30 April 2014

The Third Sunday of Easter, 4 May 2014

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
I Peter 1:17-23
St. Luke 24:13-35

First, a thank you to Nigel Renton who pointed out to me that my auto correction on my computer kept substituting “periscope” for “pericope”.  Thank you, Nigel.  Although, periscope might have some advantages here.

Background: Breaking of the Bread
The significance of this action on the part of Jesus is seen through our Christian eyes, as we retroject its symbolic power into the perceptions of the disciples at Emmaus.  What was it that made a rather common cultural and religious act turn into a mode of recognition of the Risen One?  That is a question that might occupy our minds as we think about what resurrection really is all about. 

As I write this, I am in Dresden, Germany.  One of the huge goals I had was to visit the restored Frauenkirche that was destroyed by the fire that resulted from the Allied fire bombing in February 1945.  Already the church holds a huge sense of history, and the meaning of history in its very stones.  What is interesting, and here is why I mention the church here, is that there is no evidence that the breaking of the bread is of any importance in this place.  There is no Sacrament Gottesdienst listed on the church announcement boards, the altar is hidden away behind a pulpit and a baptismal font, and is crushed by an overly ornate baroque altar (which has barely enough room for the Bible it holds).  I am certain that they celebrate the Holy Eucharist there – but where is the important ability to allow the public to recognize Jesus?

Where is the breaking of the bread in your personal or your parish life?  What happens when you break the bread at home with your family (or do you?)? As the practicalities of food move from the home into the marketplace and public domain, we might need to make certain that the breaking of the bread is central in our parish life.  It is in these actions that there is the possibility of recognizing Jesus, and the power that his resurrection brings.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the multitude, "Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified."

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

As I mentioned in last week’s commentary, Luke has both Peter and Paul repeat certain actions of Jesus – here preaching.  It might be interesting for you to go back and look at Jesus preaching in Luke 4:16-30 or Paul in Acts 13:16-41 to see the similarities.  What is paramount here for Luke is the representation of the apostolic kerygma (proclamation), and in this series of Peter sermons we see what it is that Luke saw as the salient content of the apostles’ message.  In this pericope, we have both the assertion and the results.  Peter announces in the initial verses of the pericope what it is that he believes about Jesus, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah.”  What follows next in the reading, is not the further development of that assertion, but rather a question on the part of the hearers, “what should we do?”  And now the message takes on some signs of life after the resurrection: repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Spirit.  These are actions that have some direction about them, a movement toward God, acceptance, and the anointing of the Spirit.  Even in this message Luke (and Peter) signal the mission to the gentiles, that the importance of the resurrection is not limited to a certain sort, “For the promise is for…all.”  Peter is an effective preacher – three thousand – what an Easter Vigil!  The question for us is, how are we preaching the pointed yet inviting message?

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What would you like to say about the resurrection of Jesus?
  2. Are there elements of resurrection in your life?
  3. What should you do now?

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17 Dilexi, quoniam

I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
"O LORD, I pray you, save my life."

How shall I repay the LORD *
for all the good things he has done for me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation *
and call upon the Name of the LORD.

I will fulfill my vows to the LORD *
in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the LORD *
is the death of his servants.

O LORD, I am your servant; *
I am your servant and the child of your handmaid;
you have freed me from my bonds.

I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and call upon the Name of the LORD.

I will fulfill my vows to the LORD *
in the presence of all his people,

In the courts of the LORD'S house, *
in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

For Lutherans, the use of this psalm on this particular Sunday will make a connection between the Gospel and its implicit sense of the Eucharist, and this psalm, which can be used as one of the general Offertories in the Lutheran Liturgy.  The latter verses are filled with symbols that bring to our Christian minds the gifts of the Holy Communion. 

The initial verses describe a situation for which the author is making thanksgiving.  There is death, and the urgent call upon the Lord to both listen and to save.  The verses which are elided from the reading talks about God’s protective and merciful nature, but what follows is the question about how might the author make thanksgiving (Eucharist), “What shall I give back to the Lord?”  To our minds the “cup of rescue” has definite content, but what did the psalm’s original readers hear here – a cup of libation poured as a sacrifice? You might want to look at this action in another context in II Samuel 23:16f.  Other offerings are considered as well, vows, gift of self as a servant, a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  All of this is offered up in the Temple.  What does the Eucharist send us out to do?

Breaking open Psalm 116:
  1. How has God saved you from death?
  2. How have others saved you?
  3. Now what do you owe God, or others?

1 Peter 1:17-23

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Resurrection implies new life, and our question is what should be the signs of that new life?  The author asks the reader to look at the past and see what culture and family tradition provided, and then to ask the question, “is this consonant with the resurrection?”  He uses as an example the Passover Lamb, and applies it to Jesus himself.  This is the sign of both God’s intentions, and of God’s love for us.  Made pure (by repentance, baptism, and the Spirit? – see Acts above) so that we are like the lamb “without defect or blemish”, we are called to have not only faith, but also its necessary component, hope.  From that point we can begin to look to love of one another – the mutual love that was a sign that distinguished Christians.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. What have you inherited from the past that impedes your approach to God?
  2. What changes might a resurrection attitude effect in your life?
  3. How do you show love of others?
St. Luke 24:13-35

On the first day of the week, two of Jesus' followers were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The Easter mystagogy, that exercise in seeing what Easter truly means for us, is often forgotten as quickly as the Easter candies are consumed and the decorations are put away.  The Gospel readings during this week of Sundays all reflect on the meaning that the resurrection brings, and there is no finer example of this exercise than this story from Emmaus.  What are its elements?  First there is wonder (perhaps more in the sense of confusion and frustration), then a confession of what they believed would happen, Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News, the invitation to stay, the breaking of the bread, the recognition, and the new confession and wonder.  It has the elements of a liturgy, doesn’t it, and shouldn’t we be thinking about the mystagogical elements in our own liturgy and worship?  Enough said.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How might you express you faith to others?  What words would you use?
  2. Where do you recognize Jesus in your daily life?
  3. How do you see Christ in others?

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

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

23 April 2014

The Second Sunday of Easter, 27 April 2014

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
I Peter 1:3-9
St. John 20:19-31

Background:  Faith, Doubt, Belief, and Hope
I am writing this while waiting in the Dresdener Hauptbahnhof for my train to Prague.  Somehow writing this in the land of rugged Saxon Protestants while on the way to the land of Hussites and other proto-Lutherans, it seems appropriate to be addressing these issues.  If Thomas had not existed we surely would have had to invent him, so necessary he is to the story.  His doubt is really the stuff of our daily life, but it is only one of several ingredients that rounds out our response to the Risen One.  I realized as I was flying into the Frankfurt Airport that all of those elements: faith, doubt, belief, and hope, were very much a part of the realities of my flight.  I had faith that all the workers who had assembled the plane had done a good job.  I believed that the pilot and the other staff were well trained enough to keep the machine in the air, and I hoped that each of the thousands of moving parts of the plane would function properly.  Doubt was the human element that kept it all together – a healthy balance and perspective.

Doubt is the pepper in our Protestant stew.  The pepper in the Roman stew is both legend and cynicism.  All these elements keep our Christianity realistic and responsive.  And by realistic, I don’t mean the realism of a Thomas Kincaid (as if his subjects were ever real) - that supposed realism about life and surroundings that is more specious than genuine.  That is the Christian history, to tell the story over and over again, and in telling it to work it all through again, over and over again.  One wonders how long it took Peter to come to the conclusions that he speaks so eloquently in this and last Sunday’s Gospels.  My sense is that he had a few drops of Thomas’ blood in him as well – an attitude to test, to probe, to propose, to suppose, and ultimately to trust – to believe.  So thank you Thomas for having the courage to ask questions first.  The black and white of fundamentalism simply does not serve us or this country well.  But an active conversation in which all perspectives are given equal measure and hearing – that is good ground for the Spirit.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the multitude, "You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know-- this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,

`I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.'

"Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying ,

`He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.'
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses."

What precedes this is a new creation of the apostles in the appearance of the Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost, and this reading constitutes Peter’s first public sermon on that occasion.  What is interesting is that Luke has Peter first, and then later Paul, repeat or reenact events or actions from the life of Jesus, as a way of authenticating their apostolic ministry.  In this case, Peter seems to be preaching in the style of Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4:16-30, where Jesus is rejected at Nazareth.  “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Peter notes those themes of rejection, and indeed is met with them himself as they accuse the apostles of being drunk with new wine.  Peter sees all of this as matched by God’s plan and foreknowledge.  It is God, Peter says, “that raised him up.”  The outpouring of the Spirit is a sign of the last days as prophesied by Joel.  The quotes from the psalms only point up the congruence of Peter’s message with the plan of salvation outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. How Jesus’ sermon and Peter’s similar?
  2. Why is important for Peter to note all of this as God’s plan?
  3. What new dreams have come to you in your Christianity?

Psalm 16 Page Conserva me, Domine

Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; *
I have said to the LORD, "You are my Lord,
my good above all other."

All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land, *
upon those who are noble among the people.

But those who run after other gods *
shall have their troubles multiplied.

Their libations of blood I will not offer, *
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.

O LORD, YOU are my portion and my cup; *
it is you who uphold my lot.

My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; *
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; *
my heart teaches me, night after night.

I have set the LORD always before me; *
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; *
my body also shall rest in hope.

For you will not abandon me to the grave, *
nor let your holy one see the Pit.

You will show me the path of life; *
in your presence there is fullness of joy,
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

Appropriate to the other readings in the lectionary for today, this psalm seems to be a confession of faith, and a thanksgiving for having survived death.  Verses 3 and 4 seem to suppose that the author has abandoned either fealty to Canaanite leaders or to the gods that they follow.  What is celebrated in the verses that follow is the author’s relationship to YHWH, and to the benefits that come with that relationship: “a goodly heritage”, counsel, hope, and the “path of life.”  It is a beneficial relationship that the poet both recognizes and describes.

Breaking open Psalm 16:
  1. Did you convert to Christianity?  Why?
  2. From what?
  3. Why do you still believe?
1 Peter 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith-- being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire-- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Earlier commentators saw this “letter” as actually a “baptismal sermon”, but now it is seen as a letter intended for reading during the liturgy.  It is also seen as a harmony of the Pauline and Petrine traditions.  In our periscope we have a rather large “thanksgiving” that was common in the Christian epistolary form. If there are themes in this reading, two especially stand out. The first is the notion of “new birth” and the other is the notion of “hope”, both appropriate to this day and season. There is a dimensionality evident in the author’s notions about hope.  Both the ideas of a heavenly realization, and a realization at the end of time, “for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” are present and explored.  There are contrasts that await those awaiting the fulfillment of history.  There are both trials and tests, and an all-fulfilling joy that comes with the presence of God.  The verses that really apply this reading to today’s Gospel, “Although you have not seen him, you love him,” underscore that dimensionality previously noted.  This is the “outcome of faith.”

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. How is Easter new life for you?
  2. How is Easter hope for you?
  3. What waits for you in Easter?

St. John 20:19-31

When it was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

There are several resurrection appearances in John, and this reading incorporates two separate periscopes: John 20:19-23 – An appearance to the disciples and the gift of the Spirit, and John 20:24-31 – The Thomas Story, and a summary of the Gospel.  This follows last Sunday’s appearance to Mary Magdalene.  Here John differs from Luke’s Pentecost account where a period of 50 days passes before the Spirit is given to the disciples.  In John’s account, the gift of the Spirit is linked to the Easter event.  John’s visuals note the connection of the Passion and Resurrection to this new gift.  A gift is also given “the church”, if that could even be said to exist now.  The gift is the “Office of the Keys” as the Lutherans would call it – the gift of Confession and Absolution.

In the next periscope, “Doubting Thomas” centers more on his confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” than it does on his “doubting” (actually an expressed need to see and experience more (cf. people from Missouri).  What Jesus says to Thomas might be said to all of us.  The realism that seems to be required by fundamentalists does not match what Jesus here offers to those who have faith (thus hope and trust in his word).  The appeal to Thomas, to the readers, and finally to all who use John’s resource is to know Christ through John’s narrative, and then to begin the business of believing.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is doubt in your mind?
  2. Was Thomas truly a doubter?
  3. How are you a doubter?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; 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 © 2014, Michael T. Hiller