Monday, May 9, 2022

May 15, 2022 - 5th Sunday of Easter

                                                 Biblical Words                                         [772]

Acts 11:1-18;  Psalm 148;  Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35.

The peoples of the nations, all of heaven and earth, are included in the new command to love one another. 

Acts 11:1-18.  

This first reading tells how Peter took the gospel to the nations. 

The whole passage (10:1-11:18) relates, with repetitions, Simon Peter’s experience with the household of the Roman army officer, Cornelius.  Our reading repeats the essentials of Peter’s story told in chapter 10.  Judean disciples back in Jerusalem need to be persuaded that God has really done a new thing – sent the gospel message to the non-Judean nations. 

Peter had a vision that told him to treat all animals as clean for dietary purposes.   Peter resists such conduct, which would be sacrilege for a Judean.  God insists, however, telling him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (verse 9, NRSV).  

This declaration has radical implications for Judean practice; it abolishes the food laws of Leviticus 11.  It abolishes a major reason for separating Judeans from non-Judeans in table fellowship. 

(According to Mark 7:1-23 this step had been taken by Jesus himself.  Luke had omitted that entire episode from his Gospel, knowing that in the circuit of his churches, God would work directly through Peter to make the Judean food laws obsolete for Christians.  In actual history, Paul discovered that Peter did not consistently hold such a view; see Galatians 2:11-14.) 

When Peter went to Caesarea – the capital city of the Roman province of Judea – he recited to Cornelius’ household a version of the gospel of Jesus (the version used in the Lectionary on Easter Sunday).  He has only begun when “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had at the beginning” (verse 15). 

This coming of the Holy Spirit is taken by Peter and his companions as divine proof that uncircumcised people are intended by God to be included in the Jesus community.  Peter recalls Jesus’ words that John baptized with water but the followers of Jesus will be baptized by the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit was given to these non-Judean folks, Peter says, “who was I that I could hinder God?” (verse 17).  The circumcised believers he is addressing, who previously objected, are convinced and acknowledge that God “has given even to the Nations the repentance that leads to life.” 

This episode of Peter with Cornelius is one of the more deliberately constructed passages in the book of Acts.  The mature Luke, late in the first century, is putting a spin on some Caesarea traditions to make Peter the first apostle to the non-Judean people.  Luke wants to present Paul, to whom the last half of Acts is devoted, as following and paralleling the work of Peter, and thus presents Peter as the first “apostle to the nations.” 

(Acts elsewhere indicates that the first acceptance of non-Judean disciples probably happened in Antioch and was done by Greek-speaking Judean-Christians from Cyrene and Cyprus, Acts 11:20-24.) 

The point of this reading during the Easter season is that it was the Spirit of the Risen Jesus who expanded the work of the gospel to include all the nations – the nations who, therefore, belonged with Israel in God’s final saving work. 

Psalm 148.  

This psalm is used several times in the Lectionary as a grand Hallelujah psalm.  I give here my comments from one of the earlier occasions of this reading. 

This psalm is an exuberant and delightful summons to heaven and earth to praise the Lord, to “hallelu” (the plural form, as in “Praise ye...”) God.  The craft exhibited by the composer is not complicated but is pleasing to watch as it unfolds. 

There are two large sections elaborating those called upon to praise, those in heaven and those on earth. 

The call to heavenly things (verses 1-4) repeats in rapid sequence seven imperatives to praise, moving from one aspect to another of the heavenly realm:  from the heavens, in the heights, all God’s angels (messengers), all God’s host (army), sun and moon, all lighted stars, and supremely, the heaven of heavens enclosed by the cosmic waters.  These seven imperatives are followed by an exhortation:  “Let them praise …,” which in turn leads, finally, to a reason for the praise:  because all these summoned entities were “created” by God and fixed forever. 

The strategy of the second section (verses 7-13) is not to repeat the call to praise each time, but to elaborate more fully those to whom it is addressed.  The imperative “Praise ye …” is given only once at the beginning, then followed by a chain of earthly things included in this imperative:  the earth; sea monsters and deeps; lightning and hail, snow and frost, storm winds (all weather elements kept in ends-of-the-earth storehouses); mountains and hills; fruit trees and huge cedars; and, moving toward the human world, animals wild and domestic, crawling creatures and winged birds; and finally the varieties of people – kings and clans, princes and judges, young men and maidens, old folks and kids.  

The long enthusiastic enumeration intends to be exhaustive – all are addressed by the command to “Praise the Lord [hallelu Yah].”  Again, the imperative chain is followed (verse 13) by an exhortation, “Let them praise the name of the Lord.”  And, finally again, a reason for the summons to praise is given:  because “his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.” 

Does this reason for praise seem too general, too vague?  The poet’s basic structure is completed, but both creative art and faith erupt in a final declaration, a final proclamation of why God is to be praised:  “He has raised up a horn for his people, …for Israel, the people close to him” (verse 14). 

Yet, this psalm is not about this horn, this pillar of strength to empower the people; it is about the universal praise that this new act of God prompts throughout the cosmos. 

Revelation 21:1-6.  

The Epistle readings continue from the book of Revelation.  However, we leap forward, skipping the great middle sections about the times of Tribulation and the Millennium, and go to the grand climax when the heaven and earth are made new. 

When there is a new heaven and earth, there will no longer be any Sea (21:1).  This does not mean earth will not have its great bodies of bounded water; it means the ancient enemy of an ordered cosmos, the Sea (Psalm 93:3-4; Psalm 74:13-14; Isaiah 51:9-10) will be finally and conclusively defeated and banished. 

The main element of this vision, however, is the coming of the New Jerusalem.  The seer beholds it descending as the bride (which in the prophets is the restored Zion).  He hears a voice declaring that God has taken up residence with the people.  In Greek this is literally, “behold the Tent [Tabernacle] of God is with humans, / and [God] will tent with them.”  This holy residence will be where God wipes away every sorrowful tear, and where Death [capitalized in NRSV!] will be no more.  Mourning and weeping will be no more because “the first things have passed away” (verse 4). 

The seer is commanded by God from the throne to write down this vision, because the words he has heard “are trustworthy and true” (verse 5).  And though there is more for the seer to learn about the great New Jerusalem, God now says, “It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” 

And as if the real end is a gentle touch of care and mercy, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (verse 6). 

John 13:31-35.  

The Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ talk about going away from the disciples, a topic that continues in John’s Gospel for several chapters. 

First, we may note here a strange juxtaposition between betrayal and glorification.  Jesus has just identified his betrayer (for those who have eyes to see) by giving him a piece of bread.  That act liberates the traitor to perform his treacherous deed.  

“So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.  After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. … So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out.  It was night” (John 13:26-30, NRSV). 

Betrayal.  But immediately Jesus’ talk is about he and God being glorified in each other.  The beginning of our reading is, “When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’” (verse 31).  Apparently being betrayed IS being glorified!  Submitting to the rampage of evil in the world IS making the glory of God evident in the world.  A more than usually ironic touch in this subtle Gospel! 

The main burden of this part of this Gospel is Jesus’ departure.  “…As I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’” (verse 33).  But when Jesus himself is gone, his disciples will have a mark that identifies them in the world.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (verse 35). 

This is probably one of the places where one passage in John needs to be expanded and interpreted by another.  The full version of this “new” command is given in 15:12-15.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…. I do not call you servants any longer, …but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” 

Put in the language of the old heavenly court where God and God’s Anointed preside over an entourage of servants, messengers, and armed forces, this means that you, the disciples, are no longer servants and errand boys sent on specific tasks, but you are now part of the inner council of the risen Lord himself.  You are Friends of Jesus, sent into the world to love one another to the point of giving one’s life for each other. 

When these disciples live in the world this way, they are truly witnesses to the risen heavenly Lord.

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