27 April 2012

The Fifth Sunday of Easter - 6 May 2012

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
I John 4:7-21
St. John 15:1-8

Background: St. Philip
This man, born in Bethsaida in Galilee, was one of the apostles chosen by Jesus.  His feast day is on 1 May, where he is honored with James “the Less”.  Philip brought his friend Nathanael to see Jesus, and was present at the feeding of the 5,000 in the Gospel of John.  He is also associated with a group of Greeks who come wishing to see Jesus.  In the first lesson for today, we have a rather interesting account of his meeting with an Ethiopian Eunuch.  Perhaps Philip’s connection with the Gentiles occasioned this story reported by Luke in the Acts.  The eunuch represents not only someone outside of Judaism due to his birth, but also to his status as a eunuch, and Acts seems to rejoice in the number of “outsiders” who are called to walk with Jesus.  Tradition has it that he was crucified in Hierapolis by crucifixion in 80 CE. 

Acts 8:26-40
An angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth."

The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Philip is encountered by “the angel (messenger) of the Lord”, who in other passages announces the birth of Samson, and of Jesus.  Here this messenger urges Philip to go down the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Gaza, a town in the Southwestern quarter of Judea near the Egyptian border was razed by Alexander the Great, and not rebuilt until 66 CE.  Thus we have a notion of when this passage was written.  The “Candace” was not a proper name, but rather a Nubian title.  The man whom Philip encounters is described in such a way that we can see him as a “God fearer”, a Gentile who was spiritually aligned with Judaism.  This impression is made clearer in his reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Luke sets up a story that will make clear the inclusion of Gentiles in the missions and ministries that will follow in the Acts. 

The eunuch quotes one of the Suffering Servant songs, especially Isaiah 53:7-8.  The quotation allows an entre for Philip to witness to Jesus, which seems to have been successfully done, the eunuch desires to be baptized.  There is a traditional reading of verse 37 in some ancient manuscripts that underscore this baptismal connection.  The missing material reads: And Philip said, ‘If you believe withal your heart, you may.’ And (the eunuch) said in reply, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’  This omitted material may represent an older baptismal formula and confession that was added to the western text.  Also of special interest in this reading is the activity of the Spirit who speaks, and snatches away.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What is the message here about “undersireable” members of society?
  2. What are your feelings around the eunuch?
  3. What is your picture of the Spirit in this reading?

Psalm 22:24-30 Deus, Deus meus

My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

For kingship belongs to the LORD; *
he rules over the nations.

To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.

My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the LORD'S for ever.

They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.

Pablo Picasso - The Charnal House

It is strange to encounter this psalm in Easter after having sung it at various points in Lent and during the Triduum.  The first verse of this pericope gives us clues as to what the purpose is, “I will perform my vows.”  Such a formula was usually uttered during prayers of thanksgiving for requests that had been answered.  Thus it has a votive character, and informs us of the attitude of the material that follows.  The great assembly to which he refers is the multitude of peoples in the Temple.  This grand embrace of many peoples seems to be the author’s motive and he seems to break new theological ground in doing so.  The tradition in the psalms is that the dead cannot praise God (cf. Psalm 6:6, “For in death there is no remembrance of you.  Who praises you in Sheol?”)  For the author of psalm 22, however, these too are included amongst those who praise God.  “All who sleep in the earth bow down in worship.”  Time is extended as well, with descendants added to the numbers.  They will proclaim his bounty to a people aborning, for he has done.” (Alter).

Breaking open Psalm 22
  1. Have you ever promised to do something in response to an answered prayer?
  2. What was it and how did it work for you?
  3. How broad do you think that God’s embrace is?  Is anyone out?

1 John 4:7-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Diego Rivera - The Embrace
We continue our on-going reading of I John.  The author has been exploring two related themes that are part and parcel of the Christian message: love of the brother and sister, and the love of God.  This reading today discusses the nature of true love in relationship with faith.  John makes his first claim – Faith gives us the perception to see in God an all-consuming love.  It is God’s very essence.  In our loving of others, we begin to not only know God, but are “born of God.”  Thus in our actions born of our faith, we abide in God, and God in us.  Over and over again, John points out an almost cyclic relationship between faith and love, between humankind and God.  It is this relationship that describes God best, and best describes our actions demanded by our world and time.  One cannot love God alone, and hate others.  The love of the other is demanded by our love of God.

Breaking open I John
  1. Whom do you really love in this world?
  2. Is God present in that love?
  3. Who really loves you in this world? 
  4. Is God there too?

John 15:1-8
Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

Last Sunday, Jesus was the good shepherd.  This Sunday, Jesus uses another metaphor to help us grasp the reality of his ministry with us.  Jesus is the vine. In describing this metaphor, John wants us to understand that the relationship of vine and branches is not static.  It is an active relationship focused on “bearing fruit.”  There are some marvelous puns in the Greek here.  The notion of “pruning” and of being “cleansed” becomes evident when we look at the Greek verbs.  The two activities, one focusing on cutting away, and the other focusing on being cleansed, form the two sides of the coin, or of the relationship.  If you are a gardener, you know the force and promise of pruning.  So it is here in this saying – being pruned “by the Father” produces fruit.

This image of the vine and branches, and their interplay is similar in force and style to Paul’s image of Jesus as the head of the Church, and the people as the Body of Christ.  In each there is an interdependence and relationship that is sustained for the good of the others. 

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. To whom are you really connected in this world?
  2. How connected are you to God?
  3. What ought to be pruned out of your life?

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

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

24 April 2012

The Fourth Sunday of Easter - 29 April 2012

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
I John 3:16-24
St. John 10:11-18

Background: Ancient Shepherds
This Sunday is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” owing to the themes of the psalm and Gospel reading.  Shepherding is an ancient profession that acquired some religious associations especially among Jews and Christians.  The profession began some 6,000 years ago, especially in Asia Minor, where the animals were kept for their milk, meat, and wool.  Shepherding is a mobile enterprise, with the flock moving from pasture to pasture; and it is notable that the patriarchs of the Hebrew Scriptures were largely keepers of goats and sheep, with the younger sons (cf. David) keep watch over the flocks.  The flocks were kept in the mountainous areas of the land, as opposed to the lowlands where grain was grown.  The antipathy between these two groups is evident in the story of Cain and Able, where Able has the upper hand – beloved of God because he was a shepherd, see Genesis 4.  Shepherds were hired to be such, which puts a focus on the Gospel for today.  Sometimes it was the sons of the family who did the shepherding, but usually it was someone who was hired, who milked the sheep, who made cheese, and who was responsible for their care and feeding.  Living alone, they were often separated from society – a point in Luke’s Infancy Narrative where these “outcasts” become the first to hear the Good News. 

Acts 4:5-12
The day after they had arrested Peter and John for teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, the rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is

`the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.'

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

It is unfortunate that the verses that introduce this event have been lopped off by the framers of the lectionary.  In the preceding verses we see the central belief, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the reaction of two parties.  The Sadducees were the traditionalists and did not believe in such a resurrection, while the Pharisees did believe in such a resurrection.  The early Christians stand in the middle.  While this is the response to healing story, the focus is on Jesus, who has been raised.  This is attested to in a sermon that Peter preaches in which he announces the Good News in the apostolic teaching, “whom God raised from the dead”.  Peter takes the quotation from Psalm 118 to make his point.  At the conclusion he drives a wedge between those for whom this good news had been intended, and the news itself, which will no go to the “nations”, the gentiles.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. How or why might a cornerstone be rejected?
  2. Why does Peter make the comparison between this stone and Jesus?
  3. What kind of claim in Peter making about “the name?”

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

The notion that a ruler or a god could be described as a shepherd was not uncommon in the ancient near east.  In this psalm, however, the author goes deeply into the metaphor to describe what such an association really means.  All of the notions of comfort, food, and security are closely aligned with the vocabulary and reality of sheep tending.  The degrees of tenderness and care multiply, often beyond the means of a shepherd.  “He revives my soul, “ literally means that breath or life is blown back into the individual, saving them from death.  Soon we, the reader, begin to identify with the shepherd’s care as we are led in spite of “death’s shadow”.  The anointment with oil has sacramental or healing overtones for us, but the Hebrew is really speaking about something that is indicative of a happy life – well-oiled hair, good food, and wine.  Although the final verse has heavenly associations, the house of the Lord, forever, the Hebrew is more reflective of the here and now.  Alter translates the last verset as “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long days.”

Breaking open Psalm 23
  1. What memories does this psalm conjure up for you?
  2. What do you think that it meant to the people of ancient Israel?
  3. What does it mean for you as a Christian?

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John continues his arguments about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and begins this pericope with a high standard; “he laid down his life for us.”  What follows then is a logical construct from this first proposition, namely, we ought to lay down our lives for others.  John then recasts the summation of the law (love the Lord your God with all your heart, etc.”), in these two propositions – believe in the name, and love one another.  These are the commandments that form a home for our presence with God, and God’s presence with us.  The final verse mentions the Spirit, to which he alludes in 2:20 and 27, and 3:9, but these are oblique.  This reference is the first clear reference in the epistle.

Breaking open I John
  1. What does it mean for you that someone should lay down a life for another?
  2. Can you think of some outstanding examples?
  3. Could you do it?

John 10:11-18
Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-- and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

This section is composed of stories or sayings that comment on “sight” and “blindness” and is a preceded by a healing story in which a blind man is given his sight, and the opportunity to make a witness to the one who has healed him, thus contrasting the sight of the former blind man with the blindness of the Pharisees.  Here Jesus talks about himself in two guises, that of the Shepherd (today’s reading) and that of the Gate (see verse 7).  Here he will contrast himself with those who were called to be shepherds of Israel, and who have failed. 

As in the epistle reading, the supreme benchmark of laying down one’s life is held up as the model.  The shepherd gives his life for the sheep in contrast to “the hired hand” (read Pharisees).  There is commentary also on the relationship of sheep and shepherd, and by inference, of people and God, and Jesus and the Father.  It is a relationship that is bound up in the word “to know”. There is an intimacy between the Father and the Son, and an equal intimacy between sheep and shepherd.  They hear the voice and know it (remember, the contrast between sight and blindness earlier).  There are also the “other sheep”, people outside the sheepfold of Israel, a reference to the Gentiles.  Finally there is the selflessness of this relationship.  Were a shepherd to die for his sheep, it would be a voluntary act of defense and protection for them.  The independence of these acts is punctuated in the comment, “and I have the power to take it up again.”

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. How much zeal do you have when a pet is missing or is lost?
  2. How well do you know your pet?  Does it know you?
  3. What do you think Jesus’ point is here?

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

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.