Archive for May, 2015
THE HOLY TRINITY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Sometimes I think the biggest challenge I face as a witness for Jesus comes not from the secular world, but from other preachers, churches and organizations operating under the Christian franchise. Take, for example, the crowd self identifying as Christian howling with approval as Lynyrd Skynyrd sings:
But there aint nobody safe no more
So you say your prayers and you thank the Lord
For that peacemaker In your dresser drawer
God and guns Keep us strong
That’s what this country Lord Was founded on
Well we might as well Give up and run
If we let them take our God and guns.
This month Westboro Baptist Church sent out a news release thanking God for the death of nine more American soldiers killed in action by the hand of God in retaliation for our country’s growing toleration of gay and lesbian people. (I know. I don’t get the connection either). Another Christian website I ran into is warning us about a war against Christianity in this country waged by (among others) the government, socialists, Democrats, liberal Christians, atheists, Jews and intellectuals. I guess that war must be taking place in some other part of the country because I have yet to hear about antichristian groups burning down churches (as happened in Egypt) or the beheading any disciples of Jesus (as occurred in Libya) or the government forcing Christians to leave the country (as is happening in Syria and Iraq). As the pastor of a Christian church in the United States, I am not only free to preach the gospel, but I get free parking at hospitals, preferential permission to ignore laws against discrimination that other organizations must observe and enjoy tax benefits that embarrass me. Is that what a war on Christianity looks like? Do these folks even know what a war is?
Most troubling is the picture of God that emerges from these degenerate types of Christianity. What we see here is an angry god; a god who cares more about his precious rules than about the people he made; a god who will resort to torments greater than we humans in all our depravity can devise to punish the slightest moral infraction. Not surprisingly, the disciples of this mean spirited deity reflect the same heartless intolerance, rage and violence against their perceived enemies. I often wonder, what is the draw for this depraved kind of faith? Do people believe in an angry and fearsome god because they are angry and fearful themselves? Or do they become angry and fearful because they have been raised to believe in an angry and fearsome god? Either way, it is sad and sadder still that it all takes place under the banner of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, I don’t foresee this warped Christianity going away anytime soon. In fact, as more young people and people in general continue to reject their religious claims, I expect that the proponents of this religion of hate and fear will become even more angry, abrasive and vocal. I have learned that arguing directly with these folks is pointless. As a colleague of mine puts it, “Don’t mud wrestle with a pig. You just get yourself dirty and the pig likes it.” I also don’t see much point in trying to refute this kind of faith in public forums, particularly through preaching. That only gives these false notions of our faith more exposure. Worse than that, I tend to become infected with the same anger I find so distressing in what I am refuting.
I can think of no better response to deviant Christianity than simply to offer the world the real thing. To a world that has heard too much of the god who delights in stockpiling weapons, killing soldiers and torturing people for breaking the rules, we are called to speak of the Triune God whose essence is love: love of the Father for the Son; love for the world to which the Son is sent-not to condemn but to save it; Triune love poured out through God’s Spirit upon all flesh. More than ever before, it matters that we take care to speak rightly and well about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
King Uzziah’s forty year reign over Judah (783 B.C.E.-742 B.C.E.) was generally one of peace and prosperity. Under the king’s leadership, Judah rose up from a state of near collapse to economic expansion, military might and international prestige. But, as always, there was a price to be paid. Greater national security required the expansion of royal power. Entrance into international commercial commerce bred a new merchant class and an economy hostile to subsistence farmers. Land that had for centuries been passed down from generation to generation within tribal clans was now being bought up at fire sale prices leaving the traditional owners destitute. This injustice did not escape the prophet’s notice:
“Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are mad to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” Isaiah 5:8.
As might be expected, the death of Uzziah unleased a great deal of sorrow and anxiety. That was normal, of course, for near eastern monarchies where the passing of the king frequently led to fierce struggles for power within the royal family for succession to the throne, sometimes resulting in civil war. But there was more at stake than political stability. The age of petty kingdoms such as Judah was coming to an end. The age of empires was dawning. Already the ascendant Assyrian Empire was beginning to cast its shadow over the region. Uzziah’s son and successor, Jotham, followed the path of neutrality and isolationism in order to spare his country from war. His grandson, Ahaz, would not have the luxury of this option. Isaiah saw perhaps more clearly than any of his contemporaries the change that was coming over the world. Yet in his vision, he is reminded that the true throne is the one occupied by the Lord of Hosts. So the real issue is not who will sit upon the throne of Judah now that Uzziah has died, but who occupies the throne in heaven and whose glory truly fills the earth. The God of Israel, the Lord of Hosts is the only true king. Vs. 5.
This passage is the only scriptural reference to “seraphim.” They are described as six-winged creatures who attend the Lord of Hosts and intone his praises. It is interesting to note that the fiery serpents sent to punish Israel’s faithless complaining in the wilderness are called “seraphs.” Numbers 21:4-9. This has led some scholars to identify them with a six winged demonic figure holding a serpent in either hand portrayed at an archeological site at Tell Halaf. Gaster, T.H., Angel, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 132. The fiery bite of the serpents in the Numbers account leads to death unless resort is made to the bonze replica of these creatures fashioned by Moses. Here, too, the seraphim touch the prophet’s mouth with a burning coal from the altar which by all rights should inflict severe pain and injury, but instead cleanses him of sin and emboldens him to speak. Vs. 8.
The prophet’s response to his vision reflects the very heart of his calling: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Vs. 5. The prophet does not stand above his/her people hurling righteous condemnation. To the contrary, s/he stands with his/her people, knowing that s/he shares their sin. The judgment s/he proclaims will be on his/her own head also and so is uttered with tears. The prophet can speak only because his/her “unclean lips” have been cleansed. Vs. 7.
Although this vision unfolds in the temple, it is much too big for any such architectural setting. The Lord of hosts is “high and lifted up.” His train alone fills the entire temple. Vs. 1. When the Lord speaks, “the foundations of the thresholds shook.” Vs. 4. The fragileness of the temple and, by extension, the kingdom of Judah and the rest of the world in the presence of such a Being is hard to miss. While God might honor the temple with God’s self-revelation, there can be no containing God there!
I cannot see any reason for including this wonderful text in the lectionary for Trinity Sunday other than the seraphims’ cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy” which evidently inspired the Trinity Sunday hymn by that name. Nonetheless, as is evident throughout the prophetic books, the word of God is sent to God’s people through the mouth of the prophet, a word that is as much action as speech and thus an extension of God’s self. The word sent to Israel by the prophets is, according to the New Testament witness, the Word made flesh and the Son who is sent into the world for the life of the world by the Father. Thus, it is quite possible to move from this text to a discussion of the Trinity.
I have commented on this psalm before, most recently in my post of post of Sunday, January 11, 2015. For my thoughts on textual, formal and interpretive issues, you might want to revisit it.
As I read this psalm through the lens of Trinity Sunday, I am struck by the attribution of so much activity to the “voice” of the Lord. Again, ours is a God who speaks. Yet much of what God has to say through natural phenomenon like storms is unintelligible unless proclaimed through the lips of human witnesses. What, for example, do we glean from witnessing a hurricane? Power, to be sure. But raw power is an attribute shared by every tyrant, bully and thug. That God has more of it than anyone else is hardly comforting if that is all we know. The psalm must therefore be read in the context of the canonical narrative. This God of the storm is the God who used the might of his arm to liberate a people from slavery and bring them up into freedom. This thundering God is the God who made a covenant with the earth promising never to use divine might to annihilate it. This psalm testifies not only that God is powerful, but that God can be trusted to use power to redeem, sanctify and heal.
That probably does not answer all of the questions we might have about God’s will and purpose in the wake of a devastating hurricane, tornado or earthquake. But it assures us that God is at work in such horrific events turning them to God’s own redemptive purposes. The word that goes out from God is always the Word made flesh, the Son sent into the world for the life of the world.
For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post for Sunday, June 22, 2014. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.
In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.
Paul contrasts “slavery” with “sonship” to distinguish these two ways of living. A slave has no legal standing in the household. S/he is merely property of his/her master that may be sold at any time. Thus, if a slave desires to remain in the household, s/he must constantly be demonstrating his/her worth and value to the master. The life of a slave is one of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. A son, however, belongs to the household and can address the father fearlessly with the intimate term “Abba.” Vs. 15. Of course, the son or daughter owes his/her father obedience and respect. But that is far different than the servile need of a slave to please his/her master to remain in his/her good graces. The son or daughter is already in the father’s good graces and has no need to earn his love.
The “Spirit” of which Paul speaks is the source of that confidence a believer has to address God as “Abba.” Just as Augustine would say that the Holy Spirit is the love binding the Father and the Son, Paul I think would say that the Spirit is the love binding the believer to God in Christ Jesus. It is the desire of God to share with us the Trinitarian life of love experienced between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Again, my formal, textual and interpretive comments on this text can be found in my post of Sunday, March 16, 2014. You might want to revisit these.
Focusing on this passage from the standpoint of Trinity Sunday, I am drawn to verses 16-17. Our God is the God who speaks. God is known because God makes God’s self known to us. The sending of the Son is but the intensification of God’s speaking God’s word, so much so that this “Word” became flesh in order to dwell or sojourn among us. John 1:14. God is not merely as good as God’s word. God is God’s Word.
Jesus’ words about the Spirit are elusive for Nicodemus, but that is precisely because his words are unintelligible apart from the Spirit. As last week’s reading informed us, it is the role of the Spirit to lead us into all the truth. John 16:13. It is the Spirit that takes what belongs to Jesus-which is “all” that the Father has-and imparts it to the disciples. John 16:13-14. Although Nicodemus says he knows that Jesus is a “teacher” come from God, he is light years away from knowing or understanding that Jesus is the Son sent from the Father. To obtain such understanding, Nicodemus must be born from above, that is, born of God. Vs. 3. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, thinking that he is speaking of some sort of human rebirth. Naturally, then, when Jesus begins speaking to him about the Spirit, he cannot follow. Nicodemus is literally chasing after wind.
We never discover whether Nicodemus ever understood Jesus’ final word to him, namely, that God so loved the world that God sent his Son into the world to save it. Indeed, until we reach the Farewell Discourses it will not become clear to us as readers that the sending of the Son is the outpouring of the Father’s love for him (the Spirit) upon the world. John 17. God desires to draw us into the very love that is the life of the Trinity: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:25-26. That Nicodemus felt the pull of that love is evidenced by his defense of Jesus before the council of religious leaders in Jerusalem and his participation in the burial of Jesus. John 7:50-52; John 19:38-42.
DAY OF PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13.
Not long ago I ran into a friend from a congregation to which I once belonged and served. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, she unloaded upon me her frustrations with the “new” direction taken by our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Of particular concern was our 2009 churchwide decision to permit the blessing of same sex relationships and to accept for ordination persons living faithfully in such relationships. “The Bible has taught us that marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman from the beginning of time,” she remarked. “Why change it now?”
How to answer? There was so much wrong with the question itself that I hardly knew where to begin answering. My friend’s assertion about the Bible’s teaching on marriage is dead wrong. In addition to monogamy, the Bible recognizes polygamy, concubinage and sexual slavery as legitimate arrangements. When it comes to the sheer number of Bible passages available on the subject of marriage, there are far more verses one could use to undermine the monogamous relationships we have now come to call “traditional” than there are to be used against same sex marriages. The church adopted the rule of monogamy largely because it was the dominant trend both in 1st Century Judaism and throughout Mediterranean culture generally. Of course, there were theological reasons as well. Paul’s assertion that there is in Christ neither male nor female undermined the cultural assumption of patriarchy and the treatment of women as property. The comparison of marriage to Christ’s relationship with the church in the letter to the Ephesians leaves no more room for polygamy than does the First Commandment for polytheism. But at the very least, we need to acknowledge that societal trends played a large part in driving the church’s recognition of monogamy as normative for marriage. It was not that way from the beginning of time or throughout the scriptures.
If the church had all the truth, it would not need the Holy Spirit to guide it. I don’t believe the church has ever claimed that it possessed all the truth even in its worst moments of triumphalistic arrogance. I do believe, however, that we frequently claim possession of more truth than we actually have. The church has also been flat out wrong about some things-and we usually don’t take kindly to folks who point that out to us. It took us centuries to get over Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei informing us that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. The rich irony here is that, even as the Vatican was bringing Galileo up on charges of heresy, its ships were using navigational maps based on his heretical theory because maps based on the orthodox, Bible based Ptolemaic understanding of the universe reliably ran them into the rocks. At some point, denying the obvious in order to preserve “what we have always believed and taught” is just silly.
Even as the church is not always right; so too, societal trends are not always wrong. Clearly, Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. The church would have done well to take their work seriously and think more deeply about what the Bible actually has to say about creation and our abilities to understand it. Had we done that, it is entirely possible that we would have spared ourselves the embarrassment of Galileo’s heresy trial, the Scopes Monkey trial centuries later and the present day humiliating spectacle of multi-million dollar museums featuring T-rex’s cavorting with Adam and Eve.
So, too, it has long been the scientific consensus (since at least the early 1970s) that homosexual orientation is a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a psychiatric disorder. It has also become painfully and tragically evident that pseudo-scientific methods employed to “cure” people of their sexual orientations are not only ineffectual, but harmful. I am not suggesting that one cannot assert good faith arguments against the blessing/marriage of same sex couples or that theological concerns about so doing should be dismissed out of hand. But let me say emphatically that no argument should be entertained based on junk science, literalistic readings of cherry picked scripture passages or irrational fear and hatred toward gay and lesbian people.
Thankfully, the church’s long history demonstrates that it is capable of adaptation. Marriage has evolved within the church from an arrangement between men by which women were transferred as property to a relationship of mutuality mirroring that of Christ to the church. That, in my view, is a much bigger leap than merely opening up our current understanding of mutual covenant love and faithfulness to same sex couples. We cannot pretend that the church is guided strictly by doctrines, morals and practices that remain unaltered in their pristine form dating from biblical times. That is not what the Bible tells us.
The church has changed throughout the ages and will no doubt change in ways we cannot predict throughout the coming century. But that should not trouble us. Jesus promises to be present in our midst through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit can be trusted to correct our missteps and guide us into all truth. I only pray that my friend and all others who share her concerns find comfort and peace in that promise.
This familiar story of the prophet and the valley of dead bones takes on a new meaning when played in the major key of Pentecost rather than the minor key of Lent. The focus now is less on the hopeless circumstances of the people and more on the life giving power of the “the breath,” or “ruach” as the Hebrew has it. As I have mentioned before, ruach may be translated either as “spirit” or as “breath.” As our psalm points out, it is the breath of God that gives life to inanimate clay. Psalm 104: 29-30; Genesis 2:7. It is this same breath that is summoned by the words of the prophet to inspire hope among an exiled people on the verge of extinction. Vss. 11-14. The interplay between God’s word that goes forth from God finding expression in the words of the prophet and God’s Spirit/Breath that gives life is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the writings of the prophets. Torah is not dead letter. It is the place where God seizes the heart and imagination even as the believer wrestles with Torah in prayer and reflection. Psalm 119 in particular testifies to this lively and dynamic relationship between word and spirit, hearing and prayer, meditation and daily life.
So, too, Spirit is not an ethereal inwardness. The Spirit of God is always tied in some way to God’s word. The Hebrew God is the one who speaks. God speaks creation into being, speaks through the gift of Torah and speaks through the mouths of the prophets. God’s Spirit is given through speech. The God of the Bible is not the deity of philosophers whose nature and identity is discovered through reflection upon his necessary attributes. The God of the Bible reveals God’s self through acts of salvation on behalf of a particular people. God’s Spirit is given through the narratives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, through the story of the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings, Settling of Canaan, the Davidic Monarchy, Exile and Return from Exile. To receive the Spirit is to locate yourself in these grand narratives.
It is easy enough to find ourselves in this narrative. We are the dead bones, a people in decline. We inhabit a landscape of museums, office buildings and theaters that once were thriving places of worship. For those sanctuaries that still function as such, there is often a huge disconnect between the small, aging and fragile band of worshipers and the triumphal architecture housing them. We are the dead bones, but can we recognize ourselves as the bones upon which the breath of God’ blows? Are we able to recognize those places where God’s Spirit is creating life in our midst? Where is the Spirit moving in the church today?
For my extensive comments on this psalm, I invite you to revisit last year’s Pentecost post of June 8, 2014. I am struck this time around by the dependence of our earth upon the animating word and Spirit of God. The cosmology of Genesis places the habitable world under a great dome creating a bubble within the chaotic waters that were before time. Should the windows of heaven crack allowing the waters above the earth to cascade down and the waters beneath the earth erupt over the land, the creation would soon degenerate into chaos. Indeed, this is precisely what almost occurred during the great flood in Noah’s time. Genesis 7:11. Obviously, our 21st Century cosmology is a good deal more sophisticated than the biblical understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, whether one is reading this psalm or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, one cannot help but be impressed with how vulnerable our little planet is. When you stop and think about how our earth runs its course around the sun through a gauntlet of asteroids that could inflict (and in the past have inflicted) catastrophic destruction on our planet, it is amazing that we all have the presence of mind to go about our daily business. The psalmist reminds us that we are, after all, a frail and vulnerable island of relative peace within a violent universe every bit as terrifying as the monster infested waters of creation. Yet the psalmist goes on to assure us that the universe is not a billiard table. It is not merely cosmos. It is creation, a creation that was made by a God who loves it, watches tenderly over it and animates it with God’s own Spirit.
The good news here is that even the sea monsters and seemingly destructive forces are God’s creatures in which God takes delight. The world is neither a haunted house animated by warring demons as the ancient near eastern religions often asserted, nor is it a dead and soulless chamber of ricocheting rocks subject only to randomness. The Spirit of God is at work, as I have said, bending each subatomic particle toward the creation of a new heaven and earth. That is an affirmation of faith that cannot finally be verified empirically. It is discovered by a people living in covenant with their gracious and merciful God. Finally, thanks again to the makers of the lectionary for sparing us poor, simple minded sheep from scriptural expressions not strictly in accord with American middleclass protestant, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite sensitivities. I refer, of course, to verse 35a which reads: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”
A couple of things need to be kept in mind here. First, this is a payer expressed to God. It is one thing to ask God to rid the world of the wickedness we perceive. It is quite another to take that task on oneself whether it be through the more direct means of genocide or the softer methods of punitive legislation against perceived vice. Jesus did not commission his disciples to create a moral society, much less to “take back America” for him. Judgment there surely will be, but that’s God’s business.
Second, we do ourselves no favors by “softening” the scriptures. Of course it would be nice if the kingdom could come on earth as in heaven without changing anything (at least the things I don’t want changed). But in reality, the greatest impediment to the kingdom is sin, not merely or even primarily personal vices, but the systemic violence, oppression and abuse inherent in the powers that be. As much as it goes against the grain, we need to pray for sinners to be consumed from the earth and for the wicked to be no more. Of course, we must also recognize that we are praying against ourselves. We are, after all, complicit in systemic evil in ways that we do not even recognize. So we need to be mindful of what we are asking God to do. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. Thus, if God were to execute judgment in military fashion, most of us would end up casualties of war. The earth and its creatures would be collateral damage. Obviously, that is not the outcome God seeks. Eradicating evil from creation is a slow, painful and exacting operation. As we will learn in the next reading from Romans, it is a process under which not only humanity, but all of creation groans. Liberation from evil comes about only through repentance-a radical reorientation of the heart. Hearts seldom turn on a dime. Generally speaking, they turn more like aircraft carriers. They move in increments so small that they are hardly visible. Only after traveling a great distance is it possible to see just how profound that fraction of a degree change actually was.
“The expression… ‘the whole creation’ includes the entire range of animate and inanimate objects on earth and in the heavens.” Jewett, Robert, Romans: a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 516. The groaning of creation as it awaits liberation stands in stark relief to the Roman hymns and poems declaring the rejoicing of creation at the rise of Augustus Caesar and his successors. Ibid. The Pax Romana imposed by Rome was no true peace according to St. Paul. He sees right though Rome’s nationalist propaganda. Rome’s “peace” was nothing other than institutionalized war against the masses of humanity at the bottom of the societal pyramid. The consequences of nation state institutionalized violence and enslavement on the non-human world are even clearer in our own time as we witness the mass extinction of animal species, destruction of forests and pollution of our rivers, lakes and oceans. Yet Paul points out that the creation is subjected to futility “in hope.” Vs. 20-21. Its endurance is not for the sake of pointless misery. The creation longs for the liberation it already recognizes in the children of God. Vs. 21. For Paul, the church is not merely the future of humanity, but the destiny of all creation. The agony experienced by creation and shared by the children of God is not raw, pointless suffering. It is the birth pangs of the new creation. It can therefore be borne in “hope.” Again, like the psalmist, Paul asserts that the universe is “creation” and not merely cosmos. It has a beginning in the creative act of God and an end toward which God is bringing it-an end not simply in terms of completion but as goal or purpose.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Vs. 26) or, as one commentator puts it, “Nor are we alone in our struggles. The Holy Spirit supports us in our helplessness.” The Epistle to the Romans, Sanday, W., Headlam, A.C., (c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark Ltd.) p. 212. God shares the agony of a creation in bondage to human exploitation and cruelty. It is for this reason that the Spirit of God can offer prayer for what we most need but cannot yet fully comprehend. The Spirit alone knows what it truly means for us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Spirit alone is able to transform us into persons capable of living in God’s kingdom, a people who will recognize the coming of that kingdom with joy rather than with dread. Our own prayers are often bent toward our selfish interests and distorted by our myopic perspectives. But the “Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Vs. 27. This lesson gives us the Holy Spirit as the inspiration of transformative hope.
It seems that we are transformed by that for which we hope and long for. Hope for success, recognition and wealth are powerful motivators. They drive our capitalist economy, but are they worthy of hope? Success is an elusive goal, always one step ahead of us. Recognition is often not worth the envy and ill will that frequently comes with it. As for wealth, it is an addictive substance. The more one has, the more one wants and the less it satisfies. Much energy and talk (mostly talk) has gone into increasing economic opportunities for more people in our society. While there is nothing wrong with that, opportunities do nothing for people incapable of using them wisely and well. For those whose hopes are misdirected, more opportunity means only more rope with which to hang oneself. The hope for a new heaven and a new earth is cosmic in scope. It is a hope for the wellbeing of all creation transcending personal interests. Because sin turns us in upon ourselves, we are incapable of hoping for and naturally will not pray “that God’s will” rather than our own “be done.” The Spirit is needed to draw us out of ourselves, raise our gaze beyond our own selfish interests and focus us on the higher vision of God’s glorious intent for all creation.
This reading is hard to follow without having read the entire Farewell Discourse at John 13-17. You might want to do that before proceeding further. Comprehension is made all the more difficult by the lectionary peoples’ decision to excise the first four verses of chapter 16. You should read John 16:1-4 at the very least. There you will learn that the whole point of this discussion about the coming of the “Counselor,” “the Spirit of Truth” is to prepare the disciples for the hostility and violence they will encounter following Jesus’ crucifixion. As pointed out in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015, this warning might well reflect the rejection of the Jesus movement by the reconstituted Sanhedrin at the close of the 1st Century. Yet I think that it reflects as much the general hostility toward Jesus throughout the world at large of which the Jewish community was merely a microcosm.
Of particular importance are verses 8-11 which describe the role of the Spirit. The Spirit convinces the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. Vs. 8. It is important to recall that for John, sin is not the transgression of any particular law, rule or statute. Sin is revealed through the way in which the Son who was sent by the Father is received. Sin is revealed in the desertion of Jesus by disciples who can not endure his “hard” teachings. John 6:60-65. Sin is revealed in the cowardice of those who believe Jesus, but will not confess him for fear of persecution. John 12:42-43. Sin is revealed in the blindness of the religious rulers who refuse to acknowledge Jesus even in the face of irrefutable testimony to his marvelous works. John 9:13-34. Sin is revealed in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30); Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 18:15-27); and Pilate’s placing his loyalty to Caesar over his recognition of Jesus’ innocence. John 19:12-16. We may have all kinds of notions about right and wrong. But it is impossible to identify, recognize and acknowledge sin apart from knowing Jesus.
Similarly, righteousness cannot rightly be understood apart from God’s verdict on Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. Throughout John’s gospel, various people render their own judgments on Jesus. But the final judgment, the court of last appeal belongs to God. God raises Jesus from death thereby rendering all other judgments null and void. Jesus is the Son sent by God for the life of the world. All who believe this and put their trust in the Son are righteous. So, too, the final judgment upon Jesus illuminates God’s verdict against the world. In crucifying Jesus, the world shows its true colors. It is the rebel creation that murders the most precious gift its Creator has to give-the gift of the Creator’s self. The world’s religious institutions, the world’s governmental structures and the world’s people all conspire in the murder of the Son. That is the truth about who and what we are. God sent the Son and, when he was murdered and rejected, raised the Son up and continues to offer the Son to the very world that murdered him. That is who and what God is.
Again, I will be accused of reading Augustinian Trinitarian thought into verses 12-15. Perhaps, but I truly believe Augustine got this right. So if I am guilty of anything it is plagiarism or at least I would be guilty if I claimed this reading as my own. Just as the Father has given “all” that he has to Jesus, so the Spirit takes what is Jesus’ and declares it to the disciples. Vss. 14-15. The Spirit glorifies Jesus as does the Father. Vs. 14; John 12:28. This describes the internal workings of the Trinity whose differentiation in three persons exists only in their relations to each other. The Trinity’s external works are necessarily the work of the whole Trinity in perfect unity. The Spirit, then, is the presence of the resurrected Christ among his disciples communicating to them “all” that is God the Father.
ASCENSION OF OUR LORD/SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
For those of you who will be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of June 1, 2014 for the appointed texts and my comments on them. Trinity will also observe the Ascension, but through the lens of texts appointed for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I confess that I am motivated, in part, by a desire to escape having to preach on the same texts for the same liturgical feast for the seventh straight year running. But I also feel compelled to address this very important day in the church year from a broader perspective than the appointed lessons allow. Telling Luke’s story of the Ascension without reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in which Jesus returns in the same way he was seen to depart, we can create the impression that Jesus has gone to some distant place beyond the universe to await the end of time. One regrettable liturgical practice calls for the extinguishing of the Pascal candle following the Ascension gospel reading, which only reinforces this misconception.
John’s gospel leaves no room for Jesus’ absence. The gospel concludes not with Jesus departure, but with the disciples following their resurrected Lord into the future. It is as though John cannot imagine the church without the Good Shepherd to guide it. John makes clear that our confession of Jesus’ Ascension to the right hand of the Father must not leave us with his absence, but with the understanding that he is now more imminently and intimately present to us than ever before. Jesus is the right hand of God at work in the world. To borrow a phrase from St. Paul, Jesus “ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” Ephesians 4:10. This is to say that Jesus is now at work in every molecule, bending each sub-atomic particle toward the advent of God’s new creation. Jesus is God’s way of being in the world for us. I like to think of the Ascension as a radical amplification of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh and now remains flesh. God is henceforth fully human-not merely as a species, but human as human was intended to be. God is human as we are not yet human. God’s humanity, God’s right hand is Jesus. And that means there will be no great tribulation unleashed by God nor any dramatic intervention to save us from our own folly. That is not God’s way with us.
In one sense, that is a little upsetting. It is comforting to believe that there is a God in control of the universe, a God that will not let us start a nuclear war or turn the earth into a pressure cooker. I would like to believe that God would never let anything really bad happen to me and that God would rapture me from the face of the earth before it goes up in flames. The trouble is, bad things have happened to me and the ones I love. Bad things are happening all over the world and God does not seem to be intervening-at least not in any dramatic or miraculous way. That leads me to wonder whether God can intervene. I sometimes wonder whether God has limited God’s self in creating a universe that is other than God along with creatures having minds other than God’s. Is human suffering the price we must pay for being creatures capable of making meaningful decisions about how we will live on this planet? Of course, volumes have been written on these subjects. The best overall treatment of the topic I have ever read is a book entitled God & Human Suffering, by Douglas John Hall (c. 1986 by Augsburg Publishing House). I cannot say that it answered all of my questions, but it convinced me that knowing the answers would probably not satisfy me.
What comfort is there, then, in knowing that God’s right had is Jesus? For me, it is good to know that God is human. On the night my grandson died and my wife and I held our son as he wept, wept as I had never seen him weep before, I knew that God’s heart was as broken as ours and that God was weeping with us. At that point, it was good to know that we were in the company of One who had lost his only beloved Son. It is good to know that God knows the ache of chronic hunger, the rage, helplessness and fear of a bullied teen and the loneliness that comes with facing death. Jesus can shepherd me through the valley of the shadow because he has been through it and knows it well.
And there is more. Suffering can break a person. Victims of violent crime can be eaten alive by anger, bitterness and grief. The tragic loss of a loved one, years of verbal and physical abuse, being stuck in grinding poverty-these are things that can extinguish the light of hope in the best of us. But if the resurrection means anything, it means that God does not succumb to despair, does not get sucked into the vortex of vengeance, does not lose the capacity to love the creation-even when it nails him to the cross. No matter what kind of ugliness we throw at God and at each other, God just keeps raising up Jesus who reaches out to us with his nail pierced hands, offering healing and forgiveness. Jesus makes clear that we cannot drag God down to our level.
It may sound trite to say that love will win, but it’s true. Love will win, not because it is the better strategy for achieving the good society or because our own better angels are stronger than the demons that drive us toward death. Love will win because it is eternal. Love is that Spirit binding the Trinity in unity. It existed before time and will outlast time. Our gospel lesson tells us that Jesus came to share with us that very love, love that now inhabits every corner of creation because Jesus is at God’s right hand. Given the grim realities of cruelty, oppression and violence inhabiting our planet, it might take some time for God to bring the world under God’s reign of love. It might take some time for God to reconcile all things through Jesus. But that’s OK. God has all eternity to work with.
How does the church go about selecting an apostolic leader? The method chosen for the replacement of Judas appears to be a combination of communal judgment and a coin toss. Two capable leaders, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, were put forward, presumably after some deliberation. But rather than choosing one of these two men by vote, the disciples proceed by casting lots. There is, of course, precedent for this means of deciding matters in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Leviticus 16:8; Number 26:55. Still, I find its use puzzling in this context. If God can be trusted to choose between the two finalists, why can’t God be trusted to select the right leader in the first instance? Why not place the names of all the disciples in a hat and hold a drawing? That would give God a much wider selection.
I suppose this episode reflects the uncertainty that is always involved with making choices like these. In the first instance, we make our best judgment. But judgment only takes you so far. A friend of mine who is involved in admissions for a fairly prestigious college once confided in me her discomfort with the selection process. “It’s easy to spot the truly brilliant applicants,” she said. “It’s also easy to weed out the bad apples. But after that, you are left with a large stack of applicants with high SAT scores, good grades and glowing recommendations. We can accept maybe a fourth of them. At this point, the selection process is pretty arbitrary.”
So it is for the church. I do my best to identify young people who I think might be called to ministry in the church. Seminaries and credentialing committees do their best to assist aspiring ministers in discerning their calls and to screen out persons clearly unfit for leadership in ministry. Congregations and pastors struggle in the call process to determine whether there is in fact a call to ministry for a particular individual to a particular church at a given point in time. But when all is said and done, we don’t really know what we are doing. The process can become arbitrary and sometimes grossly unfair. I have seen some promising leaders rejected by credentialing committees and congregational call committees that have gone off the rails. Similarly, I have seen more than a few persons sail through the process with flying colors only to crash and burn in ministry settings. When it comes to selecting our spiritual leaders, we have not come very far since the selection of Matthias to replace Judas.
We don’t hear anything about Matthias in the New Testament after he was enrolled with the apostles. The traditions about him are scarce, conflicting and, in my view, unreliable. That is unfortunate because I would love to know how he made out. Was he accepted as a full partner? Or was he treated as a second class apostle, given that he was not actually selected by Jesus himself? Where did he go and what did he do? Was he the “right” choice? Or would the disciples have done better selecting Joseph Barsabbas?
I suppose that, at the end of the day, we are always standing at the precipice of our ability to discern the will of God. When push comes to shove, we can only do our best and trust the Spirit to guide us and help us clean up the mess when we misread the signals. Thankfully, the Spirit has done that for us faithfully and well. The church has often chosen fools and scoundrels to lead us and has sometimes passed over fine and gifted people who might have contributed much. Nonetheless, the church has muddled along over the centuries managing to preach good news to a broken world and care for the souls of the faithful. That is comforting for me, particularly on those days when I doubt my own calling and wonder whether I am really where I belong. At times like that, it is good to know that I can pray, “Lord, I might be ill equipped, wrongly motivated and unsuited for ministry in this parish. But somehow or another, I wound up here and until you replace me, I’m all you’ve got. So help me out here!”
Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.
Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.
By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.
Ascension faith asserts that God accomplishes judgment through Jesus, who is God’s right hand. Consequently, we must reinterpret the nature and meaning of divine Judgment through the lens of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. To employ Johanine terminology, the promised Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” John 16:8-11. It is impossible to understand what sin is apart from the world’s rejection of Jesus. So too, it is impossible to know the heart of the Father without recognizing that this rejected one is the one sent by the Father to give life to the world. The “ruler of this world” or Satan is overcome through the forgiveness of a God that will not be sucked into the vortex of retributive justice.
The Greek word for “testimony” found throughout this passage is “martyria,” from which we get our word “martyr.” From very early in the church’s history, testimony to Jesus as Lord included a willingness to die for such loyalty. Martyrdom in the early church demonstrated the depth of a disciple’s commitment to Jesus and so lent credence to his/her witness. Thus, if the community is strengthened by the witness of its own who have suffered for their testimony, how much more should the community be strengthened by the witness of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. It is in the sending of the Son and the Son’s willingness to die that God “witnesses” or “testifies” to the depth of God’s love for us. Our own suffering as a consequence of our witness is but a pale reflection of God’s sacrificial love. Yet in so testifying to Jesus, the believer “has the testimony in himself.” Vs. 10. Disbelief in the testimony of God to Jesus is not simply the denial of a doctrinal principle. It is a refusal to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises and God’s deep love for the world. Such refusal makes God a “liar” and God’s promises unworthy of our trust. Vs. 10.
“This is the testimony, that God gives us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Vs. 11. Again, “eternal life” refers to more than just life’s duration. Life that is eternal is based on love grounded in the unity of the Trinity. It is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. Consequently, the disciples who live together in love such as the Father has for the Son are already experiencing “eternal life.” It bears repeating that such love is not an abstract principle or an inward disposition. It is expressed concretely in the person of Jesus-so much so that one who is without the Son is without eternal life. Vs. 12. Jesus is not an illustration, metaphor or example of eternal life or love. He is eternal life and love.
The whole point of John’s letter is to make his readers “know” that they have eternal life. Vs. 13. This “knowing” is relational. It has to do with knowing Jesus rather than knowing and accepting doctrines about him, though the latter have their place. It is finally through our relationships that we are shaped and transformed. To “abide” in Jesus is to know Jesus, to be a “friend” of Jesus as our lesson from the gospel would have it. According to John, we are ever “living into” Jesus, deepening our trust in him and our understanding of his very simple yet demanding command to love one another.
To get the full impact of this passage, it is essential that you read all of John 17. This chapter comes at the conclusion of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in John 13-17. Beginning with the washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs his disciples how they are to live together in the same Trinitarian love that exists between the Father and the Son. This love that will animate the community of disciples is the Holy Spirit, the presence of the resurrected Christ within the church. Chapter 17 concludes this discourse with a prayer that this Trinitarian unity will find expression in the disciples’ love for each other. Jesus prays that they may be one “even as we [Father and Son] are one.” Vs. 11.
Some might object to my use of the term “Trinity” in commenting on this text. But if I seem to be imposing Augustinian Trinitarianism on the text, it is because I think Augustine got this right. It is so that the disciples might know the unity of the Father with the Son that Jesus was sent into the world. Vs. 11. The Spirit, which is sent to bind the community together and draw the disciples deeper into their relationship with Jesus and love for one another, does no less than offer to the disciples “all” that was given to Jesus by the Father which, in turn, is “all” that the Father has. John 16:13-15. The gift of eternal life to a dying world is the Spirit, the love that binds the Father to the Son and unites the community of disciples. It is through this unifying Trinitarian love that the world will come to know that the Father loves the Son who was sent into the world. John 17:21. Moreover, the world will finally understand the depth of God’s love for it when it witnesses the continued sending of the Son into the world through the disciples’ ministry, notwithstanding the world’s rejection.
The disciple’s loyalty to Jesus will provoke the same hostility that Jesus himself provoked:
“This community of Christians will be hated by the world, but Jesus does not wish to have them spared this hostility. So that the depth of his love might become apparent, Jesus himself could not leave the world without facing the hostility of its Prince (xiv 30-31). Similarly each of his followers must face the Evil One (xvii 15; cf. I John ii 15-17 on the allurements of the world) if eventually he is to be with Jesus.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 764.
Many commentators suggest that this anticipated hostility reflects the growing animosity between the Jesus movement and the Jewish Sanhedrin constituted at the end of the First Century:
“Thus the Fourth Gospel affords us a picture of a Jewish community at a point not far removed from the end of the first century. As we get a glimpse of it, this community has been shaken by the introduction of a newly formulated means for detecting those Jews who want to hold a dual allegiance to Moses and to Jesus as Messiah. Even against the will of some of the synagogue leaders, the Heretic Benediction is now employed in order formally and irretrievably to separate such Jews from the synagogue.” Martyn, J. Louis, History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd Ed. (c. 1979 by J. Louis Martyn, pub. by Abingdon) p. 62.
However that might be, I believe that John understood the opposition faced by Jesus to be grounded not merely in the church’s dispute with the synagogue, but in a larger struggle against “the ruler of this world.” John 16:11. What transpires within the Jewish community is simply a microcosm of the cosmic battle with the evil one who coopts not merely the religious leadership but the imperial authorities as well. It is “the world” that finally rejects the Word by which it was made and that Word’s incarnation as the Son who is sent to give it life. It is the world also that is the ultimate beneficiary of the Son.
These lessons from John can help us focus on the significance of Jesus’ being at God’s right hand or, even better, being the right hand of God. We can dispel the notion that Jesus has gone away somewhere beyond the blue to return only in the distant future by pointing out that Jesus’ ascension makes him more intimately present to his church. Jesus is now God’s way of being in, dealing with and reigning over the world. The Incarnation is irreversible. God is and will ever remain human so that we might be made genuinely human.
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Professor Stanley Hauerwas somewhere says that the object of a society’s worship is revealed by that for which its citizens are willing to kill and die. States of all stripes demand ultimate loyalty from their citizens, calling upon them both to kill and to die for the greater good of the nation. The United States is no different in that respect. It is expected that we will be willing to give our lives or the lives of our children if necessary to defend our country. On national holidays, particularly Memorial Day, we honor those who have made the “ultimate sacrifice” for the preservation of our nation, our freedoms, our way of life. Even when the public begins to doubt the necessity of some particular war, we nevertheless honor those who died fighting it. Something noble there is about dying in combat for the well-being of the nation that commands unusual respect.
Unusual, I say, because there are plenty of sacrifices for the common good (as we understand it) made by those who never see combat. Workers are not infrequently killed or injured in the course of constructing the roads, bridges and tunnels we drive on. It is hard to imagine our nation functioning without passable thoroughfares, yet we do not decorate people whose lives are spent in building and maintaining them. There is no holiday memorializing them nor is there a separate association, like the VA, that cares for their medical needs and those of their families. Neither do we recognize the roughly 30,000 people killed in traffic accidents to accommodate our preference for personal vehicular travel or the 10,000 who die each year for our insistence on the right to bear arms. Without thinking much about it, we deem these lives worth sacrificing to maintain the way of life to which we have grown accustomed. So, too, we in the so called “developed world,” whether we acknowledge it or not, enjoy a life of relative abundance through maintenance of a global economic system that is crushing the bottom third of the world’s population and strangling the planet we share with them. The life we enjoy is paid for with suffering and sacrifice that is hard for us to imagine and about which we would prefer not to think.
Jesus sacrificed his life as well, but not for any nation. He did not give his life to preserve the status quo. His sacrifice was made in loyalty to the gentle reign of his heavenly Father. Jesus died for an alternative way of being human and living together that he modeled throughout his life with his disciples. Like the leaders of other kingdoms, Jesus unapologetically invites his disciples to make the ultimate sacrifice for him. He calls his disciples to share in his suffering and death. A world united and held together by the same Trinitarian love that binds the Father to the Son is well worth living for and, when required, dying for. Disciples are called now more than ever before to renounce the false gods of nationalism, wealth and consumerism that cry out for the blood sacrifice of the innocent. They are called instead to lay down their lives with the victims of these idols. They are challenged to expose the false promises of wealth and prosperity gained through exploitation and point to the new, life giving existence offered through abiding in Jesus.
I should also add that the chief difference between the kingdom Jesus proclaims and all other kingdoms is this: Jesus will not have his disciples kill. While the kingdom is worth dying for, nothing justifies killing. At the end of the day, Jesus chose death over killing. The kingdom cannot be established through violence and it needs no violence to defend it. It sometimes requires the witness of martyrdom, but never the sword in its defense.
This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord.
The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s scruples are resolved by an act of God filling his gentile hosts with the Holy Spirit enabling them speak in tongues. Vss. 44-46. His seemingly rhetorical question echoes that of the Ethiopian eunuch in or lesson from last Sunday: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Vs. 47; cf. Acts 8:36. A couple of things are noteworthy here. In the first place, the filling of the Holy Spirit precedes rather than follows baptism. Our theology of baptism has it quite the other way around-and rightly so. Baptism is given as God’s pledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us-even when there are no outward manifestations or inward feelings to substantiate it. As such, it is a great source of comfort. Nevertheless, God does not need baptism to impart God’s Spirit. We need baptism to remind us that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us. Thus, baptism was quite properly administered to these newly Spirit filled believers to serve as God’s witness and vow that the Spirit they had just received would never leave them.
Second, this outpouring of God’s Spirit upon outsiders follows the trajectory established in the first chapter of Acts where the ascending Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. The church, however, seems reluctant to take the good news of Jesus so far so fast. I am sure that the leaders back at synod headquarters would have preferred to conduct a lengthy study into the theological basis for mission to the gentiles followed by a mission viability survey and vote at some subsequent synod assembly. But the Spirit will have none of that. The Spirit continues to push, prod and needle the church into action. Throughout the Book of Acts it seems the church is forever racing frantically to catch up with the Holy Spirit. Then as now, disciples of Jesus are frequently dragged kicking and screaming into God’s future. We are not in charge of the church’s mission-and a good thing that is!
This is a psalm of praise celebrating a great victory won for Israel by God’s might. This victory might refer to the Exodus, the Return from Babylon or some other great act of salvation experienced in Israel’s history. Rogerson and McKay are probably right in saying that we cannot determine with certainty which of these events is intended, if any of them. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 226. Saint Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480.
“Newness” (as in “Sing a new song” vs. 1) is a recurring theme in the prophets, particularly in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55): “Remember not the former things; behold, I do a new thing…” Isaiah 43:18. So also in the New Testament: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5. Notice also the refrain of “victory” or “yeshuath” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The word is actually from the root “yeshua” or “salvation,” root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vss. 4 and 9. Yet Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory.
“His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.” Vs. 2. This is a figurative reference to divine power which alone is responsible for Israel’s victories. Ibid. It is worth remembering that when we confess that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, we are asserting that Jesus is that power through which God exercises God’s reign. The power of God is God’s patient suffering, refusal to resort to retaliation and determination to love us in the face or our stark rejection.
“[God] will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Vs. 9. As Professor Anderson points out, “[t]he verb ‘judge’ means much more than the English word suggests. It refers to the power to obtain and maintain justice and proper order-power which human rulers should have (“Give us a king to judge us,” I Sam. 8:6) but which, in the biblical view, is vested supremely and ultimately in God.” 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. 179.
Saint John’s argument is maddeningly circular. First he tells us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” I John 4:12. This week he tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Vs. 2. It seems we cannot know and obey God without loving one another and we cannot love one another without loving and obeying God. It is similar to the impossible conundrum faced by so many college graduates: You need experience to get the job; but you also need the job to get experience. This is a lot like trying to shimmy up a greased pole!
Upon further reflection, though, I don’t believe it is a question of the starting point. We don’t necessarily find God in love for one another. A lot of what goes under the name of love is really lust, desire for control, need for self-affirmation and codependency. Most violent crimes occur within the context of domestic abuse. Much of what goes under the rubric of loving our children has more to do with living vicariously through them. Love of one’s own family, tribe or nation often has as its flip side distrust or outright hatred of outsiders. Love, as John points out, is not an abstract principle or mere sentiment. It is concretely exercised by God toward us in the sending of God’s Son. I John 4:10. Jesus is the shape love toward our sisters and brothers in Christ must take. Moreover, this community of love is sent into the word for which Jesus died, just as Jesus himself was sent. John 20:21-22. Thus, the relationship between believing in Jesus and loving your sisters and brothers is dialogical. Love becomes concrete or “incarnate” within the community of disciples, but is refined by the abiding presence of Jesus through whom repentance and forgiveness is freely offered.
The difficulty in preaching this text and that of the gospel which follows lies in the word “love,” a vacuous word in our language. How much meaning can any word have when I can use it interchangeably to describe both my feelings for my wife as well as my fondness for rum raison ice cream? Saint John, as I have said, anchors love in God’s sending of the Son and the Son’s sending of his disciples. This countercultural love transcends and supersedes all other social, familial and nationalist loyalties grounding itself in the One who was sent for the life of the world. In so doing, it undermines all systems of domination, whether tribal, patriarchal or nationalistic. Faith in Jesus thereby “overcomes the world.” Vss. 4-5.
The gospel reading builds on the lesson from the First Letter of John. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Vs. 9. Love is grounded in the Trinity. The love binding the community of faith together is not based on common interests, family ties or cultural heritage. It is the love that is the unity of the Trinity. God’s love for the Son is bound up with the sending of the Son, the beloved. So deeply did God love the world. John 3:16. The disciples are now invited to abide in that same Trinitarian love.
It is the nature of Trinitarian love that it “goes out” from itself. As the hymn has it, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” Lutheran Worship,(c. 2006 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn # 412. Just as love made room for the universe of space and time, so the sending of the Son makes space within the universe for that same pulsating Triune love. Love is not merely a human emotion or a humanly discerned philosophical/moral concept. It is the defining characteristic of the Holy Trinity pre-existing time itself. The same cannot be said of hatred, prejudice, jealousy, greed or any other vice. In fact, it cannot really be said of any other virtue either.
Trinitarian love is not hierarchical. Though I am hardly a student of doctrinal history, it seems to me that most, if not all, the heretical understandings of the Trinity rejected by the church have at least one thing in common: they created a hierarchy within the Trinity. It is surprising to me that a church that had become so rigidly hierarchical and so thoroughly patriarchal nevertheless rejected so many doctrinal models of the Triune God that subordinated the Son and/or Spirit to the Father in some way. Given the influence of the Empire over the Trinitarian disputes, this outcome is all the more remarkable. Perhaps we must simply attribute the church’s insistence on the unity and coequality within the Trinity to the working of the Holy Spirit in spite of rather than because of the church! Jesus makes clear that his relationship to his church is not a master/slave arrangement. It is through friendship that Jesus exercises his lordship over his disciples and will one day exercise it over all creation. To use Paul’s language, we are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation extending friendship with God to the world. II Corinthians 5:20. This is the “fruit that will last” about which John speaks. Vs. 16.
“…so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” vs. 16. Taken out of context, this promise is problematic. God does not give us everything for which we ask-nor should he. Half the time we don’t have any idea about what we really want. Seldom do we have the sense or courage to ask for what we need. If God were to start writing blank checks in response to prayer, I suspect we would very soon find ourselves living in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Nothing is more dangerous to us than our desires. It is therefore critical to read this promise in light of Jesus’ commission to “bear fruit that lasts.” Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them all they need to bear faithful witness to the reconciling love of God in their midst and for the world.
Finally, Jesus’ admonition in verse 17 is worth raising up. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Much of the time the church has gotten that directive backwards. Rather than putting the commandments in the service of love, we have made our love and acceptance of people contingent on compliance with the rules. While the commandments are to be observed and obeyed, obedience to any single commandment is shaped by the greatest commandment to love one another.