Archive for April, 2016
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: Bountiful God, you gather your people into your realm, and you promise us food from your tree of life. Nourish us with your word, that empowered by your Spirit we may love one another and the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
My own Lutheran protestant tradition does not put much stock in dreams as revelatory devices. Martin Luther was particularly scornful of the “heavenly prophets” among his Anabaptist critics who claimed to be guided and inspired by dreams and visions. His instincts were not altogether wrong in that respect. Dreams and visions are notoriously unreliable. Even when they have turned out to be prophetic, their messages have often been tragically misinterpreted. For example, the Lydian king, Croesus, was assured by an oracle from the shrine at Delphi that, should he attack the Persian Empire, he would destroy a great kingdom. His confidence bolstered by the oracle, Croesus attacked Persia and was soundly defeated. The oracle proved true with a vengeance. Croesus did indeed destroy a great kingdom; however, the kingdom he destroyed was not that of Persia but his own. Moses warned the people of Israel to beware of false prophets and that warning was not in vain. Throughout its long history Israel was plagued by false prophets speaking not only in the name of foreign deities, but also in the very name of the Lord. St. John warns the church to “test the spirits” to ensure their authenticity.
Still, we dare not throw out the baby with the bath water. Despite all of these salutary warnings, dreams and visions are frequently employed by God to guide God’s people throughout the biblical narrative. It was through Joseph’s dreams that his father Jacob and the rest of the descendants of Abraham were saved from starvation and brought safely to Egypt. God spoke to the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel through dreams. Joseph the husband of Mary and the Magi were guided to safety by dreams in Matthew’s gospel. In today’s reading from Acts, St. Paul’s dream re-directs his mission from Asia Minor to Europe. Our reading from the Book of Revelation is just one piece of an extended vision delivered to John of Patmos in a dream-like state. As troublesome as dreams and visions are for us 21st Century moderns, we dismiss them at our peril. We dare not allow our fear of being misled to blind us to the leading of God’s Spirit.
I have to confess that I have never in my life had a dream that I thought was revelatory. The few that I remember seem clearly to be products of my anxieties, repressed fantasies and past memories. Maybe that is true of everyone’s dreams, but is that all they are? Is it possible that the Spirit of God engages these subconscious fragments, fuses them together in new and unique ways and thereby invites us to recognize connections, relationships and correlations between aspects of our lives and experiences we could not otherwise have seen? Are the thoughts we repress, the fears we deny and the memories we have discarded the raw materials for God’s imaginative studio?
Though, as I said, I’ve never had a guiding dream or vision of my own, I have been richly blessed by those of others which manifest themselves through music, graphic arts and poetry. Through these media my imagination has been stimulated and my mind stretched. It is for this reason that I am able to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to which the gospels testify and the new creation about which John of Patmos writes. I know these things to be real because I have been carried up into them on the wings of music and verse. I have seen them come alive in paintings and sculpture. They enter into my heart and soul through drama and dance. It was a scientist, Albert Einstein, who once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. It is by the exercise of imagination that we see beyond what merely is to what might be-and truly is-if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Sadly, we are raising up an unimaginative generation. I recall hearing on NPR about a recent survey showing a marked decrease among young people of individuals believing that world peace is a possibility for our future. I can’t vouch for that survey because I could not locate it. But such an outcome, assuming it to be accurate, should not surprise us. After all, we are a nation that increasingly devalues the arts. Our schools regularly defund courses in music, dance and graphic arts in favor of more “practical” subjects that prepare students for the all-important labor market. When education becomes all about manufacturing units of labor instead of cultivating minds, it produces a people incapable of imagination. The earth inherits a generation that cannot imagine anything beyond what is and that is incapable of doing anything other than maintaining the machinery of oppression, inequality and injustice that is late stage capitalism. In such a stark and unimaginative landscape, politics becomes a relentless struggle for domination, economic life morphs into systemic enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and faith degenerates into moralism. We lose the capacity to dream.
The poet Langston Hughes once mused over what happens to dreams in such an unimaginative environment.
A Dream Deferred
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I think Hughes knew well, as did the prophets and apostles, that dreams and visions are explosive. Paul’s dream changed the course of his mission and planted the church in new soil. John of Patmos’ Revelation helped the struggling churches of Asia Minor recognize the cosmic importance of their day to day struggle to remain faithful in the hostile culture of imperial Rome. At its best, the church has always recognized music, verse, dance and graphic arts as its essential allies in winning obedience of hearts and minds to the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. The arts are the natural language of the gospel. And so perhaps the most radical thing we can do is teach our daughters to play musical instruments, read poetry to our sons and lead our children in dance. Planting the explosive of creative minds under the oppressive societal structures that bind us sets the stage for an unleashing of the Spirit akin to what the prophet Joel describes:
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. This particular poem inspired the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).
If you back up and read Acts 16:6-8, you will discover that Paul seems to have been floundering in Asia Minor. None of his plans come to fruition. His mission strategies repeatedly prove unsuccessful. At every point it seems that “the Spirit of Jesus,” is thwarting his efforts to proclaim the gospel. I have been there too, but I cannot say that I recognize Jesus in any of that. To me it looks like plain old failure and nothing more. That leads me to wonder whether Paul recognized the obstacles thrown in the way of his mission work as “the Spirit of Jesus” at the time. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect that Paul was probably frustrated, angry and maybe a little despondent about his repeated failures in Asia. Perhaps it was not until he was drawn to change his focus to Macedonia, met Lydia and her friends, planted the church in Philippi which would later bring him such joy and comfort that Paul finally recognized in his prior failures the work of the Holy Spirit directing him. Sometimes I think that perhaps we are not supposed to be visionaries. Maybe God purposely does not reveal the path ahead of us. It may be that our vision, our strategizing and “intentionality” just get in the way. Perhaps we are entitled only to light sufficient for the next step we have to take and should be satisfied with that. Maybe that is what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7.
This is all thoroughly consistent with Luke’s view of the ministry as wholly under the direction of the Spirit. It is the “word of God” that grows and multiplies. Acts 12:24. “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly…” Acts 6:7. Just as the Spirit of God used the martyrdom of Stephen scattering the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria to bring the gospel to the Samaritans, so now the Spirit somehow hinders Paul’s Asia mission in order to redirect him to Europe. See Acts 8:1-8. Even open hostility to the preaching of the word is turned by the Spirit to the service of the word.
As was his custom, Paul begins his mission to Philippi by going to the Jewish community. Evidently, there was no synagogue in Philippi. That might have been due to Roman hostility to Jewish influence in what was an imperial colony. It is also possible that the Jewish presence was too small to support a synagogue. Nevertheless, there was evidently a place outside the city where Jews gathered for prayer and worship. This is where Paul met Lydia, accepted her hospitality and baptized her and her household. As in his gospel, so also in the Book of Acts, Luke pays particular attention to the role of women in the church. It appears that the congregation gathered at the place of prayer consisted primarily, if not exclusively, of women. If Lydia had a husband, there is no mention of him. The church in Philippi thus appears to have been founded and led by women according to Luke’s account.
Most scholars characterize this as a psalm of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest based largely on vs. 6a, “The earth has given its increase.” It has been suggested that this hymn might have been sung as a festival liturgy during the autumn festival. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962, S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 472.Though a good harvest surely is a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness to Israel, it is but one of many reasons for praise given in this hymn. God’s saving power, God’s justice and God’s guidance for the nations are all as much reason for the psalmist’s lavish praise. It is noteworthy that the blessing for which the psalmist prays is not restricted to Israel alone. S/he prays that Israel may be blessed in order that “all the ends of the earth may fear God.” Vs. 7.
The opening words of this psalm appear to have been taken from or inspired by the Aaronic Benediction at Numbers 6:24-26. The peoples are enjoined to praise and rejoice in God. God does not reign over the world by compulsion or force. Rather, God “dost judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth.” Vs. 4. As pointed out in Isaiah, God rules the earth through “the law” and through “the word of the Lord.” Isaiah 2:2-4. The psalm therefore echoes God’s promise repeated to the patriarchs and echoed throughout the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah, that Israel is to be a nation by which all the other nations of the world are blessed. “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12:2. “And by your descendants all the nations of the earth will bless themselves.” Genesis 26:4 “And by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.” Genesis 28:14 “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:2.
I understand the need to keep lectionary readings to a manageable length. But that does not justify the ruthless butcher job that has been done to this text. The missing verses between 10 and 22 give us a graphic description of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem coming down from God, the place where God will dwell among God’s people. I encourage you to read those verses now before continuing with this post.
The first thing you will notice is John’s fixation on the number twelve. The wall of the city has twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The city has twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. The dimensions of the city are 12,000 by 12,000 stadia. Each wall is 144 (12 x 12) cubits. The base of the walls is adorned with twelve different jewels. So what is the significance of the number twelve and all of the numbers divisible by twelve?
Of course, the number twelve has always carried symbolic significance throughout many different cultures for a number of different reasons. There are twelve divisions of the lunar year and twelve signs of the Zodiac. The number twelve is important to the Sumerian number system, one of the most ancient in the near east. From the standpoint of the Hebrew Scriptures, there were twelve tribes of Israel, though one might properly ask whether the number twelve derives its significance from the tribes or whether the tribes were divided into twelve in order to fit the sacred number. There were, strictly speaking, thirteen tribes of Israel owing to the fact that the Joseph tribe was split into Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s two sons). The land of Canaan was nevertheless divided into twelve territories because the priestly tribe of Levi did not receive an allotment of land, but only cities within the tribal territories. Joshua 21.
Each of the four gospels affirms that Jesus had twelve disciples that were especially close to him throughout his ministry. The list of their names differs between the gospels, but that is of minor significance. The twelve disciples correlated with the twelve tribes and thus emphasize the continuity between the mission of Jesus and the calling of Israel. The same point is made here with the twelve gates, the twelve foundations and the twelve jewels of the New Jerusalem inscribed both with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Knowing this, we get a much deeper appreciation for the imagery in our lesson. From the calling of Abraham God has made clear Israel’s mission of being a light to the Gentiles and a nation of blessing for all the nations of the world. The gospels all point to Jesus as the Son of God and the savior of the world. John’s gospel refers to Jesus as “the light.” So now we see the consummation of God’s work with Israel in Jesus expressed through this image of the Holy City whose “lamp is the Lamb” and “by its light shall the nations walk.” Once again, John of Patmos is weaving together a mosaic of images from the Hebrew Scriptures into a marvelous portrait of the Lamb’s final victory that will be brought about by the persistent suffering love of God and revealed through the faithful obedience of God’s people.
Obviously, the lectionary folks were not having a good day when they served up this Sunday’s menu. This reading does not make sense until you back up one verse to vs. 22. There you will discover that Jesus’ words here are in response to a question asked by Judas (not Judas the traitor, but another disciple named Judas). Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will soon be leaving them to go where no one can find him. Judas quite naturally asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Why indeed? If Jesus really is the light of the world, the water of life, the resurrection and the life, and if Jesus is now going away, why is his identity made clear to so very few? Why does not Jesus reveal himself to all Israel? To the whole world?
Jesus responds that he will be made known to the world. The disciples drawn together by Jesus’ love will keep his commandments (which we know by now boil down to loving one another as Jesus has loved them). This love will be a witness to the whole world that God has sent the Son into the world and that the Father loves the Son yet gives up the Son to suffering and death for the sake of the world. Moreover, Jesus’ departure is not abandonment. The Holy Spirit sent by the Father is not a substitute for Jesus, but his more intense and intimate presence in their midst. Through that Spirit animating the church Jesus will continue to speak words of promise, healing, hope and resurrection.
Although John’s Gospel never refers to the church as such, it is clearly a center of concern for John, perhaps even the greatest concern of all. It is by the church that the Father’s love for the Son is made manifest to the world through the disciple’s love for each other. It is by this love that the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. Thus, what the church becomes is every bit as important as what the church does. Indeed, what the church does can be nothing other than what arises out of who the church is.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” John 15:17
The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. The mayor and leaders in Flint, Michigan did not set about with malice in their hearts to poison the children of that broken city. They did not intend for anyone to get hurt. They only wanted to find a cheap and easy solution to an expensive problem. They wanted to balance the budget. I expect they probably knew in the back of their minds that there was a risk involved with drawing the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. Perhaps they were even warned of the dangers by civil engineers and environmental specialists who knew better. But they didn’t care enough to investigate the dangers or plan for the potential consequences of their actions. They had eyes only for the bottom line. Red ink on the town’s financials was more troubling to them than the red blood of Flint’s households.
Indifference kills more of us than malice. We die at the hands of drivers who know they are too inebriated to drive but don’t want to shell out money for a cab. We die at the hands of drivers who can’t be bothered to pull off the road before responding to a text message. Our children die because the gun industry will have its profits and it is the price we will gladly pay to preserve our precious Second Amendment rights. We die because our consumptive way of life poisons our water, fouls our air and destroys the ecosystem that sustains us. Even when human lives are taken by evil people with malicious intent, it is often because the rest of us lack the desire, the will and the courage to stop them. As writer and philosopher Edmond Burke points out, “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”
Indifference takes a terrible toll on our souls as well. If St. Augustine is to be believed (and I think he is), we were created to love God. The only true temple God has is the flesh in which his Word is revealed. The only way love for God can be practiced is through our love for the neighbor made in God’s image. That is why John tells us in his letter that if we claim to love God yet harbor hatred for any of God’s human children, we are liars. I John 4:20. Whatever we worship when we come to God with cold and indifferent hearts, it is not God. Whatever we are calling “God”-even if we name it Jesus-it is not God. It is instead merely a reflection of our own twisted and depraved selves, an idol. Idols are not God, but they have the power to shape us into their own lifeless images if we allow them to become gods for us. That is the terrible fate from which Jesus came to deliver us.
Jesus came to make us angry with the wrath of God. For some people in this new age culture of blissful tolerance, an angry God is offensive. As one clergy person recently told me, “anger is unworthy of God.” (This from a preacher? God help us all.) But if God is not angry over the needless poisoning of Flint’s children; if God is not angry that a third of us live in comfort while two thirds struggle to stay alive; if God is not angry over the unnecessary police shootings of young black men; then I can only conclude that God doesn’t much care about us. But God is not indifferent. Anger is the shape love takes toward wayward children bent on following their own self-destructive paths. God’s anger, however, does not translate into revenge, retribution or punishment. God’s anger translates into a stubborn and patient determination to break our hard hearts, shock us into seeing the world the way God sees it-and weeping. Jesus came to save us from our indifference, to help us weep over the destruction we have wrought upon ourselves and one another, to make us truly human. He came that we might become a people capable of love.
Here’s a poem by James Wright that captures precisely our predicament-and suggests its cure.
Three Stanzas from Goethe
That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.
Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
But hatred of men from love’s abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life
The precious secret,
The self-seeker finds nothing.
Oh, Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone
That his ear still might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own heart.
Source: Wright, James, The Branch Will Not Break, (c. 1963 by James Wright, pub by Wesleyan University Press) p. 14. James Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927. In addition to his own work, Wright is also well known for his translations of Spanish poets. In 1972 he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He died in 1980. This poem actually consists of three stanzas Wright translated from Goethe’s poem, “Harzreise im Winter.” You can learn more about James Wright and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Peter has a few problems on his hands. For starters he woke up from a terrible dream in which God was commanding him to eat a whole bed sheet full of disgusting animals including reptiles. This is more than just disgusting. It is downright wrong. Leviticus 11 makes very clear to Israel that the eating of such animals as appeared to Peter in that sheet was an “abomination.” As a matter of fact, even touching one of these animals renders a person unclean for the rest of the day! What do you make of such a dream? Could this possibly have been the voice of the Lord? Or was it the voice of the devil tempting Peter? Before Peter has a chance to reflect much on his dream, three men arrive at the house where he is staying. They were sent by Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. They inform Peter that Cornelius would like to see him and request that he come with them to Caesarea. I cannot imagine that Peter was thrilled about all of this. When the commander of the occupation force wants to see you in his office, it’s usually not a good thing. Yet the Spirit of God urges Peter to go along and he does.
Arriving at the home of Cornelius, Peter discovers that he is not going to be imprisoned or interrogated. He is instead invited to dinner. In fact, the whole household of Cornelius is present to hear what Peter has to say about Jesus. Eating unclean food is bad enough. Eating it in the home of a Gentile is unthinkable. Everything Peter ever knew and believed about the Scriptures told him that he really ought to get up, tell these folks he had nothing to say to them and excuse himself. But something much deeper in Peter’s heart was telling him to accept the hospitality of Cornelius and his family and to preach the gospel to them. That “something,” was the Spirit of God. Before Peter finishes his sermon, the Spirit of God fills Cornelius and his family just as it did the disciples at Pentecost. I don’t think Peter had worked out all the theological implications of what had happened or what he did next. But when you see the Spirit of God calling someone to faith-how can you not baptize?
Next thing you know, Peter is in hot water with the Synod. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” he is asked. I expect that the Jerusalem leadership probably pointed out to Peter that his actions were contrary to the guidelines, procedures and requirements for mission and ministry. Though perhaps we might someday consider bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, such a step will constitute a substantial departure from the church’s understanding and practice. Such a profound change should not be made prior to rigorous study, theological reflection and deliberation. The proper procedure would have been to submit the question via resolution to the general assembly which would probably commission a task force to issue a report. After a five year study of the issue, the assembly would then be in a position to make a reasoned and comprehensive decision on whether such a policy change is warranted and, if so, how it should be implemented. That is how we Lutherans do things. If we had been in charge back then, this whole Cornelius affair would never have happened. Thank God we weren’t in charge-and still are not.
Throughout the Book of Acts, the Spirit seems always to be a few steps ahead of the church which is frantically racing to keep up. Things are happening so fast and furiously that the Apostles find themselves confused, bewildered and anxious about the direction of the church. So for people today who complain that the church isn’t what it used to be, that it is changing too fast and it’s not the church they grew up in, I have just four words: Get used to it. The Acts of the Apostles, this marvelous story about the early church, reminds us that we don’t control the mission, ministry or future direction of the church. It turns out that God seems to be active in the places we least expect. Faith is born among the folks you would least expect to be receptive. About all we can ever say about the shape of the church in the future is that it will certainly not be what we expect.
This story also tells us something about the authority of the Bible. Peter appeared to be on solid scriptural ground with his scruples about socializing among, eating with and finally baptizing Gentiles. Turns out he was wrong. That should be a lesson for all of us who are so cock sure we know what the Bible requires. “The Bible is inerrant!” said a fellow from the church in which I was raised as he brought his fist down on the book. Perhaps so, but its interpreters are fallible human beings. All you need to do is google the word “Bible” and you will discover some of the wildest, wackiest and witless notions ever expressed by people who think they have the Bible figured out. So it is quite possible to get the Bible wrong and the church has done that on many occasions. That is why we had the Reformation. That is also why the church’s understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures is always evolving, changing and growing in new directions. That is why Jesus promised his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13. Because we don’t have all the truth, we are prone to misread and misinterpret the Scriptures in myopic, self-serving ways. We need the Spirit to poke and prod us into taking a new look at the Bible, questioning our assumptions about what it means and listening to people who might read it altogether differently than we do.
Finally, we need the whole church to read the Bible properly. Though Peter was right to heed the voice of the Spirit when he found himself in the household of Cornelius, the extension of the church’s mission to the Gentiles was, in the end, a product of deliberations by the whole church. At the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Peter responded faithfully to the opportunity before him to share the gospel. But he did not simply dismiss the rest of the church or move forward with the mission to the Gentiles autonomously. Instead, he took the initiative to go up to Jerusalem in order to explain and defend his actions. He laid out his case for the Gentile mission before the church for its discernment and judgment. I expect that there was some spirited debate and Scriptural arguments put forth by all sides of the issue. In the end, Peter was able to persuade the church to move in the direction the Spirit led him at the home of Cornelius. That is how it should be.
This psalm is beautifully structured. It begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and stars descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”
This passage begins a lengthy portrayal of the new creation brought about by the victory of the Lamb. Once again, it bears repeating that this victory will come about not through violent conquest in the manner of the “beast,” but through the faithful obedience of the saints in the face of hardship and persecution. There will be continuity between the new creation and the old. God does not destroy the work of his hands. He “makes it new.” This parallels Paul’s thinking about the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:35-50 where he explains the relationship between the mortal body and the resurrected body by analogy to the relationship between the seed and the full grown plant. While there is continuity, the plant is nevertheless far more than the seed. Note also that the saints do not go up to the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem comes down to them.
Jerusalem as the beloved of God is a recurring image throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There is a rich prophetic tradition foretelling God’s salvation coming forth from this holy city. The most notable is Isaiah 2:1-4. There the prophet declares that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Once again, God’s reign in Zion is not one of violence and conquest. It is a reign of law and justice. There will be no further need for weapons as the Lord will judge between nations. The nations themselves “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Psalm 87 is yet another instance in which Zion is lifted up as a unifying symbol for all peoples of the world. So also in Revelation Jerusalem is again at the center of God’s saving work “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Revelation 21:2.
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” Again, the term used for “dwelling” is the same root used in John 1:14where the evangelist says, “the word became flesh and lived among us.” Literally translated, the verb translated “live with” or “dwell with” means to “tent with” or “tabernacle with” or “camp among.” This language once again evokes the memory of God’s presence for Israel in the tent of meeting that accompanied her throughout her journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan. It is more than this, however. As you can discover by reading on to the 22nd chapter of Revelation, there is a description of a rebuilt Temple in the midst of Jerusalem from which flow the river of the water of life. This, in turn, echoes Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple in Ezekiel 47. In this vision also a river flows from the gates of the temple throughout the land of Israel refreshing, restoring and making fruitful areas formerly arid and dry. These verses also allude to the declaration made by Second Isaiah to the disheartened exiles in Babylon: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43: 18-19.
John of Patmos is weaving all of these images from the Hebrew Scriptures into his lyrical portrayal of the Lamb’s victory in which the struggling churches of Asia Minor will share. This lesson is yet another illustration of how critical the Hebrew Scriptures are for understanding the New Testament. Reading the New Testament without knowing the Hebrew Scriptures is like getting the punch line without the joke.
Much of what I have to say about this lesson is already in my introductory remarks. Here are a few additional things worth noting. The reading begins with Jesus declaring: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and in him God is glorified.” vs. 31. It is important to note that just prior to this Judas slipped away to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Thus, the glorification of which Jesus speaks is his betrayal and crucifixion. It is glorification because it reflects the depth of Jesus’ love for his disciples and God’s love for the world. On the cross, the world will see the heart of God breaking for humanity.
The “new commandment” calling the disciples to love one another does not appear to be new. The Hebrew Scriptures admonished the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18. The commandment is nevertheless “new” insofar as the paradigm of love is the cross. Thus, it is no longer enough to love your neighbor as yourself only, but to love as God in Christ loves you. This is higher intensity love that is not possible for the disciples unless they continue to abide in Jesus. For reasons previously discussed, I believe that practicing such love is the principal reason for the church’s existence. It is through such love that all people will know that we are Jesus’ disciples and that God sends Jesus not to condemn the world, but that the world may have life through him.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O God of peace, you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep. By the blood of your eternal covenant, make us complete in everything good that we may do your will, and work among us all that is well-pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm is probably the one and only Bible passage nearly everyone recognizes. As such, it is enormously helpful to me in doing funerals for people with families that probably haven’t darkened the door of a church since baptism. It provides some familiar ground between us on which to meet. The Twenty-Third is also a favorite of long time believers who recognize in its lyrical verse the image of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Most Hebrew Scripture scholars classify it as a “psalm of trust.” I wonder, though, is Psalm 23 really only a psalm of trust, just a word of comfort and assurance for people going through bad times? Is there another way to read this remarkable hymn?
What if we were to read the Twenty-Third Psalm as a poem of resistance, a bold declaration of loyalty to the Lord over against all other would-be shepherds? Saying “The Lord is my Shepherd” implies that, while I might take counsel or advice from a friend or recognize the authority of a teacher, pastor or government official, none but Jesus may shepherd me. A disciple of Jesus makes the bold declaration that his/her sole shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are serious about that declaration, we can be sure that it will put us on a collision course with a world governed by other shepherds. Frequently, we meet forks in the road where it becomes necessary to decide who is to be followed. To follow Jesus is to reject the call of a thousand other false shepherds who have little interest in the sheep and who promise shortcuts along the more attractive path of least resistance. Sometimes following Jesus means telling the powers and principalities in high places that “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Sometimes it means creating a socially awkward moment when you have to tell your house guest that a racist joke is not welcome in your home. Sometimes the cost of faithfulness to Jesus results in one’s losing career, business and financial opportunities or alienating family and friends. Following the Good Shepherd might cost you your life.
It might seem a little demeaning for a fiercely individualistic people like us to admit that we either have or need a shepherd, but the Bible tells us that independence is not an option. We were created to find our rest, our peace and our reason for being in God. If we will not have the Lord as our Shepherd, something or someone else will slide in to fill the void. Something else will dictate how we live. What’s more, that something will always disappoint us in the end. I wish I could tell you how many parents feel betrayed, empty and lonely when the children to whom they have devoted their lives grow up and no longer need them. How many people do you know that retire from their jobs only to discover that they have been so busy at work that they have never had time to imagine what life will look like when the work is all done? You have a shepherd. The only question is, who is it?
Understand that the shepherd/sheep metaphor will not allow for sentimentality. Sheep are not cuddly little pets. They are farm animals destined to be sheered and perhaps slaughtered. They are kept safe and sound not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the shepherd for whom they must one day suffer and die. So it is that our lives do not belong to us. Life and death are given so that in both we may glorify God and bear witness to Jesus. “Whoever would come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow.” “Where I am, there will my servant be also.” Just as the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so the sheep are to live-and perhaps die-for the Shepherd.
Well, if that’s the case, why would anyone follow Jesus? The answer is that Jesus alone knows where the green pastures and still waters are. Jesus alone knows the way through the valley of the shadow into the light of the resurrection. Jesus alone can open our hearts to the love which the Father shares with the Son-love that is strong enough to survive even death, love that is able to bind together all the broken pieces of our world, love that can make us genuinely human. You inevitably will have a shepherd. So let him be the one who knows where he is going; the one that can save you from yourself and ensure that you take the right fork in the road-because it might make all the difference.
Here’s a poem by Robert Frost about just such a fork in the road:
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 105. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle story to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues Jesus’ life giving mission. Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1989 by Fortress Press) p. 122. Luke’s gospel contains two other such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). Some commentators suggest that “Tabitha,” the name of the woman raised from death, is intended to echo the command given by Jesus in Aramaic, “talitha cum” (little girl arise), to the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:41. Id. at 122 citing Wellhausen, Julius, Kritische Analyse der Apostelgeschichte, AGG.PH 15.2, Berlin 1914) p. 121. Though such a literary allusion would be consistent with Luke’s aim of demonstrating the healing presence of Jesus in the ministry of the church, I think it’s a bit of a stretch. If Luke had intended to make such a connection, he would surely have let Mark’s Aramaic rendition of Jesus’ command stand in his telling of the story. As it is, he translates the command into Greek. It should be emphasized that these raising events do not constitute “resurrection” in the same sense that Jesus experienced it. Tabitha will eventually die again as did Lazarus, the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus. Like Jesus’ healing miracles, the raising events constitute not final liberation from death, but only a brief reprieve.
Furthermore, the miracles are never ends in themselves. Peter’s response here is to the distress of the church in Jappa which has lost a valued minister. Tabitha has been raised up to continue her life of good works for the sake of the church and its mission. Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 93. As the case of Stephen demonstrates, sometimes the mission of the church is served by a saint’s faithful death. Thus, miracles of healing are not doled out as rewards for faithfulness, answers to earnest prayer or any other effort on our part. They are gifts to sustain the life of the church, inspire faith and demonstrate God’s compassion.
There are a number of parallels between this story and that of Elisha’s raising the son of the Shunammite woman in II Kings 4:8-37. In both cases, the deceased were placed in upper rooms. As Elisha was alone in prayer with the corpse, so also Peter puts everyone else outside and prays alone in the room with Tabitha’s body. If these similarities between the two stories are anything more than coincidence, then Luke is once again making the point that the restorative power of God at work in the prophets and coming to full bloom in the work of the Messiah continues in the life of the church.
It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” Vs. 43. Jewish law regarded this line of work as defiling. Thus, Simon would have been an outcast in polite Jewish society. Peter seems to have no problem accepting Simon’s hospitality, though as we will see in next week’s lesson, he has considerable scruples over dining with Gentiles. Luke is therefore setting the stage for the upcoming story of the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius. This will be the next chapter in the church’s story of breaking down religious and cultural barriers. Luke wants to demonstrate that welcoming the Gentiles into the church is simply a logical extension of Jesus’ welcoming outcasts among his own people.
Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. As my opening remarks demonstrate, however, that has not stopped me from trying. Nonetheless, given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016, Sunday, April 26, 2015,Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, 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 Kelly J. Murphy, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, all on workingpreacher.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 are well worth rereading.
For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 3, 2016 and April 10, 2016. What I find interesting here is the paradoxical statement in verse 17: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This hymn echoes and may be inspired by imagery from Psalm 23. Oddly, Christ is characterized as both lamb and shepherd. The apparent inconsistency is overcome, however, if we accept the proposal of commentator Raymond Brown that, while composed by different authors, Revelation and the Gospel and letters of John share a related theological tradition. Brown, Raymond E., The Community of the Beloved Disciple, (c. 1979 by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., pub. by Paulist Press) p. 6. Recall that in John 17 Jesus prays not only that his disciples may be one, but “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us…” John 17:21. The “Lamb of God” that takes away the sin of the world now indwells his disciples in the unity of the Spirit and is also the Shepherd.
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” vs. 10. The term, “salvation” or “soteria” in Greek might better be translated “vindication” or “victory.” Kelly, Balmer H., “Revelation 7:9-17, Interpretation, Vol. XL, no. 3, July 1986, p. 291. It is not that God is acclaimed as saved. Rather, the ways of God and God’s suffering love so perfectly expressed in the faithful ministry and obedient death of the Lamb are now vindicated as are those whose lives have been forfeited through their faithful following of the Lamb. “The tribulation” (vs. 14) out of which the “host dressed in white” (vs. 9) has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. The beleaguered churches are encouraged to persist in their faithful obedience to Jesus and assured that their journey’s end will be the fuller presence of God. The promise that God will “shelter them with his presence” literally translates as: “spread his tabernacle over them.” Vs. 15. The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the children of Israel throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The verbal form of this word “tabernacle” is used in the first chapter of John’s gospel where the apostle tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” John 1:14 “Lived among us” literally translated is “tabernacled among us” or “pitched his tent among us.”
It is unfortunate that the Book of Revelation historically has been a tool of apocalyptic terrorists seeking to sow seeds of fear, foreboding and doom. That was the last thing on the mind of its author, John of Patmos. I believe Balmer, supra, sums it up well: “Revelation 7:9-17 is therefore, an unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” p. 294 (emphases in the original).
This is a powerful message of hope to a church facing extinction under the oppressive weight of imperial persecution. It is similarly comforting to both churches and individuals close to dying and whose faithfulness to Jesus seems futile and ineffective. The Lamb whose faithfulness unto death defeated death shares his resurrection with the saints even as they share his suffering and death. The beast may inflict mortal wounds. But the Lamb bestows immortal and healing love. The last word belongs to the Lamb.
The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. Like a snowball rolling down hill, our understanding of Jesus picks up deeper and more nuanced meaning as we proceed through the narrative. Every sentence in this Gospel carries another clue to Jesus’ identity. The Feast of Dedication commemorated the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. Jesus previously conducted his own cleansing of the Temple in John 2:13-22. Rather than rededicating it, however, Jesus declared that his body constituted the new temple “not built with hands.” See John 2:13-22. Jesus’ reappearance in the Temple once again points us back to this clue paving the way to a new revelation about to unfold in the dialogue that follows.
Jesus’ opponents pose a very specific question to him: “Are you the Christ?” While there certainly was a wide range of expectation regarding the role of Israel’s messiah, what he would accomplish and how he would get it done, there was no ambiguity in the question itself. Jesus either believes he is the messiah or he does not. So which is it? While Jesus may seem evasive in his response, he is actually prodding his questioners to ask a better question: I have already told you who I am. You already know enough to make your judgment about me. Do you really think my answering your question one way or another will change anything I have already said or add to what you already know? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just a word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. Vs. 25. (Highly paraphrased).
“My sheep hear my voice.” The shepherd’s sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. Jesus has previously made this point in John 10:1-6. The sheep cannot be lured away by the voice of anyone but the true shepherd. The converse is also true. Sheep that do not belong to the shepherd will not heed the shepherd’s voice. So this is not a matter of obtuseness on the part of Jesus’ opponents. Their inability to “hear” Jesus’ voice stems rather from a lack of trust. The sheep heed the voice of the shepherd precisely because the shepherd has proved trustworthy and true. Paradoxically, Jesus’ opponents cannot hear him because they do not trust him. Yet they will never learn to trust him unless they heed his voice. Their situation might seem hopeless but it isn’t. These folks are not of Jesus’ fold now. But Jesus says of them: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16. Jesus has yet more work to do. He will be glorified in his final great work on the cross through which he will “draw all people to myself.” John 12:32. As the lesson from Revelation makes clear in its own poetic way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
What determines whether a person grows up to be a Gandhi or a Hitler? Is it genetic? Are familial forces, social conditions or peer associations responsible? Is it a combination of all these things? Do people ever really change? Does one ever become so thoroughly evil that s/he is beyond redemption? Does one ever reach a point where s/he is beyond corruption? Those were some of the questions that came to mind as I read the recently published novel of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman.
I should start by saying that one of the most formative movies I ever watched was To Kill a Mocking Bird, based on Lee’s first novel by that name. It was one of Gregory Peck’s greatest performances. As most of you no doubt recall, this was the story of Atticus Finch, Esq., a small town lawyer in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama. Defying the racist conventions of Southern culture in the 1930s, Atticus defended a young black man against doubtful allegations that he had raped a white woman. I was so taken with the movie that I checked the book out of the school library (a rare occurrence for me in my middle school years). I read it again about ten years ago and discovered that it still held the same bittersweet mixture of gentle beauty, brutality, passion and wisdom. We see the story unfolding through the eyes of Atticus’ little daughter, Jean Louise Finch a/k/a “Scout.” The picture of Atticus Finch emerging from the narrative is one of a humble, though self-assured attorney. He is sure of his convictions and unafraid to stand on them, yet tolerant and respectful of even his most hostile critics. His gentle courage is nowhere better illustrated than on the night he places himself between his imprisoned client and an angry lynch mob. With Scout at his side, he disarms the gang with an appeal to their common humanity. Though ultimately unsuccessful at trial, Finch’s fearless and uncompromising commitment to justice is itself a kind of victory.
Watchman takes place two decades later. Jean Louise is now an adult residing in New York City. When the narrative begins, she is returning home for a visit with her father. Viewing her home town through the eyes of an adult having experienced the broader cultural landscape, she begins to recognize the insidious poison of racism that has always been present in the community. She learns that her father’s willingness to represent black criminal defendants has more to do with keeping such cases away from the NAACP than seeking justice. The final blow comes when Jean Louise witnesses her father presiding at a meeting of the Citizen’s Council featuring a speaker extoling the virtues of segregation and the dangers of interracial coupling. Along with Jean Louise, we learn that Atticus Finch is not the heroic figure we thought he was.
It is always disturbing when your hero gets knocked off his pedestal. It is all the more disturbing for those of us who identify as progressives. Nothing calls progressivism into question quite like regression. We would all like to think that gains made toward justice and equality are permanent and cannot be erased by history. In reality, however, we forget the hard lessons learned from episodes of genocide. We forget the sacrifices made to achieve justice and peace and revert to the same old behaviors that always lead us into trouble. So it is on a personal level as well. Just as a person can grow and mature, so s/he can also revert to infantile behavior. Atticus Finch would not be the first person I ever met who cynically abandoned values and principles once held dear. To achieve great heights is less than half the battle. Holding them is what poses the greatest challenge.
Did Atticus Finch change? Did he fall from the lofty heights of his convictions? That is one possibility. After all, back in the 1930s white privilege was firmly entrenched. One could stoop down to help a person of color as an act of noble compassion without challenging the systemic inequality upholding that privilege. Two and a half decades later the landscape had changed. African Americans were not asking for favors. They were demanding their rights. They were fighting for an end to systemic racism and white privilege. The objects of Atticus’ pity were now challenging his entitlements. Like many other white folk, I suspect Atticus felt threatened. When people feel threatened they become hostile. Fear causes us to revert to the most primitive types of human conduct.
Then too, we learn that Atticus has come down with rheumatoid arthritis in his old age. Pain and disability can do strange things to us. They make us feel vulnerable, dependent and resentful. Pain robs us of sleep and depletes our energy. It can push us into self-obsession and self-pity. Pain medication can alter our judgments and skew our perceptions. All of these things could well have contributed to Atticus’ seeming change of heart.
Though Watchman reads like a sequel to Mocking Bird, Lee actually wrote it before Mocking Bird and submitted it for publication. Only after Watchman had been rejected did Lee write Mocking Bird. Sadly, Harper Lee passed away early this year and so we will never hear her take on the two natures of Atticus Finch. Is the Atticus Jean Louise comes to see in Watchman a truer version of the father she idolized as a child? Or is the Atticus of Mocking Bird Lee’s more reflective and nuanced version of the stereotypical southern racist we meet in Watchman? I suspect Lee might tell us that he is both and neither. At the end of the day, each individual is a complex mixture of genetic traits, inherited beliefs, learned behaviors, desires, passions and memories. One seldom knows whether s/he is a hero, coward, racist or not until the moment of trial comes. Much may depend upon when and where in life’s journey the challenge arises. It is dangerous to presume too much or to judge too harshly-particularly for those of us who have not yet been put to the test. We can only pray, “Save us from the time of trial.”
Our second lesson from the Book of Acts also tells of a profound transformation of character. We read how Saul, persecutor of the church, became Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul’s story is as important as anything he ever wrote because it affirms that yes, indeed, people are capable of change. Or, more accurately put, God is capable of changing human beings. It doesn’t always happen in a flash and it is probably never complete this side of the grave. There is plenty of evidence in his letters to suggest that Paul’s transformation was a work in progress. Paul frequently lashes out in anger, sometimes wallows in self-pity and often employs what can fairly be called manipulative tactics to get his churches to do what he thinks they should. Yet at the same time, Paul displays a remarkable self-awareness of his “foolishness.” He knows only too well his own weakness and the strength of Christ which alone is sufficient to compensate for it. He knows that he has yet to experience fully the power of Jesus’ resurrection, yet forgetting what is behind and striving for what lies ahead, he pushes forward to make that precious gift his own.
Every life is something of a mystery. The totality of who we are cannot be known until such time as Christ is all in all and we know as we are known. Here is a poem by teacher and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed during his imprisonment touching on that point.
Who am I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equally, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!
Source: Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1953 by SCM Press). Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906. He studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and at Berlin University where he became a professor of systematic theology. At the outbreak of World War II, Bonhoeffer was on a lecturing tour in the United States. Against the advice of his friends and colleagues, he answered the call to return to Germany and lead the Confessing Church in its opposition to National Socialism. Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned at Buchenwald. He was subsequently transferred to Flossenburg prison where he was hanged by the Gestapo just days before the end of the war. To learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his books and poems check out this website.
This story fascinates me. It seems that Saul (later to be called Paul) has just made a U Turn in his fundamental beliefs and self-understanding. From this day forward, he takes his orders from Jesus-a man he presumed dead and whose followers he has been busy exterminating. I am captivated by this story because I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience. My mind changes slowly. It changes direction like an aircraft carrier: in small increments that seem inconsequential at the time but ultimately alter my direction in significant ways. When I read my journal entries of thirty years ago I can see that I have changed my mind about a great many things, though I would be hard put to say exactly when that happened. I am not even sure there ever was a conscious turning point. I expect that conversations with family and friends, reading and study along with my life experiences have worked together in gradually shaping and re-shaping my outlook over the years. I hope that worship, preaching and prayer have also played a significant role. That seems to be the way most of us are formed most of the time.
But not always. There are “Damascus Road” moments that can turn you around. Perhaps one contemporary example is Senator Robert Portman, a conservative legislator representing Ohio who embraced marriage equality upon learning that his son was gay. I suppose there is reason to question the sincerity of the senator’s conversion, which many have dismissed as a classic political “flip-flop.” It is a little suspicious that this politician should have experienced his change of heart just following the release of poll numbers showing a clear majority of Americans favoring marriage equality. Still, I tend to believe that Portman’s turnabout was genuine. Discovering that your own son is among the folks you have been trying to exclude as inherently immoral cannot be too different from Paul’s discovery that the Jesus he was striving to destroy was actually the God he worshipped.
In approaching this text it might be helpful to begin listing some of the strongest convictions you hold. Then ask yourself what it would take to change your mind. What could make you see things differently? If you are convinced that your beliefs and opinions are so solidly based that nothing could change them, I would caution you with my mother’s oft repeated dictum: “There is no mind as weak as that mind which is too strong to change.” We will come up against this question of conversion again in next week’s lesson from Acts where Peter is confronted with what he probably assumed was not possible: faith among pagans.
The title of this psalm is a little confusing. It reads: “A Psalm of David. A Song at the dedication of the Temple.” In the first place, the Temple was built by Solomon after David had died. If David wrote this psalm, it would not likely have been for the dedication of a building constructed well after his death. I should add, though, that Davidic authorship is not altogether impossible. According to the book of I Chronicles, David was heavily involved in planning for the erection of the Temple even though he took no part in actually building it. Thus, he could conceivably have composed psalms in anticipation of its dedication. This seems unlikely, however. A further difficulty is that the psalm itself is a personal prayer of thanksgiving for salvation. It does not even mention the Temple. One commentator suggests that the psalm, though composed much earlier, might have been used at the re-dedication of the Temple following its cleansing by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 B.C.E. (celebrated today as Hanukkah). J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, Psalms 1-50 (Cambridge University Press, c. 1977), p. 133. That would explain the title linking the psalm to the Temple. The attribution of the psalm to David was likely a separate and much older title. It should be noted that the Hebrew preposition le translated as “by” in the Davidic title can also mean “to” or “in the manner of” or perhaps “in the tradition of.” Thus, actual Davidic authorship is not necessarily implied.
This psalm is one that Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann would probably classify as a “psalm of reorientation.” Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of re-orientation. I believe that is a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are times when all seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is filled with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, of praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness is appropriate.
Then tragedy strikes. The company you work for goes out of business. A spouse proves unfaithful. One of the kids gets sick-really sick. Or that routine X-ray exposes something very wrong going on under the skin. That picture perfect life is thrown into disarray. The darkness seems impenetrable. At times like these, psalms of disorientation give expression to our feelings of panic and abandonment. A good example is Psalm 39 which concludes with a prayer that God would “look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more.” Yet even though the psalmist seems to have given up on God, the psalmist is nonetheless still speaking to God!
Psalms of re-orientation, such as Psalm 30, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. The journey has not been easy, nor does it bring them back to where they were before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow. See The Message of the Psalms, Brueggemann, Walter (Augsburg Publishing House, c 1984).
It seems that the psalmist was experiencing threats from his enemies as well as sickness. This psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. The psalmist recognizes in resolution of his or her trials the saving hand of God. Thanksgiving is the only conceivable response.
For the next few weeks the lectionary will be treating us to some excerpts from the Book of Revelation. I have noticed that this book has an unholy appeal to all sorts of people for all kinds of reasons. Whenever I offer a Bible Study course on Revelation, the initial response is usually enthusiastic. But after the first session, when it becomes clear that I am not going to predict the date of the world’s end or reveal the identity of the antichrist (who is not even mentioned in the book), interest soon wanes. That is unfortunate because I believe John of Patmos, the putative author of Revelation, has a lot to say. Also unfortunate is the absence of Revelation 2-3 from the common lectionary. These chapters consist of prophetic/angelic messages to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), the audience to which the book is addressed. Though delivered in graphic symbols, metaphors and occasional numerical code, these “letters to the seven churches” give us a piercing glimpse into the life of these fledgling congregations as they sought to live out their faith under the shadow of the Roman Empire.
Though imprisoned more than once and most likely executed by the Roman government, Paul still saw the empire as the instrument of God’s judgment on wickedness (whether knowingly or not). It was “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4. John of Patmos held no such sanguine view of Rome. He saw the empire as a “beast” that “utters blasphemies against God,” “makes war on the saints,” and causes “all who dwell on the earth” to worship it. Revelation 13:5-9. Roman society, epitomized by its capital, is a modern “Babylon.” The nations have “drunk the wine of her impure passion,” “the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness.” Revelation 18:1-3. Paul’s church lived uneasily in the shadow of a menacing, though mostly indifferent government. John’s church was engaged in a life and death struggle with an empire that was unequivocally hostile.
The world dominating beast of which John of Patmos speaks in Revelation was personified as an emperor of Rome. Scholars are divided over whether John was referring to a specific emperor at the end of the first century. Most seem to take this view, though some hold out for an earlier composition of Revelation maintaining that the “beast” refers rather to a future emperor expected to emerge from the chaos and civil war convulsing the empire following the death of Nero in 68 C.E. If John was referring to an actual emperor, the most likely candidate is Domitian who reigned from 81 C.E. to 96 C.E. Previous Roman emperors were inducted into the Roman pantheon of divinities upon their death. This ceremony amounted to the civil bestowal of an honorary title. It had practically no religious significance. The emperor Claudius was known to have joked, when asked how he was feeling on a particularly bad day, “I feel as though I am about to become a god.” For Domitian, however, godhood was no laughing matter. He bestowed the title “Lord and God” upon himself during his own lifetime. Ceremonial feasts where held in his honor at patriotic observances in which participation, from the perspective of Jews and Christians, amounted to idolatry.
John’s lurid images of cruelty, oppression and destruction of the earth set forth in Revelation accurately depict life under Roman occupation and more particularly, life for the churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. Governmental persecution of the church, though not wide spread or focused at this time, was a common enough occurrence for disciples of Jesus who refused to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” a title they reserved for Christ alone. Exclusion from economic and professional opportunities was often the price of worshiping Christ alone. Christians were not the only ones to experience Rome’s oppression. It is not only for the death of the prophets and saints, but for “all who have been slain on the earth” that Rome (code named “Babylon”) and the beast come to judgment in Revelation Chapter 18. Significantly, all those who profited socially, politically and commercially from Rome’s unjust reign share in its judgment. Revelation 18:11-20.
In seeking to hear Revelation as a word of God to the church of our time, we need to ask ourselves where and how we experience “empire” today. Jorge Rieger’s fine book, Christ and Empire, (AugsburgFortress, c. 2007) is helpful to us here:
“Empire, in sum, has to do with massive concentrations of power that permeate all aspects of life and that cannot be controlled by any one actor alone. This is one of the basic marks of empire throughout history. Empire seeks to extend its control as far as possible; not only geographically, politically, and economically-these factors are commonly recognized-but also intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, culturally and religiously.” pp. 2-3.
Conceived of in this way, it is clear that imperial power is not confined exclusively or even primarily to governmental institutions. Indeed, when I think of the institutions that directly affect my daily life-my credit card company, my bank, my health insurer-I realize that I am governed far more extensively by the so-called “private sector” than by any governmental unit. Furthermore, the constitutional protections preventing the government from invading my privacy, confiscating my property and restricting my freedom of expression are of little use to me in negotiating the workplace, dealing with the intrusive demands of my lender or resolving disputed claims with my insurers. Such rights as I have against these entities are determined by contractual agreements that were not negotiated in any real sense. Credit, banking services and insurance are offered to me on the companies’ terms and on a take it or leave it basis. The power of these entities to deprive me of my livelihood, deny me needed medical help or re-possess my home is far more disturbing to me than some abstract fear of the government getting into my computer to peek at pictures of my grandchildren or critique my taste in poetry.
More disturbing than the raw power exercised by corporate commercial entities is their subtle promotion of materialistic greed. At its best, the American Dream represents a society in which all members have the opportunity to thrive and build lives for themselves of value and significance. There is no guarantee of success, whatever that might mean, but there are opportunities for success and no penalty for failure beyond personal disappointment and loss. As promoted by corporate imperialism, however, the American Dream has become narrowly focused on accumulation. Business has become increasingly focused on short term profit. Wealth has been confused with money. Consumption has been misconstrued as prosperity. Greed is the engine of this demonic economy that fouls our drinking water, pollutes our air, exploits human labor, increases economic inequality, breaks up productive businesses for short term corporate gain, destroys jobs and, after all that, leaves us as restless, anxious and empty as ever. We have bought into a dream that is fast becoming a nightmare.
For those of us doing reasonably well under the imperial reign of corporate America, it might be hard to recognize in it the beast of Revelation. Like the church in Laodicia, we might be thinking to ourselves, “What beast? Things aren’t so bad.” “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” Like that complacent congregation, we might not recognize the “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” state to which our souls have fallen. Revelation 3:17. We need to see empire not through the eyes of the “merchants of the earth [who] have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness,” but through the eyes of “all who have been slain [by her] on earth.” Revelation 18:3; Revelation 18:24. If we do that, we will discover that the beast of empire is alive and well today exercising its murderous power not only through dictators that starve their people to feed their military machines, but also in corporations that exploit labor, corrupt governments and destroy the environment for the sake of profit. The victims of the beast live in squalid refugee camps having fled the carnage of conflicts they wanted no part of. They are children employed at near starvation wages by manufacturers whose CEOs have made the cold (and heartless) determination that such “out sourcing” best serves the bottom line. They are the wounded men, grieving mothers and dead children who had the misfortune to be in the way of a drone attack-the folks we speak of in unfeeling clinical terms as “collateral damage.” Those of you old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo may also recall the lead character’s immortal line: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So also I think we can say that we have met “the beast” and he is us. Today’s nation states, military alliances and commercial entities (all of them) share in some measure the toxic nature of the imperial beast.
In order to appreciate the full impact of this lesson, you need to read from the beginning of Chapter 4. See Revelation 4:1-5:10. John of Patmos is summoned to the throne room of God almighty. The throne of God is surrounded by 24 elders and four angelic creatures all singing praises to God. There is no description of God, but in God’s right hand is a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” No one responds to this question and John is greatly distressed to learn that there is nobody in heaven or on earth able to open the scroll. But then one of the elders says to John, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Now comes the drum roll. What will he look like, this Lion, this Davidic King who dares to break the seals and open the scroll? We expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to strut out onto the stage, bulging with muscle, armed to the teeth. But when we look up we see-a lamb! A lamb that has been slain, no less. Seriously? This is the Lion of Judah? This is the Root of David?
At this point the angelic creatures and the elders break into their song: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” Vss 9-10. In the lurid imagery that follows, John pictures for us the war of the lamb. This matchup between a leopard like beast with seven heads, ten horns, feet like a bear and mouth like a lion on the one hand, and a lamb on the other seems terribly one sided. The lamb doesn’t appear to stand much of a chance. Yet John would have us know that God is on the side of the lamb whose suffering love for humanity braves even death.
This lesson is filled with images similar to many found in the Book of Daniel, another apocalyptic work. Daniel 7:9-10 relates the prophet’s vision of descending thrones upon which sat “one that was ancient of days.” “Ten thousand times ten thousands stood before him.” “The books were opened.” Dominion is given to “one like a son of man.” Some scholars suggest that John may have drawn his vision from that related in Daniel Chapter 7. Though possible, it seems unlikely to me. There is little in the way of actual textual similarity. There is virtually no correspondence between the two visions other than the assurance that the enemies of God’s people ultimately will be defeated by divine agency, a theme common to nearly all apocalyptic literature. John’s vision also bears similarity to divine appearances in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2.
As I pointed out, the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3 are critical to understanding what John of Patmos is trying to accomplish with his work. Just as the lamb seems an unlikely champion against the beast, so the crucified Lamb of God and his beleaguered and persecuted followers’ struggle against the empire looks hopeless. John strives to assure the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to remain faithful are not futile, but are of cosmic significance. The cross is mightier than the sword. Love is stronger than violence and will prevail in the end.
Though much speculation generated by the Book of Revelation focuses on the identity of “the beast,” this wonderful book is not all about “the beast.” It is about the “Lamb who was slain.” It is not about the destruction of the earth, but its salvation and renewal. Most importantly, Revelation is not a war movie or a spaghetti western in which the forces of good out gun the forces of evil. Understand that the final victory of God over evil does not come through an exercise of divine violence. Throughout the Book of Revelation, the powers of the empire are portrayed as fearsome beasts, dragons and warriors. But God’s son and God’s people are always portrayed as peaceful, vulnerable and weak. Israel is portrayed as a woman giving birth under the watch of a fearsome dragon waiting to devour her child. Revelation 12:1-6. The conqueror, the lion of Judah, God’s Messiah turns out to be, of all things, a lamb. Revelation 5:1-5. Not only so, but a lamb that was slain! When Christ returns to claim his kingdom, his title is “the Word of God,” and he slays his enemies with the sword that “comes out of his mouth.” Revelation 19:11-16. Just as the world began with God speaking it into existence, so by that same life giving (not death dealing) Word the world will be brought under God’s gentle reign. God triumphs through winning hearts, not battles. Thus, the churches in Asia Minor are comforted with the knowledge that by their faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands, their love for one another, their forgiveness of their enemies and their peaceful witness they are waging God’s battle against the powers of empire. This battle is fought not with weapons of war, but with the weapons of prayer, forgiveness and love for the neighbor-even the hostile one. The struggling churches are assured that the suffering love of God is mightier and more enduring than the violence of empire. Caesar and his legions might look impressive today, but the smart money is on the Lamb.
Of all the four gospels, I find the ending of John’s gospel to be the most satisfying. Unlike Luke, Jesus does not ascend into heaven and direct the disciples to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Unlike Matthew, Jesus does not send his disciples out with a promise of his presence. We are not left wondering whether or how the disciples will ever hook up again with the resurrected Christ as in Mark. John’s ascension takes place at Golgotha where Jesus is “lifted up.” The outpouring of the Holy Spirit coincides with Jesus’ resurrection. Remarkably, the Gospel of John ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their fishing nets and boats behind to follow Jesus. Jesus’ last words in the gospel are, “follow me.”
John’s gospel challenges us to take seriously the presence of Jesus in the Church. I think this is the underpinning for our Lutheran insistence on the real presence of Christ which is not limited to the sacraments. We confess in the Nicene Creed our belief in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” If that only means that there exists an organization called the church, we would hardly need to include it as an article of faith any more than we would need to confess that the sky is blue. But to say that the church is one just as Jesus is one with the Father; that the church is a holy people; that the church is catholic embracing all nations and true to the apostolic witness that birthed it-that is another thing altogether. It is not always evident that the church as we experience it is any of these things. Yet our confession is that the church, flesh and blood congregations with all of their shortcomings, failures and imperfections constitutes the Body of the Resurrected Christ. That calls for a leap of faith! It also challenges us to think deeply about how we make our unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolic teaching more visible.
I think this appearance must have happened on a Monday. I don’t have an ounce of biblical support for that assertion, but it sure has the feel of going back to work at the beginning of another week. Commentators believe that this third appearance of Jesus to his disciples in John is a later addition to the gospel. They suggest that this story comes from a different version of events similar to the sequence in Matthew. The disciples, scattered after Jesus’ crucifixion, flee to Galilee (or go there to meet him upon instructions from Jesus to the women) and there try to pick up their old lives. In so doing, they encounter the resurrected Christ who calls them back to a life of discipleship. However this might be, there is no question but that the disciples have turned their attention back to the more mundane yet urgent needs for survival. They turn back to what they know, namely, fishing. Yet they toil through the night taking nothing, echoing Jesus’ warning that “apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5. Not until Jesus instructs them to cast their net out on the right side of the boat do they find success, and that beyond expectation. It is at this point that the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus.
Meals occupy a significant place in the ministry of Jesus (and throughout the whole Bible for that matter). Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people; Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners-as well as wealthy religious leaders. Jesus’ last evening with his disciples was a meal and Jesus makes a point of sharing food with them after his resurrection. Jesus frequently uses the image of a banquet to describe the kingdom of God. So it is not surprising that he invites his disciples to breakfast on the shore and that it is within this context that Jesus reconciles himself to Peter.
The interchange between Jesus and Peter is moving and illustrative of Jesus’ way with his disciples. Ours is the Lord of the second chance-and the third and the fourth. But what I find remarkable here is Peter’s commission: “Feed my sheep.” There has been much debate over the centuries about what that means and what significance it has for how we understand apostolic succession. Without entering these treacherous waters, let me just say that what I find most intriguing is the content of the command. If Peter is being given a special task here, it does not seem to have anything to do with leading, oversight or primacy. His job is not to shepherd the sheep, but simply to feed them.
At the recent ELCA Youth Gathering, one of my young people elbowed me just as then Bishop Mark Hanson was being introduced as “shepherd of the sheep.” “What happened to Jesus” she said. “Did he retire?” This clever if less than reverent comment reflects the basis for my discomfort with the term “pastor” which means shepherd. I am only too aware of the fact that I do not know where the green pastures or the still waters are. Like everyone else, I have to rely upon the Good Shepherd’s leading for that. At best, I am just the sheep dog that tries to keep the herd together or the farm hand in charge of seeing to it that the sheep are fed. Like my namesake, I can only lead by following.