Archive for the 'Acts' Category

For Jan. 11, 2015: 1 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                                      Genesis 1:1-5

As Genesis tells it, the very first act of God in creation was to call light into existence; the second, to recognize that light (and all of creation) is good.

The Response                                                                    Psalm 29

Psalm 29 expands on the theme of the reading from Genesis. The voice of the Lord has the power to call creation into being, to break and bend mighty trees, to make the very mountains skip and buck. How remarkable that this enthroned Lord offers mere humans strength and blessing.

The Second Reading                                                         Acts 19:1-7

In the verses that precede Acts 19:1-7, Paul has arrived in Corinth and instructed Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, in the faith. Now Paul travels northward to Ephesus where he finds a group of people baptized by John, but they do not know of the Holy Spirit. Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus: this is a superior baptism.

The Gospel                                                                          Mark 1:4-11

The Year B lectionary introduces John the baptizer in Advent through the gospels of Mark and John, then repeats part of the reading from Mark in recounting the baptism of Jesus. It is Jesus who sees heaven torn open and the dove’s descent and who hears God’s “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

 

Further thoughts

The scriptures for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the Baptism of Jesus, all involve displays of power in speaking, though they play out differently. In Genesis 1:1-5, it is the power of God speaking that brings light out of darkness and launches the universe as we know it. Psalm 29 shows us God’s voice as powerful enough to make the created order behave anomalously—mountains scamper, sturdy oaks go limp, whole forests are denuded, the wilderness shakes (not so anomalous in California, perhaps). Everyone notices and is awed.

The New Testament readings are less spectacular. To be sure, in Mark’s otherwise spare account of Jesus’ baptism, heaven is not merely parted but ripped open so that the voice of God can proclaim his Son. Mark’s only other use of the root schizein ‘rend, tear’ is the moment of Jesus’ death when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom (Mark 15:38), so this earlier moment is surely also significant. But Mark’s language suggests that the visions and voice were chiefly for Jesus’ eye and ear and heart, not to impress bystanders.

Acts 19:1-7 is even less showy: no writhing oaks, no heavenly host, just a wandering preacher who listens and teaches and a dozen people who hear with their hearts, till Paul lays hands on them. Then the power of God appears—not around or above them but in and through them, and through the love poured from a human hand.

As I write, the world still reeks of the blood of Charlie Hebdo. It is tempting to close and lock the doors, to pull into cliques, to reject that which is “other” while imagining that vengeance against those who don’t see things just my way is divine. A younger Paul succumbed to that temptation in his day. But what if being God’s child means opening doors? What if loving God really does require radically and unreservedly loving all God’s world?

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For June 8, 2014: Pentecost, Year A

The Reading            Numbers 11:24-30

The book of Numbers tells of the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness. As the current reading opens, Moses has cried out for help in dealing with the people’s complaints, and the Lord has commanded him to gather seventy elders to manage things. Then something Pentecost-like happens.

The Response            Psalm 104:25-35, 37

Psalm 104 celebrates the power of the Lord, who has only to look at the earth to make it tremble—but it also celebrates the wisdom of the Lord in creating and sustaining quite simply all that there is.

The Second Lesson            Acts 2:1-21

The name Pentecost comes from the phrase pentekoste hemera ‘fiftieth day’, by which Greek-speaking Jews like Luke referred to the feast of Shavuot or First Fruits fifty days after Passover. As Luke tells it, all the nationalities converging on Jerusalem to be Israelite for this Shavuot experience mind-bending phenomena.

The Gospel            John 20:19-23

The Gospel reading takes us back to the evening of the Resurrection. The disciples have heard rumors but can’t entirely believe them—and then, quite unexpectedly, Jesus appears alive among them.

 

Ponderables

The readings for Pentecost all bear on the gift of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist’s account is the most orthodox in reminding us that all life on earth is itself the gift of the Spirit as the Lord chooses. The remaining lessons show human reactions to the gift appearing where it’s not expected. As Numbers tells it, the Spirit that comes on the elders in the wilderness is diverted from Moses and, worse, given to two men who aren’t even at the tent with the other 68; Moses’ assistant Joshua reacts to news of the errant gift with what sounds like jealousy. John 20:19-23 shows us the Spirit as simply Jesus’ breath—but in verse 25 Thomas will declare that, because Jesus didn’t appear to him, it can’t have happened. In the familiar account of Acts 2, the Spirit comes as wind and fire and leads the disciples huddled in Jerusalem to speak in other languages; some onlookers wonder how mere Galilean fisherman could possibly be so gifted while others simply dismiss them as publicly drunk, or at least full of spirits less pure.

As shocking as the flame and languages are, however, Peter’s explanation includes assertions that are even more eye-opening to those in Jerusalem and all the welter of nationalities that have converged on Jerusalem to be Israelite experience two utterly mind-bending phenomena: “God’s people” means absolutely everyone.

How often do we take it upon ourselves to decide where and how and to whom the Spirit ought to be given? And how do we help God help us stop doing that?

For June 1, 2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 1:6-14

During Easter season, our first readings come not from the Old Testament but from the book of Acts. Today’s reading returns to the beginning of the book to tell the events surrounding Jesus’ ascension into heaven, after he has readied the disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Response            Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Psalm 68 celebrates the power and might of God. What keeps it from mere triumphalism—from “Our God can beat your God”—is its emphasis on God as defender of the widows and orphans, the prisoners, the homeless, and the weary.

The Epistle            1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The first letter of Peter finishes its counsel to the followers of Jesus. Suffering for being a Christian is to be expected: suffering patiently as Jesus did will lead to being glorified as Jesus is.

The Gospel            John 17:1-11

The gospel reading concludes John’s so-called Farewell Discourse shortly before he is betrayed. It is framed as Jesus’ prayer, though the references to having already finished his work and being no longer in the world suggest that John is addressing us.

 

Ponderables

The obvious themes of the readings for the seventh (and last) Sunday of Easter is glory. Acts 1:6-14 show us Jesus, after his final promise to the disciples, lifted up to heaven like Elijah in a cloud. The psalm sings of the power and strength of the Lord, who rides upon the heavens. 1 Peter 4 reminds its readers that God has called them to glory, and John 17 shows us Jesus preparing to take up the glory that is rightly his.

For most of human history, glory has been something one gains on a battlefield, the result of besting an opponent, the perquisites of being able to lord it over others. These readings suggest, in various ways, that such a human view is entirely too limited. Acts 1 follows up its depiction of Jesus’ glorious ascent with two messengers who firmly remind the disciples to stop standing around and go get busy. The psalm praises as essential parts of glory God’s tenderness toward widows, orphans, the lonely, prisoners, the weary, and the poor. 1 Peter 4 tells us that glory in God’s eyes is achieved through suffering—a far cry from conquering others. Jesus tells us in John 17:3 that he has glorified God by doing God’s work; in the previous verse he asserts that eternal life—which we see as a perquisite of God’s glory—is simply knowing and having a relationship with God.

What if eternal life isn’t the prize of glory reserved in heaven? What if, instead, it begins now with each choice we make on earth to perceive each heart’s suffering through the eyes and heart of God?

For May 25, 2014: Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 17:22-31

Finding that Paul is in Athens, the leading intellectuals of Athens invite him to the Areopagus to give a major lecture. He suits his preaching to his polytheistic and worldly audience: he playfully mentions their shrine to “an unknown god” and quotes Greek poetry to support the idea of a supreme God whose children we are.

The Response            Psalm 66:7-18

Psalm 66:7-18 calls “the peoples”—everyone in the world—to bless God, who is with us through suffering and tribulation. We no longer sacrifice animals in the Temple, but let us praise God with everything we’ve got.

The Epistle            1 Peter 3:13-22

Paul’s educated and leisured audience in Athens craved news but admitted to little need for hope. The first letter of Peter brings hope to those whose lot is to suffer: Jesus sets the example to endure patiently and speak gently when (not “if”, in this world) we suffer, because he suffered like a slave in order to bring us home to God.

The Gospel            John 14:15-21

We continue reading Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises the uncomprehending disciples that he is not abandoning them: he will send the Spirit to comfort and guide them.

 

Ponderables

Each of the readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter reveals something about God, about the people involved in it, and about us. The Athenians of Paul’s time knew that the gods up on Mount Olympus were like human beings, but not very nice ones; as much of classical literature tells us, the gods were vindictive and quarrelsome and in the habit of reacting jealously to human successes. Paul puts a different spin on divinity for them: it isn’t that God is like humans but that humans are created in the image of a God who is powerfully invested in their good. The psalmist, writing centuries earlier, praises God not for steering trouble away from him but for being right there with him when trouble comes and seeing him through it. The writer of 1 Peter informs the slaves and chambermaids of the world that the King’s Son of the Universe loves them—us—enough to suffer as a human like us so that we can stand like him in God’s presence. And Jesus promises his puzzled disciples—and, through them, us—that, though he will not be physically present, he will not abandon us humans without comfort; furthermore, the Spirit he will send is already here in residence.

But spirit is by definition intangible, and trouble—grief, poverty, loneliness, despair—can still look and feel like being literally out of touch with God. What if the way that the Spirit’s comfort comes is chiefly through the love and comfort that we give on God’s behalf to God’s grieving, poor, lonely, despairing children in this world?

For May 18, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 7:55-60

Like Jesus, the martyr Stephen did wonders that transcended his apparent status and he spoke truth to power. His presumption brought him to a horrible death by stoning. The young man who watched the witnesses’ coats will have his own encounter with the risen Christ: we know him as the apostle Paul.

The Response            Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

In the worldview of Old Testament times, illness and trouble are taken as evidence of separation from God, though Jesus argued against this view in the healing of the man born blind. Psalm 31 both celebrates the Lord’s protection and begs for it, and it is verse 5 that Jesus quotes just before dying for us.

The Epistle            1 Peter 2:2-10

The first letter of Peter is written to new believers among people who are well used to being afflicted outsiders. Though they are slaves and the downtrodden, they are called to be the building blocks, wherever they are, of God’s house, and the call is supported by quotations from Psalms, Isaiah, and Hosea.

The Gospel            John 14:1-14

The gospel for the fifth Sunday of Easter comes from Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”, after Judas has left to betray his Teacher. Jesus speaks to reassure the disciples: he will bring them where he is going; they may believe his words or his works; and they will do greater works in his name to the glory of the Father.

 

Ponderables

Stones and things that can be done with them figure in the readings for the fifth Sunday of Easter. In Acts, We read in Acts of Stephen being stoned to death for speaking words that the powerful did not want to hear. It is easy to excoriate the religious establishment for hardness of heart… but hardness of heart is endemic to all establishments, and we do well first to empty the stones in our own fists and pockets and speech and hearts.

Stone and rock take on quite different roles in the psalm and the epistle. The psalmist envisions the Lord as a stone fortress and a crag in the mountains in which to find shelter and safety from enemies. The epistle calls its audience and us—formerly nobodies of no account to God or anyone—to be the living building blocks of a house that is surely New Jerusalem, the city of God’s peace.

In the gospel, Jesus promises to prepare places in God’s abiding house—no mere mud-brick hovel—for those who believe in him. He asserts in verse 6 that he himself is the way to the Father. For two millennia the Christian establishment has taken this statement to license specific dogmas and rituals, but an alternative reading is possible: that Jesus himself, and loving as he does, is the way to our salvation and the world’s.

What if our hearts themselves are the stones that we throw? What if our hearts are the crags in which the Lord means to shelter the psalmist, the stones of which God’s proper house is built, and—far beyond creeds and rituals—the paving for all the world of the Way to life that is Jesus?

For May 11, 2014: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:42-47

In last week’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter proclaimed Jesus in Jerusalem and thousands of people repented and were baptized. This week’s reading continues the story: signs and wonders abound, believers live and worship together, and everyone gladly and generously sees to everyone else’s needs.

The Response            Psalm 23

Psalm 23 resonates as both the soul’s response to God’s goodness and a foretelling of Jesus’ faithfulness to and beyond death. The shepherd’s rod helped him defend sheep from wolves and lions; the staff or shepherd’s crook served to guide the sheep. Anointing is a sign of the Lord’s chosen one.

The Epistle            1 Peter 2:19-25

The second chapter of the first letter of Peter is addressed to slaves: people who were accustomed to being beaten by their masters. Christians of the day were mostly marginalized people who had no control over their circumstances—but they could choose how to respond, and the epistle holds up Jesus as example.

The Gospel            John 10:1-10

Jesus’ disciples would have known that the sheepfold mentioned in John 10:1-10 was a walled enclosure into which all the flocks of a village were herded in the evening for protection; a shepherd would stretch himself out in the opening so that, through the night, no one could get in without his knowledge.

 

Ponderables

The fourth Sunday of Easter is known in some traditions as Good Shepherd Sunday; three of the four scripture texts contain references to sheep or shepherding. Psalm 23, of course, has the soul shepherded by the Lord; 1 Peter 2:25 contrasts a people straying like sheep with a people returned to the shepherd; John 10:1-10 develops the somewhat puzzling metaphor of Jesus as gate to the sheepfold, and other verses in John 10 proclaim Jesus as shepherd.

The exception to the rule of sheep in the texts is the reading from Acts. Perhaps, however, it can be read as a consequence of the other three. Psalm 23’s shepherd guides to good pasture, through death and beyond, and blesses the soul in the face of enemies. The slaves in 1 Peter’s audience—who can expect to be beaten for little to no reason—are bidden to bear it without complaint because they have returned to the shepherd who blesses them. In John, Jesus the sheepfold gate protects and ultimately lays down his life for the sheep—but also empowers the sheep to have life abundantly. Acts 2:42-47, for its part, surely shows what happens when God’s flock follows God in love: goods suffice, but more importantly love abounds in those who are willing to change their hearts and follow.

What if Jesus the shepherd calls us to be not just his sheep but also his fellow shepherds? What if each Christian is a gate through which God’s lost sheep can be gathered in love?

For May 4, 2014: Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Peter’s first public proclamation about Jesus, of which we read a part last week, ends with Peter reiterating that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. The book of Acts then gives us the crowd’s reaction—they are “cut to the heart”, or deeply affected, and ask what to do—and Peter’s response.

The Response            Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

Like Christians at Easter, the psalmist in Psalm 116 looks backward and forward. The backward glance is quite appropriately at the travails out of which the Lord has rescued him. The forward glance is a bit more surprising: not to further good things from the Lord but rather to what the psalmist plans to do to say thank you.

The Epistle            1 Peter 1:17-23

The first chapter of the first epistle of Peter instructs us how to live. Instead of trusting in gold and silver—passing signs of wealth in the world, now as in Peter’s time—we are to bank on the blood of the Lamb. Because we are ransomed from our sins by the blood of Christ, we are born again to love one another profoundly.

The Gospel            Luke 24:13-35

Gospel readings in the weeks immediately following Easter tell of the first reactions to Jesus’ resurrection. The reading from Luke relates the story of dejected followers leaving Jerusalem and the stranger they meet who explains the scriptures to them—and turns out to be the risen Jesus.

 

Ponderables

In the 1950s baseball musical Damn Yankees, the seriocomic song “Heart”, sung by members of the perpetually last-place Washington Senators, is an anthem to not giving up even when things look hopeless. “Heart” is a good theme for the time just after Easter. Luke shows us disheartened disciples who are still digesting the horrible reality of Jesus’ death as they plod back, one presumes, to the lives they had left behind to follow him. Then a stranger takes the time to explain to them via scriptures such as Psalm 116 how that grisly death was in God’s plan, along with the resurrection to follow; his kindness gives them the heart at least to extend hospitality—and he turns out to be the risen Jesus himself. The reading from Acts depicts the crowd in Judea, not harassed into rebelliousness by Peter’s words but rather encouraged—given heart—to ask what they can do differently and perhaps even consider why. The letter of Peter lays out both the why and the what: we are ransomed by a treasure greater than any amount of gold or silver, and we are ransomed in order to love each other from the heart as God has loved us.

What might the church be like, and how might God’s Kingdom come on earth, if each of us were to do likewise?