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


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