Posts Tagged 'apostle'

For Dec. 22, 2013: 4 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-16

In the eighth century B.C., Jerusalem is under threat. Isaiah has advised fearful young King Ahaz to let God deal with it; here the Lord offers a grand sign as proof. Ahaz piously refuses—his faith is in an alliance—but he is given the sign anyway: a baby who won’t yet be weaned before the two enemy kingdoms are no more.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Psalm 80, written in the time of Isaiah, is a corporate lament: all God’s people are suffering—in the striking metaphor of verse 5, eating and drinking tears by the bowlful. They ask for the light of God’s countenance. Christians tend to think of “the man of your right hand” as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it actually means us?

The Epistle            Romans 1:1-7

The letter to the Romans is one of five epistles that is agreed to be by the apostle Paul. At the beginning of the letter, Paul introduces himself in a complex paragraph that sums up his mission: to declare to the Gentiles the salvation that God promised in the scriptures and delivered through the death of Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 1:18-25

The gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent relates the familiar story of Joseph, legally bound to Mary but both worldly and righteous enough to assume the usual explanation for a child he knows he hasn’t fathered. He is prepared to break the contract—privately, to spare Mary further shame—but God has other plans.


Signs loom large in today’s readings: signs rejected and signs accepted.

In the reading from Isaiah, King Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign: he has plans for an alliance with Assyria against the twin threat facing him, and he is not interested in any proof of God to the contrary. He fails to realize that allying with Assyria will make Judah an enemy of Babylon and lead to exile and the destruction of the Temple. The baby in the sign is most likely Ahaz’s own son, and was not named Immanuel, or ‘God with us’.

Psalm 80, from the time of the exile in Babylon, laments the suffering of God’s people: the metaphor in verse 5 suggests not only that the people are weeping tears by the bowlful, but also that tears are all they have to eat or drink. Suffering and darkness were taken as signs of God’s displeasure, so the psalm begs repeatedly for the light of God’s countenance. We think of “the man of your right hand” as Jesus—but what if it actually means us?

The epistle is a litany of signs in the scriptures. Unlike Ahaz’s faith, Paul’s is real, so he has accepted the Lord’s sign—the miraculous encounter outside Damascus—even to the point of abandoning his old life to bring the good news of Jesus to people with whom, as a proper Jew, he should never even have associated. And who are those people?  Well, we are.

The gospel, in telling the story of Mary and Joseph, takes the previously unremarked verse 14 from Isaiah 7 and elevates it to a prophecy of Jesus. Like Paul, Joseph is genuinely righteous; he intends grace in dealing with Mary, he is open to God’s signs, and he is willing both to receive grace and to give it in ways he had not planned. What a remarkable Abba or daddy for Jesus to grow up with! And what a model for us to follow!

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.

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