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Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-4 The writings of the New Testament were composed at a time when early Christian communities were trying to figure out who Jesus was and how that shaped their identity. That may not always have been their stated intent. Some were letters sent to encourage those young communities, but, even then, some of those letters deliberately tried to communicate a theology about the meaning of Jesus. Some are attempts to summarize the life and teachings of Jesus, a kind of “history” called “Gospels.” Each of the Gospels, including the ones not included in the final collection, however, seems to have a little bit different take on who Jesus was and what it all meant. In the church year, we are now in the season following Jesus’ resurrection. The physical Jesus is no longer on earth but something ---some spirit---is keeping this young community alive. What does it mean? Who are we now? Recent readings have been following The Acts of the Apostles, the second “book” of the writings of Luke’s community. Some have suggested that it might be better titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” (See Acts 1:1-2) It tells the story of people encouraged and empowered by a living Spirit through whom they know Jesus in some form beyond the physical. I’ll come back to the reading from Acts, but I want to frame my reflections around an odd image that came to me as I was considering the reading from John’s Gospel. Nearly half of the 21 chapters of this Gospel are devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. Chapter 12 begins “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1), and quickly launches into an account of Jesus’ “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” (John 12:12 & following) Chapter 13 introduces a version of Jesus’ final meal (Passover) with his disciples, a version which has Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. (John 13:1-20) From there through chapter 16 we seem to have what some have called “Table Talk” as Jesus and the disciples sit around the table. My odd image is that of a retirement dinner. Jesus is leaving “the company” and they struggle with what that means. This week’s Gospel reading is part of that discussion, but let’s hop over it for a moment. During the “Table Talk” John’s Gospel has Jesus making numerous references to the “Holy Spirit.” The Gospel opens a window on one of the early Christian communities as it begins to talk in terms of a “Trinity,” although probably not using that word. Jesus offers the image of a vine and branches, encouraging his followers to “abide in me as I abide in you . . . As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (See John 15:1-17) Throughout the “Table Talk” Jesus repeatedly declares, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:18-20) He promises a “Spirit of truth” who will guide them “into all the truth.” (John 16:13---See also John 14:16-17 &26, & John 15:26) Like Acts, you see, John emphasizes the Holy Spirit as the way Jesus’ presence continues to be active in this community of believers. At the end of the “Table Talk” Jesus prays for those whom he will be leaving, as well as for those who will come to be part of the community as it moves into the future. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . .” (John 17:21) Then we read that “he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden . . .” (John 18:1), where his betrayal and arrest occurred. The passage selected for the coming Sunday is right in the middle of all that “Table Talk.” It begins with words that many of us have heard at funerals about many houses or “dwelling places” prepared for us. (John 14:1-4) That concept alone would be enough for us to ponder, but the disciples’ quickly turn to wondering how they’re going to know the way. (vs. 5) We didn’t get into the structure of John’s Gospel around a series of statements by Jesus, “I am . . .” (Bread of Life, Light of the World, Good Shepherd, etc.) Now we are introduced to Jesus as “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (vs. 6) Many have struggled to make sense out of the words attributed to Jesus, “No one comes to the Father except by me.” (vs. 6) The center of the whole interchange, though, is the unity of Jesus and the Father, that unifying Spirit that is at the center of everything Jesus was trying to say that night. “If you know me, you will know my Father also . . . Whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (vss. 7-10) I’ve already spent too much time trying to “explain.” In the end, it is a great mystery. Pastor Rick has been trying to encourage us to read scripture with a greater sense of awe, of standing on holy ground in the presence of mystery. It is the mystery that kept that early community going. Does it still seem “awesome” to us? The passage ends by suggesting that if we cannot grasp the theology, at least we can get on with the work, even do “greater works” than Jesus, instructing us to call upon him for the encouragement and help we need. Who was this guy anyway? Who does he continue to be in the midst of our daily living? And who are we when we happen to notice that mysterious presence? Now a quicker look at the other three readings: Acts gives us the story of the stoning of Stephen. One should go back to the moment when Stephen was chosen as one of those (called “deacons”) to help distribute food to the widows. The seven men so chosen were described as “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) Stephen himself is said to be “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), “full of grace and power,” who “did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) Charges are trumped up against him and he is arrested. (Acts 6:9-15) Stephen is not to be intimidated. He launches into a long review of the history of the people of Israel (of whom he is one), ending with this indictment: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53) The verse just before Sunday’s reading says, “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” (Acts 7:54) Stephen became the first “Christian” martyr, a mode of death that was given high esteem, sometimes pursued, in the early days of Christianity. It’s interesting how the story echoes what had been passed on about Jesus’ death. Stephen cries out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He dies crying out “in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:59-60) Who are we? One answer in the early church is that we are those who literally follow the example of Jesus in our self-sacrifice. While we may not literally be meant to die in this way, the story might ask us to consider what would we sacrifice our life for? Perhaps most importantly it asks whether we are ready to die (or live) with words of forgiveness on our lips for those who attack our very being---literally or figuratively. Psalm 31 was used as a reading during Lent and Holy Week, so we’ll add nothing now except to note that it contains the words Jesus is reported to have cried out from the cross, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” Psalm 31:5), words echoed by Stephen. That leaves us with I Peter. Many images helped the young church in its search for a way to talk about their identity. They were “newborn infants” longing for “pure, spiritual milk.” They were growing. (I Peter 2:2) The words in verse 3, which speak of those who “have tasted that the Lord is good,” sound strange to many of us. Like the reading from the Gospel According to John, they probably are connected with an interpretation of the Communion meal, an experience of “tasting” Jesus. The central image of the passage is of a community which is like a living building, with Jesus as the living cornerstone. (vss. 4-8) The writer then heaps image upon image. Any one taken individually and literally can lead to abuses, leading to a prideful, perhaps exclusionary, approach to church life. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people . . .” (vs. 9) Many in that early community did indeed feel a special closeness to God’s love. They felt like they were part of the long history of God’s people, a history not limited to one tribe. It include Gentiles as well as Jews. Whatever the words used, they experienced the continued presence of Jesus as a Love which engaged, surrounded, and enabled them. The passage ends with words which hark back to chapters one and two in Hosea. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (vs. 10) They were all trying to figure out who they were now that Jesus was no longer physically present. The conversation, the questioning, the “Table Talk,” continue into our day. How do we talk about what it means to follow Jesus? How do we live it?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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