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). 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

April 25, 2021 - 4th Sunday of Easter Season

    Biblical Words                  [713]

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18.

The risen Lord is the Good Shepherd, giving his life for his sheep and known to them by his Name.

The fourth Sunday of Easter season is the Pastor’s Sunday.  (“Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd.)  The Psalm reading is always “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the Gospel reading is always from John 10, the chapter about the Good Shepherd. 

Acts 4:5-12.  

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a later moment in the story of Peter and John’s healing of the lame man in the Jerusalem temple. 

After the healing and Peter’s speech had caused a disturbance, the officials arrested Peter and John and held them over for a hearing the next day.  The opening of the reading emphasizes the officials who conducted the inquisition:  rulers, elders, and scribes.  Specifically identified are members of the high priestly families of Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas, with two otherwise unknown members of their clan, John and Alexander. 

It seems clear that the reciter of this narrative assembles here most of the officials who were involved in condemning Jesus. 

Peter’s Spirit-inspired speech focuses on the Name by which the healing was accomplished:  the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  This Jesus, Peter accuses his judges, “you crucified,” but “God raised from the dead.” 

To witness to this resurrection, which is the cause of all the wonder and disturbance, is the whole task of the disciples in this stage of the sacred history.  Peter goes on to cite the scripture (Psalms 118:22) that was fulfilled by the fantastic reversal produced by Jesus’ resurrection:  the stone that “you” rejected has become the cornerstone. 

This speech by Peter, unlike the earlier ones, does not conclude with an offer of forgiveness to the rulers.  There is, however, a further declaration about the name of Jesus:  “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (verse 12).  An event has occurred which trumps all other religious pretenses on the human scene! 

The tone of exclusiveness is beginning to appear here.  It is clear in many places that the new salvation initiated by Jesus’ resurrection was for many peoples.  That inclusiveness is not being denied here, but a firm condition is established:  the salvation is available for those who call on the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. 

A movement that creates social groups soon acquires conditions for inclusion, such as avowing a specific Master’s name.  And the Jesus movement, eventually to become many churches, begins with the Name.

Psalm 23.  

The Psalm reading is the most famous psalm of trust in the Scriptures.  It presents the Lord as the unfailing shepherd. 

The speaker in the psalm can be understood in many ways:   as an ordinary individual, as a king needing God’s care-taking, or as Israel relying on his only true Lord.  Early Christians could read the “shepherd” as the risen Jesus because in the Greek version (made by Judeans in Egypt) “Yahweh” was translated as “the Lord.” 

Listen to it again, in the rendering (of the Hebrew text) of the New Jerusalem Bible translation. 

Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 
In grassy meadows he lets me lie. 
By tranquil streams he leads me to restore my spirit. 
He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits his name. 
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I would fear no danger, for you are at my side. 
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.

And now the imagery shifts from the shepherd and the sheep to that of a magnificent lord hosting his faithful servant and keeping him secure from his enemies. 

You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil; my cup brims over. 
Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life. 
I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come. 

[Note:  the anointing in verse 5 is not related to the Anointed One, the Messiah.  It is a different verb entirely, dashan, to refresh.  The Greek. also, is not related to "christ."] 

I John 3:16-24.  

The Epistle reading continues last week’s reading.  It begins with a declaration that links it directly to this week’s reading about the Good Shepherd:  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (verse 16, NRSV). 

But short of giving up one’s life, what are the signs of mutual love within the community?  The passage gives us one unqualified negative criterion, one sure way of identifying a failure of love. 

How does [can] God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (verse 17).  

Possession of the world’s goods is a trust that God provides to us.  Our good fortune is the means God provides for assisting the very needy.  The brother or sister in need is our responsibility, even to the extent of laying down one’s own life. 

The following verses (19-22) speak of our “hearts” condemning or reassuring us, which is to say of having a conscience, with the needy around us as its litmus test. 

Near its end, this passage too speaks of the name of Jesus Christ as the essential requirement – “commandment” – for those who mutually abide in the Lord:  “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (verses 23-24). 

As this writer understands the life of this “fellowship” (koinonia, see 1:3), only through Jesus’ name does true love for each other become possible – such love as supplies the needs of brothers and sisters. 

Only in this name does the mutual abiding of Lord and servant in each other become possible. 

John 10:11-18.  

The Gospel reading is the central portion of the Good Shepherd chapter in the Gospel According to John.  The Good Shepherd is committed to the sheep with a completeness not found in a hired worker.  He lays down his life for the sheep. 

On a simple level, this means an owner-shepherd risks his life against wild animals, thieves, and dangerous precipices to protect his sheep.  In this Gospel, as the latter part of the passage (verses 17-18) indicates, it refers to Jesus laying down his life in the crucifixion. 

Jesus also says that he can “take it up again,” that is, take up his life again by means of the resurrection.  The Good Shepherd has power over life and death, and he is directed by God (“I have received this command from my Father”) to exercise this power on behalf of the sheep.  These sheep too will not be lost or be in want. 

There is a mutuality of knowing between the Shepherd and the sheep.  “I know my own and my own know me…”  Here the meaning of the sheep knowing the Shepherd is to know Jesus’ name, to know how to call on the Shepherd correctly and be saved from harm. 

This mutual knowledge of Shepherd and sheep leads to a somewhat strange statement – about other sheep.  The Shepherd says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (verse 16). 

This is a reference to non-Judean peoples who will become sheep of this Shepherd, though in another fold.  Those nations (“gentiles”) will be brought in, and they will listen to his voice.  The outcome of this will be a higher unity of all believers:  “So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” 

 If Jesus, as risen Lord, had only actual sheep to deal with, he would certainly have better success at getting them to form one flock than he has in fact had with a vast number of human believers over the centuries.  However, the resurrection makes all things new, and under God the possibility of a new and Spirit-guided start is ever available to those who know Jesus’ name. 

 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

April 18, 2021 - 3rd Sunday of Easter Season

                                   Biblical Words                                         [712]

Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48. 

The resurrection of Jesus releases new power, opens old scriptures, and cancels old sins. 

Acts 3:12-19.  

The witness of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus continues. 

We hear the speech of Peter addressed to Israelites in the temple, after Peter and John have healed a man lame from birth.  In healing the man they used the name of the risen Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6). 

The speech opens in a challenging manner:  “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this…?”  Why are you surprised?  We are living in a time when God is doing amazing things for an undeserving people. 

The God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him (verse 13, NRSV).  

The details mentioned here follow the passion narrative of Luke’s Gospel (23:1-5, 13-25).  While the Israelites had handed Jesus over to death, God had raised him to life, and Peter and John are witnesses to that.  Because Jesus is risen, his name has power to effect good among those who confess him, and thus the lame man walks and leaps in the temple (as reported in 3:8). 

The turning point in the speech is more conciliatory: 

And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.  In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer (verses 17-18). 

A much larger destiny than local Jerusalemite politics was at work in the events leading to Jesus’ death.  Those who were implicated in that death, or were only consenting bystanders, are not accountable for it.  Even those who were on the streets of Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion receive the same call to which other believers have responded.  “Repent and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out” (verse 19). 

This reading in Acts is at first sight one of the more “anti-Jewish” passages in the New Testament, in the sense that it indicts the “Israelites” for killing Jesus.  However, this passage, as well as the others in the early chapters in Acts, makes particularly clear that Jesus is no longer dead. 

The resurrection makes the death of Jesus as well as his new life, an act of God.  The resurrection message is not about assigning guilt for a death; it is about life, and living again.  All the emphasis is on forgiveness – for all, not just those in the crowd on Good Friday. 

The resurrection faith proclaims life, not guilt! 

Psalm 4.  

The Psalm reading has some difficulties of text and language in its opening verses, making a comparison of translations useful. 

The Greek translators read the opening something like this:

“When I called, the God of my righteousness answered me.  In distress, you made room for me.  Pity me, and hear my prayer.” 

The translators read the same consonants as the later traditional Hebrew text, but vocalized them differently, giving a statement of past fact at the beginning instead of a plea to be heard (NRSV, following Hebrew, “Answer me when I call…”). 

This translation issue is of small importance – until the psalm is read as an early post-Easter lection.  The earliest Jesus followers found in this psalm the words of the risen Jesus, praying for and addressed to the people who had rejected him. 

Thus, these early (Greek-speaking) Christians would have heard the psalm in the following way: 

When I called, the God of my righteousness heard me. 

In distress you [God] gave me room. 
Have compassion on me, and listen to my prayer. 

Then, in the Greek version, the risen Lord speaks to those who have not recognized him: 

“How long, O you sons of men,

      will you be slow of heart? 
Why do you love vain things
      and seek after lies? 
Know that the Lord made His Holy One wondrous;
      the Lord will hear me when I cry to Him. 
Be angry, [but] do not sin;
      have remorse upon your beds
      for what you say in your hearts. 
Offer the sacrifice of righteousness,
      and hope in the Lord.” 

(This follows, but modifies, the translation of the Septuagint in The Orthodox Study Bible [St. Athanasius Academy, Elk Grove, CA; published by Thomas Nelson, 2008], with reference also to A New English Translation of the Septuagint [NETS; Oxford, 2007].)

Reading along in this way, the new believers continued to hear from their resurrected Lord.  He continued to speak in the scriptures about repentance and forgiveness as the meaning of his resurrection. 

I John 3:1-7.  

The readings from the Epistles continue in the First Letter of John, an extended meditation on the believers’ union with the Son of God.  That union is given to all believers and marks their lives with Jesus’ holy qualities. 

·        As the world did not know Jesus, so it does not know us children of God who are united with him (verse 1). 

·        As he was pure, so all who hope in him purify themselves (verse 3). 

·        As there was no sin in him, so “no one who abides in him sins” (verses 5-6). 

·        As he is righteous, so those who do right are righteous (verse 7). 

As usual in Johannine passages, there is a tantalizing mixture of description of ideal conditions with exhortation to become what you are.  You are children of God, therefore you obviously [should] live like children of God. 

This is a cogent homily for those who have recently heard the message of the resurrection:  They are summoned to a life in union with this risen Lord. 

Luke 24:36b-48.  

The Gospel reading is the passage in Luke in which the risen Jesus, at the end of Easter day, appears to the eleven disciples (or ten when John tells this episode, because doubting Thomas is absent, John 20:19-29). 

This is the passage that most insists that the risen Jesus had a real flesh and bone body with nail holes in his hands and feet.  (Note, John never says anything about feet—only hands and a pierced side.  Luke mentions feet, while other Gospels have no such story.)  Besides offering to let them touch his body, Jesus asks for something to eat, and they happen to have a piece of broiled fish, which they watch him eat (verses 39-43). 

There is here a certain rigorous forcing of the fleshiness of the incarnation.  (The same emphasis is in John’s prologue statement in 1:14:  the Logos did not become “body” [soma]; it became “meat” [sarx] and lived among us.)  Jesus’ physical body, then, is the final radical guarantee that Jesus really was human when he was raised from the dead, not a ghost and not only a vision.  The resurrection was a mighty act of God, for the redemption of sinful peoples.  That divine action truly and completely entered human history.  Such is the import of this fleshly emphasis of Luke. 

The other main purpose of this appearance of the risen Jesus is to guide the disciples in the reading of the scriptures.  “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (verse 44, NRSV).  And we hear a summary of the essentials of the faith, as it can be unfolded from those scriptures, given by Jesus himself: 

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things (verses 46-48). 

 In last week’s reading from the Gospel of John, we heard of this appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples, including Thomas’ efforts on behalf of the doubters of the ages.  Here, before the Easter season advances too far, it is appropriate that we hear this wider-world perspective on salvation history – which is Luke’s special gift to Christian tradition. 

 

April 11, 2021 - 2nd Sunday of Easter Season

                    Biblical Words                   [711] 

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; I John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31.

The witnesses to the resurrection find new life in the community (koinonia) of the forgiven.

Acts 4:32-35.  

After Easter, our First Reading is the testimony of the Apostles, replacing, for this season, the voices of the Law and the Prophets. 

We hear witnessing to the resurrection.  “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (verse 33, NRSV).  The early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles are occupied entirely with this testimony of the apostles, of Peter and John, and its consequences – growing numbers of believers and a slowly developing resistance from authorities. 

Our reading also gives a picture of the common life – the koinonia – that sprang up for those who came to rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus.  Their confession made them one harmonious body.  

“The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (verse 32).  

As more resources were needed to sustain the common life, some of them would sell their lands and houses in order to provide for those in need.  The apostles received the proceeds from such sales and administered them.  The result was a remarkable one:  “There was not a needy person among them”! (All of this in verses 34-35.) 

In the long run this totally communal life was not to continue, and Acts itself soon recognizes serious problems relating to it (Ananias and Sapphira in 5:1-11, plus distribution problems beginning the story in chapter 6).  But the message is that when the full power of life under the resurrected Lord broke in it overcame all kinds of human weaknesses and selfishness.  It made clear that to really live in the power of the Holy Spirit is to live together "with not a needy person among" us!

Psalm 133. 

The Psalm selection is an ecstatic celebration of the same kind of communal harmony and blessing.

The opening verse, given a slightly more literal rendering, may be translated,

What goodness! And what delight!

      Relatives dwelling in a single camp!

The reference may be to clans camping near the holy city at a festival time.  Groups who have been known to feud with each other, are camped together! 

The speaker then pulls up two very Palestinian images to elaborate this idealistic condition.

The oil of anointing, which makes the hair beautiful. 

It is like the precious oil on the head,

      running down upon the beard,

      on the beard of Aaron…   

The poet evokes the anointing of a high priest.  The anointing comes in the middle of marvelous ceremonies, rituals, and auspices of new blessings to flow over the land with the inauguration of the new sacred leader.

In the second image, the blessing of moisture over an essentially dry land is contemplated.

It is like the dew of Hermon,

      which falls on the mountains of Zion.  

The summit of Mount Hermon, visible at the far north of Israel, was normally snow covered.  That white top was a perpetual reminder of the moisture that was periodically experienced in the lowlands as the vitalizing freshness of morning dew.  This dew was a blessing intended by God for “the mountains of Zion.” 

There at Zion the Lord established (literally “commanded”) the “blessing” (berakah).  This blessing, symbolized by the renewing joy of oil and dew, is  everlasting life (New Jerusalem Bible), or more literally “life to the (end of the) age.”

The psalm contemplates a perfect, harmonious community life as the richest blessing that can come from God to all the lands and peoples.

I John 1:1-2:2.  

The Epistle reading also is about community/communion (koinonia), the common life of believers in Jesus’ resurrection and its consequent forgiveness of sins. 

The opening paragraph of I John (verses 1-4) is a mini-prologue, echoing phrases and ideas from the prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel According to John.  Jesus is the word of life and also the eternal life that is with the Father, and his followers declare this to others, “that you also may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

The second paragraph (verses 5-10) speaks of some conditions that apply to this common life united with God.  This common life cannot be shared by those who “are walking in darkness,” for the new life derives from God’s own light (verse 5).  It cannot be shared by those who say they have no sin.  This common life includes confessing of sins so that we may be cleansed “of all unrighteousness” (verse 9).  In addition to sharing in eternal life, this koinonia clearly involves forgiveness of sins, and that not only as a once-for-all event at baptism, but as an ongoing basis of community life.

A third paragraph (2:1-2) expands on the forgiveness of sins by describing Jesus’ function as heavenly advocate (parákletos). 

This advocate “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” a complex notion of Jesus’ saving work.  But the emphasis at this point is on the universality of this saving work.  The sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is “not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  Here, as in other Easter passages, the resurrection breaks all previous boundaries of covenant relations and elect groups; the eternal life and its blessings of common life are for all who believe and open themselves to it.

John 20:19-31.  

The Gospel reading continues the Johannine perspective on the resurrection.  (Another version of this risen-Jesus episode is found in Luke 24:36-43.) 

We hear about the appearance of Jesus to the disciples as they are gathered furtively in a locked room.  This gathering is on the first day of the week, Sunday.  The Christian observance of Sunday as the Lord’s day instead of the Sabbath is already in process (a process completed before the end of the first century CE, see Revelation 1:10 and Acts 20:7).  When Jesus reappears for a special meeting with Thomas, it is on the same day the following week (verse 26).  That is, meetings with the risen Jesus take place on Sunday. 

This passage emphasizes the solid, physical aspect of Jesus’ resurrected body.  This emphasis on Jesus’ tangible body seems to increase as the traditions of the resurrection appearances develop.  In the early empty-tomb tradition, Jesus is not present at all (Mark 16:1-8).  Then he can be seen but not touched (John 20:14-17).  Only in these appearances to the disciples in a locked room, in Luke and John, is his body touched and (in Luke) does he eat and drink.  (Matthew 28:9 is a minor exception about the touching.)

The first appearance to the disciples (verses 19-23) is about the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins. 

Jesus commissions the disciples for their work ahead.  He “breathes” the Holy Spirit into them and solemnly pronounces, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (verse 22).  The climax of this action, however, concerns the forgiveness of sins, again.  “If you [who have received the Holy Spirit] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (verse 23). 

This is an awesome authorization!  It is an early chapter in a long history of the Christian Church’s rituals of absolution. (An equivalent authorization is given in the Gospel According to Matthew at 16:18-19.  For Mark, compare 2:10.) 

Our passage includes the episode of doubting Thomas.  Once the emphasis upon the physicality of the risen Jesus began, this Thomas episode was probably inevitable. 

What does it take to convince some people?  “Unless I see” with my own eyes, etc., I will not believe.  That the demand for physical seeing and touching has already missed the nature of religious faith has long been recognized.  The seeing can always be further questioned, further explained.  That is not what having faith is about, not the kind of faith that creates new life and koinonia.

And koinonia, the blessings of a new common life that transcends old boundaries and breaks forth in new wonders of mutuality, is the real gift of the resurrected Lord. 

That is a life that might bring it about that there is not a needy person among us!

  

Thursday, April 1, 2021

April 4, 2021 - Easter Sunday

                             Biblical Words                      [710]

Acts 10:34-43; Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8.

The story of Jesus is retold as gospel (good news) by witnesses of his resurrection.

Acts 10:34-43. 

For joy and witness of the Easter season, the Lectionary turns to the Book of Acts for the testimony of the apostles.  This is instead of the testimony of Moses and the Prophets, the usual "First Readings" in the rest of the year.  In this season it is the great fulfillment that is acclaimed more than the great promise! 

The first reading for Easter Sunday is the speech of Peter to non-Judeans, peoples of the nations, at the time when God revealed that they too could be baptized and included in the community of believers.

Peter’s speech on that occasion is itself a succinct statement of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.

It begins, however, with a strong statement of the inclusiveness of the gospel message -- a new emphasis within the narrative line of Acts.  “God shows no partiality,” but accepts anyone in every nation who reverences God and acts accordingly (verse 35).  It is true that God’s message of peace in Jesus Christ was sent first to the people of Israel (verse 36, referring to Isaiah 52:7) and all Israel’s prophets testify to the forgiveness of sins available through the Christ (verse 43), but the gospel message is now to be preached to all.

That gospel message includes specific historical events:  the baptism preached by John, the man Jesus of Nazareth with the power of the Holy Spirit, his healing works for those oppressed by evil powers, his confrontations with authorities in Judea, and his death “on a tree” in Jerusalem.  His disciples have been chosen by God to bear witness to these things. 

But most of all, of course, they are to testify to his resurrection:  The climax of the gospel message is that “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear” (verse 40).

The risen Jesus was not seen indiscriminately by everyone, but only by those chosen by God as witnesses, those who also ate and drank with the risen Lord (verse 41).  The gospel message concludes with, or from another viewpoint begins with, the preaching of Jesus as the final judge of all peoples (verse 42).

 

Isaiah 25:6-9. 

Instead of a psalm, on Easter Sunday we hear an ecstatic passage from the prophecy of Isaiah.  This is one of the two or three passages in the entire Hebrew scriptures where a resurrection is foreseen.  (The others are Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2.)

Here, too, the universality of the message is proclaimed:  the Lord is preparing a “banquet” (New Jerusalem Bible) for all peoples. This holy celebration responds to the overcoming of death.  What has been the experience of all peoples, the “shroud” and “sheet” that is spread over everyone (death), is swallowed up.  

The witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection must have understood themselves to stand where this prophecy points:

Lo, this is our God;

         we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited,
         let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. 
                                    (Isaiah 25:9, NRSV)

I Corinthians 15:1-11. 

The reading from the Epistle is the earliest historical evidence in the New Testament for experiences of the risen Lord. 

This passage was written around 54 CE by Paul, himself one of those who saw the risen Lord.  (The Gospel accounts of the appearances at the tomb and in the locked room were written between 80 and 100 CE.)  The passage further claims to present tradition received by Paul (verse 3), taking us back to only a few years after Jesus' death.

Here, too, there is a succinct statement of the essentials of the gospel message:  that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried and then raised on the third day, also in accordance with the scriptures. Then Paul gives the list of those to whom the risen Lord appeared. 

There are three individuals, with two of whom groups are associated.  

(1) The Risen Jesus appeared to Cephas (Peter), with whom is associated “the twelve,” and then a group of more than five hundred ("most of whom are still alive" in 54 CE, verses 5-6).  The bit about the five hundred may refer to an early version of the Pentecost tradition. 

(2) The risen Lord also appeared to James, Jesus’ brother, with whom is associated “all the apostles” (verse 7).  These are not the “twelve,” but people associated with James in the leadership of the Jerusalem church, including other members of Jesus’ family (see I Corinthians 9:5 and Acts 1:14). 

(3) Finally the Risen Jesus appeared to Paul, who says modestly that he was “the least of the apostles” because of his early persecution of the believers (verses 8-9).

(Think of Cephas/Peter associated with churches spun out after about 41 CE from Antioch -- northern Syria; James, the Brother, as the leader of the Jerusalem church after about 41 CE; and Paul associated with the chain of his churches founded in Greece and Macedonia in the 50's.)  

Since he includes his own experience along with the others, Paul must think of the other experiences as similar to his own.  Even if we leave aside the three later descriptions in Acts of Paul's “conversion” experience (Acts 9:3-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18), we must understand that Paul's experience of the risen Jesus was a visionary one, inaugurating the rich and complex life he knew “in Christ,” totally absorbing and transforming his whole being.  We have remarkable first person testimony to this epoch-making experience! 

All reality became new for Paul, as a result of his experience of the risen Lord.  The experience Paul is talking about could not be recorded by a journalist or photographed.  It was a foundational experience transforming life.  So he understood the experiences of all the witnesses he cites, that the risen Jesus creates a new life in and through the believer. 

Mark 16:1-8. 

The Gospel reading reports an empty tomb, strikingly different from Paul's list of witnesses. 

The empty tomb belongs to the women, and especially to Mary Magdalene.  In Mark these women have stayed around, not only for the crucifixion and death but also to see his burial place (Mark 15:40-41, 47).  On the morning after the Sabbath, they continue their service by going to care for the corpse of the dead one.

They worry about moving the big stone from the tomb, but when they arrive the chamber has been mysteriously opened – allowing them to go inside! 

The major event at the tomb is the women’s encounter with the “young man,” who lets them know what is going on – while the rest of us overhear this amazing news!  The message has several points: 

(1)   Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, has risen from the dead, and is gone. 

(2)   The place where he was laid is empty. 

(3)   Jesus is going ahead of the disciples to Galilee, where they will see him. 

(4)   The women are to take this whole message to the disciples and Peter. 

And what do the women do? 

They too finally panic and flee the scene, as the disciples did two days before!  They flee, “for terror and amazement [the Greek words are tromos and ekstasis] had seized them” (verse 8).  They realize that a profoundly holy event has occurred. 


Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb.  Albert von Keller, 1844-1920. 

Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.

And with that, Mark's Gospel ends! 

(Other endings, printed separately in modern translations, were provided by second-century readers who knew the other Gospels and felt compelled to supplement Mark’s abrupt ending with their better knowledge.)  

Until the later twentieth century, commentators often thought that an original ending had been accidentally lost from a very early Mark manuscript – with no other copies surviving.  More recent interpreters, however, have come more and more to recognize that all that is needed to understand Jesus’ instructions for the future has been provided (14:27-28, reinforced by the “young man’s” message). 

What the disciples (and the women!) must now do is go back to the beginning, return to Galilee, and go over the story of Jesus again! 

The truest response to the Easter message is to retell the full gospel of Jesus the Messiah, risen Son of God!