Archive for April, 2013
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day
Bountiful God, you gather your people into your realm, and you promise us food from your tree of life. Nourish us with your word, that empowered by your Spirit we may love one another and the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples understand only that Jesus is going away. They don’t know where he is going, why he is going or why they cannot go with him. Jesus seems long on assurances and short on explanations. He promises his disciples that what they cannot comprehend now will be made clear to them by the Spirit of Truth. Until the Spirit comes, they must be content with promises. Maybe that’s the reason I love the Gospel of John so much. I often feel as though I am living on promises. I have always envied people who are able to give inspiring accounts of God’s activity in their lives and can see God at work everywhere in the world. I envy people who seem to know so well the position God is taking in the murky world of politics and cultural conflict. I wish I could tell the story of my call to ministry explaining when and how the Holy Spirit directed me to seminary. But I don’t have any such story. The only place I have ever seen God at work in my life or in the world is through my rear view mirror.
That seems to have been the case for the disciples in the Gospel of John as well. It is only after the cross and the resurrection that the disciples can look back into the ministry of Jesus and discover how the scriptures have been fulfilled. See, e.g., John 2:22; John 12:16; and John 20:9. So it is with me. I never recognized any divine influence guiding my decisions to attend seminary, resign from ministry to practice law or give up the practice of law after nearly two decades and go back to parish ministry. There were plenty of practical, professional, selfish and altruistic motives in the mix, but none that I could ever unequivocally trace back to the Spirit of God. But when I look back over my shoulder from where I now stand, one thing does become clear to me, namely, that my life has taken its tortured direction because there were people I had to meet, places I needed to be and lives that had to intersect with mine before I could become the sort of person God could use. The Spirit was at work accomplishing God’s purpose. The choices I made, the decisions over which I agonized finally didn’t amount to a hill of beans.
Of course, that does not help much with my forward vision. I still am not sure what God is presently doing with my life, much less with the world. I don’t have a “clear vision for the church’s mission” in my community. That is why I take comfort in our reading from the Book of Acts. If you back up and read Acts 16:6-8, you will discover that Paul seems to have been floundering in Asia Minor. None of his plans come to fruition. His mission strategies repeatedly prove unsuccessful. At every point it seems that “the Spirit of Jesus,” is thwarting his efforts to proclaim the gospel. I have been there too, but I cannot say that I recognize Jesus in any of that. To me it looks like plain old failure and nothing more. That leads me to wonder whether Paul recognized the obstacles thrown in the way of his mission work as “the Spirit of Jesus” at the time. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect that Paul was probably frustrated, angry and maybe a little despondent about his repeated failures in Asia. Perhaps it was not until he was drawn to change his focus to Macedonia, met Lydia and her friends, planted the church in Philippi which would later bring him such joy and comfort that Paul finally recognized in his prior failures the work of the Holy Spirit directing him. Sometimes I think that perhaps we are not supposed to be visionaries. Maybe God purposely does not reveal the path ahead of us. It may be that our vision, our strategizing and “intentionality” just get in the way. Perhaps we are entitled only to light sufficient for the next step we have to take and should be satisfied with that. Maybe that is what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7.
As noted above, Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man beseeching him for help comes after a series of attempts to evangelize Asia Minor have been thwarted. (See Acts 16:6-8). Luke does not tell us precisely what prevented Paul and his companions from preaching the word in Asia, but whatever the obstacles may have been, they are recognized as coming from the Spirit of Jesus. This is thoroughly consistent with Luke’s view of the ministry as wholly under the direction of the Spirit. It is the “word of God” that grows and multiplies. Acts 12:24. “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly…” Acts 6:7. Just as the Spirit of God used the martyrdom of Stephen scattering the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria to bring the gospel to the Samaritans, so now the Spirit somehow hinders Paul’s Asia mission in order to redirect him to Europe. See Acts 8:1-8. Even open hostility to the preaching of the word is turned by the Spirit to the service of the word.
As was his custom, Paul begins his mission to Philippi by going to the Jewish community. Evidently, there was no synagogue in Philippi. That might have been due to Roman hostility to Jewish influence in what was an imperial colony. It is also possible that the Jewish presence was too small to support a synagogue. Nevertheless, there was evidently a place outside the city where Jews gathered for prayer and worship. This is where Paul met Lydia, accepted her hospitality and baptized her and her household. As in his gospel, so also in the Book of Acts, Luke pays particular attention to the role of women in the church. It appears that the congregation gathered at the place of prayer consisted primarily, if not exclusively, of women. If Lydia had a husband, there is no mention of him. The church in Philippi thus appears to have been founded and led by women according to Luke’s account.
Most scholars characterize this as a psalm of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest based largely on vs. 6a, “The earth has given its increase.” It has been suggested that this hymn might have been sung as a festival liturgy during the autumn festival. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962, S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 472. Though a good harvest surely is a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness to Israel, it is but one of many reasons for praise given in this hymn. God’s saving power, God’s justice and God’s guidance for the nations are all as much reason for the psalmist’s lavish praise. It is noteworthy that the blessing for which the psalmist prays is not restricted to Israel alone. S/he prays that Israel may be blessed in order that “all the ends of the earth may fear God.” Vs. 7.
The opening words of this psalm appear to have been taken from or inspired by the Aaronic Benediction at Numbers 6:24-26. The peoples are enjoined to praise and rejoice in God. God does not reign over the world by compulsion or force. Rather, God “dost judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth.” Vs. 4. As pointed out in Isaiah, God rules the earth through “the law” and through “the word of the Lord.” Isaiah 2:2-4. The psalm therefore echoes God’s promise repeated to the patriarchs and echoed throughout the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah, that Israel is to be a nation by which all the other nations of the world are blessed. “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12:2. “And by your descendents all the nations of the earth will bless themselves.” Genesis 26:4 “And by you and your descendents shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.” Genesis 28:14 “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:2.
I understand the need to keep lectionary readings to a manageable length. But that does not justify the ruthless butcher job that has been done to this text. The missing verses between 10 and 22 give us a graphic description of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem coming down from God, the place where God will dwell among God’s people. I encourage you to read those verses now before continuing with this post.
The first thing you will notice is John’s fixation on the number twelve. The wall of the city has twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The city has twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. The dimensions of the city are 12,000 by 12,000 stadia. Each wall is 144 (12 x 12) cubits. The base of the walls is adorned with twelve different jewels. So what is the significance of the number twelve and all of the numbers divisible by twelve?
Of course, the number twelve has always carried symbolic significance throughout many different cultures for a number of different reasons. There are twelve divisions of the lunar year and twelve signs of the Zodiac. The number twelve is important to the Sumerian number system, one of the most ancient in the near east. From the standpoint of the Hebrew Scriptures, there were twelve tribes of Israel, though one might properly ask whether the number twelve derives its significance from the tribes or whether the tribes were divided into twelve in order to fit the sacred number. There were, strictly speaking, thirteen tribes of Israel owing to the fact that the Joseph tribe was split into Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s two sons). The land of Canaan was nevertheless divided into twelve territories because the priestly tribe of Levi did not receive an allotment of land, but only cities within the tribal territories. Joshua 21.
Each of the four gospels affirms that Jesus had twelve disciples that were especially close to him throughout his ministry. The list of their names differs between the gospels, but that is of minor significance. The twelve disciples correlated with the twelve tribes and thus emphasize the continuity between the mission of Jesus and the calling of Israel. The same point is made here with the twelve gates, the twelve foundations and the twelve jewels of the New Jerusalem inscribed both with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Knowing this, we get a much deeper appreciation for the imagery in our lesson. From the calling of Abraham God has made clear Israel’s mission of being a light to the Gentiles and a nation of blessing for all the nations of the world. The gospels all point to Jesus as the Son of God and the savior of the world. John’s gospel refers to Jesus as “the light.” So now we see the consummation of God’s work with Israel in Jesus expressed through this image of the Holy City whose “lamp is the Lamb” and “by its light shall the nations walk.” Once again, John of Patmos is weaving together a mosaic of images from the Hebrew Scriptures into a marvelous portrait of the Lamb’s final victory that will be brought about by the persistent suffering love of God and revealed through the faithful obedience of God’s people.
Obviously, the lectionary folks were not having a good day when they served up this Sunday’s menu. This reading does not make sense until you back up one verse to vs. 22. There you will discover that Jesus’ words here are in response to a question asked by Judas (not Judas the traitor, but another disciple named Judas). Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will soon be leaving them to go where no one can find him. Judas quite naturally asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Why indeed? If Jesus really is the light of the world, the water of life, the resurrection and the life, and if Jesus is now going away, why is his identity made clear to so very few? Why does not Jesus reveal himself to all Israel? To the whole world?
Jesus responds that he will be made known to the world. The disciples drawn together by Jesus’ love will keep his commandments (which we know by now boil down to loving one another as Jesus has loved them). This love will be a witness to the whole world that God has sent the Son into the world and that the Father loves the Son yet gives up the Son to suffering and death for the sake of the world. Moreover, Jesus’ departure is not abandonment. The Holy Spirit sent by the Father is not a substitute for Jesus, but his more intense and intimate presence in their midst. Through that Spirit animating the church Jesus will continue to speak words of promise, healing, hope and resurrection.
Although John’s Gospel never refers to the church as such, it is clearly a center of concern for John, perhaps even the greatest concern of all. It is by the church that the Father’s love for the Son is made manifest to the world through the disciple’s love for each other. It is by this love that the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. Thus, what the church becomes is every bit as important as what the church does. Indeed, what the church does can be nothing other than what arises out of who the church is.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
If this commandment is to have any meaning for us at all, we need to understand a couple of things. First, Jesus is giving his last instructions before going to the cross. So when he instructs his disciples to love one another, he isn’t talking about having warm fuzzy feelings among them. He is telling them that they need to be ready to go to the cross for each other. Mere sympathy is not love.
Second, Jesus is speaking to his disciples-not the world in general. Jesus goes on to make that point repeatedly throughout chapters 12-17 of John. So this perfect love about which Jesus speaks is love among disciples, love for one another within the church. That rubs me altogether the wrong way. I am a product of the 60s-or at least the educational product of teachers that spent their formative years fighting the battles of the 60s. So I was taught to view the church as an outpost for mission; a springboard into the world where the good news about Jesus needs to be heard. A congregation turned in upon itself and preoccupied with the needs of its members is a sick church. It needs to be reminded that it does not live for itself, but for its Lord who poured out his life blood for the world. I still believe that to be true as far as it goes. But unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough. Our forays out into the world will accomplish nothing of lasting value unless they are grounded in and proceed from the heart of a community animated by love for one another. In any event, that is how Jesus sees it.
In Chapter 15:1-11 of John’s gospel Jesus uses the analogy of the vine and its branches to illustrate further how critical love between his disciples is for the church’s mission to the world. Jesus is the vine, his disciples are the branches. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit unless connected to the vine, so unless the church abides in Jesus, it cannot produce anything worthwhile. Jesus concludes with the words, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” A community bound together by something less than this love might still be a fun place to hang out; it might be capable of running a lot of successful social service programs; it might be capable of sponsoring some inspiring worship events. But no such community is capable of revealing the depth of God’s love for the world or inspiring the world with an alternative way of being human. As much as a group of people drawn together by common interests might be enjoyed by its members and praised by the community, no one would ever guess by looking at it how much God loves the world. That, according to Jesus, is what the church is for.
No, love is not to be confined to our own. Jesus teaches us that our neighbor is anyone in need of our compassion. But compassion is not a natural trait. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit has a tool for building compassionate hearts. That tool is the church. The love Jesus is speaking about must be learned within a gathered community of faith disciplined by the practices of worship, prayer, giving and service. The First Letter of John tells us that “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20. Similarly, I do not believe that a church in which people have no deep love for each other is capable of loving people outside its walls in the way that Jesus loves us. Nor do I believe that such a church will be successful in witnessing to Jesus’ love. How can you be a witness for something you don’t know anything about?
I am also convinced that a church whose members take seriously Jesus’ injunction to love one another will inevitably find itself engaged with the rest of the world. If love for Christ and his church throughout the whole world (even in those countries the State Department classifies as hostile) is placed above duty to country, the church will be compelled to challenge the idolatry of nationalism and our propensity to look for military solutions to conflicts with other nations. Where an insurer denies health benefits to a brother or sister in Christ, love for that person dictates that the insurance industry will soon find it has a problem with the whole church. When disciples of Jesus trust him enough to risk loving each other as he loved them, the world may again take notice, as it did in the third century and remark, “See how they love one another! They are ready to lay down their lives for each other.” (Pagan quoted by 3rd Century philosopher and theologian Tertullian in his Apology, 39.7).
Peter has a few problems on his hands. For starters he woke up from a terrible dream in which God was commanding him to eat a whole bed sheet full of disgusting animals including reptiles. This is more than just disgusting. It is downright wrong. Leviticus 11 makes very clear to Israel that the eating of such animals as appeared to Peter in that sheet was an “abomination.” As a matter of fact, even touching one of these animals renders a person unclean for the rest of the day! What do you make of such a dream? Could this possibly have been the voice of the Lord? Or was it the voice of the devil tempting Peter? Before Peter has a chance to reflect much on his dream, three men arrive at the house where he is staying. They were sent by Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. They inform Peter that Cornelius would like to see him and request that he come with them to Caesarea. I cannot imagine that Peter was thrilled about all of this. When the commander of the occupation force wants to see you in his office, it’s usually not a good thing. Yet the Spirit of God urges Peter to go along and he does.
Arriving at the home of Cornelius, Peter discovers that he is not going to be imprisoned or interrogated. He is instead invited to dinner. In fact, the whole household of Cornelius is present to hear what Peter has to say about Jesus. Eating unclean food is bad enough. Eating it in the home of a Gentile is unthinkable. Everything Peter ever knew and believed about the Scriptures told him that he really ought to get up, tell these folks he had nothing to say to them and excuse himself. But something much deeper in Peter’s heart was telling him to accept the hospitality of Cornelius and his family and to preach the gospel to them. That “something,” was the Spirit of God. Before Peter finishes his sermon, the Spirit of God fills Cornelius and his family just as it did the disciples at Pentecost. I don’t think Peter had worked out all the theological implications of what had happened or what he did next. But when you see the Spirit of God calling someone to faith-how can you not baptize?
Next thing you know, Peter is in hot water with the Synod. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” he is asked. I expect that the Jerusalem leadership probably pointed out to Peter that his actions were contrary to the guidelines, procedures and requirements for mission and ministry. Though perhaps we might consider bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, such a step would constitute a substantial departure from the church’s understanding and practice. Such a profound change should not be made prior to rigorous study, theological reflection and deliberation. The proper procedure would have been to submit the question via resolution to the general assembly which would probably commission a task force to issue a report. After a five year study of the issue, the assembly would then be in a position to make a reasoned and comprehensive decision on whether such a policy change is warranted and, if so, how it should be implemented. That is how we Lutherans do things. If we had been in charge back then, this whole Cornelius affair would never have happened. Thank God we weren’t in charge-and still are not.
Throughout the Book of Acts, the Spirit seems always to be a few steps ahead of the church which is frantically racing to keep up. Things are happening so fast and furiously that the Apostles find themselves confused, bewildered and anxious about the direction of the church. So for people today who complain that the church isn’t what it used to be, that it is changing too fast and it’s not the church they grew up in, I have just four words: Get used to it. The Acts of the Apostles, this marvelous story about the early church reminds us that we don’t control the mission, ministry or future direction of the church. It turns out that God seems to be active in the places we least expect. Faith is born among the folks you would least expect to be receptive. About all we can ever say about the shape of the church in the future is that it will certainly not be what we expect.
This story also tells us something about the authority of the Bible. Peter appeared to be on solid scriptural ground with his scruples about socializing among, eating with and finally baptizing Gentiles. Turns out he was wrong. That should be a lesson for all of us who are so cock sure we know what the Bible requires. “The Bible is inerrant!” said a fellow from the church in which I was raised as he brought his fist down on the book. Perhaps so, but its interpreters are fallible human beings. All you need to do is google the word “Bible” and you will discover some of the wildest, wackiest and witless notions ever expressed by people who think they have the Bible figured out. So it is quite possible to get the Bible wrong and the church has done that on many occasions. That is why we had the Reformation. That is also why the church’s understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures is always evolving, changing and growing in new directions. That is why Jesus promised his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13. Because we don’t have all the truth, we are prone to misread and misinterpret the Scriptures in myopic, self serving ways. We need the Spirit to poke and prod us into taking a new look at the Bible, questioning our assumptions about what it means and listening to people who might read it altogether differently than we do.
Finally, we need the whole church to read the Bible properly. I know I had a little fun at the expense of my own Lutheran church in describing Peter’s confrontation with the leadership in Jerusalem. Still, I need to point out that the mission to the Gentiles was, in the end, a product of deliberations by the whole church. At the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Peter responded faithfully to the opportunity before him to share the gospel. But he did not simply dismiss the rest of the church or move forward with the mission to the Gentiles autonomously. Instead, he took the initiative to go up to Jerusalem in order to explain and defend his actions. He laid out his case for the Gentile mission before the church for its discernment and judgment. I expect that there was some spirited debate and Scriptural arguments put forth by all sides of the issue. In the end, Peter was able to persuade the church to move in the direction the Spirit led him at the home of Cornelius. That is how it should be.
This psalm is beautifully structured. It begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”
This passage begins a lengthy portrayal of the new creation brought about by the victory of the Lamb. Once again, it bears repeating that this victory will come about not through violent conquest in the manner of the “beast,” but through the faithful obedience of the saints in the face of hardship and persecution. There will be continuity between the new creation and the old. God does not destroy the work of his hands. He “makes it new.” This parallels Paul’s thinking about the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:35-50 where he explains the relationship between the mortal body and the resurrected body by analogy to the relationship between the seed and the full grown plant. While there is continuity, the plant is nevertheless far more than the seed. Note also that the saints do not go up to the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem comes down to them.
Jerusalem as the beloved of God is a recurring image throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There is a rich prophetic tradition foretelling God’s salvation coming forth from this holy city. The most notable is Isaiah 2:1-4. There the prophet declares that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Once again, God’s reign in Zion is not one of violence and conquest. It is a reign of law and justice. There will be no further need for weapons as the Lord will judge between nations. The nations themselves “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Psalm 87 is yet another instance in which Zion is lifted up as a unifying symbol for all peoples of the world. So also in Revelation Jerusalem is again at the center of God’s saving work “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Revelation 21:2.
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” Again, the term used for “dwelling” is the same root used in John 1:14 where the evangelist says, “the word became flesh and lived among us.” Literally translated, the verb translated “live with” or “dwell with” means to “tent with” or “tabernacle with” or “camp among.” This language once again evokes the memory of God’s presence for Israel in the tent of meeting that accompanied her throughout her journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan. It is more than this, however. As you can discover by reading on to the 22nd chapter of Revelation, there is a description of a rebuilt Temple in the midst of Jerusalem from which flow the river of the water of life. This, in turn, echoes Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple in Ezekiel 47. In this vision also a river flows from the gates of the temple throughout the land of Israel refreshing, restoring and making fruitful areas formerly arid and dry. These verses also allude to the declaration made by Second Isaiah to the disheartened exiles in Babylon: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43: 18-19.
John of Patmos is weaving all of these images from the Hebrew Scriptures into his lyrical portrayal of the Lamb’s victory in which the struggling churches of Asia Minor will share. This lesson is yet another illustration of how critical the Hebrew Scriptures are for understanding the New Testament. Reading the New Testament without knowing the Hebrew Scriptures is like getting the punch line without the joke.
Much of what I have to say about this lesson is already in my introductory remarks. Here are a few additional things worth noting. The reading begins with Jesus declaring: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and in him God is glorified.” It is important to note that just prior to this Judas slipped away to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Thus, the glorification of which Jesus speaks is his betrayal and crucifixion. It is glorification because it reflects the depth of Jesus’ love for his disciples and God’s love for the world. On the cross, the world will see the heart of God breaking for humanity.
The “new commandment” calling the disciples to love one another does not appear to be new. The Hebrew Scriptures admonished the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18. The commandment is nevertheless “new” insofar as the paradigm of love is the cross. Thus, it is no longer enough to love your neighbor as yourself only, but to love as God in Christ loves you. This is higher intensity love that is not possible for the disciples unless they continue to abide in Jesus. For reasons previously discussed, I believe that practicing such love is the principal reason for the church’s existence. It is through such love that all people will know that we are Jesus’ disciples and that God sends Jesus not to condemn the world, but that the world may have life through him.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O God of peace, you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep. By the blood of your eternal covenant, make us complete in everything good that we may do your will, and work among us all that is well-pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
For reasons I have never entirely understood, the lectionary always gives us a Sunday during Easter in which at least three of the four lessons relate in some way to shepherds and sheep. My reflections on these lessons have been shaped by the upcoming Synod Assembly at which representatives of our New Jersey congregations will elect a new bishop whose shepherd’s staff has become a prominent liturgical symbol in recent years. I should add for the benefit of my non-Lutheran friends that bishops are a relatively new feature of Lutheranism in America. It all began in the 1970s as little more than a name change. At some point the predecessor churches that merged into the ELCA in 1988 began calling their national president and district presidents “bishops.” The title did not sit well with the pietist contingent within Lutheranism that has always had a deep distrust of ecclesiastical power structures and an unhappy history with bishops. We were assured that the change was nominal and not substantive. “It doesn’t change anything,” said our then president turned bishop Rev. David Preus.
But I believe it has changed us to some degree. For one thing, we have seen the steady growth of liturgical and symbolic encrustation around the office of the bishop. What used to be a purely administrative position held by a democratically elected individual has become a pastoral office. To complicate matters further, at its 1999 Church Wide Convention in Denver, Colorado, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church-USA under the terms of which ELCA bishops and pastors were brought into the historic episcopacy (at least insofar as the Episcopal churches are concerned). Again, for those of you unfamiliar with such things, the historic episcopacy is based on a belief that continuity in the ministry of the alter, i.e. those presiding over the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, has been maintained from apostolic times to the present by the “laying on of hands.” That is to say, there is a communion of bishops entrusted with authority to ordain priests to the office of sacramental ministry who have received their authority from a prior generation of bishops whose hands have been laid upon them. This laying on of hands, according to tradition, goes back to apostolic times and is a witness to the continuity of ministry and the unity of the church. At the same assembly, the ELCA voted to enter into full communion with three other protestant churches that are well outside the historic episcopacy. I am not sure how that shakes out theologically, but was very much relieved to see that, whatever being within the historic episcopacy may mean for Lutherans, it does not mean that we are cutting ourselves off from churches outside that tradition.
I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with any of these developments. I do believe, however, that we have not taken enough time to think through their ramifications. As a consequence, we have never developed a clear notion about what a Lutheran bishop is or what we expect from one. The constitutional requirements for the office of ELCA bishop are as broad as they are vague. Everyone seems to prioritize them differently. Do we want a bishop who will be the public voice of the church addressing issues of societal concern? Are we looking for a “pastor to the pastors” whose chief responsibility is care and oversight of the clergy? Do we seek a bishop who will be the additional pastor for every congregation and so intimately involved with the lives and ministries of our churches? Do we want a bishop who will take a “hands on” management approach and push local congregations toward a larger vision of the church’s mission or a responsive bishop whose leadership is shaped by the vision and practices developed by the congregations s/he serves?
I don’t pretend to have answers to such questions, but perhaps these shepherd/sheep texts for Sunday can give us some insight into how we might begin to discuss them. It seems to me that part of our problem in thinking about the office of bishop is our tendency to confuse power with authority. Often when we think we are discussing authority we are really talking about power. Power issues have to do with control and they are important. It would be naïve to pretend that we do not exercise power in the church. We discipline pastors, congregations and individuals whose conduct is injurious to the Body of Christ. We decide who is fit for ordination and call for the public ministry of the church. This exercise of power is constrained by guidelines and procedures to ensure that it is not abused. That is why we have constitutions, by-laws and guidelines.
Authority is quite another matter. So far as we know, Jesus had no rabbinic training, no priestly office and no governmental title. He had nothing in the way of power. Yet when he spoke, people recognized his words as authoritative. In our Gospel lesson Jesus says to his opponents, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27. Authority needs no credentials. You know the voice of authority when you hear it. The Gospel of John further relates how the temple police (the guys with the power) were sent to arrest Jesus and bring him before the council. When they came back without Jesus, the leaders asked them why they had not brought him in. They could only respond, “No man ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. That’s authority! Power can be conferred by election, appointment or by operation of law. Authority can only be built into a person’s character over time through a life of faithfulness to the practices of worship, prayer, attentiveness to scripture, generous giving and humble service to the neighbor. Words are authoritative when they are congruent with the narrative of the speaker’s life. It is what we mean when we say that a person is as good as his or her word, or what John meant when he said “the Word became flesh.” There is no gap between the walk and the talk. That is why Jesus could say: Doubt my words, do you? Well take a look at my works. (Highly paraphrased) A person who would exercise power properly and effectively must have authority. The converse, however, is not true. Authority has no need of power and does not fear power. Authority is a gift of the Holy Spirit and cannot be confined to the channels of power nor to any office or title.
In the final analysis, I don’t really care about the next bishop’s leadership style, mission priorities, strategy for the future of the church or theological leanings. I don’t expect the bishop to achieve for us a dramatic turnaround in the downward trajectory of church attendance or shower us with new ideas or (God forbid!) initiate yet another round of congregational self study. I am not particularly interested either in how we define the office of bishop (if we ever get around to doing that). But I pray that God will give us a man or woman who speaks and acts with the authority Jesus exercised.
In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle account to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues his life giving mission. Luke’s gospel contains two such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). It should be emphasized that these raisings do not constitute “resurrection” in the same sense that Jesus experienced it. Tabitha will eventually die again as did Lazarus, the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus. Like Jesus’ healing miracles, the raisings are not final liberation from death, but only a brief reprieve.
Furthermore, the miracles are never ends in themselves. Peter’s response here is to the distress of the church in Jappa which has lost a valued minister. Tabitha has been raised up to continue her life of good works for the sake of the church and its mission. As the case of Stephen demonstrates, sometimes the mission of the church is served by a saint’s faithful death. Thus, miracles of healing are not doled out as rewards for faithfulness, earnest prayer or any other effort on our part. They are gifts to sustain the life of the church, inspire faith and demonstrate God’s compassion.
It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” Jewish law regarded this line of work as defiling. Thus, Simon would have been an outcast in polite Jewish society. Peter seems to have no problem accepting Simon’s hospitality, though as we will see in next week’s lesson, he has considerable scruples over dining with Gentiles. Luke is therefore setting the stage for the upcoming story of the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius. This will be the next chapter in the church’s story of breaking down religious and cultural barriers. Luke wants to demonstrate that welcoming the Gentiles into the church is simply a logical extension of Jesus’ welcoming outcasts among his own people.
What can I say about this psalm that has not already been said? Here are a few random thoughts on a very familiar psalm that gains meaning for me with each reading.
Though this is obviously the prayer of an individual, the community of Israel is never far from the psalmist’s consciousness. The God of Israel is frequently referred to as “Shepherd of Israel.” See, e.g., Psalm 80. Thus, the Lord is not “my” shepherd only, but “our” shepherd. Clearly, nearness to the shepherd is closeness to the rest of the flock. So when we are led to the green pastures and still waters, we travel with the rest of the flock. When we pass through the valley of the shadow, we have not only the rod and staff of the shepherd to comfort us but the company of the communion of saints. It is important to keep this in view lest the psalm become nothing more than the pious ruminations of a lone individual.
“I shall not want.” This can be read either as a bold declaration of confidence in God’s willingness and ability to provide all that the psalmist needs, or as an expression of contentment with all that God has provided. These two understandings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the emphasis in our culture should be on the latter. If ever there was a people who wanted more it has to be us. The amount of resources we Americans consume relative to the rest of the world is staggering. Still, we always seem to want more and, as I have pointed out before, it is this lust for more stuff that drives the so called economic recovery. Precisely because people have a tendency to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars simply because they can, jobs and money increase. Is there not a better and more sustainable way to live? Is it really necessary to keep on increasing our consumption at what is surely an unsustainable rate in order to live well?
“God leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here again it is critical to understand that God’s leading is not simply for our own individual benefit. It is for the sake of God’s name; that God’s name may be hallowed. Too often Paul’s promise in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:28) that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” is similarly misunderstood to mean “all things work together for my personal good.” Clearly, they do not. But that is because we are speaking not of people in general, but of people called according to God’s purpose. Thus, while one can be confident that God will achieve God’s purpose in one’s life, that does not translate into “everything will be alright for me.” We are not dealing with a rabbit’s foot.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is a frank admission that being led by God brings us into the presence of enemies. Significantly, the enemies are not vanquished. Rather, the psalmist is able to find peace even in their presence. So how might we learn to live peaceably in the presence of our enemies? Can we trust the shepherd enough to disarm ourselves? To drop all of the defenses we put between ourselves and those we fear? To be more specific, are we sufficiently confident in the Lord’s ability to protect us that we are ready to shut down the alarm system in our sanctuary and remove the locks from our doors? Is that what it might mean to allow God to prepare the Eucharistic Table for us in the presence of our enemies?
For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 7th and April 14th. What I find interesting here is the paradoxical statement in verse 17: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This hymn echoes and may be inspired by imagery from Psalm 23. Oddly, Christ is characterized as both lamb and shepherd. The apparent inconsistency is overcome, however, if we accept the proposal of commentator Raymond Brown that, while composed by different authors, Revelation and the Gospel and letters of John share a related theological tradition. Recall that in John 17 Jesus prays not only that his disciples may be one, but “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us…” John 17:21. The “Lamb of God” that takes away the sin of the world now indwells his disciples in the unity of the Spirit and is also the Shepherd.
“The tribulation” out of which the “host dressed in white” has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. They are encouraged to persist in their faithful obedience to Jesus and assured that their journey’s end will be the fuller presence of God. The promise that God will “shelter them with his presence” literally translates as: “spread his tabernacle over them.” The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the Israelites throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The verbal form of this word “tabernacle” is used in the first chapter of John’s gospel where the apostle tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” John 1:14 “Lived among us” literally translated is “tabernacled among us” or “pitched his tent among us.”
This is a powerful message of hope to a church facing extinction under the oppressive weight of imperial persecution. It is similarly comforting to both churches and individuals close to dying and whose faithfulness to Jesus seems futile and ineffective. The Lamb whose faithfulness unto death defeated death shares his resurrection with the saints even as they share his suffering and death. The beast may inflict mortal wounds. But the Lamb bestows immortal and healing love. The last word belongs to the Lamb.
The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. Like a snowball rolling down hill, our understanding of Jesus picks up deeper and more nuanced meaning as we proceed through the narrative. Every sentence in this Gospel carries another clue to Jesus’ identity. The Feast of Dedication commemorated the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. Jesus previously conducted his own cleansing of the Temple in John 2:13-22. Rather than rededicating it, however, Jesus declared that his body constituted the new temple “not built with hands.” See John 2:13-22. Jesus’ reappearance in the Temple once again points us back to this clue paving the way to a new revelation about to unfold in the dialogue that follows.
Jesus’ opponents pose a very specific question to him: “Are you the Christ?” While there certainly was a wide range of expectations regarding the role of Israel’s messiah, what he would accomplish and how he would get it done, there was no ambiguity in the question itself. Jesus either believes he is the messiah or he does not. So which is it? While Jesus may seem evasive here, he is actually prodding his questioners to ask a better question: I have already told you who I am. You already know enough to make your judgment about me. Do you really think my answering your question one way or another will change anything I have already said? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. (Highly paraphrased).
“My sheep hear my voice.” The shepherd’s sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. Jesus has previously made this point in John 10:1-6. The sheep cannot be lured away by the voice of anyone but the true shepherd. The converse is also true. Sheep that do not belong to the shepherd will not heed the shepherd’s voice. So this is not a matter of obtuseness on the part of Jesus’ opponents. Their inability to “hear” Jesus voice stems rather from a lack of trust. The sheep heed the voice of the shepherd precisely because the shepherd has proved trustworthy and true. Paradoxically, Jesus’ opponents cannot hear him because they do not trust him. Yet they will never learn to trust him unless they heed his voice. Their situation might seem hopeless but it isn’t. These folks are not of Jesus’ fold now. But Jesus says of them: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16. Jesus has yet more work to do. He will be glorified in his final great work on the cross through which he will “draw all people to myself.” John 12:32. As the lesson from Revelation makes clear in its own lyrical way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.
Third Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This week we have heard a lot of troubling news about developments on the Korean peninsula. The possibility of war, however remote it might be, is enough to send chills down anyone’s spine. But for some folks there is an even darker significance in these events. I am speaking of that particular brand of American Protestantism obsessed with the end of the world and convinced that the Book of Revelation holds the key to figuring out when and how the end will occur. Already I am hearing speculation that North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un might be “the beast” spoken of in Revelation. I have heard similar speculation in the recent past concerning Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin and even Barak Obama. For the benefit of all you folks who may never have come into contact with this “end times” theology, the “beast” is a figure described in Revelation 13. It is an amalgam of fierce animals symbolizing a tyrant who rules over all peoples in a reign of terror and oppression. This ruler is particularly hostile toward the saints, imprisoning, torturing and killing them. Worst of all, the beast requires its subjects to worship it as “Lord.”
So, is Kim Jong-un the long awaited “beast”? In the most literal sense, my answer is “no.” The world dominating beast of which John of Patmos speaks in Revelation was an emperor of Rome. The most likely candidate is Domitian (81 C.E. to 96 C.E.), though some scholars maintain that the “beast” refers rather to a future emperor expected to emerge from the chaos and civil war convulsing the Roman Empire following the death of Nero in 68 C.E. John’s lurid images of cruelty, oppression and destruction of the earth set forth in Revelation accurately depict life under Roman occupation and more particularly, life for the churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) at the end of the first century. Governmental persecution of the church, though not wide spread or focused at this time, was not an infrequent occurrence for disciples of Jesus who refused to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” a title they reserved for Christ alone. Exclusion from economic and professional opportunities was often the price of worshiping Christ alone. Christians were not the only ones to experience Rome’s oppression. It is not only for the death of the prophets and saints, but for “all who have been slain on the earth” that Rome (code named “Babylon”) and the beast come to judgment in Revelation Chapter 18. Significantly, all those who profited socially, politically and commercially from Rome’s unjust reign share in its judgment. In sum, it is safe to say that John of Patmos was writing about the imperial rulers of his day, not our present day rulers, however beastly they might be.
But that does not exhaust the subject. Rome may be long gone, but imperial oppression is very much alive and well. This point is made by Jorge Rieger in his book, Christ and Empire, (AugsburgFortress, c. 2007).
“Empire, in sum, has to do with massive concentrations of power that permeate all aspects of life and that cannot be controlled by any one actor alone. This is one of the basic marks of empire throughout history. Empire seeks to extend its control as far as possible; not only geographically, politically, and economically-these factors are commonly recognized-but also intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, culturally and religiously.” Pp. 2-3.
The beast of empire is alive and well today exercising its murderous power through dictators that starve their people to feed their military machines; corporations that exploit labor, corrupt governments and destroy the environment for the sake of profit; governments that value balanced budgets over a balanced diet for their poorest citizens; and religious movements that encourage violence, prejudice and hate. The victims of the beast live in squalid refugee camps having fled the carnage of conflicts they wanted no part of. They are children employed at near starvation wages by manufacturers whose CEOs have made the cold (and heartless) determination that such “out sourcing” best serves the bottom line. They are the wounded men, grieving mothers and dead children who had the misfortune to be in the way of a drone attack-the folks we speak of in unfeeling clinical terms as “collateral damage.” We need to be careful not to define the beast too narrowly. Kim Jong-un is a mean hombre, no doubt about it. But he did not crawl out of the bowels of hell. He is the product of a tense political five decade standoff between two halves of a small nation long divided by cold war interests of the superpowers. The war that gave birth to his nation was a proxy fight between much bigger players with stakes much higher than the welfare of the Korean people. Those of you old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo may also recall the lead character’s immortal line: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So also I think we can say that we have met “the beast” and he is us. Today’s nation states, military alliances and commercial entities (all of them) share in some measure the toxic nature of the beast.
Finally, I feel compelled to point out that the Book of Revelation is not all about “the beast.” It is about the “Lamb who was slain.” It is not about the destruction of the earth, but its salvation and renewal. Most importantly, Revelation is not a war movie or a spaghetti western in which the forces of good out gun the forces of evil. Understand that the final victory of God over evil does not come through an exercise of divine violence. Throughout the Book of Revelation, the powers of the empire are portrayed as fearsome beasts, dragons and warriors. But God’s son and God’s people are always portrayed as peaceful, vulnerable and weak. Israel is portrayed as a woman giving birth under the watch of a fearsome dragon waiting to devour her child. Revelation 12:1-6. The conqueror, the lion of Judah, God’s Messiah turns out to be, of all things, a lamb. Revelation 5:1-5. Not only so, but a lamb that was slain! When Christ returns to claim his kingdom, his title is “the Word of God,” and he slays his enemies with the sword that “comes out of his mouth.” Revelation 19:11-16. Just as the world began with God speaking it into existence, so by that same life giving (not death dealing) Word the world will be brought under God’s gentle reign. God triumphs through winning hearts, not battles. Thus, the churches in Asia Minor are comforted with the knowledge that by their faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands, their love for one another, their forgiveness of their enemies and their peaceful witness they are waging God’s battle against the powers of empire. This battle is fought not with weapons of war, but with the weapons of prayer, forgiveness and love for the neighbor-even the hostile one. The struggling churches are assured that the suffering love of God is mightier and more enduring than the violence of empire. Caesar and his legions might look impressive today, but the smart money is on the Lamb.
This story fascinates me. It seems that Saul (later to be called Paul) has just made a U Turn in his fundamental beliefs and self understanding. From this day forward, he takes his orders from Jesus-a man he presumed dead and whose followers he has been busy exterminating. I am captivated by this story because I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience. My mind changes slowly. It changes direction like an aircraft carrier: in small increments that seem inconsequential at the time but ultimately alter my direction in significant ways. When I read my journal entries of thirty years ago I can see that I have changed my mind about a great many things, though I would be hard put to say exactly when that happened. I am not even sure there ever was a conscious turning point. I expect that conversations with family and friends, reading and study along with my life experiences have worked together in gradually shaping and re-shaping my outlook over the years. I hope that worship, preaching and prayer have also played a significant role. That seems to be the way most of us are formed most of the time.
But not always. There are “Damascus Road” moments that can turn you around. Perhaps one contemporary example is Senator Robert Portman, a conservative legislator representing Ohio who recently embraced marriage equality upon learning that his son was gay. I suppose there is reason to question the sincerity of the senator’s conversion, which many have dismissed as a classic political “flip-flop.” It is a little suspicious that this politician should experience his change of heart just following the release of poll numbers showing a clear majority of Americans favoring marriage equality. Still, I tend to believe that Portman’s turnabout was genuine. Discovering that your own son is among the folks you have been trying to exclude as inherently immoral cannot be too different from Paul’s discovery that the Jesus he was striving to destroy was actually the God he worshipped.
In approaching this text it might be helpful to begin listing some of the strongest convictions you hold. Then ask yourself what it would take to change your mind. What could make you see things differently? If you are convinced that your beliefs and opinions are so solidly based that nothing could change them, I would caution you with my mother’s oft repeated dictum: “There is no mind as weak as that mind which is too strong to change.” We will come up against this question of conversion again in next week’s lesson from Acts where Peter is confronted with what he probably assumed was not possible: faith among pagans.
The title of this psalm is a little confusing. It reads: “A Psalm of David. A Song at the dedication of the Temple.” In the first place, the Temple was built by Solomon after David had died. If David wrote this psalm, it would not likely have been for the dedication of a building constructed well after his death. I should add, though, that Davidic authorship is not altogether impossible. According to the book of I Chronicles, David was heavily involved in planning for the erection of the Temple even though he took no part in actually building it. Thus, he could conceivably have composed psalms in anticipation of its dedication. This seems unlikely, however. A further difficulty is that the psalm itself is a personal prayer of thanksgiving for salvation. It does not even mention the Temple. One commentator suggests that the psalm, though composed much earlier, might have been used at the re-dedication of the Temple following its cleansing by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 B.C.E. (celebrated today as Hanukkah). J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, Psalms 1-50 (Cambridge University Press, c. 1977), p. 133. That would explain the title linking the psalm to the Temple. The attribution of the psalm to David was likely a separate and much older title. It should be noted that the Hebrew preposition le translated as “by” in the Davidic title can also mean “to” or “in the manner of” or perhaps “in the tradition of.” Thus, actual Davidic authorship is not necessarily implied.
This psalm is one that Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann would probably classify as a “psalm of reorientation.” Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of re-orientation. I believe that is a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are times when all seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is filled with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, of praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness is appropriate.
Then tragedy strikes. The company you work for goes out of business. A spouse proves unfaithful. One of the kids gets sick-really sick. Or that routine X-ray exposes something very wrong going on under the skin. That picture perfect life is thrown into disarray. The darkness seems impenetrable. At times like these, psalms of disorientation give expression to our feelings of panic and abandonment. A good example is Psalm 39 which concludes with a prayer that God would “look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more.” Yet even though the psalmist seems to have given up on God, the psalmist is nonetheless still speaking to God!
Psalms of re-orientation, such as Psalm 30, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. The journey has not been easy, nor does it bring them back to where they were before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow. See The Message of the Psalms, Brueggemann, Walter (Augsburg Publishing House, c 1984).
It seems that the psalmist was experiencing threats from his enemies as well as sickness. This psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. The psalmist recognizes in resolution of his or her trials the saving hand of God. Thanksgiving is the only conceivable response.
In order to appreciate the full impact of this lesson, you need to read from the beginning of Chapter 4. See Revelation 4:1-5:10. John of Patmos is summoned to the throne room of God almighty. The throne of God is surrounded by 24 elders and four angelic creatures all singing praises to God. There is no description of God, but in God’s right hand is a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” No one responds to this question and John is greatly distressed to learn that there is nobody in heaven or on earth able to open the scroll. But then one of the elders says to John, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Now comes the drum roll. What will he look like, this Lion, this Davidic King who dares to break the seals and open the scroll? We expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to strut out onto the stage, bulging with muscle, armed to the teeth. But when we look up we see-a lamb! A lamb that has been slain, no less. Seriously? This is the Lion of Judah? This is the Root of David?
At this point the angelic creatures and the elders break into their song: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” Vss 9-10. In the lurid imagery that follows, John pictures for us the war of the lamb. This matchup between a leopard like beast with seven heads, ten horns, feet like a bear and mouth like a lion on the one hand, and a lamb on the other seems terribly one sided. The lamb doesn’t appear to stand much of a chance. Yet John would have us know that God is on the side of the lamb whose suffering love for humanity braves even death.
This lesson is filled with images similar to many found in the Book of Daniel, another apocalyptic work. Daniel 7:9-10 relates the prophet’s vision of descending thrones upon which sat “one that was ancient of days.” “Ten thousand times ten thousands stood before him.” “The books were opened.” Dominion is given to “one like a son of man.” Some scholars suggest that John may have drawn his vision from that related in Daniel Chapter 7. Though possible, it seems unlikely to me. There is little in the way of actual textual similarity. There is virtually no correspondence between the two visions other than the assurance that the enemies of God’s people ultimately will be defeated by divine agency, a theme common to nearly all apocalyptic literature. John’s vision also bears similarity to divine appearances in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2.
As I pointed out in my introductory remarks, it is critical to understand what John of Patmos is trying to accomplish with his work. That begins with reading the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 1-2. Just as the lamb seems an unlikely champion against the beast, so the crucified Lamb of God and his beleaguered and persecuted followers’ struggle against the empire looks hopeless. John strives to assure the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to remain faithful are not futile, but are of cosmic significance. The cross is mightier than the sword. Love is stronger than violence and will prevail in the end.
Of all the four gospels, I find the ending of John’s gospel to be the most satisfying. Unlike Luke, Jesus does not ascend into heaven and direct the disciples to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Unlike Matthew, Jesus does not send his disciples out with a promise of his presence. We are not left wondering whether or how the disciples will ever hook up again with the resurrected Christ as in Mark. John’s ascension takes place at Golgotha where Jesus is “lifted up.” The outpouring of the Holy Spirit coincides with Jesus’ resurrection. Remarkably, the Gospel of John ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their fishing nets and boats behind to follow Jesus. Jesus’ last words in the gospel are, “follow me.”
John’s gospel challenges us to take seriously the presence of Jesus in the Church. I think this is the underpinning for our Lutheran insistence on the real presence of Christ which is not limited to the sacraments. We confess in the Nicene Creed our belief in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” If that only means that there exists an organization called the church, we would hardly need to include it as an article of faith anymore than we would need to confess that the sky is blue. But to say that the church is one just as Jesus is one with the Father; that the church is a holy people; that the church is catholic embracing all nations and true to the apostolic witness that birthed it-that is another thing altogether. It is not always evident that the church as we experience it is any of these things. Yet our confession is that the church, flesh and blood congregations with all of their shortcomings, failures and imperfections constitute the Body of the Resurrected Christ. That calls for a leap of faith! It also challenges us to think deeply about how we make our unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolic teaching more visible.
I think this appearance must have happened on a Monday. I don’t have an ounce of biblical support for that assertion, but it sure has the feel of going back to work at the beginning of another week. Commentators believe that this third appearance of Jesus to his disciples in John is a latter addition to the gospel. They suggest that this story comes from a different version of events similar to the sequence in Matthew. The disciples, scattered after Jesus’ crucifixion, flee to Galilee (or go there to meet him upon instructions from Jesus to the women) and there try to pick up their old lives. In so doing, they encounter the resurrected Christ who calls them back to a life of discipleship. However this might be, there is no question but that the disciples have turned their attention back to the more mundane yet urgent needs for survival. They turn back to what they know, namely, fishing. Yet they toil through the night taking nothing, echoing Jesus’ warning that “apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5. Not until Jesus instructs them to cast their net out on the right side of the boat do they find success, and that beyond expectation. It is at this point that the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus.
Meals occupy a significant place in the ministry of Jesus (and throughout the whole Bible for that matter). Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people; Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners-as well as wealthy religious leaders. Jesus’ last evening with his disciples was a meal and Jesus makes a point of sharing food with them after his resurrection. Jesus frequently uses the image of a banquet to describe the kingdom of God. So it is not surprising that he invites his disciples to breakfast on the shore and that it is within this context that Jesus reconciles himself to Peter.
The interchange between Jesus and Peter is moving and illustrative of Jesus’ way with his disciples. Ours is the Lord of the second chance-and the third and the fourth. But what I find remarkable here is Peter’s commission: “Feed my sheep.” There has been much debate over the centuries about what that means and what significance it has for how we understand apostolic succession. Without entering these treacherous waters, let me just say that what I find most intriguing is the content of the command. If Peter is being given a special task here, it does not seem to have anything to do with leading, oversight or primacy. His job is not to shepherd the sheep, but simply to feed them. At the recent ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans one of my young people elbowed me just as Bishop Mark Hanson was being introduced as “shepherd of the sheep.” “What happened to Jesus” she said. “Did he retire?” This clever if less than reverent comment reflects the basis for my discomfort with the term “pastor” which means shepherd. I am only too aware of the fact that I do not know where the green pastures or the still waters are. Like everyone else, I have to rely upon the Good Shepherd’s leading for that. At best, I am just the sheep dog that tries to keep the herd together or the farm hand in charge of seeing to it that the sheep are fed. Like my namesake, I can only lead by following.
Second Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O God of life, you reach out to us amid our fears with the wounded hands of your risen Son. By your Spirit’s breath revive our faith in your mercy, and strengthen us to be the body of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
What is a pastor to do when a wealthy, prominent and powerful member of his congregation commits an unspeakable sin? That was precisely the dilemma facing Ambrose, bishop of Rome. His parishioner was none other than Theodosius the First, emperor of Rome. It all started in April 390. Butheric, a Roman governor in command of Thessalonica, ordered the arrest of a popular charioteer on charges of rape. The sports loving populous demanded the charioteer’s release. When Butheric refused, a riot ensued in which Butheric and several lesser Roman authorities were killed. Enraged by news of the uprising, Theodosius ordered an immediate retaliation. The army units sent to Thessalonica indiscriminately massacred seven thousand civilians without regard to their involvement in the rioting.
Ambrose had options. It might have been prudent for him to ignore the whole affair and treat Theodosius as though nothing had occurred. What is done is done. There is no bringing back the seven thousand. So why risk offending a member whose support is critical to the ministry of your congregation? (Imperial support was, rightly or wrongly, viewed as critical to the wellbeing of the church). Then again, Ambrose might have employed a little constructive engagement. He might have invited the emperor out to lunch and, after some light conversation about family and sports, brought up the Thessalonian affair in an off handed way. “You know, Theo, I noticed that you got a lot of bad press for your handling of that business in Thessalonica. What is the real story about that?” Theo squirms a bit in his chair. “As usual,” he replies, “the press put its anti-imperial slant on things. I can assure you that our response to the unspeakable crimes committed in that city was measured and restrained.” After an awkward silence, Theo goes on to say, “Of course, I understand there may have been some excesses in a few individual cases. I can assure you, Pastor, I will look into these claims and see to it that justice is done.” Congratulations, you have nudged imperial policy toward justice-slightly perhaps. Or not.
You could also take the “pastoral approach.” “Hey Theo,” you say to him after a game of squash (which you prudently let him win), “This thing with Thessalonica, that’s not like you. I’m seeing in that a whole lot of anger. Is something going on with you, buddy?” Theo collapses on a bench with his head in his hands. “It’s my wife. She’s spoiling that kid of ours. I am trying to teach him some responsibility. That’s important for a kid his age. He is going to be ruler of the empire for heaven’s sake! But every time he acts up, gets into trouble or starts slacking off, my wife makes excuses for him, takes his side and turns me into the bad guy. My own father was a real ball buster. Push, push, push. I swore I would never be like that with my own kids. But every day I see myself becoming more like my father. I hate it! But what can I do? Somebody has to be firm with that kid…” Theo has a good cathartic cry and feels much better. He thanks you for being such a sensitive and caring pastor. Now that he has had a chance to vent, he will certainly moderate his foreign policy, right? Dream on.
Or you could do what Ambrose did: excommunicate the emperor. According to church historian Theodoretus, when the emperor tried to enter a Milanese church where Ambrose was about to celebrate a mass, the bishop stopped him and rebuked him for what he had done to the people of Thessalonica refusing him admission. Only after Theodosius underwent a lengthy period of penance and promised to enact reforms ensuring due process for persons accused of capital crimes did Ambrose readmit him to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the lessons for this week, I am focusing here on the resurrected Christ’s injunction to his disciples in John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This verse figured heavily into my ordination vows and is typically associated with what Lutherans call “the power of the keys.” This, according to Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, is “the peculiar church power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” LSC, Part V. Luther goes on to cite the above passage from John in support of this assertion. I have no quarrel with the Catechism as far as the assertion goes, but for reasons I will come to later, I do not believe that this particular verse relates to the power of the keys as Luther defines it. Even so, the questions remain: at what point does the church resort to excommunication? Who makes the final decision to excommunicate? What sort of sins warrant excommunication?
Clearly, Ambrose was taking a courageous stand that might have gotten him killed. Still, historians differ over the extent to which the conflict really was between a pastor and his parishioner concerning sin rather than a battle of political will between leaders of the ever competing ecclesiastical and imperial estates within the Byzantine Empire. Therein lies the problem with excommunication. Christian congregations are nothing if not political. Is the sin of a troublesome congregational member who is forever impeding the march of progress likely to be measured with greater strictness than the sin of a team player who supports the congregational programs and policies? What kinds of sin merit excommunication? Often that depends on the cultural biases of the congregation. In some places, fornication warrants expulsion from the church. In other places, use of bottled water is a crime against the environment but sexual indiscretions are politely ignored. How do you measure the severity of sin? When is excommunication the preferred or perhaps only appropriate remedy?
I think that St. Paul’s measure is the most helpful standard. In Paul’s view, a disciple’s conduct must be shaped by the understanding that s/he is a member of the Body of Christ. Sin is whatever injures the unity of the Body. That means ethical conduct is to some extent contextual. Whether a disciple should eat meat sacrificed to idols was a burning issue among the believers at Corinth. May a believer purchase such meat in the market and eat it-as long as s/he does so without taking part in the sacrificial rite in which it was slaughtered? It depends, says Paul. If consuming such meat can be done without giving offense to a fellow believer or compromising the witness of the church to Jesus, then there is nothing wrong with it. Meat is meat. Nevertheless, if eating meat offered to idols will damage the credibility of the church’s witness or give offense to another disciple of Jesus for whom such meat constitutes a sacrifice offered to false gods, then the disciple must refrain. See I Corinthians 8. Similarly, when Paul discusses sexual immorality, his primary concern is not what and with whom, but the effect such behavior has on “the Body,” which I interpret as the Body of Christ. Because each disciple is a member of that Body, engaging a prostitute is not simply a matter of private immorality. It necessarily involves the entire church. See I Corinthians 6:12-20. Notorious sexual immorality also reflects badly on the church’s public witness and is therefore cause for excommunication in at least some cases. See I Corinthians 5:1-13. Thus, it seems there are two questions that must be asked before setting in motion disciplinary measures that might lead to excommunication. First, is the member’s conduct threatening the unity of the church? Second, is the member’s conduct compromising the church’s mission and witness? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then discipline may be appropriate.
Clearly, not all sin calls for disciplinary action. The church is made up of recovering sinners who are called to live as family under the umbrella of God’s forgiveness in Christ. Thus, if a sister or brother sins against us numerous times in one day, the appropriate response is forgiveness, whether it is requested or not. Forgiveness is always the remedy of choice when it comes to dealing with sin. Discipline is exercised only when a member’s sin threatens the unity or witness of the church. Excommunication is a radical step to be used sparingly and only when all other disciplinary measures have failed. Finally, it seems that excommunication is far too weighty a matter to be left in the hands of any single individual. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus places this decision in the hands of the whole church. See Matthew 18:15-20. Paul also indicates that discipline must be exercised by the whole church on the basis of competent evidence. See I Corinthians 5:3-5; II Corinthians 13:1-4.
Peter and his fellow apostles are in trouble again. At their last hearing, they were warned not to teach, preach or heal in the name of Jesus. Note well that the prohibition is not against teaching, preaching or healing generally. Some years ago a colleague of mine told me about how the churches in her city were hosting a statewide breakfast program for low income children. To qualify for participation in the program, churches were compelled to cover up or remove all religious images such as icons, crosses and statues. This was necessary, she explained, to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion. My colleague did not seem to have any problem with the conditions for her church’s involvement in the program. From her perspective, the important thing was that the kids were getting breakfast. If covering or removing images of Jesus was the price to be paid for cooperation in a venture that was surely in the spirit of Jesus, it was well worth the cost.
Is that really the case? Were the apostles being stubborn and pig headed? Why not continue the good work of teaching, healing and caring for the poor without bringing up Jesus? Does it matter whether the church is publically associated with Jesus in its work? Is the public proclamation of Jesus indispensable to doing God’s will in the world? Can you do works in Jesus’ name without mentioning that name? As long as you are doing what Jesus requires, why does it matter whose name is on the final product?
At the risk of sounding ruthlessly sectarian, I believe that the name of Jesus is indispensible to the church’s mission. Thus, were I in the place of my colleague, I would with great sorrow let the breakfast hosting opportunity go. To those who would fault me for my seeming lack of concern for hungry children, I would reply that children do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words and actions are not as easily separable as we moderns imagine. In fact, if you take the Gospel of John at all seriously, Word and action are entirely inseparable. That is the reason why Peter and John could say last week that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The proclamation of Jesus simply was not negotiable. The apostles’ actions were grounded in the Word they were preaching. We call that Incarnation.
As an attorney, I understand and respect the legitimate concern of the government to avoid entanglement between state services and the promotion of religion. I also understand that the circumstances in which my colleague found herself were vastly different from those of the apostles. In her case, she was working with a friendly government to achieve a common humanitarian objective. The apostles were struggling to be faithful under the weight of persecution by a hostile government. Yet whether the state employs threats of violence, entices us with promises or appeals to us on the basis of the common good to abandon Jesus, the net effect is the same. As church, we are not motivated by some vague notion of the common good (which is always less “common” and frequently less “good” than is claimed). The church lives and acts out of its relationship to Jesus and its call to bear witness to God’s salvation in his name. Apart from that relationship, we are no longer the church.
The psalm for this week is a continuation of the same one used for Easter Sunday. I therefore refer you to my comments from last week’s post.
These verses serve as an introduction to a series of messages addressed to the “seven churches that are in Asia.” The reference here is actually to Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey. The seven churches are later identified as those of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The number of “seven” is symbolic of completeness or perfection and therefore may be a literary device. Thus, it could well be that the letters were meant for general circulation as a group throughout Asia Minor rather than individually addressed to the seven specific churches mentioned and that the matters discussed with these congregations were actually issues common to most or all of the churches in the area.
Much speculation has been given to what the “seven spirits” of God represent. Again, the symbolic meaning suggested by use of the number “seven” implies that John is simply referring to the manifold energies of the one Spirit of God. It is also possible that the “spirits” are simply another designation of the “angels” of each of the seven churches referenced throughout the balance of chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Revelation. Some ancient commentators have identified the seven spirits with the seven aspects of the Spirit to be conferred upon the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” referenced in Isaiah 11:2. Frankly, I think this latter interpretation is a bit of a stretch.
The reference to the Son of Man coming in the clouds echoes Jesus’ testimony before the Sanhedrin. Mark 14:62; Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:69. These passages, in turn, point back to Daniel 7:13. Also referenced in this verse is Zechariah 12:10. The alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet respectively; hence, the Lord God is the beginning and end of all things, “the one who is, who was and who is to come.” Vs. 4.
This introduction sets the stage for John of Patmos to deliver the message of his widely misunderstood and woefully misinterpreted book of Revelation. He seeks to impress upon the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to live faithfully are of cosmic importance and eternal significance. He accomplishes this objective by projecting those struggles upon the screen of apocalyptic drama in which good and evil engage each other as fantastic beasts, angels and spirits. These characters are pregnant with symbolic meanings, many of which are now lost to us. Still, the rich poetry of Revelation has always been and continues to be a rich fountain for inspired and hopeful preaching. The refrain of this book, sounded in so many different keys, is the promise that God’s gentle reign will be implemented not through the violent ways of human empire, but through the patient and persistent love of God manifest in the crucified Lamb of God.
Something is different about Jesus after his resurrection. He appears, disappears, and is able come into a room that has been locked up tight without breaking down the door. Yet he is no mere spirit. You can touch him. He still bears the wounds of the cross and this is important. The incarnation is irreversible. Jesus became human and remains so. God, having become flesh, will never shed his humanity. The body of Jesus was not just a clever disguise. Jesus’ body is Jesus. The resurrected Christ is still wounded and bleeding, still suffers the pain of a broken humanity and continues to struggle toward the promised reign of God. Now, however, it is clear that not even death can extinguish God’s incarnate love.
John’s Pentecost occurs on the day of resurrection. Jesus breathes on his disciples the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go forth even as he was sent forth from the Father. The life of the disciples is to be a continuation of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus embodied the Word of God, so they are to embody that same Word now through the power of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus prayed for in Chapter 17 is now being implemented. Jesus will be in his disciples just as he is in the Father. By the agency of the Holy Spirit they will be made one and by their love for one another the love of God will be made known to the world.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? As I indicated in my opening remarks, this verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” LSC, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Poor Thomas gets a regular drubbing whenever this lesson comes up. I say it is time to give Thomas a break. For the last two millennia he has had to live with the shameful moniker “Doubting Thomas” even though he sought nothing more in the way of proof for the resurrection than the other disciples had already received. I think that too much emphasis has been placed on Thomas’ faith or the lack thereof and too little upon the wounds in the Body of Christ that demonstrate God’s continued suffering love for a rebellious world. This will likely be the focus of my sermon if I wind up preaching on this text.