Friday, April 24, 2020

May 3, 2020 - 4th Sunday of Easter

                                                            Biblical Words                                                [658] 
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10. 
 The Lord – as shepherd – creates a caring and supportive community. 
Every year the fourth Sunday of Easter season is the Pastor’s Sunday.  (“Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd.)  The Psalm reading is always “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the Gospel reading is always from John 10, the chapter about Jesus as the shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold.  
Acts 2:42-47.  
The reading presents the Jesus community, freshly created by the Holy Spirit.  The opening verse uses the key words that came to define the Jesus community in the mature hindsight of the Acts of the Apostles.  This was the picture of the ideal church as Luke heard about it in later times.  
These first believers devoted themselves 
·        to the didache, “teaching,” the guidance for living given by the apostles; 
·        to the koinonia, the “fellowship” and mutual support around the apostles; 
·        to the klasis tou artou, "breaking the bread" of the Lord’s Supper (a phrase used also at the Emmaus revelation, Luke 24:35); and 
·        to the proseuchais, the “prayers,” the plural implying on-going and regular prayer sessions.  
The caring – pastoral – work of the community is described in the well-known statement that they “had everything in common” (verse 44).  As members of the group had needs, some would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the needy.  They warmly participated in worship at the temple and ate meals in their homes, rejoicing and praising God.  
This ideal picture is a summary statement intended to show the contrast with ordinary life produced by the immediate impact of the Holy Spirit.  This was the first flush of the resurrection message in creating a new community of faith.  The writer would insist that in some sense it lasted, even though the coming narratives will show the ways of the world still very much around and with the community of faith.  
Psalm 23.  
The Psalm reading is the renowned confession of the Lord as a personal shepherd, used many times in the Lectionary.  For this reading, I will simply note a few overtones about the pastoral care described.  (Translation is the NRSV.)
“I shall not want” – the Hebrew verb haser means to lack something, but also to be lacking, to be missing.  Thus, if one has a faithful shepherd, one will not be missing – when it is time to count the sheep into the sheepfold at nights.  One will be kept track of, looked after (as in the parable of the ninety-nine and the one, Luke 15:3-7).  
“He restores my soul” – the expression means to satisfy hunger, as in Lamentations 1:11 (“they barter their treasures for food, / to keep themselves alive [literally, “to return the soul]”), though in the same passage, 1:16, the phrase also means restoring one’s morale or courage (“No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit [soul]”).  The pastor cares for both body and soul.
“He leads me in right paths / for his name’s sake.”  The meaning is paths that lead to good destinations, that do not let one get lost.  It is the opposite of paths that cause one to “perish” (Psalm 1:6), literally to get lost wandering (in the desert).  The shepherd does this as a part of his character, of his integrity as a good shepherd – thus, “for his name’s sake.” 
“Though I walk through the darkest valley” – traditionally “valley of the shadow of death” (KJV).  The deepest danger a lonely sheep can meet.  The ultimate security, which traditionally will last “forever” – the last word of the psalm, in the King James Version.  
I Peter 2:19-25. 
The Epistle reading from First Peter is mainly addressed to the Christian experience of suffering unjustly.  
“If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (verse 20).  In this the believers are repeating the experience of Christ their leader.  “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (verse 23).  
Entrusting oneself to a just judge – that is trusting in the Good Shepherd.  Thus the passage ends with a statement of salvation in terms of the shepherd model:  “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (verse 25).  
John 10:1-10.  
The Gospel reading is about Jesus as the shepherd – and simultaneously as the gate to the sheepfold.  First on the shepherd.  
It is helpful to recognize that the imagery assumes a community sheepfold, a large enclosed space out in the pastureland, often protected by walls of piled stones, where the sheep were taken at night.  There, watched by a gatekeeper, they could not stray off and were safe through the night from predators.  
Several shepherds used the same sheepfold.  At morning they would return to the fold and call out their own sheep.  
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers (verses 2-5, NRSV).  
In the opening verse of the passage the shepherd is contrasted with a thief and a “bandit” (lēstēs).  The word for bandit is the one applied to Bar-Abbás in the passion narrative (John 18:40), and is used of those  “thieves” who abuse the holy place when Jesus cleanses the temple in Matthew (21:13, quoting Jeremiah 7:11).  The word has connotations of violence.  It is applied to the mob that came to arrest Jesus with clubs and swords (Mark 14:48) and it is Josephus’ word for revolutionary “brigands” (e.g., Jewish War, 2.254).  
The bandit who climbs over the wall because the gate is not opened to him stands in sharp contrast to the legitimate and non-violent shepherd for whom the gate is opened.  Shepherd was the image for ruler in the ancient world, and Jesus as shepherd is contrasted with the “bandit” who tries to take the sheepfold by force. 
This is probably the point of the words, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them” (verse 8).  By the time John’s Gospel was complete and was being recited in Christian churches around Ephesus, the Judean war of 66-73 was over and the way of the "zealot," the revolutionary, had been demonstrated as disastrous.  The contrast between the way of violence and the way of Jesus was clear:  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (verse 10).  
This shepherd is the gate leading to security and feasting in the house of the Lord “all the days of [one’s] life” (Psalm 23:6). 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

April 26, 2020 - 3rd Sunday of Easter

                    Biblical Words                                                [657] 
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35. 
The risen Lord opens the scriptures, opens the eyes, and opens the way to a new life.  
Acts 2:14a, 36-41.  
The apostolic witness to Jesus’ resurrection continues in the Acts of the Apostles, now with the conclusion of Peter’s address to the Judeans of Jerusalem on Pentecost. 
It seems to be important for this sermon that Judean people summoned to be baptized are identified as those who crucified Jesus.  “…God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (verse 36, NRSV, italics added).  
The apostles call on them to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (verse 38).  Even if they had been active in shouting for Jesus’ death, they can be forgiven when they are baptized into that death.  Three thousand of these very people become the second installment of Jesus followers in response to Peter’s call (verse 41). 
And this call and offer is not a random event.  It is according to the long-term divine intention.  “For the promise is for you [these Judeans of many nations at Pentecost], for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (verse 39).  The promise may belong to those who are descendants of Abraham, or more particularly to those included in the covenant of Sinai.  In either case, the giving of the holy spirit is the fulfillment of a past heritage, now realized for those who are “called” by God to repent and be baptized.  
Thus, the promise is an opportunity, not a natural fact of birth or ethnicity.  The promise is for everyone whom God calls – everyone who accepts the new baptism now offered in the name of the risen Lord.  
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19.  
The Psalm reading is a remarkable glimpse into the inner life of the savior, when read as the early Jesus followers read it.  
The snares of death encompassed me; 
      the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; 
      I suffered distress and anguish (verse 3, NRSV).  
This is Jesus speaking in the agony of the cross.  
The righteous servant of the Lord who is persecuted and abused to the point of death – this one who speaks in so many of the psalms – is suddenly recognized by early Christians as their Lord.  
Especially those psalms that speak of going down to Sheol, that is, of dying, are seized upon by Jesus followers as divine scripts, prepared long ago in the soul of David, to be spoken by the suffering servant who would bring salvation to others.  
Such speech seems very clear in this psalm.  
O Lord, I am your servant; 
      I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. 
      You have loosed my bonds (verse 16).  
This is the saving action of the Lord.  Action for which the speaker will fulfill the vows of thanksgiving (verse 14) made at the time that death approached.  
The words of the psalms, therefore, offer the worshipers of Jesus a means of entering into both the agony of the death as well as the joy of the thanksgiving for the servant himself.  
I Peter 1:17-23.  
The Epistle reading elaborates on the new life that is made possible for believers in the Lord.  
The words of the psalms can lead them through death-to-the-old to the joy-of-the-new.  Therefore, “you have been born anew, not of perishable [that is, mortal] but of imperishable seed…” (verse 23, NRSV).  That is, the new-born ones have a divine parenthood, not a merely human one.  
Such immortal ancestry calls for a wholly new way of life.  “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, …with the precious blood of Christ” (verses 18-19).  Therefore, you should “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” (verse 17), that is, until the Lord comes to fulfill all things.  
In this new life, “you have genuine mutual love,” and you should “love one another deeply from the heart” (verse 22).  
Luke 24:13-35.  
The Gospel reading is also a testimony to the transformation produced by the risen Lord upon willing followers.  It is the superb story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus and encountering the Lord along the way.  
This is a story about concealment and revelation.  First, the two disciples are preoccupied by the disastrous events of recent days (verse 14).  Without this deep concern for the hopes and defeats concerning Jesus (elaborated in verses 17-24), we may suppose that they would not have encountered the Lord.  When Jesus does appear, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (verse 16, NRSV).  But after he has heard them, he chides them for failing to recognize other things – specifically the prophecies of the suffering and death of the Anointed One.  Jesus himself, yet unrecognized, expounds the revelations in Moses and the prophets that testify to himself.  
After this prolonged Bible study, they sit down to a meal together.  There the final revelation occurs.  “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them,” thus inaugurating the first post-resurrection Lord’s Supper, around that common table in the village of Emmaus.  “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,” though immediately afterward “he vanished from their sight” (verse 31).  
The risen Lord comes in a physical presence, but after the initial revelation, the followers are left to proceed by faith – no longer by sight.  When these newly awakened disciples rush back to Jerusalem, they find that the eleven disciples have also learned of the risen Lord, who has already appeared to Simon (verses 33-35).  
The life of disciples after Jesus’ resurrection was an ongoing series of revelations and openings of eyes – guided by the scriptures, by appearances to the chosen, and by the communion of the Lord’s table.  

(There is a fuller treatment of “the Risen Jesus,” including this passage, in my Study Bibles blog, :  The Risen Jesus , see the Blog archive for Autust 1, 2019.) 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

April 19, 2020 - 2nd Sunday of Easter

                                                            Biblical Words                                            [656]
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31. 
The apostles, witnesses of the resurrection, open the scriptures and offer forgiveness. 
In the Easter season, the first reading in the Lectionary each Sunday is from the witness of the Apostles to the risen Lord instead of from the prophecies of the Messiah by the Prophets.  It is the one time in the Church year when readings are taken from the Acts of the Apostles. 
Even so, Peter’s speech to his Judean audience at Pentecost includes long quotations from the Judean scriptures, which are interpreted as prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection, his exaltation to heavenly power, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit creating the body of Jesus’ followers.  
[Footnote on terminology:  When discussing New Testament texts I use “Judean” instead of “Jew” and “Jewish.”  This follows New Testament usage, as well as many European languages, such as German and Spanish – retaining the “d” sound in the word.  “Jew” and "Jewish" developed in some European languages in the middle ages – from Old French into English, for example.  “Jew” and “Jewish” has now long been modern English usage and is applied by Jewish people to themselves, and I use these terms when referring to modern people.  I adopted this usage for the New Testament about 2017 – better late than never.]  
Acts 2:14a, 22-32.  
We hear the message of Pentecost, even though that event itself will come at a later date.  
First, Peter’s Judean audience in Jerusalem is reminded of the man Jesus.  “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know –” (verse 22, NRSV).  They know about Jesus and his doings.  They also know about his death – because they shared responsibility for it!  “This man…you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law” (verse 23).  
However, whatever humans may have had to do with it, Jesus’ death took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (verse 23).  Things much vaster than the politics of Judean social and religious elites, or than Roman anxiety about provincial disturbances, were involved.  Something of multi-national and trans-cultural magnitude was coming about here, and that would override small-scale human concerns.  Such human things are overshadowed by the event to which the disciples are witnesses.  
“But God raised up [Jesus of Nazareth], having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (verse 24).  That “definite plan” of God had to do with this triumph over death.  Therefore, what looked like a dastardly human plot when viewed only in terms of worldly motives and deeds is seen as the working out of God’s plan for salvation, starting with Jesus’ triumph over death. 
The clinching argument that this was a transcendent act of God comes from its prophecy in scripture.  Psalm 16 – read as the Anointed One speaking to God – says, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (verse 27).  David, who originally chanted these words, was an ordinary man, who died and whose near-by tomb was well-known.  The words, says Peter, were a prophecy, which can be fully recognized now, now that their true reference has appeared in Jesus’ resurrection. 
Thus, the death of Jesus is not important now as a crime, but as a wonderfully saving act of God. 
That is Peter’s good news to his Judean audience.  
Psalm 16. 
The Psalm reading is integral to Peter’s speech, but we may also listen to it as an Israelite liturgical composition.  
The opening lines of this psalm are pretty uncertain, as different translations show.  However, in general they seem to exalt loyalty to the Lord and condemn those who follow other gods.  
At verse 5 the metaphor of inherited property is introduced, and the speaker affirms that Yahweh is one’s “heritage” – one’s chosen portion, one’s cup, the “pleasant places” enclosed within one’s boundaries.  Actually, the speaker may not be a land owner at all, but rather a landless servant of God’s court, like a Levite who belonged to the Lord and could not own land in Israel.  Thus the “heritage” would be entirely metaphorical, even though the security it provides is very sure (verses 6-8).  
The speaker’s sense of safety encompasses the entire person:  “My heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure” (verse 9).  The speaker’s welfare includes the body.  This is the part of the psalm in which the early Christians heard Jesus speaking to his Father, referring to Jesus’ triumph over death:  
For you did not give me up to Sheol, 
      or let your faithful one see the Pit.  (Verse 10, NRSV.)  
The Israelite psalmist may have had in mind narrow escapes from the hazards of active life, but the disciples heard a far more profound declaration, which was good news for all of God’s “faithful ones”!  
I Peter 1:3-9.  
The voice of Peter speaks again in the Epistle reading.  (First Peter is the source of all the Epistle readings in Easter season this year.)  
The letter of First Peter, after its salutation, opens with a blessing that repeats two of the themes of the Acts and Psalm readings.  The resurrection:  God is blessed for giving us “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”  And this hope is “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (verses 3-4, NRSV).  
The letter addresses its hearers as “exiles of the Diaspora,” applying terminology of scattered Israel to people who were probably non-Judean Christians, learning the Judean scriptures and the Christian traditions as the movement spread through the Roman provinces of northwestern Asia Minor (listed in 1:1).  The believers are encouraged to endure persecutions that come on them because they are Christians, and to maintain responsible moral conduct.  The framework of their hope is the coming revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 7).  
They may be second generation Christians but they still share fully in the revelation!  
“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (verse 8). 
John 20:19-31.  
The Gospel reading takes us to the evening of the first Easter day, as reported in the Gospel According to John.  This is the appearance of the risen Jesus to commission and empower the disciples to continue his work.  They are gathered fearfully in a locked room when Jesus materializes before them.  Jesus’ first words each time he appears are, “Peace be with you.”  
The disciples have two tasks.  The first is to be witnesses to the resurrection, and for this Jesus shows them his pierced hands and side.  They rejoice in seeing that this is really their risen Lord.  Then, after another peace blessing, Jesus makes them “apostles,” ones who are “sent” on behalf of another.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and he breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit (verses 21-22, NRSV).  
The second task of the disciples is to bring to others the most powerful and precious gift of the Spirit, the forgiveness of sins.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (verse 23.)  
This pronouncement envisages an awesome authority exercised within the emerging Christian church by those recognized as apostles.  
This is probably the tradition of the churches around Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia.  The same authority is exercised in the name of Peter in the Gospel according to Matthew (16:18), which is probably the tradition of the churches of the province of Syria with its capital at Antioch.  The great liberation the apostles bring to the nations is the forgiveness of sins, made effective through the resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. 
Our reading also expands on those who will believe after the time of the apostles.  
The role of “doubting Thomas” is to reinforce the special status of the apostles as witnesses.  Disciples must SEE the risen Lord – and touch him.  That makes them apostles.  Thomas insists upon this seeing and touching.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (verse 25). 
The apostles have done this seeing and touching on behalf of all the later followers, on behalf of all those who doubt such a resurrection when they first hear of it.  The apostles have seen and touched on our behalf.  Thus, the real punch line of the Thomas episode is, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (verse 29).  
These later folks come to believe because they have the testimony of the apostles.