28 May 2014

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1 June 2014

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

From Cathedral Ridge, Woodland Park, Colorado

Background:  The Ascension
Aetheria, in her journal about the observances of Christian Palestine in the fourth century, mentions the vigil of this feast day.  St. Augustine and St. Chrysostom both mention the actual feast day along with other ancients following the early fifth century.  Its placement as the 40th day in Eastertide, and preceding the Feast of Pentecost, along with other practices and observance connected with Rogation Days have confused the actual aspects of the day.  The day is universally celebrated among the churches, although in these latter days, its propers are often transferred to the following Sundays.  In the Eastern Church it is celebrated as the “Going Up”.  Many of the practices in some countries are actually those associated with the Rogation Procession.  One common practice is the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle following the reading of the Ascension Gospel.  In some churches this action, the extinguishing of the candle, is delayed until Pentecost.

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.

In this scene, and one ought to really compare it to Luke’s other Ascension scene in Luke 24:50-53 to see the further development of the Ascension idea, Luke provides three distinct aspects to Jesus’ ascension.  The first reaches back to define the historic context in which the momentous events preceding the passion and resurrection of Jesus.  It is in and for Israel that these events happened, and now Luke moves to connect this salvation history of Israel to other lands and peoples.  It is invested in the misguided hopes of the disciples, which Jesus quickly corrects, “it is not for you to know the times and seasons.”  Something is clearly beyond them and leads to something new.  That is the second scene in which the Holy Spirit is promised and will give them the means for mission and reaching beyond Jerusalem.  The third aspect is the places that Jesus mentions beyond Jerusalem, “in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  What is remarkable, in addition to the mission to the remainder of the earth, is the reconciliation of Judea and Samaria.  That Jesus then departs and that the angels send the disciples to Galilee brings the cycle to a close, open to something new.  The discernment of this new mission is described in the action of devotion to prayer, the inclusion of women, and the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What are the differences in the account of the Ascension in Luke and in Acts?
  2. What do you know about your “times and seasons”?
  3. What does your faith have to say about your times?

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.

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.

But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; *
let them also be merry and joyful.

Sing to God, sing praises to his Name;
exalt him who rides upon the heavens; *
YAHWEH is his Name, rejoice before him!

Father of orphans, defender of widows, *
God in his holy habitation!

God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom; *
but the rebels shall live in dry places.

O God, when you went forth before your people, *
when you marched through the wilderness,

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.

You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance; *
you refreshed the land when it was weary.

Your people found their home in it; *
in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.

Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; *
sing praises to the Lord.

He rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; *
he sends forth his voice, his mighty voice.

Ascribe power to God; *
his majesty is over Israel;
his strength is in the skies.

How wonderful is God in his holy places! *
the God of Israel giving strength and power to his people!
Blessed be God!

Again we have a psalm that has extensive borrowings from other psalms and other literature.  Of note is its resemblance to an Ugaritic poem celebrating the journey of the Ba’al across the heavens.  These verses are the reasons for marrying these verses to the psalm for a Sunday following the Ascension.  The verses all celebrate the presence of YHWH in the history of God’s people.  I am taken with one image in the poem, “let them vanish like smoke when the winds drive it away.”  Robert Alter’s translation is, “as smoke disperses, may they disperse.”  I am taken with this image in that it describes the dispersal of the disciples that Luke describes in Luke.  That God rides the heavens is a wonderful image, but the description of human activity which is protected by God’s grace and favor is also a description of the theatre in which the winds of the Holy Spirit will blow.

Breaking open Psalm 68:
  1. What images of God in this psalm do you find engaging?
  2. What images of God in this psalm are not to your taste?
  3. Why?

1 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.

The author of I Peter continues his discussion of responsible suffering in the face of hostility.  He continues to connect the suffering, not only of daily life and its difficulties, but also of possible persecutions of Christian people, with the sufferings of Jesus.  The author wants his readers to understand the two aspects that confront them: the Spirit that is “resting on them,” and the pervasive presence of evil powers.  The respite is the welcoming arms of Jesus, “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”  It is a real picture, even absent the persecutions, of people living in the Spirit, and with Christ, but in the midst of difficulty. The final verbs describe a divine healing: “restore, support, strengthen, and establish.”  If the Ascension of Jesus represents a kind of absence – these verses describe a vital presence.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. How have you been restored by God?
  2. Is evil a threat to you?  How?
  3. How is God present in your life?

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. "

Dorothy Ann Lee, in her Commentary on John, compares this prayer on the part of Jesus (often called “The High Priestly Prayer”) to the prayers offered by patriarchs on their death beds (cf. Genesis 49, Deuteronomy 33, Joshua 24).  Here Jesus describes his own testament to his disciples, but describes it in the context of his relationship to the Father.  In some sense the prayer is didactic in that the content seems not only intended for the ears of the Father but for the disciples as well.  The glory that John so elegantly describes in his prologue is now completed in an anticipation of the Passion of Jesus, and the completion of the plan.

Jesus’ attention now turns to the disciples as he prays for them.  The description underscores the relationship with Jesus, “those whom you gave me from the world.” All the tools for mission are passed to the disciples, prayer, relationship, indeed, the words themselves.  It is in the relationship of the Trinity, and in the community of love that Jesus proposes and demonstrates in the washing of feet, that the world will glimpse the glory that will be seen in the coming days.  Jesus asks the Father to protect these recipients of grace.  The hint that binds this prayer to this particular Sunday sits in Jesus’ phrase, “and now I am no longer in the world.”  It will be left to the Spirit and those who will remain in the world to carry this community of love beyond cross and grave to not only Israel, but to the nations as well.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is the way that Jesus points to?
  2. How is Jesus the truth for you?
  3. How is life different when you follow the Word?

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 © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

19 May 2014

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 25 May 2014

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

Background: Rogation Days
Although a gift from the French to the Universal Church, Rogation Days have a rather rich practice in the British Isles as well.  The days are those that precede the Feast of the Ascension.  Although there is a specific day of rogation (from the Latin – “to ask”) it is the days at the end of Easter that are most popularly followed.  It is primarily an agricultural feast, beseeching God to bless the fields and crops, and may have emerged from an earlier Roman holiday, which had similar aims.  The days were first celebrated as a Christian festival in Gaul around 470 CE, and in the seventh century were commonly celebrated throughout what is now France.  In the ninth century, the practice was introduced into the Roman Rite by Leo III.  As a fast, the vestments were purple, despite their presence during the Easter season. 

In addition to the blessing of fields, orchards, and gardens, other practices have developed, such as the “beating of the bounds” during which a procession was made around the edges of the parish.  In England from the twelfth century on Rogation processions became popular with banners representing Pontius Pilate and Christ.  These celebrations survived the puritans, and were brought to American from both French and English sources.

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."

Although Luke situates Paul in a complimentary sort of attitude toward the Athenians and their religious piety he is yet set on having them understand the God of the Jews as the one God.  The device he uses for this is the “altar to an unknown God”.  Most scholars think that this is more of a visual device that Luke/Paul uses to open a theological wedge into Athenian thinking.  (For a new and interesting study on the cult in Athens, see Joan Breton Connelly’s recent study of the iconography of the Parthenon, The Parthenon Enigma).  More likely it was an altar without any inscription.  Regardless, Luke wants Paul to make a point here – that the struggle in searching for God has been completed in the story of Jesus Christ.  He quotes Isaiah in verse 24, where he comments on the God who created all things not living in shrines made with human hands.  (Was the Temple already destroyed by this time?)  He argues out of their own culture, quoting Epimenides of Knossos (sixth century BCE), “In him we live and move and have our being,” and Aratus of Soli (third century BCE, Cilicia), “For we too are his offspring.”  From this cultural point, Paul moves in an iconoclastic manner, calling the Athenians to repentance, and promoting the righteousness won by Christ and ascertained in his resurrection.

Breaking open Acts:

1.     How do you reconcile your own faith with popular religion?
2.     What is Paul’s fundamental message here?
3.     How do you preach Jesus to our world?

Psalm 66:7-18 Jubilate Deo

Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;

Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.

For you, O God, have proved us; *
you have tried us just as silver is tried.

You brought us into the snare; *
you laid heavy burdens upon our backs.

You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water; *
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.

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.

I will offer you sacrifices of fat beasts
with the smoke of rams; *
I will give you oxen and goats.

Come and listen, all you who fear God, *
and I will tell you what he has done for me.

I called out to him with my mouth, *
and his praise was on my tongue.

If I had found evil in my heart, *
the Lord would not have heard me;

But in truth God has heard me; *
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.

Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, *
nor withheld his love from me.

The initial verses of this psalm, not used on this Sunday, look back at the miracle at the Red Sea, and urge the earth to “hymn his name’s glory.”  When we pick up the psalm in verse 7 the focus turns to the notion of God who has “kept us in life”, or in our translation, “who holds our souls in life.  The poet then goes on, perhaps moving from the Red Sea, to the Sinai Peninsula, to treat on the themes of testing and struggle – “You trapped us in a net.”  What began as a thanksgiving now seems to morph into a supplication.  Just as quickly the psalm again refocuses on themes that we also see in Psalm 116, where the author promises to bring offerings and prayers, and celebrates God having listened.

Breaking open Psalm 66:

1.     In your praying do you vacillate from one emotion to another?
2.     What does that mean for you?
3.     What sacrifice do you owe to God?

1 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.

The Biblical commentator Bo Reicke, in his commentary on the Epistles of James, Peter and Jude[1], reminds us of the Jewish zealots who during the decade that preceded the Roman campaigns against the Jewish revolts used violent means as a device to gain their freedom.  The strategy did not work, but it influences the author of first Peter, whose book may have been written during this period.  Here the author of I Peter urges Christians to abandon violence and to become “zealots for good.”  Other commentators place the book at a much later date, and the content of the successive verses seems to argue for that.  The theme and topic is suffering, and it seems to be the suffering that arises from the official persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian in 81 CE.  The author uses the example of Christ’s suffering.  In a magnificent juxtaposition, the author describes the so-called “Harrowing of Hell” when Christ descends and “preaches to the spirits in prison,” and in the concluding verses describes the Christ “who is at the right hand of God; since he ascended into heaven, angels, magistrates, and powers have become subject to him.”  The official Roman policy doesn’t matter, for it is subject to Christ’s rule.  Its affect in life becomes a participation in the sufferings of Jesus.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. What are you zealous for?
  2. How do you suffer in life, and for what?
  3. How do you participate in the suffering of Jesus?

St. John 14:15-21

Jesus said to his disciples, "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."

Jesus continues his instruction of the disciples.  Here again we are introduced to a strong visual image in the name that Jesus applies to the Spirit – Paraclete (literally “called to one’s side”.  Thus we have several words that apply here, “counselor”, “advocate”, or “Paraclete”.  There is the flavor of a courtroom or perhaps the classroom in this scene.  The spirit is the one who “convicts” us of Christ’s presence, instructing us in his ways.

What follows next is the promise of continued presence.  The fear of Jesus’ departure is one that seems to debilitate the disciples and their mission.  Thus the presence of the Spirit, to continue the instruction and presence, and the promise of knowledge “in the Father” becomes paramount.  All of this is centered in an on-going love, from God to humankind, and amongst those in the community.  It is this love that reveals the true nature of what God intends, and keeps those who follow Jesus from the emotional reaction of fear.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     Do you feel that Christ is absent in your life?
2.     How can you make Christ present?
3.     Where is the Spirit leading you?

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.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Reicke, B. (1964) The Anchor Bible, The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude, Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 221 pages.