INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year A - Fifth Sunday of Easter
ACTS 7:55-60. Stephen's martyrdom introduces the young man Saul, soon to be converted to become the apostle Paul.
The main character of the whole narrative of The Acts of the Apostles is not any one of the apostles who carried the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. That role belongs to the Holy Spirit.
The church still has a problem with human hero worship. The real agent of God's mission in the world is still, as always, the Spirit of God who was in Christ.
PSALM 31:1-5, 15-16. Do not the words of this cry for deliverance recall the previous passage in Acts 7 describing the death of Stephen? As their only scriptures, the Old Testament was the source and model which the writers of the New Testament adapted freely in narrating the gospel story.
1 PETER 2:2-10. Again Old Testament references were the source for understanding Jesus as a person and the nature of the new community created through faith in him.
The temple of Jerusalem was the centre of Israel's religious heritage. Built first by Solomon in the 10th century BC, it was razed and rebuilt twice before finally destroyed by the Romans. This passage reflects a time after its destruction in 70 AD when the Christian community was finding an existence separate from Judaism.
JOHN 14:1-14. Whether these are actual words of Jesus or only attributed to him by the Gospel writer, the passage contains important theological truths.
Most notable is that Jesus is the only way to God. Is this an exclusionist point of view or a declaration of faith that all we can ever know of God is found only in Jesus? Adopting the latter attitude would certainly advance tolerance and peace among the wide variety of religions traditions in our global society.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
ACTS 7:55-60. The brutal end of the story of Stephen's martyrdom introduces the young man Saul, soon to be converted to the apostle Paul. The main character of the whole narrative of The Acts of the Apostles, however, is not any one of the named or unnamed apostles who carried the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. That hero role belongs to the Holy Spirit. This story tells of the first Christian martyr to illustrate how challenging and dangerous that mission would be.
Stephen was one of the seven Hellenistic leaders in the Jerusalem church chosen to assist the apostles. Their primary role was as stewards commissioned to distribute food to the needy (6:1-6). Stephen, however, had a special gift for preaching and soon ran afoul of the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious court of the Jews, (6:8-15) where he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by stoning.
We should note that Stephen’s witness before the Sanhedrin had significant differences from the Jerusalem tradition. Generally speaking, Luke held a favorable view of the temple and Christian participation in Jewish worship. Stephen expressed the more radical view that in Christ the temple order had given way to something better. His review of Jewish religious history reached its climax in a condemnation of temple observances not unlike that of the great pre-exilic prophets (7:48-53). This sentiment is not without parallel in the NT, primarily in the Letter to the Hebrews, and later in the Alexandrian tradition represented by the pseudonymous Letter of Barnabas. A similarly negative view of the temple system was held by the Samaritans and several Jewish sects such as the Ebionites and the Qumran community.
Nonetheless, Stephen made his mark as the first Christian to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom, which literally means witnessing for Christ. The church still has a problem with human hero worship and martyrdom. But the real agent of God's mission in the world is still, as always, the Spirit of God who was in Christ. This story presents the first evidence in Acts that the Spirit was motivating the apostolic church to reach out beyond the narrow confines of Judaism and Palestine to the vast Hellenic world with new insights of who Jesus Christ was for them too.
PSALM 31:1-5, 15-16. Do not the words of this cry for deliverance recall the previous passage in Acts 7 describing the death of Stephen? As their only scriptures, the Old Testament was the source and model which the writers of the New Testament adapted freely in narrating the gospel story. Stephen’s paraphrase of vs. 5 and his prayer asking forgiveness of his persecutors recall Jesus own words from the cross (Acts 7:59-60; cf. Luke 23:34, 46). Many scholars believe that both of these consciously reflected the words of this psalm.
We know little or nothing about the origins of this psalm. It appears to be a composite of three different laments (vss. 1-8; 9-12; 13-18) with a final liturgical hymn of thanksgiving (vss. 19-24). Some of its notable phrases and metaphors have parallels in other psalms. The opening verses are almost identical to Ps. 71:1-3. Vss. 6-8 refer to a conflict with those who worship idols, a frequent act of faithlessness in ancient Israel and today. The adversarial attitude throughout the psalm almost reaches the point of paranoia before being sublimated to a profound expression of trust in vss. 14-15. For those seeking a devotional sermon text none could be better than vs. 15a “My times are in your hand.”
1 PETER 2:2-10. Again Old Testament references were the source for understanding person and work of Jesus, and the nature of the new community which faith in him had created. This passage recalls several such references from the Psalms and to the prophet Isaiah. The majority of references to milk in the OT (vs.2) are to the promise of Yahweh to give the Israelites “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Vs. 4 contains an obvious reference from Psalm 34:8. The reference in vs. 6 is to a combination of Isaiah 28:16 and 8:14. Vs. 7 quotes directly from Ps. 118:22-23 as did Jesus according to Mark 12:10-11. Peter repeats the quotation in Acts 4:11. The concept of Israel as “a chosen race” came from Isaiah 43:20; and that of “a royal priesthood (and) and holy nation” (vs. 9) first occurred in Exodus 19:6. Vs. 10 mirrors Hosea 2:23.
The passage also contains several phrases found in the letters of Paul. In vs. 2, for example, there is a clear allusion to 1 Corinthians 3:2 where Paul spoke of feeding ‘milk’ to that new congregation. The same verse contains a Greek word *logikon* (literally translated ‘reasonable’ or ‘rational,’ but in most modern translations ‘spiritual’) which appears elsewhere in the NT only in Romans 12:1. Similarly, vs. 5 speaks of “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” which is a direct quotation from the same source. Paul also used the metaphor of the church as the temple of which Christ was the cornerstone (1 Cor. 3:10-15) while John quotes Jesus a saying that he would “destroy this temple and in three days (he) will raise it up.” (Cf. Mark 14:58 where Jesus was charged with these very words.) These Paulinisms mitigate against Peter being the author of this letter, for it is hardly possible that Peter would have quoted Paul so extensively.
The temple of Jerusalem was the centre of Israel's religious heritage. Built first by Solomon in the 10th century BC, it was razed and rebuilt twice before finally destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Only part of its western wall have been discovered by 20th century archeological research. Jewish and Christian pilgrims praying at the foot of the wall is one of the most frequently photographed scenes from Jerusalem today. It has become the inspiration for religious and political claims Israelis make for Jerusalem as their capital city.
This passage reflects a time after the destruction of the temple when the Christian community was discovering a spiritual existence separate from Judaism and its whole panoply of liturgical practices, yet still retained the Hebrew scriptures as their own. All of the OT and NT references show that the early church regarded itself as the true people of God and heir to all God’s promises to Israel. Now that the temple no longer existed and as the church moved further and further from its place of origin, the risen Christ became the centre of its worship and the source of its inspiration.
JOHN 14:1-14. The long discourses in John’s Gospel always raise the question whether these are actual words of Jesus or only attributed to him by the Gospel writer. Christian piety profoundly endorses a verbatim record. Christian scholarship almost universally accepts attribution with the probability that there are some remembered sayings of Jesus contained therein. Either way this passage contains important theological truths as valid today as for the second or third generation of believers for whom it was written.
Most notable is that Jesus is the only way to God. Is this an exclusionist viewpoint or a declaration that the full revelation of God is only found in Jesus? The debate continues without ceasing. A few years ago it once again came to the fore by a press report of a statement made by a former Moderator of the United Church of Canada, Very Rev. Bill Phipps. The issue is complex in a pluralistic age where the history of religions, Christian and non-Christian, is much more clearly understood than when John’s Gospel was written about 90 CE. As with so much else that confronts the serious believer these days, “one’s stance depends on where one sits.”
William Barclay gives several pages to this passage which anyone seeking to understand it more clearly should study. (*Daily Bible Readings: The Gospel of John.*) He points out that it has many allusions to the OT as well as to the cross and the resurrection, and to the future church carrying on his ministry in the world. With regard to Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life,” he describes how these form “three great basic concepts of the Jewish religion,” how Jesus made “the tremendous claim that in him all three found their full realization, and their full expression.” However, claims in this passage for Jesus and Christian faith cannot be isolated from the rest of this discourse, especially the life of obedient love which Jesus commanded his disciples to follow. This, perhaps, is the clue to a more satisfactory interpretation of the uniqueness of our faith. Many who are not Christians still live a genuine life of faith and sincere love for their neighbours. They do not wish to be associated with the Christian institutions which seem so hypocritical in many important aspects of human behaviour.
The use of this passage to assuage the grief of those whose loved ones have died has special significance in the light of so many tragic murders and wartime atrocities reported daily with such graphic description. Yet this was reality too for the first audience to read vss. 1-3. In highly metaphorical language of a mansion with many rooms, these sentences give us assurance of never being separated by death from God and Jesus Christ. Whatever else the word “heaven” may mean, that is its minimal interpretation, as Paul also said in Rom. 8:38-39. Everything here attributed to Jesus, however, depends on his being the one in whom God dwelt fully and on his “glorification” through the resurrection (vss.10-13). Human imagination and art have made much of this truth, but the whole of it rests on faith in the risen Christ, Son of God. Life beyond death depends not on our resurrection, but on his.