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.


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