Tag Archives: Book of Revelation

Sunday, May 15th

Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1–21
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
Romans 8:14–17
John 14:8–17

Prayer of the DayGod our creator, the resurrection of your Son offers life to all the peoples of earth. By your Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues for praise, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“The peace of God it is not peace, but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for just one thing—the marvelous peace of God.”

Final verse of the hymn, They Cast their Nets in Galilee, by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942).

Jesus promised his disciples peace-but not peace such as the world gives. The peace of God is not an uneasy co-existence; a tacit agreement to avoid discussion of volatile issues; a light healing of deep wounds festering under the surface. If it is possible to disturb the peace by speaking the truth, then it isn’t true peace. It is not the peace of God.

This last weekend I attended the assembly of my Lutheran church’s New Jersey Synod where we attempted to engage in conversation about race and the continuing scourge of racism. That this conversation is necessary is evidenced by my church’s unenviable status as one of the most thoroughly segregated denominations in the United States. Yet having such a conversation is difficult, painful and frustrating in large part because so many of us who identify as white are simply blind to the reality of systemic racism and its insidious influence on every aspect of life. After all, we ended segregation in the 60s. We have both elected and re-elected an African American president by substantial electoral and popular majorities. The era of Jim Crow is over. How bad can things be?

Pretty bad. We still find state and municipal police departments in which blatantly racist e-mails are regularly exchanged. The disproportional rate of incarceration for black males remains high and a distinguished fraternity fosters a culture encouraging derisive songs about excluding black Americans complete with racial epitaphs and allusions to lynching. No doubt, we have made progress toward racial equality since the 1960s, but we have still got a long way to go. The continuing presence of racism understandably makes people of color angry and impatient. We white folk react with fear and defensiveness. Though I think we had some good dialogue, things sometimes got a little ugly.

It is tempting to avoid difficult discussions about race, human sexuality, immigration and poverty. That would yield for us “peace such as the world gives.” But again, that is not true peace. It does not comport with Paul’s insistence that through baptism we are all united as one people through Christ. Such peace as the world gives runs contrary to John of Patmos’ vision of a multitude “from all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” For that reason, the church must reject the false peace offered by the powers and principalities that would maintain the status  quo. We cannot settle for a church that imports into its assemblies and polity the sinful pretenses that divide humanity. Racism is an attack upon the very core of the gospel. It is sin. The church of Christ does not ignore sin or turn a blind eye to it. It confesses sin, repents and opens itself to newness of life.

The peace of God does not come cheap. It inevitably upsets our settled existence and disturbs the peace imposed by the worldly powers that be.  In a recent book Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains how the Hebrew scriptures narrate ancient Israel’s ongoing encounter with a profound and uncontrollable reality experienced through her relationship with her surprising and ever innovative God. Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) pp. 3-4. Much the same thing can be said about the Book of Acts in which the Holy Spirit always seems to be a few steps ahead of a church that is frantically trying to keep up. I doubt the small group praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit the night before Pentecost had any idea that they would be deluged by three thousand new believers of different cultural backgrounds, different languages and different worship traditions. Even so, these new believers were at least united by their common Judaism. But while the church was still reeling from its Pentecost growth spurt, Philip began speaking the good news to the hated Samaritans and Peter took the unthinkable step of baptizing a family of gentiles. I expect that for many in the church, this was all just too much change too fast.

We see in the Book of Acts indications of how the church’s unity was strained with conflict as a result of its inclusiveness. Almost from the beginning it appears that there was some rivalry and tension between the Greek and Palestinian Jews over the distribution of food among their respective dependent widows. Acts 6:1-6. We have seen how Peter got himself into hot water by baptizing a family of gentiles without proper authorization. Paul’s ministry, though formally approved by the Jerusalem council, seems to have remained controversial among a number of traditionalists. You don’t get growth without growing pains.

The peace of God is won not through avoiding conflict, but by taking it head on. There is no way to a new heaven and a new earth except through the hard work of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. That is why the Spirit of God comes, not to smooth things over, but to stir things up. Pentecost is, among other things, a reminder that God never intended for the church to be static and changeless. To follow Jesus is to be transformed into a people capable of living in the peace of God. Here’s a poem by Loretta Roche on the severe mercy of the Spirit that drives us toward repentance, faith and renewal.

Spirit

I have no comforting to bring you;
Mine is no cool sweet balm to lend
For a wound that aches, or a mind that darkens.
I am not one to be called a friend.

For when your hands are scarred and broken
From shaping stony words to a song,
Cutting a meaning from glossy marble,
My voice will bite like an iron prong.

And I will sting you when you falter
With a word bitter as driving snow;
I have not lost the way of twisting
That whip I used to have—you know?

No one can silence me with weeping;
You cannot hush my voice with prayers.
When you would seek out a room of refuge
I shall be waiting on the stairs.

You shall not rest while I am near you-
Mine is a will that does not bend.
I have no comforting to bring you,
And you will hate me to the end.

Source: Poetry Magazine (April 1925) published by Poetry Foundation. For other poems by  Loretta Roche See the Virginia Spring Quarterly (Fall 1926).

Acts 2:1–21

In the Book of Acts, Luke continues the story begun in his gospel. Recall from our discussion of the Transfiguration that Luke likens Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem to another “Exodus,” that is, a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. See Post for February 7, 2016. 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. The empire 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 means to show 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.  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 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 disciple’s 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. 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 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 places in which they live, 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, it can be said that the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.

Psalm 104:24–34, 35b

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 the 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. 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 economic currents, military struggles and social expectations 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.  This psalm still testifies to the holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation, not the battlefield for warring national, commercial and tribal interests. Unlike the Babylonian vision, the world is not a house haunted by warring demons. Neither is it a dead and soulless planet governed by political, social and economic determinism or the currents of random historical accidents.

Romans 8:14–17

For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post of Sunday, February 14, 2016. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.

In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.

John 14:8–17

There is a lot going on in these verses obscured by the fact that we are getting only a snippet of a much longer discourse. To highlight the essentials, Jesus responds to Philip’s request that Jesus “show us the Father” by telling him that he has already seen as much of the Father as ever will be seen. God is Jesus. But take care that while we can say that God is Jesus, we cannot use that statement interchangeably with the false statement, “Jesus is God.” The reason this latter statement is untrue follows from John’s declaration in the first chapter of his gospel: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. To say that Jesus is God is to imply that we already know who God is and that we recognize the Godly characteristics we spot in Jesus. This makes of Jesus nothing more than a mask of God or a clever disguise. Jesus obscures rather than reveals God.

John would have us know that we know nothing of the Father apart from the Son. It is only because God becomes flesh (not disguises himself as flesh or pretends to be flesh) that people otherwise incapable of seeing God actually do see God. It is for that reason that the bulk of our creeds is devoted to articulating our faith in Jesus. We know nothing of the Father other than as the Father of Jesus Christ. Similarly, we know nothing of the Spirit apart from that which proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to glorify Jesus and take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to the church. John 16:14-15.

It is not entirely clear what Philip’s expectations were when he asked that Jesus “show” him the Father. He might have had in mind the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai in smoke, thunder and fire. Or perhaps he was expecting some prophetic vision as experienced by Isaiah or Ezekiel. In either case, Jesus gives him more than he has requested. For truly seeing and knowing God involves more than witnessing marvels and seeing visions. Knowing God involves the sort of intimacy Jesus experiences with his disciples and the love he has consistently shown them-even “to the end.” John 13:1-17.  Because God is Jesus and the Spirit of God proceeds from Jesus and the Father, Jesus’ “going away” does not constitute “abandonment.”  Indeed, Jesus will henceforth be more intimately present to his disciples and their understanding of him clearer precisely because they will soon be indwelt by his Spirit. Jesus will be “in” them just as the Father is “in” him. John 17:20-21.

I will have more to say about the Holy Trinity next week. Suffice it to say, though, that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a Trinitarian event that makes sense only as an act of the Triune God.

 

Sunday, May 1st

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29

Prayer of the Day: Bountiful God, you gather your people into your realm, and you promise us food from your tree of life. Nourish us with your word, that empowered by your Spirit we may love one another and the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

My own Lutheran protestant tradition does not put much stock in dreams as revelatory devices. Martin Luther was particularly scornful of the “heavenly prophets” among his Anabaptist critics who claimed to be guided and inspired by dreams and visions. His instincts were not altogether wrong in that respect. Dreams and visions are notoriously unreliable. Even when they have turned out to be prophetic, their messages have often been tragically misinterpreted. For example, the Lydian king, Croesus, was assured by an oracle from the shrine at Delphi that, should he attack the Persian Empire, he would destroy a great kingdom. His confidence bolstered by the oracle, Croesus attacked Persia and was soundly defeated. The oracle proved true with a vengeance. Croesus did indeed destroy a great kingdom; however, the kingdom he destroyed was not that of Persia but his own. Moses warned the people of Israel to beware of false prophets and that warning was not in vain. Throughout its long history Israel was plagued by false prophets speaking not only in the name of foreign deities, but also in the very name of the Lord. St. John warns the church to “test the spirits” to ensure their authenticity.

Still, we dare not throw out the baby with the bath water. Despite all of these salutary warnings, dreams and visions are frequently employed by God to guide God’s people throughout the biblical narrative. It was through Joseph’s dreams that his father Jacob and the rest of the descendants of Abraham were saved from starvation and brought safely to Egypt. God spoke to the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel through dreams. Joseph the husband of Mary and the Magi were guided to safety by dreams in Matthew’s gospel. In today’s reading from Acts, St. Paul’s dream re-directs his mission from Asia Minor to Europe. Our reading from the Book of Revelation is just one piece of an extended vision delivered to John of Patmos in a dream-like state. As troublesome as dreams and visions are for us 21st Century moderns, we dismiss them at our peril. We dare not allow our fear of being misled to blind us to the leading of God’s Spirit.

I have to confess that I have never in my life had a dream that I thought was revelatory. The few that I remember seem clearly to be products of my anxieties, repressed fantasies and past memories. Maybe that is true of everyone’s dreams, but is that all they are? Is it possible that the Spirit of God engages these subconscious fragments, fuses them together in new and unique ways and thereby invites us to recognize connections, relationships and correlations between aspects of our lives and experiences we could not otherwise have seen? Are the thoughts we repress, the fears we deny and the memories we have discarded the raw materials for God’s imaginative studio?

Though, as I said, I’ve never had a guiding dream or vision of my own, I have been richly blessed by those of others which manifest themselves through music, graphic arts and poetry. Through these media my imagination has been stimulated and my mind stretched. It is for this reason that I am able to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to which the gospels testify and the new creation about which John of Patmos writes. I know these things to be real because I have been carried up into them on the wings of music and verse. I have seen them come alive in paintings and sculpture. They enter into my heart and soul through drama and dance. It was a scientist, Albert Einstein, who once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. It is by the exercise of imagination that we see beyond what merely is to what might be-and truly is-if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Sadly, we are raising up an unimaginative generation. I recall hearing on NPR about a recent survey showing a marked decrease among young people of individuals believing that world peace is a possibility for our future. I can’t vouch for that survey because I could not locate it. But such an outcome, assuming it to be accurate, should not surprise us. After all, we are a nation that increasingly devalues the arts. Our schools regularly defund courses in music, dance and graphic arts in favor of more “practical” subjects that prepare students for the all-important labor market. When education becomes all about manufacturing units of labor instead of cultivating minds, it produces a people incapable of imagination. The earth inherits a generation that cannot imagine anything beyond what is and that is incapable of doing anything other than maintaining the machinery of oppression, inequality and injustice that is late stage capitalism. In such a stark and unimaginative landscape, politics becomes a relentless struggle for domination, economic life morphs into systemic enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and faith degenerates into moralism. We lose the capacity to dream.

The poet Langston Hughes once mused over what happens to dreams in such an unimaginative environment.

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I think Hughes knew well, as did the prophets and apostles, that dreams and visions are explosive. Paul’s dream changed the course of his mission and planted the church in new soil. John of Patmos’ Revelation helped the struggling churches of Asia Minor recognize the cosmic importance of their day to day struggle to remain faithful in the hostile culture of imperial Rome. At its best, the church has always recognized music, verse, dance and graphic arts as its essential allies in winning obedience of hearts and minds to the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. The arts are the natural language of the gospel. And so perhaps the most radical thing we can do is teach our daughters to play musical instruments, read poetry to our sons and lead our children in dance. Planting the explosive of creative minds under the oppressive societal structures that bind us sets the stage for an unleashing of the Spirit akin to what the prophet Joel describes:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

Joel 2:28-29.

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. This particular poem inspired the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

Acts 16:9-15

If you back up and read Acts 16:6-8, you will discover that Paul seems to have been floundering in Asia Minor. None of his plans come to fruition. His mission strategies repeatedly prove unsuccessful. At every point it seems that “the Spirit of Jesus,” is thwarting his efforts to proclaim the gospel. I have been there too, but I cannot say that I recognize Jesus in any of that. To me it looks like plain old failure and nothing more. That leads me to wonder whether Paul recognized the obstacles thrown in the way of his mission work as “the Spirit of Jesus” at the time. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect that Paul was probably frustrated, angry and maybe a little despondent about his repeated failures in Asia. Perhaps it was not until he was drawn to change his focus to Macedonia, met Lydia and her friends, planted the church in Philippi which would later bring him such joy and comfort that Paul finally recognized in his prior failures the work of the Holy Spirit directing him. Sometimes I think that perhaps we are not supposed to be visionaries. Maybe God purposely does not reveal the path ahead of us. It may be that our vision, our strategizing and “intentionality” just get in the way. Perhaps we are entitled only to light sufficient for the next step we have to take and should be satisfied with that. Maybe that is what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7.

This is all thoroughly consistent with Luke’s view of the ministry as wholly under the direction of the Spirit. It is the “word of God” that grows and multiplies. Acts 12:24. “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly…” Acts 6:7. Just as the Spirit of God used the martyrdom of Stephen scattering the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria to bring the gospel to the Samaritans, so now the Spirit somehow hinders Paul’s Asia mission in order to redirect him to Europe. See Acts 8:1-8. Even open hostility to the preaching of the word is turned by the Spirit to the service of the word.

As was his custom, Paul begins his mission to Philippi by going to the Jewish community. Evidently, there was no synagogue in Philippi. That might have been due to Roman hostility to Jewish influence in what was an imperial colony. It is also possible that the Jewish presence was too small to support a synagogue. Nevertheless, there was evidently a place outside the city where Jews gathered for prayer and worship. This is where Paul met Lydia, accepted her hospitality and baptized her and her household. As in his gospel, so also in the Book of Acts, Luke pays particular attention to the role of women in the church. It appears that the congregation gathered at the place of prayer consisted primarily, if not exclusively, of women. If Lydia had a husband, there is no mention of him. The church in Philippi thus appears to have been founded and led by women according to Luke’s account.

Psalm 67

Most scholars characterize this as a psalm of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest based largely on vs. 6a, “The earth has given its increase.” It has been suggested that this hymn might have been sung as a festival liturgy during the autumn festival. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962, S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 472.Though a good harvest surely is a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness to Israel, it is but one of many reasons for praise given in this hymn. God’s saving power, God’s justice and God’s guidance for the nations are all as much reason for the psalmist’s lavish praise. It is noteworthy that the blessing for which the psalmist prays is not restricted to Israel alone. S/he prays that Israel may be blessed in order that “all the ends of the earth may fear God.” Vs. 7.

The opening words of this psalm appear to have been taken from or inspired by the Aaronic Benediction at Numbers 6:24-26. The peoples are enjoined to praise and rejoice in God. God does not reign over the world by compulsion or force. Rather, God “dost judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth.” Vs. 4. As pointed out in Isaiah, God rules the earth through “the law” and through “the word of the Lord.” Isaiah 2:2-4. The psalm therefore echoes God’s promise repeated to the patriarchs and echoed throughout the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah, that Israel is to be a nation by which all the other nations of the world are blessed. “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12:2. “And by your descendants all the nations of the earth will bless themselves.” Genesis 26:4 “And by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.” Genesis 28:14 “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:2.

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

I understand the need to keep lectionary readings to a manageable length. But that does not justify the ruthless butcher job that has been done to this text. The missing verses between 10 and 22 give us a graphic description of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem coming down from God, the place where God will dwell among God’s people. I encourage you to read those verses now before continuing with this post.

The first thing you will notice is John’s fixation on the number twelve. The wall of the city has twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The city has twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. The dimensions of the city are 12,000 by 12,000 stadia. Each wall is 144 (12 x 12) cubits. The base of the walls is adorned with twelve different jewels. So what is the significance of the number twelve and all of the numbers divisible by twelve?

Of course, the number twelve has always carried symbolic significance throughout many different cultures for a number of different reasons. There are twelve divisions of the lunar year and twelve signs of the Zodiac. The number twelve is important to the Sumerian number system, one of the most ancient in the near east. From the standpoint of the Hebrew Scriptures, there were twelve tribes of Israel, though one might properly ask whether the number twelve derives its significance from the tribes or whether the tribes were divided into twelve in order to fit the sacred number. There were, strictly speaking, thirteen tribes of Israel owing to the fact that the Joseph tribe was split into Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s two sons).  The land of Canaan was nevertheless divided into twelve territories because the priestly tribe of Levi did not receive an allotment of land, but only cities within the tribal territories. Joshua 21.

Each of the four gospels affirms that Jesus had twelve disciples that were especially close to him throughout his ministry. The list of their names differs between the gospels, but that is of minor significance. The twelve disciples correlated with the twelve tribes and thus emphasize the continuity between the mission of Jesus and the calling of Israel. The same point is made here with the twelve gates, the twelve foundations and the twelve jewels of the New Jerusalem inscribed both with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Knowing this, we get a much deeper appreciation for the imagery in our lesson. From the calling of Abraham God has made clear Israel’s mission of being a light to the Gentiles and a nation of blessing for all the nations of the world. The gospels all point to Jesus as the Son of God and the savior of the world. John’s gospel refers to Jesus as “the light.” So now we see the consummation of God’s work with Israel in Jesus expressed through this image of the Holy City whose “lamp is the Lamb” and “by its light shall the nations walk.”  Once again, John of Patmos is weaving together a mosaic of images from the Hebrew Scriptures into a marvelous portrait of the Lamb’s final victory that will be brought about by the persistent suffering love of God and revealed through the faithful obedience of God’s people.

John 14:23-29

Obviously, the lectionary folks were not having a good day when they served up this Sunday’s menu. This reading does not make sense until you back up one verse to vs. 22. There you will discover that Jesus’ words here are in response to a question asked by Judas (not Judas the traitor, but another disciple named Judas). Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will soon be leaving them to go where no one can find him. Judas quite naturally asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Why indeed? If Jesus really is the light of the world, the water of life, the resurrection and the life, and if Jesus is now going away, why is his identity made clear to so very few? Why does not Jesus reveal himself to all Israel? To the whole world?

Jesus responds that he will be made known to the world. The disciples drawn together by Jesus’ love will keep his commandments (which we know by now boil down to loving one another as Jesus has loved them). This love will be a witness to the whole world that God has sent the Son into the world and that the Father loves the Son yet gives up the Son to suffering and death for the sake of the world. Moreover, Jesus’ departure is not abandonment. The Holy Spirit sent by the Father is not a substitute for Jesus, but his more intense and intimate presence in their midst. Through that Spirit animating the church Jesus will continue to speak words of promise, healing, hope and resurrection.

Although John’s Gospel never refers to the church as such, it is clearly a center of concern for John, perhaps even the greatest concern of all. It is by the church that the Father’s love for the Son is made manifest to the world through the disciple’s love for each other. It is by this love that the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. Thus, what the church becomes is every bit as important as what the church does. Indeed, what the church does can be nothing other than what arises out of who the church is.

 

Sunday, April 24th

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” John 15:17

The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. The mayor and leaders in Flint, Michigan did not set about with malice in their hearts to poison the children of that broken city. They did not intend for anyone to get hurt. They only wanted to find a cheap and easy solution to an expensive problem. They wanted to balance the budget. I expect they probably knew in the back of their minds that there was a risk involved with drawing the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. Perhaps they were even warned of the dangers by civil engineers and environmental specialists who knew better. But they didn’t care enough to investigate the dangers or plan for the potential consequences of their actions. They had eyes only for the bottom line. Red ink on the town’s financials was more troubling to them than the red blood of Flint’s households.

Indifference kills more of us than malice. We die at the hands of drivers who know they are too inebriated to drive but don’t want to shell out money for a cab. We die at the hands of drivers who can’t be bothered to pull off the road before responding to a text message. Our children die because the gun industry will have its profits and it is the price we will gladly pay to preserve our precious Second Amendment rights. We die because our consumptive way of life poisons our water, fouls our air and destroys the ecosystem that sustains us. Even when human lives are taken by evil people with malicious intent, it is often because the rest of us lack the desire, the will and the courage to stop them. As writer and philosopher Edmond Burke points out, “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”

Indifference takes a terrible toll on our souls as well. If St. Augustine is to be believed (and I think he is), we were created to love God. The only true temple God has is the flesh in which his Word is revealed. The only way love for God can be practiced is through our love for the neighbor made in God’s image. That is why John tells us in his letter that if we claim to love God yet harbor hatred for any of God’s human children, we are liars. I John 4:20. Whatever we worship when we come to God with cold and indifferent hearts, it is not God. Whatever we are calling “God”-even if we name it Jesus-it is not God. It is instead merely a reflection of our own twisted and depraved selves, an idol. Idols are not God, but they have the power to shape us into their own lifeless images if we allow them to become gods for us. That is the terrible fate from which Jesus came to deliver us.

Jesus came to make us angry with the wrath of God. For some people in this new age culture of blissful tolerance, an angry God is offensive. As one clergy person recently told me, “anger is unworthy of God.” (This from a preacher? God help us all.) But if God is not angry over the needless poisoning of Flint’s children; if God is not angry that a third of us live in comfort while two thirds struggle to stay alive; if God is not angry over the unnecessary police shootings of young black men; then I can only conclude that God doesn’t much care about us. But God is not indifferent. Anger is the shape love takes toward wayward children bent on following their own self-destructive paths. God’s anger, however, does not translate into revenge, retribution or punishment. God’s anger translates into a stubborn and patient determination to break our hard hearts, shock us into seeing the world the way God sees it-and weeping. Jesus came to save us from our indifference, to help us weep over the destruction we have wrought upon ourselves and one another, to make us truly human. He came that we might become a people capable of love.

Here’s a poem by James Wright that captures precisely our predicament-and suggests its cure.

Three Stanzas from Goethe

That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.

Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
But hatred of men from love’s abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life
The precious secret,
The self-seeker finds nothing.

Oh, Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone
That his ear still might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own heart.

Source:  Wright, James, The Branch Will Not Break, (c. 1963 by James Wright, pub by Wesleyan University Press) p. 14. James Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927. In addition to his own work, Wright is also well known for his translations of Spanish poets. In 1972 he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He died in 1980. This poem actually consists of three stanzas Wright translated from Goethe’s poem, “Harzreise im Winter.” You can learn more about James Wright and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 11:1-18

Peter has a few problems on his hands. For starters he woke up from a terrible dream in which God was commanding him to eat a whole bed sheet full of disgusting animals including reptiles. This is more than just disgusting. It is downright wrong. Leviticus 11 makes very clear to Israel that the eating of such animals as appeared to Peter in that sheet was an “abomination.” As a matter of fact, even touching one of these animals renders a person unclean for the rest of the day! What do you make of such a dream? Could this possibly have been the voice of the Lord? Or was it the voice of the devil tempting Peter? Before Peter has a chance to reflect much on his dream, three men arrive at the house where he is staying. They were sent by Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. They inform Peter that Cornelius would like to see him and request that he come with them to Caesarea. I cannot imagine that Peter was thrilled about all of this. When the commander of the occupation force wants to see you in his office, it’s usually not a good thing. Yet the Spirit of God urges Peter to go along and he does.

Arriving at the home of Cornelius, Peter discovers that he is not going to be imprisoned or interrogated. He is instead invited to dinner. In fact, the whole household of Cornelius is present to hear what Peter has to say about Jesus. Eating unclean food is bad enough. Eating it in the home of a Gentile is unthinkable. Everything Peter ever knew and believed about the Scriptures told him that he really ought to get up, tell these folks he had nothing to say to them and excuse himself. But something much deeper in Peter’s heart was telling him to accept the hospitality of Cornelius and his family and to preach the gospel to them. That “something,” was the Spirit of God. Before Peter finishes his sermon, the Spirit of God fills Cornelius and his family just as it did the disciples at Pentecost. I don’t think Peter had worked out all the theological implications of what had happened or what he did next. But when you see the Spirit of God calling someone to faith-how can you not baptize?

Next thing you know, Peter is in hot water with the Synod. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” he is asked. I expect that the Jerusalem leadership probably pointed out to Peter that his actions were contrary to the guidelines, procedures and requirements for mission and ministry. Though perhaps we might someday consider bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, such a step will constitute a substantial departure from the church’s understanding and practice. Such a profound change should not be made prior to rigorous study, theological reflection and deliberation. The proper procedure would have been to submit the question via resolution to the general assembly which would probably commission a task force to issue a report. After a five year study of the issue, the assembly would then be in a position to make a reasoned and comprehensive decision on whether such a policy change is warranted and, if so, how it should be implemented. That is how we Lutherans do things. If we had been in charge back then, this whole Cornelius affair would never have happened. Thank God we weren’t in charge-and still are not.

Throughout the Book of Acts, the Spirit seems always to be a few steps ahead of the church which is frantically racing to keep up. Things are happening so fast and furiously that the Apostles find themselves confused, bewildered and anxious about the direction of the church. So for people today who complain that the church isn’t what it used to be, that it is changing too fast and it’s not the church they grew up in, I have just four words: Get used to it. The Acts of the Apostles, this marvelous story about the early church, reminds us that we don’t control the mission, ministry or future direction of the church. It turns out that God seems to be active in the places we least expect. Faith is born among the folks you would least expect to be receptive. About all we can ever say about the shape of the church in the future is that it will certainly not be what we expect.

This story also tells us something about the authority of the Bible. Peter appeared to be on solid scriptural ground with his scruples about socializing among, eating with and finally baptizing Gentiles. Turns out he was wrong. That should be a lesson for all of us who are so cock sure we know what the Bible requires. “The Bible is inerrant!” said a fellow from the church in which I was raised as he brought his fist down on the book. Perhaps so, but its interpreters are fallible human beings. All you need to do is google the word “Bible” and you will discover some of the wildest, wackiest and witless notions ever expressed by people who think they have the Bible figured out. So it is quite possible to get the Bible wrong and the church has done that on many occasions. That is why we had the Reformation. That is also why the church’s understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures is always evolving, changing and growing in new directions. That is why Jesus promised his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13. Because we don’t have all the truth, we are prone to misread and misinterpret the Scriptures in myopic, self-serving ways. We need the Spirit to poke and prod us into taking a new look at the Bible, questioning our assumptions about what it means and listening to people who might read it altogether differently than we do.

Finally, we need the whole church to read the Bible properly. Though Peter was right to heed the voice of the Spirit when he found himself in the household of Cornelius, the extension of the church’s mission to the Gentiles was, in the end, a product of deliberations by the whole church. At the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Peter responded faithfully to the opportunity before him to share the gospel. But he did not simply dismiss the rest of the church or move forward with the mission to the Gentiles autonomously. Instead, he took the initiative to go up to Jerusalem in order to explain and defend his actions. He laid out his case for the Gentile mission before the church for its discernment and judgment. I expect that there was some spirited debate and Scriptural arguments put forth by all sides of the issue. In the end, Peter was able to persuade the church to move in the direction the Spirit led him at the home of Cornelius. That is how it should be.

Psalm 148

This psalm is beautifully structured. It begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and stars descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.

This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”

Revelation 21:1-6

This passage begins a lengthy portrayal of the new creation brought about by the victory of the Lamb. Once again, it bears repeating that this victory will come about not through violent conquest in the manner of the “beast,” but through the faithful obedience of the saints in the face of hardship and persecution. There will be continuity between the new creation and the old. God does not destroy the work of his hands. He “makes it new.” This parallels Paul’s thinking about the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:35-50 where he explains the relationship between the mortal body and the resurrected body by analogy to the relationship between the seed and the full grown plant. While there is continuity, the plant is nevertheless far more than the seed. Note also that the saints do not go up to the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem comes down to them.

Jerusalem as the beloved of God is a recurring image throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There is a rich prophetic tradition foretelling God’s salvation coming forth from this holy city. The most notable is Isaiah 2:1-4. There the prophet declares that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Once again, God’s reign in Zion is not one of violence and conquest. It is a reign of law and justice. There will be no further need for weapons as the Lord will judge between nations. The nations themselves “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Psalm 87 is yet another instance in which Zion is lifted up as a unifying symbol for all peoples of the world. So also in Revelation Jerusalem is again at the center of God’s saving work “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Revelation 21:2.

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” Again, the term used for “dwelling” is the same root used in John 1:14where the evangelist says, “the word became flesh and lived among us.” Literally translated, the verb translated “live with” or “dwell with” means to “tent with” or “tabernacle with” or “camp among.” This language once again evokes the memory of God’s presence for Israel in the tent of meeting that accompanied her throughout her journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan. It is more than this, however. As you can discover by reading on to the 22nd chapter of Revelation, there is a description of a rebuilt Temple in the midst of Jerusalem from which flow the river of the water of life. This, in turn, echoes Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple in Ezekiel 47. In this vision also a river flows from the gates of the temple throughout the land of Israel refreshing, restoring and making fruitful areas formerly arid and dry. These verses also allude to the declaration made by Second Isaiah to the disheartened exiles in Babylon: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43: 18-19.

John of Patmos is weaving all of these images from the Hebrew Scriptures into his lyrical portrayal of the Lamb’s victory in which the struggling churches of Asia Minor will share. This lesson is yet another illustration of how critical the Hebrew Scriptures are for understanding the New Testament. Reading the New Testament without knowing the Hebrew Scriptures is like getting the punch line without the joke.

John 13:31-35

Much of what I have to say about this lesson is already in my introductory remarks. Here are a few additional things worth noting. The reading begins with Jesus declaring: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and in him God is glorified.” vs. 31. It is important to note that just prior to this Judas slipped away to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Thus, the glorification of which Jesus speaks is his betrayal and crucifixion. It is glorification because it reflects the depth of Jesus’ love for his disciples and God’s love for the world. On the cross, the world will see the heart of God breaking for humanity.

The “new commandment” calling the disciples to love one another does not appear to be new. The Hebrew Scriptures admonished the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18. The commandment is nevertheless “new” insofar as the paradigm of love is the cross. Thus, it is no longer enough to love your neighbor as yourself only, but to love as God in Christ loves you. This is higher intensity love that is not possible for the disciples unless they continue to abide in Jesus. For reasons previously discussed, I believe that practicing such love is the principal reason for the church’s existence. It is through such love that all people will know that we are Jesus’ disciples and that God sends Jesus not to condemn the world, but that the world may have life through him.

 

Sunday, April 17th

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Prayer of the Day: O God of peace, you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep. By the blood of your eternal covenant, make us complete in everything good that we may do your will, and work among us all that is well-pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm is probably the one and only Bible passage nearly everyone recognizes. As such, it is enormously helpful to me in doing funerals for people with families that probably haven’t darkened the door of a church since baptism. It provides some familiar ground between us on which to meet. The Twenty-Third is also a favorite of long time believers who recognize in its lyrical verse the image of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Most Hebrew Scripture scholars classify it as a “psalm of trust.” I wonder, though, is Psalm 23 really only a psalm of trust, just a word of comfort and assurance for people going through bad times? Is there another way to read this remarkable hymn?

What if we were to read the Twenty-Third Psalm as a poem of resistance, a bold declaration of loyalty to the Lord over against all other would-be shepherds? Saying “The Lord is my Shepherd” implies that, while I might take counsel or advice from a friend or recognize the authority of a teacher, pastor or government official, none but Jesus may shepherd me. A disciple of Jesus makes the bold declaration that his/her sole shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are serious about that declaration, we can be sure that it will put us on a collision course with a world governed by other shepherds. Frequently, we meet forks in the road where it becomes necessary to decide who is to be followed. To follow Jesus is to reject the call of a thousand other false shepherds who have little interest in the sheep and who promise shortcuts along the more attractive path of least resistance. Sometimes following Jesus means telling the powers and principalities in high places that “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Sometimes it means creating a socially awkward moment when you have to tell your house guest that a racist joke is not welcome in your home. Sometimes the cost of faithfulness to Jesus results in one’s losing career, business and financial opportunities or alienating family and friends. Following the Good Shepherd might cost you your life.

It might seem a little demeaning for a fiercely individualistic people like us to admit that we either have or need a shepherd, but the Bible tells us that independence is not an option. We were created to find our rest, our peace and our reason for being in God. If we will not have the Lord as our Shepherd, something or someone else will slide in to fill the void. Something else will dictate how we live. What’s more, that something will always disappoint us in the end. I wish I could tell you how many parents feel betrayed, empty and lonely when the children to whom they have devoted their lives grow up and no longer need them. How many people do you know that retire from their jobs only to discover that they have been so busy at work that they have never had time to imagine what life will look like when the work is all done? You have a shepherd. The only question is, who is it?

Understand that the shepherd/sheep metaphor will not allow for sentimentality. Sheep are not cuddly little pets. They are farm animals destined to be sheered and perhaps slaughtered. They are kept safe and sound not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the shepherd for whom they must one day suffer and die. So it is that our lives do not belong to us. Life and death are given so that in both we may glorify God and bear witness to Jesus. “Whoever would come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow.” “Where I am, there will my servant be also.” Just as the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so the sheep are to live-and perhaps die-for the Shepherd.

Well, if that’s the case, why would anyone follow Jesus? The answer is that Jesus alone knows where the green pastures and still waters are. Jesus alone knows the way through the valley of the shadow into the light of the resurrection. Jesus alone can open our hearts to the love which the Father shares with the Son-love that is strong enough to survive even death, love that is able to bind together all the broken pieces of our world, love that can make us genuinely human. You inevitably will have a shepherd. So let him be the one who knows where he is going; the one that can save you from yourself and ensure that you take the right fork in the road-because it might make all the difference.

Here’s a poem by Robert Frost about just such a fork in the road:

The Road Not Taken 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 105. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 9:36-43

In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle story to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues Jesus’ life giving mission. Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1989 by Fortress Press) p. 122. Luke’s gospel contains two other such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). Some commentators suggest that “Tabitha,” the name of the woman raised from death, is intended to echo the command given by Jesus in Aramaic, “talitha cum” (little girl arise), to the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:41. Id. at 122 citing Wellhausen, Julius, Kritische Analyse der Apostelgeschichte, AGG.PH 15.2, Berlin 1914) p. 121. Though such a literary allusion would be consistent with Luke’s aim of demonstrating the healing presence of Jesus in the ministry of the church, I think it’s a bit of a stretch. If Luke had intended to make such a connection, he would surely have let Mark’s Aramaic rendition of Jesus’ command stand in his telling of the story. As it is, he translates the command into Greek. It should be emphasized that these raising events do not constitute “resurrection” in the same sense that Jesus experienced it. Tabitha will eventually die again as did Lazarus, the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus. Like Jesus’ healing miracles, the raising events constitute not final liberation from death, but only a brief reprieve.

Furthermore, the miracles are never ends in themselves. Peter’s response here is to the distress of the church in Jappa which has lost a valued minister. Tabitha has been raised up to continue her life of good works for the sake of the church and its mission. Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 93.  As the case of Stephen demonstrates, sometimes the mission of the church is served by a saint’s faithful death. Thus, miracles of healing are not doled out as rewards for faithfulness, answers to earnest prayer or any other effort on our part. They are gifts to sustain the life of the church, inspire faith and demonstrate God’s compassion.

There are a number of parallels between this story and that of Elisha’s raising the son of the Shunammite woman in II Kings 4:8-37. In both cases, the deceased were placed in upper rooms. As Elisha was alone in prayer with the corpse, so also Peter puts everyone else outside and prays alone in the room with Tabitha’s body. If these similarities between the two stories are anything more than coincidence, then Luke is once again making the point that the restorative power of God at work in the prophets and coming to full bloom in the work of the Messiah continues in the life of the church.

It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” Vs. 43. Jewish law regarded this line of work as defiling. Thus, Simon would have been an outcast in polite Jewish society. Peter seems to have no problem accepting Simon’s hospitality, though as we will see in next week’s lesson, he has considerable scruples over dining with Gentiles. Luke is therefore setting the stage for the upcoming story of the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius. This will be the next chapter in the church’s story of breaking down religious and cultural barriers. Luke wants to demonstrate that welcoming the Gentiles into the church is simply a logical extension of Jesus’ welcoming outcasts among his own people.

Psalm 23

Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. As my opening remarks demonstrate, however, that has not stopped me from trying. Nonetheless, given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016Sunday, April 26, 2015,Sunday, October 12, 2014Sunday, May 11, 2014Sunday, March 30, 2014Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Kelly J. Murphy, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, all on workingpreacher.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.

Revelation 7:9-17

For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 3, 2016 and April 10, 2016. What I find interesting here is the paradoxical statement in verse 17: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This hymn echoes and may be inspired by imagery from Psalm 23. Oddly, Christ is characterized as both lamb and shepherd. The apparent inconsistency is overcome, however, if we accept the proposal of commentator Raymond Brown that, while composed by different authors, Revelation and the Gospel and letters of John share a related theological tradition. Brown, Raymond E., The Community of the Beloved Disciple, (c. 1979 by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., pub. by Paulist Press) p. 6.  Recall that in John 17 Jesus prays not only that his disciples may be one, but “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us…” John 17:21. The “Lamb of God” that takes away the sin of the world now indwells his disciples in the unity of the Spirit and is also the Shepherd.

“Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” vs. 10. The term, “salvation” or “soteria” in Greek might better be translated “vindication” or “victory.” Kelly, Balmer H., “Revelation 7:9-17, Interpretation, Vol. XL, no. 3, July 1986, p. 291. It is not that God is acclaimed as saved. Rather, the ways of God and God’s suffering love so perfectly expressed in the faithful ministry and obedient death of the Lamb are now vindicated as are those whose lives have been forfeited through their faithful following of the Lamb. “The tribulation” (vs. 14) out of which the “host dressed in white” (vs. 9) has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. The beleaguered churches are encouraged to persist in their faithful obedience to Jesus and assured that their journey’s end will be the fuller presence of God. The promise that God will “shelter them with his presence” literally translates as: “spread his tabernacle over them.” Vs. 15. The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the children of Israel throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The verbal form of this word “tabernacle” is used in the first chapter of John’s gospel where the apostle tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  John 1:14 “Lived among us” literally translated is “tabernacled among us” or “pitched his tent among us.”

It is unfortunate that the Book of Revelation historically has been a tool of apocalyptic terrorists seeking to sow seeds of fear, foreboding and doom. That was the last thing on the mind of its author, John of Patmos. I believe Balmer, supra, sums it up well: “Revelation 7:9-17 is therefore, an unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” p. 294 (emphases in the original).

This is a powerful message of hope to a church facing extinction under the oppressive weight of imperial persecution. It is similarly comforting to both churches and individuals close to dying and whose faithfulness to Jesus seems futile and ineffective. The Lamb whose faithfulness unto death defeated death shares his resurrection with the saints even as they share his suffering and death. The beast may inflict mortal wounds. But the Lamb bestows immortal and healing love. The last word belongs to the Lamb.

John 10:22-30

The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. Like a snowball rolling down hill, our understanding of Jesus picks up deeper and more nuanced meaning as we proceed through the narrative. Every sentence in this Gospel carries another clue to Jesus’ identity. The Feast of Dedication commemorated the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. Jesus previously conducted his own cleansing of the Temple in John 2:13-22. Rather than rededicating it, however, Jesus declared that his body constituted the new temple “not built with hands.” See John 2:13-22. Jesus’ reappearance in the Temple once again points us back to this clue paving the way to a new revelation about to unfold in the dialogue that follows.

Jesus’ opponents pose a very specific question to him: “Are you the Christ?” While there certainly was a wide range of expectation regarding the role of Israel’s messiah, what he would accomplish and how he would get it done, there was no ambiguity in the question itself. Jesus either believes he is the messiah or he does not. So which is it? While Jesus may seem evasive in his response, he is actually prodding his questioners to ask a better question: I have already told you who I am. You already know enough to make your judgment about me. Do you really think my answering your question one way or another will change anything I have already said or add to what you already know? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just a word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. Vs. 25. (Highly paraphrased).

“My sheep hear my voice.” The shepherd’s sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. Jesus has previously made this point in John 10:1-6. The sheep cannot be lured away by the voice of anyone but the true shepherd. The converse is also true. Sheep that do not belong to the shepherd will not heed the shepherd’s voice. So this is not a matter of obtuseness on the part of Jesus’ opponents. Their inability to “hear” Jesus’ voice stems rather from a lack of trust. The sheep heed the voice of the shepherd precisely because the shepherd has proved trustworthy and true. Paradoxically, Jesus’ opponents cannot hear him because they do not trust him. Yet they will never learn to trust him unless they heed his voice. Their situation might seem hopeless but it isn’t. These folks are not of Jesus’ fold now. But Jesus says of them: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16. Jesus has yet more work to do. He will be glorified in his final great work on the cross through which he will “draw all people to myself.” John 12:32. As the lesson from Revelation makes clear in its own poetic way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.

Sunday, April 10th

THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 9:1-6
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

What determines whether a person grows up to be a Gandhi or a Hitler? Is it genetic? Are familial forces, social conditions or peer associations responsible? Is it a combination of all these things? Do people ever really change? Does one ever become so thoroughly evil that s/he is beyond redemption? Does one ever reach a point where s/he is beyond corruption? Those were some of the questions that came to mind as I read the recently published novel of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman.

I should start by saying that one of the most formative movies I ever watched was To Kill a Mocking Bird, based on Lee’s first novel by that name. It was one of Gregory Peck’s greatest performances. As most of you no doubt recall, this was the story of Atticus Finch, Esq., a small town lawyer in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama. Defying the racist conventions of Southern culture in the 1930s, Atticus defended a young black man against doubtful allegations that he had raped a white woman. I was so taken with the movie that I checked the book out of the school library (a rare occurrence for me in my middle school years). I read it again about ten years ago and discovered that it still held the same bittersweet mixture of gentle beauty, brutality, passion and wisdom. We see the story unfolding through the eyes of Atticus’ little daughter, Jean Louise Finch a/k/a “Scout.” The picture of Atticus Finch emerging from the narrative is one of a humble, though self-assured attorney. He is sure of his convictions and unafraid to stand on them, yet tolerant and respectful of even his most hostile critics. His gentle courage is nowhere better illustrated than on the night he places himself between his imprisoned client and an angry lynch mob. With Scout at his side, he disarms the gang with an appeal to their common humanity. Though ultimately unsuccessful at trial, Finch’s fearless and uncompromising commitment to justice is itself a kind of victory.

Watchman takes place two decades later. Jean Louise is now an adult residing in New York City. When the narrative begins, she is returning home for a visit with her father. Viewing her home town through the eyes of an adult having experienced the broader cultural landscape, she begins to recognize the insidious poison of racism that has always been present in the community. She learns that her father’s willingness to represent black criminal defendants has more to do with keeping such cases away from the NAACP than seeking justice. The final blow comes when Jean Louise witnesses her father presiding at a meeting of the Citizen’s Council featuring a speaker extoling the virtues of segregation and the dangers of interracial coupling. Along with Jean Louise, we learn that Atticus Finch is not the heroic figure we thought he was.

It is always disturbing when your hero gets knocked off his pedestal. It is all the more disturbing for those of us who identify as progressives. Nothing calls progressivism into question quite like regression. We would all like to think that gains made toward justice and equality are permanent and cannot be erased by history. In reality, however, we forget the hard lessons learned from episodes of genocide. We forget the sacrifices made to achieve justice and peace and revert to the same old behaviors that always lead us into trouble. So it is on a personal level as well. Just as a person can grow and mature, so s/he can also revert to infantile behavior. Atticus Finch would not be the first person I ever met who cynically abandoned values and principles once held dear. To achieve great heights is less than half the battle. Holding them is what poses the greatest challenge.

Did Atticus Finch change? Did he fall from the lofty heights of his convictions? That is one possibility. After all, back in the 1930s white privilege was firmly entrenched. One could stoop down to help a person of color as an act of noble compassion without challenging the systemic inequality upholding that privilege. Two and a half decades later the landscape had changed. African Americans were not asking for favors. They were demanding their rights. They were fighting for an end to systemic racism and white privilege. The objects of Atticus’ pity were now challenging his entitlements. Like many other white folk, I suspect Atticus felt threatened. When people feel threatened they become hostile. Fear causes us to revert to the most primitive types of human conduct.

Then too, we learn that Atticus has come down with rheumatoid arthritis in his old age. Pain and disability can do strange things to us. They make us feel vulnerable, dependent and resentful. Pain robs us of sleep and depletes our energy. It can push us into self-obsession and self-pity. Pain medication can alter our judgments and skew our perceptions. All of these things could well have contributed to Atticus’ seeming change of heart.

Though Watchman reads like a sequel to Mocking Bird, Lee actually wrote it before Mocking Bird and submitted it for publication. Only after Watchman had been rejected did Lee write Mocking Bird. Sadly, Harper Lee passed away early this year and so we will never hear her take on the two natures of Atticus Finch. Is the Atticus Jean Louise comes to see in Watchman a truer version of the father she idolized as a child? Or is the Atticus of Mocking Bird Lee’s more reflective and nuanced version of the stereotypical southern racist we meet in Watchman? I suspect Lee might tell us that he is both and neither. At the end of the day, each individual is a complex mixture of genetic traits, inherited beliefs, learned behaviors, desires, passions and memories. One seldom knows whether s/he is a hero, coward, racist or not until the moment of trial comes. Much may depend upon when and where in life’s journey the challenge arises. It is dangerous to presume too much or to judge too harshly-particularly for those of us who have not yet been put to the test. We can only pray, “Save us from the time of trial.”

Our second lesson from the Book of Acts also tells of a profound transformation of character. We read how Saul, persecutor of the church, became Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul’s story is as important as anything he ever wrote because it affirms that yes, indeed, people are capable of change. Or, more accurately put, God is capable of changing human beings. It doesn’t always happen in a flash and it is probably never complete this side of the grave. There is plenty of evidence in his letters to suggest that Paul’s transformation was a work in progress. Paul frequently lashes out in anger, sometimes wallows in self-pity and often employs what can fairly be called manipulative tactics to get his churches to do what he thinks they should. Yet at the same time, Paul displays a remarkable self-awareness of his “foolishness.” He knows only too well his own weakness and the strength of Christ which alone is sufficient to compensate for it. He knows that he has yet to experience fully the power of Jesus’ resurrection, yet forgetting what is behind and striving for what lies ahead, he pushes forward to make that precious gift his own.

Every life is something of a mystery. The totality of who we are cannot be known until such time as Christ is all in all and we know as we are known. Here is a poem by teacher and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed during his imprisonment touching on that point.

Who am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equally, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

Source: Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1953 by SCM Press). Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906. He studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and at Berlin University where he became a professor of systematic theology. At the outbreak of World War II, Bonhoeffer was on a lecturing tour in the United States. Against the advice of his friends and colleagues, he answered the call to return to Germany and lead the Confessing Church in its opposition to National Socialism. Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned at Buchenwald. He was subsequently transferred to Flossenburg prison where he was hanged by the Gestapo just days before the end of the war. To learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his books and poems check out this website.

Acts 9:1-6

This story fascinates me. It seems that Saul (later to be called Paul) has just made a U Turn in his fundamental beliefs and self-understanding. From this day forward, he takes his orders from Jesus-a man he presumed dead and whose followers he has been busy exterminating. I am captivated by this story because I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience. My mind changes slowly. It changes direction like an aircraft carrier: in small increments that seem inconsequential at the time but ultimately alter my direction in significant ways. When I read my journal entries of thirty years ago I can see that I have changed my mind about a great many things, though I would be hard put to say exactly when that happened. I am not even sure there ever was a conscious turning point. I expect that conversations with family and friends, reading and study along with my life experiences have worked together in gradually shaping and re-shaping my outlook over the years. I hope that worship, preaching and prayer have also played a significant role. That seems to be the way most of us are formed most of the time.

But not always. There are “Damascus Road” moments that can turn you around. Perhaps one contemporary example is Senator Robert Portman, a conservative legislator representing Ohio who embraced marriage equality upon learning that his son was gay. I suppose there is reason to question the sincerity of the senator’s conversion, which many have dismissed as a classic political “flip-flop.” It is a little suspicious that this politician should have experienced his change of heart just following the release of poll numbers showing a clear majority of Americans favoring marriage equality. Still, I tend to believe that Portman’s turnabout was genuine. Discovering that your own son is among the folks you have been trying to exclude as inherently immoral cannot be too different from Paul’s discovery that the Jesus he was striving to destroy was actually the God he worshipped.

In approaching this text it might be helpful to begin listing some of the strongest convictions you hold. Then ask yourself what it would take to change your mind. What could make you see things differently? If you are convinced that your beliefs and opinions are so solidly based that nothing could change them, I would caution you with my mother’s oft repeated dictum: “There is no mind as weak as that mind which is too strong to change.” We will come up against this question of conversion again in next week’s lesson from Acts where Peter is confronted with what he probably assumed was not possible: faith among pagans.

Psalm 30

The title of this psalm is a little confusing. It reads: “A Psalm of David. A Song at the dedication of the Temple.” In the first place, the Temple was built by Solomon after David had died. If David wrote this psalm, it would not likely have been for the dedication of a building constructed well after his death. I should add, though, that Davidic authorship is not altogether impossible. According to the book of I Chronicles, David was heavily involved in planning for the erection of the Temple even though he took no part in actually building it. Thus, he could conceivably have composed psalms in anticipation of its dedication. This seems unlikely, however. A further difficulty is that the psalm itself is a personal prayer of thanksgiving for salvation. It does not even mention the Temple. One commentator suggests that the psalm, though composed much earlier, might have been used at the re-dedication of the Temple following its cleansing by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 B.C.E. (celebrated today as Hanukkah). J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, Psalms 1-50 (Cambridge University Press, c. 1977), p. 133. That would explain the title linking the psalm to the Temple. The attribution of the psalm to David was likely a separate and much older title. It should be noted that the Hebrew preposition le translated as “by” in the Davidic title can also mean “to” or “in the manner of” or perhaps “in the tradition of.” Thus, actual Davidic authorship is not necessarily implied.

This psalm is one that Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann would probably classify as a “psalm of reorientation.” Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of re-orientation. I believe that is a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are times when all seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is filled with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, of praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness is appropriate.

Then tragedy strikes. The company you work for goes out of business. A spouse proves unfaithful. One of the kids gets sick-really sick. Or that routine X-ray exposes something very wrong going on under the skin. That picture perfect life is thrown into disarray. The darkness seems impenetrable. At times like these, psalms of disorientation give expression to our feelings of panic and abandonment. A good example is Psalm 39 which concludes with a prayer that God would “look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more.” Yet even though the psalmist seems to have given up on God, the psalmist is nonetheless still speaking to God!

Psalms of re-orientation, such as Psalm 30, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. The journey has not been easy, nor does it bring them back to where they were before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow. See The Message of the Psalms, Brueggemann, Walter (Augsburg Publishing House, c 1984).

It seems that the psalmist was experiencing threats from his enemies as well as sickness. This psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. The psalmist recognizes in resolution of his or her trials the saving hand of God. Thanksgiving is the only conceivable response.

Revelation 5:11-14

For the next few weeks the lectionary will be treating us to some excerpts from the Book of Revelation. I have noticed that this book has an unholy appeal to all sorts of people for all kinds of reasons. Whenever I offer a Bible Study course on Revelation, the initial response is usually enthusiastic. But after the first session, when it becomes clear that I am not going to predict the date of the world’s end or reveal the identity of the antichrist (who is not even mentioned in the book), interest soon wanes. That is unfortunate because I believe John of Patmos, the putative author of Revelation, has a lot to say. Also unfortunate is the absence of Revelation 2-3 from the common lectionary. These chapters consist of prophetic/angelic messages to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), the audience to which the book is addressed. Though delivered in graphic symbols, metaphors and occasional numerical code, these “letters to the seven churches” give us a piercing glimpse into the life of these fledgling congregations as they sought to live out their faith under the shadow of the Roman Empire.

Though imprisoned more than once and most likely executed by the Roman government, Paul still saw the empire as the instrument of God’s judgment on wickedness (whether knowingly or not). It was “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4. John of Patmos held no such sanguine view of Rome. He saw the empire as a “beast” that “utters blasphemies against God,” “makes war on the saints,” and causes “all who dwell on the earth” to worship it. Revelation 13:5-9. Roman society, epitomized by its capital, is a modern “Babylon.”  The nations have “drunk the wine of her impure passion,” “the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness.” Revelation 18:1-3. Paul’s church lived uneasily in the shadow of a menacing, though mostly indifferent government. John’s church was engaged in a life and death struggle with an empire that was unequivocally hostile.

The world dominating beast of which John of Patmos speaks in Revelation was personified as an emperor of Rome. Scholars are divided over whether John was referring to a specific emperor at the end of the first century. Most seem to take this view, though some hold out for an earlier composition of Revelation maintaining that the “beast” refers rather to a future emperor expected to emerge from the chaos and civil war convulsing the empire following the death of Nero in 68 C.E. If John was referring to an actual emperor, the most likely candidate is Domitian who reigned from 81 C.E. to 96 C.E. Previous Roman emperors were inducted into the Roman pantheon of divinities upon their death. This ceremony amounted to the civil bestowal of an honorary title. It had practically no religious significance. The emperor Claudius was known to have joked, when asked how he was feeling on a particularly bad day, “I feel as though I am about to become a god.” For Domitian, however, godhood was no laughing matter. He bestowed the title “Lord and God” upon himself during his own lifetime. Ceremonial feasts where held in his honor at patriotic observances in which participation, from the perspective of Jews and Christians, amounted to idolatry.

John’s lurid images of cruelty, oppression and destruction of the earth set forth in Revelation accurately depict life under Roman occupation and more particularly, life for the churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. Governmental persecution of the church, though not wide spread or focused at this time, was a common enough occurrence for disciples of Jesus who refused to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” a title they reserved for Christ alone. Exclusion from economic and professional opportunities was often the price of worshiping Christ alone. Christians were not the only ones to experience Rome’s oppression. It is not only for the death of the prophets and saints, but for “all who have been slain on the earth” that Rome (code named “Babylon”) and the beast come to judgment in Revelation Chapter 18. Significantly, all those who profited socially, politically and commercially from Rome’s unjust reign share in its judgment. Revelation 18:11-20.

In seeking to hear Revelation as a word of God to the church of our time, we need to ask ourselves where and how we experience “empire” today. Jorge Rieger’s fine book, Christ and Empire, (AugsburgFortress, c. 2007) is helpful to us here:

“Empire, in sum, has to do with massive concentrations of power that permeate all aspects of life and that cannot be controlled by any one actor alone. This is one of the basic marks of empire throughout history. Empire seeks to extend its control as far as possible; not only geographically, politically, and economically-these factors are commonly recognized-but also intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, culturally and religiously.” pp. 2-3.

Conceived of in this way, it is clear that imperial power is not confined exclusively or even primarily to governmental institutions. Indeed, when I think of the institutions that directly affect my daily life-my credit card company, my bank, my health insurer-I realize that I am governed far more extensively by the so-called “private sector” than by any governmental unit. Furthermore, the constitutional protections preventing the government from invading my privacy, confiscating my property and restricting my freedom of expression are of little use to me in negotiating the workplace, dealing with the intrusive demands of my lender or resolving disputed claims with my insurers. Such rights as I have against these entities are determined by contractual agreements that were not negotiated in any real sense. Credit, banking services and insurance are offered to me on the companies’ terms and on a take it or leave it basis. The power of these entities to deprive me of my livelihood, deny me needed medical help or re-possess my home is far more disturbing to me than some abstract fear of the government getting into my computer to peek at pictures of my grandchildren or critique my taste in poetry.

More disturbing than the raw power exercised by corporate commercial entities is their subtle promotion of materialistic greed. At its best, the American Dream represents a society in which all members have the opportunity to thrive and build lives for themselves of value and significance. There is no guarantee of success, whatever that might mean, but there are opportunities for success and no penalty for failure beyond personal disappointment and loss. As promoted by corporate imperialism, however, the American Dream has become narrowly focused on accumulation. Business has become increasingly focused on short term profit. Wealth has been confused with money. Consumption has been misconstrued as prosperity. Greed is the engine of this demonic economy that fouls our drinking water, pollutes our air, exploits human labor, increases economic inequality, breaks up productive businesses for short term corporate gain, destroys jobs and, after all that, leaves us as restless, anxious and empty as ever. We have bought into a dream that is fast becoming a nightmare.

For those of us doing reasonably well under the imperial reign of corporate America, it might be hard to recognize in it the beast of Revelation. Like the church in Laodicia, we might be thinking to ourselves, “What beast? Things aren’t so bad.” “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” Like that complacent congregation, we might not recognize the “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” state to which our souls have fallen. Revelation 3:17. We need to see empire not through the eyes of the “merchants of the earth [who] have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness,” but through the eyes of “all who have been slain [by her] on earth.” Revelation 18:3; Revelation 18:24. If we do that, we will discover that the beast of empire is alive and well today exercising its murderous power not only through dictators that starve their people to feed their military machines, but also in corporations that exploit labor, corrupt governments and destroy the environment for the sake of profit. The victims of the beast live in squalid refugee camps having fled the carnage of conflicts they wanted no part of. They are children employed at near starvation wages by manufacturers whose CEOs have made the cold (and heartless) determination that such “out sourcing” best serves the bottom line. They are the wounded men, grieving mothers and dead children who had the misfortune to be in the way of a drone attack-the folks we speak of in unfeeling clinical terms as “collateral damage.” Those of you old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo may also recall the lead character’s immortal line: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So also I think we can say that we have met “the beast” and he is us. Today’s nation states, military alliances and commercial entities (all of them) share in some measure the toxic nature of the imperial beast.

In order to appreciate the full impact of this lesson, you need to read from the beginning of Chapter 4. See Revelation 4:1-5:10. John of Patmos is summoned to the throne room of God almighty. The throne of God is surrounded by 24 elders and four angelic creatures all singing praises to God. There is no description of God, but in God’s right hand is a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” No one responds to this question and John is greatly distressed to learn that there is nobody in heaven or on earth able to open the scroll. But then one of the elders says to John, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Now comes the drum roll. What will he look like, this Lion, this Davidic King who dares to break the seals and open the scroll? We expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to strut out onto the stage, bulging with muscle, armed to the teeth. But when we look up we see-a lamb! A lamb that has been slain, no less. Seriously? This is the Lion of Judah? This is the Root of David?

At this point the angelic creatures and the elders break into their song: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” Vss 9-10. In the lurid imagery that follows, John pictures for us the war of the lamb. This matchup between a leopard like beast with seven heads, ten horns, feet like a bear and mouth like a lion on the one hand, and a lamb on the other seems terribly one sided. The lamb doesn’t appear to stand much of a chance. Yet John would have us know that God is on the side of the lamb whose suffering love for humanity braves even death.

This lesson is filled with images similar to many found in the Book of Daniel, another apocalyptic work. Daniel 7:9-10 relates the prophet’s vision of descending thrones upon which sat “one that was ancient of days.” “Ten thousand times ten thousands stood before him.”  “The books were opened.” Dominion is given to “one like a son of man.” Some scholars suggest that John may have drawn his vision from that related in Daniel Chapter 7. Though possible, it seems unlikely to me. There is little in the way of actual textual similarity. There is virtually no correspondence between the two visions other than the assurance that the enemies of God’s people ultimately will be defeated by divine agency, a theme common to nearly all apocalyptic literature. John’s vision also bears similarity to divine appearances in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2.

As I pointed out, the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3 are critical to understanding what John of Patmos is trying to accomplish with his work. Just as the lamb seems an unlikely champion against the beast, so the crucified Lamb of God and his beleaguered and persecuted followers’ struggle against the empire looks hopeless. John strives to assure the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to remain faithful are not futile, but are of cosmic significance. The cross is mightier than the sword. Love is stronger than violence and will prevail in the end.

Though much speculation generated by the Book of Revelation focuses on the identity of “the beast,” this wonderful book is not all about “the beast.” It is about the “Lamb who was slain.” It is not about the destruction of the earth, but its salvation and renewal. Most importantly, Revelation is not a war movie or a spaghetti western in which the forces of good out gun the forces of evil. Understand that the final victory of God over evil does not come through an exercise of divine violence. Throughout the Book of Revelation, the powers of the empire are portrayed as fearsome beasts, dragons and warriors. But God’s son and God’s people are always portrayed as peaceful, vulnerable and weak. Israel is portrayed as a woman giving birth under the watch of a fearsome dragon waiting to devour her child. Revelation 12:1-6. The conqueror, the lion of Judah, God’s Messiah turns out to be, of all things, a lamb. Revelation 5:1-5. Not only so, but a lamb that was slain! When Christ returns to claim his kingdom, his title is “the Word of God,” and he slays his enemies with the sword that “comes out of his mouth.” Revelation 19:11-16. Just as the world began with God speaking it into existence, so by that same life giving (not death dealing) Word the world will be brought under God’s gentle reign. God triumphs through winning hearts, not battles. Thus, the churches in Asia Minor are comforted with the knowledge that by their faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands, their love for one another, their forgiveness of their enemies and their peaceful witness they are waging God’s battle against the powers of empire. This battle is fought not with weapons of war, but with the weapons of prayer, forgiveness and love for the neighbor-even the hostile one. The struggling churches are assured that the suffering love of God is mightier and more enduring than the violence of empire.  Caesar and his legions might look impressive today, but the smart money is on the Lamb.

John 21:1-19

Of all the four gospels, I find the ending of John’s gospel to be the most satisfying. Unlike Luke, Jesus does not ascend into heaven and direct the disciples to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Unlike Matthew, Jesus does not send his disciples out with a promise of his presence. We are not left wondering whether or how the disciples will ever hook up again with the resurrected Christ as in Mark. John’s ascension takes place at Golgotha where Jesus is “lifted up.” The outpouring of the Holy Spirit coincides with Jesus’ resurrection. Remarkably, the Gospel of John ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their fishing nets and boats behind to follow Jesus. Jesus’ last words in the gospel are, “follow me.”

John’s gospel challenges us to take seriously the presence of Jesus in the Church. I think this is the underpinning for our Lutheran insistence on the real presence of Christ which is not limited to the sacraments. We confess in the Nicene Creed our belief in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” If that only means that there exists an organization called the church, we would hardly need to include it as an article of faith any more than we would need to confess that the sky is blue. But to say that the church is one just as Jesus is one with the Father; that the church is a holy people; that the church is catholic embracing all nations and true to the apostolic witness that birthed it-that is another thing altogether. It is not always evident that the church as we experience it is any of these things. Yet our confession is that the church, flesh and blood congregations with all of their shortcomings, failures and imperfections constitutes the Body of the Resurrected Christ. That calls for a leap of faith! It also challenges us to think deeply about how we make our unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolic teaching more visible.

I think this appearance must have happened on a Monday. I don’t have an ounce of biblical support for that assertion, but it sure has the feel of going back to work at the beginning of another week. Commentators believe that this third appearance of Jesus to his disciples in John is a later addition to the gospel. They suggest that this story comes from a different version of events similar to the sequence in Matthew. The disciples, scattered after Jesus’ crucifixion, flee to Galilee (or go there to meet him upon instructions from Jesus to the women) and there try to pick up their old lives. In so doing, they encounter the resurrected Christ who calls them back to a life of discipleship. However this might be, there is no question but that the disciples have turned their attention back to the more mundane yet urgent needs for survival. They turn back to what they know, namely, fishing. Yet they toil through the night taking nothing, echoing Jesus’ warning that “apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5. Not until Jesus instructs them to cast their net out on the right side of the boat do they find success, and that beyond expectation. It is at this point that the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus.

Meals occupy a significant place in the ministry of Jesus (and throughout the whole Bible for that matter). Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people; Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners-as well as wealthy religious leaders. Jesus’ last evening with his disciples was a meal and Jesus makes a point of sharing food with them after his resurrection. Jesus frequently uses the image of a banquet to describe the kingdom of God. So it is not surprising that he invites his disciples to breakfast on the shore and that it is within this context that Jesus reconciles himself to Peter.

The interchange between Jesus and Peter is moving and illustrative of Jesus’ way with his disciples. Ours is the Lord of the second chance-and the third and the fourth. But what I find remarkable here is Peter’s commission: “Feed my sheep.” There has been much debate over the centuries about what that means and what significance it has for how we understand apostolic succession. Without entering these treacherous waters, let me just say that what I find most intriguing is the content of the command. If Peter is being given a special task here, it does not seem to have anything to do with leading, oversight or primacy. His job is not to shepherd the sheep, but simply to feed them.

At the recent ELCA Youth Gathering, one of my young people elbowed me just as then Bishop Mark Hanson was being introduced as “shepherd of the sheep.” “What happened to Jesus” she said. “Did he retire?” This clever if less than reverent comment reflects the basis for my discomfort with the term “pastor” which means shepherd. I am only too aware of the fact that I do not know where the green pastures or the still waters are. Like everyone else, I have to rely upon the Good Shepherd’s leading for that. At best, I am just the sheep dog that tries to keep the herd together or the farm hand in charge of seeing to it that the sheep are fed. Like my namesake, I can only lead by following.

Sunday, April 3rd

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

 Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Prayer of the Day: O God of life, you reach out to us amid our fears with the wounded hands of your risen Son. By your Spirit’s breath revive our faith in your mercy, and strengthen us to be the body of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sometimes a single word, act or decision comes to define us. Benedict Arnold’s act of betrayal rendered his name synonymous with treason. So, too, the once noble name of Judas has been forever tainted by its owner’s single act of treachery. Thomas’ name did not fare quite so poorly, though it cannot seem to shake the prefix “doubting” in common parlance. That is unfortunate because Thomas was not a doubter. He was not sitting on the fence with respect to the resurrection. He was an unbeliever. He flat out rejected the testimony of the rest of the disciples. “Not buying it,” he says. “Not until I see it myself.”

I have heard more sermons than I can count misinterpreting poor Thomas as well as Jesus’ response to him. We tend to project into this story our own 21st Century difficulties of reconciling Jesus’ resurrection with modern biological science. We assume that Thomas shared the same incredulity we do when we hear that Jesus died and was raised from death. How could such a thing happen? That, however, was not Thomas’ problem. Few people in the 1st Century doubted that God or the gods could raise a person from death. The question for Thomas was not “How?” but “Why?” In ancient myths, legends and religious lore immortality was earned through acts of heroism or works of power. For example, the emperor Augustus Caesar was said to have been taken up into heaven and deified upon his death. And why not? He was responsible for establishing Rome’s rule over the Mediterranean world, the pax romana. But why would the God of Israel-or any god for that matter-raise Jesus? After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, things rapidly went south. He alienated the religious leadership, failed to liberate Jerusalem from oppression or even establish a sustainable movement. His life ended in a shameful and humiliating execution. His followers, who never more than half understood him, fled and left him to his fate. Jesus’ life was, by any reasonable measure, a failure.

Thomas’ unbelief arises not from his inability to entertain the possibility of a miracle, but from his failure to comprehend the depth of the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the world. Very tellingly, Thomas insists that he must see the very wounds of the cross on Jesus’ Body. More tellingly still, Jesus invites Thomas to touch these very wounds. Therein lies the key to understanding this encounter. Thomas is confronted by a God with a Body-a Body that suffers, bleeds and feels pain. Though risen and glorified, Jesus nevertheless bears the wounds of the world. God is very much in, with and under our creaturely existence experiencing at every level of creation its death and passing away. The Incarnation was not a temporary state. God’s becoming human, the Word’s becoming flesh was a decisive one way transaction. God is and always will remain human. God’s voice will forever be heard in the cries of the oppressed, the hunger of the poor and the loneliness of the outcast. God’s grief-and joy-will forever be found in the fragile bursts of life on this planet that flare up, burn brightly for an instant and fade.

The miracle that is Jesus’ resurrection does not consist chiefly in the fact that God raised Jesus from death. It consists rather in the fact that God raised Jesus from death, the man who lived obediently to God, passionately loving to the end the world God sent him to save. God raised not the warrior, but the one who would not invoke God’s power to defeat his enemies or allow his friends to raise the sword in his defense. God raised the one who trusted God, even when it seemed to all the world and even to him that God had abandoned him. This is the one Thomas finally acknowledges as “My Lord and my God.”

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter much whether there is a God or whether God is able to raise the dead if that God resides somewhere beyond the blue managing the universe by remote control. Only a God so invested in the world he made that he suffers with it, bleeds into it and dies for it can make a difference. Only a God whose love throbs in every molecule, holding the world together against the destructive forces that threaten to rip it apart can save us. Here is a poem by Pattiann Rogers that seems to know something of this God Thomas discovered in Jesus.

where god’s grief appears

in the bobbing of the waterthrush, in the trotting
of the wild boar, in the stiff-legged jogging
of the nine-banded armadillo, the sideways

darting of the desert cottontail
and the drumming
hind feet of kangaroo rats, in flight
of the blue throat across the Bering Sea,

the floating of the purples sea snail in its raft

of mucous bubbles, the pouncing of coyote, the springing
leap of springbok and springtail,

the green gangly ascending of treefrog, the burrowing

of the two-gilled bloodworm and the scrambling of the flightless
tiger beetle, present in the scarlet blooming forth

of claret cup cacti,

in the creeping morning glory and the winding
of kinnickinnick, present
in the gripping of coon oysters to sea whips and to each other,

in the wind drifting the seed of cotton grass, carrying
the keys of white ash, the rolling

of tumbleweed, the sailing of white-tailed kite,
the gliding of crystal spider on its glassy strand, found
in the falling of golden persimmons,

the dropping of butternuts, pecans, the rooting

of the fragrant roseroot, in the changing colors of the luring
sargassum  fish, the balancing upside down
of the trumpet fish among sea feathers, in the water-skating
of the stilt spider, the soaring of flying fish,
in the climbing, the tumbling, the  swinging,

the pirouetting, the vaulting…in light in living

motion everywhere it appears,  as offering, as evidence,
as recompense.

Source: generations by Pattian Rogers (c. 2004 by Pattian Rogers, pub. by Penguin Books)Pattiann Rogers was born in Joplin, Missouri. She attended the University of Missouri and earned her master’s degree from the University of Houston. She has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship. She also won Poetry’s Tietjens and Bess Hokin Prizes, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest and the Strousse Award. You can read more of Pattiann Rogers’ poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 5:27-32

Peter and his fellow apostles are in trouble again. At their last hearing, they were warned not to teach, preach or heal in the name of Jesus. Note well that the prohibition is not against teaching, preaching or healing generally. Some years ago a colleague of mine told me about how the churches in her city were hosting a statewide breakfast program for low income children. To qualify for participation in the program, churches were compelled to cover up or remove all religious images such as icons, crosses and statues. This was necessary, she explained, to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion. My colleague did not seem to have any problem with the conditions for her church’s involvement in the program. From her perspective, the important thing was that the kids were getting breakfast. If covering or removing images of Jesus was the price to be paid for cooperation in a venture that was surely in the spirit of Jesus, it was well worth the cost.

Is that really the case? Were the apostles being stubborn and pig headed? Why not continue the good work of teaching, healing and caring for the poor without bringing up Jesus? Does it matter whether the church is publically associated with Jesus in its work? Is the public proclamation of Jesus indispensable to doing God’s will in the world? Can you do works in Jesus’ name without mentioning that name?  As long as you are doing what Jesus requires, why does it matter whose name is on the final product?

At the risk of sounding ruthlessly sectarian, I believe that the name of Jesus is indispensible to the church’s mission. Thus, were I in the place of my colleague, I would with great sorrow let the breakfast hosting opportunity go. To those who would fault me for my seeming lack of concern for hungry children, I would reply that children do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words and actions are not as easily separable as we moderns imagine. In fact, if you take the Gospel of John at all seriously, Word and action are entirely inseparable. That is the reason why Peter and John could say last week that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The proclamation of Jesus simply was not negotiable. The apostles’ actions were grounded in the Word they were preaching. We call that Incarnation.

As an attorney, I understand and respect the legitimate concern of the government to avoid entanglement between state services and the promotion of religion. I also understand that the circumstances in which my colleague found herself were vastly different from those of the apostles. In her case, she was working with a friendly government to achieve a common humanitarian objective. The apostles were struggling to be faithful under the weight of persecution by a hostile government. Yet whether the state employs threats of violence, entices us with promises or appeals to us on the basis of the common good to abandon Jesus, the net effect is the same. As church, we are not motivated by some vague notion of the common good (which is always less “common” and frequently less “good” than is claimed).  The church lives and acts out of its relationship to Jesus and its call to bear witness to God’s salvation in his name. Apart from that relationship, we are no longer the church.

Psalm 118:14-29

The psalm for this week is a continuation of the same one used for Easter Sunday. I therefore refer you to my comments from my post of Sunday, March 27, 2016.

Revelation 1:4-8

These verses serve as an introduction to a series of messages addressed to the “seven churches that are in Asia.” The reference here is actually to Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey. The seven churches are later identified as those of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The number of “seven” is symbolic of completeness or perfection and therefore may be a literary device. Thus, it could well be that the letters were meant for general circulation as a group throughout Asia Minor rather than individually addressed to the seven specific churches mentioned and that the matters discussed with these congregations were actually issues common to most or all of the churches in the area.

Much speculation has been given to what the “seven spirits” of God represent. Again, the symbolic meaning suggested by use of the number “seven” implies that John is simply referring to the manifold energies of the one Spirit of God. It is also possible that the “spirits” are simply another designation of the “angels” of each of the seven churches referenced throughout the balance of chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Revelation. Some ancient commentators have identified the seven spirits with the seven aspects of the Spirit to be conferred upon the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” referenced in Isaiah 11:2. Frankly, I think this latter interpretation is a bit of a stretch.

The reference to the Son of Man coming in the clouds echoes Jesus’ testimony before the Sanhedrin. Mark 14:62Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:69. These passages, in turn, point back to Daniel 7:13. Also referenced in this verse is Zechariah 12:10. The alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet respectively; hence, the Lord God is the beginning and end of all things, “the one who is, who was and who is to come.” Vs. 4.

This introduction sets the stage for John of Patmos to deliver the message of his widely misunderstood and woefully misinterpreted book of Revelation. He seeks to impress upon the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to live faithfully are of cosmic importance and eternal significance.  He accomplishes this objective by projecting those struggles upon the screen of apocalyptic drama in which good and evil engage each other as fantastic beasts, angels and spirits. These characters are pregnant with symbolic meanings, many of which are now lost to us. Still, the rich poetry of Revelation has always been and continues to be a rich fountain for inspired and hopeful preaching. The refrain of this book, sounded in so many different keys, is the promise that God’s gentle reign will be implemented not through the violent ways of human empire, but through the patient and persistent love of God manifest in the crucified Lamb of God.

John 20:19-31

Something is different about Jesus after his resurrection. He appears, disappears, and is able come into a room that has been locked up tight without breaking down the door. Yet he is no mere spirit. You can touch him. He still bears the wounds of the cross and this is important. As noted in my introductory comments, incarnation is irreversible. Jesus became human and remains so. God, having become flesh, will never shed his humanity. The body of Jesus was not just a clever disguise. Jesus’ body is Jesus. The resurrected Christ is still wounded and bleeding, still suffers the pain of a broken humanity and continues to struggle toward the promised reign of God. Now, however, it is clear that not even death can extinguish God’s incarnate love.

John’s Pentecost occurs on the day of resurrection. Jesus breathes on his disciples the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go forth even as he was sent forth from the Father. The life of the disciples is to be a continuation of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus embodied the Word of God, so they are to embody that same Word now through the power of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus prayed for in Chapter 17 is now being implemented. Jesus will be in his disciples just as he is in the Father. By the agency of the Holy Spirit they will be made one and by their love for one another the love of God will be made known to the world.

“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? This verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” LSC, 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.”  The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.

Poor Thomas gets a regular drubbing whenever this lesson comes up. I say it is time to give Thomas a break. For the last two millennia he has had to live with the shameful moniker “Doubting Thomas” even though he sought nothing more in the way of proof for the resurrection than the other disciples had already received. I think that too much emphasis has been placed on Thomas’ faith or the lack thereof and too little upon the wounds in the Body of Christ that demonstrate God’s continued suffering love for a rebellious world. This will likely be the focus of my sermon if I wind up preaching on this text.

Sunday, November 1st

ALL SAINTS DAY

Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I have been reading a lot lately about young people from Europe and North America leaving everything and traveling to the Middle East to fight for ISIS, Al Qaeda and other such organizations. We can rant and rail all we want about how awful these terrorist groups are and wonder aloud why young people are drawn to them. But perhaps the more pertinent question for the church is why these young people are not drawn to leave everything and follow Jesus-as did the first disciples and generations of disciples after them. Say what you will about the terrorists, but it seems obvious to me that they are communicating a vision sufficiently compelling to inspire young people to to leave behind their comfortable middle class existences to live for it fight for it and even die for it. Mainline Protestantism typically does not offer anything of the kind. Worship in our culture is not worth sacrificing the Super Bowl, much less our lives. Our churches don’t demand sacrifice from our members. Instead, we woo them with programs, services and entertainment, then beg them for contributions and plead with them to volunteer their time to support us and our programs. Not surprisingly, the response we get is just as tepid as the bland consumer faith we are marketing. When you market to consumers, consumers are what we get. Consumers only consume. It’s what they do. They are savvy enough to know a good deal when they see it. If you can get assurance that the church will be there to baptize, marry and bury you for the price of showing up once in a blue moon and tossing a few dollars into the collection plate, that’s a fair enough exchange. Why would any informed consumer pay more?

Trouble is, the church is not called to market to consumers. The church is called to recruit saints. To borrow a motto from the United States Marines, Jesus is looking for a few good people. Make no mistake about it. Jesus loves all people. Jesus ministers to all people. Jesus never turns away anyone in need. But when it comes to choosing his disciples, Jesus is selective. Jesus does not want as disciples those who are not prepared to part with everything they own, even to the point of becoming homeless. Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 8:18-20; Luke 9:57-58. Jesus will not have disciples who put even family obligations over loyalty to him and the reign of God he proclaims. Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 8:21-22; Luke 9:59-62. Following Jesus means loving your enemy-even the ones that strike you on the cheek, take everything you have, blow up your buildings and behead you. Matthew 5:38-48. Discipleship requires that we go out to meat ISIS armed only with prayer. “But, pastor, with all due respect, those people would just kill us!” That’s typically the response I get to these observations and my standard reply is, “Yep, you got that right.” Jesus calls his disciples to take up the cross and stand with him in the line of fire. If you are squeamish about getting shot, beheaded or nailed to a cross, discipleship is not your line of work. Sainthood is not for whimps.

Now my Lutheran readers are squirming in their seats at this point. So let me assure you all that I am not preaching “works righteousness” here. Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. Contrary to what our ELCA logo might be taken to imply, God doesn’t need our hands or anything else from us to get God’s work done. I side altogether with Martin Luther who tells us that the kingdom of God comes without our prayers-and without our programs, activities, witness, advocacy and all our preachy-screechy social statements. I repeat: the kingdom will come without you’re doing a damn thing. But is that what you want? Do you really want to spend your life on the sidelines as God’s new creation breaks into our old world? Would you be content to be a mere spectator at the World Series if you had a chance to play in the game? Do you want just to sit on the curb, eat your funnel cake and watch as the saints come marching in, or do you want to “be in that number”? No, God does not need us to bring to birth the new creation in which all things will be reconciled in Christ. But God has graciously invited us to participate in and be a part of that great work. God invites us to start living eternally now. That’s worth living for, sacrificing for and dying for. I don’t know about you, but I want in on this.

To sum up briefly: I believe many young people (people of all ages, for that matter) are hungry for a vision worthy of their life’s dedication. The reign of God Jesus proclaims in which all the walls of animosity dividing humanity and the ancient hatreds that keep us at each other’s throats are finally swallowed up in a love stronger than death is precisely that. A life that is shaped by God’s future lived in the present under the sign of the cross is a life well lived. It is what we call sainthood.

Isaiah 25:6-9

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Isaiah 1-39 is attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied during the 8th Century B.C.E.. during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah 40-55 is attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Isaiah 55-65 contain the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah that probably belong to a prophet speaking to a much later time. It appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E., are more likely from the time of disillusionment that developed in the post-exilic setting of the 6th Century. Some commentators date these verses or fragments of them as late as the first third of the 2nd Century B.C.E. e.g., Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (c.1974 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 179. Others maintain that our reading, or at least parts of it, can be attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. See Mauchline, John, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 24.

The lesson is a small portion of a larger section beginning at Chapter 24 where the prophet announces that the Lord will lay waste the earth and that all people will be caught up in its desolation. Isaiah 24:1-13, Isaiah 24:17-23. This woeful dirge is punctuated by a psalm of praise calling for the earth to acknowledge and glorify the majesty of God. Isaiah 24:14-16. This desolation is of cosmic proportions. Chapter 25 begins with a psalm of thanksgiving to the Lord for God’s just judgment upon the world rulers and his protection for the poor and the needy. Isaiah 25:1-5. It is for this remnant, the poor and the needy who have been ruthlessly oppressed by the kings of the earth, that “the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things….”  Vs. 6. This judgment for the poor and oppressed includes all nations and peoples, but it is a particularly joyful event for Israel because it demonstrates that God is indeed the very God she has been faithfully serving and in whom she has been placing her hope. No wonder, then, that the people of Israel cry out: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.” Vs. 9. This passage is a bold declaration that Israel’s hope in the justice and salvation of God is not misplaced. The smart money is on the God of Israel!

Notice that Israel has played no active part in this saving work of God. She has only waited patiently for it. I have to say that this grates on me a bit. Having come of age in a generation that thought it would change the world for the better and which placed a high value on social activism, the notion of sitting and waiting for salvation feels grossly irresponsible. Yet when it comes to God’s kingdom, there is nothing else that we can do. God will establish peace and justice in God’s own time. The temptation we face is impatience. We want the kingdom now and we are prone to take all the military, legislative and revolutionary short cuts necessary to get there. We don’t have time to wait for love to persuade. We don’t have enough patience for the long and difficult work of reconciliation. Prayer seems so weak and ineffectual compared to action. So we push ahead with our own notions of peace and justice, employing our tactics of “shock and awe” to get the job done quickly and efficiently. But that is not the way of our patient God who has all eternity to work with. Changing hearts and minds takes time-a lot of time. God is willing to take all the time in the world to prepare every heart for the coming of his kingdom. Jesus promised that it was his Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. He never said it would be done within the first hundred days of his administration.

Psalm 24

There has been much scholarly speculation about this ancient hymn of praise. It has often been thought that this psalm is a liturgy for the annual procession with the Ark of the Covenant commemorating David’s movement of the Ark to Jerusalem. (II Samuel 6). Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 108. This is possible, but there is no direct evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures that such a ceremony existed in Israel. Other commentators suggest that this song might have been sung at the climax of the autumn festival. See Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 232. It is probably safe to say at least that this psalm is a worship liturgy of some sort and that it dates back to the Judean monarchy and perhaps even to the time of David and Solomon. If the psalm does go back to the time of David, then the “holy place” (vs.3) is obviously not the Temple (which was built after David’s death by his son, Solomon), but a tent-like shrine or tabernacle. The “hill of the Lord” is Mt. Zion. Vs. 3. The psalm reflects both dimensions of Israelite worship-the coming of God to the sanctuary and the coming of the worshiper into God’s presence there. Because “all the earth” belongs to the Lord (vs. 1), God is not confined to the sanctuary or bound to any holy place. The doors must “lift up” their heads that “the King of Glory may come in.” vs. 7. It is absurd to imagine that any humanly constructed sanctuary could contain the God who laid the foundations of the world. Yet God in his mercy and compassion for Israel voluntarily comes into the sanctuary to meet those who come to worship.

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” vs. 3. The answer to this question in many of the ancient Near Eastern religious traditions would be strict measures of cultic purity such as ritual washing, fasting from certain foods, abstinence from sexual relations, freedom from disease or physical defect, etc. Indeed, these kinds of cultic purity requirements for worship are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But here the proper preparations for worship are ethical. Honesty and integrity trump external cultic preparations.

What, then, does this psalm tell us about worship? First, worship begins with acknowledging that “the earth is the Lord’s.” This has profound geopolitical, ecological and ethical implications, challenging our accepted notions of land ownership and national sovereignty.

“Get off my land!”

“Who says it’s your land?”

“I have the deed to it”

“Where did you get the deed?”

“From my father.”

“Where did he get it?”

“From his father.”

Where did he get it?”

“He fought for it!”

“Well, then, I’ll fight you for it!”

This little interchange goes to illustrate the obvious: If we go back far enough, we invariable discover that we are living on land our ancestors took away from somebody else. So even if you assume that whatever land is not occupied is up for grabs, it has been several millennia since there has been any such land available for the taking. Claims of land ownership are therefore intrinsically morally suspect. Moreover, the psalmist makes clear that the earth, every inch of it, belongs to the Lord. Even the promised land was not given to Israel in any absolute sense. Life in the land of Canaan was to be lived in compliance with Israel’s covenant with God. When Israel began treating the land as her own, living contrary to the covenant and exploiting the land and her own people, God expelled her from the land.

Second, the earth is God’s living creation. It is not an inert ball of resources we are free to exploit at our convenience to serve the national interests of whatever nation state we happen to belong to. If you go back to the second chapter of Genesis, the earth was created first. Only then did God create the human being to tend and care for the Garden God planted in Eden. Genesis 2:15. The message is clear: It’s not all about us. The earth is God’s garden and we are here not as owners, but as gardeners. One objective of worship, then, is to re-orient our hearts and minds to accept God’s ownership of all creation and our privileged position, not as one of domination, but of careful stewardship and responsible care.

Revelation 21:1-6a

Revelation is by far the most abused, misunderstood and misquoted book in the entire Bible. It has been an inexhaustible source of speculation for people who understand it as the key to figuring out how and when the world will come to an end. This is not the place to embark on a lengthy discussion of the origin, purpose and meaning of Revelation. Nevertheless, I would urge you to read Revelation 2-3 in addition to the lesson for this Sunday. There you will find seven letters dictated by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor in a vision to the author, John of Patmos. The letters reflect the struggles of a church under varying degrees of persecution. Some of them face prosecution and death. Others face more subtle social pressures to compromise with cultural ethical norms and pagan religious practices. This is a church struggling for survival in a hostile society. The Roman Empire’s oppressive cruelty is given expression in the lurid images of beasts, demons and prostitutes employed by John. The imagery used in describing the Lamb of God, the heavenly court and the angelic forces of God all stretch the imagination to the breaking point, but affirm the ultimate victory of the Lamb who was chose to be slain rather than prevail through violence over against the violent demonic forces at work in the Empire. Thus, Revelation is not so much a key to the future as it is a word of encouragement and hope for disciples of Jesus who face suffering and persecution in every age. For those of you wishing to understand more about this strange and wonderful book and its proper overall interpretation, I refer you to an excellent article produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. on enterthebible.org.

Our lesson for Sunday constitutes the climax of Revelation. John witnesses the descent of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem from God to earth. This is highly significant. Note well that John does not describe Christians “going to heaven” to be with God, but God coming to dwell with God’s people. The words “Behold, the dwelling of God is with people,” reflects the heartfelt desire expressed by the Lord throughout the Law and the Prophets. It has never been God’s intent to destroy this world and replace it with a better one. Indeed, God specifically rejected that course of action in the story of Noah’s Flood. (See Genesis 8:20-22). Instead, God makes all things new.

There is both continuity and discontinuity in the new creation-just as there was continuity and discontinuity between the man Jesus the disciples had come to know throughout his ministry with them and the resurrected Christ who appeared to them on Easter Sunday. The Resurrected one was Jesus, to be sure. Yet he was not merely a resuscitated corpse. This resurrected Jesus was alive in a new and powerful sense that placed him beyond the reach of death. His ascension to the right hand of the Father as witnessed by the gospel of Luke does not make Jesus more distant, but renders him even more intimately present than ever before. In the same way, the New Jerusalem is not a spiritual shadow of the dying physical city. Rather, it is a resurrected city that is more intensely alive precisely because it is now animated by the very presence of God in its midst.

I think that the hope contained in this lesson is very well expressed by Professor Brian Peterson of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary:

“We do not create this new heaven and earth; the New Jerusalem comes down from God, and thus comes only as a gift. We can discern its outline already in the gospel of Jesus, crucified, and risen. Because God is with us already — in the proclamation of the Gospel, at the table of our Lord, and in the Spirit filling the church — we are witnesses to that coming new city, with our words and with our lives. We carry gracious hints of its coming when we live out costly love for one another (John 13), and when we practice startling welcome to those otherwise left outside (Acts 11).”

I urge you to read Professor Peterson’s entire article at workingpreacher.org.

John 11:32-44

Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John’s gospel is not divided into bite size readings that contain numerous nuggets of insight. John takes his sweet time spinning a yarn. He gives you numerous clues and hints to where he is going that only become clear a chapter or two later when he springs the punch line. I guess that is why John does not get his own year in the lectionary as do his fellow gospel writers. But perhaps the problem is more with us than with John. We are the ones with the short attention spans. We are the ones who begin to glance at our watches when we perceive that worship is not proceeding on schedule. We are a generation in a hurry. As a result, we miss a lot of living as we dart from one point to another with a third point on our mind.

If we begin at the start of Chapter 11, we hear first that Jesus was told of Lazarus’ illness while in Galilee, but chose to remain there another two days before beginning his trip to Judah were Lazarus was. Consequently, Lazarus was dead long before Jesus arrived. Why would Jesus do such a thing? Granted, raising a man from death is a lot more spectacular than simply healing a sick one. But is that any way to treat someone you love? Whatever the reason for his remaining, it is clear that Jesus moves on his own time. He will not let himself be governed by emergencies. He simply refuses to be busy. That must have been the Jesus quality that impressed John most. His gospel is anything but rushed. We proceed leisurely from Galilee to the outskirts of Bethany and more leisurely still from there to the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus is in no hurry to his work and makes clear that what he is about to do will be for the benefit of those around him who are to witness this great miracle.

Jesus wept. Vs. 35. Again, I am at a loss to understand why. I expect that Jesus knew that he was about to raise Lazarus. So why weep? I am not convinced that Jesus was weeping for Lazarus. His concern appears to be for the people around him. He is grieved that Martha, while she mouths faith in a future resurrection in the sweet by and by, does not see in him the very presence of resurrection and life. Jesus is grieved at Mary’s sorrow and her seeming lack of even Martha’s level of hope. Jesus is grieved at the mourners who have nothing to offer Mary and Martha but sympathy. He is grieved that death is roaming about the neighborhood, making its presence felt like a bully no one dares even to mention, much less challenge. Jesus needs to demonstrate in a concrete way that he is the resurrection and the life, that death has no power over him and that he is able to offer life to those enslaved by the fear of death. Hence, the raising of Lazarus.

This story is pivotal for John’s gospel. The raising of Lazarus provokes the meeting of the Sanhedrin at which the decision is made to kill Jesus. John 11:45-53. The irony here is that Jesus is to be put to death for giving the gift of life. The Sanhedrin will also plot to take the life of Lazarus as his presence constitutes ongoing testimony to Jesus. This episode expands on and amplifies the prologue to John’s gospel in which it is said of Jesus that “In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:4-5 Neither by killing Jesus nor by murdering Lazarus will the darkness be able to overcome the light of life.

Among other things, saintliness is a life that is not driven. It is not driven by every occurrence claiming to be urgent. It is not driven by fear of what others might think or how they may judge what we do or say. It is not driven by the fear of death. The life of a saint consists of following Jesus at his own leisurely pace focusing on what is significant rather than on everything that seems urgent. This is a wonderful text on which to preach. I only wonder if I have the patience for it!

Sunday, November 2nd

ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

Revelation 7:9–17
Psalm 34:1–10, 22
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 5:1–12

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

All Saints Day has a special poignancy for me this year. My wife lost her father in August-who was in many respects a second father to me and to each of my children. Ernst died at the ripe age of eighty-six. Though difficult for all of us who loved him, we could celebrate thankfully the many years we had with him and all that he gave to us. Just a month before we lost our grandson, Parker, who lived all of one day. It was considerably harder to see in that event anything worth celebrating. Yet celebrate we did because the value of a life is measured not in chronological time, but in the quantum of love given and received therein, however long or short it may be. By that measure, Parker has outlived many adults in our world who have known too little love and affection.

In our creeds we confess belief in both the resurrection of the body and the communion of saints. There is an inherent conceptual difficulty here. Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament know anything of an “immortal soul.” According to the Bible, human beings are mortal. When they die, everything dies-body, soul and whatever other part of us there might be. Nothing survives death. If there is life after death, it is only because God graciously raises the dead as he did Jesus. Because God does not give us “half a resurrection” restoring only our souls, we enter confidently into the sleep of death anticipating the Day of Jesus Christ when we will be awakened to life eternal.

But what about the communion of saints? What about that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews? What about Jesus’ declaration that God is not God of the dead, but that all the saints live to him? What do we mean when we speak of the “saints in light?” Seems to me that we have to hold these two apparently contradictory assertions in tension, namely, our belief in the resurrection of the body at the last day and the communion we share now with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. I firmly believe that I will be reunited with Ernst and Parker at the day of resurrection and that I will be able to embrace them and speak to them face to face. Just as firmly I believe that in some way too wonderful to comprehend, I am united with them now in a communion that transcends time and space anchored in Jesus Christ, who both sojourns with us throughout our lives and waits for us at the end of our journey “with just one more surprise.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 732.

That communion has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension. By baptism all believers in Jesus throughout the world are united as One Body, one church. Our loyalty to Christ and his church trumps whatever loyalty we might have to family, race or nation. That is the horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension connects all disciples of Jesus living this side of eternity with the saints in light, those believers who have died. On this day it is important to keep both dimensions in view. The saints that have gone before us offer encouragement, support and examples of faithfulness to follow. The saints currently traveling with us offer us opportunities to practice faithfulness, compassion, forgiveness and generosity, all of which the Holy Spirit uses to shape us into the kind of people capable of living joyfully, faithfully and obediently under God’s gentle rule. Whether they are speaking to us out of the distant past or beckoning to us from God’s future or living in our midst, the saints reflect in ever greater clarity and beauty the face of Jesus Christ.

Revelation 7:9–17

My experience with The Book Revelation has always been bitter-sweet. Whenever I announce that I will be holding a Bible Study on Revelation, the initial response is enthusiastic. I find, however, that interest soon wanes when it becomes clear that I will not be announcing the end date for civilization as we know it, the identity of the antichrist or who can expect to be raptured as opposed to being “left behind.” The disappointing truth for many folks is that Revelation does not hold the key to predicting the future. It does nevertheless hold many other fascinating and edifying treasures often missed by those intent on using it as a crystal ball. For a good general overview of Revelation, see the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Our lesson for Sunday is one of several self-contained liturgical interludes between the visions given to John of Patmos from chapters 4 through 22. See also, Revelation 4:9-11; Revelation 5:6-10; Revelation 11:16-18; Revelation 15:2-4; Revelation 16:4-7; Revelation 19:1-8. This hymn of praise, along with the surrounding narrative, was the inspiration for the old Norwegian hymn, “Behold, A Host Arrayed in White.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 425. John of Patmos is given a vision of a “great multitude” too numerous to count. Vs. 9. These words echo the calling of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 in which the patriarch is assured that God will make of him a “great nation.” See Kelly, Balmer H., Revelation 7:9-17, published in 40 Interpretation (July 1986) p. 290. That nation is precisely what John is looking at. It is a nation made up of every country, tribe and people yet its allegiance is to “God who sits upon the throne, and the Lamb.” Vs. 10. The political import of this vision is clear. The people called into existence by God and the Lamb, not the Roman Empire, will reign. God, not Caesar, sits upon the highest throne. All rule and authority belongs not to emperor, but to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb.”

We were first introduced to the Lamb in Revelation 5:1-5. He is the one being in all heaven and earth worthy to open up the scroll through which John must enter into the visions soon to be revealed. Though announced in the court of heaven as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5), this being appears as a lamb that was slain. Revelation 5:6. This strange juxtaposition, the slain Lamb as the “conqueror” over the vicious predatory beasts to be revealed, is the key to understanding the Book of Revelation. Just as it is the crucified Jesus through whom God’s suffering love overcomes the violent reign of Caesar, so also through the suffering endurance of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 1-3 God’s gracious will for the world is both revealed and actualized. Contrary to appearances, the enduring reality is the life of the fragile, persecuted and demoralized churches-not the Roman Empire.

The great multitude robed in white represents the struggling churches as they truly are: loyal subjects of the triumphant Lamb. They have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” Vs. 14. This is not to be understood as substitutionary atonement. This “washing” in blood refers to the churches’ sharing in Jesus’ suffering under the cross of Rome. They have come out of the “great tribulation,” that is, persecution under the reign of Caesar. Vs. 14. The image of white robes might very well be an allusion to baptism as well. The use of white garb for the newly baptized is evidenced very early in the life of the church and might well date from the New Testament era. The thrust of this vision is clear. Things are not as they seem. Presently, it appears as though Rome rules supreme and the churches are powerless victims. Caesar’s violence appears to have the upper hand. In reality, however, the patient, suffering love of God revealed in the slain Lamb is destined to outlast the empire. It is precisely through such suffering love that Caesar meets his defeat.

The song making up verses 15-17 evokes numerous images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Service in the temple of the Lord was seen as the highest possible privilege and delight. See, e.g., Psalm 84. Though reserved for the Levitical priesthood in ancient Israel, this privilege is now given to all the baptized. Language strikingly similar to Psalm 23 and Psalm 121 can be found in verses 16-17, i.e., “the sun shall not strike them,” “For the Lamb on the throne will be their shepherd,” and “he will guide them to springs of living water.” As in so many instances throughout the New Testament, John of Patmos draws from numerous familiar images in the Hebrew Scriptures and weaves them into his poetic portrayal of God’s sojourn with his church under the scourge of imperial oppression and violence.

In sum, “Revelation 7:9-17 is, therefore, unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of the Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” Balmer, supra at 294.

Psalm 34:1–10, 22

This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. It is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Its form suggests that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. It is quite possible, though, that I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced appear only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have seldom made choices in my life that I felt certain were inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.

The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. “[T]hose who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Vs. 10. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in the Lord to provide all things necessary.

From verse 10 the lectionary takes a flying leap to verse 22 which reads: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” This is not to be taken as immunization against condemnation by any human court. We know well enough that the innocent frequently are condemned by unjust and oppressive structures. Even in relatively just societies justice sometimes miscarries. But the judgments of all human authorities are relative and subject to reversal in God’s court of appeal. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate reversal of human judgment. It is precisely because God raised Jesus, who lived according to the humanly impractical directives of the Sermon on the Mount, that believers can so live, endure the world’s rejection, ridicule and persecution but anticipate vindication on the Day of Jesus Christ.

1 John 3:1–3

Professor Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the life of discipleship is unintelligible apart from the conviction that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from death. That is why the world, which does not know or believe in what God did through Jesus, finds disciples of Jesus so utterly incomprehensible-or at least it should. This is what separates Christian ethical conduct from every other ethical point of reference. It is precisely because disciples of Jesus are convinced that the Sermon on the Mount embodies the kingdom destined to come as it must exist in a sinful world that they conform their lives to it even when doing so seems ineffective, impractical and counter-productive. The Sermon is not an unachievable ideal. It was, in fact, achieved and lived out by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ faithfulness to the Sermon he preached resulted in his crucifixion. That, standing alone, would validate what every “realist” tells us. The Sermon is impractical. If Jesus had remained in the tomb, we would have to concede that the cross proves the realist’s point. But God raised Jesus and that changes everything. To every objection of impracticality one might raise against following Jesus’ call to love our enemies, renounce the use of coercive force and lend without expecting repayment, the only proper response is, “but God raised Jesus from death.”

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him…” vs. 2. This is perhaps one of the most important words on the resurrection and eternal life. Far too common is the belief that eternal life is nothing more than a continuation of our present existence-only without sickness, poverty, warfare, Barry Manilow and whatever else makes life miserable. A friend of mine once told me that “death is not real,” that it is no more than “passing through a door.” But if I am the same person on the other side of that door as I am today, nothing has changed. If I carry with me into eternity the same prejudices, the same grudges, the same scars and the same selfish ambitions that characterize my present existence, eternal life will be nothing more than a continuation of all the animosity and strife we now experience-except that there will be no end to it. That sounds very much like Jean Paul Sartre’s portrayal of hell in No Exit.

Death is not only real, but necessary. That is precisely why Paul speaks of baptism as being joined in Jesus’ death. Romans 6:1-4. We need to become the sort of people who can live faithfully, joyfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. That requires repentance which is a sort of death. Repentance, it must be emphasized, is not an individual act. It is rather a way of living in community shaped by the faithful practices of preaching and hearing, Eucharist, prayer, sharing of resources, almsgiving and witness.

Matthew 5:1–12

The problem with the Beatitudes is the same as the problem we have with the well known lullaby, “Rock a by Baby.” The words are so familiar that their shock value no longer registers. Seriously, does anyone really think it’s a good idea to sing an infant to sleep with a song ending in the fall of a baby from the top of a tree? So, too, is there anything inherently blessed about poverty, mourning and persecution? Yet unlike “Rock a by Baby,” which in my view has no redeeming value, the Beatitudes make sense, but only when read against the backdrop of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.

Moreover, when properly understood as the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes obvious that the conditions of beatitude are not metaphorical. Poverty, real poverty, is what can be expected when you lend without expecting return, refuse to re-take what has been stolen from you and forego coercive measures to enforce your “rights.” I therefore agree whole heartedly with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in rejecting the all too common belief that Matthew’s beatitudes represent a watering down of Luke’s briefer version in the Sermon on the Plain. “There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified, except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 119.

It is important to recall that it is not suffering in general, but the suffering consequential to faithful discipleship that Jesus calls blessed. As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Faithfulness to Jesus divides families, invites hostility from the surrounding culture and often requires the sacrifice of life itself. Though they do not frequently make the cut for what the mainstream media considers “news,” there are plenty of instances throughout the world of Christians experiencing poverty, mourning and persecution for their obedience to Jesus. That we do not typically experience these things in the United States is perhaps more an indicator of the church’s lack of discipleship in these parts than the “religious freedom” in which we take such pride.

So what is the “All Saints Day” spin on this text? For some reason, that question calls to mind a novel I read in my twenties entitled Morte d’Urban. It was written by J.F. Powers. The main character is Father Urban, a priest and member of the fictitious Clementine monastic order. Urban is personable, a skilled organizer and a charismatic speaker. His leadership skills are much needed to shore up his failing Clementine order, but the order is run by unskilled, incompetent and less forward looking men who consistently assign Father Urban to positions where his gifts are wasted. Yet wherever he goes, Father Urban uses every opportunity to further the interests and growth of the Clementines.

Over time, however, Urban begins harkening to a different voice calling him to integrity, self-awareness and compassion. The more Father Urban grows into this new self, the less successful he becomes in his role as a promoter of the Clementines. He eventually alienates the powerful and wealthy benefactors he spent so much time and effort cultivating. Ironically, it is at the point of his lowest level of competence (and the height of his spiritual development) that he is appointed leader of the failing Clementine order. His leadership proves to be as ineffective as that of his predecessors-but effectiveness is perhaps overrated.

Is Morte d’Urban a cautionary tale, a parable for a failing protestant establishment desperate to save its institutional life? When survival is at stake, both institutions and individuals are sorely tempted to put spiritual priorities to one side. The bottom line becomes the only line anyone looks at. When new money comes in the door, one tends not to look very carefully at where it came from or how it was made. If somebody within the institution is successful at bringing in membership, building up support and attracting wealthy donors, one does not scrutinize the methodology. As long as nothing blatantly illegal is going on, let the golden goose keep laying! What the heck, it works. None of us likes to think we are that mercenary. But when an institution feeds you, clothes you and provides your medical coverage, it is hard to resist grasping at anything that will extend its life.

What does saintliness look like in our context? What are the qualities we seek in our leaders? Are we valuing effectiveness over faithfulness? Or is this a false dichotomy? Do we need to ask “effective in doing what?” What is a faithful church supposed to look like in 21st Century North America? Are poverty, mourning and persecution marks of such a church? How are we measuring the success of our bishops, pastors and leaders? Is “success” even an appropriate category for such measurement? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it troubles me that so few in our church are asking them.