Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. This week we open with the first reading from the Book of Acts just after Jesus was taken up into heaven. Then we move to the continuing study in First Peter, and then close with the Gospel lesson from Saint John Chapter 7, which is Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity.
Introduction to the First Reading:
The first reading is from the Book of Acts. The context is forty days after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus had gathered the disciples together and they had just asked Him the question, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6c). This was an honest question and indicated what was evidently on all of their minds. Would Jesus now usher in His reign on earth as both a religious King and supreme civil ruler as foretold in the Scriptures? They would have been familiar with what the Prophet Micah had predicted regarding His future rulership. “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2). Jesus answered their question with something that they probably did not want to hear. He said, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7). However, Jesus went on, “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Afterwards, Jesus was taken up into heaven leaving the disciples waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
With this context in mind read the text and keep in your mind the flurry of events that the disciples had just experienced including seeing a fully alive Man ascend into heaven followed by the appearance of two angels (Acts 1:10).
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. (Acts 1:12-14)
Several points can be drawn from the reading and especially ones that relate to the Gospel lesson later in this study. First, the disciples of the early church were united in continual prayer. The Scriptures call all believers to pray with the example set by Jesus’ first believers. Prayer is one of the ways in which the church is united in their purpose. Some years ago in seminary I took a course in prayer. I wondered how anyone could study prayer for an entire semester. One of the things that I was concerned about before I began the course was that the syllabus said that I had to locate a prayer partner and agree to pray with them for one hour each week throughout the term. Soon after the class began I was able to locate a suitable classmate with which to pray each week. As the semester progressed I noticed for the first time in my life the value of joining in prayer with another Christian. Although I am certain that I didn’t pray with the same fervor as did Saint Peter, I did obtain strength through persisting in meeting with my prayer partner which has led me to much stronger prayer life since the conclusion of the class.
Second, the unity of the church included women, who were people with very low status in the culture, not much more than property. Women were the first ones to testify of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, even though in this culture the testimony of women in civil court was often disregarded. Jesus turned society morays on its proverbial ear, he turned the world upside down by valuing women equally with men and even affording them a position of prominence by seeing to it that they were the first witnesses of the resurrection!
Third, note that John said “These all with one mind” (v. 14a). When all of the believers in a group have the same mind, they are united not only in their purpose but also work to align their will with the revealed will of God through the mutual understanding of His Word in the Scriptures. One of the practices that I did with my own prayer partner was that when we ran out of things to say we just read the Bible aloud. Having just experienced Jesus’ last 40 days of ministry and also being fresh from the Emmaus Road experience the disciples must have studied the Old Testament Scriptures (as we call them) with a renewed fervor and understanding. This unity of thinking and mission would help the early church to persevere during the subsequent persecution that early on descended upon the Church.
Introduction to the Second Reading:
As we move to the second reading and continue with the teaching in First Peter, keep the theme of unity of all believers in your mind. In this message, Saint Peter taught the early church the importance of rejoicing in spite of persecution, as well as what actions to take during these difficulties.
13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (1 Peter 4:13-16)
Peter said that if you “are reviled for the name of Christ” (v.14a) you are blessed. How can someone be blessed if they are persecuted for Christ? Peter said we are blessed during persecution because “the Spirit of glory rests on you” (v.14c-ff). Jesus promised that He would not leave us as orphans (John 14:18), that His Spirit would rest upon the believers. One of the ministries of the Holy Spirit is to help believers to persist in persecution for their faith. Peter called us to “glorify God in this name” and not to be ashamed because of persecution (v. 16). He contrasted this with someone who suffered for breaking a civil law, or even just being a “troublesome meddler,” thing which the Spirit will not comfort us and for which we should expect persecution.
One of the common themes that frequently emerges from the testimony of Christians who experienced long periods of persecution for their faith is the comfort of the Holy Spirit that they found through the unity with other believers. We will see the importance of unity as revealed in Jesus’ prayer to the Father as we move to the Gospel lesson.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
The Gospel lesson for today has to do with Jesus’ call for unity in the Church. John opened the Gospel lesson today by saying, “Jesus spoke these things,” and then he prayed to the Father. What were “these things” to which John was referring? If we look back to the previous two verses, we see what John was referring to. Jesus said, “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:32-33, emphasis added). Jesus knew that the disciples, with the exception of John, would scatter during his tribulation and death on the cross. He also knew that they would scatter because of the persecution that would come upon the young church after he went back to heaven.
1 Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, 2 even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. 3 "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. 4 "I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. 5 "Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. 6 "I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 "Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; 8 for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. 9 "I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; 10 and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 "I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. (John 17:1-11)
Notice how Jesus made a variety of affirmation while He was praying, and then proceeded to present to the Father his petitions. Jesus affirmed that He had authority over the entire world, “all flesh” (v. 1) and that the Father had given the believers eternal life for the purpose of knowing the “one true God and Jesus Christ” (v. 2). He affirmed that He had manifested the Name of the Father to the believers whom the Father had given to Him (v. 6), Next, Jesus prayed that the believers would become “one even as We are one” (v.11). Jesus call to unity with Himself represented the core of the Gospel message, that believers become one with God through faith in Jesus Christ and the living presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
What does all of this mean for our lives? First, Jesus’ call for us to be united with Himself and the Father comes about through the things we have seen in the lesson today. We are to be united by gathering together in prayer, by praying continually, even when we are by ourselves. We are called to submit ourselves to the will of the Father, and to learn His will by understanding His revelation through the Scriptures. Second, we can find unity with God by accepting persecution for our faith with the understanding that this glorifies God. When we are led by God to take up countercultural positions on certain moral issues including affirming the rights of all unborn children we can have courage that God will glorify His name through our obedience.
1. Throughout the lesson today we have seen how the disciples were unified in their mind to accomplish Jesus’ mission for them. One of the ways in which they both expressed and achieved this unity was through their constant prayer with the group.
I challenge you this week to pray with another believer at least once during the upcoming week. Even if it is before a meal or over the telephone, ask the person if they would be willing to pray together. Be prepared to answer the most common objections such as not having enough time, my faith is a personal thing, this makes me uncomfortable, etc.
2. A few years ago I spent two week in France with a group of college students. The cultural differences took me some getting used to. I rejoiced at the fact that those in France still had a certain reverence for the people of God although they regarded people who claimed to be Christians with a bit of suspicion.
In light of your cultural experiences, how does your faith in Jesus Christ help you in overcoming the cultural differences that you experience in your own life and work? How does what you learned today help to inform you on some of the ways in which to attack these cultural challenges?