Tuesday, April 30, 2024

May 5, 2024 -- 6th Sunday of Easter

                              Biblical Words                                             [880]

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

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

Acts 10:44-48.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 98.  

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

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

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

“The floods have lifted up, O Lord,

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

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

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

John 5:1-6.  

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

This brief paragraph plays powerfully on the symbol of birth. 

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

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

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

John 15:9-17.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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