INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Fifth Sunday of Easter
ACTS 11:1-18. In response to the challenge of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem Peter testified about his participation in the Gentile mission. Issues such as circumcision prior to baptism and eating unholy foods were obviously very difficult for Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the true Messiah. The crucial moment for Peter came when the Holy Spirit fell on the assembled household in the home of Cornelius, the Roman army officer in Ceasarea as already told in Acts 10.
PSALM 148. All creation is summoned to praise the Lord in this third of five Hallel psalms which end the whole Psalter with a resounding “Hallelujah!”
REVELATION 21:1-6. Many Old Testament references colour this vision - the creation, the city, the bride - in John’s vision of the whole of creation redeemed and renewed. Perhaps the most important insight of the passage is that “now God’s dwelling is among mortals.” (vs. 3) This reaffirms God’s coming into the world in Jesus Christ for the single purpose of redeeming the world and reconciling humanity and all creation to God’s original purpose.
JOHN 13:31-35. John’s narrative of the Last Supper was ending. Judas had left on his nefarious errand to betray Jesus. So Jesus told his remaining disciples about his glorification, by which he meant his forthcoming death on the cross. This was a theme John had emphasized from the very beginning of his gospel. To John, Jesus’ death was a sacrificial offering to God worthy of God’s holiness and love reflected in the love of the disciples for each other.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
ACTS 11:1-18. In response to the challenge of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem Peter testified about his conversion to the Gentile mission. Because of strict rules concerned circumcision and eating unholy foods, this mission was obviously a very difficult issue for Jewish Christians who had come to believe that Jesus was the true Messiah. Several important aspects of the Jewish-Gentile controversy stand out in Peter's report to the church in Jerusalem.
As the late Professor George Caird noted in his study of the Apostolic Church that Jewish orthodoxy was more a matter of practice rather than belief. They did not condemn the Christians for any beliefs they held about the Messiah, the Resurrection, or the Age to Come. That would not incur any charge of religious disloyalty as long their beliefs did not affect their obedience to the Law. Judaism was regarded as more than a religion; it was a nationality. The Torah was religious precept, social custom, and civil law all rolled into one. Even though the religious centre of life had shifted from the Torah to Christ, Jewish Christians could not abandon the Torah as a national way of life without becoming denationalized. (Caird, G.B. "The Apostolic Age." Studies in Theology. London: Duckworth & Co., 1955. p.83-84.) All this is eminently true in this passage from Acts 11.
The crucial moment for Peter came when the Holy Spirit fell on the assembled household in the home of Cornelius, the Roman army officer in Ceasarea. That story had been already told in Acts 10. In commenting on last week's reading, we noted that the Spirit is the true hero of the whole story Luke tells in Acts. This is no less true in this instance. In vss. 12-18 in particular, the Spirit rather than Peter was the driving force behind the change of mind in the Jerusalem community; and in the Apostolic Church’s subsequent change of strategy in the succeeding vss. 19-30.
In vs. 16, Peter recalls words Luke earlier reported that Jesus had spoken (1:5). In all four Gospels these words are attributed to John the Baptist. As we have seen in Luke's Gospel, he was fully acquainted with Mark's Gospel where this statement first appeared (Mark 1:8). This does not mean that he is quoting a variant tradition. It served Luke's purpose in Acts for these words to come directly from Jesus who had promised to send the Spirit as his living presence with the apostles as they carried on his ministry. In fact, these words and the community's response to them in vs. 18
are a direct reference to Luke 24:45-50.
The history of the Christian Church from the very beginning is the story of how the Spirit continually challenges the faithful to carry the Gospel to the world. We are still being challenged to live and witness in that historical environment.
PSALM 148. All creation and all people are summoned to praise the Lord in this third of five Hallel psalms which end the whole collection with a resounding "Hallelujah!" (or “Praise God!”)
On the Sunday I retired from my last pastorate, two young boys and their mother waited for me after the service. Shyly the boys presented me with a small gift in appreciation for help I had given the family during an eleven year pastorate. My most recent ministry to them had been to conduct the baptism of the two boys, an ordinance long delayed due to a particularly difficult family situation.
Everyone knew of my concern for the environment from occasional references I had made in sermons and prayers. I had once told the children of the congregation that two of my grandsons had presented me with a certificate stating that an acre of Costa Rican rain forest had been preserved in my name. The boys' present was unique. With their mother's help, they had created a one-of-a-kind T-shirt, brilliant yellow in colour and hand-painted with trees of the rain forest watered by plastic raindrops and surrounded by flags of many nations. The trees had unhappy faces on them with beady eyes that roll with movement. The shirt bore the logo drawn from my chat with the children: "Rain forests need love too!"
I treasured this memento of that pastoral experience every time I wore it. In this glorious spring weather who can argue that God also loves the rain forest and the whole of our natural environment? God has given its care into our hands so that as the ancient psalmist sang, the whole of creation may raise Hallelujahs of praise to God.
REVELATION 21:1-6. John envisioned the whole of creation redeemed and renewed. This once again affirmed what awaited those who remained faithful through all their trials and thus makes those bitter experiences endurable. From examination earlier chapters in Revelation we know the circumstances faced by the Christians fits best into the period of the Flavian emperors, Vespesian and his sons, Titus and Domitian. This was a time when the imperial cult flourished. Christians did not hold back from such patriotic enthusiasm. Though there was as yet no compulsion to participate in these quasi-religious rituals, anyone who got involved with the law courts or was required to take an oath, would be bound to do so. As John Sweet, University Lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge, England, stated in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, (London: Oxford University Press, 1993): "The chief threat to the church was not physical danger ... but social, economic, and religious temptation." How much like our own times!
Many Old Testament references coloured John's vision - the creation, the city, the bride. The pasage also recalls some of John's previous visions, notably the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:6-9). Perhaps the most important insight of the passage was that "the home of God is among mortals." (v.3) This reaffirms what God has done in coming into the world in Jesus Christ for the single purpose of redeeming the world and reconciling humanity and all creation to God's original purpose. That purpose is a joyful, creative relationship in which all suffering and death have been overcome.
Professor George Caird gave an extended exegesis of the word "dwelling" in his translation of vs.3: The word skéné (dwelling) was regularly used in the Septuagint for the Hebrew mishkan (tent), as the symbol of God's abiding presence during the wilderness wanderings. John had selected this term to imply that the promise of God's presence had already been fulfilled in the past whenever Israel has been true to her calling. Caird linked this word to the derivative word shekinah and its Aramaic counterpart shekinta, regularly used in Hebrew theology "as reverential insulators to prevent the sacred name of God from too close verbal contact with men."
Professor Caird also noted references, among many others, to Lev. 26:11; Ezek. 37:27; Jer. 7:23; Hosea 1:23; and Zech. 8:8. He recognized, however, that John clearly had the Incarnation in mind as the means above all which establishes God's presence in the world. Finally, he was unequivocal that in making all things new, this was a process of re-creation by which the old was transformed into the new. While many saw the world growing old in its depravity and doomed to vanish before the presence of holiness, faith can see the hand of God at work refashioning the whole. “The agonies of earth are but the birth-pangs of a new creation." (G.B. Caird. The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Black's New Testament Commentary. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1966. p. 263-266.)
JOHN 13:31-35. At the end of the Last Supper after Judas had left, Jesus spoke to the remaining disciples about his glorification. This meant that in his death, which Judas was about to initiate by his betrayal, Jesus would glorify God. John had emphasized this theme from the very beginning of his gospel. (1:14) To him, Jesus' death on the cross no tragedy, but a sacrificial offering to God worthy of God's holiness and love, and of the disciples responsive love for each other.
There is an unmistakable link between the shekinah (shining, glory) of God in the OT and John's concept of the glorification of Jesus. But this passage and all John's references to "glorification" make the special emphasis that the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection can never be separated. The whole story must be told as a single expression of God's ultimate purpose. The same clarity of vision appears in Paul's words to the Corinthians, "God was in Christ reconciling the world...." (2 Cor. 5:19)
Another linkage claims our attention too: the new commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. John utters this as a challenge to his own community, in all probability consisting of Jews and Gentiles from many lands. It sounds across the centuries to us. Christians not only demonstrate their discipleship in the world where they remain after the resurrection; they also reveal Christ to the world. But the revelation is conditional: "if you love one another." Because of this condition, Christian history has often hidden Christ from the world. As a result the world has every right to reject us and him, no matter how much we speak his name. As a wise man once said, "The only gospel some people will ever read is the way we live."
Additional Preaching Points.
· Acts 11:1-18. Today, Christians must always ask themselves how best to carry out the Christian mission to the world. A crucial issue is whether the aggressive missionary efforts of the 19th and early 20th centuries were motivated by the Spirit or by church imperialism following the nationalist imperialism of that same period. On the other hand, are our motives ever as pure as we perceive them to be?
Many nations no longer permit the kind of evangelism that leads to conversion from one religious tradition to another. This has required Christian denominations – mainly those regarded as “mainline” – to adopt missionary practices only in partnership with churches in the formerly so-called “mission fields” abroad.
Considering the loyalty of so many modern Jews to the state of Israel today, one has to wonder to what extent Jewish attitudes and practices – as in the Zionist movement, for example - are more an exercise in nationalism than a religious tradition.
· Psalm 148. Recent environmental concerns appear to have become the new religious tradition for the younger generation. The challenge they face is whether or not to engage in the political and economic actions that will lead to real change in the wasteful environmental practices their preceding generations have engaged in with impunity.
For instance, a single cup of coffee requires 140 gallons of water to reach the eight ounce cup into which we pour it. Most of that water is used in the developing nations that grow and produce the required ingredients.
· Revelation 21:1-6. In his new work, The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin states that the quest for universal intimacy is the very essence of what we mean by transcendence. Each new reorientation of consciousness toward concern for our environment and for other human beings who are different from ourselves moves us toward new heights of empathy. Was this not also the vision Jesus gave us of the kingdom of God and John reiterated in his vision of a new creation?
· JOHN 13:31-35. A perceptive layman remarked that he found many illustrations used in sermons in one way or another simply repeated the same theme as the parable of the Good Samaritan: We are to love one another as we love ourselves. Perhaps that is not a bad thing.
Yet we may be able to move beyond that by realizing that for Jesus, love involved a total sacrifice of himself in order to express the fullness of God’s love for the world.
How are we who have so much to lose to do that effectively, each one of us in his or her own situation? Where are our “lesser calvaries?”