Thursday, May 13, 2021

May 30, 2021 - Trinity Sunday

                      Biblical Words                          [718]

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

God as the Holy One invades human life, shattering earthly powers but transforming those who respond.

Trinity Sunday is a transitional day between the long sacred seasons of Lent-Easter and the six months of  “ordinary time” that extend until Advent.  There is a corresponding transitional Sunday at the end of this ordinary time, Reign of Christ (formerly Christ the King). 

It has been said that Trinity Sunday focuses on the Being of the holy and mysterious God whose Actions were revealed in the holy times from Advent to Pentecost. 

Isaiah 6:1-8. 

The lections for Trinity Sunday begin with the awesome call vision of Isaiah.  This was the Biblical text that was evoked for many of us by Rudolph Otto’s classic study The Idea of the Holy.  It is the Lord as the “terrible and fascinating” power, overwhelming and annihilating, yet transforming the one human who is singled out for the revelation. 

The report of Isaiah’s vision assumes that the speaker is standing in the main hall of Solomon’s temple, though it is transformed into a heavenly court by God’s enthroned presence. 

The seraphs were part of the standard imagery of heavenly things, so distant from human experience as to seem alien or bizarre.  Like the even more bizarre “living creatures” with wings and faces in Ezekiel’s vision of the enthroned God (Ezekiel 1), the seraphs are associated with God’s throne and its mobility.  Here the seraphs are vaguely human creatures with faces and private parts (“feet” in verse 2 is a euphemism), and they have voices, which may roar like thunder, making the building tremble, but which utter articulate words of praise, beginning with the thrice-repeated qādôsh – “holy, holy, holy.” 

The human who is confronted with this is devastated.  “Woe is me!  I am lost…”  His own condition, which is such a contrast to this overwhelming holiness, is described as being a person “of unclean lips” (verse 5, NRSV).  This undoubtedly has reference to speech rather than eating – the unholiness of the human condition derives from things said.  Our speech alienates us from the holy realm. 

A marvelous transformation comes about here, when a seraph touches a live coal from the incense altar to the speaker’s lips.  He is purified, his power of speech transformed.  Now he hears the consultations of the heavenly council and is even able to speak up and say, “Here am I; send me!” (verse 8). 

The Holy One overwhelms but transforms and gives mission to the human who has made himself present in God’s temple. 

Psalm 29. 

The Psalm reading repeats the psalm that is used in Epiphany to celebrate the Spirit of God at Jesus’ baptism (1st Sunday after Epiphany in Year B).  The psalm is an astonishing presentation of the Lord of Israel as the Storm God, repeating the phrase “the Voice of the Lord” (thunder) seven times as it tracks a great electrical storm from the Mediterranean Sea across the Lebanon mountains until it dissipates over the desert east of Damascus (verses 3-9). 

The outer framework of the storm passage (verses 1-2, 10-11) is the worship of God as enthroned King in the heavenly palace, which worship is replicated by devout humans in the earthly temple.  The first word summons the “heavenly beings” to worship God’s glory (verse 1) and at the end, “in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV). 

Appropriate to Trinity Sunday is the triadic structure of the opening call to worship.  

Ascribe to the Lord,
      O heavenly beings,
Ascribe to the Lord
      glory and strength. 
Ascribe to the Lord
      the glory of his name. 
Worship the Lord in holy splendor. 

Romans 8:12-17.  

The reading from the Epistle presents an amazing glimpse into an inner life of God into which humans are drawn. 

Those believers who “are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” by adoption.  “When we cry, ‘Abba!  Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” (verses 14-16).  When the faithful utter the ecstatic cry of prayer, “O Father!”, it is the Spirit of God addressing God the Father through the prayer of the adopted Spirit-born child of God. 

The New Jerusalem Bible renders it somewhat differently but with the same implications:  “…you received the spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’  The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God” (verses 15-16, NJB). 

The encompassing God of Paul’s vision works through the redeemed people to converse with God’s own self – a divine inner dialogue carried out by means of salvation history!  A remarkable aspect of the divine mystery, and an awesome note to sound about human prayer! 

John 3:1-17. 

The Gospel reading is Jesus’ discussion with the Judean leader Nicodemus about being born again. 

As a Trinity Sunday reading, three things stand out:  (1) the Spirit of God as the agent of the rebirth (verses 3-8), (2) the Son who descended from heaven and is “lifted up” again so that believers may have eternal life (verses 11-15), and (3) the ending that speaks of what God the Father was up to in all of this, giving us what is probably the world's most famous New Testament quotation:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." (John 3:16). 

Jesus’ first words to Nicodemus speak of seeing (or in verse 5 “entering”) the Kingdom of God.  This is not John’s language; it is Synoptic Gospel language. 

The phrase “Kingdom of God” occurs only in these two verses in all of John.  On the other hand, John’s phrase “eternal life” occurs only once in all of Mark, in the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus very  much as Nicodemus does in John.  The young man asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).  Our John passage assumes that Nicodemus meant to ask exactly this question, and this is the question that Jesus in fact answers. 

The answer Jesus gives is that one must be born of the Spirit.  There is a sharp distinction between the flesh and the spirit.  To be born of flesh is to live by the flesh, that is, to indulge all the bodily desires.  To be born of the Spirit is to have one’s own spirit guided into a kind of unpredictable manner of life, later to be characterized as love of God and others. 

“The wind [= spirit/Spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (verse 8, NRSV). 

There is a spontaneous unpredictability about the works of love inspired by the Holy Spirit that is denied to bondage to the flesh. 

If it is the work of the Spirit to inspire a manner of living that gives body to the love of God, it was the Son who opened up such a possibility for humankind.  The phrase “Son of Man” in John refers to Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God who became human in order to suffer and be raised up, providing access to eternal life for believers. 

The discourse in 3:11-15 speaks of this work of the Son for the salvation of humans.  But this passage also introduces a change in the mode of speech.  This passage about the Son is spoken to a group rather than to just Nicodemus, and it is spoken by a group:  “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you [plural] do not receive our testimony” (verse 11). 

What we hear in this passage are Jesus-believers in dialogue with their Judean opponents.  When Jesus is speaking one-to-one with Nicodemus about the work of the Spirit there could have been some agreement between them.  Jesus implies, at least, that a “teacher in Israel” could understand these things (verse 10).  When, however, the discussion is about the special status and work of the Son of Man (verses 11-15), the issue is drawn between the old believers and the new.  The One God known to the Judeans (and other unitarians/Unitarians) is not a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

In their different experiences of the Holy God, the Being of God remains an encompassing mystery to people of faith. 

May 23, 2021 - Day of Pentecost

                         Biblical Words                      [717]

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

The Spirit of God, that gives life, empowers communities with many voices to witness to God’s work. 

These readings return to the usual pattern of a Hebrew-scriptures text with a psalm, followed by an Epistle and a Gospel.  The main text, this time, is not the Gospel but the reading in Acts about Pentecost. 

Ezekiel 37:1-14.  

When the day celebrates the work of the Spirit of God, this Prophetic reading may not be the first to come to mind from the Hebrew scriptures, but its power commands for it a mighty place among all the prophetic writings. 

In current American culture far more people are likely to know the spiritual that sings “the knee-bone connected to the thigh-bone…” than will know the Biblical passage from which it comes.  The scriptures that have found a living place in the culture bear a powerful witness. 

As is often the case with Ezekiel, God uses something that has gotten the prophet’s attention – especially something that annoys or angers him – to fashion a word of prophecy.  In this case, Ezekiel overhears the grumbling and cynical comments of his fellow exiles in Babylon:  “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (verse 11, NRSV). 

Ezekiel had a dual mission:  to condemn the over-confident sinners still in Jerusalem (most of the material in Ezekiel 4-24) but also to inspire some endurance and hope among the recent exiles in Babylon.  The hope is presented, however, in large general terms (in contrast to Jeremiah’s pragmatic advice to the same exiles in Jeremiah 29):  the entire house of Israel, now seemingly so utterly dead, can have a new and vigorous life. 

Few visible objects evoke dead-and-gone as forcefully as dried bones lying in a dry valley.  The word of God to Ezekiel emphasizes the bleakness of these bones, in order then to visualize the astonishing restoration to life. 

Bone by bone they reconnect, sinew materializes to string them together, flesh appears to empower them, and skin comes to protect the new body.  But bones, flesh, and skin are not yet a living being.  The essential requirement is spirit (translated “breath” by the NRSV in verses 6-10) – ruach.  Spirit is the vitalizing power.  It makes a body a living being.  In Israel’s case, for this prophecy, living ones will come back from the dead. 

An Israel slaughtered and consumed as carrion, leaving bones to litter the landscape, will live again.  That is the power of God’s Spirit – when its time for action comes. 

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b.  

The Psalm selection reiterates this vital power that the spirit bestows on living creatures. 

The psalm as a whole is one of the more impressive hymns to God’s wisdom and blessing as shown in the created world.  Following a section praising the harmony of the vegetative and animal world (verses 14-23), this concluding section praises the wonder of things in the sea, and then generalizes about the dependency of all creatures on God’s support. 

When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath [ruach, wind/spirit], they die and return to their dust.  When you send forth your spirit [ruach], they are created [the verb of Genesis 1:1]; and you renew the face of the ground (verses 29-30, NRSV). 

The Spirit of God creates the spirit of living creatures – and, notably, also renews the face of the ground.  The whole environment is refreshed by the Spirit of God. 

Acts 2:1-21.  

The reading from Acts is the primary text for the Day of Pentecost.  What was prepared for in the Lectionary texts about the risen Jesus over the last few weeks finally takes place here, and the spirit-empowered community of witnesses is launched on its mission. 

The setting of the Pentecost event emphasizes two things:  that all the disciples and believers were together in one place, and that in Jerusalem at that time there were Judean people “from every nation under heaven.” 

The witness to the resurrection and saving power of Jesus starts from a single unified group.  This is an essential point for the presentation in Acts, even though it is not historically likely.  It was important to the second generation of Christians to identify a single form of the gospel message that would not differ significantly as it spread to the communities of Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and finally Rome.  The very gospel now preached and believed in Rome and Corinth had started in Jerusalem on Pentecost. 

The unity of the gospel message is balanced by the diversity of the people hearing it on Pentecost.  The list of regions from which the hearers at Pentecost came (verses 8-11) represents the extremes of the familiar world from India to Rome and from the Black Sea to Arabia.  The religious significance of this diversity is in the phrase “from every nation” (verse 5).  The prophets saw Israel’s coming glory and restoration as a blessing to the nations, and these Judeans represented those nations present at the holy place when God’s final truth breaks in. 


“Pentecost,” Titian, 16th century.

Courtesy of Divinity Library, Vanderbilt University.

The striking aspect of Pentecost, as presented here, is the language miracle.  The disciples are empowered by the Holy Spirit with “tongues as of fire,” symbolizing the capacity to speak different languages.  All the diverse Judean peoples can hear the gospel spoken in their own local languages.  The actual phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” which does not involve foreign languages, is less important here than that this gift of the Spirit is the reversal of the Tower of Babylon. 

The story of the Tower of Babylon in Genesis 11:1-9 describes Promethean days when gods and humans shared the earth and humans were capable of nearly anything – because they spoke a common language and could achieve a common mind.  Consequently, they became a threat to the gods by starting to build a city up to heaven.  To foil this human scheme, the gods cursed humans with the diversity of their languages; they could no longer cooperate and unify their efforts. 

The disciples at Pentecost do not eliminate the diversity of human languages, but through the Spirit they overcome it by speaking the same truth in all languages.  When the days of prophecy come and the Holy Spirit is poured out, the blessing of human harmony and cooperation can be restored. 

When Peter stands up to interpret for the people what has happened, he quotes the prophecy from Joel about the prophesying in the last days.  It is a powerful passage, with awe-inspiring hope for a new age.  It expresses marvelously the zeal that must have fired this movement, which was so truly charismatic – from the Spirit – in its early years. 

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.  

The Gospel reading does not have the drama of the Pentecost narrative in Acts, but it is the Johannine anticipation of the outpouring of the Spirit.  The terminology is different.  In John we hear Jesus say to the disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth…” (15:26, NRSV). 

“Advocate” translates the Greek term “Paraclete” (parάklētos, literally meaning “one summoned,” “called to one’s side”).  Other translations of this loaded term are “Comforter” (King James), “Counselor” (New International Version), “Paraclete,” simply keeping the Greek term (New Jerusalem Bible), and, an increasing favorite among scholars, “Helper” (New American Standard Bible.  The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon, 2nd ed., says, “In our literature the active sense helper, intercessor is suitable in all occurrences of the word,” p. 618.) 

The first “truth” the Spirit will guide the disciples into is their witness to Jesus.  “You too will be witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:27, New Jerusalem Bible).  This divine power will replace the presence of Jesus for the disciples and become the source of their witnessing to knowledge of God brought through Jesus. 

There is yet more for the disciples to grasp of the meaning of Jesus’ coming.  The role of the Spirit is to guide them to it, or to infuse them with it.  “I did not tell you this from the beginning, because I was with you; but now I am going to the one who sent me” (16:4, NJB) – and you will need the help of an Advocate to carry on. 

The emphasis here is on continued teaching that the disciples will need.  Still speaking between the Last Supper and his arrest, Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (16:12-13).  They could not absorb during Jesus’ time all that they will need to carry on their mission in the world. 

While John’s Gospel does not speak about the “church,” the common life of the believers (koinonia), guided by the Advocate, bears witness to Jesus’ name and power to the unbelieving world around it. 

 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

May 16, 2021 - 7th Sunday of Easter

                                                Biblical Words                                                   [716]

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19. 

Though remembering a heritage of betrayal, Jesus’ followers are God’s messengers to the world. 

The seventh Sunday of Easter is often focused on Ascension Day, which falls three days earlier (May 13th this year).  However, Ascension is a peculiarly Lukan topic, since only Luke and Acts tell about it, and I am going to save that topic for next year, the year of Luke’s Gospel. 

The regular Lectionary readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (given above) focus on the Disciples Jesus left behind, with a Psalm theme on the good person shaped by God’s Torah.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26.  

This reading in Acts, about getting a twelfth apostle, is noteworthy (1) for its concept of apostleship and (2) for the early Christian reading of scripture it reflects.  

Peter announces it is necessary to replace Judas, the one of “the Twelve” who betrayed Jesus to death.  Why this is important is not explained.  (It is part of a theory about the twelve apostles used in Luke’s writings; see the Special Note on The Twelve below.) 

Along the way, our passage gives its definition of an apostle

[Peter speaking:]  One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he [Jesus] was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.  (Verses 21-22, NRSV.)

While used here to select the new apostle, Matthias (verse 26), this definition would exclude Paul from being an apostle, as well as many others of the first generation, such as the worthy Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7).  This clearly was not the concept of apostle prevailing during the early period of the Jesus movement. 

Peter’s speech about replacing Judas appeals to scripture to support two points.  (The scriptures are given in verse 20, which the Lectionary omits.) 

1.      Psalm 69:25 shows that Judas’s property will be destroyed and uninhabited:  “Let his homestead become desolate, / and let there be no one to live in it” (quoted in verse 20a). 

2.      Psalm 109:8 shows that Judas’s Office must be filled:  “Let another take his position of overseer” (quoted in verse 20b).  [The Greek word for “overseer” is episcope, later translated “bishoprick,” KJV.] 

To a modern reader these are astonishing quotations.  How were they ever arrived at? 

Both psalms quoted here—which presumably were identified by Christian scribes after much meditation and inspired guidance—are “deprecatory” psalms, that is, psalms in which the persecuted righteous call down devastating curses upon their wicked oppressors. 

Psalm 69, of course, has some reference to Jesus’ passion (69:21), and that may be why Christians were studying it for additional clues to God’s plans.  However, it goes on to plead, “Pour out your indignation upon them...” and “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living” (69:24 and 28).  In the same vein, the long vindictive Psalm 109 includes, “When he is tried, let him be found guilty; / let his prayer be counted as sin” (verse 7). 

Apparently some early followers had found that the numerous psalm passages that damned the wicked could refer to Judas.  Such harsh passages of scripture were appropriate descriptions of the fate deserved by that villainous betrayer of the Lord! 

Psalm 1.  

The Psalm scrolls (there may have been five of them, the five “books” of Psalms) do in fact begin with a clear division between the good and the wicked person – though the wicked here are a very generic group. 

There is the model good person – who avoids the three progressive stages of worldly corruption:  walking in the counsel of the wicked, standing in the way of sinners, and sitting in the seat of scoffers (verse 1, RSV, to keep the Hebrew imagery). 

This good person’s devotion and guidance is God’s Torah, meditated on day and night – where “meditation” means repeating out loud, and thus maintaining a constant murmur or buzz around the devout people.  Such a person is sturdy and productive, like a mighty tree. 

The contrast is the way of the wicked – who will not be left standing when the judgment comes (verse 5).  Indeed, the fate of the wicked one is that his “way” will perish – where “perish” means that his trail will wander off and become lost in the desert.  Such was the fate deserved by Judas – the early folks thought. 

I John 5:9-13.  

Johannine language typically goes in a closed circle, with several major concepts being defined in terms of each other.  In this passage we are teased by such terms as

·        Son (of God),

·        believe in (old style “believe on”),
·        life or eternal life, and
·        “having,” as in “Whoever has the Son has life” (verse 12). 

However, the dominate term in this passage is “testimony” or “testify,” which we need to recall can also be translated “witness” as either a noun or a verb.  “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony [witness] in their hearts” (verse 10).  “And this is the testimony:  God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (verse 11). 

Such testimony – or witness – is especially the business of an apostle:  “one of these must become a witness with us to [Jesus’] resurrection” (Acts 1:22). 

John 17:6-19.  

The Gospel reading is the middle section of Jesus’ Farewell Prayer at the end of the symposium following the Last Supper. 

This is Jesus’ final pronouncement on the disciples before his death, and it presents an unusual view of them.  They are perfect!! 

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.... Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 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.  (Verses 6-8, NRSV). 

All the shilly-shallying of the disciples who cannot comprehend what Jesus is about – seen intermittently in chapters 13-16 – is a thing of the past.  Jesus’ mission to prepare a body of faithful witnesses to his coming to save the world (John 3:16-17) is accomplished. 

The disciples have been saved thus far – mostly.  “While I was with them, I protected them....not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (verse 12). 

Even at this climactic moment, Judas’s betrayal is noted in the divine account book.  

And Jesus declares these disciples now to be “apostles” – that is, those “sent.”   “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (verse 18). 

 

Special Note on “The Twelve” 

 (See references at the end.)

Jesus.  There is no serious doubt that Jesus singled out an inner group of twelve disciples during his own ministry.  The number was symbolic, signifying that a re-gathering of the tribes of Israel was part of the eschatological fulfillment now at hand.  Those twelve  were also sent out by Jesus to proclaim to the Judean people the arrival of the Kingdom and to heal and minister.  These things are reported by all the synoptic Gospels and are much harder to explain as inventions of the later churches than as Jesus’ own activity. 

It is also clear that the Twelve did not make up all of Jesus’ disciples; the Twelve were selected from a larger pool (Mark 3:13-14).  Also, the Twelve are called “apostles” only at the time they are actually sent out (apostle means “one sent”) on their mission (Mark 6:7 and 30). 

In the Gospels.  The terminology of “the Twelve” is prominent in Mark; it occurs eleven times, only once with any qualification such as “apostles” (Mark 3:14, a doubtful textual reading).  The disciples are otherwise constantly referred to, but Mark never uses the phrase “the twelve disciples.” 

Though Matthew is half again as long as Mark, it has fewer references to “the Twelve” (9 against 11 in Mark).  Matthew often simply quotes Mark, and thus has “the Twelve” without qualification four times.  For other occurrences the textual evidence is often divided as to whether “disciples” is added to “the twelve,” but it’s pretty clear that Matthew, especially in his own voice, tends to speak of “his twelve disciples” (10:1; 11:1) or “the twelve disciples” (20:17; 26:20). 

Matthew includes the main statement of the symbolism of the Twelve (from Q, thus not in Mark): 

Truly, I tell you, in the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28, NRSV.  The partial parallel is in Luke 22:30.). 

The early church firmly decided that the lists of the names of the Twelve should be headed with the title, “the Twelve Apostles,” however they were otherwise referred to (Mark 3:14 [doubtful text]; Matthew 10:2; Luke 6:13; and Acts 1:13, where the phrase is not used but implied by verses 15-26). 

The Gospel According to John has two references to the Twelve.  One is a striking passage which gives a Johannine version of Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messiahship. 

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve?  Yet one of you is a devil [literally, an accuser].”  (John 6:66-70.) 

The only other place the Gospel of John mentions the Twelve is in the post-resurrection story of doubting Thomas, where that disciple is referred to, just as Judas always is in other Gospels, as “one of the twelve” (John 20:24). 

Paul’s Reference to the Twelve.  The earliest, and only first generation, reference to “the Twelve” is given by Paul (who never refers to “the twelve” in his other writings). 

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:  ...that [Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive...  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all...he appeared to me.  (I Corinthians 15:3-8, NRSV.) 

The passage raises many issues, but one thing is clear.  As Paul learned the tradition within the first decade after Jesus’ death, there was a distinction between “the twelve” and “all the apostles.”  The Twelve is a group associated with Cephas (Peter); “all the apostles” is a group associated with James, Jesus’ brother.  The “apostles” were people sent out on Jesus missions, probably from Jerusalem where James very early became the head of the (Aramaic-speaking) Jesus community. 

Peter represented a succession of people who had “seen” the risen Jesus:  first himself (not reported in the Gospels), then the Twelve (probably the circle reconvened by Peter, not necessarily exactly twelve in number, and perhaps meeting in Galilee rather than Jerusalem, as in John 21), and finally, in Peter’s entourage, a large group (500 is certainly a rounded number), for which there is no historical trace, unless it represents an original charismatic event behind the later legend of Pentecost, also associated with Peter. 

James (the Brother) represents an entirely different succession.  His revelation of Jesus is distinct from that of Peter—as well as that of Paul later—and is a complete mystery as far as the Greek-speaking traditions in the New Testament are concerned.  How did he get from being opposed to Jesus (Mark 3:21, 31-35; John 7:5) to receiving a revelation of the risen Jesus—and that very early? 

However it happened, James soon moved the family to Jerusalem (Acts 1:14, which emphasizes mother Mary, a favorite in Luke’s Gospel, while Luke otherwise tends to slight brother James).  There James, head of the Messiah’s family, gradually took over and became chief authority for the church.  At first, indeed, this was alongside Peter (Galatians 1:19, where Paul calls him the “other apostle” besides Peter, both of whom Paul met less than ten years after Jesus’ death).  Later, however, James acts solely in his own right, as Acts presents him in 15:13-21 (“Therefore I have reached the decision...,” verse 19). 

Luke and Acts.  The tendency to identify the Twelve as “apostles” came to its full expression in Luke’s writings.  In the Gospel, Luke uses “the Twelve” as does Mark in most places, but Luke adds a distinction between the Twelve who go out as apostles (9:1-6) and a larger group of followers, the Seventy (or Seventy-Two), who are sent out on similar missions after Jesus has set his course for Jerusalem (10:1-12).  The Apostles are now a precisely defined group and identical with the Twelve; there are no other “apostles.” 

The Twelve come up in the book of Acts (Luke’s continuation of his Gospel) only in chapter 1, where Judas is replaced in order to keep the number twelve in tact, and at the beginning of the split between Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking Jesus followers in Acts 6:1-2.  There “the Twelve called together the whole community of the disciples” to implement new administrative procedures. 

Luke’s viewpoint clearly belongs to the second generation of the Jesus movement when the Twelve have disappeared from history, the “disciples” are a miscellaneous group of Jesus believers, and the “apostles” have become the small group of Jesus appointees who are the only valid guardians of Jesus’ message and mission.  It is from this viewpoint that Luke’s definition of an apostle is given in Acts 1:21-22. 

[An apostle must be] one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he [Jesus] was taken up from us (NRSV).   

Paul is not an apostle by this criterion, nor are many of those he discusses as apostles in his letters.  Acts, of course, never calls Paul an apostle.  (Acts 14:4 and 14 are exceptions, which many scholars think are oversights, uncorrected, in a source used for this narrative.)  The churches in Luke’s time have located the “apostles” firmly in their own past.  The apostles were only around during the first generation after Jesus’ death, and no one can be regarded as an apostle in the current churches. 

It may be noted that Acts embodies a fundamental reorientation of eschatology.  By the second generation, the immediate return of Jesus in glory was clearly postponed and some re-thinking was required, at least in the Greek-speaking churches. 

In the original Jesus eschatology, a center-piece was the reconstitution of true Israel at Zion—which is what the choice of the Twelve was all about.  In that perspective, everything moved toward Jerusalem.  All of the prophecies of Isaiah, especially, had Israel as well as the newly-awakened nations streaming toward Jerusalem as the source of God’s law and light.  In Luke, a major part of the Gospel (chapters 10-19) is such a movement toward Jerusalem, though the glory is constantly darkened by the unbelievers. 

But after the crucifixion and resurrection, the movement is reversed.  The whole of Acts describes a movement away from Jerusalem.  The mission is into the world of the nations—of which Paul becomes a preeminent leader, though Peter baptized the first non-Judean believers—culminating at the de facto capital of the world, Rome

Jesus’ vision of the Twelve had been focused on Jerusalem.  They had symbolized the great prophetic fulfillment of Israel’s destiny, looking to the time when the Lord would rule the nations from a renewed and holy Jerusalem.  Luke’s work speaks to and from a time in which Jerusalem has in fact been destroyed—with no glory involved. 

By then it was increasingly clear that God’s plan was NOT to gather everyone at Jerusalem.  Acts embodies an orientation for those who were called to be followers of Jesus within the Roman Empire.  Those of Luke’s generation knew the messages of “the Twelve Apostles,” who were now part of the past, and they were themselves heirs of a string of communities of faith founded by the great Missionary to the Nations (Paul), who had carried his own mission successfully to the other great city of God’s plans (Rome). 

The original message of The Twelve (Mark’s apocalyptic vision) had been replaced by the ongoing life of the Great Church, which would be identified more and more by its confession of the faith of The Twelve Apostles (the “Apostles’ Creed”). 

 References:  Two recent substantial treatments of the Twelve are E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1985, pp. 98-106, and John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. III, Doubleday, 2001, pp. 125-197.  Meier’s first endnote, on pages 163-64, gives a chronological bibliography of scholarly discussions of the Twelve since 1865. 

  

May 9, 2021 - 6th Sunday of Easter

                                 Biblical Words                    [715]

Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17.

God’s victory among the nations brings them the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ commandment to love.  

Acts 10:44-48.  

The reading from Acts is the climax of the story of Peter and the Roman Centurion Cornelius in Caesarea. 

Caesarea, a major seaport down on the Mediterranean coast, was the capital of the Roman province of Judea and Samaria, and Cornelius would have been a career officer with a rank similar to an army captain. 

(A centurion commanded a century; six centuries normally composed a cohort, and up to ten cohorts composed a Legion, though these numbers are theoretical and actual units were often smaller.  There was no legion based in Palestine before the Jewish revolt of 66 CE.  Two legions were based in Antioch in Syria, to protect the eastern frontier.) 

Cornelius would have been attached to the Roman prefect’s command in Judea, and was probably on permanent duty, since he had a family and household in the provincial capital. 

Through visions Peter has been directed by God to cross a great boundary between Judean and non-Judean people – crossing a boundary in order to preach the gospel to Cornelius’ Roman household.  (His sermon was the Acts reading for Easter Sunday.)  When the people of the household have heard Peter, the Holy Spirit breaks out upon them and they speak in tongues (verse 44).  Peter, and other Judean disciples who are witnesses with him, concludes that God intends that these new converts be included in the elect people of God, and they become the first group of non-Judean people to be baptized.  (The Samaritans of Acts 8:5-17 seem to be viewed, as they viewed themselves, as really Israelites.) 

This episode is important in Acts for two reasons.  First, the expansion of the faith from Jerusalem into the world that will finally lead to Rome is the work of the Holy Spirit, not of some council of leaders. 

The whole book of Acts presents the continuation of the work of God’s Spirit – the work that began in creation (the Spirit over the deep), that moved through the prophets to call Israel to repentance and to promise salvation after judgment, the Spirit that also came upon Jesus to empower him in his ministry and his passion (Luke 3:21-22 and 23:46) – this same Spirit moves after the resurrection to create the communities of Jesus’ disciples. 

[See the blog JW Study Bibles -June 2020 for a survey of Acts of the Apostles.]

The second important point for Acts is that the blessing of the gospel to the non-Judean peoples begins here through the preaching of Peter and does not wait upon the later work of the apostle Paul. 

Paul’s own language about himself, that he was the apostle to the nations par excellence (Galatians 1:15-16), is not emphasized in Acts.  Acts works hard to portray the transition from mostly Judean to mostly non-Judean believers as essentially a harmonious one.  This was important as the faith moved further into the Roman world from its Judean foundations. 

Psalm 98.  

The Psalm reading is one of the passages that magnify and glorify the victory of God’s reign over all that threatens the world of Israel and the nations.  (Other such “enthronement psalms” are Psalms 47, 93, 95-97, and 99.)  This psalm is actually an exuberant and repeated call to celebration because God has appeared in victory and is ready to judge the world. 

Where older translations spoke of “salvation” in the early verses of Psalm 98, the NRSV speaks of “victory.”   This recognizes that there has been a heavenly conflict, and the Lord has won a battle against the uprising of the powers of chaos.  

Psalm 93:3 portrays the attempt at violent breakup of the cosmic order by the floods of chaos.

“The floods have lifted up, O Lord,

      the floods have lifted up their voice; 
      the floods lift up their roaring."  

Because God remembers (and acts on) the covenant-love and faithfulness that mark God’s own character, God battles to preserve the threatened order.  This is the victory that “all the ends of the earth” have seen.  

The “vindication” (rather than the older “righteousness”) that God reveals “in the sight of the nations” is the outcome of God’s judgment.  In that judgment all false accusations will be refuted, abused folks will be vindicated, the suffering innocent will be delivered and restored.  The psalm declares that this victory has been won and the world is summoned to rejoice in it. 

I John 5:1-6.  

The victory of God’s reign continues as the theme of the Epistle reading in the First Letter of John – “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory (nikê) that conquers (nikao) the world, our faith” (verse 4, NRSV). 

This brief paragraph plays powerfully on the symbol of birth. 

The confession of Jesus as the Anointed One is the mark of one “born” from God (verse 1).  The idea seems to be that only through God can one recognize at a faith level who Jesus was and is.  This recognition, this faith that is believing at the bottom of one’s soul, is a new birth, the birth of a child of God.  One so (re)born will in turn love both the “parent” and that parent’s “child.”  The last part of verse 1 plays on the verb “to beget.”  It may be read literally, “and everyone who loves the begetter loves the one begotten by him.” 

As what follows will indicate, one born of God will love God’s (other) children. 

Because this rebirth transforms the old person, obeying the commandments of God will not be “burdensome.”  This is important because loving God means obeying the commandments of God (verse 3).  Loving God has built into it that one wants to do God’s commandments.  Thus, the one who is “born” of God, “who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (verse 5), participates in “the victory that conquers the world” – through the command of love. 

John 15:9-17.  

The fullest development of the “commandment of love” is given in the Gospel reading.  The passage continues from last week’s discussion of Jesus as the true Vine, and this reading will return at its conclusion to the Vine and its fruit. 

The relation of love and commandments seems to be a one-way street.  Love leads to the carrying out of commandments.  If love is whole and devoted, the desires or needs of the other become the commandments one yearns to carry out. 

The bottom line of the commandment of love is, “that you love one another as I have loved you” (verse 12, NRSV).  Since Jesus gave up his life for his disciples, and others, this is a pretty unlimited requirement.  In the most extreme case, as stated here, one chooses to give up one’s life to save others, who are one’s friends (verse 13).  For most folks, probably, only God can sustain a person in making such a total sacrifice, even for the dearest persons. 

It is utterly fitting that at just this time, when he makes this whole-life demand upon them, Jesus says to the disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends” (verse 15).  Friends “abide” in each other’s love with mutuality and trust -- trust such that their lives may be fully in each other’s hands.  In the decades following the resurrection, followers of Jesus found again and again that giving up their lives was what was required of them by their faith – and they met the full qualification of being a “friend” of Jesus. 

The last note of this passage looks toward the disciples’ work in the world.  “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last …” (verse 16). 

The true vine returns, the vine which has been properly pruned and cultivated and in which healthy branches abide and flourish.  The witnesses of the resurrection go about in God’s world, and because they “abide” in the love of the resurrected Jesus, they bear fruit in the form of many others who come to believe and to obey the commandment to love God and one another. 

This is Johannine language for participating in the victory of the reign of God that is revealed to all the nations. 

 

Friday, April 16, 2021

May 2, 2021 - 5th Sunday of Easter

                         Biblical Words                           [714]

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; I John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

The risen Lord, who gave himself in love, enables peoples and persons to be God’s love for each other.

Acts 8:26-40. 

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the encounter of Philip the Evangelist with the Ethiopian eunuch. 

This man is described as the Minister of Finance to the Queen of the Ethiopians (verse 27).  Ethiopia was in the region of dark-skinned peoples south of Egypt (modern Sudan, Ethiopia, and their smaller neighbors).  The whole region is called “Cush” in the Hebrew scriptures.    

A word about eunuchs.  Eunuchs were male slaves who had been neutered as children, so that, being free of sexual drives, they could be trusted to oversee and manage the Women’s Quarters of great palaces, where all the royal wives and consorts lived along with their children.  (Sexually capable males were, of course, forbidden on pain of death from such quarters.)  These eunuchs were the educators and companions of young princes – and advisors to their mothers.  When the royal princes came to power they might retain their eunuch companions as advisors and even appointees to positions of power.  Over time, eunuchs often became important political figures in the kingdoms of the ancient near east.  Thus, our eunuch in Acts 8 has become the highest ranking financial officer under the Queen of the great Ethiopian kingdom.   

The Ethiopian eunuch has been to Jerusalem to worship and is reading the scroll of Isaiah as he rides in his chariot back toward Egypt.  He is, therefore, a “God-fearer,” one of those who admire and affirm the heritage of Judean faith.  But, being a eunuch, he could not be a member of “the assembly of the Lord” (prohibited in Deuteronomy 23:1). 

We know he was reading Isaiah, the passage we call chapter 53 (Acts 8:32).  Just three chapters later, there is a passage that the eunuch must have known well.  It is a special promise from God for eunuchs. 

For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
            who choose the things that please me
            and hold fast my covenant,
I will give… a monument and a name
            better than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5, NRSV). 

But as he reads chapter 53 (the Suffering Servant), the eunuch is puzzled, and that provides an entrée, guided by the Spirit, for Philip the Evangelist to explain the gospel to him (verses 30-35).  Starting with the prophecy of the Suffering Servant, Philip explains who Jesus was and the saving effect of his death and resurrection.  Having heard the gospel, the Ethiopian is baptized as soon as they come to some water. 

Baptizing the Ethiopian extends the inclusiveness of the gospel of Jesus:  a prominent member of a distant people, who cannot be a Judean, becomes a baptized believer in the good news about Jesus.   

Psalm 22:25-31.  

We hear again the thanksgiving and celebrative part of this great passion psalm.  It was this part of the psalm that revealed so forcefully to early believers the big-picture consequences of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

In the context of this Sunday’s readings, the emphasis is certainly on the acknowledgement of God’s rule by the families of the nations. 

All the ends of the earth shall remember

            and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
            shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
            and he rules over the nations (verses 27-28, NRSV). 

This acknowledgement by the nations is because of God’s deliverance of this speaker from death.  This deliverance is a cause of joy to many:  to peoples far and wide, mighty and poor, Israelites and non-Israelites, including the living, dead, and yet unborn, all of whom are mentioned in verses 23-31. 

Guided by what they saw as direct references to Jesus’ crucifixion (22:1 and 18), early believers found in this psalm a warrant to expect that the nations would in time recognize and confess Jesus as Lord.  The book of Acts looks toward the fulfillment of that expectation on a large-scale. 

I John 4:7-21.  

The Epistle reading continues in First John, where we are offered a mini essay on the love of God, agape

It may be helpful to think of this essay as based on Jesus’ statement of the Great Commandment and its corollary, to love the one God wholly and solely and the neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-34). 

The First John passage, however, includes one additional ingredient:  God takes the initiative.  God starts the process of love that moves through the Son to all those in whom the Son abides. 

The bigger picture assumed by the discussion is that, apart from the coming of the Son, people are not able to love God – or other people.  Through the coming of the Son, the first part of the Great Commandment becomes possible of fulfillment:  “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  So we have known and believe the love that God has for us”  (verses 15-16). 

Knowing and believing that God loves us makes possible the carrying out of the corollary of the Great Commandment – for us to love (ourselves and) each other. 

“We love because he first loved us” (verse 19). 

Those loved by God may stand with boldness at the time of the last judgment – they may stand without fear of condemnation.  And fear is the opposite of love.  The message of God’s forgiveness, accepted as certain (on faith!), frees people to love each other. 

And whether we love our brothers and sisters is the ultimate test of whether the love of God has truly come to abide in us:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (verse 20). 

In a very ironic sense, seeing is believing.  Loving the imperfect brother or sister one sees from day to day is evidence that we believe that God loves us, that God’s love truly rules our lives. 

John 15:1-8.  

This Sunday we hear the first part of the Vine chapter in the Gospel According to John.  (Next Sunday we will hear the rest of the passage.) 

The imagery of the vine or the vineyard is found in several powerful passages in the Hebrew scriptures. 

In the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7 God provides everything that a beautiful vineyard requires, but in return God receives only sour grapes.  The punch-line of the vine image is what the vine produces, its fruit.  At the end of the Song, when the imagery is dropped and its application to Israel is stated, the verdict is stark: 

[God] expected justice,
      but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
      but heard a cry!  (Isaiah 5:7, NRSV)

John 15 focuses on the relation of the branches to the vine.  The branches are where the fruit of the vine, the grapes, are actually produced.  The branches can produce grapes because, and only because, they grow out of the main stalk of the vine.  

The passage refers to the work of a good vineyard-keeper who cuts back the branches from year to year so they produce more and better clusters of grapes.  The cutting back process is healthy and beneficial, but unproductive branches are cast aside to dry, then are burned. 

The vine-and-branches language is strong medicine for a gospel message that is mainly about love.  The branches are expected to provide “fruit,” and the failure to produce leads to discipline and exclusion. 

The main fruit that God looks for from the branches of the true vine is love, but the mutual love described here certainly includes, also, the fruit looked for from the ancient vineyard of Isaiah’s Song, justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7).