FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16
1 Peter 2:2–10
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.
My first reaction to the kidnapping of two hundred school girls in northern Nigeria was anger. Actually, white hot rage would be a more apt description. Understand that I have daughters of my own. So this is personal. What sort of backwards, knuckle dragging, Neanderthal throwback would sell a girl child into slavery or prostitution for the mere crime of wanting an education? What sort of money grubbing, heartless, sociopath of an arms dealer thought it would be a good idea to put guns in the hands of these mindless ideologues? And what sort of people are we, the nations of the world, if we cannot at least agree that murdering children who only want to learn is wrong and take strong measures to see that this never happens again?
Now that I am through venting, I am left with a feeling of helplessness. Like everybody else, I feel that the government of Nigeria and that of my own country ought to do something to save these girls. I am far from sure, however, what to expect on that score. I am not convinced that sending more men with guns into a jungle already infested by men with guns will contribute to the safety or rescue of these girls. I would favor negotiating their release, but I fear that this may be a case in which there is no one among the kidnappers in a position to negotiate even if s/he were so inclined. It seems we are witnessing an act of gross injustice, cruelty and inhumanity-and there is not much we can do about it.
Israel was well acquainted with such circumstances. The experience of conquest, deportation and exile left Israel seemingly at a dead end. There was virtually no possibility of throwing off the Babylonian yolk; no possibility of returning to the promised land; no possibility even for worship, for “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Psalm 137:4. Israel’s response to this disaster was “lament,” a heartfelt pouring out of the wounded self to God. The psalm for this Sunday (Psalm 31) is a good example of this genre. The psalms of lament express the whole gambit of emotional responses to injustice. They, too, express white hot rage. “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Psalm 137:8-9. They question the faithfulness of God. “O God, why dost thou cast us off forever? Why does thy anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?” Psalm 74:1. “They give expression to hopelessness and despair. “For all our days pass away under thy wrath, our years come to an end like a sigh.” Psalm 90:9. Yet these laments are not just a lot of bitching and moaning. The mere fact that the psalmist feels it worthwhile to pray suggests that s/he is still possessed of hope for God’s saving intervention. However dark a picture the psalms of lament may paint, they always leave room for God to do something new and unexpected. Because Israel could never be convinced that God had given up on her, she could never bring herself to give up on God.
That is the sort of faith we need in the face of the Nigerian tragedy. Where our efforts, abilities and imagination end, we do not throw up our hands in despair. Instead, we pour out our anger, fear and sorrow to a God we believe sees beyond our limited capabilities-and we wait. Waiting upon the Lord, however, is not like Waiting for Godot. It requires the exercise of what Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “prophetic imagination.” In her laments, Israel frequently recited God’s saving acts of the past. See, e.g., Psalm 77:11-15. Of course, these recitations reminded Israel of God’s faithfulness and power to save. More significantly, however, they assisted her in looking imaginatively at her present context with an eye toward recognizing God’s saving activity on her behalf in the here and now. It was largely reflection upon God’s salvation for Israel narrated in Exodus that enabled the prophet of the latter section of Isaiah to recognize in Babylon’s fall to Persia a new act of salvation. The prophet saw in this event, not merely a change of imperial control, but a new Exodus. Just as God had once paved the way from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan, so now God was at work in the clash of empires opening a window of opportunity for Israel’s return from exile to that same land of promise. The prophet’s proclamation of this vision convinced Israel that God was making a new start with her and giving her yet another chance to live faithfully under the covenant in the land of Canaan. Ultimately, the seemingly impossible happened. Jerusalem and its temple were rebuilt.
So as hopeless as the condition of the Nigerian school girls might seem, we know that things are always more than what they seem. We need to leave room for another Exodus miracle. We need to think less practically and strategically and more imaginatively and prophetically. In short, we need to lament. So let us pray for these girls. As fragile and vulnerable as they are, I have no doubt that they have inner resources, wells of wisdom and strength of character to see them through the most difficult of times. May God’s Spirit help them tap into these resources that they might thrive even in the darkness of their captivity. Furthermore, the girls’ captors are, after all, people made in the image of God. However wounded and twisted their souls may have become, they cannot erase that image. They cannot drive pity, compassion and empathy altogether from their hearts. So let us set aside our natural feelings of outrage and pray for these children of God, that they may recover that wonderful image in which they were made. Let us pray that God might yet turn their hearts from evil to compassion. Let us pray for the leaders of Nigeria and all the nations seeking to bring this crisis to an end. Save them from tunnel vision that so often leads to rash and misguided action. Give them the gifts of patience, imagination and wisdom that they may know both their own limitations and God’s limitless ability to create new opportunities for salvation, justice and peace. Let us pray for, dream about and imagine a new Exodus for these girls and for all girls throughout the world caught in the jaws of injustice.
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. For further comment on this psalm generally and my disparaging remarks about the common lectionary’s ruthless disembowelment of it, see my comment of April 13th.
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 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.