Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Love Commandment in Jesus' Vision for the Church

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C, John 13:31-35, April 28, 2013

EVERY TIME A new Philippine president assumes office, he delivers an inaugural speech.  In that speech, he normally gives us an inkling into a world of experience which he envisions for his country.   The current occupant of MalacaƱang, for instance, has his “Tuwid na Landas at Mas Magandang Kinabukasan”. Former President Joseph Estrada is remembered for his “walang kamag-anak, walang kumpare, walang kaibigan,” meant to underline the pro-poor and pro-powerless stance of his administration, although almost everybody knows that this was not exactly what came off in the end.  Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had her own vision, too, of good governance, transparency and option for the poor.  Vision such as this is meant, among others, to define the society that a president tries to achieve.  In pursuit of this, his lawmakers pass laws meant to regulate the relationships among the people in accord with the articulated vision. 
We often say that Jesus came to establish a new order: the Kingdom of God.  But what is to regulate this order?  In his farewell discourse at the Last Supper, the Johannine Jesus gave his disciples a “new” commandment to govern the relationships among Christians: “Love one another” (John 13:34).  This injunction is one of the mysteries that the Church liturgy celebrates on Holy Thursday.  In fact, the first word in “Maundy Thursday” derives from the Latin term, mandatum, which is rendered “command” in English.  Surprisingly, though, the injunction of love is rather ancient: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).  In the synoptic gospels (Mark 12:28), Jesus is depicted as combining it with the Shemma (Deut 6:4) to specify the greatest commandment.  But what is new in that law?  Other interpreters and preachers argue that the commandment of love is new because, unlike the Old Testament injunction in which the standard of loving is the self (“as you love yourself”), in the New Testament, the norm of loving is the way Jesus loved (“as I have loved you”).  Its newness flows from the way Jesus loved on the basis of which our love must be compared.  Nothing, however, is farther from the truth.

To be sure, it may be well to recall that in the Old Testament, God established a covenant with Israel.  The covenant entered into by the people of Israel with him may be summed up in the formula: “I will be your God and you shall be my people” (Jer 7:23b).  In their response to that covenant through which they were constituted as his own people, redeemed from the slavery of Egypt, God gave them the law to observe.  Now, by his whole life, but specially his passion, death and resurrection, Jesus initiated a new order.  By his self-giving and rising to new life, he established the era of the new covenant.  This teaching forms an integral part of the Last Supper tradition that finds a very explicit statement in Luke:  “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you” (Luke 22:20b).  Which brings to mind Moses’ words in the ratification of the old covenant: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words of his” (Exod 24:8).  And what is the place of the new commandment of love in this new covenant?  Just as the Torah or the law served as the response of the people of Israel to the old covenant, so the commandment of love embodies the new response of the renewed community of God—the Church—to his redemptive offer of the new covenant in Jesus.
In effect, if the 613 commandments—not just 10, by the way—of God regulated the life of God’s people under the old covenant, so the command of brotherly love is the rule of life of the community of brothers and sisters in Jesus.  It regulates the relationship among those who were born from the side of Jesus’ resurrection.   In John, the most decisive, distinctive mark of Christian discipleship, which sets Christianity from other world religions or humanisms, is not so much doctrinal characteristics as fraternal love.  “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another” (John 13:35).  It is also the Christian epiphany to the world.  Christ is no longer physically present among us, but the evidence that he is alive is the love that fills up the Christian community.  (Infrastructural projects are not an evidence of Christ’s presence in the parish.)  And as such, the brotherly love injunction ceases to be a commandment.  It really becomes a way of life that characterizes the community of disciples.  It pervades the community, formed by individuals of new heart and new spirit, in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy:  “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.  I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).*

Friday, April 19, 2013

How Can We Ever Believe That Jesus Is the Messiah?

 An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:27-30, Year C, John 10:27-30, April 21, 2013

DOES GOD EXIST?  Surfing the internet on the subject, I came across yesterday an interesting letter that partly reads: “On whose order is the sun rising everyday in the east? What was there before the Big Bang? Till date, can anyone stop birth, death, disease and old age? Science can create atom bombs but can it ever produce an ant in the laboratory?  Our senses are imperfect, our eyes cannot see beyond a certain distance; we have our own cheating propensities (to fulfill our selfish desires); thus, the absolute truth which is completely spiritual can never ever be estimated by our tiny senses.  God is infinite and we are infinitesimal.  Can a fish in a well ever imagine how big Atlantic Ocean is?” To which, a self-proclaimed atheist retorted: “On whose order the 3,000 innocents were murdered in the Twin Tower of New York?  Did a god order to do the crime?”  But I like the concluding argument of the believer: “Our eyes are so powerless that it cannot even see in darkness.  We need the mercy of the “Sun” (God) to see everything…”  This makes it clear that to believe in him, God has to touch us first with his mercy, with his grace.

            From the reading of the Gospel, something similar may be noted.  What will convince us that Jesus is the Messiah?  In Matthew, when the disciples of John asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus said in reply: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life…” (Matt 11:4-5).  Jesus appealed to his works.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus similarly pointed to his works as bearing witness that he was from God.  And the greatest of his works was the resurrection.  More than anything else, it was the resurrection that unveiled the identity of Jesus to the early Christian communities: he is the Messiah of God.  Yet, some questions remain a puzzle.  If Jesus is God’s Anointed, how come, during his public ministry, the Jewish leaders did not believe in him?  Why was his messiahship obscure to them?  Why did they persecute him instead?  Why is it that despite the claims he made (John 8:58; Luke 22:67-70), and for all the signs he performed (John 3:2; 5:36; 10:25), the Jews rejected him?

            The unbelief of the Jews, despite Jesus’ revelation and works, was obviously troubling to John’s community as it is probably to us.  The present reading (John 10:27-30) provides us John’s answer to the problem.  If the Jewish leaders did not believe in Jesus’ messiahship, the reason for this is not that it lacked witnesses, but that the Father did not entrust them to him.  “No one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44).  “The works that I do in my Father’s name give witness in my favor, but you refuse to believe because you are not my sheep” (10:25b-26a).  In contrast, the disciples listened to him precisely because the Father gave them to him.  Only the one who belongs to the Father listens to Jesus: “Whoever is of God hears every word God speaks.  The reason you do not hear is that you are not of God” (8:44).  Because they belonged to God the Father, they were on the side of the truth:  “The reason why I came into the world is to testify to the truth.  Anyone committed to the truth hears my voice” (18:37).  The disciples followed him (10:14), and they knew him (10:4).  It was the Father who established the relationship between Jesus and the disciples, his sheep.  If, on the other hand, the Jews could not accept him, that owed to their spiritual blindness (9:3)—a characteristic of people who are outside God’s flock and who are of this world (8:23,47).  Anyone who does not belong to God and is not committed to the truth cannot hear his voice or recognize his messiahship.

            Though the Jewish leaders rejected him, Jesus remains the true Messiah.  John adduces three arguments.  First, Jesus cares for his sheep: he knows them (vv14,27), he is united with them, lays down his life for them (v11), and gives them eternal life (vv10,28).  Jesus stands in contrast with the messianic pretenders—the false messiahs of Jesus’ time, insurrectionaries, and  probably even the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran--who were actually thieves and robbers; they came to steal, slaughter and destroy (v10).  John’s portrait of Jesus as the Messiah who gives his life for his sheep is akin to the Markan Messiah—the Crucified Messiah--who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all (Mark 10:45).  Second, even if attacked, the believers cannot be torn because Jesus is the model shepherd who cares for them, and the Father protects them.  It is for the Father that Jesus acts.  Because the Father is powerful, none of them will be snatched away from God, none will be lost.   One is reminded of the sapiential claim: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them” (Wisd 3:1).  The Father and Jesus are one in protecting them, and their protection is very strong, because they are one is power and operation (John 10:30).  Finally, by way of implication, the prophecy that God will become the shepherd of his people finds fulfillment in Jesus.  It may be recalled that in the history of Israel, kings who were impious were denounced as wicked shepherds (see Jer 10:21; 23:1; Ezek 34:5-6; 1 Kgs 22:17).  But Ezekiel foresaw a time when God himself would shepherd his flock: “I myself will look after and tend my sheep… You, my sheep, you are the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God” (Ezek 34:11.31).

            In effect, the recognition that Jesus is the Messiah does not depend on our own knowledge from textbooks, from our own search, or from documentary evidence.  If people do not accept Jesus, his teaching and works, it is because they have not been given over by the Father to Jesus.   The acknowledgement is a gift from the Father.  It is he who makes the initiative in giving us the faculty to see it—the eyes of faith.  Those who are given this gift find it easy to see in this human Jesus, in this crucified “criminal”, the Messiah of God.  No wonder, in Matthew’s account on the question of Messiahship, we are told that when Peter said to Jesus that you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus quickly added that the Father gave Peter the insight as to who He was (Matt 16:16-18).  If we have this faith, we can easily recognize his voice.  We do not even need empirical evidence.  And once we are in him, we are assured that nothing can separate us from him, though pernicious evils may come:  “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Trial or distress or persecution or the sword?… Neither life or death, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future nor powers, neither height nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us form the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).*

Friday, April 12, 2013

How Will The Church Accomplish the Mission to Preserve Unity?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, John 21:1-19, April 14, 2013

THE RESURRECTION OF Jesus is yearly celebrated at Easter, which is the oldest and most solemn Christian feast and considered the center of the Liturgical Year.  But what is the meaning of the raising of Jesus from the dead?  Admittedly, every New Testament writer has his own distinctive understanding of what the Resurrection of Jesus is all about, but in John, one of its meanings is mission.  In John’s story of the Lord’s appearance on the shore of Tiberias (John 21:1-19), that significance derives, as in Luke 5:10, from the symbolism of the fishing scene.  It may be recalled that before he was raised, Jesus promised that he would draw all women and men to himself (John 12:32).  Since he has been lifted up, he could now fulfill his promise.  If the Matthean Christ commanded the Eleven to make disciples of all the nations (Matt 28:19), that account has an equivalent in John in the instruction to throw the net.  And the meaning of the symbolism of throwing the net is made clearer in another metaphor: the commissioning of Peter to feed the lambs/sheep (John 21:15-17).

            Of course, the mission remains the risen Lord’s.  The disciples are simply his instruments.  Christ takes the initiative and sustains it.  For this reason, the success of the mission does not depend on the quality and effort of the disciples.  A doctorate degree, a high IQ, one’s being honed at Hardvard Divinity School, the ability to attract huge crowd—all this does not guarantee automatic success.  Rather, it rests entirely on their obedience to the word of the listen Lord.  By their own effort the disciples could not catch fish (21:6).  Which reminds us of Jesus’ saying that “without me you can do nothing” (15:5).  One may work in the mission with much effort, but without the presence of the Lord, that mission would be fruitless.  No wonder then that the disciples were able to experience a miraculous catch—the Lord called them to throw their nets and they obediently did so:  “they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish” (21:6).

            But what is the purpose of throwing the nets?  If Jesus promised to draw all to himself, if he asked his disciples to cast the nets, the object was the form one community, one people coming from all nations.  In this narrative, the net images the Church, and the fishermen stand for its leaders.  The 350 kinds of fish represent all the races of men and therefore universalism. (In his commentary on Ezek 47:9-12, St Jerome says that according to the ancient naturalists there were 153 species of fish.)  Thus, the mission of the Church is universal salvation.  Which reminds us of Jesus’ words: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  These also must I lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (10:16).  His plan to gather all into one is reflected in the prophecy of Caiaphas, the high priest, “that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (11:32).  (It goes without saying that to say that salvation is only for those who know the Bible, or who are born again or who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior is to misread John.)   It is interesting to note that although the fish were numerous, the net was not broken (21:11).  For John, this symbolizes the unity of diverse believers that is to be preserved by the leaders of the Church.

            And how will the Church leaders accomplish the mission?  If a shift in image may be permitted, it may be said that they will fulfill their mission by shepherding (Ps 80:2; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10) in love of Jesus.  This is precisely the reason why Jesus asked Peter thrice: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  For without such love, the pastoral efforts of the shepherds or ministers of the Church (1 Pet 5:2-4; Act 20:28). will be in vain.  As Paul puts it, “If I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:2-3). 

This implies that the exercise of power proper to secular society or to the military has no place in the Christian community.  That Jesus repeatedly asked Peter the question about love—this was meant to show that he had a devoted love for Jesus (see Matt 26:33).  Here, of course, Peter, far from declaring it, merely appealed to Jesus’ intimate knowledge:  “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17).  With this, John would have understood that freeing love for the sheep is the essence of shepherding.  A priest who does not freely love his parishioners is scarcely worthy of his pastoral office.  Peter’s love for the Lord was to be manifested in the taking care of the latter’s flock.  Moreover, he also would shepherd them with love because he was a disciple who loved (John 13:37).

            Out of his love for Jesus, Peter would have to deny his very self.  In contrast to the shepherds who, following their wicked inclination, did not pasture the sheep with integrity (Ezek 34; Jer 3:15), he would not demand that they serve him.  On the contrary, he would have to lay down his life for them: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  As Jesus was concerned with the good of the flock (John 10:3-4.14.27-30), so would Peter who must feed and shepherd Jesus’ sheep.  That is why Peter could go where the unexpected awaited him (John 21:18).  In the end, he proved his love by dying a martyr’s death under Nero.  Such is the call of every ministers of the Lord: To testify to the mission of salvation by dying for it and for the sheep in love.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

What Really Matters in the Church Is the Life in the Spirit of Jesus

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C, John 20:19-31, April 7, 2013

SOME MIGHT WONDER if we have to talk about a “Johannine Pentecost.”  Is this something different from what we used to know—namely, the 50th day after Easter, which we celebrate in the liturgy after the feast of the Ascension?  If by Pentecost we mean the bestowal of the Spirit upon all believers, then we have much ground for saying that the Gospel today is John’s version of Pentecost.  We have to understand that for theological reasons, Luke, who wrote the Pentecost account in Acts 2:1-13, separated the Christological moments of redemption.  In his account, there is a day for the resurrection of Jesus, another for his ascension, and still another for Pentecost.  John, however, has a different way of looking at these moments.  For him, Jesus’ resurrection is bound up with his exaltation and the giving of the Holy Spirit.  When he rose from the dead, Jesus at the same time was exalted and bestowed the Spirit on the gathered believers.  It is not surprising, therefore, that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
            But how does John describe the Pentecost?  In depicting the event, John does not use words and images that evoke the giving of the Law at Sinai, as Luke does in Acts. It is instructive that in describing the giving of the Holy Spirit, John uses the words “breathed on them” (John 20:22).  Since the term “to breathe on” or “to blow in” popularly lined with Gen 2:7, there is no doubt that he harked back to the creation narrative when God breathed into the nostril of Adam who became a living being.  That is to say, just as God gave life to Adam by blowing into his nostrils, so Jesus was giving a new life to the community of believers by giving them life. A similar view is held in wisdom literature; “the one who fashioned him, and breathed into him a quickening soul, and infused a vital spirit” (Wisd 15:11). 
           At the same time, he alludes to Ezek 39:9-10 where, in the vision of the prophet, the dry bones came to life after the wind “breathed into them.”  Since this text has reference to the gathering of Israel from the land of exile, it is clear therefore that John has in mind the reconstitution of God’s people as a new creation.  John seems to be saying that with the death and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit, God recreates his people by letting them share in the life of the Risen One.  Jesus possesses this new life, but at Pentecost he shared it with the community of believers.  In other words, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, those who are given this new life become members of a newly created people.
            When the Holy Spirit descends on a people to re-create them, what happens to them?  As the attribute “holy” indicates, the people are cleansed from their sins.  The idea of outpouring of the Holy Spirit is linked with the cleansing from sins: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.  I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees” (Ezek 36:25-27).  No wonder that the early Church linked the sacrament of baptism, in which the Christian receives the Holy Spirit and becomes part of the new creation, with forgiveness of sins: “Now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). 
But if we strictly follow John’s theology, we notice that into this re-created people, the unity of the Father and the Son is communicated, and they become one people living in one divine life.  As the Father is in Jesus, and Jesus in the Father, so the community is in Jesus and the Father (John 17:21).  The members are bound into a corporate unity, but each one is known by their shepherd (10:3-4) who lays down his life for them (10:17).   They imitate him by serving one another in humility (13:15).  What holds the community is its spiritual relationship with Christ.  As disciples to whom divine life is communicated, the members are sustained by Christ himself, who is united with them and remain in them (15:1-5).
            What does this mean to us?  It means many things, but we can point out one.  To be a Church, the life its members live is of paramount importance.  That life must be one that our Lord communicates to us at baptism and shared in the community of believers.  It is just dismaying to know that when we talk about the Church, most of us look at it in terms of secular standards.  We tend to forget this inner life, and we regard the parish as good if, for example, the parish church is well constructed, the celebrations well attended, the church organizations are in place, the parish councils have plenty of projects, and the parish has much money in the bank.  In the light of Johannine Pentecost, however, all these are secondary.  Money, projects and infrastructures are never an indication that the community flourishes.  The proper questions to ask are: do the members of the parish know each other?  Do they love one another?  Is their love expressed in helping those in need?  Do they form one community?  Does their love grow?  Are they more forgiving than before? 
            The parish may have the best infrastructures, but if it is lacking in love, forgiveness, unity, and mutual concern, it is no different from a secular body that has no soul.  In the end, what really matters is the life in the Spirit of Jesus.