Concerning the Epistle.
Last Sunday and again today our first reading comes from St Peter's first Epistle. Both passages deal with the upright existence which a Christian, whose uniquely supernatural life, derived from Christ's resurrection and upheld by His Spirit, must live in the mundane here and now between the two Comings of the Lord, during the "little while" which today's Gospel reading speaks of.
Moral advice, even in Holy Scripture, is hardly ever exciting to read. But Peter should surely get our attention when he speaks of "having your conversation honest among the Gentiles," or in the language we speak, "keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable." An unremarkable exhortation becomes quite remarkable when we recall that the original readers, the addressees of this Epistle, were themselves Gentiles! He identified them, somewhat quaintly, as "elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia."
These "elect exiles" were Christians living throughout what we know as Turkey. But ethnically, they were Gentiles themselves. In describing his readers as "exiles of the dispersion," Peter compares them to those Jews who had been carried off to Babylon when Jerusalem fell several centuries before. The chosen people had been dispersed from their homeland, never to return completely. They always lived as foreigners and aliens among the Gentiles, set apart by language, life-style and faith, perpetually waiting for a mighty act of God which would restore them to their proper place.
These Gentile converts, Peter stated, have now been incorporated into that history. Those who had been ethnic Gentiles are now part of God's chosen covenant people. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, .... Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."
But lest his readers should become puffed up by such a recital of God's goodness, Peter reminded them, and us, of our current situation. As God's chosen people dispersed in a sinful world, we are "strangers and exiles." As redeemed Christians we live in a world not yet redeemed. In this complicated situation we always stand out in the crowd, we will forever be on exhibit, we cannot avoid being watched. Therefore when Christians fail to behave as Christians, the real "Gentiles," that is, the men of this unbelieving world, are always quick to say, "See there."
Peter wrote, "that when they speak against you as evil-doers, they may see you good deeds, and glorify God on the day of visitation," that is, at the Last Day. He echoed our Lord's words, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
Concerning the Gospel.
Today and the next thee Sundays (Easter III through the Sunday after Ascension Day) our Gospel lessons are taken from the same chapter, John 16. That chapter is the conclusion of a longer unit which begins at John 13:31 known as the Farewell Discourses. This is a long sermon from the mouth of Jesus which He delivered in the Upper Room after the Last Supper before going out to the Garden of Gethsemane.
John makes the setting clear: these words were uttered before the crucifixion, not after. But they indeed sound like the teaching of the Risen Lord as He was preparing for His final Ascension. Luke tells us that in the “Great Forty Days” between the Resurrection and Ascension Jesus continued to open the Scriptures and instruct the disciples. These Discourses surely sound like just such teaching.
So was John confused? Quite apart from the supernatural assistance of the Holy Ghost who inspired him, John was a consummate literary artist. A remarkable feature of John's Gospel is that it deliberately does not separate the Saviour's humiliation and exaltation as chronological periods. In his opening chapter, John wrote, “We beheld His glory.” In this Gospel, the glory of God Incarnate was visible to the eyes of faith from the very beginning. His Divine glory transfigured every moment of His earthly human life.
As our Lord contemplated His suffering and death, soon to take place, He could speak of His passion almost in the past tense. This means that His words are simultaneously true on two different levels. For example, when He said, “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father,” He was speaking of two different departures and two different returns. He departed when He died on the cross; He departed when He ascended into heaven. He returned when He rose from the dead, and He will return again at His final Coming at the end of history.
We can read each verse of this chapter in just such a way, two levels, two meanings. But for starters, consider simply the phrase “a little while.” The time between Jesus' death and resurrection was about 39 hours. But how long is the time between His ascension and final coming? Two thousand years, and still counting. Jesus nonetheless told us this was “a little while.” Peter clarified this for us in his statement that for God a thousand years was but as a day. God Himself is the timekeeper, not we ourselves. As we sing in Hymn 87*,
Come then, true and faithful, now fulfil thy word,
'Tis thine own third morning! Rise, O buried Lord!
How stunning it is that in one of our greatest Easter hymns, we pray earnestly for our Saviour's return at the last day!
* Welcome Happy Morning is 87 in the Hymnal 1940-- American