Monday, May 25, 2020

June 14, 2020 - 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                           [664]

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23). 

Awesome Visitors and Traveling Apostles bring good news to the faithful and humble.  

Lectionary Comment 

During “Common Time,” following Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary in year A begins selected readings from major Biblical books in sequence.  Between now and Advent, the readings include most of Genesis and Exodus; the Pauline letters of Romans, Philippians, and I Thessalonians; and most of the Gospel According to Matthew.  How early or late Easter comes each year determines where the readings in each Biblical book now pick up. 
·        In Genesis we skip the Flood story and the call and covenant with Abraham and first hear of the visit to Abraham at Hebron.  
·        In Romans we skip the sinfulness of all (chs 1-3), Abraham’s righteousness (ch 4), and start with the corollaries of justification by faith in chapter 5.  
·        In Matthew we are past the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Call and some healing miracles, and pick up with Jesus sending the disciples to proclaim good news to Israel.  
The readings now pick up, more or less assuming that we are familiar with all those preceding materials. 
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7).  
The Torah reading carries forward Abraham’s story of getting a true heir with his wife, Sarah.  
This episode is the visitation by the mysterious figures who announce that Sarah – long past menopause in this story – is going to conceive a son from Abraham within the year.  This announcement of a miraculous birth in the Abraham story corresponds to the announcement of the virgin conception in the Jesus story (Luke 1).  Peoples of traditional cultures seek such divinely guided birth events for the destiny-making figures of their tribes, kingdoms, or world eons.  New turns in human events are marked by divine signs – the meanings of which are known to keepers of tradition and to the scriptures.  
The first half of the reading – the narrative of Abraham’s eager and fastidious hospitality – is one of the most anthropomorphic presentations of the God of Israel in the scriptures.  It therefore gave rise over the ages to Rabbinic homilies about these human features of God, about Abraham’s hospitality to the Almighty, and Sarah’s mixture of mockery and praise at the promise of a son.  
On their part, the early Christian theologians emphasized the fact that this passage presents three divine figures as if they were one, revealing God’s triune character. (Thus, “the Lord appeared [singular] to Abraham,” verse 1, but “three men” show up; Abraham addresses them as “my Lord” [’adonai], singular, followed by singular pronouns, verse 3; when the deity speaks there is first a plural verb, “They said to him…,” verse 8, followed by God’s solemn speech in the singular, “I will surely return to you…,” verse 9.)  These clues were sufficient to convince Christian theologians that here the Triune God appeared to Abraham!  
The story’s ending has a word-play that explains Isaac’s name (yitsḥaq).  The name is built from the root TS-Ḥ-Q, which has a range of meanings from “laughing” to “joking” to “making fun of” to sexual “play” (used to describe Isaac “fondling” his wife Rebecca in Genesis 26:8).  The verb is first used here in verse 12, “And Sarah laughed to herself…”  This laughter would prove to be both mocking – hardly in my old age – and secretly hopeful and joyful.  It later became openly joyful when Isaac was born and named in 21:1-7, with Sarah’s laughter elaborated in 21:6.  
The matrix of hoary antiquity, divine power, sexuality, and laughter in this passage has led some subtle interpreters to learn from it profound secrets about the deep psychic worlds of Abraham or of the whole of Jewish culture.  (I give no references here, but some very bizarre things have been claimed.)  
What we really have here is, in fact, an idyllic tribal picture of the patriarch and matriarch entertaining angels – not so unawares – and receiving the gift of a destiny-making son of their own.  
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19.  
The Psalm reading is from a psalm of thanksgiving.  In general terms the speaker insists that God has answered past pleas for help.  Now there is liturgical celebration at the sanctuary where the speaker lifts a toast to the God who saves (verse 13) and declares that all past vows – uttered in times of distress – will now be fulfilled.  This is good news to the poor of the land, who get their periodic feasts from such thanksgiving banquets of the well-to-do. 
The whole psalm is designed to be spoken by a king, here declaring himself to be a servant of God, the son of a queen-mother, God’s “serving girl” (verse 16).  The conduct and attitude of the king, however, sets a pattern for all the worthies in his realm, and the faithful will learn from it as they do from the model of Abraham’s hospitality to God.  
Romans 5:1-8.  
[The Lectionary has readings from Romans for the next several weeks.  You can find an Introduction to Romans on my Study Bibles blog, see the “Blog Archive” for a posting in April 2019, Romans.] 
The Epistle reading is a kind of summary and transition passage.  The transition is between the view just developed that believers are “justified” before God by God’s own grace (chapters 3-4) and the elaboration, yet to come, of the life lived by those who have received God’s grace (chapters 6-8).  
The summary declares, “we have peace with God” (verse 1, following the NRSV reading).  This peace makes possible a totally different attitude toward sufferings.  Because of this peace with God, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (verses 3-4).  We have an orientation, a profound sense of direction, because God’s love has been given to us through the Holy Spirit (verse 5).  This last part will be fully developed in chapters 6 through 8.  
This new condition is only possible, however, because of the death of Christ.  
Paul pauses to ponder the gravity of this.  
“Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But … while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (verses 7-8). 
This dying is itself the expression of the love of God for us, and we shall see how the dying is the key to our transformation as we read chapter 6 in the next two weeks.  
Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23).  
The Gospel reading introduces the second great body of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel According to Matthew.   
[There is a long introduction to Matthew, “MATTHEW – Gospel for a Teaching Church” in my Study Bibles blog.  See the Blog Archive for a posting in December 2019, Matthew.] 
The Sermon on the Mount had elaborated the blessings and the challenges of those included in the newly arriving Kingdom of Heaven (chapters 5-7).  After a series of miracles and sayings about discipleship (chapters 8 and 9), Jesus presents a full range of instructions for those who will be sent out and will live as apostles.  This full discourse on the Apostolic Mission (chapter 10) will occupy the Gospel readings for the next three weeks.  
Actually, the preferred term in Matthew is “disciples” rather than apostles.  Elsewhere Matthew describes how five of the disciples were called by Jesus (Peter, Andrew, James, and John in 4:18-22, and Matthew in 9:9).  Here (in 10:2-4) the disciples are twelve in number, and their names are given, though nothing further is known of most of them.  (Essentially the same list of twelve is given in Mark 3:16-19, in Luke 6:13-16, and in Acts 1:13.)  
The word “apostles” is used only once in Matthew, and that is in the heading of this list of the twelve names (10:2).  The term probably belongs to that list as Matthew received it and chose not to change it.  Otherwise, his term is “disciples.”  It is the eleven “disciples” who receive the final commission to the world in 28:16.  In the later history of the Church, however, it is the mission and status of the “apostles” that is very important.  
The reading shows strong compassion on Jesus’ part for the neglected folks of Israel.  “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36, NRSV).  The literal meaning of “harassed” is “skinned, flayed” as of animals, and the literal meaning of “helpless” is “cast down, prostrate,” as those who have been beaten and knocked down.  Jesus’ compassion is for those who have been skinned and stomped, quite literally the downtrodden.  
The first word of Jesus’ instruction to those going on mission is to go to Israel only.  The opening words literally are, “Do not take any road of the nations, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans” (10:5b, my translation).  The mission is to be strictly confined to Galilee.  Within the Gospel According to Matthew, this is a limitation applying to Jesus’ time only.  Later the apostles will go far and wide, well beyond Galilee.  
But confined to Galilee, the disciples are to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom in the same terms used by John the Baptist and by Jesus earlier (Matthew 10:7, compared to 3:2 and 4:17).  The power of the coming Kingdom has already begun to work.  That is why the disciples, like Jesus earlier, can heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out the powers of evil, the demons (verse 8).  The mission of the apostles is a healing ministry, which will bear its own testimony to the coming of the Kingdom.  
Included in the optional reading (10:9-23) are many details of how the apostles should conduct themselves during their mission work.  They are to be itinerants, staying no place very long, and without possessions – no traveling bag, no extra suit, no dress shoes, and no cane for walking or protection (verses 9-10).  They will live off the people they visit and serve.  This may seem hazardous for the missionaries, but it was also subject to abuse.  
Such traveling ministers were well known in the rural churches of Syria just a few years after the Gospel of Matthew was completed in that area.  The Didache gives the following instructions.  
Now about the apostles and prophets:  Act in line with the gospel precept.  Welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord.  But he must not stay beyond one day.  In case of necessity, however, the next day too.  If he stays three days, he is a false prophet.  On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging.  If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.  (Didache 11:3-6, trans. Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Westminster Press, 1953, p. 176.)  
Jesus’ compassion was for the needy and the downtrodden, and his disciples were to heal and help, not become an additional burden upon their flocks.  They were to live by faith and bring the good works of God that were the present reality of the kingdom of heaven.   

Sunday, May 24, 2020

June 7, 2020 - Trinity Sunday

                                                            Biblical Words                                      [663]
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; II Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20. 
The Fullness of God unfolds as Creator, exalted Humanity, and Spirit sanctifying space and time. 
Christian tradition calls the first Sunday after Pentecost Trinity Sunday.  After the coming of the Spirit launched the age of the church the revelation was complete:  the full being of God as creator Parent, servant but exalted Son, and dynamic communing Spirit is now experienced as three aspects of a single ultimate reality.  
The readings from the Hebrew scriptures emphasize the elevation of humankind to partnership – image-sharing – with the creating God. 

Genesis 1:1-2:4a. 

The Torah reading is the beginning of the Bible, Jewish and Christian. 
Jewish tradition reads this story of creation at Sabbath services beginning shortly after the High Holy Days in early autumn.  (Their annual reading of the whole Torah begins at that time.)  The Christian Revised Common Lectionary reads this story now because it is the beginning of the Bible.  The Lectionary now enters “common time,” the time in the year not included in the long sacred seasons of Advent-to-Epiphany and Lent-to-Pentecost.  

During this “common” time, readings are selected in sequence through various Biblical books.  (Year A will read from Genesis to Judges in this period; Year B will read the historical and wisdom books; and Year C will read the Prophets.) It is a time for Christian hearers to get general exposure to the Scriptures in their Sunday readings.  For such Christians, this is the beginning of many weeks of hearing selections from the book of Genesis. 
Genesis 1 presents the universe as a sacred structure, created within sacred time. 
The dominant mood is creation by deliberate act, and the outcome is a rational, orderly edifice in which the human is central and reflects the divine character in “image” and in the exercise of dominion.  No conflict goes on in this presentation.  Creation is not the outcome of a violent struggle between chaos and creator god.  It is the outcome of calm pronouncements which immediately become reality.  
The overarching message is that the entire universe was created in a way to sanction observance of the Sabbath rest.  Those who are in harmony with the Creator observe that rest.  The commandment in Exodus to observe the Sabbath will appeal to this creation story (Exodus 20:11), and the actions in Genesis 1 show that everything that is needed in the creation of the world is accomplished in six days of God’s own time, leaving the seventh as the special day of rest.  
To show that the creation is complete in six days the narrator has to double up some of the days’ actions.  For there are eight actions of creation which have to be placed within six days.  This is accomplished by putting two actions each into the third and the sixth days.  Also, there is a symmetry between the actions of the first three days and the actions of the second three days of creation.  The whole arrangement, then, is as follows.  
First Day                                                          Fourth Day
      (1) Light [heavenly action only]                         (5) Lights (sun, moon, stars) 

Second Day                                                     Fifth Day 
      (2) Dome [vertical separation]                           (6) Creatures of water and air 

Third Day                                                         Sixth Day 
      (3) Dry Land [horizontal separation]                  (7) Creatures of the dry land 
      (4) Vegetation                                                    (8) Humans 

                                                Seventh Day – the Divine Rest 
In its treatment of the creation of humans, the narrative makes clear that God the Creator has a special interest – even intimacy (considering the possible implications of “image”) – in the human being.  Other than the emphasis on the Sabbath, the pronouncement about the human is the climax of the eight acts of creation.  
So God created humankind in his image, 
      in the image of God he created them;
      male and female he created them.  
God blessed them, and God said to them, 
“Be fruitful and multiply, 
      and fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:27-28, NRSV.) 
In this sophisticated narrative (compared to the earthier creation story in Genesis 2), humankind is created from the beginning as one species with two sexes and receives a divine command to multiply and to subdue the earth.  In this activity, stated as a kind of pristine ideal, the human is an integral part of God’s entire purpose as a creating being.  
The ideal Human exercising this role is anticipated in the Psalm reading.  

Psalm 8. 

This psalm is framed, beginning and end, by an exclamation that God’s “Name” is majestic throughout the earth.  
The speaker then declares that God’s glory is set “above the heavens” – beyond the visible dome of the sky, in the heights of God’s own dwelling with the heavenly beings.  By contrast, at an opposite extreme in the vertical dimension, there is a “bulwark [of praise]” that comes from the babbling mouths of nursing babies and helpless infants – a bulwark that protects the innocent and defenseless from the “enemy and the avenger” (verse 2, NRSV).  God is praised within the mystery of the supreme height in heaven but also at the mysterious depths of the helpless child who cannot yet utter human speech.  
Between those extremes, other signs of God’s majesty are provided by the visible heavenly bodies.  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers / the moon and the stars that you have established…” (verse 3).  These created wonders of the visible heavens force mere humans to gaze upward in complete awe.  And, having gazed up for some time, one then looks down to the other extreme:  “…what are human beings that you are mindful of them, / mortals that you care for them?”  (verse 4.  The NRSV uses plurals in place of the Hebrew enosh, poetic humankind, and ben adam, son of human / son of Adam.  The singular means the archetypal Human, the original and ultimate Human, and this will be important in early Christian citations of this verse.)  
Within this extreme between great heavens and mere mortals, a divine elevation is proclaimed.  
Yet you have made him little less than a god, 
you have crowned him with glory and beauty, 
made him lord of the works of your hands, 
put all things under his feet,… 
      (Verses 5-6, New Jerusalem Bible translation, avoiding the plurals.)  
Within the glory of the visible world, the Human has been exalted to near divine status, and that is the supreme expression of the majesty of God’s Name throughout the earth.  
In the rhetoric of the Israelite psalmist this is a magnification of the generic human species on the earth, though expressed as the elevation of a single ideal Human.  In the language of the early Jesus followers, this is God’s exaltation of the suffering servant to his destined supreme place for all creation.  (Psalm 8 is specifically quoted in this way in I Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; and Hebrews 2:5-9.)  
In that perspective, the Human is the Lord who came to save the lost and has been elevated to rule over all powers and realms of heaven and earth.  That elevation of the Christ as the archetypal Human was anticipated in the praise of the psalmist.  
The human, vulnerable and mortal creature, is also included in God’s own being.  Thus the early believers learned to know the threeness of God, whose praise they included in their doxologies.  

II Corinthians 13:11-13. 

The Epistle reading contains such a doxology.  
The last few words of the letter from the apostle show how early Christians expressed their best wishes to each other.  Here, these seem hurried, almost jumbled – a few bullets in a memo.  
Put things in order.
Listen to my appeal.
Agree with one another.  
Live in peace – and the God of love and peace will be with you.  
Greet one another with a holy kiss.  
All the saints greet you.  (Verses 11-12, NRSV.) 
And then the benediction, blessing with words that express the threeness of God as these believers have come to experience it.  
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.  

Matthew 28:16-20.  

And in the Gospel reading – the closing words of the Gospel According to Matthew – we have one of the greatest expressions of the threeness of God that comes from the early believers.  
Matthew here presents an appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, rather than in Jerusalem, as in Luke, Acts, and John (except in chapter 21).  It is in Galilee, on “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them” that the final commission to the disciples is given (Matthew 28:16, NRSV).  Besides this passage in Matthew, Mark also shows that originally Jesus would appear only in Galilee to the disciples (Mark 14:28 and 16:7).  For Mark and Matthew, Jerusalem is the place to go and die; Galilee is the place to go and live again.  
In any case, in Matthew the Jesus story ends with Jesus sending the disciples to “make disciples of all nations.”  (“Nations,” ta ethne, we may recall, is mistakenly rendered in English as “Gentiles,” its Latin translation.)  “The nations” certainly includes all the Judeans gathered from other countries at Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11) as well as the non-Judean people among them!  The apostles are to go, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey every thing that I have commanded you” (verses 19-20). 
This teaching (the Gospel According to Matthew) begins with John the Baptist, only now it is a baptism in the name of the three-fold character of God.  After this baptism, the peoples of the nations will continue by learning the Sermon on the Mount and then the other blocks of teaching material in Matthew’s Gospel.  
This sequence of teachings, in the name of the three-persona God, is what the Lectionary Gospel readings in Matthew will lead us through in the next few months.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

May 31, 2020 - Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                             [662]
Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23. 

The Holy Spirit breaks out -- inside or outside accustomed boundaries. 
Pentecost is the Christian Church’s declaration that it was born from the powerful movement of God’s Spirit. 
The divine Spirit is the spontaneous, the unpredictable, the creatively new breaking forth of the union of power and meaning in a human situation.  It often appears, therefore, in contrast to the structured and institutional forms of the church’s life.  The Spirit breaks out, the offices channel and structure divine power.  The movements of the Spirit are charismatic, the institutional forms are sacramental.  
Pentecost is the celebration of the charismatic, the inbreaking power of God that creates a new people, a new revelation, or a new moment of deliverance or vision by which God’s people may live forward into their history. 
Numbers 11:24-30. 
The reading from the Torah describes a strange combination of ecstatic spirit with appointed office in ancient Israel.  
Israel’s time in the wilderness was a time of testing.  They faced trials of a life-threatening nature – death from lack of water, death from lack of food, attacks from hostile enemies, and threats from internal dissention and rebellion.  
One of these threats to the people’s existence was the need for good administration of justice.  Moses’ father-in-law warned him how great a burden this would be and persuaded him to establish a hierarchy of courts of justice, with Moses himself as final court of appeal (Exodus 18:13-26).  This was the administration of justice through offices and institutions.  
Our passage in Numbers addresses the same problem, but moves to a more charismatic solution.  
Moses had complained to God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me” (Numbers 11:14).  God tells Moses to select seventy well-known elders and bring them to the sanctuary to be endowed with a portion of Moses’ spirit (11:16-17).  When Moses does this, the divine spirit that has empowered Moses falls on the elders and they break into ecstatic prophesy.  (This type of prophesy was seen in the days of Samuel and Saul, see I Samuel 10:5-6; 19:18-24.)  The burden of leadership, which threatened to overwhelm Moses alone, has been spread among a circuit of spirited leaders throughout the community.  
The curious story of Eldad and Medad, which is added here, gives a strange twist to the possession of the divine spirit.  
Moses had named the seventy elders who were to be ordained (“they were among those registered,” verse 26).  If Moses had named them, they were predestined to receive the spirit, whether they had gone out to the tent of meeting to be ordained or not.  Thus, though these two were back in the settlement and not out at the holy tent, at the exact moment when the divine spirit burst out on the others, they too were seized by the divine ecstasy and “prophesied” in the camp.  This kind of prophesying created a public spectacle, and Joshua ran out to Moses to tell him in alarm about the two wild men in the camp.  
The apparent scandal of the prophesying of Eldad and Medad leads to an important saying by Moses.  Joshua, Moses’ bodyguard and successor, urges him to silence those seemingly unauthorized spirit-mongers in the camp.  This is Joshua’s zeal for the exclusive authority of Moses (verse 28). 
But Moses is a larger man than that – the story implies – and utters a wish for an inspirited people for the ages.  
Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them! 
(Verse 29.  The Joel prophecy, quoted by Peter at Pentecost, anticipates the fulfillment of Moses’ wish!)  
Though this final saying of Moses wishes for the spirit of God to guide everybody, the larger (and later) tradition did not trust this kind of charismatic common life. 
The final and fully developed version of the Law of Moses makes the priests the custodians of the people’s lives.  There are no provisions for prophets in the ideal order of Israel’s life in the Torah, especially ecstatic prophets.  In the age of Ezra, when the Torah assumed its authoritative place in Israel’s life (Nehemiah 8-10), the only prophets around were devious accomplices of the enemies (see Nehemiah 6:10-15).  The age of the great prophets was over and Israel now had only to live by the Torah. 
It is this later viewpoint – which sees the age of the prophets as past – that speaks in one important sentence in our reading.  After the charismatic gift has come, the text says, “and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again” (verse 25, NRSV). 
It was true that the spirit of Moses came upon the hand-picked men at their original ordination – even that they went a little wild with the ecstasy – but that was a one-time event.  In future, the official elders conducted themselves more properly and were not again to be mistaken for those prophets who could so easily get out of hand – and perhaps even start revolutions (Elijah and Elisha). 
So, in history, God’s Spirit keeps breaking forth, only to be gradually channeled and structured into offices and sacraments.  Moses, however, had hoped that the breaking forth could go on perpetually. 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b.  
The Psalm reading is a portion of a great hymn to creation.  Our reading dwells on the providential care of God for created beings.  It speaks of the dependent spirit of the creatures and the spirit of God sent forth as a renewing agent for the earth. 
When you give to them, they gather it up; 
      when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. 
When you hide your face, they are dismayed; 
      when you take away their breath [ruach, spirit], they die 
      and return to their dust.  
When you send forth your spirit, they are created [bara’ as in Gen. 1:1]; 
      and you renew the face of the ground. 
If and when God’s Spirit comes upon the human scene to inspire and guide, it is the same Spirit that sustains all created things and gives new life to the earth.  So the psalm affirms.  
Acts 2:1-21. 
In place of an Epistle reading we have THE Pentecost narrative from the Acts of the Apostles.  The text contains many emphases:  
·        the common life of the disciples after Jesus’ departure, 
·        the presence of Judeans from all the lands of the known world, 
·        the peculiar power of the Spirit in giving many languages to those who preach, and 
·        how Peter begins his sermon by quoting a text from the prophet Joel. 
First we should listen to the description of the breaking forth of the Spirit, which was  foretold in the Joel prophecy: 
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind [pnoe, not pneuma], and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (verses 2-4, NRSV).  
Peter stands as a spokesman for all the apostles and declares to the crowds in Jerusalem that these strange phenomena are the breaking out of the Spirit of God, and that, in accordance with prophecy, that out breaking is for peoples of all nations.  
Because NOW is understood to be “the last days.”  The prophecies about that end time are coming true.  “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” (verse 17, quoting Joel 2:28). 
Not only are the first Jesus believers living in the last time, they are living in a time when the old forms are burst open again.  The prophets were silenced for four hundred years, but now the spirit of prophecy breaks out on every side.  “Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (verse 18).  There is a new divine eruption into history; it is not just business as usual for these religious folks. 
The Apostolic Age is now launched by the ecstatic power of the Holy Spirit.  As the book of Acts moves along, we will see the wildness of the charisma calm down some, but throughout the age – right on past Paul’s end days in Rome – the ekklesia, the Assembly of God’s people, will move forward into the world by the power of the Spirit.  
John 20:19-23.  
The Gospel reading is John’s account of Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples after the resurrection.  
This narrative shows that some early Christians were preoccupied with the physical reality of the resurrected Jesus.  The disciples not only see a risen Jesus, they are shown Jesus’ wounded hands and side (verse 20), and Thomas will later actually touch these wounds (verse 27).  In accordance with this preoccupation with the physical body, the description of Jesus giving the Spirit has him actually breathe the Spirit upon them.  The Spirit is a wind-like phenomenon; it can be transmitted like air.  
The scene described here is virtually an ordination ritual for apostles.  Jesus says to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” turning the disciples into apostles.  (The word “apostle” means “one sent.”)  At the same time, he completes the commission with an appropriate action.  “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”  
However in-spirited the Christian community in Ephesus may have been, this transmission of the Spirit looks a lot like being empowered with an office.  (The power bestowed, in verse 23, is to forgive sins – an awesome capacity to transmit to mere mortals!)  
The sedate Gospel of John does not show a great outburst of ecstasy as the spirit is bestowed.  Instead, the Spirit is more a mystical revelation and inner source of truth and assurance than it is a creator of community.  
The different faces of the gifts of Pentecost show that the Spirit of God was already leading the many groups of Jesus followers into diverse paths in the world to which they were sent! 

Friday, May 15, 2020

May 24, 2020 - Ascension Sunday

                                                            Biblical Words                                        [661]            
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11. 
Luke taught that the earthly work of Jesus had an end:   the Ascension. 
This Sunday is Ascension Sunday, the Sunday following the 40th day after Easter. 
By the second generation of the Jesus Movement, Christians had come to believe that Jesus’ physical presence was extended after the day of the resurrection:  Luke says he spent forty days as a risen presence to the disciples – after which that physical presence definitely ceased. 

Acts 1:6-14. 

The Acts reading emphasizes three points for the disciples who must carry on after Jesus is gone.  First, concerning the time of the final judgment they should not worry themselves.  God will bring that judgment in God’s own time (verses 6-7). 
Secondly, the disciples will receive the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to carry out a vast mission program.  That program (verse 8) will begin in Judea (that is, with the most observant Judeans), it will continue to the Samaritans (those “sort-of” Judeans who have their own way of living by the Law of Moses), and it will extend “to the ends of the earth” (where people have not lived by Moses at all).  In Acts this final goal seems to mean all the way to Rome, where this story will conclude.  (Luke’s program seems to deliberately avoid reference to Galilee, where Mark and Matthew think the risen Jesus met and commissioned the disciples, Mark 16:7 and Matthew 28:16-17.) 
The third point is that the disciples gaze upward as Jesus departs from them, riding on the cloud to the heavenly realm.  Those who knew the visions of Daniel well could recognize the ascension of the “one like a son of man,” who came up to heaven on the clouds to receive from God “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). 
The two angelic interpreters make clear to the disciples that this ascension is the opening bracket of the time until that heavenly Lord comes back to earth.  He will return to earth in the same manner as this departure, then to carry out a vast judgment on all the peoples.  The return visit by the Son of Man is anticipated in Luke 21:25-28 (following Mark 13:24-27). 
[See a fuller discussion of the Ascension in the Special Note at the end of these readings.]  

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35.  

The Psalm reading is a couple of selections from a long and complicated composition.  The whole psalm has many parts, and they go together only with difficulty and much scholarly straining and struggling.  It is clear, however, that all the parts are hymnic or celebrative.  They all exult in the triumphant and victorious character of the God here praised.  
The first piece hopes for God’s victory, virtually resorting to sympathetic magic to bring it about.  
Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered…  
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; 
      as wax melts before the fire, 
      let the wicked perish before God (verses 1-2, NRSV).  
One can see the symbolic fire blazing away in the holy place and the smoke being dispersed by a strong breeze.  A priestly figure brings wax images of the feared enemies near the fire and they melt away to a harmless blob.  This is good news for the righteous, and the prayer concludes with  a summons to them to rejoice in the Lord’s triumph.  
Let the righteous be joyful; 
      let them exult before God; 
      let them be jubilant with joy (verse 3).  
Thus a primitive cry for God to show power against threatening attackers comes eventually (for post-Easter Jesus followers) to celebrate the rise to power of a suffering servant.  
Another piece of the psalm emphasizes how God’s power is exercised, for protection of the weak.  
Father of orphans and protector of widows 
      is God in [God’s] holy habitation.  
God gives the desolate a home to live in; 
      [God] leads out the prisoners to prosperity, 
      but the rebellious live in a parched land (verses 5-6).  
A final piece uses ancient formulas to praise the power of God that is in the heavens, loaded with overtones for those thinking of the Ascension:  
O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens; 
      listen, he sends out his voice.  
Ascribe power to God, 
      whose majesty is over Israel
      and whose power is in the skies (verses 33-34).  
The expression “rider in the heavens” is a variation on he “who rides upon the clouds” in verse 4.  This was a standard title praising the storm god, Ba'al, in use in Canaan since the fourteenth century BCE, now applied to Yahweh, god of Israel.  This formula “rider on the clouds” underlies the crucial Daniel description of the one like a son of man “coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13).  
For early Christians, all such language had found its ultimate meaning in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.  

I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11.  

In the Epistle we hear the apostle’s final exhortations to those who suffer because of their faith.  Such suffering is a blessing.  “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God, is resting on you” (verse 14, NRSV). 
The intensity of the trials leads the sufferers to believe that they struggle against the great power of evil itself.  “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.  Resist him…”! (5:8-9).  
The greatest comfort the apostle has to offer is that the great triumph – the equivalent to the ascension – will come after the suffering.  “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (verse 10).  

John 17:1-11.  

The Gospel reading is from Jesus’ last words just before he leaves the disciples.  After all the private instructions he has just given the disciples, Jesus prays.  That is, he speaks to God instead of to others. 
As do all these final discourses (in chapters 13-17), the farewell prayer (sometimes called the high-priestly prayer because it is an intercession for the believers) speaks from the perspective of the ultimate heavenly meaning of the work of Jesus.  
I glorified you [Father] on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.  So now… glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed (verses 4-5, NRSV).  
Jesus’ earthly work is finished – except that the crucifixion and the resurrection have yet to be carried out in mundane reality – and he is now ready to resume his heavenly status with the divine Parent.  
That is the Johannine equivalent to the ascension.   
Though Jesus is departing from the world, he is leaving the disciples behind, and here he prays for their protection and unity.  This prayer does not mention the later coming of the Advocate (or Comforter), discussed in chapters 14 and 16.  Here the disciples have received Jesus’ “words,” which are God’s words.  That is their assurance and their power in the world:  
“…for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (verse 8).  
Jesus will ascend to the presence of the Parent, but he leaves behind the hearing, the experience, and the testimony of those whom Jesus has saved for the Parent.  
The testimony that the disciples will make to the heavenly glory was anticipated at the beginning of the Gospel:  
“…the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  

Special Note on the Ascension of Jesus
The Ascension is a specific event only in the writings of Luke.  Here are the two descriptions of it in the Gospel and in Acts.  
In the Gospel, Jesus appeared to the Eleven, showed them his body with the crucifixion wounds, and ate some food.  “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (24:50-51, NRSV, following the Alexandrian text).  
The same narrator took up the Ascension at the beginning of Acts.  Here the conception of the event is more developed, including the forty days (which appears no where else).  “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (1:3).  
Having told them to stay around Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes, and warning them not to waste time waiting for the world to end (1:4-7), the time had come for the separation. 
…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (1:9-11).  
The Luke narratives have three clear emphases.  
1) Jesus’ resurrection body was real flesh and blood.  He was touched, ate food, and hung out for forty days.  
2) The next main event in God’s reign is going to happen in Jerusalem.  The disciples, “men of Galilee,” are not to go home but to stay in the holy city.  As God promised, the Holy Spirit will take charge of future developments, which will move out from there.  
3) The Ascension was a real, visual event with a specific time and place.  It happened forty-three days after the crucifixion, on the hill east of Jerusalem (a shoulder of the Mount of Olives) near the village of Bethany.  In Luke’s view, it could have been photographed for local news media.  
Also in Luke’s view, the Ascension happened as the reverse of the coming of the “Son of Man” prophesied in the Gospel:  “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27, NRSV).  In the Ascension scene Jesus does not yet have the “power and great glory,” but both Luke and his hearers knew where that power would be bestowed upon this Son of Man. 
The Ascension took Jesus to the heavenly court, and the scene there is clearly portrayed in the vision of Daniel.  
As I watched, 
Thrones were set in place, 
      and an Ancient One took his throne…
The court sat in judgment, 
      and the books were opened… 
I saw one like a human being [literally “a son of man”]
      Coming [up] with the clouds of heaven.  
And he came to the Ancient One 
      and was presented before him.  
To him was given dominion
      and glory and kingship, 
that all peoples, nations, and languages 
      should serve him.  (Daniel 7:9, 13-14, NRSV.)  
The Ascension was the beginning of that transit from earth into God’s presence to receive the Messiah’s reign (the Christ’s reign) over the principalities and powers.  
The Luke writings are from the second generation of Jesus followers – around 90 CE give or take ten years.  The first generation had simply proclaimed the risen Jesus as already exalted to heaven where he entered into power seated on the right hand of God (Philippians 2:9-11; Romans 1:4; Mark 14:62; Acts 7:56).  By Luke’s time, the Jesus story was being filled in and details about events between the crucifixion and the heavenly reign were discovered.  
This second generation, no longer expecting the imminent Return of the Lord, provides the strong emphasis on the physicality of Jesus’ risen body and on the Ascension as an event.  This second generation “rationalism,” if you will, eventually carried the day, and the Apostle’s Creed, of approximately 200 CE in Rome, declared as the belief of faithful Christians that Jesus “ascended into heaven, [and was] seated at the right hand of the Father.”  
If a modern believer is ever to be embarrassed by the “three-story-universe” of Biblical cosmology, the Ascension must surly be the occasion.  
Jesus passed up into the clouds over the Mount of Olives and went – where?  Through the ages Christian theologians have either ignored the issue or been embarrassed by it.  (See the survey of views on the Ascension by Norman R. Gulley in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. I, p. 473.)  If one takes the Ascension literally, one’s view of the universe is seriously affected.  If one takes it symbolically, it becomes a way of referring to some higher reality, usually understood as an amplification of the basic doctrine of the Resurrection. 
A Literal Approach. 
"The ascension may be described as the visible ascent of the person of the Mediator from earth to heaven, according to His human nature.  It was a local transition, a going from place to place.  This implies, of course, that heaven is a place as well as earth.  But the ascension of Jesus was not merely a transition from one place to another; it also included a further change in the human nature of Christ.  That nature now passed into the fullness of heavenly glory and was perfectly adapted to the life of heaven.  Some Christian scholars of recent date consider heaven to be a condition rather than a place, and therefore do not conceive of the ascension locally.  [He cites works by W. Milligan, A.B. Swete, and a certain Gore.]  They will admit that there was a momentary lifting up of Christ in the sight of the Eleven, but regard this only as a symbol of the lifting up of our humanity to a spiritual order far above our present life.  The local conception, however, is favored by [several] considerations… " 

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans, 1996, original publications 1932 and 1938), p. 350 (in second pagination).  
Karl Barth.  
"As the empty tomb looks downward, the ascension looks upwards.  But again the ascension—Jesus’ disappearance into heaven—is the sign of the Resurrected, not the Resurrected Himself.  “Heaven” in biblical language is the sum of the inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world, so that, although it is not God Himself, it is the throne of God, the creaturely correspondence to his glory, which is veiled from man, and cannot be disclosed except on His initiative.  There is no sense in trying to visualize the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon.  The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations.  But of course this is no reason why they should be used to make the whole thing ridiculous.  The point of the story is not that when Jesus left His disciples He visibly embarked upon a wonderful journey into space, but that when He left them He entered the side of the created world which was provisionally inaccessible and incomprehensible, that before their eyes He ceased to be before their eyes.  This does not mean, however, that He ceased to be a creature, man.  What it does mean is that He showed Himself quite unequivocally to be the creature, the man, who in provisional distinction from all other men lives on the God-ward side of the universe, sharing His throne, existing and acting in the mode of God, and therefore to be remembered as such, to be known once for all as this exalted creature, this exalted man, and henceforth to be accepted as the One who exists in this form to all eternity."  

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics.  Vol. III, The Doctrine of Creation, Part 2, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh:  T&T Clark), pp. 453-454.  
A Symbolic Approach:  Paul Tillich.  
[Tillich discusses the Ascension under the heading, “Symbols Corroborating the Symbol ‘Resurrection of the Christ’.”  (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 159-164.)  These symbols together refer to "postexistence," that is, the Christ’s existence after the historical Jesus.  Such symbols, besides Ascension, are:  Sitting at the right hand of God, Ruling over the church, the Millennium (thousand-year reign over the righteous), the Second Coming, and the Judgment of the world.  All of these symbols "corroborate the Resurrection from the point of view of its consequences for the Christ, his church, and his world."]  
"These start with the symbol of the Ascension of the Christ.  In some ways this is a reduplication of the Resurrection but is distinguished from it because it has a finality which contrasts markedly with the repeated experiences of the Resurrected.  The finality of his separation from historical existence, indicated in the Ascension, is identical with his spiritual presence as the power of the New Being but with the concreteness of his personal countenance.  [The Ascension puts a face on Jesus’ reality within a spiritual dimension?]  It is therefore another symbolic expression of the same event which the Resurrection expresses.  If taken literally, its spatial symbolism would become absurd."  (Systematic Theology, II, pp. 161-62.)