For most of the year, the readings from the Epistles are from the letters of St Paul. But during Eastertide (specifically from Easter I through the 3rd Sunday after Trinity), Paul is shelved and instead we read from John, Peter, and James. During the “great forty days” when we focus intensely on the Resurrection of our Lord, we turn to those whom Paul himself considered the primary witnesses of the that great event. Paul, an apostle “born out of due time,” did not meet the Lord Jesus until long after the others, until after the Ascension. Peter, John, and James had followed the Saviour almost from the beginning of His earthly ministry and saw Jesus soon after His Resurrection.
We know Peter's story well. He was the one who had boasted that he would die for Jesus, then denied Him, but was still commissioned to “feed my sheep.” There is an entire chapter (John 21) devoted to Peter's restoration to office by the Risen Christ. What Jesus did to, in, and with Peter (that sounds like a three-point sermon coming on) is clear in the book of Acts. It is eloquently set forth in the two epistles which Peter authored. When we read those two letters, we must remember that every line was composed by a man who had experienced deep sin and our dear Lord's pardon.
John (whom we read exclusively in the Gospel lessons during Eastertide) was the “beloved disciple” who sat close to Jesus at the Last Supper, stood with the Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross, and was the first to believe when he saw the empty tomb. He was apparently the youngest of the apostles and the last to die. Our final picture of John is that of the elderly man in the penal colony on the Isle of Patmos, with visions of Christ in glory and the new heavens and new earth.
James (whom we read today) was the step-brother of Jesus, whom the Eastern Orthodox Christians audaciously but correctly call the “Brother of God.” (If you truly know Who Jesus really is, that does not shock you.) He was not a believer until after the Resurrection. After all, it is not easy to believe that the Person you played ball with as a kid is God Incarnate, the Saviour of the world. According to I Cor. 15, James was granted a special Resurrection appearance, of which we have no details. It was a family matter. Even the Holy Family is allowed some privacy. But this James became the first bishop of Jerusalem and died as a martyr.
All three were close to Jesus, close to the first Easter Day, powerful witnesses to the event itself. The inspired Writings, of which they were the human authors, invite us also to behold the Risen Saviour and to become witnesses to His glory and partakers in His victory.
Concerning the Gospel:
“It is expedient for you that I go away.” We are in that series of Gospel readings from John 16, a passage thrilling for meditation yet maddening for those who must prepare sermons. Sermons are supposed to be practical, down-to-earth, relevant somehow to our daily lives. But in this long Farewell Discourse, a conversation between Jesus and the Twelve Apostles in the Upper Room just minutes before their going forth to Gethsemane, the Arrest and the Trial, the words of Jesus sound distinctly mystical, impractical, other-worldly. We identify with the complaint of the Twelve: “We do not know what he means”
The last words of great men make a fascinating study. The conversation in the death-room of a loved one can be tense and emotionally fraught. So the final exchanges between Jesus and His closest followers naturally takes on special significance.
Of all the many things He might have discussed with them, Jesus carefully set as His topic the doctrine of the Trinity, the overwhelming mystery of the inner reality of the Godhead as three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. For us, this doctrine seems dry, abstract, of no particular value to the business of life. For Jesus, the Trinity was an urgent and compelling issue. He did not offer the disciples consolation; He gave them catechesis.
How is it to our advantage for us that He go away? He was speaking (and we know more now than did the little gathering in the Upper Room) not only of His departure at His death, but moreover of His departure at His Ascension. On the Cross He prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” This makes death no longer our “last enemy,” but our return to the Father. That is the advantage of His death for us.
In His Ascension He made good on His promise, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus has carried our flesh and blood, our very nature into the most exalted presence of God the Father, when He ascended “to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.” His Ascension was a down payment, or a pilot project, pointing out our own final destination.
But for the immediate present, the advantage of His “going away” is that it triggered the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Ghost. During the years of His earthly ministry, the God-Man was present only in one tiny corner of the world. But now He is with us “in all times and in all places” in a manner even more powerful and effective than His face-to-face presence with the Apostles themselves. Because of the Spirit Who was about to come, Jesus could say, “Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”