Archive for May, 2017
DAY OF PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” I Corinthians 12:12. The problem with observing Pentecost by focusing solely on the Holy Spirit’s outpouring is that we wind up “disembodying” the Spirit. The Spirit is, after all, the Spirit of a flesh and blood person, namely, Jesus. We learn from John’s Gospel that the Spirit’s job is to “take” what belongs to Jesus and impart it to us. John 16:14. The Spirit that proceeds from the Father “bears witness” to the Son. John 15:26. Jesus prays that the same Trinitarian love that binds the Father and the Son may also dwell in and hold together his church. John 17:26. According to Saint Paul, the Spirit is the animating power of the church which is, in turn, Christ’s Body. Spiritual power is manifested in the care each member of the church has for all other members in concrete acts of sharing resources, looking after weaker members and seeking harmony for the whole community. Paul’s “spirituality” is strictly a bodily affair. He is, with apologies to Madonna, “a material guy.”
Back when I was still practicing law, every civil case began with a case management conference at which all attorneys involved would meet with the judge assigned to manage the case. Working with the attorneys, the judge would set scheduling deadlines for completion of all work required to prepare the case for trial. Because my firm practiced in just about every county in New Jersey, I spent a lot of time early on in my career criss-crossing the state in order to attend these meetings. But as time went on and telephone conferencing became more user friendly and widely accepted, case management conferences were increasingly conducted over the phone. This made sense. Holding a brief phone conference is far more efficient and cost effective than requiring two or more attorneys to drive across the state for a face to face meeting that might take place as much as an hour later than anticipated and last all of twenty minutes.
But time and efficiency are not the only measures of value. Time spent in the car gave me a chance to think about my case apart from the distractions of the office and so identify particular issues I needed to present to the court. Time spent sitting in the courtroom waiting for our turn gave us attorneys an opportunity to become acquainted with one another. It gave me an opportunity to learn that the person who would soon be my adversary in court was, like me, doing the obligatory “college tour” with her daughter or working on getting his mother into assisted living. We had an opportunity to connect faces to names and identify some personal common ground. This interpersonal groundwork often proved invaluable when the time came for us to have the difficult discussions about settlement and/or trial. Trust me, it makes a world of difference when you deal with an attorney you know beyond the confines of litigation. Moreover, this brief twenty minutes of face time with the judge gave me an opportunity to learn his or her priorities and those rules and procedures he or she felt were particularly important. Such knowledge can spare an attorney a good deal of pain further on down the line! There clearly is something to be said for the older, less efficient and more time consuming way of practicing law.
Understand that I am not an opponent of communications technology. Nor do I blame social media for destroying civility, polarizing society and subverting morals. There are plenty of reasons for all those ills having nothing to do with the internet, but that’s another subject altogether. The internet is a great tool for making critical information available to all. Facebook makes it easier for friends and family to share news, swap pictures and keep in touch. But this technology has its limits and I think we get ourselves into trouble when we fail to recognize them. However much information I might find about you on the internet, I can’t really get to know you by scrutinizing your on line profile. Such profiles can never amount to more than a ghostly, disembodied shade of the real, complex, storied individual you are. Facebook can strengthen existing friendships, but it cannot make friends for me. Having deep, nuanced and productive discussions on line is nearly impossible and frequently results in an exchange of snarky bumper sticker slogans. I have always suspected that a lot of the anger and ugliness we see expressed online is generated by frustration from failed efforts to find in cyberspace companionship that can only be built within communities of real flesh and blood people.
Church life is inescapably embodied. Our worship is inseparably bound up with the senses of hearing, touch and taste. It depends on words spoken to a congregation of specific people in their concrete bodily circumstances. A sermon that can be preached anywhere probably doesn’t speak to anyone. Worship involves congregational singing by ordinary people. Some voices are strong and melodious, others old and cracked, some off key but all blended into a single song of praise. Worship calls for receiving the stuff of bread and wine from a human hand. It mandates handshakes, eye contact and joint effort. It forces us to see one another, not as we would prefer to be seen, but as we are. It is within embodied communities that the hard work of sanctification is done. Church is the place where the virtues of patience, compassion, honesty and loyalty are learned. It is where we learn to forgive as we have been forgiven. It is within communities of real people with all their faults, crankiness and warts that the mind of Christ is formed. Virtual church is a theological impossibility.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive and counter-cultural features of the church in our modern age is its insistence on our need to be bodily present to one another. One cannot become a disciple of Jesus through taking an online course. Nor can we grow into the Body of Christ by staying connected on social media. We are the “ekklessia,” the “gathered,” the “called together.” Getting together at a particular place and time is a big deal. It matters where you are on Sunday morning. We are stronger when you are fully and bodily present to us. Your voice is needed. Your encouragement is important. Your witness is critical. You “matter” in both the existential and physiological sense.
Here’s a poem by Deborah Landau on the importance of bodily presence.
Got to Start Somewhere
I had the idea of sitting still
while others rushed by.
I had the thought of a shop
that still sells records.
A letter in the mailbox.
The way that book felt in my hands.
I was always elsewhere.
How is it to have a body today,
to walk in this city, to run?
I wanted to eat an apple so precisely
the tree would make another
exactly like it, then lie
in the gadgetless grass.
I kept texting the precipice,
which kept not answering,
my phone auto-making
I had the idea. Put down the phone.
Earth, leaves, storm, water, vine.
The gorgeous art of breathing.
I had the idea — the hope
of friending you without electricity.
Of what could be made among the lampposts
with only our voices and hands.
Source: Poetry Magazine, (c. 2015 by Deborah Landau). Landau is Director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, where she also teaches. She studied at Stanford University, Columbia University, and Brown University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and earned a PhD in English and American Literature. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016. You can find out more about Deborah Landau and sample additional poems authored by her at the Poetry Foundation website.
The Book of Acts continues Luke’s story begun in his gospel. Recall that, in the Transfiguration, Luke describes Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem as his “departure.” Luke 9:31. This word is derived from the term for “Exodus” employed in the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Luke means to tell us that Jesus is soon to bring about a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning, takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke is showing us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the Empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed. By way of the resurrection, God makes clear that Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.
The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost, known as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciples’ preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.
Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses. Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. Exodus 19:16-25. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost,” Beginnings of Christianity, 5:114-16.
Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming the gate of heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”
One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the localities in which they reside, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.
This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as a sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4. The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.
This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.
While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of corporate economic interests, nationalist military conflicts and societal expectations for conformity exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them. Unlike the Babylonian and post-modern visions, the Bible does not view the world either as a haunted house inhabited by warring demons or as the battleground for competing national, commercial and tribal interests. This psalm testifies to the beauty, goodness and holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. Understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
The reading begins with the assertion that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 3. We need to be mindful of the political implications of this claim. The mantra of the Roman world was “Caesar is Lord.” Because there is room for only one divine emperor, asserting that anyone other than Caesar is Lord constitutes de facto treason. At best, you earn ridicule from the pagan community for making such a claim. In the worst case scenario, the confession of Jesus as Lord might be treated as a criminal offense. The assertion was equally problematic within the Jewish community. According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a person put to death by hanging on a tree is cursed. Consequently, confessing a crucified criminal as Israel’s Messiah could be regarded as blasphemy. In sum, making the confession “Jesus is Lord” could result in ostracism from your religious community, mockery from your pagan neighbors and possibly conviction of a capital crime. Quite understandably, then, Paul insists that making this bold confession and living by it requires the support of God’s Spirit.
In the first part of verse 3 (not included in our reading) Paul states that no one can say “Jesus be cursed” by the Spirit of God. I Corinthians 12:3. This might seem obvious. One would not expect such an exclamation from within the church community. Given the hostile environment in which the church found itself, however, it is not inconceivable that a weak member of the church might be tempted to curse the name of Jesus in order to conceal his or her affiliation from family, religious or civil authorities. Some commentators suggest that Paul is referring to the Roman practice of requiring suspected Christians to revile the name of Christ in order to clear themselves of any accusation. Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 32, (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 456. This approach to the church was evidently taken in Asia Minor as evidenced by correspondence from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 110 C.E. Though this conclusion is plausible and tempting, I rather doubt that Paul had anything so specific in mind. The church was still a tiny sect within and indistinguishable from Judaism in the mid First Century when Paul was active. It is therefore unlikely that the Roman authorities in Corinth during this period would have recognized it or singled it out for any such specialized policy of enforcement.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until you try using a keyboard without it or it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. But, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. Vs. 4. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. Vs. 7. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources, but who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church. Sadly, it seems today that we lack the imagination, creativity and vision to function without hierarchy. But don’t get me started on that.
John’s Pentecost story is out of step with that of Luke (or the other way around if you prefer). John has Jesus breathing the life giving Spirit into his disciples on the morning of his resurrection. More than any other witness, John identifies the Holy Spirit with the presence of the resurrected Christ in his church. Of course, Saint Paul makes the same identification in referring consistently to the Church as Christ’s Body. Similarly, the Book of Acts makes clear that the mission of the church is in many respects the continuation of Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding the hungry and preaching good news to the poor. So I believe that the New Testament witness is consistent in anchoring the outpouring of the Spirit with the continued presence of Jesus in the church. Hence, I side with the Western church on the matter of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. For the perspective of the Eastern Church which rejects this clause such that the Creed affirms the procession of the Spirit from the Father only, check out this link.
Luke and John are entirely on the same page in their identification of the Spirit with the commissioning of the disciples. In the very same breath (pun intended) that Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit,” he then says “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Vss. 22-23. So also in Luke’s understanding. The Spirit is given so that the disciples can become Jesus’ “witnesses” to “the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. In John’s account, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? According to Luther’s Small Catechism, this verse refers to the “Office of the Keys” through which the church, through its public ministry, absolves penitent sinners and withholds this benefit from the unrepentant. Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
My oldest daughter was always fascinated with clocks and the measurement of time. When she was just a toddler, I used to point to the clock and tell her, “Now when this big hand gets to the six, it’s time for stories and bed.” She would look intensely at the clock as though trying to make sense of it, as though she somehow knew that if only she could figure this contraption out and understand how it worked, she could negotiate a much better deal for herself. Long before she started kindergarten, this precocious child mastered the art of telling time and figuring out where she was relative to nap time, lunch, bed time and all those other significant markers punctuating a child’s day. She would frequently ask me the time of day. If we were away from the house and I was without my watch, I would have to tell her that I didn’t know what time it was. “So what time do you think it is?” she persisted. I gave her my best approximation, which I knew she would later check against the clock and hold me to account. Today she is a professor of classical languages and literature-and nothing if not punctual.
The same obsession with timing seems to be at work among the disciples in our first lesson. They want desperately to know what time it is in God’s chronology and how long until the “kingdom is restored to Israel.” That same yearning has dogged the church throughout its history. Time and time again we have seen the rise and fall of prophets and preachers claiming to have figured out the divine clock by scrutinizing the books of Daniel and Revelation. People who claim, with varying degrees of specificity, to know where we stand in relationship to the end times always seem to have a ready following. I expect that is because knowing or thinking one knows the future gives one a sense of security, an imagined measure of control.
Jesus does not give us that kind of assurance. Consequently, the church has had to learn to muddle through the darkness of history without knowing what lies ahead, how much further the road stretches or when we can expect to get to the end of it. That isn’t an easy way to live for people like us, who start planning for retirement as soon as we graduate college and order the days of our lives with digital calendars. While there is certainly nothing wrong with foresight and planning, we all know deep down that it is based on assumptions about a future that might not unfold as expected or of which we might not be a part. It is hard hearing Jesus tell us that it is not for us to know the “whens” or the “hows” of God’s coming to establish his reign.
More instructive than anything Jesus tells us about the future is the disciples’ response to the angels’ message: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” I still don’t have the foggiest idea exactly what that means nor, I suspect, did the disciples. But we are told that the disciples returned to their lodging place in Jerusalem and “devoted themselves to prayer.” The lectionary wisely ends this pre-Pentecost lesson precisely there. Of course, we know what comes next. We recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Peter’s bold sermon to the people of Jerusalem, the creation of a diverse assembly drawn together by good news spoken in every tongue under heaven and the birth of a community founded on the principles of distributive justice and equality.
But we do well not to rush the narrative. It is appropriate, I think, to join the disciples in a posture of prayer. The week before Pentecost should find us in a stance of openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, openness to God’s future and openness to opportunities for ministry that might be right in front of us. Now is a time of readiness for change, a time for cultivating the courage to let go of our hopes, fears and expectations of the future. Now is a good time to begin imagining how the miracle of Pentecost might be occurring in our time, fracturing border walls, spilling over cultural, political, religious and economic divides to form a new people of every nation, tribe and tongue.
The Bible does not give us the content of the disciple’s prayers as they met together in that upper room in Jerusalem. But I think that our prayers during this final week of Easter should perhaps be shaped by Jesus’ prayer in our gospel lesson: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the power of imagination that is perhaps what animates prayer and translates it into action.
A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Source: Breathing the Water, (c. 1987 by Denise Levertov). Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
N.B. To those of you who might be celebrating Ascension this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of Sunday, June 1, 2014 discussing the appointed texts.
The disciples’ question to Jesus indicates that, after years of following him, forty days of which occur after his resurrection from death, they are still operating with a limited understanding of the kingdom he proclaimed. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” they ask. Vs. 6. It is difficult to know exactly what was in the disciples’ minds or that of the early church in framing the question. But one thing is clear: this expectation is backward looking. “Restore,” suggests that Israel once had the kingdom and somehow lost it. It implies that Jesus is expected to bring back some “golden age” in the past when circumstances were supposedly better. “Make Israel great again.” But we should know from having read Luke’s gospel (which we have been doing throughout this church year) that the kingdom lies in God’s future and will surpass all that has been. We are talking new creation here, not a return of the good old days.
Additionally, we know that the coming kingdom will include not only Israel, but will reach out to embrace the non-Jewish world as well. We get an inkling of this in Jesus’ promise/command that his disciples “shall be witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8. Indeed, this verse spells out the whole trajectory of the Book of Acts which begins with Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2), spills into Samaria through the ministry of Philip (Acts 8:4-13) and, with Paul’s conversion, spreads throughout the Mediterranean world. The disciples have much to learn about the mission to which they are being called.
Quite naturally, the disciples are found staring into the sky following Jesus’ departure. Where else would you look? So intent are they in their vain efforts to keep Jesus in view that they are unaware of the two angels standing at their sides. Don’t search the heavens for Jesus. He will return in the same way as he went into heaven. I can’t say that I am sure exactly what this means, but I suspect that it is a veiled reference to Pentecost. The Greek word “ouronos,” meaning “heaven” or the “heavens” is often a circumlocution for God. Just as Jesus was taken up into the heavens (vs.11), so also on Pentecost the Spirit comes as a mighty wind from the heavens. Acts 2:2. Thus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can be seen as a return of Jesus to be present in an ever more intimate, powerful and omnipresent way with his disciples. Empowered by this Spirit, the church continues Jesus’ ministry of teaching the people, caring for the poor and doing works of healing.
I have spoken at some length in my introductory remarks about the disciples’ returning to Jerusalem to wait and pray. I will only add that their devotion to prayer seems like a good prescription for a church that is fast losing its social standing in society, its membership base and its financial security. We can respond to all of this in fear and wrack our brains about how to reverse it. Or we can look beyond mere “restoration” and try to discern where God is taking us next.
Commentators reflecting on this psalm agree on one thing: no other psalm presents so many translation and interpretation challenges. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 82; Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd) p. 481. The Hebrew text is filled with words that have either been corrupted in transmission or are unique to the Hebrew Scriptures. The style changes abruptly throughout and there are many awkward shifts in thought. All of this has led some scholars to conclude that Psalm 68 is a random collection of poetic fragments rather than a single prayer or song. Others suggest that it might be a catalogue of the first lines of about thirty different psalms. Still others believe that the psalm consists of a series of short liturgical responses for use at a ceremony that is unknown to us. Rogerson & McKay, supra, at 82-83. In any event, the mention of participation by tribes associated with the northern kingdom in a hymn exalting Mt. Zion suggests that some fragments at least date back to the time of the united monarchy under David and Solomon.
Verse 1 echoes the call to arms spoken by Moses whenever the Israelites broke camp for another leg of their journey through the wilderness to the land of Canaan: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.” Numbers 10:35. This psalm or part of it might have been composed for a celebration in Jerusalem of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. Vss. 7-10 lend credence to this view. Righteous behavior, not cultic purity is what makes one pure in God’s sight and worthy of Israel’s heritage. Vs. 3.
“Lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds.” Vs. 4. This fragment has interesting parallels with Canaanite poetry which exalts Baal as “storm rider.” Ibid. at 85. Israel frequently appropriated the literary templates of its cultural neighbors for use in her worship of Yahweh. If that is the case here, it further testifies to the early composition of this Psalm and its fragments. Yet unlike the gods of the Canaanites, whose worship served as an ideological justification for the reigning monarch, Israel’s God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.” Vs. 5. This God is not preoccupied with shoring up any imperial house, but in “giving the desolate a home to dwell in” and leading “out the prisoners to prosperity.” Vs. 6.
Verses 7-10 recount Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and the conquest and settlement of Canaan. The psalm might also be recognizing God’s deliverance from some drought such as occurred under Ahab in I Kings 17:1-7. See vs. 9. Once again, God is portrayed not as the patron of the great and powerful, but the help of the needy. Vs. 10.
The lectionary lurches ahead to vss. 32-35 consisting of a concluding canticle of praise. Again God is portrayed as the one who “rides on the heavens,” in much the same way as Baal was portrayed in Canaanite mythology. It is worth noting, however, that such a borrowing served the purpose of emphasizing that it is the Lord, Yahweh, not Baal or any other fertility god, who brings rain upon the earth. That point was made very graphically by Elijah in his contest with the prophets of Baal. I kings 18.
Once again, the lectionary has excised a piece of the text for reasons I cannot comprehend. The reading begins at Chapter 4:12 in which Peter tells his audience, the church in Asia Minor, not to be surprised at “the fiery ordeal” that is overtaking them. Although Peter does not tell us exactly what this ordeal is, we can infer from the context that he is speaking of persecution from the surrounding culture. Disciples of Jesus should not be surprised to find themselves persecuted. After all, didn’t Jesus warn his disciples that they would be required to take up the cross? Didn’t he tell them that “where I am, there will my servant be also”? Yet I have to say that this text sounds almost foreign to me because I have never experienced anything like persecution for being a Christian. In the town where I grew up, it would have been considered odd, perhaps even suspicious if you were not a Christian of some flavor. All my childhood friends went to church somewhere or, if they didn’t, they lied and said they did. Being unreligious was somehow un-American.
Things have changed, of course. We all accept-or should-that a person can be a good citizen, honest business person and an upstanding member of the community without being religious. The stores don’t close on Sunday, but soccer practice goes on. I also must say that over my thirty-five years of ministry, I have seen erosion in the deference traditionally given to clergy in the past. I have to say parenthetically that I am glad about that. I always felt uncomfortable when someone paid for my coffee or offered me their place in line because I was wearing a clerical collar. I understand that it was their way of showing reverence and respect for something bigger than me. Still, I am just as glad to pay for my own coffee. So even with the decline of the church’s cultural influence, we experience nothing close to persecution.
Then again, perhaps we don’t experience persecution because, even in this age of decline, the church fits too comfortably into the Americana landscape. Perhaps it is because we have confused middle class, ever white and ever polite respectability for faithful discipleship that we never find ourselves in any sort of trouble. Maybe if we began attempting to live out the radical, countercultural and subversive discipleship practiced in the book of Acts, we might find ourselves in real danger of persecution. Just a thought.
What we have in this lesson is the introductory portion of Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples wrapping up the “farewell discourses” and leading into John’s passion narrative. Here Jesus weaves together into a single poetic fabric the Christological claims he has been making for himself throughout the gospel. The hour has come for Jesus to be glorified. That glorification will take place in a way no one could have foreseen. Jesus will be glorified by his death for his disciples and for the world. In that death, the sinfulness of the world will be laid bare in its cruel rejection of the best God has to give. At the same time, however, the depth of God’s love will be revealed in God’s stubborn persistence in love even in the face of his Son’s crucifixion. God’s power is demonstrated in just this: that God does not do what we would do if our own child were killed, namely, retaliate. God will raise up his crucified and resurrected Son and give him back to the world that rejected him. God will not be dragged into the vortex of retribution in which the rest of the world is caught up.
Today’s reading seems to address the objection raised by the good Judas in chapter 15, namely, if Jesus really is the Savior of the world, why is he revealing himself only to a select few? John 15: 22. Jesus makes clear that his final prayer is not merely for the twelve, but for all who will come to believe through their preaching and love for one another. Jesus says essentially that he is praying that the love between Father and Son that has existed from eternity might bind the disciples together just as it unites the Trinity. Such love manifest among the disciples and poured out upon the world glorifies God. The reality of God living in the midst of God’s people under the gentle reign of the Lamb proclaimed in the Book of Revelation is fulfilled in some measure in the church.
“This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” Vs. 3. Eternal life is not to be equated with “life after death” or “life beyond the grave” though it surely extends there. Eternal life is the relational quality of life for the disciple who “knows” the only true God through the Son God has sent into the world. A disciple experiences eternal life as s/he pours out his/her life in the service of all that is eternal. It is a life characterized by love for God, love among the disciples and love for the world God made. In a sinful world, that love takes the shape of the cross. Yet, as Peter pointed out in our previous reading, the resulting suffering can be borne with joy precisely because the disciple knows that his/her faithfulness to Jesus aligns him/her with what outlasts suffering and death.
Jesus’ statement to the effect that he is not praying for the world (vs. 9) might be taken to mean that he does not care for the world. Of course, we know that is not the case as it is precisely because God loved the world that he sent his Son. John 3:16. Jesus prays for his disciples because it will be through their love for him and for one another that the world will come to know that love and be saved through it. So the stage is set for the final section of John’s gospel, the passion narrative or the “book of glory.”
Can I call you Frank? This is just pastor to pastor. Feel free to call me Peter. Anyway, I have to say I was flattered when I learned that your Decision America Tour took a detour off the beaten path to call upon us “small community churches.” We are nothing if not small. We seat 30-40 on a good Sunday. And we are a century old fixture of our small community. Most often we are overlooked and overshadowed by mega-churches and politically influential religious voices like your own. We don’t hold a candle to an auditorium filled with the music of a one hundred voice choir led by professional musicians. We probably will never be recognized in any nationally syndicated media. After all, we don’t do anything really “newsworthy.” We just preach the good news of Jesus Christ; love one another the best we can (which sometimes isn’t very well); feed the hungry that come to our doors; care for the sick; comfort the dying; and bury the dead. So thanks for thinking of us. Rest assured, we are ready to respond to your calls to prayer and action.
I have to say, though, that I was a little confused by your summons. Of all the things that worry me, loss of religious freedom for Christians in America isn’t one of them. I can’t say I have ever experienced anything in this country that could reasonably be called a restriction on my religious liberty, much less persecution. When you started talking about attacks on Christianity, I thought you might have been referring to the racially motivated slaying of pastors and lay people at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston some time back. Or I figured you were referring to the slaughter of Coptic Christians in Egypt this past Palm Sunday. That’s what I call persecution. But having to pay a judgment for refusing to bake a cake for a same sex couple in violation of the law against discrimination? This you call persecution? There’s a letter in the Bible, written by the Apostle Peter (ever heard of him?). He’s an expert on persecution, having been on the receiving end of it more than once. He says you don’t get divine kudos from suffering the consequences of breaking the law-even if you are a Christian. Moreover, there is a Christian fellow named Paul (aka Saul) who wrote a letter to a church in Rome nearly two thousand years ago. He said that if your enemy is hungry you should feed him (that’s in the Bible too). So wouldn’t it have been the Christian way to have baked a cake for the same sex couple in your example, even if you deem them enemies (another assertion I don’t quite understand)? I’m confused.
But in any event, Frank, let’s get over this persecution complex. Stop with the drama already! You are not under attack just because you have to follow the rules like everyone else. Look, I understand the owners of this establishment you mention in your speech don’t approve of gay and lesbian people getting married. They don’t have to approve of them. But if they are going to do business in this country, they have to follow the law against discrimination-just like the rest of us. If you don’t like the rules, don’t join the game. It’s that simple. Furthermore, I don’t understand why baking a cake for people whose conduct you find personally offensive is such a big deal. Heck, Frank, if all of us small church pastors refused to bury everyone whose conduct we didn’t approve of, the country would be ten feet deep in corpses!
I am struggling, too, with your claim that Donald Trump is a champion (albeit an unlikely one) for religious freedom. What freedoms are we talking about here, Frank? The freedom to lie with impunity? The freedom to grab young girls by the genitals? The freedom to discriminate against people of color in the sale and rental of real estate? The freedom to refer to women as “dogs,” “fat pigs,” and “ugly”? The freedom to call your opponents “idiots,” “losers,” “liars” and “frauds”? The freedom to slander people with accusations of criminal conduct based on absolutely no evidence? By my count, the above violate at least four of the Ten Commandments (you will find those in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy-both in the Bible). If Donald Trump is the champion of American Christianity, God save it from its enemies!
All kidding aside, you might be right about God putting Donald Trump in the White House-though your reasons for so believing are probably different from what I might conjecture. Still, how do you know that? Where did you get this info? I have to hand it to you, Frank, you sure do have the connections. As I am sure you know, God does not consult with us small church pastors on weighty issues of that kind. So it was kind of you to leak this classified intelligence to all of us who are evidently a good deal further away from the divine pipeline. So let me see if I have this figured out correctly: God doesn’t give a flying fruitcake if we deprive twenty-million people, most of them poor, of access to health care. Nor is God particularly concerned about how men treat women in the workplace, how people of color are treated in the real estate market, how the hungry and homeless are cared for (or not), but God flips out if we bake a cake for a same sex couple to celebrate their wedding? I have to be honest with you, Frank. I’m just not seeing it. Not in the Bible, not in the realm of rational common sense.
Here’s the thing, Frank. At the last judgment, Jesus doesn’t ask anyone about who they voted for, how many times they have been divorced, what their sexual history or orientation is or for whom they did or did not bake wedding cakes. His sole concern is for how we treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, those deemed “least” among us. No, I didn’t get that from any private chat with God. We small church pastors have to rely on the Bible for our intel. I got this stuff from the Gospel of Matthew, 25th Chapter to be precise. As I said, that, too, is in the Bible. (It’s a great book, Frank. You should read it sometime.)
You know, Frank, I would like to think that we are brothers. I would like to believe that we are on the same side. I would like to believe that, beneath our differences, we worship the same God and follow the same Savior. But quite honestly, I don’t recognize the Jesus I learned from my parents, my Sunday School teachers, my pastors or my years of study and reflection on the Bible in your angry, fearful rhetoric. Yes, I will answer your call for prayer. But I will be praying for the real victims of persecution-the victims of racial discrimination, sexual violence and bullying. I will answer your call to action. But I will be acting to establish health care as a right for all people; making the college campus and the workplace spaces where women and girls need not fear being called “pigs,” “dogs” or “ugly” nor will they need to fear rich, white celebrity males who feel entitled to grab them by the genitals. I will respond to your call for action by working for a society in which no one needs to worry about where she will sleep at night or where the next meal is coming from. You want prayer? You want action? You’ve got it.
Well, thanks again, Frank, for thinking about us small church folk. I appreciate your concern about our being persecuted and under attack. But don’t worry about us. We don’t have your money, your access to the halls of power or your seeming direct connection to the Almighty. But we have the scriptures, we have prayer, and we are learning every day what it means to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s all we need. You can keep your champion in the White House, thanks just the same.
Christ’s servant and yours,
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and ever-living God, you hold together all things in heaven and on earth. In your great mercy receive the prayers of all your children, and give to all the world the Spirit of your truth and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.” Psalm 66:16
This invitation is extended to all who “fear” God. Ordinarily, fear is not a good thing. It is almost always found under the surface of our most foolish, cruel and destructive behavior. Religion based on fear of an angry, vengeful and punishing god produces angry, vengeful and punishing communities that, in turn, produce angry, guilt ridden and fearful individuals. The Apostle John reminds us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I John 4:18. Nevertheless, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the chief teaching document of my church, admonishes us repeatedly to “fear and love God.” So, too, the psalmist reminds us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) and assumes that his/her fellow worshipers are people who “fear” God. What do we make of these seeming contradictions?
Perhaps fear is something like faith. Just as Luther maintained that “faith makes both God and an idol,” I think that perhaps fear leads either to wisdom or folly-depending on where it is directed. Fear is clearly destructive when misplaced. Just as economic insecurity, national calamity and distrust of civil institutions led to the rise of fascism in Europe, so the fear of terrorism, xenophobia and anxiety over the changing demographics of our country have helped fuel the rise of nationalist populism in the United States and empowered the fringe elements of “white nationalism.” Fear of our neighbors leads us to distrust, discriminate and act against them with hostility. Fear of losing what we possess leads to greed, selfishness and insensitivity to the needs of others. As I have observed before, fear makes us stupid.
But what happens when our fear is directed toward a God we know will, as Saint Paul tells us in our second lesson, “judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and…given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.”? Acts 17:31. What if we believed in a God who will judge us by one thing and one thing only: How well or poorly we have treated the “least” among us? What if we knew with assurance that all the arguments we might make to justify our failure to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked and the imprisoned-such as the need to balance the federal budget, the need to secure our borders-will fall absolutely flat on the day of judgment? What if we worried less about the costs and dangers of caring for our neighbors and more about what God might do to us if we don’t? It seems to me that if we feared God more, the world would soon become a much less fearful place.
Of course, it needs to be said that, while the fear of the Lord may well be the beginning of wisdom, it is not the end. God’s judgment is always a means to God’s ultimate desire for our salvation. God wounds in order to heal. It is because God loves the world so deeply, so passionately and so persistently that God will not stand by and allow it to follow its own self-destructive course. God frustrates the plans of the wicked, casts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts those of low degree. God brings down nations and kingdoms that aspire to godlike domination. All of that can appear fierce, dreadful and punishing-until one recognizes in the midst of it all the presence of Jesus standing with us and inviting us to stand with him in witnessing to God’s loving intent for all people. Make no mistake. God is passionately committed to justice. God is not a tame lion, as C.S. Lewis has said. God’s commands are not to be taken lightly. But though God is fierce and dangerous, God is nevertheless good and means to do us good. God can therefore be as much loved as feared. “Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh. His the Loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.” “Children of the Heavenly Father,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 781.
Here is a poem by Jessica Nelson North about what appears to me to be a proper sort of fear.
I Fear the Weak
I am not afraid of the strong,
But the weak I fear.
They fix me with their pale impassionate eyes,
And I draw near
I melt before their cries,
My heart is water and air.
I am bound long and long
In the ties of that despair.
Source: Poetry Magazine (November 1930) c. Jessica Nelson North. Jessica Nelson North (1891-1988) was a Poet and novelist born in Madison, Wisconsin. She earned her BA at Lawrence College and pursued graduate work at the University of Chicago. Her collections of poetry include The Prayer Rug (1923), The Long Leash (1928), and Dinner Party (1942). She worked with Poetry Magazine, editing the publication from 1936-1942. You can find out more about Jessica Nelson North and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This Sunday’s lesson is Paul’s speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus. The “Areopagus” (“Ares’ Hill” or “Mars’ Hill”) is a low hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. It was the seat of the earliest aristocratic council of that ancient city which tried capital cases and prosecuted claims of public corruption throughout the classical period of the Greek democracy. During the period of Roman domination in the 1st Century, the council was responsible for the discharge of significant administrative, religious, and educational functions. The atmosphere was very much like that of a modern university where teachers of various schools of philosophy, politicians and artists gathered.
As was his custom, Paul began his missionary work by visiting the synagogue where expatriate Jews gathered for worship. While the audience Paul found there was sometimes skeptical and even hostile to his preaching, they at least understood what he meant by proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. But when some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers invited Paul to address them and their colleagues in the Areopagus, Paul was suddenly confronted with an audience that had no knowledge or understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures or the God to which they testify. It will not do for Paul merely to proclaim Jesus as Messiah because his audience would immediately ask, “What is a messiah?” If Paul were to assert that Jesus is God’s Son, they would ask, “Which god?” Paul must therefore speak the gospel to the Athenians in language and imagery they will understand from within their own religious backgrounds.
Paul finds his opening in a curious monument “to and unknown god.” Vs. 28. Such a monument can only reflect a recognition on the part of the Athenians that their many temples and shrines do not capture the fullness of the deity. Thus, in an attempt to ensure that their worship is complete, they must also offer worship at this shrine to such god or gods that they do not know. This “unknown god,” says Paul, is the one he has come to make known. Paul goes on to point out the foolishness of imagining that God can be captured in an image or enclosed in a shrine. Certainly, his Epicurean and Stoic listeners would agree with him on that point. Unlike the common folk, these philosophers did not believe in the existence of the Greek gods of the pantheon. Their understanding of divinity was far more complex. Paul even cites some Greek literary figures to illustrate the paradox (Epimenides and Aratus): though God is so near that “in him we live and move and have our being,” nevertheless God seems distant and our efforts to “feel after” God prove futile. Vss. 26-28.
In verses 30-31 Paul comes right to the point. God now commands repentance which is possible because and only because God has revealed his heart and mind in a man though and by whom the world is to be judged. When push comes to shove, Paul must return to his Hebrew scriptural roots and to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through whom they are properly understood. In the final analysis, Paul does not come to the Areopagus with a competing philosophy, teaching or morality. He comes not to teach the Athenians about God, but to invite them into relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the unknown and unknowable God becomes known. But this knowledge is not theoretical, but relational. It is not principally the nature of God, but the heart of God that Jesus reveals.
This remarkable psalm begins as an exhortation for all the earth to worship and praise the God of Israel and concludes with a declaration of thanksgiving by an individual worshiper for God’s deliverance. Verses 1-12 are spoken in the second person, suggesting the role of a worship leader. Verses 13-20 are all in the first person. This has led some biblical scholars to suggest that the psalm is actually a composite of two psalms. Others maintain that it was composed as a liturgy to be recited by a king speaking on behalf of both God and the people. Still others suggest that the final form of the psalm is the work of an individual incorporating an older liturgy of corporate worship as an introduction to his/her personal expression of thanksgiving. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 76. Whatever the case may be, there is no disputing that the psalm as we have it today constitutes a unified and thoroughly harmonious expression of thanksgiving.
Verse 8, where our reading begins, is a transition point in the psalm. Whereas the prior verses and verse 7 in particular speak of God’s power over the world at large and the non-Israelite nations (“goyim”), verse 8 addresses the “peoples” or “ammim.” This word usually denotes a religious group and here almost certainly refers to the Israelite faithful. Ibid. p. 78; See also, Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 470. Therefore, what follows in verses 9-12 must be viewed through the lens of Israel’s covenant with her God. That relationship often looks very much like a rocky marriage, ever on the brink of divorce, yet somehow managing not only to survive but even to thrive.
Verses 10-12 allude to the struggles and triumphs experienced throughout Israel’s history with her God, but the psalmist does not lift up any identifiable biblical event. The metaphors of refinement could apply equally to the sojourning of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, the struggle to secure a place in the Promised Land, the suffering of the prophets under the monarchy or the Exile.
Again, the suggestion that God “tries” and “refines” us through adversity is problematic if one views God as somehow above the fray, engineering the minutia of history and sending heartbreak or tragedy wherever needed to perfect an individual’s character. But, as noted above, these are not words addressed to the general population. They are addressed to God’s covenant people called to be a light to the world. The journey from bondage in Egypt to freedom in Canaan cannot be made without suffering, sacrifice and loss. Neither can one enter the kingdom of heaven without sacrificing all else. Discipleship is a hazardous profession in which you can get yourself killed. Witness the fate of Stephan in last week’s lesson from Acts. This psalm, however, testifies to the joy and blessedness of covenant life in which one cannot help but learn through the adversity such a life entails how faithful, compassionate, forgiving and reliable God is.
This psalm is an illustration of how an individual’s reflection on God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout the biblical narrative is mirrored in that individual’s own life experience. It demonstrates how the Bible was intended to be read and interpreted. It is in the sacred narratives that we see reflected our own struggles and triumphs. Entering into the biblical story opens our eyes to the hidden depths of meaning, significance and the presence of God in our own life stories. That is what the Psalms are for. Faithful use of the psalms in our prayer life cannot help but illuminate the contours of our baptismal walk and remind us that our existence is directed toward the promised kingdom. We might have to walk “through fire and through water,” but we can be confident that we are not adrift without a rudder. God brings “us forth into a spacious place.” Vs. 12. Or, to put it in Jesus’ words, “In my Father’s household are many dwelling places…I go there to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2-3.
This is another instance in which the divine wisdom of the lectionary makers lies beyond the scope of my humble, mortal intelligence. Verses 8-12 are critical to what follows and so I urge you to read I Peter 3:8-22 before proceeding any further. This section begins with a plea for the believers addressed in this letter to “have unity of spirit, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.” Vs. 8. Why is this so important? It is important because nothing the church does is nearly as important as what the church is. Let me follow that up with a quotation: “So the purpose of the church, the purpose of Christians, is to love one another across our diversity so that the world can believe. Our primary method is loving one another. Not verbal witnessing to non-Christians or devising brilliant arguments for the deity of Christ or doing great social service for the poor or even loving those in the world. Those things all have their place in evangelism-they’re important, in fact-but they aren’t the core of God’s method. They will come to nothing unless people see in us the love God has given us for each other, unless they see Jew and Gentile, black and white, husband and wife, academics and uneducated, living together in peace. That peace is the light set on the hill so the world can see.” Alexander, John F., Being Church, Reflections on How to Live as the People of God (c. 2012 by John Alexander, pub. by Wipf and Stock Publishers) p. 20.
That goes against the grain of everything we American Christians (who are frequently far more American than Christian) believe about church, faith and witness. We in American Protestantism have always viewed the church as an integrated part of society. Its purpose is to “march with events to turn them God’s way”-as if we knew what that was! See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #418, verse 2. Our job is to preach a conscience into society, lobby government to be just and shame business into behaving as much as business can be expected to behave. We are charged with transforming society in general and American society in particular. In this respect, there is virtually no difference in outlook between conservative evangelicals of the “Christian Coalition of America” variety and the social activism of mainline protestant groups like my own. Both seek to “turn events God’s way.” The disagreement is only over the turn’s direction and degree.
But what if Jesus really meant what he said in the Gospel of John, namely, that the way for his disciples to bear fruit is through abiding in his love and loving one another? John 15:1-17. What if unity of spirit and the common life of Jesus’ disciples are what give credibility to the apostolic witness as Luke maintains in the Book of Acts? Acts 2:41-47. It strikes me that “being” the church might actually get us into more engagement with the world than all of our frantic “doing.” Nothing is more unsettling and destabilizing than a countercultural community within society that practices an alternative communal lifestyle. That is the reason our attitudes range from discomfort to outright hostility and contempt for folks like the Amish. Why do they have to be so stand offish? Why are they so different from us? Yet perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves the same question the other way around: Why are we so different from the Amish? Why does the church fit so naturally into the Americana landscape? Why is it “weird” to be Amish, but not in the least remarkable to be a Lutheran, Anglican or Presbyterian?
It is precisely because the church was a community in which there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, etc. that it posed such a profound threat to the very hierarchical and socially stratified Roman Empire. So also I believe groups such as the Amish are so discomforting to us because their way of life threatens our culture’s high estimation of success, acquisition and the accumulation of status and power. Of course we do not persecute the Amish anymore. Instead, we have domesticated them and turned them into a sort of national oddity, a harmless tourist attraction. Nonetheless, our unease is still present and if it has not broken out into open hostility more often, that has less to do with our much touted “tolerance” than the fact that the Amish have had the good grace keep a low profile and stay out of the public square. 1st Century Rome could not afford to be tolerant of such countercultural communities at the frontier of its most vulnerable border. That is why Peter takes it for granted that the believers in Asia Minor will experience persecution and suffering. They will not have to hold committee meetings or hire top dollar consultants in order to find opportunities for witness and evangelism. It will come their way merely through their being church. Vss. 13-17. As I have often said before, the Amish witness in the wake of the Nickel Mine tragedy speaks more persuasively to the heart of the gospel than all the preachy/screechy social statements of all us mainliners combined.
Saint Augustine poses the question I have always had regarding this reading: “How, then, doth the Lord say, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments: and I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter;’ when He saith so of the Holy Spirit, without [having] whom we can neither love God nor keep his commandments so as to receive Him, without whom we cannot love at all?” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. VII (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 333. He answers his question by pointing out that the disciples already had the Holy Spirit in some measure, but not in the way and to the extent promised in the gospel. Ibid. 334. “Accordingly, they both had, and had [the Holy Spirit] not, inasmuch as they had Him not as yet to the same extent as He was afterwards to be possessed.” Ibid. When one thinks this through in accord with Johannine logic, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion. Jesus exclaimed to Philip last week: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” John 14:9-10. Jesus is in the Father currently. The Spirit is sent from the Father and by the Father. Vs. 16. Moreover, the Spirit is identified as the Spirit of truth (vs. 17) and Jesus has previously declared himself “the truth.” John 14:6. The task of the Spirit is nothing else than to take what is of Jesus and declare it to the disciples. John 16:14-15. The Spirit, then, is as inseparable from Jesus as is the Father. The Spirit is therefore the means by which the disciples will “see” the resurrected Christ. Vs. 19. The Holy Spirit is therefore not Jesus’ successor, but his return. This, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he said: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.” John 14:3.
Unfortunately, the lectionary has deprived us of a critical piece of this reading. In John 14:22-24 Jesus goes on to explain that, through his indwelling of the disciples by the Spirit, he will be manifested to the world. This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ declaration in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The disciples’ life together is the manifestation of God’s Triune love between Father and Son that cannot help but overflow into creation where it is embodied in the person of Jesus and, after his resurrection, among his disciples by the indwelling of his Spirit. This reading (in its uncut form) therefore looks ahead to Trinity Sunday just as last week’s gospel anticipates Ascension.
Most striking is Jesus’ assurance that he will not leave his disciples “desolate” or, as literally translated, “orphaned.” Vs. 18. I suspect that Jesus speaks these words to his disciples because, at the moment, they feel very much like orphans. Even with Jesus in their midst, the disciples are just barely hanging on and holding it together. They are the frightened crew of a small boat caught in the midst of a wild and tempestuous sea. Just as the storm is about to peak, their captain announces that he is to be with them for only “a little while,” and that “Where I am going you cannot come.” John 13:33. The trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion is foreshadowed here, but so also is Pentecost. It is to the disciples’ advantage that Jesus go so that the “Advocate” can come. John 16:7. This Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, is none other than the more intense and intimate presence of Jesus in their midst.
This lesson opens up a wonderful opportunity for talking about the presence of Jesus in the church. Of course, that will necessarily lead into a discussion of the experienced absence of Jesus in the church. Does the decline of our mainline churches signal Jesus’ “abandonment” of us? Is our culture’s increasing lack of interest in the church a sign of our failure to reflect Jesus, as so many critics within and without insist? Or is it rather the case that we are reflecting Jesus all too well and society’s disinterest, misunderstanding and hostility are signs of our effectiveness on that score? After all, Jesus warned his disciples that the world would hate them because they are “not of the world.” John 15:19. Is there some truth to both of these suggestions? Where and how is the Spirit working in the congregation? Does our congregational life mirror Trinitarian love? Is the world’s misunderstanding the “stumbling block of the cross,” or is it stumbling blocks of our own making?
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to following the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a victim of mob violence. Like his Lord, he died with a prayer on his lips for the forgiveness of his murderers. The story is terrifying on several levels. Mobs are scary. People swept up into mob hysteria are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty they would probably never commit on their own. Mobs are not driven by any coherent ideology or particular religious sentiment. They are inspired by appeals to raw emotion, to the most primal fears we harbor. As irrational as it may seem, the mob always sees itself as the victim and its victim as the aggressor. It believes that it is acting in self-defense. The opponents of Stephen stirred up the people with the claim that Stephen was heard to “speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They told the gathering crowd that he was threatening to “change the customs Moses delivered to us.” For a people under Roman domination, whose faith and customs were in fact threatened with extinction and treated with contempt by their occupiers, these were fighting words. Stephen was for this mob the face of everything they most feared; the representative of a future that terrified them. Of course, Stephen was not really an enemy of Israel’s faith as he tried to make plain in his defense. But don’t look for rationality in a lynch mob. All you will ever find is blind, white hot, irrational rage. As we all should know, anger is only fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Violence is anger that cannot find words to express itself.
It seems to me that mob psychology is strikingly similar to the movement frequently referred to as “populism.” In his recent book Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, defines populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people,’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonte’ generale’ (will of the people).” Mudde, Cas, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (c. 2017 by Oxford University Press) p. 6. The only amendment I would make is to say that I don’t believe populism is an ideology of any sort, thin-centered or otherwise. I would define it more as a collective anxiety disorder. Most supporters of Donald Trump (the face of populism in the United States) I have spoken to recently don’t even try to defend his overtly racist remarks or justify his sexual predatory conduct or explain away his undisputed lies. They are not necessarily committed to or interested in his political agenda or policies. They are drawn instead to his outbursts of rage that give vent to their own pent up resentments. The Trump supporters I know well have a deep seated conviction that they are losing the America they love, and that it is the fault of an elite establishment bent on undermining their values, mocking their religion, robbing them of their livelihoods, destroying their communities and selling them out to foreign powers. They are convinced that conspiracies are being hatched every day behind the scenes by “America hating, God denying intellectuals.” Donald Trump is for them a monkey wrench hurled into a hostile and malevolent governmental machine that is ruining their lives. He is their escape from a dark and threatening future back into the safety of a bygone era when America was “great.”
Parenthetically, the half dozen or so supporters of Donald Trump I have spoken too in some depth are hardly a statistically significant swath of the the electorate. Moreover, I don’t pretend to understand all that is in their minds, let alone those of millions of other Trump supporters. I will also add that these folks are right in saying that there is something very wrong with our country. Despite recovery from the recession of 2007, too many sections of the country have been left behind to struggle with massive unemployment, decaying infastructure and broken institutions. To the extent that the Trump campaign has shown a light on these problems and brought them to national attention, it has done the nation a service. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that, while populism can illuminate deep seated problems with our government, economy and society, it offers nothing helpful in the way of solutions.
From a biblical perspective, there are two problems with populism. First, any movement grounded in fear is alien to the life of discipleship. “Perfect love,” says the Apostle John, “casts out all fear.” I John 4:18. Populism is driven by fear of the outsider, the elite, the foreigner, the unconventional. It locates the source of evil in some “other.” By contrast, disciples of Jesus understand that sin is universal. The line between good and evil does not follow the contours of nation, race, ideology, political affiliation or religious identity. It runs right through each human heart. As psychiatrist and philosopher M. Scott Peck points out, “it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.” Thus, the war on evil does not entail extermination of evil people by good people, but instead consists in one’s own struggle with repentance, faith and regeneration. Disciples see their enemies not as threats to be feared and destroyed, but as neighbors and fellow sinners in need of the same redeeming love to which they themselves cling.
The second problem with populism is its backward focus. Salvation is not to be found in the past. Hope that is focused on a return to the Garden of Eden is doomed to frustration. That way is closed to us-forever. Even if by some wizardry it were possible to travel backwards in time, we would not find there any “golden age,” but only the sin and failure we know today. The era when America was somehow better, purer and greater than it is today is no more real than the Israelites’ exaggerated memories of the fleshpots back in Egypt. The Promised Land cannot be found by turning back. It lies exclusively in God’s future. The past is a dead end and those intent on restoring it are running a fool’s errand.
How does one preach in the age of populism? I guess the same as in any other age. The good news of Jesus Christ is always good news and about the only unique thing disciples of Jesus have to talk about. Nevertheless, each era presents its own set of temptations. We must at all costs avoid succumbing to fear. That is not an easy thing. There are some real dangers on the horizon. Military confrontation in Asia and the Middle East; loss of health care for the poorest and sickest among us, discrimination and violence against racial minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities and women. I am not suggesting for one moment that any of these threats are not real or should be taken lightly, ignored or left unchallenged. Nonetheless, responding out of fear and defensiveness with the same angry, caustic and inflated rhetoric inherent in populist culture only transforms us into a mirror image of what we claim to oppose. Disciples of Jesus should know that behind the anger and violence is a frightened person whose world is changing faster than s/he can cope with and in ways s/he finds hard to comprehend. Underneath the aggression is a plea for understanding and acceptance that invites the same compassion and forgiveness Saint Stephen expressed in his final moments.
Here’s a poem about the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Daniel Berrigan.
That day stones fell
I stood and died
unknowable, a mound of dust for heaven
to make man of.
That day stones beat
like stone beasts for a forced entry
to eat my heart: I prayed awhile
then opened brief and tossed them meat.
They ate and died of it: unproofed against
my living phial, great love.
stones flew like hail of stones at first:
my dolorous flesh took their brute will
but stones transformed
to tongues, whispered at every wound:
That day stones flowered
to dark rose-field Christ walked and gathered.
Source: Selected & New Poems, (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 46. Daniel Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957. Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear war heads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release. Berrigan died on April 30, 2016 of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old.
This account of the execution or, more accurately, the lynching of Stephen is the concluding episode to a much longer narrative reported in full at Acts 6:1-Acts 8:1. Stephen is one of seven individuals appointed to oversee the distribution of food to “widows” within the Jerusalem church community. As Professor Gerd Ludemann points out, “Many pious Jews settled in Jerusalem in the evening of their lives in order to be buried in the holy city. Therefore the care of their widows was a problem which came up frequently.” Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1987 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pub. by Fortress Press) p. 74. Thus, the church’s practice of providing for its widows had Jewish antecedents. Oddly, however, Stephen seems occupied not with such mundane administrative work but rather with “doing great wonders and signs among the people” and disputing with representatives of the “synagogue of the freedman.” Acts 6:8-10. Stephen’s arguments enrage his opponents who bring him before the Jewish high council on charges of blasphemy. His lengthy defense recorded in Acts 7:1-53 so inflames the anger of those present at the hearing that they drag him outside of the city and stone him to death. Stephen dies with a prayer for their forgiveness on his lips. As a consequence of this event, a great persecution arises against the church in Jerusalem scattering the disciples throughout all of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:2. But so far from silencing the church, the persecution results in the spread of the gospel and the continued growth of the church. “Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Acts 8:4. This is the context of our reading.
Stoning was the punishment of choice for idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7); human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5);prophesying in the name of foreign gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5);divination (Leviticus 20:27); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16);Sabbath breaking (Numbers 15:32-36);adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24); and disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In 1st Century Judaism the sentence of stoning was rarely imposed and then only after strict legal procedural requirements were satisfied. The punishment could be administered only upon the testimony of two competent witnesses. Between twenty-three and seventy-one judges were required to adjudicate such a capital case, depending upon the offense. A simple majority was required to sustain a verdict. It does not appear that these procedures were observed in the case of Stephen whose death looks much more like the fruit of mob violence than a judicially ordered execution. Stoning, it should be noted, remains a legal form of judicial punishment in Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria (in one-third of the country’s states), Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In actual practice, however, stoning is usually carried out by vigilantes or violent mobs.
This text gives us a look into the anatomy of violence. The whole incident begins with a dispute in which Stephen’s opponents find themselves frustrated in their attempts to persuade him that his arguments are wrongheaded. Unable to meet Stephen’s arguments, they resort to attacks on his character. They call him a blasphemer and bring him before the council. But Stephen continues to press his point until his enemies are so enraged that they actually plug their ears against his reasoning. Predictably, they finally resort to violence. Violence is the last desperate attempt of a frustrated debater to silence an opponent whose arguments he cannot meet. It is what happens when we run out of words.
By contrast, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, mirroring Jesus’ prayer in Luke’s passion narrative. Luke 23:34. As the first Christian martyr whose death is recorded in the New Testament, Stephen’s witness has inspired and shaped faithful witness to Jesus in the face of persecution throughout the generations. It reinforces my long held conviction that non-violence is not a peripheral virtue, but a central tenant of the gospel witness. There are things worth dying for, but according to Jesus, nothing is worth killing for. In the face of violent persecution, the church’s duty is to die-as did its Lord.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-8.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 9-18
- Expression of confidence, vss. 19-20
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 21-24.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether.
Verse 5 parallels both Stephen’s dying prayer in Acts 7:59 and that of Jesus in Luke 23:46. Ultimately, the psalms leave the execution of justice in the hands of God. While the psalmists can be quite explicit in their desire to see vengeance upon their enemies (See, e.g., Psalm 137), they nevertheless leave its implementation in the hands of the Lord where it rightly belongs. Pacifism is not a creation of the New Testament, but the human embodiment of the heart and mind belonging to the same God lifted up in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“Thou art my God; my times are in your hands.” Vs. 14. Verses like this are the source of both comfort and consternation. The verse seems to say that my life is in God’s hands. If I know God as merciful, compassionate and intimately involved with me, that should be comforting. It is comforting when times are good and I know who to thank for it. The problem is that I must then account for God’s management in times that are not so good, even terrible and tragic. Some deal with this by suggesting that God sends trials to strengthen and instruct us. There is a degree of plausibility in that approach. Who of us would deny that the most valuable lessons in life are learned through facing challenges, overcoming difficulties and working through problems? Even the most horrible circumstances can (though they don’t always) make us stronger, wiser and more mature. But do we really want to say that God sends sexual predators to molest children so that they can grow through the experience? Not me!
Some theologians deal with this problem by arguing that God does not micromanage creation. God sets up the universe with certain parameters, natural laws and creaturely limitations and then graciously gives us our freedom to live and make our own independent choices. We are, of course, responsible for the choices we make. Some of those choices lead to tragic results. Of course, God is not a detached watchmaker whose task ends when the watch is completed, set and wound up. God is not indifferent to all that takes place on this planet. In fact, God is deeply grieved by events such as genocide, natural disasters and epidemics. But God does not intervene or only intervenes to let us know that he feels our pain. That might make God less of a villain in the eyes of some, but I am not convinced that having a distant and grossly neglectful parent is much better than having an abusive one.
It seems to me that if we are to get out of this conundrum, we need to think differently about God’s power and God’s saving intervention. In some respects, God gave up being almighty as soon as God spoke the word, “Let there be.” Like a child conceived in love, the creation makes a claim upon its Creator. As soon as there is something or someone that is not God, God is not “omnipotent” in the sense that God is the only power there is (though it is proper to say that God is omnipotent in the sense that God is a potent force in every circumstance). Just as a child grows in complexity and variability, so also creation and its human inhabitants exercise growing potential-for good and evil. This presents God with a choice: 1) that of exercising coercive power to compel creation to comply with God’s desire for it; or 2) that of exercising persuasive power through continuous acts of faithfulness and expressions of love. What God wants is for his creatures to love him as he loves them and to trust him. That is the kingdom in which God would have us live. But God cannot get that result by coercing us. God will not reign over us as a Caesar on steroids. If God cannot implement his reign through love, God will not reign.
I believe this is what Paul has in mind when he insists that the “weakness” of God is in reality the power of God. See I Corinthians 1:18-31. God’s power is God’s refusal to be drawn into the cycle of violence to which coercive force always leads. Rightly understood, divine power is not the ability to “make the kingdom happen,” but the patience to continue loving, forgiving and inviting us into the kingdom in the face of all our hostility to it. The power of Jesus’ disciples is the conviction, borne of God’s own conviction and demonstration through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, that love outlasts violence. The weakness of God (which is in reality God’s strength) is the patience of Christ’s Body living under the peaceful reign of God in a violent world. Suffering, loss and even martyrdom are not the exceptions, but the rule for disciples of Jesus. To be in God’s hands is to take up the cross through which God reigns.
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk.” Vs. 2. This is a profoundly feminine image of God the mother, feeding and nurturing her children with “pure spiritual milk.” The disciple is as dependent upon Jesus as a newborn living on its mother’s milk. The image of the “living stone” follows immediately thereafter with an allusion (made quite specific further on) to Psalm 118:22. Like a stone rejected by builders which later turns out to be the cornerstone of the structure, so Jesus is the rejected Messiah who turns out to be the cornerstone of the new age. Attention then turns to the disciples who as “living stones” are built into a “spiritual house.” Vs. 5. This image then gives way to that of “a holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Vs. 5. Unpacking all of this is a daunting task.
The stone is a double image. For the faithful, it is a pillar of strength and, as our psalmist observed, “a rock of refuge.” Psalm 31:2. For unbelievers, however, the rock is a source of stumbling. Vs. 8 citing Isaiah 8:14-15. Even a rock that makes one stumble can be the occasion of salvation, however. If you are running head long down the path of self-destruction, tripping on a stone and landing flat on your face is the best thing that can happen to you.
Verses 9-10 apply to this Christian community in Asia Minor a laundry list of honorary titles for Israel taken from Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. Yet this church, whose composition is significantly if not predominantly gentile, is reminded that she comes into the heritage of Israel by the gracious invitation extended to her through Jesus. “Once you were no people; but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Vs. 10. Of course, this message is even more urgent and essential for the 21st Century church that is all but exclusively gentile!
This reading is a frequent sermon text at funerals. Jesus’ assurance that there are many rooms in his Father’s house and that he goes there to prepare a place for his disciples is a powerful and comforting image for all who face the loss of a loved one. Those of us who cut our biblical teeth on the King James Version of the Bible will recall that the word for “room” (mone) is there translated “mansion.” The actual meaning of “mone” is far more modest and thus the RSV rendering of that word merely as “room.” This should not detract from the magnitude of the promise, however. Jesus is offering far more than real estate here. He is promising to make a place for us in the Father’s household. That has ramifications not only for the hereafter, but for the here and now. Eternal life begins now as the disciples begin to believe in Jesus’ promises and shape their lives according to that belief. As St. Augustine puts it, “[Jesus] prepares the dwelling places by preparing those who are to dwell in them.” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Tractate LXVIII, 1, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 322.
Jesus makes the remarkable claim that his disciple’s know the way where he is going. Vs. 4. Understandably, Thomas objects that he and his fellow disciples do not know the way. Vs. 5. Jesus replies that he is the way. Vs. 6. What the disciples do not yet understand is that Jesus “going away” is not a separation from them, but the porthole to a deeper intimacy and more profound presence. The coming of the “advocate” or Holy Spirit will initiate the oneness between Jesus and his disciples for which he prays in John 17. “The answer given by Jesus [to Thomas] articulates the high Christology of the fourth evangelist. It is not the case that Jesus is ‘away’ from the Father, and must therefore find and tread the way to him; he is the way himself: it is not the case that there is a truth about the Father which Jesus must learn and then pass on; he is the truth himself: it is not the case that the Father has eternal life which he will give to the Son when the Son reaches his home, so the Son can then bestow life; he is the life himself. And no other approach to the Father can be made than the one which has been opened in the incarnation of the eternal Word.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 504.
In what I imagine must have been a tone of utter exasperation, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” Vs. 8. Jesus replies that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. Vs. 9. This is a remarkable statement and one that should shatter every notion we have about who and what God is. Jesus, who will soon surrender without resistance to the temple police and die helplessly on the cross is all there is of God to see. There is nothing more, nothing hidden inside or concealed. What you see is what you get. Yet this Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Vs. 6.
It should be clear by now that in declaring himself the “way, the truth and the life,” Jesus is letting his disciples know 1) that his departure is in fact the prelude to his return in a fuller, more robust presence among his disciples than they have known throughout their days of following him on the way to the cross; 2) that the way to the Father is through fellowship with him soon to be had through the coming of the “advocate.” The message of Ascension is on the horizon here. Jesus’ ascending to the right hand of the Father is his coming to fill all creation with the fullness of God. The last supper is not Jesus’ going away party.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
That phrase has taken on more urgency for me over the last decade during which both Sesle and I have lost our parents and now stand with no further familial buffer against the encroaching shadow. The loss of our grandson, Parker, was a cruel reminder that, in reality, there is no buffer. Death leaps over generational lines with the agility of a tiger to snatch lives fresh from the womb, lives that have yet to offer their tender buds to the world. Daily news clips from Syria and northern Iraq bring us graphic images of whole populations that understand with clarity we can never hope to achieve how “even in the midst of life we are in death.” The Bible doesn’t offer any escape from all this. Death is our only exit. No one gets off this planet alive. But the Bible, and the 23rd Psalm in particular, assures us that we need not pass through that door alone. “Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
I am not much interested in whether and to what extent the psalmist believed in a resurrection of the dead or any kind of human existence beyond the grave. It was apparently enough for this psalmist to be confident that whatever the end might hold, s/he could count on facing it in the company and protection of the Lord, his/her shepherd. That was enough. Moreover, it must still suffice even in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. For the truth is, none of us know exactly what resurrection is or what new creation looks like. When the Biblical authors speak of it, they must resort to lurid apocalyptic images, parables, limited analogies that, taken too far, always break down. Jesus tells us that those accounted worthy of the resurrection to eternal life are “like angels in heaven.” But what does that mean? Paul tells us that our resurrection life will be as different from our current existence as a flowering plant is different from the seed that gave it birth. So how can we hope to form any reliable image of “the life everlasting” we confess in the creeds?
I find myself confronted with two opposite and unsatisfactory resolutions to this tension. On the one hand, I find a tendency to say more than what we actually know about resurrected life. “Grand dad is looking down at us.” “Happy Birthday Mom on your second year in heaven.” “Good to know that Jeremy is watching over his younger siblings.” I don’t suppose there is any real harm in such sentiments. They can, however, reflect a naïve and inaccurate view of the resurrection’s magnitude and effect. Nothing will be gained if I am resurrected as the same selfish, insecure, bigoted and vindictive cuss I have always been before. If we bring into eternity our old selves with all the wounds, wrongs and bitterness that put us at each other’s throats for all of history, it won’t be anything like “heaven.” If I am going to live faithfully, obediently and joyfully together with all people in a new creation, I need to become a fundamentally new person. I will have to be different-so much so that my new self might not even be recognizable as the old. What, then, does that mean? Who am I without my memories of the events, both proud and shameful, that made me who I am? Will there be enough continuity between who we are and who we will be that we can recognize each other in the new creation? Does that even matter?
At the other end of the extreme I have known plenty of thoughtful and faithful believers who are ready to dispense with any concrete notion of resurrection from death. For them, repentance and faith are death and resurrection enough. The kingdom of God lived out in love under the sign of the cross is as much heaven as they need. It is enough for them to know that they die into God. Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian, (c. 2011 by Marcus Borg, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 201. I have some sympathy with this approach. After all, eternal life is not solely or even primarily a distant future reality, particularly as it is described in the Gospel of John. Indeed, what makes life eternal is not its duration, but its quality. Life that is conformed to eternal Trinitarian love is itself qualitatively eternal. For people like myself, who have lived full lives filled with the love of a good marriage, the satisfaction of productive and meaningful work, the joy of seeing my children grow up into faithful adults contributing much to the health of creation, this life might conceivably be enough. But what about Parker, who did not ever have the opportunity to learn to walk, talk, fall in love, get his heart broken and grow into a man? What about the millions upon millions whose lives from childhood on are consumed merely with day to day survival? It seems to me that the Triune God, the God who is love from eternity, could hardly bear to leave these unfinished, unreconciled, unfulfilled lives in the grave. I cannot imagine a new creation in which these “least,” these forgotten by everyone but God, are not taken up and woven into its fabric.
At the end of the day, it seems to me we must continue to confess the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come-even though we don’t quite know what we are talking about. It is enough to know that the God who called again from death the great Shepherd of the sheep and who brought us all this way will not abandon us at the end, but instead will continue to give us life. It is enough to know that the God who at the dawn of time scooped up a hand full of dust and breathed into it God’s life giving Spirit will again scoop up the dust we must all become and make of us new creatures. “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” I Thessalonians 4:17. That isn’t nearly all I would like to know. But it’s enough for me to live confidently in the valley of the shadow of death.
Here’s a poem expressing hope for memory that is deep enough and compassion strong enough to hold for eternity all that is true, beautiful and good.
Stories in the Trash
This here quilt’s all I still got of Grandma’s.
Watched her make it when I was a kid.
I’d come tearing through the house,
Always on the way to somewhere else,
And there she’d be sitting on the floor,
Surrounded by old coats, cast off clothes,
Bed sheets, coverlets and table cloths.
It all finally came together in this quilt.
Course, that’s a long time ago.
Quilt’s dirty, worn and not fit for much.
But I expect I’ll hold onto it just the same.
Seems somehow sacrilegious,
Just throwing it into the dumpster.
I’ll leave that job to the kids.
They’ll waste no time in tossing it.
To them it’s just a rag with no story.
I’m not an especially religious man.
Don’t know much about God.
As for the Bible, just a verse or two.
Don’t know or much care if any of it’s true.
I sort of hope, though, there’s Someone
Who remembers the stories in things,
Someone who doesn’t forget
What all the old stuff in the garbage means.
Like Acts 4:32-35 and Acts 5:12-16 this passage gives us what some would call an “idyllic picture” of the early church. See Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M. The Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1964 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 31. Indeed, there is a tendency among mainline commentators to dismiss this description of the church’s communal existence as Lukan embellishment intended to inspire rather than reflect historical reality. The Anabaptist tradition, however, has taken these texts quite seriously. Hutterite, Amish, Amana and Bruderhof communities have, each in their own way, put into practice the vision of communal life set forth in the Book of Acts. These countercultural movements are often criticized in mainline circles for their clannishness, lack of engagement with the outside world and parochialism. Yet one cannot help but observe that these mainline criticisms of the Anabaptists sound suspiciously similar to criticisms Jesus warned his disciples to expect from the world-precisely because they do not belong to the world. John 15:19. There is nothing more repugnant and threatening to any society than a community within it that does not share its values, priorities and loyalties. Witness Roman imperial culture’s discomfort with the early church and Christendom’s fear of and hostility toward the Jews. Maybe we mainliners are uncomfortable with the communal Anabaptist groups because they remind us just how thoroughly indistinguishable we are from the rest of society at large. We are fond of touting as a virtue the fact that one “doesn’t wear his/her religion on his/her sleeve,” which is another way of saying that you would never guess that s/he was a Christian if you didn’t ask. Does anyone besides me see a problem with that?
A pastor participating in an online discussion I look in on occasionally recently commented on the perennial conflict between children’s sports events and Sunday morning worship. This pastor suggested that, rather than sitting in a church building and insisting that people come to us, we need to bring church to where the people are. Her specific suggestion was that the church hold a brief worship service on the soccer field prior to the game for all who desire to worship, but do not want to pull their children out of the game. I have no doubt this suggestion was made in the spirit of the great commission with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether making discipleship easier, less costly and more convenient is a faithful path for us to be following. Do we gain anything by continually downsizing the call of discipleship to fit within the ever shrinking gaps in our increasingly busy schedules? The early church called upon its members to give up their lives for the sake of Jesus’ name. Now we cannot bring ourselves to ask them to forfeit a soccer game! If we don’t believe seeking Jesus in the breaking of the bread is worth a soccer game, is it at all surprising that we cannot convince anyone else that church is at all worthwhile?
It is worth noting that, as outsiders viewed the community in the second chapter of Acts, “Awe came upon everyone…” and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Vs 43 and vs. 47. I believe that there are many people out there looking for an alternative to the shallow existence our culture of death offers us. The problem is, they simply are not seeing that alternative in the church. We have become so preoccupied with marketing the gospel at fire sale prices to folks who don’t care that we have obscured its lure from the eyes of those who do. Perhaps it is time for us mainliners to take a second look at our lesson from Acts.
This psalm came up last in the lectionary on Sunday, March 26th. I refer you to my post of that date for my general comments. Specific to its meaning for this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, I note that sheep are not pets and they are not given the protection of the shepherd because they are cute and cuddly. Inevitably, the shepherd will call upon them to give up their lives-just as he puts his life in jeopardy for their sake. The church cannot read this psalm without recognizing the prospect of martyrdom on the horizon. There is no room for sentimentality when preaching on this psalm or any depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Our familiarity with this psalm can blind us to its discordant images, namely, the shepherd who cares for the sheep and the host who practices hospitality to strangers. In this regard, Professor Bernard W. Anderson has observed: “This problem begins to resolve itself when we project ourselves imaginatively out of our industrial milieu into the pastoral way of life which still prevails in some parts of the world today. The shepherd can be portrayed from two standpoints. He is the protector of the sheep as they wander in search of grazing land. Yet he is also the protector of the traveler who finds hospitality in his tent from the dangers and enemies of the desert. Even today the visitor to certain parts of the Middle East can see the scene that lies at the basis of this psalm: the black camel’s hair tent where the traveler receives Bedouin hospitality, and the surrounding pastureland where the sheep graze under the protection of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, Yahweh is portrayed as the Shepherd in both aspects of the shepherd’s life: as the Leader of the flock, and as the hospitable Host.” Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 208.
St. Augustine’s truly delightful treatment of this psalm as a paradigm of discipleship wherein Christ accompanies the believer from baptism into eternal life is well worth reading.
The lectionary folks, in their paternalistic wisdom, have excised verse 18 from the text so that the congregation hearing this reading would never guess that the admonition to suffer patiently is given to slaves of abusive masters. Granted, this is a problematic text. I wouldn’t blame the architects of the lectionary for leaving it out altogether. But ripping it from its context and making it appear to say something quite other than what it says is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie.
I plan to stay away from this lesson. If I were going to preach on it, however, I would lay my emphasis on verse 19: “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” Mindful, that is to say, of the God of the Exodus. In this context, submission must be taken merely is non-retaliatory. The slave is not called upon to accept slavery. God does not approve slavery, much less abuse of slaves. Yet the struggle for liberation lies in faithful witness to a reign of God not yet complete. Such witness invariably involves suffering. The flip side of recognizing the humanity of the slave is the slave’s recognition of the humanity of the master. In the reign of God, the last are first and the first last. Still, even one who finishes last still finishes. Liberation, not retaliation is the goal.
Finally, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.
In the prior chapter, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.
Jesus employs the image of a sheepfold where several flocks of sheep are lodged for the night. In the morning, the true shepherd can enter and call out his sheep who will follow him as they recognize his voice. Marsh, John, Saint John, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1968 John Marsh, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 395. Jesus is therefore setting out his claim to be the true shepherd of the people of God. Unlike the coercive power exercised by the religious authorities to keep the sheep in line, Jesus draws his sheep by the sound of his voice which is immediately recognized as genuine. He has no need to employ threats to drive them on. His sheep acknowledge him as their Shepherd and follow him willingly. This image of the shepherd has deep scriptural roots. It is applied throughout the Old Testament both to Israel’s kings and her God. See, e.g. Jeremiah 23:1-8; Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23; Psalm 80.
It is passing strange, then, that Jesus should switch from this familiar and powerful shepherd metaphor to that of the “door of the sheep” in the interest of clarity. For my money, the shepherd image is much easier to comprehend than that of the door. Vss. 1-6. Yet Jesus goes on to distinguish himself from the thieves and robbers who came before him by calling himself a “door.” If the door retains its meaning from vs 2, i.e., the recognized entrance through whom only authorized persons can pass, then this reference to “thieves” and “robbers” could be taken as a) a reference to the leaders of the synagogue that reject the Jesus movement; or b) a warning for the disciples to beware of anyone coming into the church by another name such as false teachers. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 388. It should also be noted that messianic pretenders prior to Jesus had been characterized both by the Romans and the leaders of the post 70 A.D. Jewish community as “robbers” or “brigands.” Ibid. p. 387. That characterization does not seem to fit the context here, however.
The meaning of the term “door” seems to have changed from verse 2 in verses 7-10. In the latter verses the door is not the entrance through which the shepherd comes to call the sheep, but the door through which the sheep go to find pasture. The door, then, serves a double purpose. It is protective of the flock in that it screens out the thieves and robbers who would harm the sheep. It is also the opening out into good pasture through which the sheep may pass. For what it is worth, one commentator observes that in some Middle Eastern grazing areas it is the custom for the shepherd to sleep in front of the sheep door, his body serving as a barrier to any sheep that might otherwise wander out. Bishop, E.F., “The Door of the Sheep-John 10:7-9,” 71 Expository Times (1959-60) pp. 307-09. That would give concrete expression to Jesus’ saying that the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” Vs. 11 (not included in the reading). But whether that practice existed in the first century or whether this is what Jesus actually meant is anyone’s guess.
Professor Raymond Brown suggests that the change of metaphors comes about as a result of Jesus’ change of emphasis. Verses 1-3a concern the way the Good Shepherd (as opposed to impostors) approaches the sheep. Consequently, the emphasis is on the gate. Verses 3b-5 concern the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep and so focus on the shepherd. Brown, op cit. 395. I think that for preaching I will focus either on the “door” or on the “shepherd.” Mixing these two metaphors seems to have confused the dickens out of Jesus’ original hearers. If Jesus couldn’t make this work, there is a good chance it will prove rough sledding for me as well.