And in the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
Hearing the Word
“The Apostolic Foundation”
Continuing with the presentation of the essential aspects of Christian faith and practice in relation to Jesus’ resurrection, the sixth Sunday of Easter looks at the apostolic foundation upon which believers ought to build their lives both in the present and in the future.
The first reading describes the first major disagreement that arose among the members of the rapidly growing and expanding early Church. With the successful mission of Paul and Barnabas and the evangelizing efforts of others, more and more Gentiles were joining Christian communities. This raised a question about the conditions for the admission of the Gentiles to the Church. Jesus, the apostles and early evangelizers were all Jews who faithfully followed the Jewish law. Did that mean that the Gentile converts to Christianity must accept Judaism and follow Jewish ways and customs? Many Jewish Christians thought it did. Some of them came to Antioch, insisting that the Gentiles joining the Church follow the Jewish observance. Such observance required circumcision from the male members and following the Jewish law by all. Others, like Paul and Barnabas, opposed this view, allowing the Gentiles to join and practice Christianity without converting to Judaism and practicing the Jewish law. The real issue behind this debate was whether faith in Jesus alone is sufficient for salvation, or whether this faith needs to be accompanied by the continuing observance of the law of Moses. This became a deeply divisive issue, that affected particularly the Church in Antioch, which was the center of the Gentile mission. To resolve the problem Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem for a meeting with the main Christian leaders, Peter and James the Elder. This meeting, known as the “Jerusalem Council” (cf. Acts 15:3-21), resulted in the first official and public Church declaration known to us. The leaders decided that the Gentiles are not required to observe the Jewish law. This declaration meant that faith alone constitutes the foundation of Christian life and suffices for salvation. A few additional requirements pertaining to renouncing idolatry, abstinence from blood and the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality, were of secondary importance. This decision was announced in the first “Church document”, an apostolic decree carried by the representatives of the Jerusalem Church (Judas Barsabbas and Silas) to be announced in Antioch.
This decision marks the beginning of a new stage of Christian history. It allowed Jewish Christians to continue living by their ancestral law, without imposing it on the non-Jewish believers. But the most significant aspect of this decision was the authoritative declaration by the apostles that faith in Jesus Christ was the sole foundation for Christian life and practice.
The second reading continues with the vision of the new Jerusalem from the previous Sunday. This heavenly city radiating God’s glory symbolizes the new creation and the community of God’s saved people, the heavenly Church, filled with God’s presence. The vision reports that there are twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel which control access to this heavenly city. This is a traditional biblical image based on the Old Testament, where God’s people are identified with the Israelite tribes named after the twelve sons of Jacob. However, this image ultimately goes all the way back to the promise God made to Abraham. It was the promise of a new people, a great nation which will be God’s own. This promise finds its ultimate fulfillment in this new Jerusalem.
This new city rests on the foundation of the twelve apostles, implying that this heavenly community was built on the foundation of the apostolic witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. His life and death as the sacrificial Lamb laid the foundation for this glorious future. Those who partake in it have heard and have believed the apostolic proclamation. Thus, the apostles’ testimony was the foundation for the earthly Church, and laid foundations for the heavenly Church of the future as well. This vision lays emphasis on the crucial role of the apostles and their witness to Jesus as the foundation for the earthy Church and the heavenly community of glorified believers.
The Gospel reading comes from Jesus’ final speech to the apostles, delivered just before his departure from this world. In today’s passage Jesus speaks about two essential foundations for discipleship and apostleship. First, his followers must keep his words, which means that their lives must be directed by his teaching. Such obedience is the sign of love that unites them to Jesus and, through him, to the Father. The commandment of love was at the core of Jesus’ teaching. He understood love as obedience to the Father, and self-sacrifice (cf. John 15:12-14). Thus, the disciples’ lives must be founded on obedience to Jesus’ instruction to live a life of self-sacrificial love. This was the manner of life which Jesus followed in obedience to his Father’s will, and which he expects of his true followers.
The second foundation for the disciples’ lives is the Holy Spirit who will be sent by Jesus from the Father. The Spirit will enable the apostles to continue Jesus’ mission of revealing God to the world by teaching and reminding them of all that Jesus has said. This means that the revelation of God which started with Jesus will continue through the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led apostles. Jesus laid the foundation for their mission. The Holy Spirit, building on this foundation, will make the apostles remember, understand and apply the teaching of Jesus as they continue with their mission.
According to Jesus’ teaching, sacrificial love and the openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit constitute the twofold foundation for apostleship. Built on this foundation, Jesus’ followers are assured of their success as witnesses to him, and of the union with Jesus’ Father which leads to eternal life.
Today’s liturgy discusses some of the foundations of Christian faith and practice. The early Church quickly recognized and proclaimed Jesus’ death and resurrection as the sole foundation for Christian faith and life, and the path to salvation. This proclamation, known as the “kerygma”, forms the core of the apostolic proclamation. The vision in the book of Revelation confirms this by emphasizing that the heavenly community of God’s saved people rests on the foundation of the apostles and their witness to Jesus. The Gospel refers to the apostolic mission as founded on Jesus’ teaching and on the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit. Beyond a doubt, the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation for faith that leads to salvation. Those who build their lives on this foundation ought to pray with the Psalmist that God’s saving ways might be made known to all in the words, “may your way be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations”.
Listening to the Word of God
Today’s liturgy leads us to reflect on the foundations upon which we build our lives. We are Christians today because there were Christians before us. If we look back far enough, we discover that our faith of today has its roots in the faith and experiences of those few early followers of Jesus. These were no extraordinary men and women. They were people much like us, many of them ordinary fishermen and workers, or women, who risked much to follow Jesus and later join the early Christian group. Realizing this we must first be deeply grateful to God, for giving us these witnesses so that we may know him and believe in his Son. But we must be also grateful to them for being courageous and wise enough to take God’s offer and devote their lives to Jesus. Their strength and response to God’s grace makes them truly our “ancestors in faith”.
Those first believers are the foundation for our Christian life, as our family is the foundation for our human life. We owe much to the family. It provided us with food when we were babies, protected us from harm when we started to walk, taught us the rules of life, and then sent us on our way into life through education and guidance. Again, our family is our “ancestor in life”, our foundation, and we must remain deeply grateful for it.
However, this human family foundation might have been shaky at times, or, for some of us, it sadly failed altogether. Perhaps there was lack of care, indifference or even abuse in some form. Perhaps we were never loved and guided as we should have been, and the firm foundation to rely upon was not there. We were brought into life and then left on our own. If this is the case, how do we find firm ground to walk upon?
We might look to the first reading for inspiration. Traveling through foreign lands Barnabas and Paul came to their own people.
Instead of welcome, they found jealousy and violent rejection. It must have hurt to be so treated. Yet they did not loose heart. What helped them was the companionship and faith they shared. Neither of them faced the painful situation alone. They found their foundation in companionship and in Scripture as, through Scripture, they found companionship with God.
Even if we were thrown into this life alone, and without a firm foundation, we still have a chance to find what we never had. The faith community and Scripture can provide us with a firm foundation for life. In the community we can find kindred souls who will share with us both the joy and the pain of life. In the Scripture we can experience God’s presence. And these are the firmest foundations one can hope for in this world.
Today’s liturgy calls us to be grateful for the foundations God provided for us through faith and family. It also admonishes us not to despair or give up when we feel uprooted. The foundations are there, but they need to be found. And the place to look is in the faith community and in Scripture.
“When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him.”
Was I given firm foundations for life when I grew up? What were they?
Am I providing solid and reliable foundations for faith and life to those I am responsible for?
Response to God
I will begin my daily prayer this week with thanksgiving for the many men and women through whom across centuries and generations the gift of faith and knowledge has been passed on to me.
Response to your World
During this week I will read a passage from Scripture as I begin my day, seeking foundation and guidance for all I am about to do.
As a part of our meeting this week we shall pray over and discuss the ways to provide companionship and guidance to those who seem lost and alone in our community.
Lord God, creator of all things. You are the sure and trustworthy foundation for my present and future. Let me feel and experience your constant presence in my life. Strengthen me in adversity and make me grateful in prosperity. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.