Today the church celebrates the memory of St. Justin, one of the earliest and best-known martyrs of the Roman Church who lived in the second century A.D. A philosopher and theologian, he poured out his life in pastoral service and then gave the ultimate gift of love—his very life in testimony to the truth of the gospel.
The readings for this day stand in harmony with Justin’s spirit. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is the famous scene of Paul’s farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus. Paul was returning for the last time to Jerusalem and there he would be arrested, held in prison at Caesarea Maritima for two years, and eventually taken on a prison ship to Rome where Paul would himself become a martyr. Paul and his friends did not know all these details when he met them at Miletus (a promontory south of Ephesus) but he—and they—had a premonition that this would be an ultimate farewell.
Paul testifies that he gave his all for his beloved Christians and they, in turn, lavished their loving gratitude on him. The scene ends poignantly as they “throw their arms around Paul and kissed him, for they were deeply distressed that he had said that they would never see his face again.”
The gospel selection from Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s Gospel has a similar mood. Jesus, too, on the eve of his passion, is aware that he will be leaving his disciples and so prays earnestly to the Father to protect them from harm. A key departing gift is that Jesus empowers his disciples with the same mission of revealing God’s love for the world that had been entrusted to Jesus himself by his Father: “As you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world.” This commission would be repeated by the Risen Jesus when he appears to his frightened disciples gathered in Jerusalem. He “breathes the Spirit” upon them and sends them into the world just as Christ himself was sent.
The reader of John’s Gospel knows that the evangelist had earlier succinctly described the ultimate mission of Jesus: God sent his son in to the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).
When all is said and done, in the commitment of martyrs like Justin and in the words of the Gospel, we know that the Christian mission to the world is a message of love—loved preached and love embodied. In a world so fractured by violence and division, the gospel message is more compelling than ever before.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.