30 April 2018

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 6 May 2018

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
I John 5:9-17
St. John 15:9-17

Background: Water and Baptism

I have the bowl in which I was baptized. My father, a Lutheran pastor, baptized me in an emergency baptism; I was a so-called blue baby and there were fears that I might not live. I have the bowl – it is quite small, but there was sufficiency of water, intent, and Word. I think it’s important to remember the role that water plays in the salvation history given us in the Scriptures. There are the primeval rivers in Eden, and there is the Flood – the image Luther used in his Flutgebet[1].In his book, Being Christian, Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, Rowan Williams reminds us of the symbolic aspects of the baptismal waters. 

“At the very beginning of creation, the book of Genesis tells us, there was watery chaos. And over that watery chaos there was, depending on how you read the Hebrew, the Holy Spirit hovering or a great wind blowing (or perhaps one is a sort of metaphor for the other). First there is chaos, and then there is the wind of God’s Spirit; and out of the watery chaos comes the world.”[2]

The chaos of water was not only present at the beginning of creation, ordered by the God who spoke it into order, it was also present as a reminder of death in the Hebrew Scriptures. The water that we sprinkle over newborns, or over adults is far from harmful. Perhaps that is why we really ought to reconsider emersion as the best means for helping people that we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. If you doubt the power of this practice, go to any Orthodox Baptism and you will see the power of the action. 

First Reading: Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

In the background I mention, and quote Rowan Williams on the chaos that is ordered by the breath that is the Spirit. We meet that same Spirit again in this pericope that recalls the Baptism of Cornelius. The gift of the Spirit, Luke/Acts reminds us, is not only the gift to the Jews, but to the Gentiles as well. If we think about it, and mind ourselves in the text from Genesis, we realize that the gift of the Spirit is a gift to the whole creation. In this text we realize that the Holy Spirit interrupts Peter’s sermon, and perhaps that is a notion that we might want to concentrate and meditate on – the Holy Spirit as an interruption. Peter’s speech (literally, his words) are given over to new words, “for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” Here the Spirit comes first, and then the water. It was the practice of a predecessor of mine to place a fully charged ewer of water at the Baptismal Font every Sunday. It was a message that if the Spirit moved you, we were prepared to receive you – a good message and symbol. So here the Spirit moves the Gentiles, and Peter orders the Baptism.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. How has the Spirit interrupted your life?
  2. What new language or words do you have to describe your faith?
  3. Whom have you spoken to about what you believe?

Psalm 98 Cantate Domino

     Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
     With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
     The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
     He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
     Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
     Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.
     With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
     Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
     Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
10    In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.

New words in the first reading, and a new song in the Responsorial Psalm. Oddly enough the psalm is a pastiche of familiar phrases from other psalms now formed into a new song. Perhaps this connection with the new words of the First Reading are the reason that the Lectionary provides for this psalm with this collection of readings. There is a double vision here that not only recalls God’s relationship with Israel, “(God) remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,” but also God’s witness and relationship with all the nations. This psalm is about telling, about showing forth this relationship with God has with the created. The language is formed not only by familiar words, but by the noise of instruments, music and shouts. Indeed, creation itself, both sea and lands, speak of the goodness of God.

Breaking open Psalm 98:
  1. Is it just music that speaks to you of God? What else?
  2. How do you best communicate God to others?
  3. What does nature say to you about God?

Second Reading: I John 5:1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

The author continues a commentary on the love of God known to us through various means. Here we are given the example of family, parent and child. This love is seen in how we treat others, how we follow the commandments. To this familiar commentary on love, the author adds a reference to both baptism and the cross, “This is the one who came by water and blood.” Is it the water and blood pouring from his side, or might it also be the water that signaled his own baptism as well? The Spirit is here, in this love, in the baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Breaking open I John:
  1. How are you a parent in the image of God?
  2. How are you a child in the image of God?
  3. How are you a family in the image of God?

The Gospel: St. John 15:9-17

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

When we think of the Holy Trinity we are baffled sometimes, and we struggle for a language to know the nature of God. Here, Jesus teaches us a lesson about God, and the relationship and community that is God. “As the Father has loved me…”leads us into the relationship that Jesus has with the Father and that expounds upon God’s very nature. It becomes a way of knowing God not only in our minds but in our actions as well. “Love one another as I have loved you.” There are so many roles pointed out in this text: servant, master, friend, chosen, appointed. Which will inform our way of living? How will we become friends with the world, so that it might know the friendship of God? Thomas à Kempis states it well.

“Hence we must support one another, console one another, mutually help, counsel, and advise, for the measure of every man’s virtue is best revealed in time of adversity — adversity that does not weaken a man but rather shows what he is.”[3]

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Who is/was the love of your life?
  2. How does that love inform your living?
  3. Where is love in your faith?

Question: How are we interrupted by the Spirit?

Interruption 1:         Baptismal life takes us from the world and then puts us back in.

Interruption 2:         The Spirit reshapes our Family, our Community.

Interruption 3:         Whom has the Spirit led to our doors, our table?

Interruption 4:         How are we ready to baptize those the Spirit has called?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Almighty eternal God, Who according to Your righteous judgment condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, and in Your great mercy preserved believing Noah and his family, and Who drowned hardhearted Pharoah with all his host in the Red Sea and led Your people Israel through the same on dry ground, thereby prefiguring this bath of Your baptism, and Who through the baptism of Your dear Child, our Lord Jesus Christ, has consecrated and set apart the Jordan and all water as a salutary flood and a rich and full washing away of sins: We pray through the same Your groundless mercy, that You will graciously behold this N. and bless him with true faith in the Spirit, so that by means of this saving flood all that has been born in him from Adam and of which he himself has added thereto may be drowned in him and engulfed, and that he may be sundered from the number of the unbelieving, preserved dry and secure in the holy ark of Christendom, serve Your name at all times, fervent in spirit and joyful in hope, so that with all believers he may be made worthy to attain eternal life according to Your promise; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
[2]     Williams, R. (2014), Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Kindle Edition, page 2.
[3]     Thomas à Kempis, Imitatio Christi

24 April 2018

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 29 April 2018

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

Background: Eunuchs

Eunuchs were known throughout the ancient world, and well into the modern world. Some were neutered to diminish their influence with higher ups, to render them less of threat in the harem, or to give them that child-like voice that was so beloved in the Baroque era. In the political sense, these men were seen as more trustworthy, not bound by family ties. In ancient Greece, the eunuch was not always the function of the removal of organs but could be one who abstained from procreation. Some have seen the origin of the term in the phrase, “guarding the bed” (to ten eunen ekhein) or from “good mind” (eu nous). Eunuchs were known in the Ancient Near Eastern cultures, Assyria, Egypt, Persia, and amongst the Hittites. There are instances of the use of the word “eunuch” in various translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, but often it is better translated with “chamberlain” or “officer.” Likewise, there is mention of men who have been castrated either by accident or by intent who were not allowed into the assembly of YHWH.

First Reading: 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.

The dreams of the Isaiahs and of Jeremiah that the entire world would be drawn to YHWH is seen as a realization in this story of the eunuch (a believer) and Philip. The prophet Zephaniah (3:9-10) comments, “From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, they shall bring me offerings.” In Luke/Acts we see an active agenda of the inclusion of gentiles – this pericope being a primary example. The story not only lifts up a ministry amongst the Gentiles, but also promotes a theology of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit is the actor that urges Philip to participate in the eunuch’s brief catechumenate. That he should be reading from Isaiah completes the circle.

There is a model program here – the initiate who is desirous of knowing and experiencing more, and the one who leads them into the truth and understanding. The model example is Jesus and the disciples at Emmaus, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.” Thus, Philip leads the eunuch into a more complete understanding of not only Isaiah, but the Jesus who fulfills the message of Isaiah 53:7-8. There is a double meaning in the quotation, “For his life is taken away from the earth.”The meaning of “taken away” can either indicate “being lifted up”, as either on the cross or at the Ascension, or “done away with” as at the crucifixion. There is an economy here of the verse chosen from Isaiah, and Philip’s explication of the text.

The desire for baptism and its execution in a nearby body of water also completes a text from Isaiah 56:3-7

“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, 
who choose what pleases me, 
and who hold fast to my covenant, I will give . . . 
a monument and a name.”

In a time when baptism is being characterized by some as an exclusive barrier, this passage serves as a corrective. Baptism is the open welcome to any who would come in. 

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What does the eunuch represent to you?
  2. Who is a eunuch in your life?
  3. Who has asked you about the meaning of the Bible?

Psalm 22:24-30 Deus, Deus meus

24    My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
25    The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the Lord shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"
26    All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
27    For kingship belongs to the Lord; *
he rules over the nations.
28    To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.
29    My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.
30    They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.

There is an inclusiveness in this psalm that matches well the quotes from Isaiah in the first reading, and the story of Philip and the Eunuch. One wonders if the “Great Assembly” that the psalmist refers to in verse 24 is not a pun – the assembly gathered in the Temple and the great assembly of nations called to worship God. The aspects of this assembly of inclusion are repeated throughout the psalm: “those who worship,” “the poor”, “those who seek the Lord”, “all the ends of the earth”, “all the families of the nations”, and so on. There is also a dimension of time noted in the verses, “my descendants shall serve him.” The mission of the church has to be the one noted by the psalmist, “They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn…” 

Breaking open Psalm 22:
  1. Describe the diversity of your congregation?
  2. Who is missing?
  3. Who needs to be asked?

Second Reading: I 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.

The author of this epistle continues to teach us about what it means to love. It is an incarnational lesson, for this is not only about how God has loved us in Christ Jesus, and how we are bidden to love the one who has created and redeemed us, but also how we, in turn, are to love one another. The example of God’s love for God’s people impels us to love in a similar way in the world. The inhabited cross needs to hang before our eyes as an example of this manner of loving. There, on the cross hangs the one who loved to the very end, and there also is the mother (Mary) and the son (John) who provide an earthly dimension to what the crucifix teaches us. 

Breaking open I John:
  1. How has the cross spoken to you?
  2. Whom have you loved in spite of yourself?
  3. What gifts have come to you from love?

The Gospel: 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.”

The lectionary enables our continuing mystagogy – our unraveling of the meaning of Easter – here in the Farewell Discourse of Jesus. In this second part, Jesus instructs his disciples about the relationship that they have with him, and with God. It is a lesson for the Church. The first example is that of the vine. We again have an “I am” statement, here, “I am the true vine.” This symbol of the vine was known in the Hebrew Scriptures as a symbol of Israel as the people of God. Isaiah 5gives us a good example of that imagery:

“The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
the people of Judah, his cherished plant” (5:7)

Jesus pictures himself as one who is obedient to the Father, just as his disciples must be not only connected to God, but obedient as well. So it is for the vine and the branches. There is an interdependency that is explored here – abiding in one another, bearing fruit, water and soil. The notion of abiding in Jesus is a notion that bears a thorough investigation. Were a psalmist or prophet to explore this, they would see this experience of Jesus as nefesh itself, not just the soul in Jesus but all of existence in Jesus – life itself. What is then implicit is the dependency and connection amongst those who follow and their connection with one another.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Who is dependent upon you?
  2. Whom do you depend on?
  3. How do you depend on God?

Question: What are the points of connection in our Christian Assembly?

Connection One:     The waters of baptism and the faith that binds us. (Acts)
Connection Two:     The desire that God has for all people, all nations (Psalm 22)
Connection Three:  The love that binds God to us, and we to one another (I John)
Connection Four:    The Vine – the DNA of life, the life and death of Jesus, the vine that is crushed for us in the Eucharist. (John)

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 © 2018, Michael T. Hiller