Seventh Sunday of Easter
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Prayer of the Day: O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
My oldest daughter was always fascinated with clocks and the measurement of time. When she was just a toddler, I used to point to the clock and tell her, “Now when this big hand gets to the six, it’s time for stories and bed.” She would look intensely at the clock as though trying to make sense of it, as though she somehow knew that if only she could figure this contraption out and understand how it worked, she could negotiate a much better deal for herself. Long before she started kindergarten, this precocious child mastered the art of telling time and figuring out where she was relative to nap time, lunch, bed time and all those other significant markers punctuating a child’s day. She would frequently ask me the time of day. If we were away from the house and I was without my watch, I would have to tell her that I didn’t know what time it was. “So what time do you think it is?” she persisted. I gave her my best approximation, which I knew she would later check against the clock and hold me to account. Today she is a professor of classical languages and literature-and nothing if not punctual.
The same obsession with timing seems to be at work among the disciples in our first lesson. They want desperately to know what time it is in God’s chronology and how long until the “kingdom is restored to Israel.” That same yearning has dogged the church throughout its history. Time and time again we have seen the rise and fall of prophets and preachers claiming to have figured out the divine clock by scrutinizing the books of Daniel and Revelation. People who claim, with varying degrees of specificity, to know where we stand in relationship to the end times always seem to have a ready following. I expect that is because knowing or thinking one knows the future gives one a sense of security, an imagined measure of control.
Jesus does not give us that kind of assurance. Consequently, the church has had to learn to muddle through the darkness of history without knowing what lies ahead, how much further the road stretches or when we can expect to get to the end of it. That isn’t an easy way to live for people like us, who start planning for retirement as soon as we graduate college and order the days of our lives with digital calendars. While there is certainly nothing wrong with foresight and planning, we all know deep down that it is based on assumptions about a future that might not unfold as expected or of which we might not be a part. It is hard hearing Jesus tell us that it is not for us to know the “whens” or the “hows” of God’s coming to establish his reign.
More instructive than anything Jesus tells us about the future is the disciples’ response to the angels’ message: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” I still don’t have the foggiest idea exactly what that means nor, I suspect, did the disciples. But we are told that the disciples returned to their lodging place in Jerusalem and “devoted themselves to prayer.” The lectionary wisely ends this pre-Pentecost lesson precisely there. Of course, we know what comes next. We recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Peter’s bold sermon to the people of Jerusalem, the creation of a diverse assembly drawn together by good news spoken in every tongue under heaven and the birth of a community founded on the principles of distributive justice and equality.
But we do well not to rush the narrative. It is appropriate, I think, to join the disciples in a posture of prayer. The week before Pentecost should find us in a stance of openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, openness to God’s future and openness to opportunities for ministry that might be right in front of us. Now is a time of readiness for change, a time for cultivating the courage to let go of our hopes, fears and expectations of the future. Now is a good time to begin imagining how the miracle of Pentecost might be occurring in our time, fracturing border walls, spilling over cultural, political, religious and economic divides to form a new people of every nation, tribe and tongue.
The Bible does not give us the content of the disciple’s prayers as they met together in that upper room in Jerusalem. But I think that our prayers during this final week of Easter should perhaps be shaped by Jesus’ prayer in our gospel lesson: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the power of imagination that is perhaps what animates prayer and translates it into action.
A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Source: Breathing the Water, (c. 1987 by Denise Levertov). Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
N.B. To those of you who might be celebrating Ascension this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of Sunday, June 1, 2014 discussing the appointed texts.
The disciples’ question to Jesus indicates that, after years of following him, forty days of which occur after his resurrection from death, they are still operating with a limited understanding of the kingdom he proclaimed. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” they ask. Vs. 6. It is difficult to know exactly what was in the disciples’ minds or that of the early church in framing the question. But one thing is clear: this expectation is backward looking. “Restore,” suggests that Israel once had the kingdom and somehow lost it. It implies that Jesus is expected to bring back some “golden age” in the past when circumstances were supposedly better. “Make Israel great again.” But we should know from having read Luke’s gospel (which we have been doing throughout this church year) that the kingdom lies in God’s future and will surpass all that has been. We are talking new creation here, not a return of the good old days.
Additionally, we know that the coming kingdom will include not only Israel, but will reach out to embrace the non-Jewish world as well. We get an inkling of this in Jesus’ promise/command that his disciples “shall be witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8. Indeed, this verse spells out the whole trajectory of the Book of Acts which begins with Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2), spills into Samaria through the ministry of Philip (Acts 8:4-13) and, with Paul’s conversion, spreads throughout the Mediterranean world. The disciples have much to learn about the mission to which they are being called.
Quite naturally, the disciples are found staring into the sky following Jesus’ departure. Where else would you look? So intent are they in their vain efforts to keep Jesus in view that they are unaware of the two angels standing at their sides. Don’t search the heavens for Jesus. He will return in the same way as he went into heaven. I can’t say that I am sure exactly what this means, but I suspect that it is a veiled reference to Pentecost. The Greek word “ouronos,” meaning “heaven” or the “heavens” is often a circumlocution for God. Just as Jesus was taken up into the heavens (vs.11), so also on Pentecost the Spirit comes as a mighty wind from the heavens. Acts 2:2. Thus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can be seen as a return of Jesus to be present in an ever more intimate, powerful and omnipresent way with his disciples. Empowered by this Spirit, the church continues Jesus’ ministry of teaching the people, caring for the poor and doing works of healing.
I have spoken at some length in my introductory remarks about the disciples’ returning to Jerusalem to wait and pray. I will only add that their devotion to prayer seems like a good prescription for a church that is fast losing its social standing in society, its membership base and its financial security. We can respond to all of this in fear and wrack our brains about how to reverse it. Or we can look beyond mere “restoration” and try to discern where God is taking us next.
Commentators reflecting on this psalm agree on one thing: no other psalm presents so many translation and interpretation challenges. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 82; Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd) p. 481. The Hebrew text is filled with words that have either been corrupted in transmission or are unique to the Hebrew Scriptures. The style changes abruptly throughout and there are many awkward shifts in thought. All of this has led some scholars to conclude that Psalm 68 is a random collection of poetic fragments rather than a single prayer or song. Others suggest that it might be a catalogue of the first lines of about thirty different psalms. Still others believe that the psalm consists of a series of short liturgical responses for use at a ceremony that is unknown to us. Rogerson & McKay, supra, at 82-83. In any event, the mention of participation by tribes associated with the northern kingdom in a hymn exalting Mt. Zion suggests that some fragments at least date back to the time of the united monarchy under David and Solomon.
Verse 1 echoes the call to arms spoken by Moses whenever the Israelites broke camp for another leg of their journey through the wilderness to the land of Canaan: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.” Numbers 10:35. This psalm or part of it might have been composed for a celebration in Jerusalem of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. Vss. 7-10 lend credence to this view. Righteous behavior, not cultic purity is what makes one pure in God’s sight and worthy of Israel’s heritage. Vs. 3.
“Lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds.” Vs. 4. This fragment has interesting parallels with Canaanite poetry which exalts Baal as “storm rider.” Ibid. at 85. Israel frequently appropriated the literary templates of its cultural neighbors for use in her worship of Yahweh. If that is the case here, it further testifies to the early composition of this Psalm and its fragments. Yet unlike the gods of the Canaanites, whose worship served as an ideological justification for the reigning monarch, Israel’s God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.” Vs. 5. This God is not preoccupied with shoring up any imperial house, but in “giving the desolate a home to dwell in” and leading “out the prisoners to prosperity.” Vs. 6.
Verses 7-10 recount Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and the conquest and settlement of Canaan. The psalm might also be recognizing God’s deliverance from some drought such as occurred under Ahab in I Kings 17:1-7. See vs. 9. Once again, God is portrayed not as the patron of the great and powerful, but the help of the needy. Vs. 10.
The lectionary lurches ahead to vss. 32-35 consisting of a concluding canticle of praise. Again God is portrayed as the one who “rides on the heavens,” in much the same way as Baal was portrayed in Canaanite mythology. It is worth noting, however, that such a borrowing served the purpose of emphasizing that it is the Lord, Yahweh, not Baal or any other fertility god, who brings rain upon the earth. That point was made very graphically by Elijah in his contest with the prophets of Baal. I kings 18.
Once again, the lectionary has excised a piece of the text for reasons I cannot comprehend. The reading begins at Chapter 4:12 in which Peter tells his audience, the church in Asia Minor, not to be surprised at “the fiery ordeal” that is overtaking them. Although Peter does not tell us exactly what this ordeal is, we can infer from the context that he is speaking of persecution from the surrounding culture. Disciples of Jesus should not be surprised to find themselves persecuted. After all, didn’t Jesus warn his disciples that they would be required to take up the cross? Didn’t he tell them that “where I am, there will my servant be also”? Yet I have to say that this text sounds almost foreign to me because I have never experienced anything like persecution for being a Christian. In the town where I grew up, it would have been considered odd, perhaps even suspicious if you were not a Christian of some flavor. All my childhood friends went to church somewhere or, if they didn’t, they lied and said they did. Being unreligious was somehow un-American.
Things have changed, of course. We all accept-or should-that a person can be a good citizen, honest business person and an upstanding member of the community without being religious. The stores don’t close on Sunday, but soccer practice goes on. I also must say that over my thirty-five years of ministry, I have seen erosion in the deference traditionally given to clergy in the past. I have to say parenthetically that I am glad about that. I always felt uncomfortable when someone paid for my coffee or offered me their place in line because I was wearing a clerical collar. I understand that it was their way of showing reverence and respect for something bigger than me. Still, I am just as glad to pay for my own coffee. So even with the decline of the church’s cultural influence, we experience nothing close to persecution.
Then again, perhaps we don’t experience persecution because, even in this age of decline, the church fits too comfortably into the Americana landscape. Perhaps it is because we have confused middle class, ever white and ever polite respectability for faithful discipleship that we never find ourselves in any sort of trouble. Maybe if we began attempting to live out the radical, countercultural and subversive discipleship practiced in the book of Acts, we might find ourselves in real danger of persecution. Just a thought.
What we have in this lesson is the introductory portion of Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples wrapping up the “farewell discourses” and leading into John’s passion narrative. Here Jesus weaves together into a single poetic fabric the Christological claims he has been making for himself throughout the gospel. The hour has come for Jesus to be glorified. That glorification will take place in a way no one could have foreseen. Jesus will be glorified by his death for his disciples and for the world. In that death, the sinfulness of the world will be laid bare in its cruel rejection of the best God has to give. At the same time, however, the depth of God’s love will be revealed in God’s stubborn persistence in love even in the face of his Son’s crucifixion. God’s power is demonstrated in just this: that God does not do what we would do if our own child were killed, namely, retaliate. God will raise up his crucified and resurrected Son and give him back to the world that rejected him. God will not be dragged into the vortex of retribution in which the rest of the world is caught up.
Today’s reading seems to address the objection raised by the good Judas in chapter 15, namely, if Jesus really is the Savior of the world, why is he revealing himself only to a select few? John 15: 22. Jesus makes clear that his final prayer is not merely for the twelve, but for all who will come to believe through their preaching and love for one another. Jesus says essentially that he is praying that the love between Father and Son that has existed from eternity might bind the disciples together just as it unites the Trinity. Such love manifest among the disciples and poured out upon the world glorifies God. The reality of God living in the midst of God’s people under the gentle reign of the Lamb proclaimed in the Book of Revelation is fulfilled in some measure in the church.
“This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” Vs. 3. Eternal life is not to be equated with “life after death” or “life beyond the grave” though it surely extends there. Eternal life is the relational quality of life for the disciple who “knows” the only true God through the Son God has sent into the world. A disciple experiences eternal life as s/he pours out his/her life in the service of all that is eternal. It is a life characterized by love for God, love among the disciples and love for the world God made. In a sinful world, that love takes the shape of the cross. Yet, as Peter pointed out in our previous reading, the resulting suffering can be borne with joy precisely because the disciple knows that his/her faithfulness to Jesus aligns him/her with what outlasts suffering and death.
Jesus’ statement to the effect that he is not praying for the world (vs. 9) might be taken to mean that he does not care for the world. Of course, we know that is not the case as it is precisely because God loved the world that he sent his Son. John 3:16. Jesus prays for his disciples because it will be through their love for him and for one another that the world will come to know that love and be saved through it. So the stage is set for the final section of John’s gospel, the passion narrative or the “book of glory.”