The Fifth Sunday of Easter - 28 April 2013

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
St. John 13:31-35

Antioch in Syria

Background:  The Where, When, and How of Acts
Within the context of Luke-Acts we have one point of reference that can help us understand the work in terms of its historicity, date, and perhaps authorship.  That reference is the person of Paul, himself.  Problems arise in that Paul as described in Acts seems to depart from his depiction in Paul’s own works, especially his theological point of view (regarding the Law, and his own being called as an apostle), and other details surrounding Paul’s relationship with the Church at Jerusalem.  There is a sharp division amongst scholars on these points.  Yet it might seem that two points of view is not only called for but actually seems the most real in terms of human perception. 

Who then is responsible for this different point of view?  Tradition holds that Luke, a companion of Paul (cf. Colossians 4:14) is the author.  There is broad consensus that there is a common authorship of Luke and Acts, however, that is where the consensus ends.  Some see the “we passages” as the remains of an earlier and separate source that was incorporated into the work.  Even the Colossians passage is suspect to some, seeing Colossians as a pseudonymous work, not of Paul.  There is also the suggestion that some of the book was written by an “eyewitness” of which Luke surely was not one.  In his prologue to the Gospel, however, Luke speaks of testimony and witness that was “handed down” to him.  Perhaps Luke served not only as author, but also as redactor as well in assembling the work.

So when does this work emerge.  One historical point, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, is not mentioned in the book, and thus points to an earlier date.  The death of Paul is not mentioned either, which gives us another point after which the book could not have been written.  Dates range from 62 CE to 100 CE.  Points of reference are materials from the works of Josephus (94 CE) and Paul’s mention of the Province of Cilicia that was only reconstituted by Vespasian in 72 CE.  The book appears in the writings of others around 110 CE.  The place of composition has been suggested as Rome, or Antioch, but Ephesus and Bithynia have also been considered.

Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

In this artfully described situation, the author displays for the reader the difficulty and obstacle that will be surmounted in the following verses.  Peter’s action of eating with the “uncircumsized” again places him in the actions of Jesus, who eats with “outcasts and sinners.”  They confront Peter about this disregard of the ritual law.  In his explanation, Peter tells the story of the vision he has on a rooftop in Joppa – in which a sheet of clean and unclean animals are offered for Peter’s meal.  His quandary surely is a symbol of the dilemma faced by the early church, or at least the church at Jerusalem.  It is only later (cf. Acts 15), that the Council at Jerusalem arrives at some decision about this. 

These verses create a new set of eyewitnesses from the Christian community at Joppa.  It is these who see how the Holy Spirit acts in the household of Cornelius.  These actions, witnessed by others, become the points of Peter’s argument about the inclusion of Gentiles in the mission of the Church.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What is “unclean” for you?
  2. Is it “in” or “out” of the Kingdom of God?  Why?
  3. Whom needs to be included in your community of faith?

Psalm 148 Laudate Dominum

Praise the LORD from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.

Praise him, all you angels of his; *
praise him, all his host.

Praise him, sun and moon; *
praise him, all you shining stars.

Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
and you waters above the heavens.

Let them praise the Name of the LORD; *
for he commanded, and they were created.

He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

Praise the LORD from the earth, *
you sea-monsters and all deeps;

Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
tempestuous wind, doing his will;

Mountains and all hills, *
fruit trees and all cedars;

Wild beasts and all cattle, *
creeping things and winged birds;

Kings of the earth and all peoples, *
princes and all rulers of the world;

Young men and maidens, *
old and young together.

Let them praise the Name of the LORD, *
for his Name only is exalted,
his splendor is over earth and heaven.

He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants, *
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.

One of a series of praise psalms that ends the collection of the Psalter, Psalm 148 is divided into two sections, each celebrating an aspect of creation, and calling upon the animate and the inanimate to sing praise to God.  The first section, verses 1-6, focuses on the heights, while the second section, verses 7-14, brings us back down to earth again.  The psalm is a notable example of parallelism in which the idea created in the first half of the verse is stated in a different manner in the second half of the verse.  Thus in the second verse, the first half reads: “Praise him, all you angels of his; * which is then restated in the second half as: “praise him, all his host.” 

In verse four we have an image that relates to the ancient near eastern cosmology that is foundational to the Genesis creation account.  The “highest heavens” are reflected in the parallel “you waters above the heavens.”  “The waters” refer to the Firmament (cf. Genesis 1:6) – a dome or bowl that divides the waters on the earth from the waters above the heavens. The Hebrew suggests that this separation was like a “hammered dish or bowl”.  The Latin of the Vulgate uses the word firmamentum, suggesting something firm or solid.

The second section invites praises from the earth.  All of creation is bidden to praise God, from trees, mountains, and creatures that crawl to the rulers of the earth and all people.  In the final verse we see the result of this praise.  God becomes the strength of his people – sometimes translated as “He has lifted high the horn of his people.”  And the people praise God, and God chooses Israel to lead his praises.

Breaking open Psalm 148
  1. How else might the author have divided creation?
  2. How do you see God being present in creation, and how do you see creation praising God?
  3. Whom do you think God has chosen to sing God’s praises?

Revelation 21:1-6

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

Seeking to share an image with us of God’s kingdom, the author envisions a “new heaven and a new earth.”  Such an image is found in second Isaiah (66:22) as well The ancient battle is won and the Divine signals that for us in the phrase, “an the sea was no more.”  Ancient near eastern creation myths all supposed a battle between chaos (represented by the sea or a sea monster) and order.  The shadow of this thought is seen in the creation story, when the earth, which is “without form and void” is ordered by the creation of light, the separation of the waters, and the division of day and night.  Something new is on the horizon here and the Divine pictures it in the words that emanate from the throne.  The signs of God’s presence “among mortals” reflect the writings of Ezekiel 37:27, Isaiah 25:8, and 35:10.  It is also stated earlier in Revelation at 7:17.  Thus the ancient hopes of Israel are met in the presence of God-with-us.  So all things are new and renewed, giving meaning to the words of the One seated on the throne, “I am the Alpha, and the Omega.”

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. What would comprise a new heaven and a new earth for you?
  2. Do you see any evidence of that in your life and time?
  3. What does it mean for Jesus to be the beginning and the end?

St. John 13:31-35

At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

We have encountered these sayings earlier during the Paschal Triduum, on Maundy Thursday.  They follow Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and the new mandatum that he gives to them.  These verses begin the farewell discourses that continue through John 17:26.  John seems to follow a pattern set in other ancient discourses known in the Hebrew Scriptures (Moses, Joshua, and David) and in Greek literature as well.  In this discourse, certainly a composition of John’s, the sayings of Jesus both at the Last Supper and other occasions are gathered into instruction for the disciples.  In these introductory verses the situation is layered upon a template of leaving and then returning.  Clearly, the indication is that both Jesus and the disciples stand at the cusp of something.  To survive this new situation, Jesus mandates that they “love one another.”  Indeed, by making this new commandment, John sees Jesus as an equal of YHWH, although the commandment itself is not new (cf. Leviticus 19:18).  The innovation that this old commandment suggests is underscored in the prior readings for the day – Peter’s new mind, and the new heaven and earth in Revelation.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you love others?
  2. How do others love you?
  3. How integral is this commandment to your practice of Christianity?

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.


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