Sunday, May 26, 2019

June 16, 2019 - Trinity Sunday

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [609] 
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15. 
The Being of God, revealed in creation and redemption, reflects its image in the Human, male and female. 

In Christian tradition the first Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday.  With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to generate and guide the church, the fullness of God has been revealed as containing three aspects – power, vulnerability, and sustaining presence.  Or, as some might prefer to express it, as the parental, brotherly, and mother-sisterly powers of being. 
Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31. 
The reading from Proverbs presents an intimate companion of God the creator. 

In older wisdom rhetoric, wisdom is the acquired learning and insight that makes possible successful living.  But in some later parts of Proverbs (e.g., 1:20–33), and even more in books of the Hellenistic period, Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon, the qualities of wisdom, which shape the whole character and being of a wise person, are personified and represented as Woman Wisdom, who offers humans the benefits of her divine knowledge and insight.  (The noun “wisdom” is feminine in both Hebrew and Greek.)  Even some language appropriate to goddesses in a polytheistic world is applied to Woman Wisdom to lift up her divine origin and powers.  

The reading in Proverbs 8:22–31 is the most striking presentation of Woman Wisdom in that book. 

Wisdom is a divine quality pervading the created world. The creation reveals the masterly design, deep foresight, and intricate harmonies of a profound mind. Thus wisdom was the very first element in the process of world creation, and continues as a sovereign quality of the ongoing nature of the created world. These ideas are expressed in the poetry of Wisdom’s joyful declarations and celebrations in our passage. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, / the first of his acts of long ago” (verse 22, NRSV). 

At the successive stages of world-structuring (verses 24–29), Wisdom was present, collaborating as it were.  Woman Wisdom is a cheerful and exuberant companion, who sums up her companionship as follows: 

I was with Him as a confidant,
A source of delight every day,
Rejoicing before Him at all times,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
Finding delight with mankind [literally, “sons of Adam”].
            (8:30–31, New Jewish Publication Society Version)

In other words, God had a lot of fun in his creative exuberance! 

It is not surprising that such language prompted later interpreters to see here anticipations of the Logos as God’s agent of creation, substituting the masculine logos for the feminine sophia.  (“He [the Word] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him…” John 1:2–3.)  
Or that Christian hymns declared about the beloved Son, “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17, NRSV).  

And though it is about sustaining creatures rather than creating them, the voice of Woman Wisdom may echo in Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you that are weary …” (see Matthew 11:28–30). 
Psalm 8. 
The marvel of the created world is also the cause of praising God in the Psalm reading.  It is not so much the intricate wisdom of the creation that is celebrated here as the place of the human in the glory of the created world. 

This hymn is ecstatic in its acclamation of the majesty of God’s work in all the universe.  Its poetic skill directs the attention of the hearer over the dimensions of that universe.  The attention moves in vertical and horizontal contrasts, closing in from outer extremes to the central motion, that of elevating the human being to rule. 

First God’s glory “above the heavens” is celebrated, contrasted with the mysterious babbling of infants protected by God from surrounding enemies (verses 1–2). 

Next, the attention goes up again, but only to the visible heavens, not above them.  “When I look at your heavens…” with the intricacy of their stars and moon cycles, what a contrast there is, looking downward again, with the modest humans down below.  It makes one ask, “What are humans,” that you (God) take care of them in your way?  Even within the visible intelligible world, God’s creation is awesomely vast in its vertical contrast. 

Now there is a motion, a vertical motion.  “Yet you have made the human a little lower than God [the Greek says “angels”], and crowned the human with glory and honor” (verse 5, NRSV modified).  

The human has been enthroned, elevated to a position of rule and authority.  Literally, God “has caused the human to rule” (Hebrew māshal in the causative mode). 

To rule over what?  Over the works of God’s hands, over everything now set under the human’s feet. 

And now our attention follows these things that are under the feet:  “…all sheep and oxen [domestic animals], and also the beasts of the field [as we move out from the center], the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea” (the mysterious horizontal movements around the lower places).  God’s “majesty” is great in all the earth – as exercised through the crowned human being. 

Given this utterly lofty status and role of the human, is it any wonder that later interpreters saw in this Human, not just generic people, but an exceptional being of God’s own sending?  In the New Testament, this rule over God’s creation can be exercised only by the true Human, the Anointed One of God, elevated to heavenly status.  

This identification is given in I Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5–9, all quoting this psalm. 
Romans 5:1–5. 
The Epistle reading is a transition passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  It sums up the preceding argument about justification by faith as exemplified in Abraham (chapter 4), points toward the view of Jesus Christ as the New Human (chapters 5–7), and knows the Holy Spirit as the giver of the New Life (chapter 8). 

This transitional passage is itself trinitarian
  • Justification establishes “peace with God” and leads to the “hope of sharing the glory of God” (verses 1–2).  
  • The justification was brought about by the Lord Jesus Christ who leads the justified ones into suffering, endurance, (new) character, and hope, all of which imitate the self-sacrificing obedience of the Son (verses 3–4).
  • And finally the hope that is the culmination of the new life is caused by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which empowers the new life of the justified ones (verse 5).
John 16:12–15. 
The Gospel reading is the final selection in this post-Easter season from the farewell discourses of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  

Like the Epistle reading, this is a short text that is marked by its trinitarian balance, though the three aspects of divine being are intermingled throughout the passage. 

The speaker is the Son.  What is emphasized at first is the promised gift of the Spirit of truth, but it is the work of the Spirit to “glorify” the Son and to transmit to the disciples what belongs to both the Father and the Son. 

The discourses emphasize throughout that there is more to come.  Continuity between Jesus’ teaching when present and what the disciples will need later is provided by the Spirit.  The disciples cannot comprehend it yet, but as they go on more will be unfolded by the Spirit of truth.  

Nevertheless, it is also emphasized that what the Spirit will later unfold is only what the Son has already made available, which was in turn what the Son received from the Father.  “All that the Father has is mine” (verse 15).  The kind of personal intimacy that Wisdom shared with the Lord at the dayspring of creation is shared between these personas of God, as this passage presents them. 

Much later, Christian bishops and theologians would attempt to give these insights abstract expression in the doctrine of the Trinity.  At the time the Gospel was written, however, the Jesus followers were still experiencing the ongoing “insight by hindsight” provided by the teaching of the Holy Spirit! 

June 9, 2019 - Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [608]

Genesis 11:1-9;  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b;  Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27). 
The Spirit of Pentecost transcends the diversity of languages, and is carried by disciples into an unknowing world. 

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit that is celebrated in the Christian Pentecost includes (1) the language miracle of communication among foreign-speaking people of faith, (2) the testimony of prophets and apostles to the age of the Spirit, and (3) the birth of the community of believers later called the church.  
Genesis 11:1–9. 
(This is the alternate reading; the regular reading from Acts is given as the Epistle reading below.) 

The Genesis reading is a story about how there came to be many languages over the earth.  In its familiar English form, this story is about “the Tower of Babel.”  In Hebrew, however, it is the Tower of Babylon. (The name in Genesis 11:9 is the usual Hebrew word for Babylon.) Popular legend knew of a ruin at Babylon that had once been a “ziggurat,” a pyramid-like structure, the upper-most chambers of which were in “heaven.” (Old Babylon flourished as an empire under Hammurabi in the early 1700’s BCE, about 800 years earlier than the time of David and Solomon.) 

The story of the Tower of Babylon is that of a grand enterprise that failed to make it. There is a certain note of pathos at the grandeur aimed at, including some admiration for the technology of the builders. There is also, however, some mockery at the hubris and foolishness that aspired to reach the heavens and to avoid the wide diversity of the peoples and nations.  

As in some other stories in Genesis 1–11, the human players come off better morally, if more tragically, than the divine ones. As with the events in the paradise garden, humans acquiring advanced knowledge and skills become a threat to the powers above. 

Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech (verses 6-7, NRSV). 

[The Greeks had their Prometheus, the Babylonians their Tower.] 

When the heavenly powers carry out this proposal, the great enterprise is abandoned and the foreign-speaking peoples are dispersed.  

Peeking out of this story, pretty conspicuously, is the polytheistic background of the good old stories taken over in Israelite teaching materials from Canaanite culture.  Israelite youths aspiring to high office in the Kingdom of Judah had to learn some foreign languages for their diplomatic service.  Here, as they practiced their reading and writing in Hebrew, they discussed why there were all these languages!  In the long perspective, they learned, the diversity of languages was a judgment of God because of impious ambitions — or because of perverse disobedience by humans.  

Only prophetic powers of later ages (see the Joel prophecy in the Pentecost story) would transcend these human divisions.  
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b. 
The Psalm reading is the last portion of one of the great hymns of praise for God’s work in creating and structuring the world. 

The earlier sections of the psalm fondly viewed the organization of God’s heavenly residence (verses 1–4), the establishment of the earth within the cosmic waters (verses 5–9), the blessings of waterways and the harmony of plants and animals in the lands (verses 10–18), and the rhythms of time obeyed by animals and humans (verses 19–23). 

In our reading the psalmist pauses in wonder.  “Lord, you have done so many things! / You made them all so wisely!” (verse 24, Common English Bible).  The particular interest in God’s Spirit (ruach) is as the agency of renewal in the cycle of life and death in the world of animals and humans. 

When you hide your face, 
      they are terrified;
      when you take away their breath [their ruach, spirit]
      they die and return to dust.
            When you let loose your breath [ruach], 
                  they are created,
                  and you make the surface of the ground brand-new again.
            (Verses 29–30, CEB.)

The psalmist portrays the dynamics of life in a harmoniously created world, a creation dependent on the sustaining and renewing work of God’s Spirit. 
Acts 2:1–21. 
In the reading from Acts we move to the work of God’s Spirit in transcending the diversity of human languages, producing a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babylon event.  

The Acts passage emphasizes the unity of the assembled group, like the oneness of humans in Genesis 11:1–4. “They were all together in one place.”  As they are thus gathered, a mighty wind and tongues of fire fall upon them, and they were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues…” (verse 4, NRSV).  

The passage elaborates this language miracle.  A long list of peoples and regions is given (verses 5–11) whose languages were understood on this occasion.  The hearers are identified as foreign Jews resident in Jerusalem.  The phenomenon of speaking in tongues (called “glossolalia,” from Greek glossa, tongue) was familiar in the New Testament world (see I Corinthians 14:1–25) and right on down to present times, but that phenomenon does not involve speaking in other languages. 

Those who told the Pentecost story thought of this as a one-time event. (Later references in Acts to speaking in tongues after the Spirit is given, 10:46 and 19:6, make no reference to speaking other languages.)  Here, however, a bunch of religious ecstatics are heard to speak languages native to many foreign-speaking immigrants in Jerusalem.  Skeptical onlookers, of course, regarded them as tipsy (verse 13), but the hearers are assured that the speaking had meaning to many.  

The message of repentance and forgiveness through Jesus the Christ transcends limitations of language.  The power of the Spirit breaks through linguistic boundaries among people of faith.

What the foreign-language speakers heard, presumably, is what we learn from Peter’s speech to all the Jewish people present (verses 14–36). 

In our reading we hear only the first part of that speech, the part that proclaims these events as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, quoted at length by Peter.  That prophesy tells us that the pouring out of the Spirit of God on “all flesh” will be the beginning of great and new wonders of God’s work, and the outcome of that work is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (verse 21). 

Peter and the disciples are there to declare what that Name is, which will be such a blessing to those who respond.  (The “name” of Jesus is used very powerfully by Peter and John in the next three chapters of Acts.)  
John 14:8–17, (25–27). 
The Gospel reading may be an anticlimax after the previous selections. 

Chapter 14 of John continues a series of dialogues that began with Peter’s question in 13:30.  There are four questions asked by disciples, Peter (13:30), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), and Jude (14:22). Each question gives Jesus an opportunity to spell out further to uncomprehending disciples how he can go away now and yet be present to them in the times ahead.  

When presented as a Pentecost text, verses 16–17 are the primary statement. 

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever [literally “until the (new) age”].  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” 

This is about as clear a promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit as Johannine rhetoric will allow:  “You know [the Spirit] because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  Only the actual bestowal of God’s Spirit by the Risen Jesus in 20:22 is a more direct statement of the coming of the Spirit to the disciples. 

The first effect of the Holy Spirit on the disciples will be to separate them from the world. (“…the Spirit of truth, whom the world…neither sees…nor knows…”)  The world cannot know the reality brought by the Spirit; but that reality is the “truth,” the divine reality that will be fully manifested when the world has passed away in the age to come. 

The final problem of the Spirit in the world is not just language; it is the lack of that gift of life that unites humans with the divine reality – agape, love of God and neighbors.  

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.