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.