24 May 2017

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 4 June 2017

Acts 2:1-21
or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23
or John 7:37-39

Background: Pentecost

Pentecost and the Sunday that follows it (Trinity) lie on either side of a cusp that divides the Easter Cycle from Ordinary Time. Pentecost has its roots in a Jewish feast day that celebrated the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, called Shavout. It is the reason so many were gathered in Jerusalem on the day that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is that fiftieth day following Easter (Ascension is the fortieth). It is oftentimes called “the Birthday of the Church”, a remembrance not only of the gift of the Holy Spirit, but also of Saint Peter’s sermon and its extraordinary results where many were baptized and received into the community. In remembrance of Baptism, as is traditional on this day; it is good to observe the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.

The First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "

The reading is divided into two portions, verses 1-13, which form an introduction to the scene and day, and verses 14-21, the initial portion of Peter’s sermon, which is dominated by a quote from the prophet Joel. The translation of the initial phrase in The New American Bible, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled” helps us to understand that this is not just a time marker, but a statement about what God-directed things were about to happen. It also connects this event with the Ascension, “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled.” This is all a part of the plan, and with this event we enter into a new aspect of the plan.

The context of Peter’s sermon is important. The festival of Pentecost, originally a harvest festival, and then later a celebration of the giving of the Law, was a great pilgrimage (cf. Deuteronomy 16:16). Thus the Christian celebration of the day explores its new meaning in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Luke would be interested in the mixed crowd that had flooded into Jerusalem, and takes delight in accounting for all the different peoples who had gathered together. This listing of peoples is very much a part of Luke’s interest in the mission to the Gentiles. It is to these peoples as well as the Jews that Peter directs his words. The miracle of understanding simply underscores this gathering of the many, and prefigures the knowledge that the Spirit will bring.

Peter’s primacy is evident in that he is the one who speaks and addresses the crowd. He dispels their doubts about the condition and intent of the disciples, and then quotes the Prophet Joel, a sign that the promises of the Covenant are being fulfilled. Joel’s words are part of a general spiritualization of practice seen in Jeremiah and other prophets as well. The alternative lesson for today (see below) from Numbers, also signals this universalization of the divine gifts, Moses speaks, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all.” The intent is similar to Luke’s – that all people be welcomed into God’s family – into the Body of Christ.

Breaking open Acts:
1.          What are your dreams?
2.          How are they related to your religious life?
3.         Have you communicated your dreams to your children?


Numbers 11:24-30

Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

This is such an important reading, and I fear many will neglect it. It is necessary, I think, because it will help people understand the nature of prophecy – which is really the theme of the day. Prophecy is misunderstood in our time as a future-telling event, when really the prophetic word and action was much more active and dynamic. The prophet’s duty was to announce God’s word to the here and now. Signs of this activity were ecstatic behaviors – predictive speech along with dancing, singing, and thrashing about. So Moses gathers his interns and prays that they might be invested with the spirit. When they have been so blessed it seems to be a unitary moment, one not to be visited again.

Two men separate themselves both physically and spiritually by their continuation of prophetic behaviors. Eldad and Medad demonstrate God’s desire to pour God’s spirit upon all people. Robert Alter calls this event, “radical spiritual egalitarianism.”[1] As a liturgical reading it matches nicely with the Luke’s intent in the reading from Acts.

Breaking open Numbers:
  1. Do you feel that you have every been anointed with the Spirit?
  2. What has the Spirit called you to do?
  3. What is your vision of what God wants in our world?

Psalm 104:25-35, 37 Benedic, anima mea

25    Lord, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
26    Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
27    There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.
28    All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29    You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30    You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31    You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
32    May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; *
may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
33    He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
34    I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.
35    May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the Lord.
37    Bless the Lord, O my soul. *

This is truly one of the most beautiful of the psalms, rejoicing in creation and its magnificence, and in the splendor of its Creator. Many have compared it to the Great Hymn to the Aten by the Pharaoh Ikhnaton. The link will take you to the hymn if you wish to make the comparison. Again, as I often advise, read through the entirety of the psalm to capture the scope of its vision, and to help you see the focus that the framers of the lectionary sought in making their own selection from the psalm. If there is a theme that enhances the other readings for this day it is the word “breath”. This breath, this Spirit of God, is life itself. Breath taken away is death and a return to the dust. The psalm makes its way between the beauty of Spirit-engendered creation, and a smoke-filled trembling earth. This is the God of permanence and stability, but it is also the scene of change. Such is life in the Spirit.

Breaking open the Psalm 104:
1.         What is the beauty of creation? What does that mean?
2.         What are your feelings about change?
3.        Is there spirit-filled change in your life?

The Second Reading: I Corinthians 12:3b-13

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Here, in this reading, we meet the Spirit of change. What Paul does in these verses is to take the commonplace and invest it with new meaning and a new spiritual understanding. It is service (diakonia) that is changed and charged with the Spirit (pneuma and charis). This is the Gospel that sees our lives as servants enlivened with the Holy Spirit, an everyday occurrence that is a spiritual reality in an everyday world.

Two verses from the pericope that follows uses another metaphor to explore this mystery. Here Paul uses the body itself, as opposed to ordinary life in the preceding verses, to show how the spiritual changes us into the Body of Christ. The diversity becomes a unity – a lesson for our time and our age.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Has religious faith given new meaning to what you do in the world?
  2. What are your gifts that you can offer?
  3. What are your needs?


Acts 2:1-21
See above

The Gospel: St. John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, 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.”

We will have encountered this Gospel earlier in the season on the Second Sunday of Easter. My instinct is to use the other Gospel option, since we will have explored this one already. Its use here is tied to Jesus breathing upon them, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. The power of life and death, implicated in the forgiving or retention of sin, is similar to the psalmist’s use of these images in the psalm for today (see above.) Here, in John, we see the creation of a new community – not just one that follows Jesus on the road, but one who will be sent out to do the work indicated in the giving of the Spirit.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does John want us to understand in the breath of Jesus?
  2. Why was it necessary for the disciples?
  3. What does it mean to “retain sin”?

John 7:37-39

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

In this second scene from the Feast of the Tabernacles, Jesus associates himself with both thirst and the water that quenches the thirst. A great number of people have gathered together to celebrate the festival, and it is to this crowd that Jesus cries out to make an announcement about who he is and what is his work. The festival of Tabernacles was a celebration of return and the Great Day of YHWH. Jerusalem was the center that was restored (return) and was the example supreme of God’s visitation. Some of the ceremonial of the day may have informed the Palm Sunday entrance: people would carry branches of myrtle and willow tied with a palm in their right hand, and in their left an ethrog, a lemon or citrus. They would circle the altar of holocaust waving their branches while the priest flooded the altar with water.

Now we can understand in part why Jesus is making reference to the water and to the thirst, and why he identifies himself in those images. He is the visitation and his coming is the Great Day of YHWH. This text is so loaded with symbols that it is difficult to manage or appreciate them all. Are their hints of baptism? Is the water the Word? Is Jesus the prophet? Preachers ought to have a feast day with this text. A sermon might be too limiting – an extended Bible Class seems to be called for.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What have you lost in life that God has returned?
2.     For what are you thirsty in life?
3.    What will satisfy your thirst?

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

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

or this

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; 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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Alter, R. (2008) The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition location 15413.

16 May 2017

The Seventh Sunday after Easter, 28 May 2017

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

Background: The Feast of the Ascension
We know of a celebration of the Ascension from at least the 4th century, when Eusebius seems to mention it. Other mentions are from Ss. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa as well. Aetheria writes about the feast in her account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There was some controversy acquainted with the feast in that for a time it was to have been celebrated in conjunction with Pentecost, and the Synod of Elvira requests that the feast “on the fortieth day after Easter” be suppressed. The three days prior to the Feast are observed as Rogation Days. Some of the customs associated with the Feast are related to the days of Rogation, such as the blessing of first fruits, and the blessing of beans and grapes. Other customs are related to the Paschal Candle, which is extinguished following the Gospel for the day.

First Reading: 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.

The reading has three separate sections, or scenes. The first (verses 6-8) regards the sending out of the apostles. The second (verses 9-11) is the actual account of the ascension, and the third (verses 12-14) regards the apostles’ return to Jerusalem, and their life of prayer along with the Virgin Mary. Thus we have mission, absence, and prayer as themes for our devotions on this reading.

The first section asks us to contemplate the Kingdom, and what it might be. Still the disciples are wondering how Jesus will be Royal David redivivus. It is the classic question that surrounds the conversation about the Messiah. Jesus expands on their concerns to talk about a much larger vision of what the kingdom will be, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That sets the mission directive, and having delivered such, Jesus is removed from their sight leaving behind the promise of receiving power from the Holy Spirit. The angels looking on deliver the promise of continued presence, but the address, “Men of Galilee” indicates again the directions that were given the women at the tomb. Some commentators see this scene as another resurrection appearance and connect the events into a single experience.

The final section gives us an accounting of who the apostles were, and names them as individuals. Again there is an upper room, and again there are the woman (unnamed) and the Mother of Jesus as well. Notice that the names are paired, a reflection of Jesus’ sending out his disciples in in pairs (see Mark 6:7, or Luke 10:1). This custom reaches back into Mosaic Law where legal testimony required two witnesses. The Greek gives us a clue as to the intensity of their prayer following the Ascension. It reads, “They persisted together in their prayer.” The doubts and questions seem to have been swept away and a determined community begins to be formed.

Breaking open Acts:
1.          What do you think comprises the Kingdom of God?
2.          How is Jesus the Messiah?
3.         Who is your partner in being a witness to the Gospel?

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.
2      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.
3      But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; *
let them also be merry and joyful.
4      Sing to God, sing praises to his Name;
exalt him who rides upon the heavens; *
YAHWEH is his Name, rejoice before him!
5      Father of orphans, defender of widows, *
God in his holy habitation!
6      God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom; *
but the rebels shall live in dry places.
7      O God, when you went forth before your people, *
when you marched through the wilderness,
8      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.
9      You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance; *
you refreshed the land when it was weary.
10    Your people found their home in it; *
in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.
33    Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; *
sing praises to the Lord.
34    He rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; *
he sends forth his voice, his mighty voice.
35    Ascribe power to God; *
his majesty is over Israel;
his strength is in the skies.
36    How wonderful is God in his holy places! *
the God of Israel giving strength and power to his people!
Blessed be God!

The first verse is a quotation from Numbers 10:35, the so-called “Song of the Ark”. Perhaps this is more than just a quotation or borrowing, but rather an indicator of how the psalm was used. The text does at several points indicate a grand procession, so we may be dealing with a liturgical text here. At one point the text names YHWH as “the rider of the clouds” (in our text “who rides upon the heavens), a borrowing from Canaanite or Ugaritic usage, associated with the worship of Ba’al. There are several notes of triumph and providence, and one wonders if this is referential to the Red Sea, or to the return from Exile. It is more likely the former.

The last segment, verses 33-36, strikes a note of triumph. Again, God is seen as the triumphant rider, “He rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens” (or “the heaven of heavens” – a superlative. The mighty voice of God is seen or rather heard in the thunder of the clouds upon which God rides.

Breaking open the Psalm 68:
1.         Where do you see God as triumphant?
2.         What are all the anthropomorphic images of God in this psalm?
3.        How is God mighty in your life?

Second Reading: I 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.

In the first segment (verses 4:12-14) we have a repeat of the comparisons of the sufferings of the community and the sufferings of Jesus. It is a realistic reflection of the difficulties that the early community had been enduring in the midst of a society that did not understand or know the message of the Christians.

We have several lists of behavior in the second segment – humility, release of anxiety, discipline, and keeping alert. This is the comportment expected of the author by the community. Perhaps the most important of the expected behaviors is resistance. There is a vision of an active adversary to the vision of Jesus, and his kingdom. The author then presents a vision of a catholic community of suffering that results in another list of supportive measures – restoration, support, strength, and establishment. That is the power that God provides for God’s people.

Breaking open I Peter
  1. In what ways have you practiced humility?
  2. How have you resisted evil?
  3. How does God support you in times of trouble?

The Gospel: 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.”

We are still in the Last Discourse, Jesus’ instruction with the disciples prior to the Holy Week events. Robert E. Brown describes the Last Discourse as a “farewell speech”, and one that concludes with a prayer for the disciples that he will leave behind to do his will. This is very much in the style of the prophets. We have two instances with Moses, who prays for the people, (see Deuteronomy 32, and 33). What we have with these passages is a construct of Jesus sayings, brought together in a synopsis of prayer and instruction. The verses themselves suggest the structure of a hymn, perhaps one that was attached to the Hallel psalms following the Passover meal. Where we might have expected a more strident Eucharistic image on the part of John we have no explicit Eucharistic citation. What we do have, however, is the theme of unity and its strong association with the Eucharist and the community that it engenders.

Some things that you might look for as you read through the Last Discourse: Each of the units of the discourse (Verses 1-5, 10, and 22) has a theme of “glory.” Each unit begins with a concise statement of what Jesus is praying for. Each addresses God the Father, and each mentions how God has gifted Jesus with the people who follow. Finally each segment mentions the revelation by Jesus of the Father to those who are learning from him. These verses can be foundational in our own lives of devotion, in our making theology, and in our prayers, especially at the Eucharistic Table.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is God a parent to you?
2.     For whom in your congregation do you pray?
3.    How is the Eucharist a meal of unity?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller