Saturday, May 1, 2021

May 16, 2021 - 7th Sunday of Easter

                                                Biblical Words                                                   [881]

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. 


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