Tag Archives: Revelation

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.

Sunday, November 24th

Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1–6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11–20
Luke 23:33–43

Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The celebration of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the church year is a relatively new addition to the liturgical calendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he characterized as growing secularism. The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The church’s political power and social status were substantially diminished under these new regimes as the state increasingly asserted its autonomy and independence from religious influence. There was more at stake, however, than the church’s loss of political muscle. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. The celebration of Christ the King serves to remind us that, while the church throughout the world lives under many different governments all asserting their claims to the loyalty of her members, yet there is for the church only one King. A nation is only a group of people joined together by culture, ethnicity and force of humanly designed covenants. The church is a living Body joined as one by Christ, its Head. When loyalty to the Body of Christ conflicts with our allegiance to flag or country, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.

It would be a mistake to make our celebration of Jesus’ Kingship a rallying cry for the church to retake the status and power she has lost over the last couple of centuries. As I have said before, in our efforts to restore and rebuild the powerful and influential church of old, we may find ourselves at odds with the Spirit seeking a weak and fragmented body speaking truth to power from the margins of society. Ecumenical efforts to express the church’s unity through its institutions might actually be impeding the oneness and catholicity Jesus would have us find in the faithfulness of our witness. Although denominational mission strategies seem fixated on growth and getting bigger, it may very well be that Christ seeks a church small enough to recognize that her continued existence depends wholly upon him and that her members desperately need one another.

We also need to beware of the long held but deeply distorted views of Christ’s return as a violent monarch whose kingdom comes through overwhelming coercive force. Such images have frequently found expression throughout history in our art and hymnody. Modern prophets of violent divine conquest such as Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping still find a ready audience. The NRA’s sacred mantra that the “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is deeply ingrained in our culture. But the King in whom we place our hope and the hope of all creation is not a bigger than life version of John Wayne and he does not come riding into town in order to settle accounts by way of a shoot out. Our King meets the powers of evil with peacemaking, forgiveness and suffering love that finally will exhaust the powers of evil. Jesus’ victory has already been achieved on the cross. Love has already won. The church knows this (or at least it should). The rest of creation will just have to get used to it. That will take some time, but our King has all eternity to work with.

Jeremiah 23:1–6

Jeremiah pulls no punches here. He faults Judah’s kings, her “shepherds,” for recklessly leading the nation into a ruinous war with Babylon that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of a substantial number of Jews and the scattering of the remainder of the people into distant lands. His criticism of these rulers, however, goes far beyond the obvious failure of their geopolitical policies. By referring to them as “shepherds,” Jeremiah is reminding his hearers that kingship in Israel was never intended to be a position of privilege. At the coronation of a Judean king, the people prayed:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

Psalm 72:1-4. The king was to be the agent of God’s justice and compassion in Israel. The wellbeing of the people, particularly the most vulnerable members of society, was to be the king’s chief concern. King Zedekiah’s decision to release Judah’s slaves in accord with the provisions of the Torah in the face of imminent military invasion and his calculated revocation of that ruling when the threat seemed to recede demonstrates just how callus and dismissive the rulers of Jeremiah’s time had become to the responsibilities of kingship. See post from October 27th.  In response, God declares through the mouth of Jeremiah that he himself will take kingship into his own hands. God will gather the remnants of Judah from all the nations to which they have fled or been carried away in exile. God will lead them back to their land and shepherd them with justice and compassion. It seems here as though God were saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

But then in verse 5 the Lord declares through his prophet that he will raise up a “righteous Branch” for David who will deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. This seems contrary to the previous declaration in which God appears to have given up altogether on the line of David and human kingship. It is possible that this oracle comes from an earlier period in Jeremiah’s career when he may still have hoped for a righteous king to emerge from David’s line. The passage might also be from a subsequent editor who held such a hope. However that might be, the canonical testimony is that kingship over God’s people is rooted in God’s reign over all of creation. That reign is characterized by care for the land, compassion for God’s people and faithfulness to God’s covenant. That no human ruler has ever come close to exercising such a gentle and peaceful reign suggests that the good life God intends for creation cannot be implemented by political means.

It has been said that “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Carl von Clausewitz, On War. The converse is also true, namely, that politics is war by other means. It is after all through political arrangements, international treaties and multi-national commercial agreements that the dominance of the wealthier nations over the vast majority of poverty stricken peoples is maintained. The political structures that enforce grinding poverty, starvation and oppression are no less violent than terrorist attacks. Economic sanctions inflicting hunger and poverty on populations having little or no control over the governments these sanctions were intended to punish are acts of violence as devastating as any bombing raid. Most often, differences between the “military” and the “political” solution to a conflict are merely definitional. Violence is always the common denominator.

It is not for nothing, therefore, that Jesus refused to take hold of the levers of political power when they were handed to him on a silver platter by the devil. It is not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples that the use of violence, whether offensively or defensively, is not an option for them. It is not for nothing that Jesus would not allow his disciples to use violence to defend him from crucifixion and that he also refused to invoke violent divine intervention against his enemies. It is not for nothing that God responded to the murder of his only begotten Son not with vengeance, but by raising him up and offering him to us again. Absolute renunciation of violence is not just the fringe position of a few Christians at the margins of orthodoxy. It stands at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. If Jesus is our king, we can have no truck with violence whether on the battlefield or in the halls of congress.

Psalm 46

See my post from October 27th on which this psalm was one of the appointed lessons. Incidentally, this psalm was also the text for my sermon on that day. I will only add here that verse 9 emphasizes God’s emphatic commitment to “make all wars cease to the end of the earth.”

Colossians 1:11–20

For an excellent introduction to this epistle, see the Summary Article by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org. Of particular interest in this reading are verses 15-20. These passages are believed by most scholars to consist of an ancient Christian hymn to Christ that was incorporated into the letter by the author. As such, they demonstrate that from very early on the church understood Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to be an event of cosmic proportions with ramifications for the whole creation. The opening stanza of the hymn proclaims Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Vs. 15. Yet he is also “the head of the body, the church…” vs. 18. Consequently, the church is the concrete expression of the presence of God in and for the world. This is a remarkable claim made for a teacher from an obscure town who was ultimately rejected by the leaders of his people, deserted by all of his followers and put to a cruel, shameful death by a Roman governor.

The cosmic scope of Jesus’ ministry is reflected in the claim that through him God “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vs. 20. The resurrection of Jesus is therefore not merely the hope of individual believers. It is the destiny of all creation of which the church is but the first fruits. This bold assertion refutes the limited, non-biblical notion of salvation as a rescue operation to save as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. Clearly, God is determined to save the entire ship! That is what makes the gospel good news not only for disciples of Jesus, but for all creation.

The temptation, of course, is to “spiritualize” this passage. Paul does not wish for us to view our “inheritance of the saints in light” as a future event. These riches belong to us even now and should shape the way we live our lives and the way we handle our wealth. If the world remains unreconciled to God; if we are a people without a heavenly Father who promises to provide for all our needs; if the world is a place of ever diminishing resources-then the only sensible thing to do is grab as much of the pie as you can now before it disappears altogether. This is the survivalist mentality. If the reign of God has any meaning to such people, it is in the distant future, after death, in the sweet by and by. That is all well and good. But I have to live now.

Paul’s point, however, is that the inheritance of the saints in light is now. The fullness of God is present now in the community of faith, a community that is called to live now under the jurisdiction of God’s reign of abundance and peace. How else will the creation learn that reconciliation has been accomplished? How else will the world know that there is an alternative to our death spiral of endless consumer greed for more stuff and ruthless commercial exploitation of the earth to feed it? Unless the Body of Christ practices confidence in God’s reconciling power and the generosity it inspires, how will the world ever understand what human life is supposed to look like? How will people come to believe that the future of creation is resurrection rather than apocalyptic demise unless they see the reality of resurrection faith lived out by Jesus’ disciples?

Luke 23:33–43

This passage seems to put to bed once and for all any claim Jesus might have to kingship. His death is one reserved for insurrectionists, terrorists and those guilty of the most heinous crimes. Pilate inscribes over the cross the title “King of the Jews” so that everyone will understand that before you go claiming to be a king, you had better make sure you really are one. In Mark and Matthew Jesus is mocked by all who pass by. In Luke’s gospel, however, a crowd of people including many women accompany Jesus to the cross with weeping and lamentation. Luke 23:27. The Jewish leaders mock and deride Jesus, but the crowds merely stand by silently witnessing the crucifixion. Vs. 35. Though all of the gospels report that Jesus was crucified along with two other criminals, only Luke relates the story of the criminal who sought recognition in Jesus’ coming kingdom. He alone seems to recognize Jesus’ kingship, a subject of mockery for the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders. Though sympathetic, it is not at all clear that the crowds recognize Jesus as anything more than a righteous teacher suffering an undeserved fate.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion turns our notion of kingship on its head. It is clear now that the reign of God is taking a very different form than we might have expected. Jesus is certainly not a king under any existing model of kingship. He has no army, nor royal court, no power to compel obedience. His might-and the might of God as well-consist in just this: that Jesus is able to continue loving his enemies in the face of the most virulent hatred. Just as he refused to accept his disciples’ efforts to defend him with the sword or to invoke divine power in his own defense in the Garden of Gethsemane, so now he will not rain down curses at his enemies from the cross. His only words are words of forgiveness. God will not be sucked into the vortex of retribution. That is God’s power. “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” “Lead on, O King Eternal,” Lutheran Book of Worship, # 495.

What exactly did Jesus mean when he told the bandit crucified with him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise?” According to the understanding of death in the Hebrew Scriptures, the end of life is the end of everything; body soul, spirit and whatever else might constitute a human person. Sheol, the abode of the dead, was not viewed as a continuation of life after death. Rather, it was a sort of universal grave yard of unknowing. In the much later apocalyptic writings like Daniel, we find a growing belief in the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the dead are truly and completely dead. If they are raised to life again, it is only because God exercises his prerogative to breathe life back into the lifeless dust all flesh is destined to become.

By the dawn of the first century when Jesus’ ministry took place, Jewish beliefs about death and the afterlife were diverse and complex. The Sadducees, as we saw last week, rejected altogether the resurrection of the dead or any form of human existence after death. The Pharisees, by contrast acknowledged the resurrection of the dead. Some of them at some point also believed in a paradise for the souls of the righteous awaiting the resurrection. According to at least one commentator I have read, this post-biblical understanding of paradise was behind Jesus’ promise to the bandit crucified with him. Caird, G.B. The Gospel of Saint Luke, The pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird, 1963, Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 253.

I don’t buy it. The scriptures use a host of metaphors and images when speaking about death and resurrection (how else can you speak of such things?). It is dangerous to draw metaphysical conclusions from parabolic speech. The Greek word translated “paradise” in this passage merely means “garden.” It was employed by the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures to describe the Garden of Eden. As such, it was also used as a metaphor for the restored creation under the reign of God. Jesus’ promise, then, was that the crucified criminal would share in the reign of God which was breaking through even now under the sign of the cross. There is no attempt here to explicate the metaphysical implications of all this (assuming there are such).

Sunday, October 27th

Reformation Day

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I don’t plan to say much about Reformation here or on Reformation Sunday. If you want some reflection on that subject, I did say a few things about it in my monthly article in the Voice of Trinity. For those of you who are not on the mailing list, you can access the article at this link. I must confess that I have never understood what the lectionary people were thinking when they selected these texts for the observance of Reformation Sunday. The connections I have tried to make every single year (because the readings never change) always seem forced and tenuous. So for now, let’s put Reformation to one side.  

What I found most striking in my reading of the lessons this time around is Jeremiah’s oracle about Judah’s restoration. I am particularly struck by the promise that God will write his Torah into the hearts of his people such that they no longer need instruction, but know the Lord almost instinctively. It reminds me of Paul’s admonition to the Philippian Church to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the likeness of a servant.” Philippians 2:5-7.

That is an appealing image. I don’t know about you, but I got more than a belly full of arrogance, pride, grasping for power and contempt these last few weeks watching our national leaders behave in ways our nursery teachers would never tolerate in their classrooms. And don’t bother to point out to me who did what first to whom or who started it. I am not interested in who was right and who was wrong. Like an exasperated school teacher, I don’t care. I only wish there were an adult somewhere up on Capital Hill to make all the spoiled little kids play nice. But to be fair, the conduct of our leaders is no worse than what I often see at sporting events, traffic jams and, sadly, in some of our churches. It is a reflection of a depraved and inwardly directed heart that beats in my own chest no less than in anyone else’s. We all need to have the words of God inscribed upon our hearts. But how could such a thing possibly happen? What would it look like if it did happen?

Let me say first off that I don’t believe there are any shortcuts to sanctification, which is perhaps just a fancy name for what Jeremiah calls the inscribing of God’s words upon our hearts. Loving God above all else and loving my neighbor (who may also be my enemy) goes against the grain of my being. Taking up the cross is the last thing I choose. It will take a lot of work to chisel love into this selfish, willful and rebellious old heart.

Second, I know I cannot do this on my own. Martin Luther said it best of all: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.” Small Catechism, Explanation of the Creed, Article 3. I need God’s Spirit to overcome my willfulness and teach me obedience, faithfulness and compassion. No, I cannot control the Holy Spirit, but I know where the Holy Spirit is, where the Holy Spirit works and where the Holy Spirit promises to meet me. Where the Word of God is proclaimed; where the waters of baptism flow; where the Eucharistic table is spread-that is where the Spirit is found. That is where I need to be if I expect the Spirit to transform me.

That brings me to the final point. I need the people of God. I suppose that, in theory, the Spirit of God could transform me without the help of any other human agent. But that isn’t how the Spirit has chosen to work. The Word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness-both giving and receiving it. Sanctification happens as I am forced to work with, support and care for people I did not choose as friends; people who may not like me; people who I might not like either. The word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as God makes of a diverse and fractious group of individuals One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. That is a long and difficult task. I often doubt that there is enough time left in my life to complete it. Yet though I may lack time, God is prepared to take all the time necessary to complete what he started at my baptism. I don’t see it yet. But Jeremiah assures me that “the days are surely coming.” For now, that has got to be enough.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat that would preserve the line of David, the Holy City and the temple of Solomon. But that would not have been salvation for a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God. Hope lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new thing God would do for Israel after all these things had been taken away from her. Israel would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Israel will become precisely the nation God needs.

I have said many times before that the prophet Jeremiah might have an important word for a church coming to the end of its prominence and position in western culture. A broken and fragmented church on the fringes of society unable to support the denominational missions, ministries and educational institutions that defined it in the past might not be the “church of the future” we would choose if we had a choice. But such a church might be exactly the kind of people God needs to be the Body of Christ in the world of the Twenty-First Century.

The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ substantively from the old. The “law” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.

As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. Such restoration does not come easily. In the wilderness of exile, the people will learn once again to depend upon their God for sustenance. Only so can the Torah be written upon the hearts of God’s people.

The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.

Psalm 46

This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.

In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.

The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14.  Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.

As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.

In the third section, the focus is upon the geopolitical scene. The Lord causes wars to cease. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs.  9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.

Romans 3:19-28

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.

With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.

Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”

Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.

John 8:31-36

Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13.  In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).

The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30.  But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendents and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.

John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41.  To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?

I believe much of our membership loss in the Lutheran Church may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, he called them to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?

In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what discipleship is about. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.

There! I did get around to talking about Reformation after all.

Sunday, April 21st

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.

For reasons I have never entirely understood, the lectionary always gives us a Sunday during Easter in which at least three of the four lessons relate in some way to shepherds and sheep. My reflections on these lessons have been shaped by the upcoming Synod Assembly at which representatives of our New Jersey congregations will elect a new bishop whose shepherd’s staff has become a prominent liturgical symbol in recent years. I should add for the benefit of my non-Lutheran friends that bishops are a relatively new feature of Lutheranism in America. It all began in the 1970s as little more than a name change. At some point the predecessor churches that merged into the ELCA in 1988 began calling their national president and district presidents “bishops.” The title did not sit well with the pietist contingent within Lutheranism that has always had a deep distrust of ecclesiastical power structures and an unhappy history with bishops. We were assured that the change was nominal and not substantive. “It doesn’t change anything,” said our then president turned bishop Rev. David Preus.

But I believe it has changed us to some degree. For one thing, we have seen the steady growth of liturgical and symbolic encrustation around the office of the bishop. What used to be a purely administrative position held by a democratically elected individual has become a pastoral office. To complicate matters further, at its 1999 Church Wide Convention in Denver, Colorado, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church-USA under the terms of which ELCA bishops and pastors were brought into the historic episcopacy (at least insofar as the Episcopal churches are concerned). Again, for those of you unfamiliar with such things, the historic episcopacy is based on a belief that continuity in the ministry of the alter, i.e. those presiding over the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, has been maintained from apostolic times to the present by the “laying on of hands.” That is to say, there is a communion of bishops entrusted with authority to ordain priests to the office of sacramental ministry who have received their authority from a prior generation of bishops whose hands have been laid upon them. This laying on of hands, according to tradition, goes back to apostolic times and is a witness to the continuity of ministry and the unity of the church. At the same assembly, the ELCA voted to enter into full communion with three other protestant churches that are well outside the historic episcopacy. I am not sure how that shakes out theologically, but was very much relieved to see that, whatever being within the historic episcopacy may mean for Lutherans, it does not mean that we are cutting ourselves off from churches outside that tradition.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with any of these developments. I do believe, however, that we have not taken enough time to think through their ramifications. As a consequence, we have never developed a clear notion about what a Lutheran bishop is or what we expect from one. The constitutional requirements for the office of ELCA bishop are as broad as they are vague. Everyone seems to prioritize them differently. Do we want a bishop who will be the public voice of the church addressing issues of societal concern? Are we looking for a “pastor to the pastors” whose chief responsibility is care and oversight of the clergy? Do we seek a bishop who will be the additional pastor for every congregation and so intimately involved with the lives and ministries of our churches? Do we want a bishop who will take a “hands on” management approach and push local congregations toward a larger vision of the church’s mission or a responsive bishop whose leadership is shaped by the vision and practices developed by the congregations s/he serves?

I don’t pretend to have answers to such questions, but perhaps these shepherd/sheep texts for Sunday can give us some insight into how we might begin to discuss them. It seems to me that part of our problem in thinking about the office of bishop is our tendency to confuse power with authority. Often when we think we are discussing authority we are really talking about power. Power issues have to do with control and they are important. It would be naïve to pretend that we do not exercise power in the church. We discipline pastors, congregations and individuals whose conduct is injurious to the Body of Christ. We decide who is fit for ordination and call for the public ministry of the church. This exercise of power is constrained by guidelines and procedures to ensure that it is not abused. That is why we have constitutions, by-laws and guidelines.

Authority is quite another matter. So far as we know, Jesus had no rabbinic training, no priestly office and no governmental title. He had nothing in the way of power. Yet when he spoke, people recognized his words as authoritative. In our Gospel lesson Jesus says to his opponents, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27. Authority needs no credentials. You know the voice of authority when you hear it. The Gospel of John further relates how the temple police (the guys with the power) were sent to arrest Jesus and bring him before the council. When they came back without Jesus, the leaders asked them why they had not brought him in. They could only respond, “No man ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. That’s authority! Power can be conferred by election, appointment or by operation of law. Authority can only be built into a person’s character over time through a life of faithfulness to the practices of worship, prayer, attentiveness to scripture, generous giving and humble service to the neighbor. Words are authoritative when they are congruent with the narrative of the speaker’s life. It is what we mean when we say that a person is as good as his or her word, or what John meant when he said “the Word became flesh.” There is no gap between the walk and the talk. That is why Jesus could say: Doubt my words, do you? Well take a look at my works. (Highly paraphrased) A person who would exercise power properly and effectively must have authority. The converse, however, is not true. Authority has no need of power and does not fear power. Authority is a gift of the Holy Spirit and cannot be confined to the channels of power nor to any office or title.

In the final analysis, I don’t really care about the next bishop’s leadership style, mission priorities, strategy for the future of the church or theological leanings. I don’t expect the bishop to achieve for us a dramatic turnaround in the downward trajectory of church attendance or shower us with new ideas or (God forbid!) initiate yet another round of congregational self study. I am not particularly interested either in how we define the office of bishop (if we ever get around to doing that). But I pray that God will give us a man or woman who speaks and acts with the authority Jesus exercised.

Acts 9:36-43

In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle account to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues his life giving mission. Luke’s gospel contains two such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). It should be emphasized that these raisings 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 raisings are 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. 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, 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.

It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” 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

What can I say about this psalm that has not already been said? Here are a few random thoughts on a very familiar psalm that gains meaning for me with each reading.

Though this is obviously the prayer of an individual, the community of Israel is never far from the psalmist’s consciousness. The God of Israel is frequently referred to as “Shepherd of Israel.” See, e.g., Psalm 80. Thus, the Lord is not “my” shepherd only, but “our” shepherd. Clearly, nearness to the shepherd is closeness to the rest of the flock. So when we are led to the green pastures and still waters, we travel with the rest of the flock. When we pass through the valley of the shadow, we have not only the rod and staff of the shepherd to comfort us but the company of the communion of saints. It is important to keep this in view lest the psalm become nothing more than the pious ruminations of a lone individual.

“I shall not want.” This can be read either as a bold declaration of confidence in God’s willingness and ability to provide all that the psalmist needs, or as an expression of contentment with all that God has provided. These two understandings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the emphasis in our culture should be on the latter. If ever there was a people who wanted more it has to be us. The amount of resources we Americans consume relative to the rest of the world is staggering. Still, we always seem to want more and, as I have pointed out before, it is this lust for more stuff that drives the so called economic recovery. Precisely because people have a tendency to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars simply because they can, jobs and money increase. Is there not a better and more sustainable way to live? Is it really necessary to keep on increasing our consumption at what is surely an unsustainable rate in order to live well?

“God leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here again it is critical to understand that God’s leading is not simply for our own individual benefit. It is for the sake of God’s name; that God’s name may be hallowed. Too often Paul’s promise in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:28) that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” is similarly misunderstood to mean “all things work together for my personal good.” Clearly, they do not. But that is because we are speaking not of people in general, but of people called according to God’s purpose. Thus, while one can be confident that God will achieve God’s purpose in one’s life, that does not translate into “everything will be alright for me.” We are not dealing with a rabbit’s foot.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is a frank admission that being led by God brings us into the presence of enemies. Significantly, the enemies are not vanquished. Rather, the psalmist is able to find peace even in their presence. So how might we learn to live peaceably in the presence of our enemies? Can we trust the shepherd enough to disarm ourselves? To drop all of the defenses we put between ourselves and those we fear? To be more specific, are we sufficiently confident in the Lord’s ability to protect us that we are ready to shut down the alarm system in our sanctuary and remove the locks from our doors? Is that what it might mean to allow God to prepare the Eucharistic Table for us in the presence of our enemies?

Revelation 7:9-17

For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 7th and April 14th. 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. 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.

“The tribulation” out of which the “host dressed in white” has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. They 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.” The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the Israelites 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.”

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 rededication 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 expectations 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 here, 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? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. (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 lyrical way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.