Commentary on the Readings
5th Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019 – Year C
Whoever is in Christ is a New Creature
The Church’s days are numbered—some say—because she is old, does not know how to renew herself, repeats old formulas instead of responding to new questions, stubbornly restates obsolete rituals and unintelligible dogmas while today’s people are looking for a new equilibrium, a new way of life, a less distant God.
There is a growing desire for spirituality. Adhesion to new faiths called reiki, channeling, crystal therapy, and dianetics is increasing. The do-it-yourself religion spreads. It disdains the dogmas and churches, a religion in which often Eastern techniques with esoteric interpretations of Christ blend. It equates meditation on the Word of God in a monastery with the emotion felt in the depths of a forest while in a colloquy with an angel-guide. The New Age that promises a utopian vision of an era of peace, harmony, and progress is an expression of this new search.
To confuse loyalty to Tradition (with a capital letter) with the falling back on what is old and worn, with the closing to the Spirit who “renews the face of the earth” is one of the most pernicious misunderstandings in which the Church can fall. Often unjust and unjustified accusations of poor modernity that are trashed on her should still make the Church think. The Church is the repository of the “new heavens and new earth” of the proposed “new man,” the “new commandment,” a “new song.” Whoever dreams of a new world must instinctively turn to her.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I will sing to the Lord a new song, for he daily renews my youth.”
A certain “religious individualism” that preaches the salvation of one’s own soul, disappeared in many places but still survives in some. Of course, the baptized are interested in the soul of the others. They pray that all go to heaven, but the idea that, at the time of reckoning, all friendships will not function and everyone will have to deal alone with God is still deeply rooted. This conception leads to the exasperation of the religion of merits: everyone brings his or her own good works and we should not delude ourselves that, in the end, there may be some transactions.
If things are in these terms we ask: what is the use of the community if then, at the decisive moment, everyone has to fend for himself? Jesus’ disciples are one body, and the individual members cannot live one without the other. They are a people, a family in which everyone is, in some way, responsible for what others do.
The reading develops this theme of community life. Paul and Barnabas are about to conclude their first missionary journey. They crossed many regions, announced the good news in many towns. Before returning to the community of Antioch, from which they were sent and to whom they are accountable for their work, they decide to review the young community that they founded. They want them to be fortified in the faith and helped to organize themselves, and for this, they established a group of elders in each of them.
One cannot conceive of an individualistic Christian life; who does not relate to the others, who lives alone, who thinks only of himself and to his spiritual progress. He or she can be a good, pious, religious person, but not a Christian. That’s why, from the beginning, the apostles feel the need to put up everywhere “centers of fraternity” led by “elders.”
Missionary work is not finished when people embrace the faith and are baptized. It is necessary that believers become a “community” in which each member feels alive, active, and co-responsible.
The term “new” is often used in the Bible: 347 times in the Old Testament and 44 in the New Testament. This adjective means a radical change compared with what existed before. Anything new performed by God is something unexpected, unimaginable, and amazing. When, for example, he promises a “new law” (Jer 31:31-34), it does not refer to a new set of requirements, an “update” of the Decalogue, but to the gift of a radically different law, the inner dynamism that leads to doing good, to the law put in the heart, not written on stone.
Many new realities that the Lord will implement are announced in the Old Testament: a new alliance, a new spirit, a new heart and a new creation: “I now create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind again. Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create; for I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight” (Is 65:17-18).
The first creation was good. All that God had done (Gen 1:31) was “very good,” but man, in his freedom, introduced sin. He used creatures for evil and led them to corruption. The consequences of his foolish choices are before our eyes: wars, violence, oppression, injustice … Is the plan of God, therefore, a hopeless failure? Has creation gone out of the Lord of the universe’s control?
No—the seer of Revelation replied. God controls the destinies of the world, no event takes him by surprise, and he is making all things new (v. 5). He does not destroy the first creation but is preparing a new heaven and a new earth. Only the sea—a symbol of all that is against life (Rev 13:1)—will be made to disappear forever; it will evaporate until the last drop (v. 1).
The vision continues: “I saw the new Jerusalem, the holy city coming down from God, adorned as a bride prepared for her husband” (v. 2). In no day of her life will the woman look charming as on the day of the wedding. She is young, there is no spot or wrinkle on her face, and all people admire her. The reality of the world that we can see is exactly the opposite, and the outlook is bleak. Nothing heralds a so amazing transformation. It is like watching a caterpillar: we never thought that it would give rise to a butterfly.
The conclusion of the world’s story is a dream: God will dwell forever with people “and will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death or mourning or crying out or pain, for the world that was has passed away” (vv. 3-4).
This is the message of joy and hope that John addresses to the Christians of his community, tempted to be disheartened at the apparent and unstoppable triumph of evil. Eventually, they find out—says the seer—that the game has always been led by God.
For us, the heirs of the Greek thought, glorification is the achievement of the approval and the praise of people. It is equivalent to fame, obtained by whoever reaches a prestigious position. All desire it, crave for and fight for it and that is why we turn away from God. The Jews who “seek praise from one another, instead of seeking the glory which comes from the only God” (Jn 5:44), who “preferred the favorable opinion of people, rather than God’s approval” (Jn 12:43) cannot believe in Jesus in whom the “glory” that attracts the eyes and the attention of people is not manifested. In him, the glory of God becomes visible since its first appearance in the world: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14).
God is glorified when he deploys his force and performs deeds of salvation when he shows his love for people. In the Old Testament, his glory was manifested when he freed his people from slavery. “My people will see his glory—promises the prophet—because God comes to save them” (Is 35:2,4).
In the first verses of today’s Gospel (vv. 31-32) the verb ‘glorify’ appears five times: “The Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him”; if God is glorified in him, in turn, “he will glorify him and will glorify him at once.” A redundancy, a verbosity that almost annoys; a solemnity that seems excessive and out of place in the context in which these words are spoken by Jesus. We are in the Upper Room and a few hours is missing to his capture and his death sentence.
Who does not know in advance how the events took place is inclined to think that God is about to amaze everyone with a prodigy, is going to give a demonstration of his power by humiliating his enemies.
None of this. Jesus is glorified because Judas left to reach an agreement with the high priests on how to stop the master (v. 31). Something unheard of, outrageous and incomprehensible to people happen: in Jesus who journeys towards his passion and death, who delivers himself into the hands of the executioners and is nailed to the cross, the “glory” of God is manifested.
A few days before Jesus made it clear in what consists his glory: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified … unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it will produce much fruit” (Jn 12: 23-24). The glory that awaits him is the moment when giving his life, he will reveal to the world how great God’s love for man is. This is the only glory he also promises to his disciples.
The passage continues with the presentation of the new commandment, prefaced by a surprising phrase: little children … (v. 33). The disciples are not children, but Jesus’ brothers. Why call them this way? To understand the meaning of his words, the time when they are pronounced should be kept in mind. At the Last Supper, Jesus realized that he only has a few hours of life and feels the need to dictate his will. As the children considered sacred words spoken by the father on his deathbed, so Jesus wants his disciples to imprint in their mind and heart what he is going to say.
Here is his testament: “I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you!” (v. 34). To underline the importance he will repeat it two more times before walking to the Gethsemane: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:17). He speaks like someone who wants to leave an inheritance: “I give”—he says (v. 34). We ourselves could have chosen a gift among many that he possessed, all—I think—could have asked the power to work miracles. He offered instead a new commandment.
Commandment for us is tantamount to taxation, a heavy commitment to fulfill, a weight to bear. Some believe that happiness is attained by those who are smart, who enjoy life in contravention of the “ten words” of God. Others are convinced that those who manage to keep the Ten Commandments deserve paradise while the unfaithful ones must be severely punished. This is a still widespread conviction and must be urgently corrected because it is extremely pernicious; it is a fruit of a disfigured image of God.
A simple example: If a doctor insists that his patient stops smoking, he does not do so to restrict his freedom, to deprive him of a pleasure, to test him, but because he wants his own good. Secretly, trying not to get noticed, the patient can continue to smoke only to find himself later with damaged lungs. The doctor does not punish him for this (did not hurt him, but he did it to himself). He will always try to have him recover. And God—by the way—Is a good doctor, “heals all sickness” (Ps 103:3). Giving us his commandment Jesus shows himself an unparalleled friend. He has shown us, not with words, but with the gift of life, how to realize the fullness of our existence in this world.
It is a new commandment. In what sense? Is it not already written in the Old Testament: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18)? Let us grasp where the novelty is.
Regarding what the Old Testament recommended the second part is certainly new: “as I have loved you, you also must love one another” (v. 34). The measure of love proposed to us by Jesus is not the one we use for ourselves, but what he has had for us.
It is not said that we love ourselves: we cannot stand our limits, faults, and miseries. If we make a mistake, a bad impression, a gesture of which we should be ashamed of, we even to get punish ourselves. Then the commandment is new because it is not spontaneous for people to love those who do not deserve it or cannot reciprocate. It is not normal to do good to one’s own enemies.
Jesus reveals a new love: he loved those who needed his love to be happy. He loved the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the wicked, the corrupt, his executioners because only in loving them he could get them out of their condition of meanness, misery, and sin.
It is the gratuitous and unmotivated love of which God has given proof in the Old Testament when he chose his people: “The Lord—says Moses to the Israelites—has bound himself to you and has chosen you, not because you are the most numerous among all the peoples (on the contrary you are the least) … but because of his love for you” (Dt 7:7-8). This is why John says: “I am not writing you a new commandment, but reminding you of an old one … if you love your brother you remain in the light” (1 Jn 2:7-10).
But the great novelty of this commandment is another one. It is the fact that no one before Jesus has ever attempted to build a society based on a love like his. The Christian community is set as an alternative, as a new proposal to all the old societies of the world, to those based on competition, meritocracy, money, and power. It is this love that must “glorify” the disciples of Christ.
By the mouth of Jeremiah, God announced: “The time is coming when I will forge a new covenant with the people of Israel” (Jer 31:31). The old covenant was drawn up on the basis of the Ten Commandments. The new alliance is linked to the compliance with a unique, new commandment: love to the brother, such as that Jesus was capable.
Jesus concludes his “testament” by saying: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (v. 35). We know that the fruits do not make the tree alive, however, they are signs that the tree is alive. Good works do not make our communities Christian, but these works give evidence that our communities are animated by the Spirit of the Risen One.
Christians are not people different from others; they do not wear badges, do not live out of the world. What distinguishes them is the logic of the gratuitous love, that of Jesus and that of the Father.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.