Archive for May, 2013
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Merciful Lord God, we do not presume to come before you trusting in our own righteousness, but in your great and abundant mercies. Revive our faith, we pray; heal our bodies, and mend our communities, that we may evermore dwell in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Israel seems always to have been aware that her calling extends beyond herself. The promise to Abraham was that all nations would bless themselves through his offspring. Genesis 12:1-3. The prophets spoke of Israel as a light to the nations and Zion as the place from which Torah would be made known to all peoples. Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 2:3-4. Sometimes, though, Israel came close to losing her sense of mission. The severe edict of Ezra calling for the men of Judah to divorce their wives of foreign descent and disown their children demonstrates an entirely different outlook toward the gentile world. Ezra 10. The image of these men sending away their foreign born wives along with their children into the freezing rain to fend for themselves has always been deeply troubling for me. I expect that this drastic measure was probably seen as necessary to preserve Jewish identity at a time of great vulnerability. Recall that Ezra was leading a small band of exiles who had returned to a ruined homeland inhabited by hostile peoples. This was a community at risk. Survival was doubtful at best. When a community’s very existence is threatened, that community will take whatever action promises to extend its life, however extreme. It is not surprising, then, that the struggle for survival dimmed Israel’s vision of herself as a “light” and a source of “blessing” to the nations of the world.
The church is not immune from such temptations. It is no secret that many congregations within mainline Protestantism are feeling threatened and vulnerable these days. For many of us, the present is a pale shadow of our vigorous past when our sanctuaries were packed and the Sunday Schools were overflowing. Concern about this decline is understandable, but when we get focused exclusively on survival and self preservation, it is easy to lose sight of Jesus’ commission for us to be witness “to the ends of the earth.” Attention turns to balancing the budget with reductions in spending. Often mission support and outreach activities are the first items to go up on the chopping block. We get so caught up in saving our institutional lives and becoming “sustainable” that we forget the one who gave us life in the first place and who alone is able to sustain us. When the question of how we will survive into the future becomes more urgent than why we have been placed in the here and now, we are in deep trouble.
This week’s texts remind both Israel and the church that the God we worship, though deeply involved in our respective communities, is nevertheless the God of all the nations. At the dedication of Israel’s Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon prays that God will hear the petitions of foreigners calling upon God’s name. The psalmist invites all nations and peoples to join in a new song of praise to Israel’s God. Jesus extends his healing touch to the household of a commander in the hated Roman occupation force. To be sure, we are God’s chosen people, but we have not been chosen for special treatment or privilege. To the contrary, we are called to serve as God’s faithful emissaries to the world for which Jesus died. Our life together is an extension of Jesus’ mission of reconciling all people to God and to each other.
First, an introductory note on the Book of I Kings (which originally was joined with II Kings in a single volume). This book is the product of several sources that are now lost to us. These include the Book of the Chronicles of King Solomon (I Kings 11:41); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (I Kings 14:19); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (I Kings 14:29); stories of kings and prophets; and Temple archives. Material from these sources has been woven into a narrative framework by two authors/editors. The first author takes the story to the death of King Josiah in 609 B.C.E. The second author wrote about 550 B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. S/he continues the story up to the final defeat and destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, adding his or her own editorial amendments to the earlier sections of the book.
This reading for this Sunday contains segments from the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple. Verses 41-43 were probably editorial touches added by the second author who wrote during the Exile. Solomon’s reference to persons from far countries coming to worship in Jerusalem because “they shall hear of thy great name, and thy mighty hand, and of thy outstretched arm…” reflects the influence of exilic prophets like Second Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55. It is perhaps the inspiration for the post exilic Third Isaiah’s (Isaiah 56-66) declaration that God will bring faithful foreigners into Zion to minister in what will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:7. This, in turn, was likely the basis for Jesus’ rebuke at the cleansing of the Temple in the Gospel of Mark: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’” Mark 11:17.
These biblical strains represent a remarkable openness to inclusion of the nations within the blessings of covenantal life enjoyed by Israel. They stand in contrast to and in creative tension with those texts calling upon Israel to separate and distinguish herself from the surrounding cultures. Both biblical admonitions are essential. Israel is called to be a different and distinct sort of people precisely because she is to represent God’s alternative to the destructive and violent ways of the other nations. For that reason, Israel must retain her essential character shaped by her covenantal relationship with her God. She is to embody God’s invitation to a better way. This challenge is echoed in St. Paul’s admonition to the church at Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.
This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. (See I Chronicles 16:23-33) Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for this occasion. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.
The psalm calls for a “new song,” reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring a fresh expression of praise. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.
“The gods of the nations are idols.” If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.
“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation.
Paul is madder than a hornet. Someone in his congregation is hocking a gospel other than the good news about Jesus. Jesus might be part of it. His name and even his teachings might figure into it. But according to Paul, the good news is Jesus alone-never Jesus plus something else. In this case, the “something else” was circumcision. These rival teachers were insisting that baptism into Jesus Christ and faith in his promises was not enough. To be a true member of the church, one had to be circumcised and become observant of certain Jewish traditions. Now there is nothing wrong with Jewish disciples observing Jewish traditions. Paul did as much himself. The problem arises when these traditions are elevated to the level of requirements for inclusion in the Body of Christ. This is poison.
I don’t believe that many of our churches explicitly teach “other gospels,” but I suspect that we sometimes practice them without realizing what we are doing. For example, although the pressure to dress in your “Sunday best” for church is on the wane, we still look askance at particularly shabby clothing. Parents of small children too often discover that their welcome in congregations of predominantly elderly people is less than enthusiastic and implicitly conditioned on the good behavior of their offspring. Most of our congregations are not consciously racist, but it is painfully evident from the statistics that people of color frequently do not feel welcome in our midst. Of course, we are just arriving at the point of welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. From Paul’s perspective, these are all matters requiring us to ask whether we are witnessing in word and deed to the good news about Jesus.
Author and consultant Stephen Richards Covey reminds us that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Paul recognized that, for the church, the main thing is Jesus. As much as Paul valued the unity of the church, he was willing to risk division when the good news about Jesus was in danger of being obscured by lesser concerns. Like Martin Luther fifteen centuries later, Paul would rather have a church divided over the gospel than united under anything less. Anything less than Jesus is too little and anything more than Jesus is too much. To be a church of the reformation is to be forever asking ourselves whether we are successfully keeping “the main thing the main thing.” The critical question always boils down to this: “Are we keeping Jesus at the center?”
This story comes immediately upon the heels of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” at Luke 6:17-44, the counterpart to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. Jesus’ teaching about God’s love for the poor, hungry and sorrowful, his words about love and forgiveness of enemies and his admonitions against judging others are soon to be illustrated in a series of miracles and acts of compassion. Jesus’ healing of the military officer’s slave is the first such illustration of his teaching. It is noteworthy that the officer, upon hearing that Jesus has agreed to come to his home, now sends messengers to dissuade him from actually appearing. Perhaps he knew that Jesus’ entry into his home and acceptance of his hospitality would amount to a scandal. Maybe he wanted to spare Jesus the social and religious condemnation that would surely follow. In any event, this gentile’s faithful appeal to Jesus for help and Jesus’ willingness to visit him foreshadows the encounter between Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Luke is already preparing his readers for the mission of the church to the gentiles, the story that will be told in the Book of Acts.
The irony here is that a Roman operative commanding occupation troops and who has never met Jesus respects his authority, whereas the Jewish leadership will be forever questioning and challenging that authority throughout the rest of the gospel. Once again, Luke is foreshadowing the conflict between some in the Jewish leadership and the Apostle Paul as he preaches the good news of Jesus to the gentiles. The receptiveness of the gentile outsiders will be juxtaposed to the unbelief and rejection of the Jewish leadership. Still, throughout both the gospel and in the Book of Acts, the Jewish populous is generally well disposed toward Jesus and his disciples. Moreover, the leadership is not altogether united in opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees in particular often seem sympathetic or at least open to Jesus’ message throughout his ministry. They show him hospitality on a number of occasions (Luke 7:36; Luke 11:37; Luke 14:1) and warn him of impending danger. Luke 13:31. The Pharisees also take Paul’s side when he is on trial before the Jerusalem council after his arrest in the Temple. Acts 23:6-10. We also read that “a great many of the priests” in Jerusalem “were obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7. Thus, although Luke focuses his gospel on the mission to the gentiles more than any of the other three gospels, he wishes also to emphasize the receptiveness of the Jewish people to the good news of Jesus Christ. One never knows where faith will be found.
Since Galilee did not become a Roman province until 44 A.C.E., it is probable that this officer served under Herod Antipas rather than within the command structure of the Roman army. As such, he would be in a better position to gain an understanding and appreciation of Jewish religion and customs. Nevertheless, as Capernaum was a border town, custom guards under direct Roman command were also present. Thus, the commander in this story might have been among them. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, (c. 1983, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 117. The existence of gentile admirers of Jewish religion has been noted by other literary sources demonstrating the plausibility of this encounter.
The Spirit of God creates readiness for the good news of Jesus. This story challenges the church to look beyond its walls and beyond the “likely prospects for evangelism” to places and people where faith might already be brewing. Strategizing for mission is not necessarily a bad thing. Still and all, the best strategy is one that is open to the surprising appearance of faith in the last place you would expect to find it.
The Holy Trinity
Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Trinity is the way disciples of Jesus think about God and the way we think about God matters. If you don’t think it matters how one thinks about God, then you should probably have a chat with the survivors of the 9/11 attacks or loved ones of Dr. George Tiller gunned down in the narthex of his church by an antiabortion activist or the parents of the 77 children murdered by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway two years ago in his campaign to preserve Christian culture in Europe. Wrongheaded thinking about God is lethal. So I think it is probably a good idea that we take a Sunday out of the church year to reflect on what we mean when we begin our worship in the name of the “Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Let’s start with dispelling some misunderstandings about the Holy Trinity.
God is not a committee. As child, I pictured the Trinity as an old man, a young man and a bird. I understood vaguely that these three were somehow the same and yet different, though I never quite knew how. (I can’t honestly say that the question interested me very much back then.) I can also recall a diagram like the one below from my Sunday School days.
While this diagram lets us know what cannot be said about the Holy Trinity, it doesn’t help us much in puzzling through what we should be saying. There are many extremely poor analogies that well meaning Sunday School instructors have used to help small children “get” the Trinity. I fear that by repeating them, I will only make myself complicit in perpetuating the misunderstandings they spawn. Suffice to say that I think it is perfectly acceptable to respond to questions children might raise about the Trinity by explaining that some things require years of thinking and growing to understand. When it comes to God, there is always more to learn. That is another reason why going to church must be a lifelong practice rather than one you leave behind along with middle school.
One tempting but inadequate way of overcoming the “committee misnomer” is the “modalist” explanation for the Trinity. Quite simply, God is one, but reveals himself in three different modes: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This solves the problem of the three by denying their separate existence. You may be familiar with the example of the woman who is a mother, a doctor and a wife. Though she is a caregiver, a healer and a lover, she is one single person. In the same way, God creates as the Father, redeems as the Son and sanctifies through the Spirit while remaining one God. Though it has a surface logic to it and a humanizing appeal, this analogy is fatally flawed. First, though the woman in the analogy retains her personhood throughout her daily life, her roles dictate that she must relate differently to the people she deals with throughout her day. Clearly, moral and professional boundaries stand in the way of her expressing the kind of love she has for her husband to her patients. Furthermore, if her husband or children were in need of medical care, she might well lack the objectivity required to provide that care despite her obvious competence. In a sense, this woman is required by her different roles to be a different person to each of the different groups of people in her life. I don’t believe we want to say the same about our God.
Another problem with this modalist outlook is that it obscures rather than reveals the true identity of God. After all, if the Father, Son and Spirit are nothing more than modes of the one God, they don’t really name God. If they are just modes through which God acts, we still do not know who God is. What is to stop us from supposing that there might be other modes of God? Furthermore, if the Triune invocation is merely descriptive of God’s functions, we could just as easily dispense with it altogether and replace it with more descriptive verbal nouns, such as creator, redeemer and sanctifier as some liturgies have in fact done. Clearly, the modalist path is not the one we want to follow. So forget the above analogy of the woman/doctor and delete it permanently from your memory drive.
In my own view, the most helpful expression of Trinitarian thought comes to us from St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine argued mainly against the notion that the Son, as begotten by the Father, was somehow inferior to the Father and so less than God. One of Augustine’s most potent counter arguments went as follows: God is eternal and God is love. For love always to have existed there must always have been a lover and a beloved. Therefore, the Trinity exists eternally as the Father (lover) who loves the son (beloved) and the Spirit (mutual love between lover and beloved). On the Trinity, Book 8, ch. 10. The distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit lies not in their external acts, but in their dynamic relationship within God’s self. On the Trinity, Book 1 ch. 4. Augustine therefore also rejected the modalist notion that the persons of the Trinity can be differentiated on the basis of what they do. Indeed, we cannot speak of the Father, Son or Holy Spirit being solely responsible for any single external divine act. All of God’s acts are unitary acts of the whole Trinity. Even when the Scriptures attribute certain activities to one of the Trinitarian persons, the others are always present and equally involved. Jesus acts solely on the authority of the Father; the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and comes from the Father; the Father is known only through the Son who is in the bosom of the Father.
If you are still reading at this point, you must be wondering why any of this matters. It matters because the church has some definite things to say about God. God is not a question mark. While it is true to say that God is unknowable, God is not unknown. That is because God has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son to whom the scriptures bear witness. There is plenty about our God that remains a mystery to us, but the heart and character of God have been revealed. We are not blind men feeling up an elephant with no idea what we are encountering. (I am alluding, of course, to that perfectly ghastly poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant, by John Godfrey Saxe.)
Trinity matters because disciples of Jesus confess that self giving love for the other, loyalty, faithfulness and hospitality are not merely social conventions, evolved behaviors or even scriptural norms. They are virtues grounded in the very being and character of God where they are expressed perfectly within God’s Triune self. To be created in God’s image is to be capable of embodying the character of God, and this is no mere spiritual aspiration. It is concretely grounded in the reality of the incarnation-the Word of God made flesh in Jesus.
I am not at all sure why this reading is included among the Holy Trinity lessons. It just happens to be one of the texts that the Arian heretics cited in support of their claim that the Son was a creature (albeit an exalted one) and in no sense true God. In this particular text, wisdom is not a pre-existent divine being distinct from God, but an aspect or characteristic of God who is poetically endowed with speech. Thus, it is largely irrelevant to the dispute between the Arians and the Orthodox Trinitarian believers. Still, it is a wonderful text testifying to the beauty and order of creation and the glory of its Creator.
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of poems and short sayings dating from as early as the tenth century B.C.E. to as late as the fourth century B.C.E. Unlike the Psalms which are for the most part expressions of prayer, praise, and lament within the context of worship, Proverbs is concerned with universal and pragmatic “wisdom” and the means by which it is acquired. Though clearly influenced by Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature, Israel’s understanding of wisdom has its own unique flavor. Though it shares with these foreign sources a humanistic focus on reasoned inquiry into the natural world, Israelite wisdom identifies the divine will and purpose as the ultimate human good wisdom reveals. Truth acquired through reason is open to the whole of humanity. Still, for Israel wisdom is subordinate to Israel’s God. It functions within the context of Israel’s covenants and the Torah.
In view of all this, it is not surprising that the particular poem in this week’s lesson affirms that wisdom, as wonderful as she is and though accessible to all willing to submit to her instruction, is nevertheless God’s creation. The human mind can do no more than appropriate what already exists by virtue of God’s creative activity at the dawn of time. Wisdom therefore necessarily takes the shape of Torah. It is not that Israel forsakes reasoned inquiry for blind adherence to law. Nor can it be said that Israel’s keen spirit of inquiry runs contrary to Torah obedience. Rather, Torah both shaped Israel’s questions of the natural world and informed her conclusions. Perhaps the clearest case of incorporation of wisdom into Torah is found in the very lengthy Psalm 119. Though the psalmist praises Torah as the source of all wisdom, it is obvious his/her own wisdom has been forged in the furnace of experience where Torah meets the challenges of every day life.
This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.
The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware it when asking “what are human beings and their descendents that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.
It is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth]look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!
Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.
For Paul, the Holy Spirit is the animating force for the church which he regards as the Body of the resurrected Christ. As such, the Spirit’s primary concern is the health of that Body. Gifts of the Spirit given individually to members of the church are intended to “build up” the Body of Christ. Thus, it matters not at all which particular gift one has, but how one uses his or her gift. Whether one speaks in other tongues, prophesies, works miracles or exercises leadership, the net result must be that the church is strengthened. If leadership divides and alienates rather than unites or if miracles draw attention to the miracle worker rather than to the mercy of God in Christ, then these gifts become tools of Satan to break down the Body. Paul lays out all of this very succinctly in I Corinthians 12. Put differently, spiritual gifts must be exercised under the gentle reign of love. Of all the manifestations of the Spirit within the church, “the greatest of these is love” I Corinthians 13:13. That should help us understand what Paul is saying here in Romans.
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Vs. 5. Recall Augustine’s assertion that the Trinitarian character of God is revealed in the love between the Father and the Son which is the Holy Spirit. Genuine love, however, is not exclusive. It “overflows” the bounds of the relationships that give rise to it. Perhaps that is what we mean when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. Love is ever seeking new objects. One of our more modern Trinitarian hymns contains the following line: “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #412. It is precisely because the one God is also three and because the relationship between the three is characterized by their mutual love and because love by its very nature makes room for the other, the Spirit of God, which is love, broods over the waters at the dawn of time seeking that other. The Word beckons the other into being and the Father blesses what comes to be. Again, this is not to say that the universe was the work of a committee. Rather, creation is a singular act of the Triune God which bears the stamp of that God’s innermost Trinitarian being.
It is perhaps clearer now why Jesus could say that the two greatest commandments are first to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Such love is grounded in the innermost being of God.
In this tightly packed paragraph from John, Jesus speaks of the interaction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and will lead them into “all the truth.” Yet the Spirit speaks not on its own authority, but on the authority of the Father. However, the Spirit imparts “truth” to the disciples by “taking what is mine [Jesus’) and declaring it to you.” The disciples are recipients of the Spirit who comes from the Father and whose sole job is to impart Jesus to them. Once again, the sending of the Spirit is a unitary act of the one Triune God by which the disciples are drawn into the heart of God’s Trinitarian life of mutual love. Not surprisingly, this section of John was a favorite of our friend Augustine on whom I have perhaps gone a little heavier than I should have.
Augustine’s Trinitarian arguments have often been criticized as mere word games. Yet I believe that there is a substantive basis for his insistence on the necessity of God’s being Triune. If God were merely one, could it still be said that God’s nature and character is love? Love needs an object. Consequently, if God were one and not Triune, love could not have preexisted creation as it would have had no object. The essence of God would then have to have been something other than love. Rather than being essential to God’s being, love would be only an acquired attribute.
While the above argument may not be fully air tight as a “proof” for the Trinity, it illustrates why a Trinitarian understanding of God is so critical to what we confess about God. God so loved the world precisely because God created the world out of an outpouring of love. God gave his only Son to save the world because that is what one does for a loved one. God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the disciples enabling them to preach the good news of Jesus to the world because love always overflows its channels. What God does flows from who God is.
Day of Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: God our creator, the resurrection of your Son offers life to all the peoples of earth. By your Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues for praise, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In his recent book, An Unsettling God, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann argues that through the pages of the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israel gave witness to its encounter with “a profound and uncontrollable reality” experienced through her relationship with her surprising and ever innovative God. As Brueggemann sees it, God’s covenant with Israel, though constant and everlasting, is always changing shape and opening up new dimensions of hope, salvation and the call to faithfulness. God is forever unsettling Israel’s settled expectations and calling her to a larger understanding of her role as God’s covenant partner.
That is an “unsettling” notion for many of our Christian traditions that value sameness and stability. We sing of God as a “Mighty Fortress,” “Our Rock, our Help in ages past” and “The Church’s One Foundation.” While these metaphors are not necessarily inaccurate, Bruegggemann would have us know that they are far from complete and adequate for naming the God of the Bible. The Babylonian defeat of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple and the exile that followed all demonstrate that God is prepared to breach the fortresses in which we take refuge, break the rocks on which we stand and shake the very foundations of our most deeply held beliefs if that is what it takes to keep us faithful.
I believe that this is precisely the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. I am not sure the disciples were much comforted by Jesus’ promise in the Gospel of John that, after he had gone away, the Spirit of God would be sent to them. I think they probably would have preferred for Jesus to stay with them; for everything to go on the way it had for the years of his ministry among them. They were probably as resistant to change as we are. But change seems to be the nature of the beast we call church. Notice that throughout the farewell discourse in John (John 13-17) Jesus says repeatedly that the job of the Holy Spirit is “to teach you all things,” to “guide you into all the truth” and “declare to you the things that are to come.” John 14:26; John 16:13. The clear implication is that we do not yet know “all things,” that we have more of the “truth” yet to learn and must wait upon the Spirit to reveal to us “the things that are to come.” Jesus says to his disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you.” John 16:12. He is not through speaking to us yet. As my daughter Emily is fond of saying, “Don’t be putting periods where God has only put comas.”
It’s a good thing we have the Holy Spirit to push the church into change because we in the church don’t like change very much. Left to ourselves, we cling to the past, we follow the tried and true methods, sing the same beloved hymns and keep typing our bulletins on stencils. But the Holy Spirit won’t let us rest. From the time the church was born, it was confronted with the need to change. The original Twelve who came from the same region, spoke the same dialect and practiced the same worship customs suddenly had to figure out how to be a church of five thousand members made up of Jews from all over the world speaking a dozen different languages. Then Philip began to preach the gospel to Samaritans-hated enemies of the Jews. Next Peter baptized a whole family of Gentiles! The church in the Book of Acts appears to be in a race to keep up with what the Holy Spirit is doing.
Needless to say, there were some in the church who were none too pleased with the frantic pace of change. They wanted the church to go slower with the Gentile mission; set some conditions on membership to ensure that the church retained its true character. These folks were particularly critical of Paul and his mission to the ends of the earth. For them, there was just too much change too fast. I think we hear echoes of that complaint even today as we see the demographic of our church gradually tipping from predominantly northern European to a more diverse population. We are also experiencing a shift in moral and ethical outlooks between generations. The inclusion of gay and lesbian persons into the church has also shattered a lot of our settled ways and expectations.
To pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit is to invite growth. Growth always results in deep and life altering changes. As unsettling as that might be, it beats the alternative. Branches that do not grow and bear fruit, Jesus tells us, are cast forth to wither. John 15:6. Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit has been sent to save us from that fate.
In the Book of Acts, Luke continues the story begun in his gospel. Recall from our discussion of the Transfiguration that Luke likens Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem to another “Exodus,” that is, a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. See Post for February 10, 2013. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning, takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke means to show us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the Empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed. Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.
The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciple’s preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.
Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses. Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost,” Beginnings of Christianity, 5:114-16.
Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”
One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the places in which they live, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, it can be said that the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.
This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as the sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4. The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.
This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.
While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of economic currents, military struggles and social expectations exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them. This psalm still testifies to the holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation, not the battlefield for warring national, commercial and tribal interests. Unlike the Babylonian vision, the world is not a house haunted by warring demons. Neither is it a dead and soulless planet governed by political, social and economic determinism or the currents of random historical accidents.
For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post of February 17, 2013. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.
In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.
There is a lot going on in these verses obscured by the fact that we are getting only a snippet of a much longer discourse. To highlight the essentials, Jesus responds to Philip’s request that Jesus “show us the Father” by telling him that he has already seen as much of the Father as ever will be seen. God is Jesus. But take care that while we can say that God is Jesus, we cannot use that statement interchangeably with the false statement, “Jesus is God.” The reason this latter statement is untrue follows from John’s declaration in the first chapter of his gospel: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. To say that Jesus is God is to imply that we already know who God is and that we recognize the Godly characteristics we spot in Jesus. This makes of Jesus nothing more than a mask of God or a clever disguise. Jesus obscures rather than reveals God.
John would have us know that we know nothing of the Father apart from the Son. It is only because God becomes flesh (not disguises himself as flesh or pretends to be flesh) that people otherwise incapable of seeing God actually do see God. It is for that reason that the bulk of our creeds is devoted to articulating our faith in Jesus. We know nothing of the Father other than as the Father of Jesus Christ. Similarly, we know nothing of the Spirit apart from that which proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to glorify Jesus and take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to the church. John 16:14-15.
It is not entirely clear what Philip’s expectations were when he asked that Jesus “show” him the Father. He might have had in mind the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai in smoke, thunder and fire. Or perhaps he was expecting some prophetic vision as experienced by Isaiah or Ezekiel. In either case, Jesus gives him more than he has requested. For truly seeing and knowing God involves more than witnessing marvels and seeing visions. Knowing God involves the sort of intimacy Jesus experiences with his disciples and the love he has consistently shown them-even “to the end.” John 13:1-17. Because God is Jesus and the Spirit of God proceeds from Jesus and the Father, Jesus’ “going away” does not constitute “abandonment.” Indeed, Jesus will henceforth be more intimately present to his disciples and their understanding of him clearer precisely because they will soon be indwelt by his Spirit. Jesus will be “in” them just as the Father is “in” him. John 17:20-21.
I will have more to say about the Holy Trinity next week. Suffice it to say, though, that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a Trinitarian event that makes sense only as an act of the Triune God.
Ascension of Our Lord
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, your blessed Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things. Mercifully give us faith to trust that, as he promised, he abides with us on earth to the end of time, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
It is an astounding claim when you think about it: that Jesus, a man put to death in the fashion of a recalcitrant slave in the backwaters of the Roman Empire two millennia ago “fills all things.” Yet that is what we mean when we confess that Jesus, having been raised from death, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father. This ascension is not Jesus’ departure-far from it. In ascending to God’s right hand, Jesus is now more powerfully and intimately present than ever before. As we frequently sing:
“Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine.
But saving, healing here and now, and touching every place and time.”
Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 389.The lyrics have been slightly changed from when the hymn was originally introduced into Lutheran circles. The last line used to read: “He comes to claim the here and now and conquer every place and time.” I suspect that the change came about because the church has become a little squeamish about the use of militaristic metaphors in recent years. Being a pacifist myself, I can appreciate that sensitivity and the desire to purge such imagery from our worship language. Still, the Scriptures make frequent use of warfare, battles and weaponry to describe the church’s struggle to be faithful in the midst of a sinful world. That was not a problem in the first century. Metaphoric rather than literal usage was obvious to the New Testament church which lived its entire life testifying to the peace of Christ facing only the business end of the sword. Use of military imagery did not become problematic until the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire and was for the first time in a position to wield the sword. Given the history of ecclesiastical violence stretching from the church sanctioned campaigns against heretics in the fourth century through the crusades, the inquisition, the thirty years war and beyond, it is not surprising that most of us feel distinctly uncomfortable singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers!”
Nevertheless, in spite of the potential for misunderstanding they create, I think we need to retain these potent military metaphors. They remind us that discipleship is a call to live faithfully in a world that is hostile to the Christ now filling it. Trusting Jesus for salvation runs contrary to everything my doctor and financial advisor tell me about what I need for security. They both tell me that preserving my health and my wealth is what ought to be foremost in my thoughts and plans. Jesus tells me that people who cling tenaciously to life lose it and those who lose their lives in service to him gain them. Political leaders of all stripes keep telling me that with the right legislation, the right policies and the right people in office, we can fix America and return her to greatness. St. Paul tells me that this world (America included) is passing away and there isn’t a blessed thing anyone can do about it, but for all who are in Christ there is a new creation. Jesus comes to inaugurate that new creation, but don’t expect the old one to go down without a fight. We are at war, but it is critical to remember that the line of battle between good and evil does not run neatly along national borders, racial lines or class distinctions. The line of demarcation between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, every molecular particle of the universe where the resurrected and ascended Christ claims Lordship. Our marching orders come from the Lamb who was slain. The only weapons we employ are the sword of the spirit, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.
The Sermon on the Mount might not appear to be a very potent battle plan in this world of political attack ads, multi-billion dollar PACs and weapons of mass destruction. So too, a Lamb who was slain seems an unlikely champion against a ten headed beast having the kill power of leopards, bears and dragons. But as we have seen over the last couple of weeks in the Book of Revelation, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension assure us that God is putting his full weight behind the Lamb. That is where the smart money is.
A couple of things stand out here. First, the word “to stay with” used in vs. 4 of the NRSV can also mean “to eat with.” Meals are an important feature of Jesus ministry throughout the gospels, particularly in Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a meal. Luke’s gospel makes a point of introducing the resurrected Christ in the context of meals. It was in the breaking of bread that Cleopas and his companion recognized the risen Christ. See Luke 24:28-31. When Jesus appears to the Twelve, he asks them for food and he eats in their presence. Luke 24:36-43. As we have seen throughout the book of Acts, meals continue to remain a central feature of the early disciples’ life together. See, e.g., Acts 2:41-47. Meals were about far more than food consumption in first century Hebrew culture. Who you were was defined in large part by the people with whom you shared your table. Jesus was forever getting himself into trouble by eating with the wrong sorts of people. As we have seen, Peter got himself into hot water with some of the church leaders in Jerusalem for going in to eat with Cornelius and his family, all of whom were Gentiles. Acts 11:1-18. The in breaking of God’s kingdom is nowhere more evident than at the open table of the Lord where hospitality is afforded to all.
My second observation has to do with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, the disciples are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus. Their question about whether Jesus will now restore the kingdom to Israel betrays their lack of comprehension. The kingdom is not for Israel only but for Samaria and even the ends of the earth. Vs. 8. But this will not become clear to the disciples just yet. At Pentecost, the Spirit will fill them and they will preach to Jews from all over the empire that will form the core of the church. That is only the beginning. Philip will bring the gospel to the Samaritans and Peter will, much against his scruples to the contrary, preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
Third, the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus-his preaching, his healing and his suffering and death. Thus, as noted previously, the Holy Spirit is nothing else than the more intimate presence of Jesus in and through the disciples. The miracle stories at the beginning of Acts that we read about earlier this season are intended to illustrate that the healing power of Jesus is still very much present in the church.
Finally, I am not sure what to make of verse 11 where the angels tell the disciples that “this Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11 Is Luke referring to some second coming of Jesus at the end of time, or to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit soon to occur on Pentecost? Though I have always assumed the former, it is tempting to interpret this verse as pointing forward to Pentecost. Just as Jesus was taken into heaven, we read in the second chapter of Acts that as the disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost, “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…” Acts 2:1-2. Although the identification of Jesus with the Spirit in Luke-Acts is perhaps not as strong as in the Gospel of John, the Pentecost transformation of the disciples from clueless to articulate preachers of God’s kingdom more than suggests that Jesus is now “in” them. John 14:15-20.
Though it has some affinities with an enthronement hymn that might have been used for a newly anointed king of Judah, this psalm celebrates the reign of Israel’s God. Clapping of hands, shouts of acclimation and trumpet fanfare were all means by which new kings were acclaimed. I Kings 1:39; II Kings 9:13; II Kings 11:12. Here the nations, as God’s rightful subjects, are called upon to make such acclimation. The subjugation of the Canaanite kingdoms under Israel in fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs is proof of God’s sovereignty.
The Ark of the Covenant was often referred to as God’s throne. Therefore, it is possible that this psalm represents a dramatic liturgical re-enactment of David’s bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. See II Samuel 6. This event coincides with David’s pacification of Palestine though a series of military campaigns; hence, the reference to God’s sovereignty having been established through God’s subduing “peoples under us, and nations under our feet.” Vs. 3.
The psalm also has an implied eschatological element, that is, an allusion to the “end times.” Even at the peak of its commercial and military power, Israel was never anything close to an empire in the same league as Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. Consequently, Israel’s God did not achieve the same name recognition and influence as did the cults of these great nations. Unless Israel was suffering delusions of grandeur, one has to assume that the acclimation of God as “King of all the earth” has an anticipatory future dimension. Though it is not evident now, Israel’s God is over all the nations and the day will come when the nations recognize God’s reign and submit to it. Perhaps we are seeing here the seeds of a vision that will come to full bloom in the writings of the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55).
This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the pulpit without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.
There is a neat tie in with the psalm between “For the LORD Most High is to be feared: a great king over all the earth, who subdues the peoples under us, and the nations under our feet at Psalm 47:2-3 and “he has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet” in Ephesians 1:22. What is intriguing here is the tense of the verbs. Whereas the psalm uses a present tense indicating that the process of subduing the peoples is an ongoing task, the author of Ephesians uses a past tense indicating that subjection of all things to Christ is complete. Christ is over all “not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.” Vs. 21. To be sure, the world does not yet acknowledge Jesus as supreme over every rule, authority, power and dominion. Yet this mystery has been revealed to the church over which Jesus is head.
I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.
I believe I preached on this text three years ago when it last came up. Chances are I will again.
Luke must have believed the ascension to be an important piece of the Jesus narrative. Why else would he have told the story twice? This event is both the grand finale of Luke’s gospel and the springboard into the story of the early church in Acts. The two accounts are somewhat different, however. The gospel lesson has Jesus lifting up his hands and blessing his disciples-something Zachariah could not do at the beginning of the story because he was unable to speak. Jesus has now opened the channel of God’s blessing upon Israel and soon the tongues of the disciples will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy once again. I might be reading too much into the story of Zechariah and what I see as its relationship to the ascension account. But I think it is significant that Luke’s gospel begins and ends with blessing. It is also interesting that the gospel ends with the disciples being continually in the temple blessing God whereas it began with the people gathered at the temple to receive God’s blessing. Luke begins with Zechariah being rendered unable to speak God’s blessing. Acts begins with the disciples empowered to speak the gospel in every language under heaven. I am not altogether sure what to make of these suggestive correspondences, but I have a strong suspicion that Luke is up to something important here.
The disciples’ reaction to the ascension is markedly different in the gospel from what is described in the book of Acts. In the gospel, the disciples return from Bethany, the site of the ascension “with great joy.” In Acts, however, the disciples seem clueless and mystified. They are left dumbstruck, staring into the sky. An angel visitation is needed to clarify for them what just happened.
Another feature of Acts that does not appear in the gospel is the disciples’ question concerning the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The question indicates a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and precisely the sort of ethnocentric focus on a restored dynasty of David that Luke-Acts seems to be struggling against. But perhaps that is precisely why Luke opens his story of the church with Jesus dispelling such a notion. “Times and seasons” and the rise and fall of earthly nations should not be the concern of the disciples. Their concern should be for witnessing to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims.
In the gospel Jesus reminds his disciples how he has told them repeatedly that “everything written in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then the text goes on to say that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” I do wonder what this means. I would love to know how to “open minds.” A skill like that would make my job ever so much easier. But perhaps I am focusing too much on the present moment. After all, Jesus has been toiling for years to open the minds of his disciples. That the cork finally pops off at this moment does not change the fact that Jesus has been applying pressure to those chronically closed minds for his entire ministry. This opening, then, might not actually have been as instantaneous as first appears. Certainly the parallel account in Acts suggests that there is a good deal of opening yet to be done.
Everything written about Jesus in the” Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms” must be fulfilled. Jewish biblical scholars divided the Hebrew scriptures into three categories. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “writings,” the largest of which was the Psalms but also included Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther. This is perhaps another clue to what it means for one’s mind to be opened. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus.