passion is for the utter authenticity of people's lives; and His way of loving is also the way for us to live. 

He is "the truth" we can trust.  He has taught us about God’s nature and we trust what he has said about God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness for us is true. If someone preaches another “truth” about a harsh, avenging and exacting God, we ought to reject that message.  Instead, we trust that Jesus Himself is the truth about God - and living Jesus’ life will be how we live out God’s will for us - the truth.

He is "the life" that we share.  We are not just obliged on our own to live according to Jesus’ life; not just asked to model our lives on his.  Rather, he is "the life."  When he tells his disciples, "I am going to the Father," he promises that he will come back to take them to himself.  As we approach Pentecost we yearn again for the Spirit Jesus promised us that will take us to himself, unite us with him and empower us to live the life he lived.  This Spirit is his life for us and it quickens our own spirits, enlivening us so we can live Jesus’s life.  Through the promised Spirit, his is "the life" that is now within us. 

Finally, in the Gospel, Philip speaks one famous line that is recorded for all time: "Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us." These words sum up the entire purpose and direction of the human journey.  They articulate the basic longing of our hearts to see God, to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him. Philip speaks for all of us when he says to Jesus: "We really only need one thing - to see God; show us how to do that, and that will be enough!"

Jesus answered with words that are equally critical for us: "Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me?"