Archive for April, 2015
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
There is a lot of dead wood in the American Church, both literally and figuratively. Let’s start with the former. We are up to our neck in real estate occupied by structures that no longer speak to who we are or further the ministry of Jesus. Most of our church buildings are anachronisms. They are lofty structures often occupying central places in the public square testifying to a time when the church was a pillar of the community. These were buildings designed not to welcome, but to impress. Many of them are large, cavernous, with high ceilings and remote altars. They were made to house the masses and are ill equipped to provide meaningful worship for a couple dozen people on a Sunday. These church buildings are old and in need of constant repair. They drain the dwindling resources of the congregations that worship in them. Rather than bringing the good news of Jesus to the world, congregations often find themselves working feverishly to maintain a shrine to the dead, honoring the memory of all whose names are engraved on every window, wall and piece of furniture.
Perhaps even more insidious than the church’s edifice complex is its stubborn attachment to ecclesiastical structures that no longer further its mission. I will be blunt here. Pastors are no more eager to let go of our career paths, pensions and benefits than Myrtle Hendricks is eager to see the sanctuary in which she was baptized, confirmed, married and hopes to be buried put up for sale. Seminary professors holding the laurel of tenure are not about to put it on the line. Prominent church leaders, whose egos are deeply invested in the programs and institutions they helped to build and develop, will fight to keep the ecclesiastical machinery going whether it serves the gospel well or not.
Finally, there is still theology and practice floating around in our church that is at best antiquated and at worst rotten to the core. Thankfully, we are beginning to dump some of it. In the case of my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our decisions of 1999 to welcome and fully include gay, lesbian and transgendered folks into the life of the church was long overdue. Also overdue is a critical look at our seeming acceptance of late stage capitalism as a benign arrangement needing only a tweak here and there to achieve justice; a re-examination of our “Two Kingdom” doctrine justifying complicity with war; and our practice of church as voluntary organization serving the interests of the social order.
This is all good news, by the way. It is good news because Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Because we are tied into Jesus, we are not going to die. But we are about to get pruned. Jesus promises that his heavenly Father will prune every branch that bears fruit so that it may bear more fruit. Getting pruned is not fun. If you have ever seen a tree or a vine pruned back to a tenth of what it once was, you get the idea. I suspect God’s pruning is going to hurt like hell. But at the end of the day, God will have a renewed church, exactly the church God wants and needs. That is why I say repeatedly that this is a wonderful age in which to be the church.
In our first lesson for this morning, Philip is instructed to “go toward the south…from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Vs. 26. This fits nicely with Luke’s overall story of the gospel’s spread from “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. Having begun in Jerusalem and having spread north to Samaria, the good news of Jesus Christ now travels south to meet a representative from the southern “ends of the earth,” namely, Ethiopia. As is common throughout Luke-Acts, this instruction to Philip comes from an angel of the Lord. Vs. 26. (See also, Luke 1:11-28; Luke 2:8-21; Acts 5:17-21; Acts 12:6-17).
The Ethiopian Eunuch poses a seemingly simple question to Philip: “What is to prevent my being baptized?” Vs. 36. But it’s not such a simple question at all. There are plenty of arguments to be made against baptism in this case. In the first place, this man is a eunuch. His testicles have been cut off, probably at birth, to make him fit for government office under the monarchy. That was a big problem for baptizing this Ethiopian into the renewed, Israel, the Body of Jesus. According to the scriptures, “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.” So says Deuteronomy 23:1. So there you have it. This Ethiopian fellow is a sexual deviant. He is an “abomination” and must be excluded. That the Ethiopian probably did not choose to be a eunuch is beside the point. The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.
Of course, the Bible has more to say about eunuchs. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah declares:
“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”Isaiah 56:3-8.
Clearly, the Bible demonstrates changing views on “uncleanness,” “abomination” and who is included among God’s people. I cannot overemphasize that the Bible is a collection of many words, many voices and many perspectives. One cannot simply cherry pick the voice one fancies and ignore all the others. Moreover, the authoritative voice for disciples of Jesus is that of their master. Jesus Christ is the lens through which Scripture is read in order to hear properly God’s Word to us in the here and now.
The other obstacle to baptism is that this fellow is an outsider. Though he probably is of Jewish heritage (he wouldn’t be reading the Jewish scriptures if he weren’t), he was one of those “Diaspora” Jews, an ancestor of one of the thousands who fled Palestine after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. His ancestors were not among those who left everything in order to return to Palestine when the opportunity arose following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great. His family was not among those who made the dangerous trek across what is now the Iraqi desert to resettle a land that was still in ruins and occupied by hostile, warring tribes. This Ethiopian’s lineage was not represented among those Jews who fought a fierce and bloody war for survival and independence against the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd Century B.C.E. He did not live in Jerusalem or pay the exorbitant taxes required to support the temple and its priesthood. He only came to worship on high feast days like Passover and Pentecost.
This Ethiopian is a lot like those members of your church that you only see on Christmas and Easter. They tell you all about how their parents were staunch members of this church, how they were baptized and confirmed in the church and how much their church means to them-and then they disappear for another year. And you want to say to them, “Where were you in November when the rest of us made a pledge of financial commitment to the mission and ministry of this church? Where were you when the council was meeting down in the undercroft until late into the night hammering out a budget for the coming year? Where were you when the basement flooded and we were all bailing like mad? By what right do you call yourself a member? By what right do you claim the cleansing waters of baptism?
I don’t know if questions like these were going through Philip’s mind when the Ethiopian asked him what was there to prevent his being baptized. But the Bible does tell us what Philip and the Ethiopian were talking about as that chariot made its way through the wilderness in Gaza. Philip was telling the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. Jesus, we know, had no scruples about including among his disciples people on the margins of polite society. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus laid his hands upon unclean corpses. Jesus shared a table with tax collectors and outcasts. So whatever reservations Philip may have had about baptizing this Ethiopian Eunuch, they were overcome by the good news coming from his own lips. At the end of the day, Philip simply could not see any obstacle between Jesus’ love and this man who needed it. The Spirit of Jesus broke the logjam of objections, prejudices, traditions and deeply held beliefs that stood between this Ethiopian outsider and the good news he so much needed to hear.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at verse 25. Verse 22b marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
“God is Love.” John Wesley has noted that “[t]his little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.” Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Indeed, love is the heart of God’s being, the unifying force holding the church together and the power by which the world is overcome. But this love is no abstract principle. As noted by one commentator:
“It is important not to confuse this dynamic of love with the sentimentality that passes for love in our culture. What is affirmed here makes our customary talk of love sound thin and gaseous by comparison. The kind of love initially regarded as sacrificial love (as in John3:16) has assumed awesome dimensions here. For one thing, love is regarded as constitutive for the community of believers. If we do not love, we cannot know God—which is like saying that without oxygen we would not be able to breathe. Having initially drawn breath, though, we are obliged to continue breathing and acting in love. Loving one another is mentioned several times in this text. We recognize it as something we do because we have first been loved by God.” Brusic, Robert M., “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season,” Word & World, (c. 1997 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) pp. 217-218.
God’s love is expressed concretely in the sending of his Son to “abide” among us. Vss. 10, 15. That term “abide,” which is critical both for the letters and the gospel of Saint John, makes clear that the sending of the Son was not an event fixed in the past. God has been sending his Son for as long as God has been speaking through the prophets. But when that Word became “enfleshed,” and came to “tabernacle” among us, God’s desire from the foundation of the world became complete. John 1:14. It cannot be over-emphasized that the Incarnation was not a temporary state for God. When God became human, God remained human and henceforth will always be human. Only so can God abide among us such that God is our God and we are God’s people. See Revelation 21:5-8. Though perfected in the age to come, this “abiding” begins even now within the community of disciples whose love for one another reflects the love God has for the Son and the love God demonstrates toward God’s people.
The Gospel of John, and even more John’s letters, have been criticized for their concentration of love within the community of the faithful. The missionary emphasis is lacking, it is claimed. But such a conclusion can only flow from a very superficial reading of John. As we saw from last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus has sheep that do not yet belong to his fold and need to be brought in so that there will be “one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16. The whole purpose of the oneness of the disciples in love is “so that the world may believe that you [God] have sent me [Jesus].” John 17:23. Disciples of Jesus are called to be a countercultural community that testifies to an alternative way of being human. A community that lives the Sermon on the Mount is far more transformative than one trying to preach it into legislation, social action and reform of the existing order. Saint Augustine also recognized the outward thrust of John’s letters in his homilies: “Extend thy love to them that are nearest, yet do not call this an extending: for it is almost loving thyself, to love them that are close to thee. Extend it to the unknown, who have done thee no ill. Pass even them: reach on to love thine enemies. This at least the Lord commands.” Homily 8, St. Augustine, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
“Perfect love casts out all fear.” Vs. 18. I would be rich if I had a quarter for every time I heard a preacher say “I fear.” “I fear for our teenagers and the pressures they face…” “I fear for the future of our children…” “I fear for our church in the coming decades…” I am as cognizant as anyone of the dangers we encounter, the temptations in front of us and the challenges we face both as believers and simply as human beings. Prudence and caution are always warranted, but fear must never be part of the equation. Whenever we go into survival mode, we invariably make foolish, faithless and shortsighted decisions that bite us in the end. If the universe is the creation of a God whose determination to bring it to perfection is demonstrated by God’s “putting his own skin in the game,” sending his only begotten Son to abide with us at the cost of his crucifixion, then there is no room for fear. We cannot lose this game. We can only forfeit our opportunity to play on the winning team for fear of getting dirty, beat up and sore.
The Hebrew Scriptures frequently employ the “vine” metaphor in speaking about Israel. See Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6; Psalm 80:8-16; Jeremiah 2:21; Jeremiah 6:9; Jeremiah 12:10-13; Ezekiel 15:1-8; Ezekiel 17:5-10; Ezekiel 19:10-14; Hosea 10:1-2; Hosea 14:7. That being the case, one might expect Jesus to say that “we” or “you” are the vine inasmuch as the community of disciples represents the renewal of Israel. Instead, Jesus employs the “I am” construction seen throughout the gospel calling himself the vine. One might argue, as some commentators have, that the metaphor is problematic because its use is principally associated with judgment upon Israel’s failures. Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John (c. 1991 by Eerdmans) p. 513. The image fits nicely into John’s incarnational thought, however. “[I]t is a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” Brown, Raymond, E., The Gospel According to John XIII –XXI, The Anchor Bible (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 670. The indwelling Spirit of the resurrected Christ will animate the community of faith through which the ministry of Jesus will continue. Like the vine to which all branches cling and from which they derive their sustenance, Jesus is the source of life and power to which the disciples must cling.
The disciples are branches whose life and fruit bearing capacity depend on their connection to the vine. Apart from the vine, the branches can do nothing. Vs. 4. Again, the key term “abide” is used to emphasize the indwelling of Jesus among his disciples. Vs. 4. Abiding in Christ is a life and death matter. Branches that do not “abide” in the vine wither, die and must be burned. By contrast, fruitful branches are pruned in order to make them more fruitful still. Vs. 2.
What does Jesus mean by saying that his Father is glorified as the disciples “bear much fruit” and so “prove” that they are his disciples? Clearly, the chief fruit is love among the disciples. Indeed, it is by their love for one another that the disciples will be known as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. This love, however, is not a passive emotion. Because the Spirit of Jesus is at work inspiring love among his disciples, they will do not only the works Jesus has done during his ministry, but even “greater works than these.” John 14:12. As God’s alternative humanity, the church will invariably collide with the old system of loveless domination and exploitation. This is a community that has been sent into the world just as Jesus was sent into the world. John 20:21. Because a servant is not above his master, the disciples can expect the same resistance and rejection Jesus receives. John 15:20. The cross is the shape love invariably takes in the midst of a sinful world.
Stanley Hauerwas has often said that the church is a people whose lives are incomprehensible apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus says much the same thing later on in the chapter.
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19If you belonged to the world,* the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19.
Of course, the world has many good reasons for hating Christians that have nothing to do with faithfulness to Jesus. The degree to which we are not liked is a poor barometer by which to measure the effectiveness of our witness. Nonetheless, we ought to be somewhat concerned at the ease with which the church has been able to fit into the Americana landscape over the last couple of centuries. If the church’s life and ministry would look just as sensible if we were to dismiss Jesus altogether, something is clearly out of whack.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
To be honest, I dread Good Shepherd Sunday. After more than thirty years of preaching on shepherds and sheep, I feel as though I have exhausted the metaphor. I’m all wrung out. I find myself asking, is there anything new to be said here? Is there any other angle? After reading and re-reading the lessons for this week, particularly the 10th Chapter of Saint John, I think there just may be a way of reading these texts that I have never noticed before. Typically, my preoccupation has been with individual sheep. But I get the idea that Jesus is chiefly concerned with the flock-at least in this Sunday’s gospel. He is concerned with leading the sheep, keeping them together in the fold and bringing into the fold sheep that do not yet know they belong to him. Our lesson from the First Letter of John also focuses on the flock and how sheep within that flock are to treat each other. Maybe that should be my focus too.
It is hard for me to imagine myself as part of a flock. We 21st Century moderns are not herd animals. This is increasingly so when it comes to religion. The increase in “nones,” “spiritual but not religious,” “unaffiliated” and so forth testifies to our strong American independent streak. I have noticed that even within mainline churches, individuals often tend to take a smorgasbord approach to the faith, selecting what they like and ignoring what does not appeal. We are more like cats than sheep. We come to worship when convenient, take part in whatever activities meet our personal needs and disappear for weeks on end, often without notice. The voice of a shepherd speaking with clarion authority is often missing. In fact, I think we would probably resent having a shepherd pursue us into the wilderness of our preoccupations and carry us back into the midst of the sheepfold. We are fiercely possessive of our freedom to come and go as we please, to believe whatever we like and to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. To such a modern people, Creeds, Scriptures and preaching seem out of place. Such relics of the past might have served simple peasant folk unable to think for themselves. But we are educated and enlightened. Surely we can think for ourselves.
But do we think for ourselves? Are the choices we make truly free? Is there really such a thing as an individual “self” that exists independently of all other selves? Are we stronger when we think and act independently? Or are we diminished by severing ourselves from the rest of the human race? Are truth, beauty and goodness qualities that we discover independently? Or do we find them in communion with one another, in the wisdom of our ancestors and by the aid of discipline learned through shared sacred practices? Are the Creeds we confess collections of propositions subject to debate, evaluation, acceptance or rejection? Or are they portholes into a mystery, sacred music to which we must be willing to submit and by which we must be taught? Are we anymore “free thinking” when we allow ourselves to be shaped by MSNBC, Fox News or PBS?
I am beginning to think that it takes a flock of sheep to recognize and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. I am coming around to the conviction that maturity is less about becoming individual selves and more about becoming “living stones” “built into a spiritual house.” I Peter 2:5. I am starting to think that growing up is less about learning to stand on one’s own and more about learning to use one’s unique gifts and abilities to slide seamlessly and anonymously into the Body of Christ. More and more I am learning that it is within the flock and in the heart of the fold that the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd is heard.
Last week Peter and John managed to attract a great deal of attention in front of the temple when, in the name of Jesus, they brought healing to a known cripple. Seizing the opportunity, Peter uses the occasion to preach a powerful sermon proclaiming as Israel’s messiah and God’s Son Jesus, the crucified one raised from death. Not by the power of the apostles, says Peter, but through the name of Jesus the man they once knew as lame now walks and experiences perfect health.
But the apostles have also attracted the attention of the temple authorities chiefly responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate. Annoyed that these men are teaching in the name of Jesus, they arrest Peter and John, holding them in prison overnight. Acts 4:1-4. On the following day, the apostles are brought out before the high priest and the high priestly family to answer for their actions. It is noteworthy that the first question out of the accusers’ mouth is: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” vs. 7. We can see immediately what is at stake here. The authorities seem to have no objection in principle to the disciples teaching the people or even with the fact that they performed a miracle of healing. Sects within Judaism abounded in the 1st Century. For the most part, they were of little concern to the temple authorities. But the name of Jesus obviously set off some alarm bells and raised red flags.
It is not surprising that the authorities should be concerned about this Jesus movement. Throughout his ministry Jesus upset the social and political norms by sharing table fellowship with outcasts. Parables such as that of Lazarus and the Rich Man foretold an upending of the existing order, the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of family and a radical reorientation of the Torah in the service of “the least” of all peoples. How much more disturbing was the growth of this movement into a community living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed! The man they thought they had killed has risen up and come back to them in spades. The authorities know that they are face to face with the Spirit of the risen Christ and have not the slightest clue what to do about it. If you were to read further, you would learn that the leaders find themselves powerless. Their dear old friend and ally, violence, is of no use in suppressing the name of Jesus. Peter brazenly ignores the threats of the authorities and announces his intent to continue preaching Jesus and his kingdom regardless what they tell him. Acts 4:13-22.
It is the name of Jesus that gets the disciples into trouble. Like most governments, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem with religious people doing socially useful work. Jesus would probably not been put to death if he had been content merely to feed the poor and hungry. Our own government applauds such work on behalf of the less fortunate as long as the boundary between “helpers” and “helped” is maintained. We have no objection to helping the poverty stricken to strive for the American Dream. But Jesus did more than that. He gave the poor a better dream. Jesus did not merely feed the poor. He invited the poor to the messianic banquet. He told them they were blessed, that they were rightful heirs to the earth, the primary recipients of God’s richest blessing. Jesus invited the poor into a new way of being human, a new way of living together under God’s reign. He rejected the domination system of the Jerusalem establishment and its Roman overlords in favor of the gentle reign of God. That reign is now unfolding in the very precincts of the temple and the high priest with his cronies can only watch and be afraid-very afraid.
Again, the call of Luke-Acts is for disciples of Jesus to be a community that is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. The church is an alternative way of being human. One might well say it is the genuine way of being human as God intends. That is, of course, a tall order. Even the Book of Acts, frequently said (erroneously I think) to be an “idealized” portrait of the church, demonstrates that the disciples frequently fell short of their high calling. Nonetheless, in spite of its faults and shortcomings, through the power of the Spirit within it “the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7.
I think that I have probably said about everything I have to say about the Twenty Third Psalm at my posts for Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Georgia on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary is well worth rereading.
I will only add that the recent release of a video purporting to show the killing of Ethiopian Christians by Islamic State-affiliated militants in Libya brings into sharper focus verse 5 of the psalm which reads, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What happens when we read the psalm against the backdrop of the horrific violence against Christians in Libya, the rising opposition to the church reflected in our reading from Acts and the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sake of his sheep articulated in the gospel? Should we be hearing this psalm less as a palliative treatment for agitated minds and more as a call to live the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of a violent and hostile world? Have we allowed Hallmark to hijack this psalm?
This lesson needs to be read against the gospel. As does the shepherd, so should the sheep do. We know love through what Jesus has done for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. This love shown toward us must be reflected among and between the sheep. The sheep must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other and, that being so, how much more their worldly possessions. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” vs. 17.
All of this sounds simple enough. So why do we have in the same county believers in Jesus (like me) who have more than adequate housing, clothing, access to health care and employment alongside believers who are homeless? Yes, I know that we are advocating for legislation to change all of that. I hope it all comes to fruition. I really do. But in the meantime, our sisters and brothers continue to be in need and, instead of opening our homes, our hearts and our faith communities to them, we offer them social services. Instead of being the alternative to the old order, we produce reams of preachy screechy social statements lecturing the old order in hopes of making it a little less oppressive. Again, I can hear dear old Mark Twain reminding us with a twinkle in his eye, “To be good is noble; to teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” As I have said elsewhere, I believe that the more vibrant and promising models of church in this 21st century are those seeking to embody Jesus rather than implement some politicized abstraction of his teachings. See, e.g. post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.
“God is greater than our hearts” vs. 20. While it is never wise to disregard one’s conscience, conscience does not reflect God’s judgment upon our lives and conduct. The voice of conscience is not the voice of God. Conscience can be misguided, misdirected and grounded in false standards. God’s verdict on our lives is dictated by God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. So, too, our conduct with respect to our neighbors is shaped by that same love. Therefore, John can boil Jesus’ commandments down to the two “great” commandments identified in the synoptic gospels: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and love one another.” Vs. 23. This love is not an abstraction, as in “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” (Good Lord, have I ever dated myself!). Nor is love an expression of my own personal sentiments. The love of which John speaks is quite unintelligible apart from the gospel narratives and the larger context of the Hebrew scriptural narrative about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. It is also unintelligible apart from the community living out of those narratives. Love, then, is the miracle the Spirit imparts to a people that understands itself as heir of the promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and offered to the world through the gracious invitation of Jesus. It is forged in the furnace of a community that strives to follow its Lord.
In Chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. 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.
In verses 7-15, Jesus lays down the acid test determining the genuineness of a true shepherd. When the wolf shows up, the fake shepherd flees. He is but a “hireling.” Vs. 13. Because the sheep do not actually belong to him, he has nothing to lose beyond a day’s wage by running away. The shepherd who owns the sheep actually has “skin” in the game. Unlike the hired hand, this shepherd will put himself between the sheep and the jaws of the wolf. The Greek word used for “good” is not the more common “agathos,” but the word “kalos,” meaning “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” Unlike the leaders in Jerusalem who, under threat of Roman violence, are prepared to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save their own skins, Jesus willingly lays down his own life to save the people. There are several levels of irony here. Caiaphas insists that “it is expedient…that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. What he means, of course, is that Jesus must be sacrificed to preserve the status quo which is treating Caiaphas and his cronies quite well. But Caiaphas has unwittingly articulated Jesus’ mission and all that makes him a “fine, beautiful and precious” Shepherd. The sheep given Jesus by his Father recognize his voice. Vs. 14. Such faithful recognition has already been illustrated in the prior chapter by the blind man who could not be persuaded by the authorities (false shepherds) to deny Jesus, but, when confronted with Jesus, worships him.
As pointed out by Professor Raymond Brown, the Hebrew Scriptures are rich in shepherd imagery. God is frequently spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 397. Genesis 49:2; Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52-53; Psalm 80:1. Kings also, particularly David, were referred to as shepherds. Psalm 78:70-72. This title carries with it profound responsibilities for Israel’s rulers and withering judgment for kings failing in their role as “shepherds.” See I Kings 23:17; Jeremiah 10:21; Jeremiah 23:1-2; and Ezekiel 34. It is against the backdrop of these Hebrew texts that we must understand Jesus’ use of this powerful shepherd metaphor. John would have us understand that Jesus is the genuine Shepherd who alone puts the well-being of the sheep first and foremost.
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy and righteous God, you are the author of life, and you adopt us to be your children. Fill us with your words of life, that we may live as witnesses to the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This Sunday we get a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrection through the lens of Luke’s gospel. Like John, Luke seems intent on emphasizing the physicality of the resurrected Jesus. Significantly, Luke also emphasizes the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering and death in order to fulfil his messianic mission. His disciples will share in this suffering as they bear witness to Jesus in word and practice. The necessity of suffering is a pillar of Luke’s proclamation.
One would never guess from the life of the church in our country that suffering for the sake of the good news is part and parcel of our existence. Typically, people come to the church for comfort and reassurance. The church is seen as a symbol of sameness, continuity and order. Not surprisingly, then, I have discovered that when people suddenly stop attending church it is usually because their lives are falling apart at the seams. Church is not where you want to be when your marriage is coming apart, your thirteen year old daughter is pregnant or your son has been arrested. The presence of so many well-ordered lives, immaculately dressed people and perfectly choreographed liturgy forms a painful disconnect with life as you experience it.
Understand that I am not saying (nor is Luke) that there is any value or virtue in suffering per se. It is only suffering that is assumed for the sake of Jesus that is valued. Compassion for the poor can get you into trouble when you translate it into action. Just ask Arnold Abbot, a 90 year old who has twice been arrested for providing meals to hungry and homeless people at Fort Lauderdale Beach in Florida. Hospitality to the stranger may also be costly. Ask the 100 or so representatives of Church World Service who were arrested for peacefully protesting mass deportations of undocumented persons living in the United States. Caring for your neighbor can bring untold sorrow. Ask any social worker carrying home each night the burden of thousands of heart aches that evade healing. Love is joyful. It is what we were created for. But love hurts. That’s the message of the cross.
The opposite of love is not hatred. The opposite of love is numbness. It is the inability to experience compassion. When the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan passed by the man beaten by bandits and left to die, they didn’t act out of hatred. They bore this man no ill will. Perhaps they even hoped he would somehow find help. They just didn’t care enough to offer that help. In much the same way, I think, we can read about children starving to death in refugee camps, see news clips showing victims of horrendous violence and know that many of the goods we purchase are produced by underpaid workers in unsafe work places. Then, after commenting on how terrible this all is, we conclude by remarking how lucky we are to live in a country where none of this is going on-at least not in my neighborhood.
By contrast, the Samaritan in Jesus’ story feels compassion for the fallen victim. The precise Greek word used in Luke’s story is “splaxnizomai,” which means to have compassion from the heart, from the depths of one’s soul. It is to feel for one’s neighbor. You might say that the Samaritan’s heart broke when he saw the broken man at the side of the road. But at least he had a heart, and because he had a heart, he was capable of love and all the joys it brings. Yes, Easter is a festival of joy. But the joy of love is not possible without the pain it brings. It is necessary that we suffer if we would love as Jesus loves.
Perhaps what the church in our country needs more than anything else is a good cry, not for ourselves, our own disappointments and frustrations, but for the world. We need to weep for the lakes and streams now dying from contaminants produced by our consumer society. We need to weep for the millions of children who die each year without ever having the opportunity to live. We need to weep for women throughout the world deprived of health, education and dignity by systems of religious, philosophical and political patriarchy. We need to weep for our world just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Our cold and unfeeling hearts need to be shocked back to life again so that we can love again. Then and only then will we become capable of the joy of Easter.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus comes to a room full of heart broken disciples and leaves them rejoicing. The agony of the cross is worth the joy of the love that made it necessary and the joy of sharing that love with the world.
This passage is part of a larger narrative that begins with Peter and John going up to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Acts 3:1. The indication here is that the temple and its worship was an important aspect of faith and piety in the infant Jesus movement. Though the composition of Acts took place long after the temple had been destroyed and its worship traditions lost, there is no reason to discount Luke’s account of the early church’s worshiping and gathering there. This anecdote from the Book of Acts testifies to a reality that is hard to grasp from our historical standpoint, namely, that the Jesus movement that ultimately became the church originated as a reform movement within Judaism. Though Luke’s interest throughout the latter chapters of Acts is on the mission to the gentiles, he makes the point that the church’s origin was in Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism.
On their way into the temple, the two disciples encounter a lame beggar asking for alms. Peter tells the man that he has no money, but what he does have he will give him. With that, Peter commands: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Acts 3:6. As the song we all learned in Sunday School goes, “He went walking and leaping and praising God.” Acts 3:8. This show of divine healing did not escape notice of the crowds in front of the temple, who were “filled with wonder and amazement.” Acts 3:10. At this point, Peter addresses the crowd in the words of our lesson.
“Why…do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made [this man] walk?” vs. 12. From beginning to end, Luke is determined not to attribute this or any other mighty work done among the apostles to the apostles. This miracle of healing has numerous parallels to healings Jesus performed in the gospels. The healing power of Jesus manifest throughout his ministry continues unbroken through the community of disciples. It is, in fact, Jesus who healed the man and Peter would have his audience know that.
“The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our Fathers, glorified his servant Jesus…” vs. 13. Again, probably for the benefit of his gentile readers, Luke makes the point that the God proclaimed by the church is not “the god of our common understanding,” a sort of lowest divine common denominator to which everyone short of an atheist can own. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the God of the Exodus, the God of David and the God of the prophets. We do not all believe in the same God and it is not a matter of indifference where God is sought. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is not the anemic, placid and featureless deity of American civil religion. Prayers written with such a high degree of cultural sensitivity as to offend nobody are addressed to nobody. “Nonsectarian prayer” is simply pious slop.
Having said that, Peter’s sermon here alludes to the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush. There God reveals God’s self as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Exodus 3:6. This affirms, as I said previously, that God is known exclusively through God’s word and covenant faithfulness to God’s chosen people. Moses, it seems, is not entirely satisfied with God’s self identification. “If I go to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I tell them? God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Exodus 3:13-14. Depending on the rendering of the Hebrew which is not altogether clear as to the tense of the verbs, this declaration might also be interpreted, “I will be who I will be.” In either case, God will not be limited by any divine name. Surely, God’s saving acts on behalf of Israel are definitive in themselves and in our understanding of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Yet there is a difference between “definitive” and “limited.” A definition is capable of deeper understanding, interpretation and explanation. Only so can the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob possibly be understood as the God of gentile believers in Jesus Christ.
Luke goes further to say that Jesus, the one rejected, handed over to the imperial authorities and put to death is “the Holy and Righteous One,” “the Author of life” attested by God’s raising him from death. Vs. 12. It is the church’s claim that the promises made to Israel and to the world find their fulfilment in Jesus. What does this mean for Jews that did not find in Jesus the fulfilment of the covenant promises? What does it mean for believers of other faiths that do not know or acknowledge Jesus as Lord?
When I was in college I became well acquainted with a Taiwanese Buddhist woman who regularly attended our campus chapel worship and even sang in our worship choir. We discussed our respective faith experiences often, but I was never sure we were understanding each other well. I now know that views of divinity and godhood in the Eastern religions are quite different from orthodox Christian thought. Consequently, I believe we were probably talking past each other much of the time. I do recall, however, that in one of our last conversations she told me that learning about Jesus had helped her become a better Buddhist.
So I was left to wonder about the simple equation we make between salvation and conversion to orthodox belief in Jesus. Is evangelization always about conversion? My friend was never (to my knowledge) converted, baptized and received into membership of any church. She was not a Christian in any proper sense of the word. Yet she seems to have had an encounter with Jesus that deepened and expanded her Buddhist faith and practice. Can Jesus enable Jews to become better Jews, Buddhists to become better Buddhists and Muslims to become better Muslims-just as he enables Christians to become better Christians? Seems to me that disciples of Jesus need not choose between an absolutist position that denigrates all other faiths to the status of false or second class religion on the one hand and sappy, mindless drivel about a “god of our common understanding” on the other. It is enough to do just as Peter does in his sermon: preach Jesus Christ boldly, persuasively and faithfully. Then let that Word of God “multipl[y] the number of disciples” or work in whatever way the Spirit in her wisdom sees fit. Acts 6:7.
Peter goes on to emphasize that he and his fellow apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. This goes to my oft repeated quote from Rich Barger, President of Trinity Lutheran Seminary: “If the tomb wasn’t empty, we’ve got nothing to talk about.” Much of 19th and early 20th Century protestant theology and biblical scholarship has strained to explain the resurrection in terms that do not insult modernity’s creed of empiricism. Whether or not the tomb was empty, is irrelevant or so we are told. The church’s faith, we are assured, is based on the disciples’ encounter with the resurrected Christ. However that might be, it begs the question: was the resurrection an act by which God raised the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from death into life? Or was the resurrection a completely understandable response to the life and death of a person whose example and teachings proved greater than his mortal life?
As I pointed out two years ago in my Easter post of 2013, we need to be careful about asserting more than we know about the resurrection. Though Jesus appears to his disciples with a body that can be embraced, shares in meals and continues to bear the wounds of the cross, that body is clearly more than a resuscitated corpse. When Luke asserts that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God the Father, he does not mean to say that Jesus has gone away to some distant place. Rather, he is saying that Jesus is henceforth more intensely present than ever before. Jesus is God’s right hand at work in the world through his church. Saint Paul understands the church to be the resurrected Body of Christ. The empty tomb testifies that Jesus lives-not as a religious, theological or philosophical principle that outlasted him, but as God’s right hand bringing to completion Jesus’ work of salvation for all creation. Jesus was the face of God for humanity throughout his ministry and continues to be so with greater power and intensity as the resurrected Lord at God’s right hand.
Though Peter makes no citation to the prophets he claims foretold the suffering of the Messiah, his audience was well aware that God suffers along with the afflictions of Israel. See, e.g., Hosea 12:5-9. Isaiah 1:4-6; Isaiah 42:14-16. Whether a 1st Century Jewish audience would have recognized the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9a and Isaiah 52:13-53:12) from Second Isaiah as messianic is debatable. Nonetheless, they illustrate, as does the witness of the prophets generally, that prophetic faithfulness to the will of Israel’s God necessarily entails suffering, rejection and sometimes martyrdom. That the messiah should share in the suffering of both God’s prophets and God’s self is a legitimate interpretive step.
“Times of refreshing” in verse 19 may be an intentional allusion to Isaiah 32 in which the prophet foretells the coming of “a king who will reign in righteousness.” Isaiah 32:1. At this time, “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.” Isaiah 32:15. The “effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Isaiah 32:17. Peter means to tie everything that Jesus has accomplished into the most far reaching and wonderful prophetic promises growing out of Israel’s covenant with her God. With what other than prophetic language can one speak of the mystery of resurrection?
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. The essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vs. 1.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 2
- Expression of confidence, vss. 3.
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 4-8.
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. Using the categories employed by Professor Walter Brueggemann, this psalm falls under the collection of prayers characterized as psalms of “disorientation.” Such psalms insist “that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” Nevertheless, they also insist that all “experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. “It is a curious fact,” Brueggemann notes, “that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.” Ibid. at p. 51. He goes on to say that:
“It is in my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” Ibid. at pp. 51-52.
This Sunday’s psalm does not begin with a lengthy, pious invocation. The psalmist begins his/her prayer with a demand for an answer! Vs. 1. In that respect, s/he is not unlike my son when he was just a toddler. Occasionally I was distracted with one thing or another when he needed my full attention. At those times, he would literally grasp my head and turn my face in his direction to make it clear where he thought my priorities should be. It is with that kind of forcefulness that the psalmist demands the attention of God.
The dilemma of the psalmist appears to be false accusation. “How long shall my honor suffer shame?” vs. 2. That was a very real question faced by the spouse of a friend, a teacher accused of molesting one of his students. During investigation of the allegations, which took several months, he was suspended from his job. Though the law presumes one innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion presumes guilt, often even after a court has declared quite the opposite. This is particularly so when the offense is one we view as the vilest of crimes. Turns out that my friend’s spouse was cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated, but that could hardly compensate for the toll taken by living for months under such damning allegations. That may reflect what the psalmist is experiencing here.
“But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.” vs. 2. The psalmist is confident that God, the final court of appeal, sees all ends and will render a just verdict. However heavily the deck may be stacked against him, no human judgment founded on injustice can stand.
“Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” Vs. 4. The psalmist began with a call to God for an answer to his/her predicament. S/he then turns to address his/her accusers with the assurance that God will judge his/her case justly. Now the psalmist addresses his/her fellow worshipers with words of advice. “Be angry, but sin not.” The greatest temptation faced by persons undergoing false accusation is to become cynical and hateful. The question is whether one will be shaped by the conduct of one’s persecutors or by faith in the God upon whom one depends.
“There are many who say, ‘Oh that we might see some good! Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, O Lord!’” vs. 6. It is, of course, easier to live thankfully when life is blessed and times are peaceful. But the psalmist recognizes that the true measure of a person’s soul is taken in times of trial. Thus, s/he can pray, “Thou has put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” Vs. 7. These fair weather worshipers have no understanding of the joy that comes from confidence in God wrought through bitter experience where such confidence is sorely needed. Thus, as uncertain and ambiguous as the psalmist’s situation is, s/he can nevertheless “lie down and sleep” in peace. Vs. 8.
For my comments on the First Letter of John generally, see last week’s post. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul M.N.
The chapter begins with an affirmation of God’s love and promise that we are God’s children even now. Vs. 1. This relationship to God our heavenly Father is not something into which we grow. It is a relationship into which we are born through the waters of baptism. Yet, in a sense, it is something into which we grow. Verses 3-7 read in isolation from the rest of the epistle might suggest that believers in Jesus no longer sin. John already told us quite the contrary in last week’s reading. I John 1:8. The focus here is on the process described in verse 3 where John says, “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” Hope and trust in Jesus re-orientates life away from sin and toward a life of love for the sisters and brothers in Christ’s church. This new orientation is a process by which believers and the church as a whole are transformed into the image of Jesus. Sin is still a reality in the life of a disciple, but its power to enslave is broken by God’s promise of forgiveness.
The verse I find most meaningful among the many meaningful sentences tightly packed into this section is verse 2. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” We know from last week’s lesson that Jesus is the face of God that can be touched, looked upon and seen. So while much remains mysterious about resurrected life, we know that at Jesus’ appearing, we will be like Jesus. We will be the sort of creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God Incarnate. This is what needs to happen in order for us to receive the advent of God’s reign as good news. A kingdom in which all have enough might not look very attractive to those of us who have grown used to having far more than we need. A kingdom in which all are welcome might seem unwelcome to those of us accustomed to flying first class or living in gated communities. To those of us accustomed to being the center of attention, having all attention directed to the Lamb on the throne might prove an unbearable slight. Unless we finally become like Jesus, the kingdom of heaven isn’t going to be much fun.
Of course, the overall message of these verses and of the epistle generally is that God in Christ Jesus is even now working that transformation in us. We may not be aware of it. We might be tempted to doubt it when we try to measure our progress toward the goal of becoming like Christ. The best advice is not to try and measure. Like a tightrope walker, our eyes need to be fixed on the goal, on Christ who beckons us forward. The minute we take our gaze off him and fixate on the abyss beneath us and the distance we have yet to go, we are toast.
This is a scene at the tail end of Luke’s series of resurrection encounters throughout this chapter. By this time, Jesus has appeared to the women at the tomb, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and apparently to Simon Peter as well. This resurrection appearance marks the climax in which Jesus appears to all the disciples, shares a meal with them and commissions them to be his witnesses to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. Vs. 47. If we were permitted to read a bit further to the end of the gospel, we would learn that Luke’s story concludes where it began, in the Jerusalem Temple. As I mentioned in my discussion of our lesson from Acts, Luke is concerned to anchor the good news about Jesus firmly within the covenant life of Israel while expanding its reach to all peoples.
Luke takes special pains to emphasize that Jesus is not a “spirit,” but a resurrected human being. It is important that the tomb was found empty (Luke 24:1-3); that Jesus was recognized in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30-31); and that Jesus could be handled by his disciples. Vs. 39. Perhaps, knowing his gentile audience, Luke means to emphasize the physicality of the resurrection to counter other near eastern beliefs such as re-incarnation, the immortality of the soul and transmigration to some eternal “spiritual” world. See Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 376. Not mere survival of death, but a new heaven and a new earth is what the prophets proclaimed and what is inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection.
Verse 44 makes reference to the tripartite “cannon” of Hebrew Scriptures as Law, Prophets and Writings (which included the Psalms). It should be noted that, at Jesus time and thereafter, these writings were not given equal weight of authority. 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. Also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther.
Luke tells us that Jesus “opened the minds” of the disciples to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. Our minds are not blank slates when we approach the scriptures. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures and how you read the scriptures depends on what you bring to them. You can find support for incest, rape, genocide, slavery and all manner of beastly conduct in the Bible. Sadly, the Bible has been used in just that manner throughout history. 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. When we depart from this hermeneutic, we wander into a morass of ethics devoid of compassion, doctrine devoid of faith and slavish bondage to the letter devoid of Spirit.
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, with joy we celebrate the day of our Lord’s resurrection. By the grace of Christ among us, enable us to show the power of the resurrection in all that we say and do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
The above quote comes not from any bomb throwing anarchist, but from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Evangelii Gaudium. Rarely does a mainline religious leader (and the Roman Catholic Church is about as mainline as mainline gets) criticize so directly the American sacred cow of capitalism. American protestants in particular accept the tyranny of the market as a given. The only real dispute between so called liberals and so called conservatives is over the degree to which the government can or should regulate this market. That the market itself might be at the root of inequality, poverty and oppression is simply unthinkable in our culture. Belief in the benevolence of the market is as firmly established in our country’s psyche as the Pledge of Allegiance.
None of this really makes sense. For example, I have always found it passing strange that conservative evangelical Christians, who believe so fervently in the reality of original sin, can believe just as fervently that unregulated markets driven only by “self-interest” can produce a just society. Just as doubtful is the unquestioned (though never clearly articulated) assumption of upright, white and ever polite mainline protestants that, with enough regulation and tweaking, an economy driven by greed and consumption can be forced to serve the public good. The argument between these two not-so-extremes is really about regulating the beast, not killing it. We are thoroughly convinced that greed driven markets are essential to economic health and that no society can function without them.
The treatment I sometimes gave my younger sister is not one of my proudest memories. She is three years younger than me and when she was just learning to play board games, I induced her into a game of Monopoly. I convinced her that we should make a rule dividing up the properties on the board. I promised not to buy Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues (a good deal because they were cheap and affordable) if she, in turn, promised not to buy Boardwalk and Park Place. Everyone who is familiar with Monopoly must realize that this arrangement made it nearly impossible for my sister to win. To her credit, my sister discovered in short order that she stood no chance of winning the game as long as I was allowed to dictate the rules. Would that we were all so quick on the uptake! After all these years, we still haven’t come to realize that the capitalism game is rigged against us. We are like Charlie Brown running forward for the hundredth time to kick the football held by Lucy. This time, he thinks, old Lucy will come through. This time she will keep her promise to hold the ball in place. But, predictably, Lucy pulls the ball away at the last moment and poor Charley Brown cannot understand why he is once again lying flat on his back and the ball has gone nowhere.
The game is rigged. As Pope Francis points out, there is not a thread of evidence to suggest that the prosperity of the rich benefits the poor. Our experience for the last several decades indicates just the opposite. Today the health of the economy is measured in terms of what the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P are doing. While the markets are generating fabulous amounts of wealth for those with money to invest in them, pay rates remain stagnant and jobs paying sustainable wages and offering benefits are on the decline. Public resources such as highways, public transportation, libraries, schools and museums all decay even as bonuses for investment bankers soar. Billions are appropriated for military buildup, tax breaks are doled out to oil giants even as food stamps for people on the margins are being cut to balance the federal and state budgets. In fact, the free market system is operating exactly the way you would expect-if you believed that human beings are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves.
On the other hand, if you think that human sin is an antiquated myth left over from the middle ages, if you believe human beings are naturally selfless, if you believe that having more wealth automatically breeds generosity, if you think that global, multinational corporations can be trusted to look out for the well-being of ordinary citizens; then you must be scratching your head and wondering why we are not all rich by now. Furthermore, if all this is what you really do believe, I can only conclude that you have spent your life in a windowless room watching nothing but Hallmark Christmas specials.
Capitalism, not to put too fine a point on it, is a lie. As Pope Francis makes clear, an economy driven by consumer appetites can only drain the earth’s resources, increase the growing gap between the exceedingly wealthy and the desperately poor and create optimal environments for war, crime and terrorism. The global market economy is killing our planet. It cannot be tamed. It cannot be domesticated. An economy that can only thrive on increased consumption is not sustainable. We need an entirely different sort of economy driven by human need rather than human greed; measured by life sustaining production rather than endless consumption; designed to serve rather than enslave human persons.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means nothing if not that things do not have to be the way they are. We need not be slaves to markets that feed the top 1% and starve the bottom half of humanity. There are alternative ways of being human. Our lesson from Acts gives us a picture of how the resurrection of Jesus Christ reshapes human life and human relationships. Like Pope Francis, Luke challenges our modern notions of property ownership, wealth, consumption and individual rights. Luke shows us what life looks like where the economic priority is human need. Note well, however, that the church in Acts did not set out to reform the empire. Instead, it became a colony for the coming reign of God it proclaimed. As Pope Francis suggests, the church in Acts said a resounding “no” to the imperial economy of exploitation and became a demonstration plot for life under the kingdom of heaven. The church began by learning to live quietly, peacefully and gently in the heart of a violent imperial society. In so doing, it showed the world that Caesar is not the only game in town.
What would happen if our churches found the courage to name the lie of capitalism? What would an alternative congregational economy reformed by the resurrection look like? What would our life together be like if we resolved no longer to be dominated by the market forces driving us to work obscenely long hours and sacrifice our family life, our interests and deepest longings on the altar of the American Dream? I believe these questions are more pertinent now than ever. I applaud Pope Francis for having the courage to raise them for us.
For once I have to commend the lectionary people for including this reading in the Easter pericopies. I have gotten into the habit of asking myself after completing my sermon for Sunday: “OK. So what?” Nowhere is that question more pertinent than during the season of Easter when we celebrate and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. What does life look like for a people that have put death behind them? How do you live when you know that the one God raised from death is neither Caesar, General Patten nor the American sniper, but the crucified friend of sinners? What does one see looking at a community governed by Jesus’ “new” commandment to love? Luke answers these questions by showing us a community “of one heart and soul;” a community in which “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” Vs. 32.
We mainline protestants, committed as we are to the creed of capitalism, find this passage extraordinarily problematic. For the most part, we dismiss the text as Luke’s effort to portray an “idealized” picture of the early church that had little or no basis in reality. This convenient use of historical-critical exegesis excuses us from interpreting the text “literally” (read “seriously”) and permits us to write it off as literary license or as an early but failed experiment in communal living that the church left behind as it matured. To be sure, it is highly anachronistic to read the Book of Acts (or any other biblical book) as “history” in the modern sense. But it is equally improper to employ modern historical-critical analysis to such texts in order to extract from them interpretations more palatable to our 21st Century sensibilities (and prejudices). As noted earlier, Luke challenges our modern notions of property ownership, wealth, consumption and individual rights. It is disingenuous at best to employ clever (not wise or competent) scholarship to dismiss him.
What does it mean to be “of one heart and soul”? It cannot mean that everyone always gets along. The subsequent chapters of Acts demonstrate that there was in the early church plenty of disagreement, debate, misunderstanding and need for compromise. Yet for all of that, the church managed to hold together. One might argue that Luke’s portrayal is not entirely historically accurate and that the life of the early church was in fact a good deal messier. But again, modern notions of historicity are not a proper tool of measurement when it comes to reading biblical texts. Luke’s story is a testimony to his belief that the Holy Spirit was at work in the midst of the church’s messiness forging a community of faith bearing witness to Jesus. It is much the same as when we confess in our creeds that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” From a purely historical perspective, one can argue persuasively that the church is not any of those things and never has been. Yet history can neither verify nor disprove the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the diverse and often seemingly adverse communities claiming to be church, forming a unity that transcends our divisions. That is an assertion of faith.
That said, we get fleeting glimpses of the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the church every so often. The explosive growth of the church in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa across barriers of tribal and national hostility is surely a testimony to the vitality of the Spirit’s unifying power. As I have observed before, intentional communities such as Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm point to new and exciting ways of being a “holy” community. A day does not go by in the life of my own congregation where I do not witness acts of compassion born of the sharing of heart and soul. None of this “proves” anything. Nevertheless, it testifies to the difference Jesus’ resurrection is making in the lives of people who believe it.
The literary formula “Behold, how good and pleasant it is” has parallels in Egyptian literature of the “wisdom” genre. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 783. Professor Walter Brueggemann treats this psalm as one of “orientation,” expressing “a confident, serene, settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing Co.) pp. 25, 47. It celebrates the blessedness of family, tribal and national unity using two metaphors. The first is that of anointing with oil. In addition to the cultic function of such anointing, the practice was also an expression of honor and hospitality, “a measure of extravagance and well being.” Ibid. 48. See Amos 6:6; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:46. The second metaphor employed by the psalmist is “dew.” In the often parched landscape of Palestine, the appearance of dew was a rare and welcome weather phenomenon. The poem, says Brueggeman, anticipates the solidarity and harmony of all humanity as it lives without defensiveness in a creation benevolent enough to care for all.” Ibid.
The declaration of the goodness of unity in the psalm complements the practice of that unity to which Luke testifies in our lesson from Acts. Though far from a universal reality, such unity is not merely a utopian ideal. It was experienced at times among the patriarchs and matriarchs, by Israel, by the church in the New Testament and throughout the church’s subsequent history in the monastic movement and through various other intentional Christian communities. These manifestations of life lived among a people of “one heart and soul” give us fleeting glimpses of God’s reign.
Though traditionally ascribed to John, the disciple of Jesus, this letter and the two short epistles following it do not purport to come from anyone by that name. I John does not even appear to be a letter. It lacks both an opening salutation and a closing benediction common to other New Testament epistles. It resembles more a theological treatise or sermon. Though the First Letter of John has close theological and linguistic similarities to John’s gospel, most New Testament scholars believe that the letter was composed by a different author at some point after the gospel was composed. It is possible that I John was composed by “the elder” identified as the author of John 2 and John 3, though this too is disputed. However the authorship question might be resolved, it is evident that the Gospel of John and the three letters of John share a common perspective suggesting that they originated from the same early Christian community.
One cannot help but be impressed with the intense physicality of these opening sentences of John’s letter. What is proclaimed is that which has been “seen,” “looked upon” and “touched.” Vss. 1-3. There is a strong emphasis on the connection of the proclamation to the person of Jesus. This letter is addressed, in part, to counter claims of some persons who “went out from us” and who are evidently denying that Jesus is the messiah. I John 2:18-25. We can only speculate concerning exactly what members of this schismatic group might actually have believed. According to the author of this letter, these folks deny that Jesus has come as messiah “in the flesh” and fail to practice the “new” commandment of love for fellow disciples. I John 4:2-3; I John 3:11-24. For John, orthopraxy goes hand in hand with orthodoxy. Failure to exercise Jesus’ commandment to love fellow members of the church renders one an “antichrist” just as surely as does the denial of Jesus as Christ come in the flesh.
John urges his fellow believers to “walk in the light.” Vs. 7. Again, believing in Jesus is not mere passive reflection or assent to correct teaching. It involves not merely seeing the light, but “walking” in it. Recognition of one’s own sin is a byproduct of walking in the light. To continue justifying, rationalizing or denying sin means only that one remains in the dark about the truth. Vs. 8. The light exposes us as we truly are, compelling us to confess our sinfulness and need for forgiveness. But that is only half the story and not even the better half. The light also exposes God as “faithful and just,” eager to “forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Vs. 9. This is reminiscent of the text from John’s gospel where Jesus declares: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. But Jesus goes on to say that “he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” John 3:21. The light is essential both for seeing ourselves for what we are and for recognizing God for who God is.
For my more specific comments on this gospel text, I refer you to last year’s post for April 7, 2014. This year I was struck most by the physicality of the resurrected Christ portrayed in John’s gospel. In that respect, my reading is probably influenced by our lesson from I John just discussed. Jesus can be touched and handled. Moreover, he still bears the wounds of the crucifixion on his resurrected body. I think it is incredibly important to recognize that Jesus’ resurrection is not a “happily ever after” ending. The cross reflects Jesus’ determination to “go the distance” for creation. The resurrection is God’s eternal “yes’ to that commitment. Thus, I was more than a little dismayed to discover when the Lutheran Book of Worship came out in print that a critical line to one of my favorite hymns had been sabotaged. The original went:
In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives though ever crucified.
The new improved version goes:
In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives wherever hope has died.
See ELW # 389. The former version is the stronger and, in my opinion, to be preferred. While Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are a one time, unrepeatable event that fundamentally changed everything, that change is God’s eternal and unalterable identification with humanity. You might call it the seal on the miracle of the Incarnation. God became flesh, remained flesh to the point of death on the cross and now lives eternally in the flesh for us. That is why we see in child refugees coming across our border, victims of genocide in the Middle East and persons caught in the grip of poverty the face of Jesus. That is why the resurrection makes a difference. We cannot engage in behavior that harms our neighbor, directly or indirectly, without wounding Jesus. Jesus remains human, vulnerable and subject to the terrible consequences of our evil. Yet, as even the “new improved” version of the hymn affirms, “he loves the more.”
The witness of Thomas is interesting. Though he did not believe the testimony of his fellow disciples to Jesus’ resurrection, we nevertheless find him in the company of those disciples eight days later. Vs. 26. It appears that Thomas wants to believe even if he can’t quite manage it yet. So he does what any person should do in that circumstance. He hangs out with the folks who do believe, that is, the church. There he finally has the faith producing encounter with Jesus he was looking for. In a sense, then, he believed even before he saw Jesus. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he had the desire to believe. Does that “count” as faith of some kind? If so, it would give an entirely different twist to Jesus’ word to Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Vs. 29. Could it be that we have been reading this verse all wrong? Could it be that Jesus is not chiding “doubting” Thomas for his lack of faith, but was actually commending Thomas for the faith required to stick with the disciples even though he had not seen the resurrected Christ as they had? I must confess that I have never seen any commentator interpret the text in that way. Nonetheless, I think it is a plausible reading.
Finally, I cannot resist talking a little about verses 30-31 in which John informs us that the whole point of his gospel is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” vs. 31. I don’t think it is carrying things too far to say that the same could be said of the entire Bible at least as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned. Whatever else the Bible might be, for disciples it is the portal into the heart of our Master. Its purpose is to draw us closer to Jesus, not provide ammunition for culture warriors seeking to keep guns in the hands of true believers and pizza out of the hands of gay and lesbian people.