easter The Sánchez Archives

Year C

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

That All May Be One

ACTS 7:55-60
REVELATION 22:12-14, 16-17, 20
JOHN 17:20-27

In today’s gospel, the Johannine Jesus confronts the gathered assembly with a conundrum, i.e. the difficult and complicated issue of the unity of the human community. As this excerpt from Jesus’ prayer at the last supper is proclaimed, Christians are prompted to consider: (1) whether Jesus’ intention, “that all may be one,” has been or ever will be achieved; (2) whether or not it has been a priority in the life of each believer and in the communal life of the worldwide human community; (3) whether unity is even possible or desirable among the peoples of this world.

When Christian churches addressed the issue of unity at their meetings in Stuttgart (October, 1988), Basle (May, 1989) and Seoul (March, 1990), they produced a document which pointedly and frankly admitted of failures in this regard. Han Küng has included some of these admissions in his timely work entitled Global Responsibility (Crossroads Publishing Co., New York: 1991).

We have failed because we have not borne witness to God’s caring love for each and every creature. We have failed because we have not overcome the divisions between the churches and have often used the authority and power given to us to strengthen false and limited solidarities like racism, sexism and nationalism. We have failed because we have caused wars or excused them and often too easily justified them. We have failed to be mediators and reconcilers. We have failed because we have not questioned decisively enough the political and economic systems which misuse power and riches, which exploit resources and perpetuate poverty and marginalization. We have failed because we have regarded ourselves and our countries as the superior center of the world. We have failed because we have not borne constant witness to the sanctity and dignity of all life.

But true union will not be achieved simply by recognizing and admitting failures. This being the first step, the acknowledgement of guilt must be followed by a deliberate and sustained process of radical change, change that begins in the mind and heart and will, and is authentically translated into words, works and daily continuing efforts. To that end, the participants in the above named meetings proposed that there be: (1) a new social world order in which there is not just freedom for all but also justice. This would require that all men and women would possess equal rights and live in solidarity with one another; (2) a pluralistic world order in which there is not just equality but a reconciled multiplicity of cultures, traditions and peoples, free of discrimination of any sort; (3) a world order in partnership wherein all men and women in church and society share responsibility at all levels and wherein all can freely contribute their gifts, insights, values and experiences; (4) a world order in which mere coexistence yields to authentic peace, mere competitive productivity yields to global sharing and solidarity, and mere tolerance yields to true ecumenism.

However, new world orders cannot be imposed from without; any hope of arriving at global transformation must begin with initial efforts at the grassroots level. Therefore, Jesus’ prayer, “that all may be one,” challenges each of us to look, not across cultures, continents and oceans but into the mirror over the bathroom sink. Therein each of us will discover the person in whom the first steps toward unity are to begin. Having thus recognized the need for, and having admitted of our failures to make Jesus’ prayer a reality, each of us is then challenged to look to those with whom we have the most proximate contact. These are the people with whom the bonds of unity must be forged and, when necessary, be restored. From these most proximate venues, unity must spread until its embrace is full, deep and inclusive of all.

That such union is both necessary and attainable is reflected in Luke’s narrative about the efforts of the early church (Acts). Stephen, a Greek speaking Jew of the diaspora who gave his life for the faith, had been welcomed into the community, as were all other peoples; the first generations of believers understood that Jesus’ prayer for unity had become theirs to realize. In today’s excerpted text from Revelation, John the seer reminds his speakers that Jesus will one day return, bringing retribution for each person according to his/her conduct. In the final analysis, it will be his prerogative to determine how well or how poorly his prayer has been realized in our midst. . . that all may be one.

ACTS 7:55-60

Visitors to the Vatican in Rome may enjoy a fifteenth century C.E. cycle of representations of the life of Stephen in the Capella Nicolina. In the six successive scenes, Stephen is ordained as deacon; he distributes alms, preaches, is condemned, led out to martyrdom and stoned. Although the date of his death is not known, Stephen is closely related to Christ because he was the first to give witness to him through his blood. Accordingly the Sacramentaries, calendar and martyrologies of the Western Church designated the day after Christmas as his feast. Because the Eastern Church commemorates the parents of Jesus on December 26, the feast of Stephen is observed on the following day.

A Hellenist convert to Christ, Stephen is featured in Acts as “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5) and as “filled with grace and power, working great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). As part of his final witness to Christ, Stephen was represented by Luke as delivering a lengthy discourse which was, in effect, an apology for the faith. As S. J. Hartdegen (“Stephen,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Jack Heralty and Associates, Inc., Palatine, IL: 1981) has pointed out, Stephen’s sermon is actually a theology of Israel’s history in which the continuity of divine revelation, begun with Abraham is shown to be fulfilled in Christ. As Stephen exposed Israel’s progressive opposition to God’s word by failing to keep it and as he underscored the obsolescence of the law and temple, the ingratitude of the people, their persecution of the prophets, the tempers of his listeners raged. When he climaxed his exposé before the high priest by calling his prosecutors “stiff-necked people who always oppose the Holy Spirit” and who betrayed and “put to death the righteous one” (7:51-52), Stephen was martyred by stoning.

The death of Stephen as featured in today’s first reading is patterned on that of Jesus in whom he believed and to whom he witnessed. Both men evoked a violent reaction from the Sanhedrin, who judged them to be blasphemers (Luke 22:70 = Acts 7:56). Both freely commended their spirits to God (Luke 23:46 = Acts 7:59), and both prayed for forgiveness for their executioners (Luke 23:34 = Acts 7:60). St. Augustine suggested, in his comments on this last similarity, that “if Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have Paul!” Indeed, Paul, who is introduced in this narrative as being in collusion with Stephen’s executioners, would eventually follow the pattern set by Jesus and Stephen. By God’s grace and through the prayers and blood of the martyrs, he became a man, filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, who would also work great wonders and signs among the people.

Finally, Stephen’s vision of his soon-to-be-eschatological- future fulfilled the promises that Jesus had made to his own before his departure, viz., “you will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27), and when he was arraigned before the Sanhedrin, viz., “from this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). Rather than thwart its efforts or hinder its growth, Stephen’s death functioned as a catalyst for the spread and development of the early church. The church’s contemporary martyrs continue this tradition inasmuch as these remain faithfully united in both life and death to the Lord.

REVELATION 22:12-14, 16-17, 20

In one of his sermons, evangelist Billy Graham shared a little known fact with his listeners. Inscribed inconspicuously in the dome of the Capitol building in Washington are the words, “One far-off divine event toward which the whole creation moves.” When a visitor asked a guide what it meant, he answered, “I think it refers to the second coming of Christ.” Graham explained that when the dome of the seat of the U.S. government was erected, some God-fearing official thought that that truth was vital to the concern of the nation.

The truth of Jesus’ second advent has been vital to the lives of believers for two millennia. As the third Christian millennium approaches, it continues to stir the hopes of all who struggle and sigh in eager anticipation of Jesus’ appearance.

Near the end of the first Christian century, when the struggle to remain faithful was intensified during the persecution launched against believers by Emperor Domitian, John, the seer and author or Revelation, kept the hope of Jesus’ return fresh in the minds and hearts of his contemporaries. Today’s second reading is a melding of comforting promises and proclamations made by the risen and glorified Christ to his own. Framed between the repeated assurances “I am coming soon!” (vv. 12, 20) are several christological titles. Alpha and Omega, First and Last, Beginning and End, signified the fullness, completeness and perpetuity of Christ’s power and authority. Because he is all in all, there is nothing to fear. The titles, Root, Offspring of David and Morning Star referenced messianic prophecies (Isaiah 11:1-10; Numbers 24:17) which had been realized in Jesus’ saving mission.

Reminding his readers that the second appearance of Jesus would also be a time of reckoning (“I bring with me reward that will be given to each person as his/her conduct deserves” v. 12), the risen Lord also explains the role of humankind in God’s plan of salvation.

The gift of redemption which Jesus made available to all through his death on the cross is precisely that - a gift. But it is a gift which must be appropriated by each believer. John describes this appropriation as: (1) the washing of our robes; elsewhere he specifies “in the blood of the Lamb”; (2) a thirst for life-giving water; and (3) a willingness to come to Christ and to the church. In other words, the God’s saving gifts are appropriated through faith and by baptism into the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. Those who so believe are washed clean of sin, assured of eternal life and a share in the glory of the One who comes.

Contemporary readers of John, who continue to find encouragement in his assurances are also reminded that initiation into Christ is not a one-time event but a process that continues from the cradle to the grave. Therefore daily renewal, daily washing of our robes, daily slaking of our thirst with the life-giving water of the scriptural word and daily coming to Christ are the necessary prerequisites for the glory yet to come.

JOHN 17:20-27

In his commentary on this Johannine discourse, Mark Link (Action 2000, Praying Scripture in a Contemporary Way, Tabor Publishing, Allen, TX: 1994) offered the following story. A group of shipwrecked people were adrift at sea in a long narrow lifeboat. The boat was so long that the people in the front thought of themselves as the “front” people and those in the back as the “back” people. Suddenly, the front of the boat developed an uncontrollable leak. A man in the back of the boat whispered to the woman next to him, “Thank God that leak is in the front. If it were in the back, we’d be doomed!” This humorous anecdote conveys a serious lesson. All of us are obviously in the same boat. Therefore a threat to any one of us is a threat to all of us and should be perceived and dealt with as such. When Jesus prayed for oneness among his disciples and with all those who would come to believe in him through their efforts, he was similarly affirming the solidarity of all the passengers in the bark of Peter which is the church.

Part of the prayer which Lutheran theologian, David Chytraus (1531-1600 C.E.) first called Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17:1-26), the Johannine Jesus’ oration was similar in style and substance to that of the Jewish high priest. Annually, on the feast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) the high priest would offer sacrifice and prayers first for himself, then for the priests and levites and finally for the community. Jesus’ prayer included prayers for himself, for his disciples and for all future believers. Unlike the Jewish high priest, Jesus had no need to offer sacrifices for his own sins; he who was sinless offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of all humankind. Moreover, as Raymond E. Brown (The Gospel According to John, Doubleday, New York: 1970) has pointed out, Jesus is high priest not only in offering sacrifice but also in the fact that he stands before the throne of God making intercessions for us, as described extensively in the letter to the Hebrews.

Notice that Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” requests a solidarity among believers which is based on the solidarity that exists between Jesus and the God who sent him into the world. . . “that all my be one, as you Father are in me, and I in you.” Kevin Quast (Reading the Gospel of John, Paulist Press, New York: 1991) is correct in explaining that the unity Jesus requested cannot be established by good will or human effort, nor is it a fleeting harmony dependent on the will of its participants. This unity is an objective reality that has its source in God. Nevertheless, this God-given unity must be so authentically appropriated and tended by believers as to cause the world to come to faith in Jesus . . . “that the world may believe that you sent me.”

There is no little irony in the fact that the Johannine community, within which Jesus’ prayer was remembered, preserved and handed on, had a formidable struggle with unity. A community with striking similarities to the contemporary Christian community, the Johannine church was riddled with disagreements over the implications and applications of the gospel. Some in the community negated the importance of Jesus and of the incarnation. They were indifferent to the necessity of communal love and upright moral behavior, claiming themselves to be free of sin and already living in the glory of the eschaton. Eventually, though not without great conflict, these members (Raymond E. Brown refers to them as “secessionists,” op. cit.) broke away from their more orthodox brothers and sisters and moved toward gnosticism.

Struggles with unity persist in the worldwide community which calls itself Christian, as members allow their disagreements to alienate them from one another. These struggles and the obvious lack of unity offers a negative witness to the world which is so in need of unification. Until such time as Jesus’ words, “that all may be one,” become a lived reality, we must continue to pray and work and struggle to appropriate the gift that he wished us to share, first with him, then with one another and the world.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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