29 April 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 3 May 2015

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

Background: African Queens
The story of Philip and the eunuch would been exotic in and of itself, but we are given more information that is equally exotic. We are told that the eunuch was “a treasury official” of the Candacem Queen of the Ethiopians. This is not the only reference we have to these ruler, or “queens regent” in Kush in the Nile River Valley. The term may be translated as either “Queen” or “Queen-Mother”, but it is definitely a title rather than a proper name. It is not only Luke who recalls this event (and Luke may be attracted to the exotic, here, because it sees the Gospel being given to more than the Gentiles of Europe), but also Pliny, Strabo, and Eusebius note not only the office, but the people whom the Candace ruled.  Legends about these remarkable women are many, some involving Alexander the Great, and the Emperor Augustus. We know their names, and we have some idea about events in their lives (mostly frome Before the Common Era). Their area of influence extended from Northeastern Africa over to the Red Sea. On the edge of the classical world, their history seems to have sprung from the Indus River valley, where St. Thomas would make his mark.

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.

With Philip we meet a complex character. He comes to us with a sense of privilege: title, transportation, the ability to read, and possesses a scroll of Isaiah (in Greek) – so he is probably at least bi-lingual at least. There is another aspect to this character, however. He is truly an outcast. He is an Ethiopian, so he comes from a distance and from a different tradition, but is none-the-less drawn to Jerusalem. He is a person of color, and he is a eunuch, some one who stands outside of the purity code of Israel. In his own context, the eunuch is a person of influence and power, but in the context of Israel, we is something other and strange. This is the complex situation to which Philip is introduced.

And as sauce for the goose, he is reading one of the Suffering Servant Songs from one of the latter Isaiahs. Philip brings a new eye to the reading of this snippet from the Song. For Philip it is clear that the servant is none other than Jesus, and his silence and humiliation are accounted for in the verses of the song.  There is one other operative presence, however, and that is the Spirit. An angel directs Philip to the fortuitous intersection, but it is the Spirit who sends. In this manner, Philip becomes a “sent one” an apostle. And in the nexus that the Spirit arranges, believer, preacher, Word, and water, something astounding happens – baptism. Philip is fully participating in the manner of the Risen One that he appears to breathe the Spirit upon the eunuch, and then disappears. Just as Jesus does, he enters the situation and announced the Kingdom of God. One almost wants to continue the journey with the eunuch.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. How does the eunuch stand outside of the social standards of the time?
  2. Do you stand outside current social standards? How?
  3. Have you ever been “sent” like Philip? Describe the situation.

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.

Our familiarity with this psalm is recent in that the ceremonies of Holy Week and the Triduum have made them available to us. Here, however, we focus on the later verses of the psalm where the locale changes from the familiar to places not so familiar, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” The verses are a good commentary on the ministry and preaching of Philip in the first reading (above). The connection with Christian theology even extends to life in the nether world, and one is tempted to think of Christ’s harrowing of hell as we read the words, ‘To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship, all who go down to the dust fall before him.” This is a song of a lasting relationship. The eunuch in the reading above has just begun his relationship with the Lord, but here, the psalmist luxuriates in the connection with God, and God’s grace. It is a relationship that extends beyond himself to “a people yet unborn.”

Breaking open Psalm 22:
  1. Where would you not expect to find God in your life?
  2. How might you see God there?
  3. Have you ever sought out someone for good purposes? Describe the situation.

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.

One commentator gives a refreshing perspective that can help us understand the meaning of I John’s author. The Gospel of John gives us eyes to see in Jesus the Divine, while this author gives us eyes to see Christ’s humanity. God’s presence is seen in the love God bears toward us and that we ought to bear for one another. It is in this human act of caring and loving, that the author hopes we will perceive Jesus – the anointed one.  There is a series of causalities here that connect us all in love – so that we can understand the nature of God, and our own nature (in Christ) as well.

Breaking open I John:
  1. What does love mean to you?
  2. Where is it evident in your life?
  3. Where is it seen in your church?

St. John 15:1-8

Jesus said to his disciples, "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."

Just when we had left Lent and were thoroughly ensconced in the Sundays of Easter, this pericope from the Farewell Discourse in John comes to greet us. It is a proleptic view of the community that will arise out of the Easter witness. Of special interest is the passage, “I am the vine, you are the branhes.” These are not two separate entities, but rather a whole.  This goes beyond the notion of the “Body of Christ” which Paul uses. In his book, Choosing the Kingdom[1], John Dally notes that this goes beyond a spiritual and theological point of view to a practical assertion of the Kingdom of God. He writes:

“In Luke’s narrative we glimpse an apprenticeship model of training, one in which the master and the pupils are engaged in identical work, rather than a hired-servant model in which the servants remain perpetually dependent on the orders of the master. This way of thinking about preaching has proven more difficult for students in my classes who are accustomed to thinking of the work of Jesus and their own work as being quite distinct.”[2]

In many respects this is a good point of view to test our imaging of the relationships between Jesus and the People of God. There is a mutuality here that is not seen in the Good Shepherd images. The sheep are helpless, the apprentice is not. After all this is the community upon whom the Spirit has been breathed – it is a capable community. In addition this is not a static or passive relationship. An outcome is expected, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Non productive aspects are thrown into the fire. What remains produces fruit –and it will be the imagination and ingenuity of the Church (or really the collective of witnesses) which will determine what that fruit might be.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you work with Jesus in your life?
  2. How is your congregation and example of community effort?
  3. What kind of fruit does your congregation bear? 
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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1]        Dally, John A. (2008). Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition
[2]        Dally, location 578.

20 April 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 26 April 2015

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

Background:  Good Shepherd Sunday
After the Vatican II reforms, and the wide acceptance of the Roman Ordo, specifically the Three-Year Lectionary that was quickly adopted by Episcopalians and Lutherans, the theme of the Good Shepherd moved from the Second Sunday after Easter to (in the new calendar) the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The readings that center on the shepherd images of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, give background to the name.

For most of us, however, we are at such a remove from rural life, specifically that of the sheepfold, and the tasks of the shepherd, that it is difficult to plumb the depths of these images. Too many stained glass windows have sentimentalized the image of shepherd and flock for us that the realities of this kind of life and its ramifications for our own living, are sometimes unattainable. There are two ways to go here. One would be to look at the role the shepherd played in the ancient near east, sometimes operating at the fringes of society, if not being outcast from society. Yet these individuals were an important part of the agricultural economy. David spent his time as a shepherd, and it is a role that is often connected with kingship in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The other tack would be to explore all the symbolic content that the shepherd figure offers, not only in Israel and in the Jesus story, but in the ancient near east as well. What may be received by most modern worshippers as “cute” might be turned into something more profound and engaging. What does it mean to be the “Lamb of God”, and how might we understanding the arresting images of the Lamb in Revelation? Here is something for lector, preacher, and people to explore.

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."

The subthemes in these stories are about power and authority. The question is often asked, “By whose authority do you do these things?” To this theme, Luke adds the consideration of the power of the name of Jesus.  In the third chapter, Peter says, “And by faith in his name, this man, whom you see and know, his name has made strong, and the faith that comes through it has given him this perfect health, in the presence of all of you.” (Acts 3:16). In this pericope, we see two men, of little means and education, who speak with boldness and authority. It is they who bear the Name, and it is they who invoke its power. Peter is quick to answer the inquiries of the religious authorities, but his response is noted as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Luke sees the authority of both Name and Spirit. Peter always sees such questions as an opportunity to proclaim the resurrection, and the salvation and forgiveness that come with it. If you would like to read a stunning description of what such preaching might entail, see John Dally’s Chapter, “The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God is Accompanied by Healing”, in his book, Choosing the Kingdom – Missional Preaching for the Household of God[1]:

“As we learn more about Jesus’s original context, however, we begin to realize that the healing he enjoins his followers to offer is part and parcel of a larger missional plan for proclaiming the kingdom of God present on earth.”

Peter is being cast in the role of Jesus, by Luke, who wants his readers to see in Peter’s and later Paul’s actions the active ministry of Jesus. Luke has Peter preach, but his actions of healing were probably more powerful and profound to those who witnessed them. Such touched lives offer a different evidence of authority and power.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What power does the Name of Jesus have in your life?
  2. How might you heal as Peter does?
  3. How might you proclaim as Peter does?

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.

Here we have an excellent example of the shepherd image being used to describe God. A quick point might be that this among other images of everyday life is applicable in describing God’s presence among us. Perhaps that is why this is such a powerful and beloved psalm. There are hazards in this psalm in addition to the green pastures and the still waters. “He revives my soul”, is probably better translated with “he gives me back my life (nephesh – “life breath”). This is followed by another hazardous image, that of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” We all are walking in hazardous places, and we all are accompanied by a God, who like a shepherd protects us by walking with us. What follows in the verses that follow is what is engendered in us by God’s presence, “I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.” 

The remaining verses leave the pastoral image behind, and we are seated at table, luxuriating in anointings of oil, and a cup brimming with joy. The presence in harm is also the presence in all of life, both good and bad, “all the days of my life.”

Breaking open Psalm 23:
  1. What is your valley of the shadow of death?
  2. How does God keep you safe in that valley?
  3. How do you luxuriate in God’s love for you?

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.

The author sees two necessary things, belief in the power of the Name (see the commentary on Acts, above) and the love of one another. What are we talking about here? This is an ethic, “love one another”, that is accompanied by a theological point – belief in the Name. These form the major themes in the latter part of this Epistle. Jesus serves as the example of this behavior, and indeed the fulfillment of it. By his actions we are all included in grace, and are sent out to be examples of it in our own lives as well. The author says it well, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” This might prove to be a difficult ethic.

Breaking open I John:
  1. How does the church follow the example of Jesus’ love?
  2. How does it not?
  3. How does this play out in your own life?

St. 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 text from John uses the images of the sheep and the shepherd that revolve around kingship and authority. Many roles are portrayed here, but chief among them is that of the shepherd as the ultimate protector who “lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus, as in the second lesson (above) becomes the example of authority in action, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” So it is not only wind and wave that Jesus commands but the realities of life and death also. There is also a quick and decisive look back at the One who gives this authority by means of “this command from my Father.” So not only is Jesus talking about protection, and salvation, but access as well. In the previous pericopes, Jesus describes himself as not only the Shepherd, but the Gate of the Sheepfold as well. All of this meditation on Jesus as Shepherd, Gate, and Life-giver is preceded by healing – a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. So it is not only about authority and power, but also about God’s presence with us. These readings have an amazing sense of unity.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. If Jesus is a gate in your life, to what does the gate lead?
  2. Has anyone laid down their life for you? Who and why?
  3. Has Jesus healed you? How?
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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Dally, John A. (2007), Choosing the Kingdom – Missional Teaching for the Household of God, The Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia