28 May 2019

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2 June 2019

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
Saint John 17:20-26

Background: Divination
There were several forms of divination in the ancient world, and it ranged from social respectability to being seen as a sham. The various forms of divination were omens, cleromancy (the casting of lots), augury (using sacrificed animals, the flight of birds, or the patterns of a rooster), or spontaneous divination. It was always seen as being wisdom offered from either gods or spirits, as in today’s first reading. Here the woman is described as having a “spirit”, and she cries out the knowledge that other spirits had divulged about the apostles’ purpose and status. Divination is described in the Hebrew Scriptures as forbidden, and yet it was used in some forms. The divining stones urim and thummin are cited along with Gideon’s wool.  The “casting of lots” is known in the New Testament. The practice among the Greeks involved both oracles (those who served as media for the gods) and seers, who interpreted signs, much like those used by the Romans.

The First Lesson: Acts 16:16-34

With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

This reading consists of two pericopes, the instance of the slave girl with an oracular spirit, and a deliverance from prison. Both stories show the cost that came with proclaiming the Gospel. In the first instance the cost accrues to the unfortunate woman who is seen as being inhabited by the spirit. The cost is also borne by Paul and Silas in freeing her from her possession, by the men who possessed her. Her exorcism is seen as a theft or a ruination of a valuable (in that society) resource. The attitude of the owners is understandable, and their accusation about Paul and Silas spreading Jewish ideas in the face of Roman virtues. Philippi was the site of the battle between Octavian, Marc Antony, and the assassins of Caesar. Following the battle, the XXVIII Legion was released there to settle. Thus hyper Roman sensitivity would have been present in the community.

The treatment of Paul and Silas is harsh, and offers contrast to the attitude with which the jailers are met when the tables are turned. The earthquake that frees the men is redolent with Easter thoughts as well, but what is stunning is the turnaround that the men experience when seeing their jailers. Now it is not only the woman with the spirit who saw the power present in Paul and Silas, it is the jailers as well; and the Spirit draws in the entire household.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What does the woman’s spirit know?
  2. Is she victim or victimizer?
  3. How are the jailers instruments of good?

Psalm 97 Dominus regnavit

     The Lord is King;
let the earth rejoice; *
let the multitude of the isles be glad.
     Clouds and darkness are round about him, *
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.
     A fire goes before him *
and burns up his enemies on every side.
     His lightnings light up the world; *
the earth sees it and is afraid.
     The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.
     The heavens declare his righteousness, *
and all the peoples see his glory.
     Confounded be all who worship carved images
and delight in false gods! *
Bow down before him, all you gods.
     Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *
because of your judgments, O Lord.
     For you are the Lord,
most high over all the earth; *
you are exalted far above all gods.
10    The Lord loves those who hate evil; *
he preserves the lives of his saints
and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
11    Light has sprung up for the righteous, *
and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.
12    Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, *
and give thanks to his holy Name.

Psalm 97 comes in a series of psalms that celebrate God’s kingship and suasion over creation. Here, however, we do not see the god who conquers the deep, but rather images from Canaanite theology that depicts the god in the midst of devouring fire and flashes of lightning.  Also mentioned are  “cloud and dense fog” (darkness in our translation), that recall many of the theophany in the Exodus stories. The psalm sees YHWH as the God, for all the other gods are in obeisance to YHWH. The reality or presence of the other gods is not totally dismissed, but their power is seen as non-existent and useless. The closing lines are in sharp contrast to the fiery beginning – here there is light and gladness – light that is righteousness.

Breaking open Psalm 97
  1. Why do you think the psalmist makes such a sharp transition in this psalm?
  2. What is being contrasted here?
  3. Who are the “un-gods” in your life?

The Epistle: Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21

At the end of the visions I, John, heard these words:

"See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.

"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

The commentator that I consulted here describes this pericope as “The City as Paradise”. This is an interesting distinction, for it is in the city that the church will grow in influence and power. This, however, is no ordinary city but in sharp contrast to the cities where the hardships of many will be soothed by the Good News. The vision is quick to describe a wide spectrum of reality – for all is subsumed in this vision, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Here the tree of life is available to all, and indeed the stars of the night sky speak of the “descendant of David”. There is water here as well – the water of life, and the thirsty are bidden to come and drink.

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. How is a city paradise?
  2. How is it not?
  3. What does the community of saints mean to you?

The Gospel: Saint John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

This reading, is from Jesus’ great High Priestly Prayer, describes an on-going and ever widening series of relationships: the Father to the Son, the addition of the Spirit, and the inclusion of the disciples and the other believers. Here Jesus focuses on the oneness of all those who believe and on their unity in God. It is a return gift of the Son to the Father – the unity of the Church. Spoken of in those terms, the present disunity of the Church becomes a real scandal. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What do you think of the idea of God as community?
2.     Who is in community with you?
3.     How are you in God’s family

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

22 May 2019

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 26 May 2019

From Rome:

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Saint John 14:23-29, or St. John 5:1-9

Background: Macedonia
The reading from Acts reacquaints us with an ancient power that certainly influenced the development not only of post-exilic Judaism, but also of an emerging Christianity as well. The Hellenism that resulted from the expansionist policies of Philip II and his son Alexander served as not only a cultural leaven, but as a religious stimulant as well. The forced policies of the Seleucid kings upon the Jews of Palestine resulted in a strong rabbinic tradition and in the development of the synagogue. The Macedonia that called to Paul was a mere shadow of what it once was having being decisively defeated by the Romans in the second century BCE. It was under direct Roman rule following 149 BCE, becoming the Roman Province of Macedonia. Thus it is into a decidedly Roman culture that Paul is called to do ministry.

The First Lesson: Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

The perspective in this reading changes – for in the past, Luke reports in the third person, and with the passage, “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia,” shifts to the first person plural. Perhaps it is at this point that Luke joins in the Pauline mission. Luke narrates the journey, noting the cities that are passed through in the process to Neapolis. Here we have a decidedly different population: Roman, military, Latin speakers, and veterans. We also meet a very strong woman, Lydia, a believer. Being a dealer in purple cloth, she was of some wealth. It is Ivoni Richter Reimer’s[1]opinion that Lydia was more than just a passive believer when the synagogue met at the riverside, but perhaps the president of that body as well. If she is correct, then Paul is treading into new territory on more than one front. That this mission is Spirit-directed is indicated in the willingness of the household to be baptized, and the invitation to Paul and his companions to stay at her home. 

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What new ground does Paul break here?
  2. How do we know that Lydia was wealthy?
  3. What great virtue does she demonstrate?

Psalm 67 Deus misereatur
1      May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
2      Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.
3      Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.
4      Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.
5      Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.
6      The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.
7      May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

There are several elements in this psalm, thanksgiving, harvest, celebration, and a faint liturgical structure. The psalm begins with a prayer for mercy and blessing. Then follow a series of petitions, almost, that request that mercy in blessing in a variety of venues and situations. There is almost an implicit universalism here, with its emphasis on the earth, and “the nations”. There seems to be a linking of the blessings of creation and the blessings of the people. The result of such contemplation is a land and peoples standing in awe of God.

Breaking open Psalm 67
  1. Why does the psalmist want us to praise God?
  2. What role does the earth play in this psalm?
  3. What does it mean to be in awe of God?

The Epistle: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Jerusalem was long gone by the time the Divine had this vision. It had been plowed over by the Romans and renamed Aelia Capitolina. Thus the vision asks the hearer and the reader to quite literally renew the idea. What is also striking about this is that the story is no longer about nomads and shepherds, olive gardens and wheat fields. It is about the city, specifically about the city as a place where God dwells, and a place of God’s blessing There are still agricultural elements, but they only underscore the self-sufficiency of this new city of God. All is there for the benefit of God’s people – cleansed in the blood of the Lamb. This is not the hidden God of Israel, for “they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” One wonders how the readers of this vision, who experienced their own cities in the Roman imperium, began to revision not only their own religious stance, but seeing differently the very environment in which they lived. 

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. What does a city symbolize to you?
  2. How can a city be an example of God’s grace?
  3. What would redeem the city for you?

The Gospel: St. John 14:23-29

Jesus said to Judas (not Iscariot), "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, `I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe."

In the “Farewell Discourse” Jesus leaves the disciples with teaching and revelation, and a sense of preparation for that which is to come. The words here are about relationship, and the complex community that exists between the father and the son. Another element is added, and it anticipates the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost. Here the Spirit is described as “the Advocate” – the attorney for the defense. With that kind of relationship in place, it is easy to describe the relationship as one of peace. The verses that follow will continue the notion of relationship and interdependency as Jesus talks about being the vine.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is your relationship with Jesus?
2.     How does the Spirit advocate for you?
3.     Where is there peace in your life?


St. John 5:1-9

After Jesus healed the son of the official in Capernaum, there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids-- blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.

The fifth chapter of the Gospel devotes itself to an exploration of Jesus and the Sabbath. Other festivals (Passover, Tabernacles, and Dedication) are also discussed in the following chapters, and in these Jesus’ finds signs of these festivals within himself. The mark or “sign” of the Sabbath was of course seen in rest from labor. In 5:17 Jesus give us a clue as to his actual thoughts about this, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” Despite the rule about the Sabbath, believers continued to witness God working within the daily events of created life, and here Jesus demonstrated it in a healing story, done near water (another look back at Creation). Jesus wants the lame man, and us, to understand the true nature of these things. Or, as Luther says in his commentary on Baptism, “it is not the water that does these great things,” and then goes on to connect the water and the word. Jesus also wants us to know that like the Father he too continues to work at renewing creation.  

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Where do you need healing in your life?
2.     How long have you been waiting?
3.     How will you move to the water?

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Reimer, I (1995), Women in the Acts of the Apostles: a Feminist Liberation Perspective, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.