Friday, May 17, 2019

June 2, 2019 - 7th Sunday of Easter

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [607]

Acts 16:16-34;  Psalm 97;  Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26. 
 Jesus’ Departure is a separation from but not an abandonment of the world.  
The Seventh Sunday of Easter comes three days after Ascension Day and a week before Pentecost.  Even though the Lectionary readings for this Sunday are not directly about the ascension, they still share the aura of this event at the climax of the Easter season.  
The ascension is about departure.  Only Luke, among New Testament writers, narrates an ascension separate from the resurrection.  Many passages speak of Jesus exalted to heavenly rule at the right hand of God, but only Luke tells of his departure from the earth as a specific event (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-12).  
The churches addressed in Luke’s writings knew that the great event was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when their charismatic missions in the world had begun.  The ascension, just before that, was the conclusion of Jesus’ time with the apostles.  What followed had been prepared by Jesus before hand (Acts 1:8), but the time of the church in the world is a time without Jesus.  
The apostles witnessed to Jesus as he was in the past – and as he would be one final time at the end – but the churches lived in the world, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  
Acts 16:16-34.  
The reading from Acts is very much an action story.  It shows how the church worked in the world – with a little divine assistance indeed, but mainly with a lot of faith and persistence.  
In scene one, Paul and Silas heal a possessed slave girl, employed as a fortune-teller, who has been taunting them (though what she says is actually true, from the writer’s viewpoint, verse 17).  Like other idolatrous men in Acts (19:23-27), her owners are greedy rather than religious, and Paul has ruined their hoax with the girl.  They cause a riot in the market place with the result that the magistrates sentence Paul and Silas to severe beatings and imprisonment.  
In scene two, Paul and Silas sing hymns in prison at night and an earthquake strikes, springing their manacles and the cell doors.  The jailer is saved from suicide by Paul who declares that no one has escaped – though the doors were open.  (This is the real miracle, rather than the earthquake!)  The jailer and his family are converted to the new faith and become mainstays of the church in Philippi.  
Paul and Silas appear to be isolated and defenseless here, to the extent of receiving cruel floggings in the market place.  However, they endure and things work out for them, with the result that the community of faith is strengthened, starting from those in the dungeons.  
Jesus seems absent, but some greater power is working for the life of the spirited church.  
Psalm 97.  
The Ascension is about a departure from earth.  BUT, it is also an ascension to heaven.  The heavenly destination is portrayed at length in the book of Revelation, a complex  portrayal that is based on such ecstatic visions as this psalm.  
It is standard lore that “clouds and thick darkness are all around” God (verse 2, NRSV).  In Israel’s wilderness journeys, God is veiled in a pillar of cloud by day – a cloud which at night glows like a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-23).  
The psalm is declaring what could be seen if the cloud were not there!  The cloud hides the inner secret of God’s explosive appearance.  
“Yahweh is king” (verse 1).  In the Hebrew, this is an event (Yahweh has become King!), not a status.  It is such an amazing thing that cosmic phenomena break out in joy over it – fireworks, lightning, earthquakes, melting mountains (verses 3-5).  
Our psalm becomes a celebration of the Acts narrative when it proclaims the folly of idolaters.  “All worshipers of images are put to shame, / those who make their boast in worthless idols” (verse 7) – like the greedy ones of Philippi.  “The Lord…guards the lives of his faithful; / he rescues them from the hand of the wicked” (verse 10), as happened in the prison holding Paul and Silas.  
The reign of God – and of God’s anointed – is a heavenly reality that appears mysteriously within the earthly scenes from which Jesus has departed.  
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21.  
The destination of the ascension, the heavenly presence of God where the Lamb receives authority over the forces that cause chaos on earth, is also the place from which the final return will come.  This passage presents the last words of Jesus, the heavenly Lord, giving assurance that he is coming – that is, he is about to reverse the departure!  
That assurance is answered by the church’s prayer that he will indeed come.  
“See, I am coming soon… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (verses 12-13, NRSV).  
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.  
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!  (verses 17 and 20).  
The departure that is seen as the ascension is not final.  It will last only during the time of the servant and spirited church on earth.  
John 17:20-26.  
The whole of John 13-17 has Jesus interpreting to the disciples his imminent departure.  In the last chapter of this section, chapter 17, Jesus has finished instructing the disciples and turns to God in prayer.  
Jesus’ prayer is about the completion of his own mission (verses 1-5), about the disciples who have been prepared but are now being left behind (verses 6-19), and about the later generations who will believe because of the testimony of the disciples (verses 20-26, or at least verses 20-21).  
Our reading is this final section – the believers of the future who will not know Jesus directly but only through the communion with the disciples.  
After Jesus’ departure, the believers will share a mystic communion with God, Jesus, and each other. 
I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples present at the supper], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (verses 20-21, NRSV).  
This communion is manifested in the world as love (agape), which binds the unity of the faithful.  
Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.  I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them (verses 25-26).  

At his departure, Jesus leaves behind the model and the command to love one another, and in such loving the believers will experience the truth and reality of the righteous God.  

May 26, 2019 - 6th Sunday of Easter

                                                                     Biblical Words                                         [606] 
Acts 16:9-15;  Psalm 67;  Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29. 
 The Holy Spirit leads to new missions, offering joy to peoples and nations, however embattled by evil they may be.  
The Easter season moves toward the climax of Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sundays.  This next-to-last Sunday of the season has as one of its themes the movement of the Spirit of the Lord toward the peoples and nations who yearn to hear the good news.  
Acts 16:9-15.  
The reading from Acts presents the moment in Paul’s work when the mission crosses over from Asia to Europe.  This is the work of the Spirit, which has guided Paul’s route and destinations through the Roman provinces of Galatia and Asia (Acts 16:6-8).  At Troas on the northwestern coast Paul experiences a vision of the “man of Macedonia” calling for Paul to come and help them.  (It turns out, after Paul gets there, that the “man” proves to be a woman, Lydia.)  Responding to the call, they go to the Macedonian city of Philippi.  
Macedonia was the old homeland of Alexander the Great, who had conquered and brought Hellenistic culture to the lands east of Greece as far as India.  The city of Philippi had been founded by Alexander’s father, Philip II, who named it for himself.  Three centuries later (42 BCE), Philippi was the site of Mark Anthony’s victory over Brutus and others who had assassinated Julius Caesar.  Mark Anthony re-founded Philippi and made it a Roman colony, a place for the settlement of retired Roman soldiers.  
First “we” passage in Acts.  As the Acts passage describes this movement of Paul from Troas to Philippi, it shifts from the third person to the first.  Verse 7 reads, “When they [Paul and his companions] had come opposite Mysia, …” while verse 10 reads, “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia…” and the following travel details continue in the first person.  Scholars have long debated the implications of this shift in speech for the authorship of the book of Acts, but the plainest and most likely explanation is that the speaker is saying, in a quiet and unassuming way, “I was there for this”!  
The passage of the gospel message into Europe had an eyewitness who speaks directly to the hearers.  (Other “we” passages in Acts are in chapters 20-21 and 27-28.)  
The first convert to faith in Jesus in Philippi is Lydia, and the passage gives several details about her.  She conducted a commercial enterprise, dealing in dyed purple cloth, which probably took her to other cities also.  She was an immigrant to Philippi, having come from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor (one of the seven churches addressed by Christ in Revelation 2-3).  She was a devout person, non-Judean, but adhering to the Judean faith in God (verse 14).  There apparently were not enough Judeans in this Roman provincial capital to form a synagogue (ten Judean men were required), and a common practice of Judeans in such circumstances was to meet on the Sabbath at some river, as happens here.  
There apparently were only women gathered here for prayer outside Philippi, and Paul speaks to them about Jesus.  Lydia was present and “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly…”  She and her household were baptized, and she pressed Paul to accept the hospitality of her home.  Though Lydia is not referred to in Paul’s later letter to the church in Philippi, the first foothold for the assembly of Jesus people in Europe was accomplished.  
Psalm 67.  
The Psalm reading is a short composition, soliciting God’s grace and blessing on “us,” so that other peoples may see and enthusiastically praise the God who is the source of such blessing.  The words “nations” and “peoples” tumble out of the psalm at almost every other line.  
There are three Hebrew terms involved here, which the translations do not fully distinguish.  Following the NRSV, these three are identified as follows:  
·        The “nations” in verse 2 [v. 3 in Heb.] are the goyyim, nations in the most common sense, used widely in poetry and prose.  
·        The “peoples” in verses 3-5 are the ‘ammim, peoples, extended kinship groups, widely used in both poetry and prose.  
·        In verse 4, however, the “nations” are the Hebrew term le’ummim, a term used almost exclusively in poetry, having connotations more of “clan” or “tribe.”  The sense may be similar to “nations” as used in reference to Native American tribal communities.  
In any case, the force of the psalm is to summon and anticipate that the “peoples” and “nations” all around will celebrate and praise the salvation manifested toward God’s people, who here exult in their blessings.  
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5.  
The reading from the book of Revelation continues the visions of the end time given to the seer John.  For the Easter season, these are the visions of the heavenly reign entered into by the Risen Lord.  
Here he sees the New Jerusalem – a city marked by the presence of God and God’s Anointed (the Lamb).  The Lord and the Lamb provide whatever light and holiness this heavenly-city-come-to-earth will need.  There will be no sun, and there will be no temple, for the presence of God enlightens and sanctifies all.  Everything is holy; all that was secular has passed away in the several judgments narrated earlier in the revelation.  “But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (verse 27, NRSV).  
The holy city will be recognized by the nations, who will bring their glory (wealth) to it, as the old prophecies said.  (The heavenly Zion, enlightened by God and receiving the wealth of the nations, is elaborated in Isaiah 60.)  Out of the throne of God in this heavenly city will flow the River of Life, with its water bright as crystal and the healing trees on both sides (verses 1-2, descended from the old vision in Ezekiel 47:1-12).  
Thus the heavenly drama of the Risen Lord is projected to its incomprehensible climax.  
HOWEVER, this is the place to observe that the Lectionary selections from Revelation have been extremely selective.  Besides the heavenly liturgies, of which we have heard much, the book of Revelation also contains much struggle and conflict, and that part has been left out of the Lectionary readings.  See Note Below on Revelation in the Lectionary.  
John 14:23-29.  
The Gospel reading is from that great series of farewell addresses Jesus delivers as he prepares the disciples for his departure in John’s Gospel.  
First there is a statement of an ultimate unity between Son, Father, and loving follower:  “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.” (Verse 23; the NRSV has gender-corrected masculine singulars into common-gender plurals here.).  
But prior to the realization of that unity, there is departure!  In place of Jesus’ own presence to the believers, he will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is sent by the Father, sent in Jesus’ name, and is a means of teaching the disciples – of teaching them what they already have heard from Jesus himself.  The Advocate “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (verse 26).  
The passage intends to give confidence to the followers, especially after Jesus is gone.  The process the disciples will go through is a continuous series of “Ah ha!” experiences.  That’s what that meant!”  (See, for example, John 2:21-22 and 12:16.)  Thus the reading concludes, “And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe” (verse 29).  
The Gospel expects a period of reflection and continued illumination on the part of the disciples, constantly assisted by the Spirit, before they move out to share the new life with the peoples and the nations.  
Note on Revelation in the Lectionary  
The Lectionary readings taken from the book of Revelation are heavily loaded toward the liturgical and heavenly-drama sections of that book.  There is much else in this unique Christian book that has been left out of the three-year cycle of readings.  
Christopher Rowland sums up Revelation in the Lectionary as follows:  
The Revised Common Lectionary prescribes ten readings from Revelation over the three-year cycle.  Of these ten readings, five are from Revelation 21-22 [New Heaven and Earth and the New Jerusalem], four from two passages (1:4-8; 7:9-17) [both visions of the heavenly liturgy], and one from chapter 5 [another heavenly liturgy].  …To paraphrase Bonhoeffer’s words, we have ceased to be a community that hears the Apocalypse, for the simple reason that we do not allow ourselves the opportunity of hearing, let alone keeping, its words.  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon, Vol. 12 [1998], p. 510.)  
The point is that over half the book of Revelation is about the struggle against resisting evil that causes the agony accompanying the birth of the new age.  
There is a great cosmic warfare going on, and the seer’s visions present the warring sides and the cost to faithful witnesses of the struggle between the mighty forces of evil and the good forces of the heavenly Lamb.  There is not another book in the Christian Bible that presents so clearly the oppressive power of great imperial forces.  This is a message that many Christians around the world need to hear, because it reflects their own experience of overwhelming forces bearing them down – but insists also on a final hope for deliverance.  
Let me enter a plea here for serious readers to find time to read at least chapters 12 and 13.  Both chapters speak in symbols, but powerful and awesome symbols.  
In Chapter 12 the woman robed in sun and moon who is pregnant and flees to the wilderness from the Dragon who seeks to consume her child – this is the warfare on earth of the Israel-Church from whom the Anointed One was born.  The Dragon is the central force of anti-creation, expressed in the Hebrew scriptures as the great deep and the chaos of water that overwhelms all human order.  
The woman’s child escapes the Dragon and is whisked off to heaven where he assumes divine authority as the Lamb.  This produces an intense warfare in heaven, and the Dragon is defeated.  “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (12:9, NRSV).  Unfortunately for the earth, it is at the mercy of these newly rampant forces of evil.  “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17).  
In chapter 13 there is the presentation of two beasts, which symbolize more organized and focused evil forces than the vague Dragon of chapter 12.  The beast from the sea (13:1-10) is an agent empowered by the Dragon, who utters blasphemies and “was allowed to make warfare on the saints and conquer them.  … [A]ll the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written … in the book of life …” (13:7-8).  
The second beast (13:11-18) is from the earth, but equally empowered by the Dragon and the first beast.  This beast has powers of a magician, which it uses to support worship of the first beast.  It can bring an idolatrous image to life, to dazzle gullible followers, and has power to execute people who will not worship the beast.  Finally, this second beast is in charge of the demonic bureaucracy of Satan:  “It causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (13:16-17).  The name/number of the beast is, of course, that notorious if ill-used number 666.  
Such language and imagery is extravagant and takes patience to appreciate.  Christopher Rowland comments, 
Talk about Satan is avoided by some liberally minded people.  It seems to reflect the beliefs of simple-minded believers or the fantasies of infancy, …yet it is a potent resource to help us to comprehend the forces that upset and subvert our managed lives.  … As Revelation indicates, the manifestation of Satan’s power is complex.  It is institutional and social as well as personal.  Thus the beast is a concrete embodiment of evil power.  Evil does not take the form of a single king but an imperial institution or structure; it is a way of operating, and its agents of propaganda take many shapes (13:1ff.).  Likewise, Babylon [chapters 17-18] is not an individual but a city with its whole network of relationships and institutions contributing to a pattern of life, involvement in which John calls “fornication.”  (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12, p. 653.)  

Much of the language and vision materials of Revelation are highly suggestive insights into the forces of evil, the larger inertias of masses of people and power that ultimately oppose and resist the power of good indicated by the great end-goal, the Reign of God.   

Saturday, May 11, 2019

May 19, 2019 - 5th Sunday of Easter

                                                                     Biblical Words                                         [605] 
Acts 11:1-18;  Psalm 148;  Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35. 
The peoples of the nations, all of heaven and earth, are included in the new command to love one another.  
Acts 11:1-18.  
This first reading tells how Peter took the gospel to the nations.  
The whole passage (10:1-11:18) relates, with repetitions, Simon Peter’s experience with the household of the Roman army officer, Cornelius.  Our reading repeats the essentials of Peter’s story told in chapter 10.  Judean disciples back in Jerusalem need to be persuaded that God has really done a new thing – sent the gospel message to the non-Judean nations.  
Peter had a vision that told him to treat all animals as clean for dietary purposes.   Peter resists such conduct, which would be sacrilege for a Judean.  God insists, however, telling him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (verse 9, NRSV).  This declaration has radical implications for Judean practice; it abolishes the food laws of Leviticus 11.  It abolishes a major reason for separating Judeans from non-Judeans in table fellowship.  
(According to Mark 7:1-23 this step had been taken by Jesus himself.  Luke had omitted that entire episode from his Gospel, knowing that in the circuit of his churches, God would work directly through Peter to make the Judean food laws obsolete for Christians.  In actual history, Paul discovered that Peter did not consistently hold such a view; see Galatians 2:11-14.)  
When Peter went to Caesarea – the capital city of the Roman province of Judea – he recited to Cornelius’ household a version of the gospel of Jesus (the version used in the Lectionary on Easter Sunday).  He has only begun when “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had at the beginning” (verse 15).  
This coming of the Holy Spirit is taken by Peter and his companions as divine proof that uncircumcised people are intended by God to be included in the Jesus community.  Peter recalls Jesus’ words that John baptized with water but the followers of Jesus will be baptized by the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit was given to these non-Judean folks, Peter says, “who was I that I could hinder God?” (verse 17).  His previously critical circumcised believers are convinced and acknowledge that God “has given even to the Nations the repentance that leads to life.”  
This episode of Peter with Cornelius is one of the more deliberately constructed passages in the book of Acts.  The mature Luke, late in the first century, is putting a spin on some Caesarea traditions to make Peter the first apostle to the non-Judean people.  This writer wants to present Paul, to whom the last half of Acts is devoted, as following and paralleling the work of Peter, and thus presents Peter as the first “apostle to the nations.”  
(Acts elsewhere indicates that the first acceptance of non-Judean disciples probably happened in Antioch and was done by Greek-speaking Judean-Christians from Cyrene and Cyprus, Acts 11:20-24.)  
The point of this reading during the Easter season is that it was the Spirit of the Risen Jesus who expanded the work of the gospel to include all the nations – the nations who, therefore, belonged with Israel in God’s final saving work.  
Psalm 148.  
This psalm is used several times in the Lectionary as a grand Hallelujah psalm.  I give here my comments from one of the earlier occasions of this reading.  
This psalm is an exuberant and delightful summons to heaven and earth to praise the Lord, to “hallelu” (the plural form) God.  The craft exhibited by the composer is not complicated but is pleasing to watch as it unfolds.  
There are two large sections elaborating those called upon to praise, those in heaven and those on earth.  
The call to heavenly things (verses 1-4) repeats in rapid sequence seven imperatives to praise, moving from one aspect to another of the heavenly realm:  from the heavens, in the heights, all God’s angels (messengers), all God’s host (army), sun and moon, all lighted stars, and supremely, the heaven of heavens enclosed by the cosmic waters.  These seven imperatives are followed by an exhortation:  “Let them praise …,” which in turn leads, finally, to a reason for the praise:  because all these summoned entities were “created” by God and fixed forever.  
The strategy of the second section (verses 7-13) is not to repeat the call to praise each time, but to elaborate more fully those to whom it is addressed.  The imperative “Praise ye …” is given only once at the beginning, then followed by a chain of earthly things included in this imperative:  the earth; sea monsters and deeps; lightning and hail, snow and frost, storm winds (all weather elements kept in ends-of-the-earth storehouses); mountains and hills; fruit trees and huge cedars; and, moving toward the human world, animals wild and domestic, crawling creatures and winged birds; and finally the varieties of people – kings and clans, princes and judges, young men and maidens, old folks and kids.  The long enthusiastic enumeration intends to be exhaustive – all are addressed by the command to “Praise the Lord [hallelu Yah].”  Again, the imperative chain is followed (verse 13) by an exhortation, “Let them praise the name of the Lord.”  And, finally again, a reason for the summons to praise is given:  because “his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.”  
Does this reason for praise seem too general, too vague?  The poet’s basic structure is completed, but both creative art and faith erupt in a final declaration, a final proclamation of why God is to be praised:  “He has raised up a horn for his people, …for Israel, the people close to him” (verse 14).  
Yet, this psalm is not about this horn, this pillar of strength to empower the people; it is about the universal praise that this new act of God prompts throughout the cosmos.  
Revelation 21:1-6.  
The Epistle readings continue from the book of Revelation.  However, we leap forward, skipping the great middle sections about the times of Tribulation and the Millennium, and go to the grand climax when the heaven and earth are made new.  
When there is a new heaven and earth, there will no longer be any Sea (21:1).  This does not mean earth will not have its great bodies of bounded water; it means the ancient enemy of an ordered cosmos, the Sea (Psalm 93:3-4; Psalm 74:13-14; Isaiah 51:9-10) will be finally and conclusively defeated and banished.  
The main element of this vision, however, is the coming of the New Jerusalem.  The seer beholds it descending as the bride (which in the prophets is the restored Zion).  He hears a voice declaring that God has taken up residence with the people.  In Greek this is literally, “behold the Tent [Tabernacle] of God is with humans, / and [God] will tent with them.”  This holy residence will be where God wipes away every sorrowful tear, and where Death [capitalized in NRSV!] will be no more.  Mourning and weeping will be no more because “the first things have passed away” (verse 4).  
The seer is commanded by God from the throne to write down this vision, because the words he has heard “are trustworthy and true” (verse 5).  And though there is more for the seer to learn about the great New Jerusalem, God now says, “It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  
And as if the real end is a gentle touch of care and mercy, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (verse 6).  
John 13:31-35.  
The Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ talk about going away from the disciples, a topic that continues in John’s Gospel for several chapters.  
First, we may note here a strange juxtaposition between betrayal and glorification.  Jesus has just identified his betrayer (for those who have eyes to see) by giving him a piece of bread.  That act liberates the traitor to perform his treacherous deed.  “So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.  After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. … So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out.  It was night” (John 13:26-30, NRSV).  
Betrayal.  But immediately Jesus’ talk is about he and God being glorified in each other.  The beginning of our reading is, “When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’” (verse 31).  Apparently being betrayed IS being glorified!  Submitting to the rampage of evil in the world IS making the glory of God evident in the world.  A more than usually ironic touch in this subtle Gospel!  
The main burden of this part of this Gospel is Jesus’ departure.  “…As I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’” (verse 33).  But when Jesus himself is gone, his disciples will have a mark that identifies them in the world.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (verse 35).  
This is probably one of the places where one passage in John needs to be expanded and interpreted by another.  The full version of this “new” command is given in 15:12-15.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…. I do not call you servants any longer, …but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”  

Put in the language of the old heavenly court where God and God’s Anointed preside over an entourage of servants, messengers, and armed forces, this means that you, the disciples, are no longer servants and errand boys sent on specific tasks, but you are now part of the inner council of the risen Lord himself.  You are Friends of Jesus, sent into the world to love one another to the point of giving one’s life for each other.  
When these disciples live in the world this way, they are truly witnesses to the risen heavenly Lord. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

May 12, 2019 - 4th Sunday of Easter

                                                                     Biblical Words                                         [604] 
Acts 9:36-43;  Psalm 23;  Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30. 
The Good Shepherd,  glorified in power, brings new life to God’s people who are in his care. 
The fourth Sunday of Easter season is the Pastor’s day.  (“Pastor” in Latin means “Shepherd.”)  Each year Psalm 23 and a portion of John 10 are read on this Sunday.  The Pastor is the one who leads, feeds, and protects the sheep from harm.  
In the New Testament readings it is the Risen Lord who does this shepherding of the believers, though in the first reading it is Peter who carries forward the shepherd’s work.  
Acts 9:36-43.  
In the Acts story, resurrection spreads among the people.  
In the larger passage, Acts 9:32-43, two miracles by Peter are presented, the healing of a paralyzed man named Aeneas and the resurrection of a woman named Tabitha (Aramaic) or Dorcas (Greek).  These two episodes have Peter working in the coastal plain of Judea, the country ruled by the Philistines in ancient times.  His works are done in the cities of Lydda (modern Lod, Israel’s International airport) and Joppa (modern Yafo, the closest seaport to Jerusalem).  The “saints,” who are Christian believers, are already living there, Judeans who accept Jesus as the heavenly Anointed One, and who now begin to receive benefits of the promised salvation.  
Peter is staying at Lydda when he is called to Joppa (10 miles away) to share the grief at the death of a prominent woman disciple of the church in Joppa.  (This is the only New Testament use of the feminine form of the noun “disciple.”)  
Peter’s action is presented as a repetition of great acts of resurrection in the past.  It repeats what Elijah did for the Sidonian widow who helped him during the famine (I Kings 17:17-24); it repeats what Elisha did for the woman of Shunem to revive the son miraculously born to her (II Kings 4:18-37); it repeats Jesus’ action in raising the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:40-42, 49-56); and it repeats Jesus’ raising of the son of the widow of Nain near Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 7:11-17).  
Peter’s raising of Dorcas showed that great prophetic and Messianic power was continuing for God’s people.  All of these resurrection stories are set outside Judea proper, outside Jerusalem and its region.  They happen on the fringes of the Judean lands.  

As the power continues to expand, as if in concentric circles, the next movement of the Spirit will be beyond the Judean people (next week’s reading).  
Psalm 23.  
The Psalm reading is the quiet but powerful affirmation of personal trust in the Lord, presenting God in the image of the Shepherd.  Here are the familiar images as given in the Common English Bible translation (CEB, 2011): 
The LORD is my shepherd. 
      I lack nothing. 
He lets me rest in grassy meadows; 
      he leads me to restful waters; 
      he keeps me alive. 
He guides me in proper paths
      for the sake of his good name. 

Even when I walk 
      through the darkest valley, 
      I fear no danger
      because you are with me.  
Your rod and your staff – 
      they protect me.  

(Shifting the imagery now to that of a great ruler who hosts his faithful subordinates at a feast at the royal palace, where they will always find access and security …) 

You set a table for me
      right in front of my enemies.  
You bathe my head in oil; 
      my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love 
      will pursue me all the days of my life, 
      and I will live in the LORD’s house 
      as long as I live.  
Revelation 7:9-17.  
The Epistle reading continues the heavenly liturgy from the book of Revelation.  
The seventh chapter of this book presents two hosts of peoples before the heavenly throne while the impending doom for the old world is suspended for this heavenly presentation.  (The suspension of the doom is commanded in verses 1-3.)  
The first group of people (prior to our reading) are the faithful souls of the past from the twelve tribes of Israel.  Twelve thousand from each tribe are marked with God’s “seal” on their forehead, making one hundred forty-four thousand in this host before God (verses 3-8).  The faithful of Israel are gathered to their Lord in the heavens.  
Our reading begins by presenting the second group of peoples.  They are an unnumbered multitude from all the nations and peoples of the world. 
These folks wear white robes and have the palm branches of praise and the festival-shout in their hands.  When we see them, they are gathered in masses around the vast heavenly auditorium and a three-fold sequence of song and praise unfolds.  
First, this multitude itself sings out, “Salvation belongs to our God…” (verse 10).  Then, the great choir of angels responds with a seven-fold acclamation of God, enclosed between two Amens (verses 11-12).  The third phase of the song and praise is a solo, by one of the twenty-four elders who are close to the divine throne.  
Before the singing there is a recitative dialogue in which the elder asks the seer (John, the one who has received these visions) who are these folks massed in the white robes.  
The seer politely replies that the elder will know and say.  The elder then explains that these unnumbered masses are the people who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, which means that they have held fast in their confession of Jesus as the Christ to the point of death.  
This is the cue for the elder to sing his solo celebrating the glory and reward of these faithful witnesses.  It is at the climax of this solo that we hear of the work of the heavenly Shepherd, who (by a curious twist of imagery) is the Lamb.  
“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, 
and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, 
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (verse 17).  
The caring and comforting Shepherd is the climax of the pilgrimage of the humble ones who followed Jesus, even to the death.  
John 10:22-30.  
The Gospel reading presents Jesus speaking to Judean people who demand to know whether he is the Anointed One or not.  His reply is the conclusion of this chapter, which has already presented Jesus as the Gate for the sheep (10:7) and as the Good Shepherd (10:11).  
Here the focus is on the sheep.  There is a special link between the shepherd and the sheep:  he knows them, each and every one (see Luke 15:3-7), and they know and respond to his voice.  Their response is to “believe” in the “works” that Jesus does in the name of the Father, and to follow him.  
The first emphasis in this passage is that these “sheep” are in contrast to the Judean questioners, who do not believe either Jesus’ works or words.  This passage, like so much else in the Gospel According to John, reflects serious differences and disputes between Judean disciples of Jesus and their non-believing Judean opponents. 
The last part of the selected reading emphasizes the final blessing of the sheep who know Jesus’ voice and follow him.  “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (verse 28).  This is the ultimate blessing in John’s Gospel.  The keeping and protection of these humble ones, the sheep, is God’s own special concern, given to the heavenly Jesus as an assignment.  
“What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand” (verse 29, NRSV). 

And the concluding affirmation separates Jesus most decisively from his Judean dissenters:  “The Father and I are one” (verse 30).  The Lamb and the one who sits on the heavenly throne (in the language of Revelation) are united in the saving work of the Shepherd.  

Saturday, April 20, 2019

May 5, 2019 - 3rd Sunday of Easter

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [603]
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20);  Psalm 30;  Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19. 
The Risen Lord calls and directs servants in the world – while a heavenly court praises the worthy Lamb.
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20).  
How the apostles witnessed to the work of the risen Jesus is the continuing theme of the readings from the Book of Acts.  Here we have the conversion of the fire-eating persecutor Saul into a transformed preacher of the gospel.  (His Greek name Paul is used only after he begins his work in non-Judean circles, at Acts 13:9.)  
The main reading (verses 1-6) presents Saul confronted by the risen Jesus.  
It is a heavenly explosion of light on the road near Damascus, traumatic to Saul but to his traveling companions only confusing.  As the narrator presents it, however, to Saul the message was clear.  The now long-dead false messiah had suddenly become overwhelmingly real.  Had now intervened in a devastating way and totally overturned Saul’s world.  This supposed false messiah has spoken from heaven and named Saul very specifically, challenging his futile campaign against the disciples.  Jesus’ last word here is, Get up and go into town; I have better stuff for you to do.  
Most of the rest of the book of Acts unfolds what that stuff is. (See Special Note below on Acts’ three versions of Paul’s call.) 
The optional part of the reading, verses 7-20, does not add to the basic event; it only gives interesting detail and local color.  
We meet the reluctant Ananias, who in a vision is assigned by Jesus to rehabilitate Saul.  This was like sending the humble servant into the den of the fiercest enemy, and he complains of this absurd instruction (verses 13-14).  Ananias’ resistance must be overcome by a heavenly Lord with a divine plan.  
It is to Ananias that Jesus indicates the great and trying future he has in store for Saul/Paul.  “He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles [the nations] and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (verses 15-16, NRSV).  As soon as Saul had recovered physically and been baptized, he “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues…” (verse 20).  
Psalm 30.  
The Psalm reading is one of the more memorable expressions of personal thanksgiving for delivery from – death, as the psalm puts it.  
A thanksgiving psalm expresses joy and gratitude in the present for release from severe trouble in the past – often recent past.  Reciting the overwhelming threats just now faced may be a major part of the now joyful release.  So here, “you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (verse 3).  
The speaker, whom we will view as a man, relates how he resorted to what, for a psalmist, is the ultimate appeal to God when things are at their worst:  “What profit is there in my death,…Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (verse 9).  The speaker insists that God’s reputation is involved in this faithful soul’s plight.  The speaker must make God urgently aware of the stakes!  
When this psalm is used as an Easter season reading, the speaker is understood to be Jesus, thanking God for deliverance from death.  In its earlier Israelite setting, the speaker was probably a person who was desperately sick, to the point of being given up for dead.  He had no resort except God, and uttered his hope in the most eloquent language available to him.  He recovered, and now brings his thanksgiving offerings to God – which offerings include a superb song in thankful praise of his savior God.  God has turned his mourning into dancing, has replaced his sackcloth with garments of joy! (verse 11).  
He who was dead is alive again – and in good health!  
Revelation 5:11-14.  
The reading from the Book of Revelation (which provides the Epistle readings for Easter season this year) is the climax of a heavenly drama.  The drama here hangs on the suspense as we wait for the opening of the scroll of the world’s destiny.  
The whole scene (4:1-5:14) is a greatly elaborated version of the divine judgment and appointment of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:9-14.  
After evil on the earth had reached an intolerable climax, the heavenly court finally sits to render judgment.  The heavenly court consists of the supreme judge sitting on the throne, the four bizarre heavenly creatures that provide the throne’s mobility (at least in Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s visions that is their role), the sitting council of (here) twenty-four elders, and various brilliant accoutrements round about.  
The supreme judge on the throne holds a super-numinous scroll in his right hand (the Daniel passage says, “the books were opened”), and the total universe waits in suspension for someone with the authority, power, and honor worthy to take that scroll and begin to open it.  
The One capable of such action is the Lamb, who appears in the court and takes the scroll.  (This Lamb corresponds to the Son of Man in the Daniel scene.)  All the other members of the heavenly court burst into ecstatic praise of the worthiness of the Lamb to break the seals of the great scroll.  
Our specific reading within this court scene (5:11-14) presents the second rank of praise teams acclaiming the worthiness of the Lamb.  Joining the heavenly court are the massed singers of all the Tabernacle Choirs of all time (“myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands”).  They are, of course, angelic voices – presumably with never a missed tone or late entry!  
The whole chapter presents three hymns sung in the heavenly court.  The longest, sung by the inner cabinet around the throne, is two verses long; the second, sung by this massed choir of angels, is one verse long; and the last hymn, sung by everybody on earth as well as the heavenly folks, is only half a verse.  
The first hymn (verses 9-10) praises the Lamb as worthy to open the scroll; the second hymn (verse 12) praises the Lamb as worthy to receive power and glory (to overcome the powers of evil in the universe); and the third hymn (verse 13b) is a general blessing on God and the Lamb for all the above.  
All the universe is engaged in hymnic anticipation of the exercise of power by the risen Lord who will transform the world that humbly waits upon this heavenly drama.  
John 21:1-19.  
The Gospel reading comes from the appendix to John’s Gospel, which presents an alternative view of the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples from the main narrative in chapter 20.  This appendix knows about the two appearances of Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem (21:14), but adds an appearance in Galilee, beside the lake where earlier events occurred between Jesus and the disciples.  There are seven disciples, five named – enough to make us curious about the rest but leaving more questions than answers.  
The catch of fish after the unproductive night is a version of the story used in Luke for the call of Peter to be a disciple (Luke 5:1-11).  The two narratives have in common that Jesus is revealed in heavenly power on the lake shore (see Luke 5:8-9) and that Peter, and his particular assignment as a disciple or missionary, is the primary focus.  
What is the thrust of the dialogue between Jesus and Peter about loving Jesus and feeding the lambs? 
The suggestion is compelling that Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?” to balance the three times that Peter denied Jesus at the passion.  Each of those “I am not (one of them)” statements must be cancelled by a “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  And with each affirmation of loving Jesus there follows an instruction:  “Feed my sheep” (with slight variations).  
This appendix, which strongly resembles the Gospel According to Luke, gives to the Fourth Gospel a pastoral boost into the world of the churches (a word not used in John), into human communities that have been changed because of the reign of the risen Lord.   

Special Note on Paul’s Call in Acts
The book of Acts gives three versions of Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road, his “conversion” or “call” experience.  The first is our text above (9:1-6), narrating the event in the third person.  In 22:6-11, in a speech to hostile Judeans in the Jerusalem temple, Paul tells his experience in the first person as part of his defense for preaching the gospel to the nations.  Then again, in a less hostile setting, Paul tells his conversion experience to King Agrippa II during the time Paul was a prisoner in Caesarea, 26:12-18.  
All three of these texts are given here for comparison.  Many details vary in greater or lesser degree, but the “core” is verbatim the same in all three versions (underlined in the following texts).  (All translations are the New Revised Standard Version.)
9:1-9.  Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  
22:4-11.  4I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.  6While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 8I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazarethwhom you are persecuting.” 9Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.” 11Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.  
26:12-18.  12With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?  It hurts you to kick against the goads.” 15I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles [the nations]—to whom I am sending you 18to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”  
James D.G. Dunn sees the variations of the three accounts as typical of materials recited orally over time.  
In each of the three statements the brief exchange between Saul and the exalted Jesus is word for word:  ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  ‘Who are you, sir?’  ‘I am Jesus (the Nazarene), whom you are persecuting, rise…’ (22:7-10; 26:14-16).  This gives a good illustration of how stories would be told, then as now.  The core of the story is preserved, maintained with almost rigorous consistency, while the supporting details can be treated with greater flexibility, as circumstances [around the narrator] may demand.  We can well, and quite fairly imagine that the exchange had been burned into Saul’s memory, and so from the first was fixed in the tradition by which the event of the great persecutor’s conversion was retold and celebrated among the churches (cf. Gal. 1:23).  (The Acts of the Apostles, Trinity Press International, 1996, p. 121.)  
Finally, we have Paul’s own summary of this event (Galatians 1:13-17), written thirty or so years earlier than the book of Acts.  
13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles [the nations], I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Without doubt, this was a turning point, not only in the narrative structure of the book of Acts, but in the earliest shaping of the Christian religion!