18 April 2013

Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord - 9 May 2013

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Psalm 93
Ephesians 1:15-23
St. Luke 24:44-53

Background:  The Feast of the Ascension
Celebrated forty days following Easter, this feast actually might be quite ancient.  The first mention of the feast is made in the fifth century, and it is mentioned by St. Augustine as a feast of “apostolic” origin.  Egeria mentions the feast in her writings from the mid-fourth century, and comments on a vigil as well.  She witnessed the ceremonial in Bethlehem.  There is some evidence that this feast was connected either with the Easter Feast itself, or with Pentecost (which would account for the Vigil).  The Council of Elvira (ca. 300 CE) condemned the practice of the feast in that it was being confused with the Pentecost feast.

There are customs that are related to the Ascension feast, namely the observance of Rogation Days in which the fields of farms were blest, or the early produce (first fruits) were blessed.  An English festival related to the Rogation procession and blessings was the “Beating of the Bounds” in which the members of a parish would mark the bounds of the parish by hitting the stones marking the boundary with sticks.  Other interesting customs were the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle following the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Day.  An unusual custom was that deacons and sub deacons at the mass would wear miters (the miter symbolizing the tongues of flame at Pentecost). 

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

So when they had come together, they asked him, "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."

In Acts, Luke takes a different tack on the chronology of the Easter and Ascension events.  In the Gospel (Saint Luke 24), the events of Easter come in quick succession – The resurrection and the women, Emmaus, the appearance to the disciples, and the ascension.  In Acts, however, Luke expands this chronology to a period of forty days, a number of considerable significance in Biblical literature.  The ascension is placed at some distance from the Easter event, and in proximity to the Pentecost experience.  Luke notes that Jesus schools the disciples (now apostles) “through the Holy Spirit”.  Jesus comments on the kingdom of God occasion questions from his disciples about times and seasons, which Jesus essentially ignores, refocusing their vision on an anticipation of the gift of the Holy Spirit and dismissing any political agenda.  Luke thus images these disciples (and other followers?) as a new Israel, making their journey through a desert of impending absence. 

There is a sense of place, indeed mission, in Jesus’ words as he describes the destinations that the Gospel should reach: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria (a sign of the ministry to Gentiles), and the “ends of the earth” (either Rome, or Spain).  All is explained in this second account of the Ascension, and there are reminders of its connection to the Easter event.  Two “men in white robes” (cf. Luke’s description of the resurrection) explain all that there is to know, redirecting them by their means of address “Men of Galilee”, and advising them to anticipate another visitation.  Luke prepares a wonderful stage for Peter and the others as they gather in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What differentiates resurrection, ascension, or Pentecost?
  2. How do you understand the differences from the Gospel of Luke and the scene as portrayed in Acts.
  3. What are the “ends of the earth” now?

Psalm 47 Omnes gentes, plaudite

Clap your hands, all you peoples; *
shout to God with a cry of joy.

For the LORD Most High is to be feared; *
he is the great King over all the earth.

He subdues the peoples under us, *
and the nations under our feet.

He chooses our inheritance for us, *
the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

God has gone up with a shout, *
the LORD with the sound of the ram's-horn.

Sing praises to God, sing praises; *
sing praises to our King, sing praises.

For God is King of all the earth; *
sing praises with all your skill.

God reigns over the nations; *
God sits upon his holy throne.

The nobles of the peoples have gathered together *
with the people of the God of Abraham.

The rulers of the earth belong to God, *
and he is highly exalted.

There is an implicit universalism in this praise psalm in which “all you peoples” and “the princes of the peoples” “assemble with the people of the God of Abraham.”  Certainly a sense of nationalism is still echoed here – with the Israelite God being seen as a “king over all the earth.”  Verse three still sees God as the one “who subdues the peoples under us.”  The spiritual vision, however, extends beyond cultural and national boundaries, seeing God in a more cosmic role.  Of interest to Christians are verses five and six, the glories of which have been assigned to Christ.  A Hebrew understanding of this figure might see the Most High returning to Mount Zion, from which the great God rules over all the earth.  In an astute political vision, the psalmist sees all government (the rulers of the earth) as the possession of God.

Breaking open Psalm 47
  1. How do you understand universalism and Christianity?
  2. Is the God of Jesus seen as a national God in your country.
  3. How does God rule in the world?


Psalm 93 Dominus regnavit

The LORD is King;
he has put on splendid apparel; *
the LORD has put on his apparel
and girded himself with strength.

He has made the whole world so sure *
that it cannot be moved;

Ever since the world began, your throne has been established; *
you are from everlasting.

The waters have lifted up, O LORD,
the waters have lifted up their voice; *
the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.

Mightier than the sound of many waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea, *
mightier is the LORD who dwells on high.

Your testimonies are very sure, *
and holiness adorns your house, O LORD,
for ever and for evermore.

This psalm is an example of an enthronement psalm that celebrated the kingship of God, or of God’s anointed (David).  This is an example of a cultural borrowing of an ancient near eastern tradition (the New Year festival) in which political kingship was dramatically connected to the kingship of the gods.  The king/god would ascend the ziggurat and there consummate an intimate union with the goddess (the high priestess).  Such fertility practices are absent in the adaptations of Israel, but the shadow is still there.  Another ancient near eastern connection are the extensive comments on the triumph over chaos, beginning with the phrases in verse two (he has made the world so sure).  What follows after the following verse is a recitation of God’s power over the “waters” which represent chaos and death.  It is God, seen in the kingship of David, who rules over the cosmos.  The final verse (“holiness adorns your house”) may tie these verses to a temple liturgy.

Breaking open Psalm 93:
  1. How do monarchial images in the Hebrew Scriptures strike you?
  2. What do you find interesting about the equation of the “sea” and “death”?
  3. Does chaos rule our times? 
Ephesians 1:15-23

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

It is verse twenty (“raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens”) which ties this reading to the Feast of the Ascension.

Here in the rhetoric of thanksgiving and prayer, St. Paul begins with a vision of the glorified Christ, who has been exalted by “the Father of glory”, which father is bidden to bless the readers of the letter.  Paul creates a point of understanding with the word “hope”.  What is it for which the people of the Church at Ephesus must hope?  What is the “glorious inheritance”?  The hope is to see in Jesus God’s power made manifest – in the resurrection, and the exaltation to the right hand of God.  The scope of this exaltation is seen in Jesus’ suasion over “all rule and authority and power and dominion”.  In contrast to his writing in I Corinthians and Romans where Paul identifies the Christian community as “the body of Christ”, here Christ is seen as “the head” and “the fullness”.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. What does “hope” mean to you?  Where do you find hope?
  2. How is Jesus the “head of the Church” in reality?
  3. How would you describe the Body of Christ?

St. Luke 24:44-53

Jesus said to his disciples, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

I have made comments on this reading in the commentary on the lesson from Acts.  You may want to refer back to them.  For Luke the resurrection/ascension is no metaphor, but a new reality.  The two preceding verses inform us of his intent and viewpoint, “They gave him a piece of backed fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.”  What follows then is a brief instruction, really and call to remembrance of what Jesus had already told them.  The whole of salvation history is appealed to, reminding them that he had been written about in “the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and the psalms.”  His opening of their minds (just like Emmaus) is in sentiment similar to Jesus’ “breathing” on the disciples in John 20:22. Then the plan of salvation is laid out for them, and a similar expectation, as in Acts, about the mission beginning in Jerusalem.  There are no two men at this version of the Ascension, but rather an immediate reaction – the disciples return to Jerusalem with joy.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you understand the Resurrection/Ascension to be?
  2. What does Jesus want the disciple to be following his absence?  What do you think Jesus wants you to be?
  3. How do you reconcile the difference in Luke’s two accounts?

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

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

or this

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

17 April 2013

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - 5 May 2013

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
St. John 14:23-29
St. John 5:1-9

Background:  The Program in Acts
We find the first statement of purpose in the initial verses of Luke (Luke and Acts comprising one work):

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”

Whether or not we know who Theophilus (Lover-of-God) was might be important, but is not necessary.  Perhaps he was a Roman official, a recent convert, or a gentile believer.  If Luke is about what Jesus did, Acts is about what the followers do.  Several points of purpose have been suggested for Acts: An Apology, a document authenticating of the apostolic kerygma (proclamation), a letter meant to offer practical support to the gentile church functioning in the Roman Empire, or an work that has no political agendum.  Any might be possible and any combination is possible.

As an Apology we might take as evidence Acts 19:37, where an appeal is made to the non-offensive behavior of the Christian community. There are other appeals in the work, and Luke mentions Roman officials that are neutral toward Christianity, and a few that are a member of the community. Some commentators feel that Luke is attempting to support Christians who are seeking a sense of concord toward official Rome.  Paul, a Roman citizen (although Paula Gooder disagrees with this) is pictured in some sense as having no problems with Rome – rather having problems with the church at Jerusalem.

Once the apostolic kerygma was proclaimed, Luke may have felt the necessity to authenticate the message especially in the context of Roman life.  The date of Luke/Acts is important here.  If Luke/Acts was written after the Council of Jamnia (ca. 90 CE), then such legitimization would be necessary as the Christian community was no longer considered a part of Judaism, but rather as new sect.  There are several instances in Acts where Luke gives examples of Romans who convert (cf. Acts 10:1-11:18) (see also Last Sunday’s First Reading).  Perhaps the intent of Luke is two-fold in authenticating the faith of these Christians as well as authenticating the teachings of Paul.


That the early Christians should need a Practicum in living out their new life is evidenced not only in the letters of Paul, but also in the materials in Acts.  For all the hopes that are seen in the apologetic view of the work there is also the reality that the Roman Imperium and culture represented a clear threat to the Christian movement.  Not Paul’s entire message was received with tolerance or equanimity.  Luke’s take is that the individual Christian is to see Jesus as kyrios (Lord) and soter (Savior) and not the Emperor or King as had been done in the past.  Christ is Lord (read Authority) that guides life (cf. Acts 5:29).  Such apolitical attachments to Jesus would soon be seen as political, and Acts may seek to prepare the Christian community for such trials.

Finally, it may be that Luke has no political agendum at all, that he is primarily concerned with proclaiming Christ.  A good example of this can be seen in Acts 4:20, and 5:29-32

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Here is an example of the “we sections” that have been mentioned in the previous Background sections of this blog.  Luke writes as a companion of Paul, or, as some have cautioned, this may represent a different tradition that Luke has incorporated into his account.  Regardless, in this section Paul has a similar vision as does Peter on the housetop in Joppa.  The travelogue narrative has many parallel examples in Greek literature, and it may be that Luke borrows this style as he comments on the trip from Troas to Philippi.  Here we see the initial work, which will result in a thriving community at Philippi and give cause to the Pauline letter to the community.  Here we meet Lydia, a believer and a businesswoman.  If you are interested in further material on Lydia and other women in Acts you may wish to consult Ivoni Richter Riemer’s Women in the Acts of the Apostles.  Her contention is that Lydia was president of the synagogue that met at the river, was a person of substance (“stay at my home”), and a person of influence. 

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What is your image of women during the first century CE?
  2. How does Lydia fit into your image?
  3. Have you ever had “a call” similar to the one that Paul had?  Whom were you called to serve?

Psalm 67 Deus misereatur

May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.

May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

This is a thanksgiving psalm that is connected to a harvest festival.  The initial phrase, and the final phrase echo the Aaronic blessing (cf. Numbers 6:24-26). There are three sections to the psalm (2, 4, and 6) the first two of which are completed by a common refrain, “May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you!” The final section is completed by a prayer asking for God’s benediction, and a prayer that all might stand in awe of him.  The first section is concerned with “your saving ways”, the Law of God.  The second section focuses on the cosmic nature of God’s justice and righteousness.  The hope of the psalmist is that the graciousness of God in Israel’s harvest will be a sign to the nations of the earth.

Breaking open Psalm 67
  1. How are “God’s saving ways” a source of joy for you?
  2. Do you think that God dispenses justice and righteousness equally?  How are you a part of God’s justice?
  3. How is your abundance a sign of grace to others?

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.

Then the angel showed me the 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. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

From the top of high mountain (think – The Temptation of Jesus, the Mount of Transfiguration, and indeed the hillock of Calvary) an angel “in the spirit” shows the Divine the new Jerusalem.  The succeeding verses then describe the realities of this heavenly kingdom.  This is a spiritualization of the theological points.  There is no need of a temple for the ubiquity of Christ negates its need.  In a similar manner there is no need of “light” for the Lamb is the Lamp (a fortunate English pun).  The place is one of ultimate protection – “its gates will never be shut.”  The old Hebraic symbols, oddly enough, still obtain here – “Nothing unclean will enter it” for all have been made clean. 

Again, as we saw in Revelation 7:17, we are shown the “river of the water of life”, a phrase along with the succeeding verses that makes us aware of a renewed Eden.  Here the twelve kinds of fruit, and the medicinal threes/leaves provide for a renewed humanity as well.  The result of these gifts is praise, and unlike the “sign of the beast” their foreheads are signed with the name of the Lamb.  I am reminded here of a visit to the museum in Ephesus where many of the statues of gods, goddesses, and ordinary citizens had the cross chiseled into their foreheads by the Christian community there.  My Muslim guide was perplexed by this and asked for an explanation.  These verses helped.  In an interesting restatement of one of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) John sees the new Israel as a completion of Jesus’ vision of blessedness, and of a people who, unlike Moses and Israel, can now look at God.

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. When did you first look down upon creation from a mountain top?  What was it like?  What did you see?
  2. What does John mean by the phrase “the new Jerusalem”?
  3. What does the water “of the river of life” mean to you?

St. John 14:23-29

Jesus said to Judas (not Iscariot), "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, `I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe."

Who is this Judas?  There are several candidates – The brother of Jesus (cf. Mark 6:3), or the Jude mentioned in Luke 6:16, most likely it is Thomas, according to a Syriac version of John 11:16, or in the Gospel of Thomas, where the name “Judas” is added.  Jesus riffs on the theme of Immanuel, God-with-us, as he points out not only his presence and word, but the presence of the Father as well.

This Gospel presages the coming of the Holy Spirit, here “Advocate”, who will serve as a teacher and a “reminder.”  Jesus greets them with peace, but not in the manner of the world, where it is a casual greeting.  Here Jesus gives them the gift of spiritual peace, firm in the righteousness given by God.  Further verses prepare the disciples for an absence, and thus the appropriateness of a spiritual gift of peace and presence.  Jesus prepares them with signs of both absence and presence, seeing in them the realities of the follower and the ones who will be sent as apostles.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How is the peace that Jesus gives different from the world’s peace?
  2. Where have you seen that peace in your life?
  3. Is Jesus absent or present for you?

St. John 5:1-9

After Jesus healed the son of the official in Capernaum, there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids-- blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

What precedes this reading is the confrontation with the Samaritan woman, and a second sign at Cana – a healing.  In today’s reading there will be a healing on a Sabbath, which creates its own problems.  The lectionary, however, does not lead us down that path but focuses on the healing itself.  The medical condition of the man would have created its own problems in that society (“did this man sin, or did his parents?”)  Popular usage had connected this pool, which was fed by a tunnel from outside the walls with water with healing.  As the supply “bubbled up” many thought that the disturbance of the water healed.  The one who had lain there awaiting “a disturbance in the water” makes known a power that is beyond the supposed power of water or place.  It is the unspoken nature of his faith, made known when he does what Jesus asks of him.  No angel, no water, nothing other than hearing the healing word.  John notes that this was done on a Sabbath day, and we are to see the significance of that day in which the word was read in the synagogue, and is witnessed in the healing of this man.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Do you await miracles?  Why?
  2. Where do you go for healing – for spiritual healing?
  3. How has your faith healed you?
  4. Which of these two Gospels is best for this Sunday?  Why?

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.