Archive for May, 2012

For May 20, 2012: 7 Easter, Year B

The Reading            Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Today’s reading from the book of Acts returns to the time right after Jesus ascended to heaven. As the disciples turn their gazes from heaven back to earth, Peter reminds them of a bit of unfinished business: the defection of Judas leaves eleven apostles, but the prophecies specify twelve apostles, one for each of the tribes of Israel.


The Epistle            1 John 5:9-13

The last few weeks’ readings from the first letter of John laid out evidence for Jesus as both God and human. The concluding verses underline the point: God gave us eternal life through the death of the human and divine Son of God.


Further thoughts

The word apostle comes ultimately from the Greek verb apostellein ‘to send out’. The original twelve apostles—Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot—were the ones that Jesus chose to send out to preach and heal in his name. The name itself might be a linguistic innovation of the early Christian community, according to the Illustrated Dictionary and Concordance of the Bible, but the concept wasn’t new: from the Hebrew root shlch that means ‘send’ comes shlicha ‘emissary’, and in the ancient world, when it was impractical to wait for instructions from a far-off capital, the emissary of the ruler spoke as the king’s voice and wielded the ruler’s power. In effect, the emissary was the ruler.

When the ruler in question is the King of glory, the responsibility is so much the greater. The twelve were those in Jesus’ inner circle who were chosen to be his hands and feet and voice. Jesus’ long prayer in today’s gospel, on the night on which he was arrested, is in effect their commission to go be Jesus to the world. At the time, the twelve perceived this only dimly if at all. By the beginning of the book of Acts, however, they understood much more. It was therefore extremely important to the remaining apostles to replace Judas and to get the choice exactly right. Identifying suitable candidates and then choosing among them by lot allowed for both judgment and the action of the Holy Spirit.

Oddly, however, the choosing of Matthias is the last we hear of him in the Bible. We hear much more of Silas, Timothy, Barnabas, and of course Paul: the apostles who took the Word to the gentile world. We human beings can set criteria as much as we like, but the Holy Spirit tends to have other plans.

And, as Jesus promised and the letter of John suggests, the Holy Spirit’s plans for people to be Jesus—to be light and to bring God’s love to a tired, disheartened world—depend, day by day and minute by minute and heart by heart—on each and every one of us.

For Sunday, May 6, 2012: 5 Easter, Year B

The Reading            Acts 8:26-40

The readings from Acts after Easter tell of the spread of the church by Israelites in Israel. Today’s reading broadens the scope: Philip (whose name is Greek), having just witnessed in Samaria, is sent by God to a highly placed Ethiopian eunuch (who is not only African but less than a man, and therefore someone who was not welcome at the Temple). Thus the Good News begins to come to the Gentiles.

The Response            Psalm 22:24-30

The Epistle            1 John 4:7-21

The first letter of John continues on the theme of love.  We are to love others because God commands it and because Jesus gives us that example, and because loving others is a way to thank God for loving us first. When we love God and our brothers and sisters fully, then we are no longer bound by fear before God.

The Gospel            John 15:1-8

Further thoughts

The passages from Acts and the first letter of John and the gospel of John speak to us of reaching out, belonging, and discipline. In the reading from Acts, Philip the somewhat marginalized Greek follows the Spirit’s prompting to go walk a wilderness road that heads south from Jerusalem into Africa. On this road he catches up with a chariot. We never learn the VIP passenger’s name, but we do learn details: he’s Ethiopian and a eunuch—that is, castrated, and probably as a boy so he wouldn’t develop a man’s build, beard, voice, and sex drive. Castration, by rendering him safe in the queen and court of Ethiopia, has opened doors for him: he can choose to journey hundreds of miles to Jerusalem to worship. But it has also definitely closed to him the door of the Temple. So he’s on his way home, and passing the time by reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip would discern this because, from the invention of writing up until at least the late sixth century AD, “to read” meant “to read out loud”. Philip responds to this foreign freak factotum neither by shutting his mouth in fear or respect nor by turning up his nose in revulsion or scorn. It reminds me of a wry and grateful line from Operating Instructions: of the church that lovingly welcomed her in spite of her substance abuse and, later, her out-of-wedlock pregnancy Anne Lamott remarks, “These people were so confused, they thought I was a child of God.” Even so.

As the first letter of John points out, that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do, and our model in showing love is the love that God shows us by sending Jesus to bear our sins and be our brother. We testify to God’s love when we love one another: through loving one another we show the world what God is like, and through loving each other we show that we belong to God’s family. As God’s children we need not fear, and it is our love that will help us not have to hide from God.

The gospel also tells us that we belong and are to reach out, though it uses the imagery of the grapevine and adds an element of discipline. We can count on being shaped and sometimes even redirected by God, directly or through the people and influences with which we surround ourselves. It won’t always be fun, though the pruned branch not only survives but thrives. If we abide in Jesus—if we remain habitually belonging to Jesus—we will, like the branch, have the life of the vine flowing through us and making us fruitful.

For Sunday, April 29, 2012: 4 Easter, Year B

The Reading            Acts 4:5-12

In last week’s reading from Acts, Peter and John healed a man who had been lame from birth. This act gets them arrested. Today we listen in as they testify before the religious authorities that the power that brings health is through the dead and risen Jesus.


The Epistle            1 John 3:16-24

The first letter of John addresses a church that was split into factions—as the church still is. Today’s passage explains what is behind the power of Jesus to heal, whether the body be that of a person or that of the church. It is love: love that digs deep to help those in whatever sort of need, and love through which we feel no need to hide from God.


Further thoughts

Several extraordinary claims are made in these passages, some implicitly and some explicitly. In Acts, Peter explains the healing of the lame man: it wasn’t, he says, human activity but healing through the name of Jesus Christ. Peter’s statement “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” has been used in history not merely to motivate believers to witness but also to entitle the authorities to compel belief. The word that is rendered as “salvation”, however, can (and possibly should) also be translated as “healing”, in which case the statement plausibly means that all healing flows through Jesus. This puts a different spin on Peter’s statement—and a spin that much better suits Jesus’ equally striking pronouncement, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also… So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The letter of John taps into a related truth. Since the time of Adam and Eve and the fig leaves, human beings who are ashamed have hidden from others or from God—and our sense of shame often reflects the extent to which we feel we do not measure up to the expectations of faith or behavior that others have of us. Now none of us can measure up to the standards of God, ever; in John’s terms, our hearts condemn us. Our hearts are absolutely right—except that slinking off in shame separates us from the healing we need. John shows us that the way out of this impasse is to love in action. By moving to feed each other, heal each other, and welcome each other we give the love that allows those around us to give the love through which we can stand before God.

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