Archive for May, 2014
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.
Yes, I know that the Ascension of our Lord falls on Thursday, May 29th. Nevertheless, to the consternation of my more liturgically astute colleagues, Trinity celebrates it on the last Sunday of Easter. At least that has been the case for the last six years of my pastorate here. I have always believed that Ascension, like Epiphany, is an essential episode in the story of our Lord. But my chances of pulling together enough worshipers to observe it on a Thursday are slim to none and you know who just left. Better to recognize the Ascension of our Lord on the wrong day than not at all. At least that is how I see it.
I must confess, though, that transitioning from John’s gospel to St. Luke is a little like leaping from a speeding train onto a merry-go-round. John has convinced me that the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the presence of the Resurrected Christ among his disciples. In Luke, of course, Jesus directs the disciples to “stay here in the city [Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49. That clothing with power from on high occurs in Acts 2:1-4 after a period of ten days during which the disciples engage in persistent prayer and select an apostolic successor to Judas. Acts 1:12-26. Luke’s sequence of events forms the basis of our liturgical year. Unfortunately for me, both Luke’s chronology and his theology have been undermined over the last four weeks by our readings from John. John could never have imagined a hiatus of fifty days between Jesus’ resurrection and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is as inseparable from Jesus as is the Father. So also Jesus is as inseparable from his disciples as from the Father. In John’s thinking, it is conceptually impossible for Jesus to depart from his disciples. Neither could Jesus be present to them as the resurrected Lord apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Try as you may, there is simply no harmonizing these two apostolic witnesses, chronologically or theologically. Maybe jumping off the liturgical Easter train was not such a good idea after all!
Still, despite the cognitive dissonance I have created for myself by abandoning the lectionary, I believe Luke’s witness must also be heard at this time. It is not quite enough to say that Jesus’ presence continues with his disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke would have us know that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father extends his presence to every corner of the universe. To say that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father is not to say that he is somewhere “beyond the blue” in glory land. It means rather that whatever God does, he does in and through Jesus. That is to say, we can no longer speak of God apart from God’s Son or speak of God’s acts apart from reference to Jesus. Every effort to understand God prior to, after or without Jesus ends in idolatry. That is why, when a disciple of Jesus picks up the Bible, s/he reads every word through the lens of Jesus. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand-even if it is built on a foundation of biblical passages.
This is why we can say categorically that God does not punish sexual sins with AIDS or destroy cities with hurricanes to punish abortion or cause the death of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to punish homosexuality. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament; God’s decisive “no” to retaliatory justice. If God’s right hand is Jesus, it must follow that God does not resort to violence; God does not retaliate; and God does not employ coercive force to get his way. That may be the way Caesar runs his empire, but it is not the way God reigns over the universe.
Herein lies the grounding for Christological pacifism. Jesus is God’s way of bringing about God’s reign. Jesus rejected all means of kingdom building through use of violence when he turned down the devil’s offer to give him the power and glory of all the world’s kingdoms. Jesus steadfastly refused to employ violence even in his own defense and would not allow his disciples to defend him with violence. The kingdom of God is worth dying for. But it ceases to be God’s kingdom when you believe you must kill for it. If using violent force to defend the life of God’s only beloved Son is not justified, when can the use of violence ever be justified?
Nonetheless, the myth of necessary violence has been so thoroughly ingrained in our psyches that we have a hard time imagining a world without it. Violence has permeated the entertainment media from cartoons to police dramas. The plot always seems to suggest that violent means are necessary to subdue violent people. We have been indoctrinated for generations into believing that peace can only be maintained through maintaining the ability and determination to kill. When Wayne LaPierre of NRA fame said that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he was only articulating a deeply held American cultural creed. Your survival, your security and your freedom depend on your willingness and ability to kill anyone who threatens you.
Sadly, the church has bought into that logic. Apart from our Anabaptist sisters and brothers, the church has for the most part lived a schizophrenic existence. We have confessed the prince of peace while blessing the wars of our host nations and glorifying the sacrifice of human lives made to the false god of national security. The theological stratagems we have constructed to justify our alliance with violence, the “just war theory, “two kingdoms” doctrine or “Christian realism,” are best understood as corporate psychic defense mechanisms enabling us to overcome this glaring contradiction. There is no better evidence of their failure than the psychological distress of so many returning veterans deeply scarred by all that they have experienced. Theological rationalizations for violence work just fine on the black board. On the battlefield where real people are called upon to hold together in heart and mind the conflicting commands to love the neighbor and kill the enemy, not so much.
Of course, we who call ourselves pacifists have no claim to moral superiority. We are just as vulnerable to the lure of violent conduct as everyone else. Violence is not limited to the threat or infliction of bodily harm. It includes any type of coercive action to compel, manipulate or intimidate another. We find this sort of violence all too often in the class room, in the board room, in the work place, in our churches and in our families. I am a violent man frequently tempted to resort to violent solutions. I get impatient with people who will not be persuaded to see things my way. No, I don’t own a gun or a pair of brass knuckles. But as a parent, attorney and pastor, I have learned to use the power of position to get what I want. That kind of violence can be just as hurtful and destructive as threatening someone with a weapon.
We are a violent people. Left to ourselves, we would devour each other. But Jesus reminds us that we have not been left to ourselves. We are not orphans. We have been called away from the violent reign of Caesar to abide under the gentle rule of Jesus, God’s tender and merciful right hand. This news is just too good to pass up. That is why I celebrate Ascension-even if I have to do it out of season.
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 1st 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. Paul will begin carrying the good news of Jesus Christ “to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8.
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 less than the more intimate presence of Jesus in and through the disciples. The miracle stories at the beginning of Acts are intended to illustrate how 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.
The acclimation, “The Lord is King,” seems to echo proclamations of kingship found in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g., “Absalom is king” (II Samuel 15:10) and “Jehu is King” (II Kings 9:13). This has led some scholars to conclude that this psalm was used in an annual festival, possibly Tabernacles, to enact or celebrate the kingship of Israel’s God. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 209. While plausible, this suggestion is speculative at best. It does appear nevertheless that the psalm is an enthronement liturgy sung at the Jerusalem temple to acclaim God’s reign over all the universe. Vs. 5.
Enthronement ceremonies are believed to have originated in Mesopotamia. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 617. Thus, scholars tend to date this psalm after the Babylonian Exile, viewing it as a liturgy for worship in the second Jerusalem temple. This reasoning is not conclusive, however. Because the enthronement liturgies were present in Mesopotamia centuries before the rise of the Babylonian empire and found their way into Canaanite religion at an early date, it is altogether possible that Israel borrowed this imagery from its Canaanite neighbors during the period of the monarchies or even before. Ibid. 618. In either case, the psalmist expresses the conviction that Israel’s God is enthroned triumphantly over the waters and so also over all sources of chaos, violence and injustice that threaten human life and community. Indeed, these chaotic forces are called upon to give praise to God as their master. Anderson, Bernhard, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 178.
The reference in verse 3 to “floods” rising up and “roaring” echoes the Babylonian creation myth in which the god, Marduk, battled and defeated the sea monster, Tiamat for supremacy. The waters generally and the ocean in particular are frequently symbolic of chaos, disorder and evil in ancient near eastern cultures. Moreover, Israel was not a seagoing people. Israelites feared the waters. The only seagoing Israelite in biblical history that comes to my mind is Jonah. We all know how that voyage ended! Yet as terrifying as the waters might be, they are no match for Israel’s God. As in the creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3, there is no hint of any struggle for supremacy. God has established the world and it shall never be moved. Vs. 1. His throne “is established from of old…from everlasting.” Vs. 2.
This psalm does not assert that Israel is immune from danger and harm. The foods have been an instrument of God’s wrath against human evil generally and Israel’s faithlessness also. Moreover, the very presence of the waters indicates an awareness of destructive and chaotic power within creation over which human beings have no control. Faithfulness to and faith in God are therefore required in order for human beings to live confidently on this dangerous planet.
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.
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.” Vs. 23. 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.
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 (Vs. 50)-something Zachariah could not do at the beginning of the story because he was unable to speak. Luke 1:21-22. Jesus has now re-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.” Vs. 54. 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. Acts 1:10-11.
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.” Vs. 44. Then the text goes on to say that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Vs. 45. 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 and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “writings,” the largest of which is the Psalms but also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II 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.
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to following the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
My first reaction to the kidnapping of two hundred school girls in northern Nigeria was anger. Actually, white hot rage would be a more apt description. Understand that I have daughters of my own. So this is personal. What sort of backwards, knuckle dragging, Neanderthal throwback would sell a girl child into slavery or prostitution for the mere crime of wanting an education? What sort of money grubbing, heartless, sociopath of an arms dealer thought it would be a good idea to put guns in the hands of these mindless ideologues? And what sort of people are we, the nations of the world, if we cannot at least agree that murdering children who only want to learn is wrong and take strong measures to see that this never happens again?
Now that I am through venting, I am left with a feeling of helplessness. Like everybody else, I feel that the government of Nigeria and that of my own country ought to do something to save these girls. I am far from sure, however, what to expect on that score. I am not convinced that sending more men with guns into a jungle already infested by men with guns will contribute to the safety or rescue of these girls. I would favor negotiating their release, but I fear that this may be a case in which there is no one among the kidnappers in a position to negotiate even if s/he were so inclined. It seems we are witnessing an act of gross injustice, cruelty and inhumanity-and there is not much we can do about it.
Israel was well acquainted with such circumstances. The experience of conquest, deportation and exile left Israel seemingly at a dead end. There was virtually no possibility of throwing off the Babylonian yolk; no possibility of returning to the promised land; no possibility even for worship, for “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Psalm 137:4. Israel’s response to this disaster was “lament,” a heartfelt pouring out of the wounded self to God. The psalm for this Sunday (Psalm 31) is a good example of this genre. The psalms of lament express the whole gambit of emotional responses to injustice. They, too, express white hot rage. “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Psalm 137:8-9. They question the faithfulness of God. “O God, why dost thou cast us off forever? Why does thy anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?” Psalm 74:1. “They give expression to hopelessness and despair. “For all our days pass away under thy wrath, our years come to an end like a sigh.” Psalm 90:9. Yet these laments are not just a lot of bitching and moaning. The mere fact that the psalmist feels it worthwhile to pray suggests that s/he is still possessed of hope for God’s saving intervention. However dark a picture the psalms of lament may paint, they always leave room for God to do something new and unexpected. Because Israel could never be convinced that God had given up on her, she could never bring herself to give up on God.
That is the sort of faith we need in the face of the Nigerian tragedy. Where our efforts, abilities and imagination end, we do not throw up our hands in despair. Instead, we pour out our anger, fear and sorrow to a God we believe sees beyond our limited capabilities-and we wait. Waiting upon the Lord, however, is not like Waiting for Godot. It requires the exercise of what Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “prophetic imagination.” In her laments, Israel frequently recited God’s saving acts of the past. See, e.g., Psalm 77:11-15. Of course, these recitations reminded Israel of God’s faithfulness and power to save. More significantly, however, they assisted her in looking imaginatively at her present context with an eye toward recognizing God’s saving activity on her behalf in the here and now. It was largely reflection upon God’s salvation for Israel narrated in Exodus that enabled the prophet of the latter section of Isaiah to recognize in Babylon’s fall to Persia a new act of salvation. The prophet saw in this event, not merely a change of imperial control, but a new Exodus. Just as God had once paved the way from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan, so now God was at work in the clash of empires opening a window of opportunity for Israel’s return from exile to that same land of promise. The prophet’s proclamation of this vision convinced Israel that God was making a new start with her and giving her yet another chance to live faithfully under the covenant in the land of Canaan. Ultimately, the seemingly impossible happened. Jerusalem and its temple were rebuilt.
So as hopeless as the condition of the Nigerian school girls might seem, we know that things are always more than what they seem. We need to leave room for another Exodus miracle. We need to think less practically and strategically and more imaginatively and prophetically. In short, we need to lament. So let us pray for these girls. As fragile and vulnerable as they are, I have no doubt that they have inner resources, wells of wisdom and strength of character to see them through the most difficult of times. May God’s Spirit help them tap into these resources that they might thrive even in the darkness of their captivity. Furthermore, the girls’ captors are, after all, people made in the image of God. However wounded and twisted their souls may have become, they cannot erase that image. They cannot drive pity, compassion and empathy altogether from their hearts. So let us set aside our natural feelings of outrage and pray for these children of God, that they may recover that wonderful image in which they were made. Let us pray that God might yet turn their hearts from evil to compassion. Let us pray for the leaders of Nigeria and all the nations seeking to bring this crisis to an end. Save them from tunnel vision that so often leads to rash and misguided action. Give them the gifts of patience, imagination and wisdom that they may know both their own limitations and God’s limitless ability to create new opportunities for salvation, justice and peace. Let us pray for, dream about and imagine a new Exodus for these girls and for all girls throughout the world caught in the jaws of injustice.
This account of the execution or, more accurately, the lynching of Stephen is the concluding episode to a much longer narrative reported in full at Acts 6:1-Acts 8:1. Stephen is one of seven individuals appointed to oversee the distribution of food to “widows” within the Jerusalem church community. As Professor Gerd Ludemann points out, “Many pious Jews settled in Jerusalem in the evening of their lives in order to be buried in the holy city. Therefore the care of their widows was a problem which came up frequently.” Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1987 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pub. by Fortress Press) p. 74. Thus, the church’s practice of providing for its widows had Jewish antecedents. Oddly, however, Stephen seems occupied not with such mundane administrative work but rather with “doing great wonders and signs among the people” and disputing with representatives of the “synagogue of the freedman.” Acts 6:8-10. Stephen’s arguments enrage his opponents who bring him before the Jewish high council on charges of blasphemy. His lengthy defense recorded in Acts 7:1-53 so inflames the anger of those present at the hearing that they drag him outside of the city and stone him to death. Stephen dies with a prayer for their forgiveness on his lips. As a consequence of this event, a great persecution arises against the church in Jerusalem scattering the disciples throughout all of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:2. But so far from silencing the church, the persecution results in the spread of the gospel and the continued growth of the church. “Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Acts 8:4. This is the context of our reading.
Stoning was the punishment of choice for idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7); human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5);prophesying in the name of foreign gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5);divination (Leviticus 20:27); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16);Sabbath breaking (Numbers 15:32-36);adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24); and disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In 1st Century Judaism the sentence of stoning was rarely imposed and then only after strict legal procedural requirements were satisfied. The punishment could be administered only upon the testimony of two competent witnesses. Between twenty-three and seventy-one judges were required to adjudicate such a capital case, depending upon the offense. A simple majority was required to sustain a verdict. It does not appear that these procedures were observed in the case of Stephen whose death looks much more like the fruit of mob violence than a judicially ordered execution. Stoning, it should be noted, remains a legal form of judicial punishment in Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria (in one-third of the country’s states), Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In actual practice, however, stoning is usually carried out by vigilantes or violent mobs.
This text gives us a look into the anatomy of violence. The whole incident begins with a dispute in which Stephen’s opponents find themselves frustrated in their attempts to persuade him that his arguments are wrongheaded. Unable to meet Stephen’s arguments, they resort to attacks on his character. They call him a blasphemer and bring him before the council. But Stephen continues to press his point until his enemies are so enraged that they actually plug their ears against his reasoning. Predictably, they finally resort to violence. Violence is the last desperate attempt of a frustrated debater to silence an opponent whose arguments he cannot meet. It is what happens when we run out of words.
By contrast, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, mirroring Jesus’ prayer in Luke’s passion narrative. Luke 23:34. As the first Christian martyr whose death is recorded in the New Testament, Stephen’s witness has inspired and shaped faithful witness to Jesus in the face of persecution throughout the generations. It reinforces my long held conviction that non-violence is not a peripheral virtue, but a central tenant of the gospel witness. There are things worth dying for, but according to Jesus, nothing is worth killing for. In the face of violent persecution, the church’s duty is to die-as did its Lord.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-8.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 9-18
- Expression of confidence, vss. 19-20
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 21-24.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. For further comment on this psalm generally and my disparaging remarks about the common lectionary’s ruthless disembowelment of it, see my comment of April 13th.
Verse 5 parallels both Stephen’s dying prayer in Acts 7:59 and that of Jesus in Luke 23:46. Ultimately, the psalms leave the execution of justice in the hands of God. While the psalmists can be quite explicit in their desire to see vengeance upon their enemies (See, e.g., Psalm 137), they nevertheless leave its implementation in the hands of the Lord where it rightly belongs. Pacifism is not a creation of the New Testament, but the human embodiment of the heart and mind belonging to the same God lifted up in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“Thou art my God; my times are in your hands.” Vs. 14. Verses like this are the source of both comfort and consternation. The verse seems to say that my life is in God’s hands. If I know God as merciful, compassionate and intimately involved with me, that should be comforting. It is when times are good and I know who to thank for it. The problem is that I must then account for God’s management in times that are not so good, even terrible and tragic. Some deal with this by suggesting that God sends trials to strengthen and instruct us. There is a degree of plausibility in that approach. Who of us would deny that the most valuable lessons in life are learned through facing challenges, overcoming difficulties and working through problems? Even the most horrible circumstances can (though they don’t always) make us stronger, wiser and more mature. But do we really want to say that God sends sexual predators to molest children so that they can grow through the experience? Not me!
Some theologians deal with this problem by arguing that God does not micromanage creation. God sets up the universe with certain parameters, natural laws and creaturely limitations and then graciously gives us our freedom to live and make our own independent choices. We are, of course, responsible for the choices we make. Some of those choices lead to tragic results. Of course, God is not a detached watchmaker whose task ends when the watch is completed, set and wound up. God is not indifferent to all that takes place on this planet. In fact, God is deeply grieved by events such as genocide, natural disasters and epidemics. But God does not intervene or only intervenes to let us know that he feels our pain. That might make God less of a villain in the eyes of some, but I am not convinced that having a distant and grossly neglectful parent is much better than having an abusive one.
It seems to me that if we are to get out of this conundrum, we need to think differently about God’s power and God’s saving intervention. In some respects, God gave up being almighty as soon as God spoke the word, “Let there be.” Like a child conceived in love, the creation makes a claim upon its Creator. As soon as there is something or someone that is not God, God is not “omnipotent” in the sense that God is the only power there is (though it is proper to say that God is omnipotent in the sense that God is a potent force in every circumstance). Just as a child grows in complexity and variability, so also creation and its human inhabitants exercise growing potential-for good and evil. This presents God with a choice: 1) that of exercising coercive power to compel creation to comply with God’s desire for it; or 2) that of exercising persuasive power through continuous acts of faithfulness and expressions of love. What God wants is for his creatures to love him as he loves them and to trust him. That is the kingdom in which God would have us live. But God cannot get that result by coercing us. God will not reign over us as a Caesar on steroids. If God cannot implement his reign through love, God will not reign.
I believe this is what Paul has in mind when he insists that the “weakness” of God is in reality the power of God. See I Corinthians 1:18-31. God’s power is God’s refusal to be drawn into the cycle of violence to which coercive force always leads. Rightly understood, divine power is not the ability to “make the kingdom happen,” but the patience to continue loving, forgiving and inviting us into the kingdom in the face of all our hostility to it. The power of Jesus’ disciples is the conviction, borne of God’s own conviction and demonstration through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, that love outlasts violence. The weakness of God (which is in reality God’s strength) is the patience of Christ’s Body living under the peaceful reign of God in a violent world. Suffering, loss and even martyrdom are not the exceptions, but the rule for disciples of Jesus. To be in God’s hands is to take up the cross through which God reigns.
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk.” Vs. 2. This is a profoundly feminine image of God the mother, feeding and nurturing her children with “pure spiritual milk.” The disciple is as dependent upon Jesus as a newborn living on its mother’s milk. The image of the “living stone” follows immediately thereafter with an allusion (made quite specific further on) to Psalm 118:22. Like a stone rejected by builders which later turns out to be the cornerstone of the structure, so Jesus is the rejected Messiah who turns out to be the cornerstone of the new age. Attention then turns to the disciples who as “living stones” are built into a “spiritual house.” Vs. 5. This image then gives way to that of “a holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Vs. 5. Unpacking all of this is a daunting task.
The stone is a double image. For the faithful, it is a pillar of strength and, as our psalmist observed, “a rock of refuge.” Psalm 31:2. For unbelievers, however, the rock is a source of stumbling. Vs. 8 citing Isaiah 8:14-15. Even a rock that makes one stumble can be the occasion of salvation, however. If you are running head long down the path of self-destruction, tripping on a stone and landing flat on your face is the best thing that can happen to you.
Verses 9-10 apply to this Christian community in Asia Minor a laundry list of honorary titles for Israel taken from Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. Yet this church, whose composition is significantly if not predominantly gentile, is reminded that she comes into the heritage of Israel by the gracious invitation extended to her through Jesus. “Once you were no people; but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Vs. 10. Of course, this message is even more urgent and essential for the 21st Century church that is all but exclusively gentile!
This reading is a frequent sermon text at funerals. Jesus’ assurance that there are many rooms in his Father’s house and that he goes there to prepare a place for his disciples is a powerful and comforting image for all who face the loss of a loved one. Those of us who cut our biblical teeth on the King James Version of the Bible will recall that the word for “room” (mone) is there translated “mansion.” The actual meaning of “mone” is far more modest and thus the RSV rendering of that word merely as “room.” This should not detract from the magnitude of the promise, however. Jesus is offering far more than real estate here. He is promising to make a place for us in the Father’s household. That has ramifications not only for the hereafter, but for the here and now. Eternal life begins now as the disciples begin to believe in Jesus’ promises and shape their lives according to that belief. As St. Augustine puts it, “[Jesus] prepares the dwelling places by preparing those who are to dwell in them.” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Tractate LXVIII, 1, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 322.
Jesus makes the remarkable claim that his disciple’s know the way where he is going. Vs. 4. Understandably, Thomas objects that he and his fellow disciples do not know the way. Vs. 5. Jesus replies that he is the way. Vs. 6. What the disciples do not yet understand is that Jesus “going away” is not a separation from them, but the porthole to a deeper intimacy and more profound presence. The coming of the “advocate” or Holy Spirit will initiate the oneness between Jesus and his disciples for which he prays in John 17. “The answer given by Jesus [to Thomas] articulates the high Christology of the fourth evangelist. It is not the case that Jesus is ‘away’ from the Father, and must therefore find and tread the way to him; he is the way himself: it is not the case that there is a truth about the Father which Jesus must learn and then pass on; he is the truth himself: it is not the case that the Father has eternal life which he will give to the Son when the Son reaches his home, so the Son can then bestow life; he is the life himself. And no other approach to the Father can be made than the one which has been opened in the incarnation of the eternal Word.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 504.
In what I imagine must have been a tone of utter exasperation, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” Vs. 8. Jesus replies that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. Vs. 9. This is a remarkable statement and one that should shatter every notion we have about who and what God is. Jesus, who will soon surrender without resistance to the temple police and die helplessly on the cross is all there is of God to see. There is nothing more, nothing hidden inside or concealed. What you see is what you get. Yet this Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Vs. 6.
It should be clear by now that in declaring himself the “way, the truth and the life,” Jesus is letting his disciples know 1) that his departure is in fact the prelude to his return in a fuller, more robust presence among his disciples than they have known throughout their days of following him on the way to the cross; 2) that the way to the Father is through fellowship with him soon to be had through the coming of the “advocate.” The message of Ascension is on the horizon here. Jesus’ ascending to the right hand of the Father is his coming to fill all creation with the fullness of God. The last supper is not Jesus’ going away party.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This coming Sunday is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. It is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Easter by all of us who follow the common lectionary. The name derives from the gospel lesson taken from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel in which Jesus speaks of himself as the “Good Shepherd.” Jesus also warns us of “imposters,” “thieves” and “robbers” who would snatch the sheep from the safety of the fold or lead them away under false pretenses. It is for this reason that I have never been entirely comfortable with the title “pastor,” which translates into plain English as “shepherd.” In fact, I am not the shepherd of my congregation. I don’t know where the good pasture is or where to find the still waters. I cannot protect the members of my church from temptations to unbelief and I certainly cannot lead them through the valley of the shadow of death-never having been through it myself. By calling myself a “pastor,” am I not usurping a title that rightly belongs to Jesus alone? Am I not misrepresenting myself when I present myself as a shepherd while, in fact, I am only another sheep?
Much is being said and written these days about “pastoral leadership.” Much of this literature sounds a note of urgency bordering on panic. The steady decline in membership among our churches and the indifference of the younger generations to religion in general and the church in particular foreshadows the end of Christianity as we know it. The operational term is “as we know it.” I have no doubt that there will always be a faithful flock following the Good Shepherd. But in all honesty, I do not know what that flock will look like. I lack a “vision of the church in the 21st Century.” That, according to many denominational leaders, pundits and church growth consultants makes me a defective leader. Guilty as charged. I know not what the immediate future holds for the church. I cannot imagine what the church will look like ten years from now. I only know that Jesus has given the church a kingdom; invites her to live in that kingdom now under the sign of the cross; and promises to remain with her until that kingdom comes in its fullness and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. Like the sheep dog, I do my best to keep the flock together around the Good Shepherd. That is about the extent of my leadership.
My own denomination (Lutheran) is forever challenging its pastors to lead their churches in developing “mission statements,” “strategic mission plans” and “visions for mission.” Having worked for some time in the environment of corporate America, I cannot help but observe that these injunctions echo those of the consultants that swarm like flies to carrion around the headquarters of failing businesses. You can always tell that the company you work for is about to fold 1) when you see the motivational posters going up in the halls; 2) when you start receiving questionnaires designed to measure your moral; 3) when you start over hearing buzz words like “focus group,” “mission statement,” “core values.” There is a well-known saying in the business world: “The consultant is the last straw grasped by a company with one foot in bankruptcy court and the other on a banana peel.”
I don’t mean to slam all business consultants or discount the value of their services. Consultants often provide important insights, guidance and direction to businesses seeking to expand their services/product lines, improve their efficiency or grow their markets. They can assist growing businesses in focusing their growth in sustainable and healthy directions. In short, a knowledgeable consultant can help a strong company become even stronger. But no consultant can save a business that has lost its sense of direction, no longer believes in its products/services and cannot see beyond its own frantic need for self-preservation. A business that needs someone from the outside to come in and give it a mission is already terminal. How much more so a church!
I believe the lessons for this Sunday challenge us to think differently about leadership, vision and mission. We are challenged to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd through the din of all the other voices beckoning us to follow them. We are challenged to trust the Good Shepherd who alone knows where to find safe pasture and quiet waters, the flip side being that we are called to ignore the many voices suggesting to us that our survival depends on what we do to feed, protect and care for ourselves. We are invited to share freely all that we have to care for one another and witness to God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus. If I am reading these texts correctly, “tis more blessed to follow than to lead.”
I believe the church leads best when it follows faithfully. Communities shaped by attention to preaching, participation in Eucharist, study of the scriptures, constant prayer and the practice of generous giving cannot help becoming faithful witnesses and missionaries. Communities following Jesus through these faithful practices can no more suppress the light of Christ in their midst than hide a city built on a hill top. Our lesson from Acts makes this very point: “The[ believers] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42–47. Let the Good Shepherd lead and let us strive to become good followers!
Like Acts 4:32-35 and Acts 5:12-16 this passage gives us what some would call an “idyllic picture” of the early church. See Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M. The Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1964 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 31. Indeed, there is a tendency among mainline commentators to dismiss this description of the church’s communal existence as Lukan embellishment intended to inspire rather than reflect historical reality. The Anabaptist tradition, however, has taken these texts quite seriously. Hutterite, Amish, Amana and Bruderhof communities have, each in their own way, put into practice the vision of communal life set forth in the Book of Acts. These countercultural movements are often criticized in mainline circles for their clannishness, lack of engagement with the outside world and parochialism. Yet one cannot help but observe that these mainline criticisms of the Anabaptists sound suspiciously similar to criticisms Jesus warned his disciples to expect from the world-precisely because they do not belong to the world. John 15:19. There is nothing more repugnant and threatening to any society than a community within it that does not share its values, priorities and loyalties. Witness Roman imperial culture’s discomfort with the early church and Christendom’s fear of and hostility toward the Jews. Maybe we mainliners are uncomfortable with the communal Anabaptist groups because they remind us just how thoroughly indistinguishable we are from the rest of society at large. We are fond of touting as a virtue the fact that one “doesn’t wear his/her religion on his/her sleeve,” which is another way of saying that you would never guess that s/he was a Christian if you didn’t ask. Does anyone besides me see a problem with that?
A pastor participating in an online discussion I look in on occasionally recently commented on the perennial conflict between children’s sports events and Sunday morning worship. This pastor suggested that, rather than sitting in a church building and insisting that people come to us, we need to bring church to where the people are. Her specific suggestion was that the church hold a brief worship service on the soccer field prior to the game for all who desire to worship, but do not want to pull their children out of the game. I have no doubt this suggestion was made in the spirit of the great commission with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether making discipleship easier, less costly and more convenient is a faithful path for us to be following. Do we gain anything by continually downsizing the call of discipleship to fit within the ever shrinking gaps in our increasingly busy schedules? The early church called upon its members to give up their lives for the sake of Jesus’ name. Now we cannot bring ourselves to ask them to forfeit a soccer game! If we don’t believe seeking Jesus in the breaking of the bread is worth a soccer game, is it at all surprising that we cannot convince anyone else that church is at all worthwhile?
It is worth noting that, as outsiders viewed the community in the second chapter of Acts, “Awe came upon everyone…” and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Vs 43 and vs. 47. I believe that there are many people out there looking for an alternative to the shallow existence our culture of death offers us. The problem is, they simply are not seeing that alternative in the church. We have become so preoccupied with marketing the gospel at fire sale prices to folks who don’t care that we have obscured its lure from the eyes of those who do. Perhaps it is time for us mainliners to take a second look at our lesson from Acts.
This psalm came up last in the lectionary on March 30th. I refer you to my post of that date for my general comments. Specific to its meaning for this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, I note that sheep are not pets and they are not given the protection of the shepherd because they are cute and cuddly. Inevitably, the shepherd will call upon them to give up their lives-just as he puts his life in jeopardy for their sake. The church cannot read this psalm without recognizing the prospect of martyrdom on the horizon. There is no room for sentimentality when preaching on this psalm or any depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Our familiarity with this psalm can blind us to its discordant images, namely, the shepherd who cares for the sheep and the host who practices hospitality to strangers. In this regard, Professor Bernard W. Anderson has observed: “This problem begins to resolve itself when we project ourselves imaginatively out of our industrial milieu into the pastoral way of life which still prevails in some parts of the world today. The shepherd can be portrayed from two standpoints. He is the protector of the sheep as they wander in search of grazing land. Yet he is also the protector of the traveler who finds hospitality in his tent from the dangers and enemies of the desert. Even today the visitor to certain parts of the Middle East can see the scene that lies at the basis of this psalm: the black camel’s hair tent where the traveler receives Bedouin hospitality, and the surrounding pastureland where the sheep graze under the protection of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, Yahweh is portrayed as the Shepherd in both aspects of the shepherd’s life: as the Leader of the flock, and as the hospitable Host.” Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 208.
St. Augustine’s truly delightful treatment of this psalm as a paradigm of discipleship wherein Christ accompanies the believer from baptism into eternal life is well worth reading.
The lectionary folks, in their paternalistic wisdom, have excised verse 18 from the text so that the congregation hearing this reading would never guess that the admonition to suffer patiently is given to slaves of abusive masters. Granted, this is a problematic text. I wouldn’t blame the architects of the lectionary for leaving it out altogether. But ripping it from its context and making it appear to say something quite other than what it says is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie.
I plan to stay away from this lesson. If I were going to preach on it, however, I would lay my emphasis on verse 19: “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” Mindful, that is to say, of the God of the Exodus. In this context, submission must be taken merely is non-retaliatory. The slave is not called upon to accept slavery. God does not approve slavery, much less abuse of slaves. Yet the struggle for liberation lies in faithful witness to a reign of God not yet complete. Such witness invariably involves suffering. The flip side of recognizing the humanity of the slave is the slave’s recognition of the humanity of the master. In the reign of God, the last are first and the first last. Still, even one who finishes last still finishes. Liberation, not retaliation is the goal.
Finally, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.
In the prior chapter, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.
Jesus employs the image of a sheepfold where several flocks of sheep are lodged for the night. In the morning, the true shepherd can enter and call out his sheep who will follow him as they recognize his voice. Marsh, John, Saint John, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1968 John Marsh, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 395. Jesus is therefore setting out his claim to be the true shepherd of the people of God. Unlike the coercive power exercised by the religious authorities to keep the sheep in line, Jesus draws his sheep by the sound of his voice which is immediately recognized as genuine. He has no need to employ threats to drive them on. His sheep acknowledge him as their Shepherd and follow him willingly. This image of the shepherd has deep scriptural roots. It is applied throughout the Old Testament both to Israel’s kings and her God. See, e.g. Jeremiah 23:1-8; Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23; Psalm 80.
It is passing strange, then, that Jesus should switch from this familiar and powerful shepherd metaphor to that of the “door of the sheep” in the interest of clarity. For my money, the shepherd image is much easier to comprehend than that of the door. Vss. 1-6. Yet Jesus goes on to distinguish himself from the thieves and robbers who came before him by calling himself a “door.” If the door retains its meaning from vs 2, i.e., the recognized entrance through whom only authorized persons can pass, then this reference to “thieves” and “robbers” could be taken as a) a reference to the leaders of the synagogue that reject the Jesus movement; or b) a warning for the disciples to beware of anyone coming into the church by another name such as false teachers. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 388. It should also be noted that messianic pretenders prior to Jesus had been characterized both by the Romans and the leaders of the post 70 A.D. Jewish community as “robbers” or “brigands.” Ibid. p. 387. That characterization does not seem to fit the context here, however.
The meaning of the term “door” seems to have changed from verse 2 in verses 7-10. In the latter verses the door is not the entrance through which the shepherd comes to call the sheep, but the door through which the sheep go to find pasture. The door, then, serves a double purpose. It is protective of the flock in that it screens out the thieves and robbers who would harm the sheep. It is also the opening out into good pasture through which the sheep may pass. For what it is worth, one commentator observes that in some Middle Eastern grazing areas it is the custom for the shepherd to sleep in front of the sheep door, his body serving as a barrier to any sheep that might otherwise wander out. Bishop, E.F., “The Door of the Sheep-John 10:7-9,” 71 Expository Times (1959-60) pp. 307-09. That would give concrete expression to Jesus’ saying that the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” Vs. 11 (not included in the reading). But whether that practice existed in the first century or whether this is what Jesus actually meant is anyone’s guess.
Professor Raymond Brown suggests that the change of metaphors comes about as a result of Jesus’ change of emphasis. Verses 1-3a concern the way the Good Shepherd (as opposed to impostors) approaches the sheep. Consequently, the emphasis is on the gate. Verses 3b-5 concern the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep and so focus on the shepherd. Brown, op cit. 395. I think that for preaching I will focus either on the “door” or on the “shepherd.” Mixing these two metaphors seems to have confused the dickens out of Jesus’ original hearers. If Jesus couldn’t make this work, there is a good chance it will prove rough sledding for me as well.