16 May 2017

The Seventh Sunday after Easter, 28 May 2017

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
Saint John 17:1-11

Background: The Feast of the Ascension
We know of a celebration of the Ascension from at least the 4th century, when Eusebius seems to mention it. Other mentions are from Ss. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa as well. Aetheria writes about the feast in her account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There was some controversy acquainted with the feast in that for a time it was to have been celebrated in conjunction with Pentecost, and the Synod of Elvira requests that the feast “on the fortieth day after Easter” be suppressed. The three days prior to the Feast are observed as Rogation Days. Some of the customs associated with the Feast are related to the days of Rogation, such as the blessing of first fruits, and the blessing of beans and grapes. Other customs are related to the Paschal Candle, which is extinguished following the Gospel for the day.

First Reading: Acts 1:6-14

When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

The reading has three separate sections, or scenes. The first (verses 6-8) regards the sending out of the apostles. The second (verses 9-11) is the actual account of the ascension, and the third (verses 12-14) regards the apostles’ return to Jerusalem, and their life of prayer along with the Virgin Mary. Thus we have mission, absence, and prayer as themes for our devotions on this reading.

The first section asks us to contemplate the Kingdom, and what it might be. Still the disciples are wondering how Jesus will be Royal David redivivus. It is the classic question that surrounds the conversation about the Messiah. Jesus expands on their concerns to talk about a much larger vision of what the kingdom will be, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That sets the mission directive, and having delivered such, Jesus is removed from their sight leaving behind the promise of receiving power from the Holy Spirit. The angels looking on deliver the promise of continued presence, but the address, “Men of Galilee” indicates again the directions that were given the women at the tomb. Some commentators see this scene as another resurrection appearance and connect the events into a single experience.

The final section gives us an accounting of who the apostles were, and names them as individuals. Again there is an upper room, and again there are the woman (unnamed) and the Mother of Jesus as well. Notice that the names are paired, a reflection of Jesus’ sending out his disciples in in pairs (see Mark 6:7, or Luke 10:1). This custom reaches back into Mosaic Law where legal testimony required two witnesses. The Greek gives us a clue as to the intensity of their prayer following the Ascension. It reads, “They persisted together in their prayer.” The doubts and questions seem to have been swept away and a determined community begins to be formed.

Breaking open Acts:
1.          What do you think comprises the Kingdom of God?
2.          How is Jesus the Messiah?
3.         Who is your partner in being a witness to the Gospel?

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 Exsurgat Deus

     Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered; *
let those who hate him flee before him.
2      Let them vanish like smoke when the wind drives it away; *
as the wax melts at the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
3      But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; *
let them also be merry and joyful.
4      Sing to God, sing praises to his Name;
exalt him who rides upon the heavens; *
YAHWEH is his Name, rejoice before him!
5      Father of orphans, defender of widows, *
God in his holy habitation!
6      God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom; *
but the rebels shall live in dry places.
7      O God, when you went forth before your people, *
when you marched through the wilderness,
8      The earth shook, and the skies poured down rain,
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, *
at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
9      You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance; *
you refreshed the land when it was weary.
10    Your people found their home in it; *
in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.
33    Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; *
sing praises to the Lord.
34    He rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; *
he sends forth his voice, his mighty voice.
35    Ascribe power to God; *
his majesty is over Israel;
his strength is in the skies.
36    How wonderful is God in his holy places! *
the God of Israel giving strength and power to his people!
Blessed be God!

The first verse is a quotation from Numbers 10:35, the so-called “Song of the Ark”. Perhaps this is more than just a quotation or borrowing, but rather an indicator of how the psalm was used. The text does at several points indicate a grand procession, so we may be dealing with a liturgical text here. At one point the text names YHWH as “the rider of the clouds” (in our text “who rides upon the heavens), a borrowing from Canaanite or Ugaritic usage, associated with the worship of Ba’al. There are several notes of triumph and providence, and one wonders if this is referential to the Red Sea, or to the return from Exile. It is more likely the former.

The last segment, verses 33-36, strikes a note of triumph. Again, God is seen as the triumphant rider, “He rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens” (or “the heaven of heavens” – a superlative. The mighty voice of God is seen or rather heard in the thunder of the clouds upon which God rides.

Breaking open the Psalm 68:
1.         Where do you see God as triumphant?
2.         What are all the anthropomorphic images of God in this psalm?
3.        How is God mighty in your life?

Second Reading: I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

In the first segment (verses 4:12-14) we have a repeat of the comparisons of the sufferings of the community and the sufferings of Jesus. It is a realistic reflection of the difficulties that the early community had been enduring in the midst of a society that did not understand or know the message of the Christians.

We have several lists of behavior in the second segment – humility, release of anxiety, discipline, and keeping alert. This is the comportment expected of the author by the community. Perhaps the most important of the expected behaviors is resistance. There is a vision of an active adversary to the vision of Jesus, and his kingdom. The author then presents a vision of a catholic community of suffering that results in another list of supportive measures – restoration, support, strength, and establishment. That is the power that God provides for God’s people.

Breaking open I Peter
  1. In what ways have you practiced humility?
  2. How have you resisted evil?
  3. How does God support you in times of trouble?

The Gospel: St. John 17:1-11

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

We are still in the Last Discourse, Jesus’ instruction with the disciples prior to the Holy Week events. Robert E. Brown describes the Last Discourse as a “farewell speech”, and one that concludes with a prayer for the disciples that he will leave behind to do his will. This is very much in the style of the prophets. We have two instances with Moses, who prays for the people, (see Deuteronomy 32, and 33). What we have with these passages is a construct of Jesus sayings, brought together in a synopsis of prayer and instruction. The verses themselves suggest the structure of a hymn, perhaps one that was attached to the Hallel psalms following the Passover meal. Where we might have expected a more strident Eucharistic image on the part of John we have no explicit Eucharistic citation. What we do have, however, is the theme of unity and its strong association with the Eucharist and the community that it engenders.

Some things that you might look for as you read through the Last Discourse: Each of the units of the discourse (Verses 1-5, 10, and 22) has a theme of “glory.” Each unit begins with a concise statement of what Jesus is praying for. Each addresses God the Father, and each mentions how God has gifted Jesus with the people who follow. Finally each segment mentions the revelation by Jesus of the Father to those who are learning from him. These verses can be foundational in our own lives of devotion, in our making theology, and in our prayers, especially at the Eucharistic Table.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is God a parent to you?
2.     For whom in your congregation do you pray?
3.    How is the Eucharist a meal of unity?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

09 May 2017

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 21 May 2017

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
I Peter 3:13-22
Saint John 14:15-21

Background: Areopagus

If you ascend the steps that lead up to the Propylaea – the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens – and turn around you will see the rocky outcropping to the north and west of the Acropolis. Its function in ancient times was a place for trying those who were accused of deliberate homicide. The name means “Ares Rock”, for it was here that Areas was, according to legend, tried for the murder of Halirrhothius, Poseidon’s son. Of interest was a temple at the foot of the rock dedicated to the Erinyes or Furies where murders could find a place of sanctuary. It has seen other uses as well, as a place where the council of elders of the city met. In the fifth century BCE, all the usual functions, excepting that of court to review murders, were moved elsewhere. The place and its various uses continued during the Roman period, as we know from Paul’s sermon there and its reference to the Altar to the Unknown God.

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Paul is impressed by either the religiosity of the Athenians, or is put off by the superstitious nature. Either is a possible translation of his characterizing them as “extremely religious.” The philosophers of the time might agree with Paul on the characterization of being superstitious. He uses the “Altar to an Unknown God” as the means to address the people, and begins his sermon by drawing his audience back to the beginning of time – to Creation. For it is this act that Paul sees the significance of the God of Israel, now open to both Jew and Gentile. This transcendence removes God from the realm of image, and depiction. His words are much alike the words of the heroic mother in Maccabees, “Look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things; and in the same way the human race came into existence.” It is in God’s acts of creation and protection that Paul sees God’s love and generosity. The entire context of life, seasons, time, boundaries are a product of God’s design. There is a possible quote from Epimenides (6th Century BCE), “In him we live and move and have our being.” The other quotation from the Greeks is by the poet Aratus (310 BCE) who is quoted in these words, “We too are his offspring.” Thus Paul appeals to the Athenians from their own culture.

Breaking open Acts:
1.          Who is the unknown god in your life?
2.          How does creation link you to God?
3.         Do you use images of God to help you in your prayers and devotion?

Psalm 66:7-18 Jubilate Deo

     Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;
8      Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.
9      For you, O God, have proved us; *
you have tried us just as silver is tried.
10    You brought us into the snare; *
you laid heavy burdens upon our backs.
11    You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water; *
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.
12    I will enter your house with burnt-offerings
and will pay you my vows, *
which I promised with my lips
and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble.
13    I will offer you sacrifices of fat beasts
with the smoke of rams; *
I will give you oxen and goats.
14    Come and listen, all you who fear God, *
and I will tell you what he has done for me.
15    I called out to him with my mouth, *
and his praise was on my tongue.
16    If I had found evil in my heart, *
the Lord would not have heard me;
17    But in truth God has heard me; *
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
18    Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, *
nor withheld his love from me.

The opening verses of the psalm call to mind God’s role in creation, and refer to the Red Sea experience as well. Our portion of the psalm rejoices in God’s presence and protection in the context of our lives. Some see in the verses on “you tried us…” as a reference to the exile, but others see this reference is being limited to the ordinary trials of life. We know from verse 12 that the Temple is still standing and being used, but this may have been added on to the previous verses (not the change of person in verse 12). The God of the psalmist is worthy of praise and offerings because it is this God who has saved the author, and has heard his prayer.

Breaking open the Psalm 66:
1.         Why is the crossing of the Red Sea important to the psalmist?
2.         Why does the psalmist want to offering praise and offerings to God?
3.        How is God present in your life?

Second Reading: I Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

“For what shall we suffer?” This is the question that forms the author’s musings on suffering. He proposes that Christians in doing good may suffer as have those who have done evil. Christians, therefore, should be ready not only to suffer but also be prepared to explain their suffering to those who may misunderstand it. The argument is this. Christians may suffer unjustly in the world, but this is just a mirror of the sufferings of Christ, who in his suffering overcame unjust suffering.

There is also a magnificent sermon on the role of baptism, using Noah and his family as an example of those who have come through the waters to salvation. Thus the Christian participates in the death and resurrection of Jesus in his or her own baptism. The connection of those saved is to the One who sits at the right hand of God, ruling over the world.

Breaking open I Peter
  1. How have you suffered in your life?
  2. How might that be a part of your living in Christ?
  3. How do you talk about your suffering?

The Gospel: St. John 14:15-21

Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Our pericope for today continues Jesus instruction to the disciples as a part of the Last Discourse prior to the Holy Week events. The first part of the Discourse (see last week’s Gospel) is characterized by the idea “Have faith in me.” This second part of the Discourse has a different idea, “love me.” The idea of loving Jesus, and keeping his commandments occurs three times in the entire pericope (15, 21, 23). Such actions have the promise of a deeper divine presence that will accompany those who love and keep. So here we are being shown the future promise of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, “he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” This coming of “another Advocate” (I prefer the word Paraclete) reminds the reader that there has already been an Advocate and Paraclete – namely Jesus himself. His absence invites, then, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Although John places this discourse in the period leading up to the crucifixion, it has elements that seem to be post-resurrection. Reading them in either way may open up a different understanding and appreciation of the text.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How do you love Jesus in your life?
2.     How do you keep his commandments?
3.    Where is the Holy Spirit in your life?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller