Tuesday, May 23, 2023

May 28, 2023 -- Day of Pentecost

                                                     Biblical Words                                             [829]

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2023

May 21, 2023 -- 7th Sunday of Easter

                                           Biblical Words                                             [828]

Acts 1:6-14Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11.  
Luke taught that the earthly work of Jesus had an end:   the Ascension. 
This Sunday is Ascension Sunday, the Sunday following the 40th day after Easter. 
By the second generation of the Jesus Movement, Christians had come to believe that Jesus’ physical presence was extended after the day of the resurrection:  Luke says Jesus spent forty days as a risen presence to the disciples – after which that physical presence definitely ceased.  (One might say the Ascension put an end to Jesus' physical presence so the Spirit could replace it at Pentecost.)  

Acts 1:6-14. 

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

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35.  

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

I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11.  

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

John 17:1-11.  

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2023

May 14, 2023 -- 6th Sunday of Easter

                                                      Biblical Words                                             [827]

Acts 17:22-31Psalm 66:8-20; I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21.  

Philosophers learn about an unknown God and disciples receive the Spirit of Truth.  
This Sunday’s readings are not very homogeneous – apparently.  You decide.  
They start with the Apostle presenting God’s case to a world of humanists; then we hear a meditation that reminds us of the holocaust.  The readings continue with Christians whose sufferings in the world imitate their Lord’s, and they culminate with the Spirit of Truth commanding the disciples to love one another in the face of all.  
Acts 17:22-31. 
The reading from Acts is the well-known account of Paul preaching to the Athenians.  This is the one model sermon in the New Testament for approaching the non-Judean intelligentsia of the Roman Empire. 
The previous narrative (Acts 17:17-21) shows Paul seeking to engage Judeans in their synagogues in Athens, but also as encountering Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the market places.  The intellectual leaders become interested in this new celebrity and he is invited to make a public discourse at the forum. 
Paul begins with the Athenians’ admission of an area of ignorance.  Their market place has an altar dedicated “to an unknown god.”  This shows there is at least one mystery they have not unraveled, one being before which they still stand in ignorance.  Paul tells them that he has come to present knowledge of what had been unknown – the unknown god will be proclaimed to them.  
He is able to refer to classic Greek poets to establish that God is creator and all people are creatures of God (17:24-29), but something new, beyond this classical poetry, has indeed come about.  
There is a “now” in Paul’s sermon that is the turning point from what all philosophers know to what must be proclaimed by prophet and apostle.  The first proclamation is that of judgment.  “…now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (verse 30), the message of a John the Baptist.  How the imminent judgment will come about is the climax of Paul’s speech.  “[God] has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (verse 31, NRSV).  
If the notion of the world facing a judgment by righteousness was not entirely new to the Greeks, the notion of the judge as one raised from the dead was, indeed, “foolishness” to the Greeks (I Corinthians 1:23).  
Our reading stops at this point, but we may note that the polite gentlemen of the academy in Athens, rather than stoning Paul, rescheduled him for later discussion on a date that probably never came (verse 32).  There is also the modest note that at least two Athenians (prominent in later Christian circles, no doubt) responded to Paul and became believers, Dionysius the Areopagite and the woman Damaris.  
Psalm 66:8-20.  
The reading from the Psalm has three rather different moments
·        one spoken by a sorely-tried Israel (verses 8-12), 
·        one spoken by a royal figure presenting multitudes of animals for sacrifice to God (verses 13-15), and 
·        one in which this figure proclaims his salvation received from God (verses 16-20). 
We will dwell a little only on the first moment.  It opens as if it were addressed to the world – “Bless our God, O peoples” – but as it continues it is clear that it is the Israelite people who are speaking. 
For you, O God, have tested us … 
you brought us into the net; 
you laid burdens on our backs; 
you let people ride over our heads; 
we went through fire and through water 
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place (verses 11-12, NRSV).  
As modern Christians hear and reflect on this passage, it must remind us of the Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust.  That day of remembrance falls around this time each year in the Christian calendar, but the Jewish calendar has its own rhythm, and Yom HaShoah, the 27th of Nisan, came this year on April 17-18. 
Nevertheless, given the Lectionary readings in the Easter season, it is important that Christians remember with some awe the great sufferings of our Jewish neighbors when we ponder the resurrection.  
I Peter 3:13-22.  
The Christians of the late first century who are addressed in First Peter have to suffer for their faith.  The apostle emphasizes that their suffering is not punishment, but they suffer even though they do good.  They should always conduct themselves blamelessly so that there can never be any doubt that their suffering is undeserved (verses 16-17).  
The apostle then expands on Christ’s suffering because, in suffering, he bore the sins of others.  The impact of Jesus’ work of salvation is ever-widening in its effect, and among those others for whom Jesus died are sinners of all ages.  
Preaching to the dead.  The writer thinks about the people caught in the world-judgment of Noah’s flood.  Only eight people were saved in the ark; all the rest died in the world flood.  The spirits of those drowned sinners lay in limbo until the spirit of the risen Jesus went to them to announce good news (verses 19-20).  
People in the apostle’s time do not face the world flood, but they have baptism to save them with the resurrected Jesus.  
And baptism, which [Noah’s flood] prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God... (verses 21-22a, NRSV).  
That exalted Christ now rules over all angels, authorities, and powers who have been exercising tyranny and suffering over all the peoples (verse 22).  
Such was the way the apostle gave comfort to the righteous who suffered for their faith in Asia Minor.  
John 14:15-21.  
In the Gospel we continue to overhear Jesus’ instructions to the disciples about the time after he is gone.  They will be known as Jesus’ disciples because they love one another (John 13:35), and when they thus live by love they are keeping Jesus’ commandments (14:15 and 21).  
Though Jesus is leaving, the disciples will not be alone.  Jesus will send them the Advocate (or, in Luke’s language, the Holy Spirit).  This Advocate is “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you…” (verse 17, NRSV). 
The presence of the Spirit is also related to keeping Jesus’ commandments.  Judean tradition counted 613 commandments in the Law that the faithful Judean was to keep.  Our passage views the keeping of these commandments as included in a living relationship to the Lord Jesus and as fulfilled when a truly reciprocal love between the Lord and the believers is realized. 
“They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (verse 21).  
In the world but distinct from it, the will of God through the ages is accomplished in the full life found in mystical union with the risen Lord. 

Saturday, May 6, 2023

May 7, 2023 -- 5th Sunday after Easter

                                                     Biblical Words                                          [826]     

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16I Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14. 

 The witnesses to Jesus’ lordship face great costs, but know the mystery of his presence. 
This Sunday we move through martyrdom of disciples to the divinly-given knowledge of the heavenly Jesus. 

Acts 7:55-60. 

The Acts reading presents the witness, that is, the martyrdom, of the deacon Stephen.  Stephen preached a provocative sermon to Judean folks in Jerusalem and was stoned to death as one who blasphemed the Lord. 
Stephen is the first martyr in Christian tradition, one who died because he confessed the Lordship of Jesus.  His death-scene is presented as an idealized model of such witnessing to the ultimate degree.  
Stephen is inspired by the Holy Spirit and is granted a vision of God in heaven and the glorified Jesus at God’s right hand – a vision that Jesus had announced to the chief priests at his trial (Luke 22:69).  Before he dies, Stephen addresses to Jesus the same petition that Jesus on the cross had addressed to God, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59Luke 23:46, both echoing Psalm 31:5).  
Stephen’s very last word is a loud outcry praying for his persecutors.  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (verse 60).  Those who follow Jesus were called to testify to the world and to pray for it, not to condemn it or respond vengefully because the world rejected the message.  
Stephen’s vision and prayer – obviously elevating him to saint’s status – made it clear that the life of faith was not defeated by persecution and death.  Judeans, Romans, or Nazis could not kill the faith.  They could not, by killing their bodies, deprive the witnesses of the ultimate meaning of their lives.  
·        We remember that April 9th this year was the 78th anniversary of the Nazis’ hanging Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a truly modern example of a martyr for the faith.
·        We remember that Christians today in EgyptIraqSyria, and other non-European countries are suffering discrimination, persecution, and death because of their faith identities.  

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16. 

The Psalm reading is a typical prayer by a faithful one who is persecuted and threatened.  
Read in the context of Stephen’s story, the hearer knows that the petition, “deliver me in your righteousness,” may only be answered through the heavenly reward of the martyr, not by some earthly rescue.  
The whole prayer (in verses 1-5), fervent as it is, can be seen to culminate in the last statement.  “Into your hands I commit my spirit…” – into God’s hands, come what may.  
That is the prayer the martyr is prepared to make.  
When the psalmist also prays, “Let your face shine on your servant” (verse 16), the narrative in Acts suggests that the prayer was answered for Stephen when he received his vision.  The vision came because he had the grace to pray for his enemies.  

I Peter 2:2-10.  

The Epistle reading is a meditation on rejection and chosenness.  It is a meditation prompted by the imagery of the sacred stone in the prophets and psalms.  
The people addressed are mostly non-Judean followers who live in Pontus and the neighboring Roman provinces (I Peter 1:1, modern northwestern Turkey).  
“As you come to him, the living stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to [God]…” (verse 4).  
The chosen stone may be a precious cornerstone, most important in the building, or it may be a stumbling block, “a stone that causes men to stumble” (verse 8, quoting Isaiah 8:14).  This description of the stone is offered to the faithful as a way to understand their persecutions.  They are the living stones being built into a sanctuary that replaces the temple (verse 5), but those who reject their message and persecute them are stumbling over the stone instead of honoring it as God’s chosen one.  
In the late first century, this was a Judean-against-Christian struggle over the claim to be God’s chosen people.  
The writer takes the covenant promise of Exodus 19:5-6 and applies it to the Jesus followers who are being persecuted by other Judeans.  To these non-Judean confessors he proclaims, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (verse 9).
Beside this testimony from the Torah, the writer cites a passage from the prophets, which he also understands to apply to the New Israel.  “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (verse 10, paraphrasing Hosea 2:23).  
The chosen people, older or newer, are witnesses, witnesses to “the wonderful light” of the God who redeemed sinners, even persecuting sinners.  

John 14:1-14.  

The Gospel reading is from the farewell discourses of Jesus with his disciples. The setting of the discourses is at the last supper, but the teaching is actually about times after the resurrection. 
Chapter 14 of John continues a series of dialogues that began with Peter’s question in 13:36.  There are four questions asked by disciples, Peter (13:30), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), and Jude (14:22).  Each question gives Jesus an opportunity to spell out further to uncomprehending disciples how he can go away now and yet be present to them in the times ahead. 
Our passage is not so much about the witnessing that apostles will do as it is about the new reality they will enter.  It is about Stephen’s vision, not his preaching. 
The heavenly realm has many dwelling places – that is, there is a multitude of ways in which worthy souls will find fulfillment and consummation (verse 2).  Human ways of understanding cannot comprehend this – especially in the case of a doubting Thomas (verse 5) – but the passage insists that the person of Jesus himself is the entry to God’s own presence.  “If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (verse 7, NRSV). 
The Christ-mysticism of this Gospel’s testimony comes to unqualified expression in such statements. 
Philip’s question (verse 8), pressing Thomas’s doubts further, leads Jesus to both reaffirm his own mutual in-dwelling with the Father (verses 9-10) and to extend this communion-of-being to the works done in the world.  “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.  He will do even greater things than these…” (verse 12).  
This passage is not directly about the cost of discipleship.  It is about the mystery of discipleship.  It is about the new reality – glimpsed by martyrs in their visions, and affirmed by prophets and apostles as the outcome of God’s justice and love.