Sunday, October 28, 2007

Acts 15

Acts 15:1-35: In Luke’s book, the apostles, filled with God’s Spirit, share the good news of God’s loving action in Jesus with others, first with fellow Jews, then with Jews of other ethnic backgrounds, then with Samaritans, and finally with Gentiles. Both Peter and Paul offered a relationship with God through Jesus to Gentile persons. This new missionary outreach begins to create tensions and raise questions. How much of the Jewish heritage of Jesus and the first of Jesus’ followers do Gentile believers need to follow?

The initial answer of some of Jesus’ followers is that males who become a part of the Jesus movement need to be circumcised. While this may seem strange to us today (and not a very helpful outreach strategy!) it is important to remember the deep significance of circumcision to the Jewish people. The two prime identity markers for God’s people were circumcision, given by God to Abraham, and the Law, given to Moses (New Interpreters Study Bible). Paul and Barnabas disagree with this point of view and there is “no small dissension.” The church has never been without issues over which people disagree. Whenever issues of deep significance – self-identity, relationship with God – are discussed, disagreement is a real possibility.

Paul and Barnabas, along with some others, are sent to go to Jerusalem and check this matter out with the apostles and elders in the church there. Writers often refer to this gathering as “the Jerusalem Council.” On the way there, Paul and Barnabas share their stories of how God has been at work in the lives of Gentiles, and their news is received with joy. Arriving in Jerusalem they are welcomed by the apostle and the elders, but greeted with skepticism by Christians who were also Pharisees.

Discussion ensues, not unlike some of the discussions in the church today about significant issues. Peter shares his experience of witnessing the way God gave the Spirit to Gentiles. God, who knows the human heart, “made no distinction between them and us.” Grace is what makes relationship with God possible. Paul and Barnabas were also given the chance to share their experience with the Gentiles, and how God was at work among them.

James, the brother of Jesus, offers a word. After hearing the witness of Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and upon reflection on Scripture and tradition, James renders his judgment (New Interpreters Study Bible). In the Methodist tradition, that branch of Christian faith which traces its beginnings to the 18th century Anglican priest, John Wesley, we often talk about basing our decisions about faith on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. One could argue that the Jerusalem Council is a good example of this. James issues a decision that the Gentiles who are becoming a part of the Jesus movement, the Christian community should not have to be circumcised or obey all the dietary restrictions found in the Law. They would be asked to “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” All these refer to ritual cleanliness and do not form a moral code for Gentile Christians. Things polluted by idols refers to meat ritually slaughtered and used in the worship of other gods, fornication (while it can have broader application) probably here means marriage to a close relative, and the final two items have to do with the proper slaughter of meat. Paul will write about this Council in Galatians, and his account has some differences which we will explore when we get to that passage.

Men are chosen to return with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to share and interpret the action of the council – Judas/Barsabbas and Silas. They bring with them a letter that shows respect for Gentile believers, deep appreciation for Paul and Barnabas, and details the position of the Council. They share the work of the council – “what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Often in the church today we focus primarily on what seems good to us and forget that sometimes what seems good to God’s Spirit may be somewhat different – though we discern this only in the context of on-going dialogue. “The Holy Spirit works through human reflection, struggle, discussion, and decision” (Peoples New Testament Commentary).

Acts 15:36-41: Paul and Barnabas are in Antioch when Paul comes up with an idea, they should return to visit those areas where they were before to see how the Jesus communities they established are doing. Barnabas wants to take John Mark (who was perhaps his cousin) with them, but Paul does not, and their disagreement becomes sharp. “The presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of both Barnabas and Paul did not exclude such disagreement” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Barnabas and Mark sail to Cyprus, the home region of Barnabas. They disappear from Acts at this time, just as Peter and the Jerusalem apostles will disappear from this chapter on. Paul, who will be followed in the remaining chapters of this book, takes Silas with him and proceeds with the plan he proposed. There are some indications in Paul’s letters that perhaps he later reconciled with Mark. Again, even at this early date, disagreement and division were a part of the experience of the church. How much of this is inevitable and how much can be prevented?

Acts 16

Acts 16:1-5: Paul visits Derbe and Lystra, and in Lystra he encounters a disciple named Timothy who he wants to be a part of his team. In spite of the decisions made in the previous chapter, Paul has Timothy circumcised. Paul is not concerned about circumcision itself, but about things that might get in the way of others hearing the gospel. Sometimes the issue is not whether an action is right or wrong in itself, but whether, even if it is permitted, should it be done given the effects on others. In a bit of irony, part of the message that Paul and Silas and Timothy share is what has been decided in Jerusalem.

Acts 16:6-10: The outreach mission of the church is seen as guided by the Holy Spirit, also called, here, the Spirit of Jesus. Evangelism was the principle mission of the church in Acts. God had acted in Christ for the salvation of the world, and the good news had to be shared. The new faith had implications for life together in the new community and eventually for the transformation of society. But the church’s mission began with proclamation of the gospel and the invitation to Christian faith and membership in the Christian community. (Peoples New Testament Commentary)

Acts 16:11-15: Among those who became part of the early Christian community were strong women. Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, is the first Christian convert in what is now Europe. That she dealt in purple cloth indicates that she was a prosperous woman – purple being the color of royalty. Lydia is also a model of a new kind of disciple community – people maintaining their lives but beginning Christian faith communities in their homes. Lydia is not asked to give up all she has to join a community elsewhere. This is not to say that generosity is not an important part of Christian faith, but only to note that not all early Christians were asked to give all they had for mutual community sharing.

Acts 16:16-40: The ministry of Paul and Silas encounters difficulty, as had Jesus and other disciples before them. Paul heals a woman who had a “spirit of divination” and was used by others to make money. Her gift was exploited by others. Their action cut into the economics of her owners who charge them with “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Paul and Silas are arrested, beaten and imprisoned.

In prison, we find Paul and Silas praying and singing, unusual behavior for imprisoned persons, but indicative of a faith in God that trusts God’s care in difficult circumstances. As Luke tells it, God’s care comes in remarkable fashion, in an earthquake that loosens the chains and opens the prison doors. This kind of action is indicative of the character of God. However, while this is good news for the prisoners, it would mean death for the jailer who would have been seen as grossly negligent. Rather than await his punishment, the jailer is about to take his own life, when Paul shouts out that all the prisoners are present and accounted for. What would make them stay? Their actions are so astonishing that the jailer asks “what must I do to be saved?” The biblical language of “being saved” presupposes that life as we know it is incomplete, that it lacks something to be what life should be…. Being saved is having one’s life put in right relation with God and other human beings, being given one’s life as it was intended to be by God in this world, and being given the sure and certain hope of eternal life beyond this world. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Being saved has something to do with having one’s life directed in a better way, being oriented toward God’s dream for the world. It has something to do with healing and forgiveness. It has something to do with knowing we are loved and knowing that we are to share that love with others. This is rich language and a number of metaphors are appropriate to it. It is unfortunate that in many places this language has become almost unusable because it has been so narrowly used by some within the church to refer only to “being saved from hell.”

Paul tells the jailer that in order to be “saved,” to have his life made whole, he needs to “believe on the Lord Jesus.” For Luke this is a summary statement that includes much more than intellectual assent to certain propositions. To believe on the Lord Jesus is to trust that God has acted in Jesus, and that God’s action in Jesus shows God’s love for humankind. It is to trust that Jesus way is the way of life. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Jesus way is the way of life, not the Roman way with its oppression and brutality and deep economic division. One trusts and acts in accord with that trust. One becomes a part of the community of Jesus when one “believes.” Again, overuse of the idea that “believe on the Lord Jesus” means thinking some things and not thinking others has made this statement another one that is difficult to use in our day and time. The jailer demonstrates the richer meaning of the statement. He takes Paul and Silas into his home, washes their wounds, feeds them, is baptized by them.

While the good news Paul shares contains within it a critique of Roman society and culture, Paul is not averse to using his status as a Roman citizen to claim his rights against unjust imprisonment and beating. That he could do this says that we should be grateful for laws that promote justice, but we should also bemoan the way that justice is unequally applied. As a citizen, Paul had certain rights that the Jewish Christians beaten earlier in the book did not have.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Acts 14

Acts 14:1-7: The outreach mission of Paul and Barnabas continues, now in Iconium. They preach in the synagogue. Some Jews and some Gentiles become a part of the Jesus movement, the Jesus community, the Christian church – while others, Jew and Gentile choose not to become a part of that movement/community. Sometimes the reaction of those who chose not to become a part of the Jesus movement is outright hostility. Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas continue to share their message (a word of grace) and do so accompanied by signs and wonders. To my mind, the most impressive signs and wonders in any day and time are lives that are made different by the word of grace, the word about God’s grace and love for humankind in Jesus. Change in lives is not always greeted warmly, and opposition to the work of Paul and Barnabas remains strong, eventually erupting in a plot, a plot including imperial officials, to have them mistreated and stoned. In this case, rather than confront that threat head-on, the apostles flee.

Acts 14:8-20: Preaching, signs and wonders continue in this new location. Here a healing story is told, with Paul as the one who proclaims healing. A man, crippled from birth, is not crippled inside when he hears Paul – rather he has faith. The healing is at first interpreted by the local people within the framework of another religious tradition – Greek religion. Paul and Barnabas are proclaimed “gods” – Hermes and Zeus respectively. “The idea that gods would disguise themselves as humans and roam the earth incognito was a common pagan idea” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Zeus and Hermes visit an elderly couple and the couple is rewarded for their kindness to these gods in disguise. The people of Lystra don’t want to miss their opportunity to entertain the gods.

Paul and Barnabas react strongly. Paul begins by asserting that he and Barnabas, while they have an important message are but human beings. Their message is about the living God, and the evidence for this God can be found in the world Paul and Barnabas share with their fellow humans. Paul invites them to know this God better as they respond to his message.

Rivals with a similar message about the one living God, some Jews from Antioch and Iconium, come and convince the crowds by their message. Paul was stoned, dragged out of the city and supposed for dead. Disciples surrounded him and Paul recovered, but he did not stay long in Lystra.

Notice how in these few verses three religious traditions come together. The first century was a time of lively religious pluralism, probably closer to our own time than to the America of the last century where Christianity predominated in the United States, especially in the first half of that century. While we may hope for a much less hostile religious pluralism and even a pluralism from which we can learn, we should also ask what we, as Christians have to offer. We need not be hostile to other traditions to share what we believe to be the gifts of the Christian tradition. In fact, there is something deep in our tradition which moves us to share the gifts of our tradition. We need not believe every other tradition is substantively deficient in order to offer what we have.

Acts 14:21-28: Paul and Barnabas have been in Derbe, but then return to Lystra, to Inconium and Antioch. “There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith.” Faith is something that always seems amenable to growth. Paul and Barnabas also begin to provide some structure for these new Christian communities, appointing elders in each church. The journey of mission and ministry continues to other locations before Paul and Barnabas return to their home base in Antioch (of Syria) to share what had been happening. They stay there for some time. In these verses we find a model for what it means to be the church – reaching out into the world, returning to celebrate and to have one’s own faith nurtured and nourished.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Acts 12

Acts 12:1-5: King Herod here is Herod Agrippa I, briefly ruled Samaria and Judea, along with the northeast section of the Transjordan (41-44). He did so at the pleasure of the Romans. This is the first report of a persecution of Christians by civil authorities rather than by religious leaders. Luke gives no reason for Herod’s opposition, but it was apparently suspicion of the potential political power and perception of the disciples of Jesus as a religiopolitical movement that spoke of the “kingdom of God” and Jesus as Messiah (Peoples new Testament Commentary). One result of this persecution is that James, the brother of John, is killed. Another is that Peter is arrested. “The church prayed fervently to God for him.” One can imagine why – the early church lived in a situation of arbitrary power, in which believers could be abused, arrested, and killed without hearing or trial (Peoples New Testament Commentary).

Acts 12:6-19: Peter’s imprisonment provides another opportunity for something remarkable to happen. On the night before he would have been executed, Peter is miraculously delivered from prison. The story reminds one of some of the resurrection stories, and they carry a similar theme – God’s power in the midst of seeming hopelessness, God’s vindication of the person and cause of Jesus. There is a wonderful ethereal and comic touch to Luke’s telling of this story. Peter thinks, at first, that this is happening in some dream dimension. His “rising” from imprisonment is first witnessed by a woman, a servant woman no less – who leaves Peter standing outside the gate. The main point of the story is God’s care for the emerging church, even in the face of imperial opposition. Just as crucifixion by the hand of the empire could not keep Jesus very life from continuing to touch others, so even now the empire cannot extinguish what began with Jesus and continues as his Spirit works in people’s lives. A secondary point in the story is a sort of passing of the torch of leadership in the Jerusalem church between Peter and James. Here the James is the brother of Jesus. He will become the central figure and chief leader of the church in Jerusalem. Sometimes the odds against the life of faith are formidable, yet we can remain free and faithful.

Acts 12:20-25: The Jesus movement continues in spite of opposition. In fact, some of the opposition will fade away. Herod’s pomp and pretense are but a fading glory as he dies. The motif of a horrible death for those who pretend to be the voice of God is a frequent one in ancient literature. Herod dies, “but the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” God’s word lasts. The values that are a part of God’s dream for the world – justice, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love will live longer than the rule of tyrants.

Acts 13

Acts 13:1-3: The scene shifts from Jerusalem, where Saul and Barnabas and John Mark were, back to Antioch – and again we hear of Saul and Barnabas, as prophets and teachers. The Spirit asks that Saul and Barnabas were set aside for special work and this is symbolized by the laying on of hands – a ritual we continue to use in the church at confirmation and ordination. Fasting and praying are a part of the practice of this Christian community. Part of being a Christian is to engage in spiritual disciplines, spiritual practices.

Acts 13:4-12: Saul, who is also known as Paul (the name that is used from here on out – his Greco-Roman names as opposed to his Hebrew name of Saul), and Barnabas go on their way and do their work. Here the story is told of Sergius Paulus, a proconsul (an imperial official) and an intelligent person interested in hearing from Paul about “the faith.” He has with him a magician named Bar-Jesus or Elymus, and this man tries to keep Sergius Paulus away from the faith. He probably saw it as competition to his own spiritual counsel. Much like demons are addressed by Jesus, Paul rebukes Bar-Jesus, and he tells him that he will be blind for awhile (a nice symbolic touch – he is obviously blind already, blind spiritually). The power of the Spirit through Paul becomes a convincing point for the proconsul – he is astonished “at the teaching about the Lord.” The faith is spreading among Gentiles, and some powerful ones at that.

Acts 13:13-52: Another Antioch is the scene for the first “sermon” we get to hear from Paul. Paul and Barnabas go to the synagogue in this Antioch and are given the opportunity to speak. Paul takes full advantage of the chance. He begins by recounting familiar history – the Israelites in Egypt, kings Saul and David. From David’s ancestry comes Jesus – “a Savior.” This Jesus was rejected in Jerusalem and killed by Pilate. “But God raised him from the dead” and in this there is hope and promise. For Luke, who has in his gospel given us a fuller look at the life of Jesus, the good news about Jesus is focused on what God did through him – raised him from the dead. The essence of the gospel is that God acted in a special way in Jesus. It is not to say that God has acted only in Jesus, but to affirm that God has acted in Jesus. Here the focus is the resurrection, but one can extend the act of God in Jesus to his teaching and his healing. Forgiveness and freedom from sin are possible in a way that doesn’t seem possible through the law – that’s what Paul shares. And Paul believes this good news demands a decision. Here we are given yet another way of talking about the good news and response to it – “continue in the grace of God.”

Many good movies deserve a sequel, and there is one here, as well – though this sequel does not disappoint. The next week Paul and Barnabas draw an even bigger crowd, and this one a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish response this time is negative, in contrast with the week before where some chose to follow Paul and Barnabas and continue in the grace of God. The rejection of the message by many of the Jews gathered this time leads Paul to tell them that his work will now be directed toward the Gentiles. For Luke, this turn in the church has been coming about from chapter to chapter. The mission to the Gentiles is justified by reference to Isaiah (49:6, quoted in verse 47). The Gentiles receive the news gladly. “And as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” For Luke, God’s saving act is always God’s action, but it is also always human response. There is no full blown theory of predestination here, only a sense that when people respond to God that very ability to respond also seems a gift from God. Their success leads to trouble and Paul and Barnabas are run out of town. As they leave they leave behind a community of disciples who “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” When Paul and Barnabas arrived in this Antioch there was no Christian community, but by the time they left there was.

In our day, such stories can make us uneasy. We live in a time of religious pluralism and are sensitive to the imperialistic evangelism that has often characterized Christian history. Many of us have also been the recipients of really bad evangelism. We can wonder, then, what these stories may have to say to us. I think they encourage us to share our faith, knowing that there are some who are searching, who are in need of a deeper relationship with God and a deeper hope for their lives and for the world. All we need to do is share from our heart and our lives and be willing to let those who wish become a part of the Christian community. We can offer what we have without telling those of other faiths what they have is deficient. Frankly there are enough people with little faith or little practice, and enough people who may have found parts of their own faith life lacking that they are searching for something more, for us not to worry so much about those who are finding what they need in their faith life. If no one had ever shared their faith, we would not even be having this conversation. There would be no New Testament to read!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Acts 10

Acts 10:1-33: In chapter eight we begin to see the gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ expanding beyond the Jewish community. Philip preaches in Samaria and then reaches out to an Ethiopian eunuch. But in both these instances, these people have some relationship to Judaism. The eunuch may have been a convert, but at least he was a seeker within the Jewish faith. The Samarians shared a common religious heritage with the Jews. In chapter nine, Saul is moved to become a follower of the way of Jesus and begins reaching out to people, though all Jews. There are hints that more may follow, just as there are hints in the end of the chapter that Peter’s work outside of Jerusalem may take him to even more new places. Here it happens. Our story does not begin with Peter, but with a man named Cornelius.

Cornelius is a centurion of the Italian cohort residing in Caesarea. Caesarea was the Roman provincial capital for Judea. Cornelius is a Gentile, though described as “a devout man who feared God.” He was a Gentile sympathetic to Judaism, part of a group known at the time as “God-fearers.” They were impressed with Jewish monotheism and ethics and sometimes attended the synagogue, but remained Gentiles, were not circumcised, and did not keep the Jewish food laws. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Cornelius’ life of prayer and generosity are evident, and his way of life opens him to a vision from God – a vision in which he is told to send for Peter in Joppa.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch – meanwhile Peter is in Joppa - hungry and praying - and falls into a trance. In it, he sees a great sheet filled with animals – animals considered unclean for eating. Like circumcision and keeping the Sabbath, observance of the food laws was an essential mark of the people of God, a part of their witness to the nations. Jewish martyrs had died rather than dissolve Jewish identity by eating prohibited food (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Peter is given a strange instruction – get up, kill and eat. Peter objects, but he is told “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” This happens three times. The necessity of repeating this three times is important. It demonstrates that Peter took his Jewish faith seriously and no matter the power of a vision, he needed to ponder all this – discernment and deeper understanding were called for. Sometimes powerful religious experiences can also lead us in unhealthy directions. We always need to think through with others the meaning of such experiences, and think through them in the light of the traditions of our faith. The traditions are not always right, and need revision, but they should not be dumped out as easily as old trash.

We may wonder about these wonderfully coincidental visions. Did things happen just this way? For the people of the time, to have visions in which God communicated to Gods’ people would not have been odd. We need to remember that. We also need to remember that they are really secondary to the main story – that two lives, Peter and Cornelius, will come together in a remarkable way, in a way that will change the Jesus movement forever.

Peter wonders about the meaning of his vision when the men from Cornelius arrive at this door. Peter goes with the men to Caesarea, to the home of Cornelius. Just entering his home, Peter is violating Jewish law. Yet the meaning of Peter’s earlier vision becomes clear to him. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The cryptic vision becomes clear in light of subsequent circumstances. That happens to us, too. Later events clarify earlier ones. Now that he is here, Peter wonders why he was sent for and Cornelius shares his vision story. All of Cornelius’ household is gathered to hear what Peter has to say.

Acts 10:34-43: Peter is changed here as much as anyone. He has a new understanding of God’s purposes. God is open to all who respond to God’s Spirit – God shows no partiality. If that is the case, then these people, too, should hear the good news. God preached “peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.” This is startling language in a Gentile setting. Peace was guaranteed by Rome and the Emperor was lord of all. How did this message come from God through Jesus? “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Luke succinctly summarizes the message of the early Christian movement. God was up to something special in Jesus. But Jesus was put to death – though that was not the end. “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” The resurrection is God’s gracious act that reverses the human act of the rejection of Jesus (Peoples New Testament Commentary). That Jesus ate with them is not only a testimony to the tangible experience of the resurrection (“tangible” may have many nuances) but also a reminder of the importance of table fellowship for the ministry of Jesus. This Jesus is “the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” One way of pointing to the significance of Jesus is to represent Christ as the one who exercises God’s final judgment (Peoples New Testament Commentary). In Jesus forgiveness is available, whatever separates one from God and from God’s dream for their lives and the world, can be overcome.

Acts 10:44-48: The message Peter preaches is important. As noted, Luke uses it to summarize important themes in the early Christian presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ. Something important, vitally important and universally significant, happened in Jesus – something that challenges the way the world is often organized (something other than the peace of Rome and the lordship of the Emperor). In Jesus there is peace, healing, forgiveness, relationship with God, a new way of life – and not even the death of Jesus killed this dream. But as important as the message itself was the appearance of the Holy Spirit along with it. The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard Peter, much to the astonishment of “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter.” The Holy Spirit was poured out “even on the Gentiles.” Baptism follows. Gentiles are now fully a part of the Jesus movement.

It is difficult for us today to understand the deep significance of this story. The Jesus movement was probably seen as a reform movement within Judaism, and though there was much debate about it, acrimonious debate at times, it was intra-Judaic debate. Now the Jesus movement would incorporate Gentiles. I believe this story challenges the church in all times and places to ask profound questions about inclusivity. Throughout its history the church has excluded or given second-class status to persons because of their race or their gender. Now the church is intensely debating issues around sexual orientation and gender identity. From my point of view, the deep faith I see in GLBT Christians, the fact that I see the Holy Spirit at work in their lives causes me to think that we have excluded these persons from the church inappropriately.

Acts 11

Acts 11:1-18: So significant is the incorporation of Gentiles into the Jesus movement, the early Christian community of faith, that Luke retells it in another context. Here Peter reports what has happened to the Jesus community in Jerusalem. Jerusalem remains the headquarters of the movement, the place from which the apostles extend their ministry. Peter justifies his action of baptizing Gentiles with these words. “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” All the community could answer is “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” This is yet another summary statement of the Christian message – change of heart and mind that leads to life.

Acts 11:19-30: While God was reaching out to the Gentiles through Peter, the message about Jesus was being spread geographically through others – to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. This last city was a large seaport and seat of the Roman government in Syria. It was a Gentile city with a large Jewish population and it would become the center of the spread of the gospel toward Rome. The mission is focused on the Jews in these communities. It was extended slightly to Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenists), and perhaps beyond to other Greek speakers, including Gentiles. Word of these missionary efforts also gets back to Jerusalem and they send Barnabas. “When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Barnabas is presented as a model for discipleship – open to seeing God’s grace at work, encouraging others in their faith, a person of good character, a person filled with faith and God’s Spirit. Barnabas encourages this group of believers and then goes to find another who may be of help to this ministry – Saul of Tarsus. Barnabas and Saul stay in Antioch and teach the community there for a year. Luke notes that it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” “The term Christian is a Greek adjective with a Latin ending, connoting ‘one belonging to Christ.’” (New Interpreters Study Bible) To be a Christian is to be a part of this fascinating story, this beautifully complex history, and in that to belong to Christ.

Part of that story is that Christians help one another. When famine strikes Judea, relief is to be sent from other Christian communities.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Acts 9

Acts 9:1-19a: A character previously introduced only briefly now takes center stage. He will be the main character for most of the remainder of Luke’s story in Acts – Saul/Paul. In these verses we have the story of a fundamental change in his life. The Peoples New Testament Commentary notes that nowhere do Paul or Luke refer to this as a conversion (as if from one religion to another or from no religion to a religious faith), but it is a fundamental re-orientation in the life of Paul. The authors of that commentary (Craddock and Boring) note that this isn’t a change from one religion to another, from irreligion to religion, from unbelief to belief, from insincerity to sincerity, from atheism to theism. “The one life-transforming change was that he came to believe that God sent the Messiah, and his name was Jesus of Nazareth.” The one who had previously believed that the Christian claims for Jesus were delusion or deceit came to believe that they were true: God had acted decisively for the salvation of the world; the crucified and risen one is God’s Messiah.

The story begins here with Saul’s on-going persecution of those who believed in Jesus. He did this in sincere belief that he was reigning in a dangerous and misguided sect within his own faith. He seeks such people out in Damascus – probably Jerusalem Jewish Christians (followers of the Way) who had gone there. He apparently obtains such letters and is nearing Damascus when he is engulfed by a light and hears the voice of Jesus. The experience leaves Saul blind and he is taken to Damascus. While in Damascus there is another intervention of the divine. This time, a man named Ananias is given a vision to go to Paul and minister to him. God tells him that Saul will be the one to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Tarsus, the hometown of Saul, was an intellectual and cultural center and a Roman provincial capital. Ananias goes and lays his hands on him both healing his blindness and conferring on him the Holy Spirit. Following this, Saul is baptized and begins eating after his time of fasting and prayer.

Throughout Acts, Luke has people come to faith through the work of others. Christian faith is personal, but also communal. We help each other along the way, and help others into the Way. Who are those who have been most helpful to you along the way?

Acts 9:19b-25: Saul continues his education in the faith with the disciples in Damascus. Then his work begins. He goes to the synagogue and proclaims that Jesus is “the Son of God.” This is yet another characterization of the essence of the Christian message. Saul’s preaching amazes people because of its source and its power. The way in which Saul treated those belonging to Jesus’ Way before comes back to bite him. Other Jews take up the cause of persecution, and now Saul is the target, but he manages an escape.

Acts 9:26-30: Saul returns to Jerusalem, the place from which he set out to go to Damascus. In Jerusalem, he want to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him. Barnabas, however, takes a chance and brings Saul to the apostles and shares with them what has happened in Damascus. This gives Saul entrĂ©e into the Jerusalem Christian community from which he comes and goes freely. He engages in debates with “Hellenists” – Greek-speaking Jews. As with others, including Jesus himself, preaching leads to threats on Saul’s life. In the face of the threats, Saul is taken out of Jerusalem and sent to Tarsus.

Acts 9:31: Luke has said a whole lot about the difficult situation the church finds itself in, but now pauses to paint a different picture. In Judea, Galilee and Samaria the church is at peace and being built up. In reality, the church was both under stress and increasing in numbers. It had a message that resonated with many and disciples lived a life many found attractive.

Acts 9:32-35: While Paul will dominate the rest of Acts, Luke is not quite done with Peter. Here we see Peter on a traveling mission, bringing healing to a man named Aeneas. The telling of this story parallels other such stories in the New Testament. Lydda was an important crossroads community, where the road from Jerusalem to Joppa and from Egypt to Babylon intersected. This would seem to have some symbolic significance. The gospel is going to go on the road with its power to heal and make whole.

Acts 9:36-43: This story combines a number of important elements. It gives us a picture of an early female disciple. Tabitha/Dorcas (both mean “gazelle” – not what we might associate with “Dorcas”) was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She was apparently also a fine worker with cloth. Tabitha dies and Peter is summoned – this says something about her importance to that community of disciples. Peter brings her back to life. This story is meant to illustrate the on-going power of the Spirit in the early Jesus community. Peter stays in the area and it is interesting to note that the profession of the person he stays with was considered unsavory, unclean even if not technically defiling from a religious point of view. There is perhaps a bit of a hint of what’s to come.
Acts 8

Acts 8:1b-3: The killing of Stephen becomes the occasion for a mass persecution of the Christians. Christians become scattered. Saul, who was present at Stephen’s stoning, becomes a primary persecutor. Ironically, the action which scatters the disciples leads to the spread of the gospel.

Acts 8:4-25:
Philip now takes center stage. Philip, like Stephen, was one of those chosen to administer to food program for the church in Jerusalem. He may have been a Greek-speaking Jew who had become a Christian. Like Stephen, his administrative ministry becomes a ministry of teaching and preaching. The context for these Philip stories is that some from the church in Jerusalem have left the city during a time of severe persecution. Philip goes to Samaria. This follows the geography of Acts 1:8 – after the Holy Spirit comes the apostles (and the church) would be witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke will follow that geography in this book.

Samaria is home to the Samaritans, though Samaria was both a city and a region. The region was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The upper classes were deported and the region was also, then, settled by non-Jews who intermarried with the local population. At the time of Jesus and the early church, Jews did not consider Samaritans to be Jewish any longer, and the Judean Jews refused Samaritan help when the Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian exile (this was the Temple that was later destroyed in the war with Rome – 70 CE). The Samaritans then constructed their own Temple and developed their separate “Jewish” traditions. From this you again understand why many hearers of Jesus’ story would have considered “good Samaritan” an oxymoron.

Philip’s ministry in Samaria parallels Jesus’ ministry – powerful words and incredible signs: the lame are cured, unclean spirits are cast out. The response is joy. It is interesting to note that the message Philip shares is characterized in slightly different ways: “proclaimed the Messiah” (v. 5), “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 12), “the word of God.” No one summary phrase seems adequate to capture the good news that God was up to something very special in Jesus, and that we can be a part of that.

One of those who came under the influence of Philip’s preaching was a former magician named Simon. He had been one who also performed powerful deeds, and people attributed to him the power of God called “Great.” Simon is baptized and follows Philip closely. Magic is the belief in supernatural forces and the attempt to manipulate them for human benefit…. Biblical faith makes it clear that faith is a personal relation to a personal God, not merely a belief in mysterious supernatural forces. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The story of Simon is briefly interrupted. Peter and John are sent from Jerusalem to Samaria. They pray that these people might receive the Holy Spirit. Some of this is rather striking – why hadn’t the Holy Spirit come when in other places the Spirit comes with baptism. Pentecostal Christians use a story like this to argue for a second coming of the Holy Spirit into the believer’s life – a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s concern seems to be to include a variety of ways that the Spirit was experienced and understood in early Christianity within the one church, and yet to “regulate” the work of the Spirit by the apostolic norm. Luke is concerned to hold together three elements of the life of the church: baptism, the Holy Spirit, and apostolic approval. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Peter and John lay hands on the Samarian believers and they receive the Holy Spirit. The tradition of laying on of hands as a way to symbolize the conferring of the Holy Spirit continues in Christian traditions of confirmation and ordination.

Now Simon the magician comes back into the picture. He sees what is happening and offers them money – not simply to receive the Spirit, then all he would have to do is wait his turn. Rather he not only wants the Spirit but the ability to give the Spirit to others. In some of the religious traditions of the time, spiritual power, priestly authority could be bought. Simon reflects that understanding of the spiritual life and spiritual leadership, but it is not the understanding of the spiritual life that is in keeping with Christian faith. God’s Spirit is available for all and will not be conferred differentially according to the ability to pay. Simon’s heart had not yet grasped this, and he is invited to change. That the change is beginning can be seen in Simon’s request for the prayers of others. Christian faith is not meant to be a solo venture or individual Spirit-empowered people, but a life lived in the midst of a Spirit empowered community.

Simon’s story, though a little difficult to relate to in some ways, is also very easy to relate to in other ways. All of us are subject to misunderstandings about what it means to be people of faith, but the opportunity to change and grow is always offered to us.

Acts 8:26-40: Philip is again a main character, and again he is reaching out to a person who would have been religiously marginalized in the Judaism of the day. How was this Ethiopian eunuch marginalized religiously? Given that this man had come to Jerusalem to worship and was reading Isaiah, we can at least surmise that he was a religious seeker. He may have been a convert to Judaism – but this poses a problem. In Deuteronomy (23:1) eunuchs are prohibited from being a part of the assembly of God. True, there is a passage in Isaiah (56:4) which welcomes eunuchs, but that seemed set in some future time.
So Philip encounters this man who is a religious seeker, but wonders if he has a place in the people of God. And the man is different from Philip in almost every way – he is a eunuch, he is of a different race, of a different culture, and was probably born into a different religion, he is certainly a richer person than Philip, and more powerful. They converse about the story in Scripture and Philip shared with him “the good news about Jesus.” Beyond race, beyond religious background, beyond culture, beyond sexual identity, beyond disparities of wealth and power, the good news about Jesus can be communicated. And it must have been “good news” to the Ethiopian, because here is the response. And as they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized? Was Philip all talk, or was his invitation to become a part of God’s people in Jesus for real? Would Philip baptize him right then and there? And both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. Beyond race, beyond religious background, beyond culture, beyond sexual identity, beyond disparities of wealth and power, there is good news in Jesus Christ, and a part of that good news is that all are welcome. We need to be a place of open hearts, open minds, open doors. We want and need to be a place of welcome, a home along the wilderness road of life for people searching for God, for meaning, for relationships, for inspiration, for courage, for direction. We want and need to be a place of welcome for people who come in their Sunday best (unfortunate phrase) and people whose Sunday best might be blue jeans and a sweat shirt. We want and need to be a place of welcome for people no matter their religious background, their economic situation, their marital status, their age, their ethnic and cultural heritage, the hue of their skin. That in the history of the church we have responded to people who ask – what is to prevent me from being baptized, what is to prevent me from being included? – that to people who ask that we have responded, “plenty” is a sad part of our history. The church has not always lived up to its stories, and where that has been true for us, all we can do is ask forgiveness and determine to do better.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Acts 7

Acts 7:1-53: Luke has shared with us a number of early Christian “sermons,” and this will be the longest in the Book of Acts. Stephen, one of those chosen to serve, was also one who had done great wonders and signs, and was preaching. For his efforts he had been arrested and now stood before the council. This is Stephen’s response. In this response, Stephen rehearses the history of Israel, but not to inform the original hearers nor the readers, but rather to offer a particular reading of the history of Israel and of the Hebrew Scriptures. That was one of the distinguishing marks of the early Christian community – its interpretation of the tradition shared with those in the Jewish community. In offering his unique interpretation, Jews who have not also become followers of Jesus are sometimes given over to harsh judgment. Luke writes for a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians who are struggling to define their identity in relation to those Jews who did not believe in Jesus…. It must be recognized that Luke’s statements were made in a context of intra-Jewish conflict and thus take on an entirely different character when they are made by Christians who are no longer Jewish and when they are applied to Jewish people as a whole. Christians must clearly denounce all contemporary forms of Christian anti-Judaism as abhorrent. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

The story begins with Abraham, a figure Jews, Christians and Muslims share as a part of their religious heritage. The story of Joseph is meant to be seen as like the story of Jesus – rejected, God was with Joseph. Rejected, God was with Jesus. The sermon moves on to the story of Moses born “beautiful before God.” That describes what our faith affirms about all of us. The words used of Moses are also descriptive of Jesus – beautiful before God, powerful in word and deed. Like Jesus, Moses was not understood by his people (verse 25). Nevertheless, Moses became both liberator and ruler, just as Jesus did. Along the way, Moses is rejected again.

Fast forward to the story of David and Solomon and the building of the Temple, which would have been around during the time of Stephen, but not as Luke was writing. But then comes the “punch line.” “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” All this history comes to a point – just as God’s prophets have been rejected in the past, so has Jesus been rejected. These are very strong words.

In the speech given by Stephen as Luke has constructed it, there are a number of discrepancies with the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. As we read the gospels, we noted places where details disagree. What should we make of such things? The discrepancies are real and cannot be harmonized. The truth of the biblical message is not dependent on infallibility of in detail. This… can be celebrated as part of the biblical witness that God has chosen to work through fallible human beings. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Acts 7:54-8:1a: The words at the end of Stephen’s speech are strong, harsh. It is little wonder that they enrage their hearers. In the midst of their rage, Stephen has a vision of heaven, seeing God and Jesus. It is sometimes the case that when we are in the deepest difficulty we, too, have insight into God. In their rage, they stone Stephen. Stephen prays “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Prayer to Jesus as the one in whom we know God must have become part of the practice of the church by the time of Luke’s writing. Stephen also prays to God and asks for forgiveness for those who are killing him. At the very end, we are introduced to a character who will soon be the focus of much of the rest of the book – Saul.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Acts 5

Acts 5:1-11: These verses really comprise a section along with the closing verses of chapter 4. chapter divisions were added to the New Testament in the 13th century, and sometimes they broke up what should have been together. The positive picture of the early Jesus community in Jerusalem, where all shared their possessions is followed by two specific stories – one positive and one negative. The positive story is about a man named Joseph who is renamed Barnabas. Barnabas had sold a field and brought the proceeds of the sale to the apostles, in keeping with what others had been doing. We are never sure from The Book of Acts whether or not selling all one had was a requirement for discipleship, if it was voluntary and if all did it. From other parts of the book and other parts of the New Testament it would be difficult to argue that every first-century Christian sold their possessions and gave all the money to the community for distribution. Barnabas is commended for doing so.

The negative example comes in the form of a couple, Ananias and Sapphira. They sold a piece of property, but agreed to keep part of the price received from the Jesus community. Frankly, this is a difficult story. What is it about at its deepest level? Well, on the surface it is about deception and its consequences. Like Jesus, Peter has insight into others and he knows that Ananias and Sapphira have withheld some of the money they received from the sale of their property. Somehow, Peter’s words make more sense if the primary issue is deception. He seems to have no problem with the possibility that they might have done with the money what they wanted to, but is very upset that they seem to be portraying that they were giving all the proceeds to the Jesus community. Both Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for their deceit.

The story is more folkloric than historical and is meant to underscore the serious breach that occurs when members of the community lie to one another (New Interpreters Study Bible). One has to wonder about the wisdom of using such a harsh story to illustrate this point. The lack of compassion – not to speak of cruelty – inherent in this scene taken as objective reporting of literally history seems to violate all that the disciples have been called to be (People’s New Testament Commentary). Nevertheless, the story is there for us to grapple with uncomfortably. I don’t know anyone who has ever been struck dead for lying or for trying to take more credit for something than was rightfully theirs. I have seen something die inside of people who try and base their lives on lies and deceit. Maybe a warning about that kind of dying is worth such a stark story.

Acts 5:12-16: Here we have another authorial summary of the life of the apostles and the early church. The apostles continue the ministry of Jesus in performing signs and wonders. It is the apostles who no others may join, but who are held in high esteem. The number of believers increases as does the work load of the apostles. Because of the healing power that works through them, more people are brought to be healed. Even having Peter’s shadow fall on one could be efficacious. Through the Spirit work of the apostles, all whowere brought were cured.

Acts 5:17-42: Parallels with the life of Jesus continue. Just as Jesus was opposed and arrested by Jewish leaders, so, here, are the apostles. They had been arrested before, but here things have gotten more serious. They are imprisoned rather than questioned. But just as the prison of death and the tomb could not keep Jesus trapped, so the walls of a prison cannot keep God out or the apostles held. “The whole message about this life” (verse 20) is a unique way to refer to the Christian message of faith, but it is a good one. The freed apostles go to the Temple to share that message. They are found and arrested again, this time they are questioned immediately. The authorities reminded them that they had issued orders not to teach in the name of Jesus. Peter tells them that they need to obey God rather than human authority. “The difficult issue is, however, is to discern what is divine and what is merely human” (People’s New Testament Commentary). One cannot use this text to treat human authority cavalierly. But neither should we be merely deferential. Following this assertion Peter launches into doing what they have forbidden him to do – he tells the story of Jesus again. There is an irony here – the very authority that the leaders are trying to assert is the authority by which Jesus was killed. But the Jesus who was executed is Leader and Savior – titles bound to provoke the ire of both the Jewish and Roman authorities. Peter and the apostles are witnesses, but so is the Spirit herself/himself – it is the Spirit which is giving Peter the courage to speak. In an unsurprising development, most of the council is outraged, and would like these pesky followers of Jesus to suffer Jesus’ fate. Unlike with Jesus, there is another voice on the council, Gamaliel. Gamaliel was an illustrious Jewish teacher, the grandson of another such teacher, Hillel. He was also the Pharisee under whom Paul studied. In telling this story, Luke offers an olive branch to the Jewish community, which by his time had become separate from and rather hostile to the Jesus movement. The hostile feelings were often mutual. Luke portrays Gamaliel as making a profound argument, comparing the Jesus movement to other movements – movements that dissipated after the founder died. By the time Luke is writing Luke-Acts, the Jesus movement would have been over fifty years old – it is now nearly two thousand years old. God seems to have been up to something in this Jesus. By the way, that this speech is more for Luke’s own time is illustrated by the fact that the history he cites is not very accurate. Theudas was executed by the Romans in 44 CE, several years after this episode in Acts was to have taken place. Judas was indeed executed in 6 CE, several years before Theudas, but the text locates him later. Luke’s point is theological rather than historical, and he is making a case for readers of the late first century more than trying to record what happened mid-century.

Though the council is convinced by Gamaliel, they nevertheless reassert their authority by forbidding the apostles to teach and by having them flogged. Rather than kowtowing to this authority, the apostles find joy in having suffered for their faith and continue to teach about Jesus.

Acts 6

Acts 6:1-7: As Luke has been telling the story, the Jesus movement has grown considerably, and some organizational changes need to be made. While movements indeed often lose something when they organize and institutionalize, would movements survive much beyond a first or second generation without some organization and institutionalization? It is also interesting to note that with growth comes diversity (Hellenists are Greek speaking Jews) and with diversity comes the possibility of discrimination. With growth comes the need for a distinction of function. The apostles feel their primary calling is to continue to preach and teach rather than administer a distribution program for necessities. It is not that such work is “beneath” them, but rather they cannot continue their teaching and their administration work and do both as well as they would like. The decision is made to select seven men to oversee the distribution program. Two “orders” of ministry emerge, one devoted to worship and the ministry of the word, the other to administering the benevolence program of the church (People’s New Testament Commentary). Both groups of leaders are to be people full of the Spirit and wisdom. It is interesting to note that all of the seven chosen have Greek names. Luke adds yet another note about the success of the movement in verse 7.

Acts 6:8-15: The narrative continues with the story of one of those chosen to administer. Stephen had already been described as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Now he is described as “full of grace and power.” He did great things, signs and wonders, among the people. Stephen is a Hellenist, and a dispute arises between he and others who would also have been Hellenists. Stephen seems to be engaged in the work of teaching and preaching here, interesting given the earlier part of the chapter. Stephen is portrayed as winning the debate, but those who opposed him are sore losers, apparently. They conspire against Stephen, bringing charges of blasphemy against him – similar charges that were a part of Jesus’ trial. He is brought to trial, and his story will be continued in the next chapter.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Acts 3

Acts 3:1-11: We have just had a picture of the inner life of the Jesus community in Jerusalem. Now we will get a picture of its outreach. Peter and John (only Luke pairs these two in this way) are going to the Temple to pray. The early Christians who were also Jewish continued to participate in the religious life of their Jewish community. In telling this story, Luke would have us recall the healing stories about Jesus. The Spirit that empowers the Jesus community makes possible acts of healing and restoration like those performed by Jesus. For some contemporary Christians, the focus remains on physical healing, and while there are legitimate stories of physical healing which seem to arise from unexplained sources, the point in Luke’s gospel is less on the physical healing itself than on God’s power to heal and restore at work through the Jesus community. In our day when we have modern medicine to care for many of our physical ailments, there are perhaps other kinds of healing and restoration that are urgently needed. Sometimes our attitudes cripple us, attitudes that we have had almost since birth. Sometimes what cripples us are our inabilities to reach across socially constructed dividing lines.

Anyway, Peter and John are approached by a man lame since birth, and asked to give alms. Rather than give him money, they heal him in the name of “Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Having his legs and ankles strengthened, the man now healed leaps for joy – a wonderful poetic coupling of images. This man goes from a beggar who needs to be carried to one walking and leaping and praising God. People are filled with wonder and amazement, much as they were when deeds of power were performed by Jesus.

Acts 3:12-26: This act of power is now given interpretation in Peter’s second sermon. The sermons in Acts are comprised of phrases and ideas from a variety of early Christian sources, and Luke uses them as summary statements of the teaching and preaching of the first Christians. As with many of the incidents in the gospels, deeds of power are followed by teaching. As with Peter’s first sermon, the immediate event is interpreted leading to a broader presentation of the good news of the gospel.

What has happened has happened because of God, not because of Peter and John. The God who has acted here is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is no “new god” at work here. But this God has acted in a similar way in Jesus – the same Jesus who was handed over to be crucified by the Roman authorities. Again, Luke paints with a broad brush as he assigns responsibility for the death of Jesus. We need to be cautious about doing such things, given the ugly history of Christian anti-Semitism. It is faith in Jesus which has released to power of God’s Spirit to heal the lame man.

Luke, through Peter’s words, offers the notion that ignorance played a role in the death of Jesus. People failed to understand who he really was, but they cannot avoid forever the need to make some decision about him. Luke is the only New Testament author who pairs “suffering” with ‘Messiah.” Again, we need to remember, the Christian community looked to their Scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures, to try and understand the meaning of Jesus death. Luke found Scriptures about suffering and God’s people to make statements about a “suffering Messiah.” The point is less interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures than making the point that God was at work in Jesus and all are invited to join that work. “Repent” is the invitation. As Marcus Borg notes in his book Jesus, to repent means to turn around, to return. It carries with it the connotation of the Hebrew Scripture stories of exile and return. To repent also means “to see again, to go beyond the mind that is the product of convention, to acquire a new mind, a new way of seeing” (219-220). Peter invites persons to repent, to turn toward God. By doing so, sin is forgiven, that is, all those things that separate one from God are taken away. One’s lame places are healed. Luke, through Peter, offers even more poetic and metaphoric language for what this turning may bring – “times of refreshing.” This harkens back to those passages in the Hebrew prophets where God’s ultimate activity is portrayed as a restoration of all creation. This is more than personal salvation. We are invited to be a part of God’s dream for the world. Don’t miss this opportunity.

Acts 4

Acts 4:1-22: Just as Jesus got into trouble with the authorities for his teaching and activity, so, too, would Jesus’ followers. Peter and John are arrested and imprisoned. Yet Luke notes that in spite of this, many believed their testimony and became part of the Jesus movement – about 5,000 (an echo of the feeding story in the gospel). Peter and John are questioned about the authority they have for their teaching and work.

Peter responds, filled with the Holy Spirit. There is irony in his words – are we being questioned because of a good deed? Have we been arrested and imprisoned because someone who was sick has been healed, has been made well, made whole? He goes on to say that this person’s state of well-being should be attributed to Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter’s speech again rehearses the story – this Jesus was crucified by the authorities, but God raised him up, vindicated him.

Verse 12 poses all kinds of interesting questions. Is it proof of Christian exclusivism, proof that only Christians can find a right relationship with God? Many have read it that way, but is this the best reading of the text. In its context, this is a statement about the power that healed the lame man, and is more a statement about there really only being one power for healing in the world, the power of God which Christians know to have been at work through Jesus. This is our essential testimony of faith, we know God – God’s love and God’s power, in Jesus. That does not preclude that God’s love and power may touch people who would not proclaim faith in Jesus. From Luke’s theology, as well as the New Testament as a whole, the modern reader may be clear with regard to two points: (a) Christians are not encouraged to believe that the Christian way is only one of “the many roads to God; (b) but neither are Christians encouraged to believe that only confessing Christians are finally accepted by God…. Christians should confess their faith that the God revealed in Christ is the only Savior, without claiming that only those who respond in faith will be saved. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Not all Christians would agree with this way of putting the issue, but it is worth further consideration. Such a position allows one to share one’s own faith experience without assuming that if the listener doesn’t respond, the person is outside of God’s grace. This position allows us to listen attentively to the wisdom of other traditions. In her new book Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, Joan Chittister writes, “Every major spiritual tradition brings a special gift to the art of living the spiritual life.” For those interested in further exploration of the issue of Christianity and other religions I would recommend Marjorie Suchocki’s Divinity and Diversity and Schubert Ogden’s Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many?

Those Jewish leaders on the Council were amazed at the boldness and eloquence of Peter and John – both lacked rabbinical and rhetorical training yet spoke powerfully. The council discusses the matter in private. They acknowledge that God is up to something but somehow want to keep it contained. Do we ever want to do that? The Council warns them not to continue speaking as they have, but Peter and John refuse. They cannot not tell their story. Our faith should be so contagious.

Acts 4:22-31: Peter and John return to their friends in the Jesus community and they pray together. This prayer give Luke another opportunity to summarize the Christian message of faith. It also provides insight into Luke’s understanding of the mission of the church. In the prayer both Jewish and Gentile leaders are viewed as responsible for the death of Jesus. The same forces that arrayed themselves against Jesus remain lined up against the church, so they pray that they may not loose faith and courage but may continue their work. The work of the church extends the work of Jesus – teaching, healing, signs and wonders (and what could be a more significant sign and a greater wonder than changed lives). So that they may, in fact, continue the work of Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, is again powerfully present.

Acts 4:32-37: Luke now inserts another description of the life of the Christian community. Again, the picture is idealistic. As we read the rest of the New Testament we will see that these early Christians were not always of one heart or one mind, and did not always share their goods with one another. Nevertheless, the Spirit of God not only changed individual lives, but was forming a new kind of community, one that sought unity and sharing. That work of the Spirit continues. How might God be at work in our lives trying to knit us together so that in a real way we are of one heart and soul? How can we be people of generous sharing? The kind of sharing portrayed here was also found among a few other groups both within Judaism and within the Roman culture. From out of this community life, the apostles continued to provide their testimony about what God had done in Jesus. “Great grace was upon them all.” May it be so with us.
Acts 2

Acts 2:1-13: The New Testament writers in general affirm that after the death of Jesus his followers were united, guided and empowered by the experience of the risen Christ, who empowered them by the Holy Spirit to carry on his work. All agree that the church began not by human initiative, but in the conviction that the presence and power of God (=the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit) generated the renewed Christian community. The New Testament authors have different ways of conceptualizing and expressing this. (People’s New Testament Commentary). John’s Gospel has the Spirit come on the day of the resurrection – Jesus breathes into the disciples the Holy Spirit. In Luke, the giving of the Spirit is a separate and dramatic event. Pentecost was a Jewish festival originally in celebration of the wheat harvest. It later lost some of the agricultural associations and came to be a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Luke’s use of this day might be an attempt to parallel the older covenant with a new covenant. Of course, in the Christian church “Pentecostal” has come to carry with it very different associations. We will speak more about this as we continue to read through the New Testament.

When the Spirit arrives it arrives dramatically – with fire and wind. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for “wind” are also the words for “spirit.” Tongues of fire also appear. “Filled with the Holy Spirit” is “a common biblical expression for being empowered by God” (People’s New Testament Commentary). What they will be empowered to do specifically in this context is witness to their faith in a variety of languages. Speaking in tongues was a common and valued experience in some streams of early Christianity, especially in the Pauline churches. It was the expression of a deep religious experience the could not be expressed in ordinary human language…. It occurs in other religions besides Christianity and seems to be a universal phenomenon of religious experience that, whenever there is deep religious feeling, some members of the community give expression to this feeling in ecstatic speech. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Here, however, such ecstatic speech also becomes speech in languages understood by others. Luke is wanting to make important statements not only about the power of the Holy Spirit, but also about the church that the Spirit is at work building. The church will be a universal community made up of people from many languages and cultures. The church needs to find ways to communicate with the varieties of the earth’s people. This aspect of the story is the more important, though Luke maintains that God’s Spirit is able to do remarkable things in human life, including inspiring ecstatic speech. There are echoes here of the story in Genesis about the tower of Babel, where human arrogance is seen to lead to estrangement in the human community. Here the Spirit is seen as a power to overcome alienation and estrangement – between God and human and between humans. The Spirit’s work remains the same today.

Luke’s telling of the coming of the Spirit also acknowledges that the church has its roots in Judaism. All these people from different countries are described as devout Jews. Just as Judaism could unite persons of different languages and cultures, though it remained more tied to a language and culture, so could faith in Jesus as the Christ unite persons from different backgrounds, and it would end up doing that much more successfully than Judaism. The initial reaction of the crowd is perplexity and amazement. What does all this mean? When God’s Spirit acts, it is not always self-evident. The questions of the gathered crowd provide a context for the “sermon” to follow.

Acts 2:14-36: Here Peter delivers the first Christian sermon. He seeks to interpret what is happening and in light of that also share the good news about Jesus as the Christ. Peter begins where some of the listeners are, and he rejects the “drunkenness” explanation for what is happening, affirming that God is at work here. He uses the shared Scripture of the Jews to speak to what is happening. His citation of Joel is making a dramatic claim, that the Spirit of God which would bring in a new way of life, a new reality, was at work here. “Luke frequently quotes and alludes to Scripture in order to emphasize that God’s new manifestation in Jesus is in continuity with the divine saving acts toward Israel” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). It would be a mistake to view the Hebrew Scriptures as documents whose primary intention was to point toward Jesus and what would happen with Jesus and the church. They arise out of the encounter between the Hebrew people and God, and were intended to form the relationship between God and the Hebrew people. That these same Scriptures can be used to interpret the on-going work of God in Jesus is a claim made by the Christian community. Again, the point Luke is making is that the same God who touched the lives of the Hebrew people is the God at work in Jesus and the Spirit. The Spirit is available to all people now.

From this quotation of the Scripture which is meant to frame the experience of the Spirit, Peter moves to a discussion of the Jesus story. Jesus is one through whom God worked signs, wonders, deeds of power. But Jesus was put to death. Here Luke uses language that would seem to hold this whole group of Jews responsible for the death of Jesus. This would not be historically accurate. Jewish leaders and Roman authorities were the ones responsible for the death of Jesus. For Luke, however, it seems that all who are unwilling to be open to what God has done in Jesus have some part in his death. His way of putting things no doubt also has something to do with the on-going disputes between Jewish Christians and synagogue Jews during Luke’s own time. The more important point in Peter’s sermon is that while Jesus death may have seemed like something irredeemably tragic, God was able to redeem it, to use it according to God’s own purposes. God used the death of Jesus to break the power of death itself. Wherever we find “death” in life, we are to trust that God can break through it. Again, the Hebrew Scriptures are cited as a way to understand how God continued to work in the life of Jesus, and even through his death. Luke understands that in the resurrection of Jesus, God vindicated the kind of life Jesus had lived as the way of life, the way God wants people to live. Luke uses “life” as identical with “salvation” and “entering the kingdom of God. (People’s New Testament Commentary). God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah – these two titles, one from the Roman culture and one from the Jewish culture. Jesus way is the way of life – not the Roman way, not the Jewish way as understood by some of the Jewish leaders (though deeply Jewish in other senses).

Acts 2:37-47: Peter’s preaching evokes a powerful response. Those who hear are “cut to the heart.” Good preaching is meant to touch persons deeply – heart and head. Out of their experience they ask what they should do next. They are to repent (turn their lives to the Jesus way of life) and be baptized and the promise is for forgiveness and the Spirit. It is a promise Luke sees extends to all people. From its beginnings, the church was meant to reach out to all people – how often we have failed to do that.

The new life to which those who responded turned is pictured in these verses beautifully. It is a life of learning and teaching, of fellowship, of prayer. It is a life that reaches out to others in ways that will sometimes awe. It is a life meant to be lived together with others. It is a life of generosity and sharing. This picture is idealistic, and one does not have to read very far in the New Testament to know that this way of life was not always maintained. Yet ideals can inspire us, can move us. As you read this picture of the early church, what inspires you? How might your life be different? How might life in the church be different?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Acts 1

Acts 1:1-5: Here we have the introduction to the second part of Luke-Acts. He offers a quick summary of what he had written in the gospel and adding a few remarks about the time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The account here is different from the account in the gospel, where Jesus ascends into heaven on the evening of the resurrection. Here there are forty days of teaching about the kingdom of God. As he prepares to ascend, he promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is the same Spirit by which Jesus has taught (verse 2). Luke did not think of the ascension as an event that can be objectively dated, but as a way of expressing God’s act for Jesus after his death. God not only restored him to life and overcame death, but exalted him to be Lord of all (People’s New Testament Commentary).

The teaching about the kingdom of God was a central theme of Jesus’ message. Barbara Reid notes in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible that the Greek words we translate as “kingdom of God” can be difficult to convey in English. It is not a kingdom in terms of geography, but is meant to convey “the sense of God’s saving power over all creation, already inaugurated in a new way with the incarnation and ministry of Jesus, and continued in the faithful ministry of the believing community.” For those in the first century, any talk about a kingdom would have brought to mind “the Roman imperial system of domination and exploitation.” God’s reign, God’s kingdom, is meant to contrast sharply with that way of being, that system of organizing human life. The kingdom of God is a way of life, a dream for a world, that is healing and liberating, free of domination. That the authorities of Jesus’ time viewed his preaching and teaching about this alternative kingdom as a threat is evidenced by the fact that Jesus was executed.

Acts 1:6-11: Even with additional teaching about the kingdom of God, the apostles (Luke will now consistently call the original disciples of Jesus “apostles” meaning “those sent”) still remain confused about the nature of the kingdom of God. They still ask about the restoration of Israel as an independent nation. That is not the point, however. God’s kingdom is happening in a new way. The Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus) will come with power into the lives of the apostles, and they will share the good news of the kingdom, be its witnesses throughout the world. Luke is thinking beyond the original apostles to all those who in the name of Jesus are touched with power by God’s Spirit, including the Christians of his own day and time. Christians are not only to follow Jesus in the way they live their lives, by adopting his priorities and continuing to serve others as he did; they are also called to declare verbally why it is that they live that way (People’s New Testament Commentary). Today many of us are more comfortable with the idea of trying to pattern our lives after the way of Jesus, however challenging, than also sharing why we do that. Sharing our faith is an important part of living that faith. We need not do this obnoxiously or arrogantly, but it is a part of the life of faith to share that faith with others. The work of the Spirit in our lives and in our world is a story worth telling. After giving them both a promise and an assignment, Jesus ascends – it is the work of God raising him up. They stand watching, but are reminded by two men in white robes that there is work to be done, Spirit work. When I read this passage, I am often reminded of how often in the spiritual life we are tempted to cling to older realities. Instead, we are reminded that the journey goes on, even in the midst of great change. The apostles will miss Jesus, but they can’t spend their time wondering where he went or when he may return. They have the Spirit’s work to do.

Acts 1:12-26: The apostles return to Jerusalem. Some kind of headquarters for the Jesus movement has been set up. There is no single list of names for the apostles in the gospels. Anyway, the apostles, and other followers of Jesus, men and women, gather together regularly for prayer. Spirit work includes the work of prayer. Peter takes a leadership role in the early Jesus community/movement. The reference to the Scripture being fulfilled is not meant to imply a deterministic prediction of all that had happened, rather it was meant to convey that all that had happened was still within the purpose of God. Jesus crucifixion was considered a scandalous event, not something that should have happened to a righteous person. The early church claimed that this tragic death was part of the way God was at work in the world bringing God’s kingdom to the world. It was an audacious theological claim. Other events surrounding the death of Jesus were then also understood by consulting the Jewish Scriptures, including Judas’ death. There was a feeling that Judas needed to be replaced, and through prayer and the casting of lots, Matthias was chosen for the ministry of witness to the resurrection, the ministry of apostleship. Paul and other New Testament writers do not limit the ministry of being an apostle to these twelve. Luke later adds Barnabas to the list of apostles, but not Paul. Paul considered himself and apostle, however. All this points to a certain fluidity in the early church. While we would not choose church leadership by casting lots, we should affirm the importance of prayer in the process of choosing leadership and of the importance of listening for God’s Spirit.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Acts of the Apostles

This is a unique book in the New Testament. It is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same hand and for the same audiences.

The composer/author’s voice is present from the very beginning, just as it was there at the beginning of volume 1 “The Gospel According to Luke”. You hear him give some reason for writing and the name of a person to whom he is writing. Sometimes scholars and writers will refer to this combined work as Luke-Acts. This combined work covers 27.5% of the New Testament, making Luke the New Testament’s most prolific author.

So what do we know of the author and his context? Tradition identifies the author as a companion of Paul (Philemon 24, II Timothy 4:11, Colossians 4:14), but there is no way to validate such a claim. By the author’s own admission, he was not an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus. How much of what he writes about here he witnessed is also unknown. The language of the book is an excellent Greek, of fine literary quality (or so I am told!). This seems to indicate that the writer was a Gentile Christian, and there are other clues which also support this. Given what the author, who we will continue to call “Luke,” says in the beginning of both parts of his work, the gospel and Acts appear to be written for a wider public that has had some brush with Christian faith, either as persons newer to the faith or as outsiders. It may be somewhat less grounded in a particular Christian community than Matthew, Mark, or John but its purpose would have been, in part, to strengthen the Christian movement in the face of opposition. Luke is writing/composing theological history both for those within the Christian movement and for those outside of it. He expects his audience to be a bit more learned and cultured. It was probably written from 80-100 CE in an unknown location. Again, there is a bit less of a link to a more specific Christian community here than with the other gospels.

The story of Acts continues the story of the Christian movement from the ascension of Jesus in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith and life, to Rome, the capital of the empire and center of the Gentile world. By the time Luke writes, the Christian movement or Jesus movement has become more Gentile than Jewish, and we will see in this work some of the tensions that created. This is the only New Testament work that portrays “the history” of the early church, though it is not written primarily as a history but as a way to both strengthen the faith of those already Christian and to invite those not yet Christian to consider the faith. In some ways, this work is reminiscent of Old Testament works that record God’s continuing relationship with and work through God’s people.

About a third of the work is speeches. While some of the content of these speeches may have come from those who uttered them, as they were retold over time, in their final form, these speeches are Lukan compositions. This was common practice of the time, a time when there were no quotes or footnotes. Luke intends some of these speeches to be a summary of the Christian message as shared with those outside the faith.

The comparison of the Acts narrative both with Paul’s letters and with secular historical sources shows that Luke sometimes transmits accurate historical data and sometimes adapts historical reports or composes his own scenes to communicate theological truth in a narrative form. (People’s New Testament Commentary). “He intends to provide an edifying narrative that will inspire and build up the faith of the community” (New Interpreters Study Bible). As we read this work, we will encounter themes that are familiar from Luke’s Gospel: the importance of the Spirit and prayer, inclusive table fellowship, care for the poor and proper use of riches. Luke sees the activity of the Spirit in the Church to be a continuation of the activity of the Spirit in Jesus. In Luke we will also see how the early Christians worked in a culture that was non-Christian. In the Western world where once the Christian language was familiar, but is now becoming much less so, we may be able to learn some things as we read this work.

Here are some words offered by mystery writer P.D. James about the Book of Acts (from Revelations). To read Acts is to be drawn into a world of dramatic incident thronged with characters from all walks of life, a world of many nations and tongues…. She refers to the work as an “extraordinary, richly-populated and complex mixture of religious apologia, adventure story and travelogue.” Luke observes the dramatic events with the eye of a physician and describes them with the discriminating skill of a novelist, providing the human details which add verisimilitude and reinforce the story’s humanity and universality.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

John 21

John 21:1-14: Here we have another story of an appearance of the post-resurrection Jesus. Given some of the details of the story, it indeed appears that this chapter was an add-on. How could the disciples not recognized Jesus after he had already appeared to them twice before? The story contains echoes of the first call of the disciples in the other gospels. It also has echoes of many other stories in John. Jesus here offers another Johannine sign, a night of fishing which has produced nothing is turned into an abundant catch. Notice again that it is the disciple whom Jesus loved who first recognizes Jesus. The catch is enormous – 153 fish, yet the net was not broken. 153 must have some significance. It is the total of all the numbers in the series 1-17. It signifies abundance, as did the miracle at Cana. The meal of fish and bread recalls Jesus feeding the multitude. The charcoal fire reminds readers of the last time Peter was around a charcoal fire – when he denied Jesus.

Back to the abundant catch and the net that remained in tact. One meaning of this is surely that the church was to be an inclusive community, containing Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, varying understandings of the Jesus tradition. In some ways the current debate in the Christian church about the open inclusion of gay and lesbian persons can be framed by this story – is our net elastic enough and strong enough to include these persons fully in the life of the church? To my mind, it should be, but those who have a different view are concerned that full inclusion of GLBT people would tear the net.

There are some puzzling words about the disciples both knowing it was Jesus, yet wondering if it was Jesus. Could this be a commentary on the kind of faith most of us work with – trusting but sometimes wondering? Even if it is, we are invited to the feast, just as Jesus invited these disciples to a breakfast of fish and bread.

John 21:15-19: There is a parallel here between Jesus’ three questions for Peter, and Peter’s earlier three-fold denial of Jesus – and both take place around a charcoal fire. To love Jesus is to love the people of Jesus, and in a very real sense, that includes the whole of humankind. In our day and time it needs also to include love for the wider creation – a different love perhaps, but a love and care nonetheless. By the time this gospel was written, Peter had died a martyr’s death in Rome. Here that death is marked by words of Jesus. For Peter to follow Jesus meant following Jesus to his death.

John 21:20-25: These verses probably have something to do with varying streams of the early Jesus movement. The previous verses are a nod to the importance of Peter for the Christian tradition. John’s Jesus community traced its most important influence to the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” but it remained a part of the wider Christian community which looked at Peter in a special way. Yet, they still held in the hearts a warmth toward this other disciple. “What about him?” He, too, is a faithful witness, though he did not die the dramatic martyr’s death of Peter. Could this be some kind of response to those who wanted to so elevate the Peter tradition in the Jesus movement over the Johannine stream? Even early in our life, the church has struggled with unity amidst diversity. This gospel builds on the tradition of the beloved disciple, but it acknowledges here that much has been and could be written about Jesus. The ending is a wonderful literary exaggeration, but there is a symbolic truth here as well. The story of Jesus, being the story of God in the world cannot be contained by that world! Each of us contains our part of the story and is asked to share it.
John 20

John 20:1-18: The final two chapters of John’s gospel provide us with his telling of the story of the resurrection of Jesus and Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters with others. Before moving into commenting on the texts directly, I will share again some commentary on the resurrection.

Notes on the resurrection (once again): Many Christians will admit, even if only to themselves in the quiet of their own minds, that they struggle some with the story of the resurrection of Jesus. This situation is not helped terribly much by other Christians who assert boldly that unless you believe very specific things about the resurrection (that it was a literal bodily event that might have been captured on video were the technology available) you are not a faithful Christian. What is really essential about the resurrection of Jesus? I would like to offer some thoughts.

The People’s New Testament Commentary notes that “the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., God’s act in raising up Jesus, is central to the Christian faith.” I would agree – but what does that mean? The commentary goes on to say that resurrection is God’s action and that it is “to be distinguished from resuscitation, i.e., the restoration of a dead person to this-worldly life…. Jesus was raised to a new order of being beyond this life.” Resurrection in first century Judaism was a concept that was meant to say something about the ultimate justice of God. In the end, God’s justice would prevail – thus resurrection is an “eschatological” concept and it was sign of the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this is that in the resurrection the Christian community affirms that just as God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world was breaking into the world in Jesus teaching, healing and feeding, so it continues to break into the world through Jesus even though Jesus was crucified. “The resurrection faith of the earliest Christians was expressed and communicated in several forms: songs, creeds, sermons, and stories.” “The Gospel stories of the resurrection are thus not to be harmonized. They differ on such items as who went to the tomb and when, the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus, and the location and chronology of Jesus’ appearances.” To my mind the very variety in these stories indicates that we may be dealing with something more than an easily identifiable historical event.

Here are some comments from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, from their book, The Last Week. So Easter is utterly central. But what was it?... When we think about Easter, we must consider several foundational questions. What kind of stories are the Easter stories? What kind of language are they told in, and how is that language being used? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered (whether correctly or incorrectly)? Or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or some combination of the two? (190) We are convinced that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that could have been photographed, gets in the way of understanding them…. Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It’s quite happy leaving the question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. (191, 193) Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meanings of Easter. Jesus lives. He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way…. God has vindicated Jesus. God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Jesus is Lord.” And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. (204, 205, 206)

Marcus Borg, in his own work Jesus builds on some of the themes already presented in his work with Crossan. While Matthew is the first writing we have in the New Testament (and Mark follows Matthew but was written earlier), Paul’s letters are earlier. Paul provides the earliest witness to the resurrection, and in his writings (as we shall see) he bundles together his own experience of the risen Christ with those of others who experienced him. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to others as also visions…. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the thought that the experiences of the risen Jesus were visions…. But not all visions are hallucinations…. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus changed his life. (277-278) Borg goes on discuss other aspects of the resurrection. But I am aware that a historical question can still be asked: what happened? What I am confident of is this. The followers of Jesus had experiences of him after his death that convinced them that he continued to be a figure of the present. Almost certainly some of these experiences were visions; it would be surprising if there weren’t any…. I think there were nonvisionary experiences of the risen Jesus…. I think his followers felt the continuing presence of Jesus with them, recognized the same Spirit that they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and knew the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate – the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. And I think these kinds of experiences have continued among Christians ever since…. For me, the truth of the claim “God raised Jesus” is gounded in these kind of experiences…. And there is one more thing to say about the experiences that lie at the heart of Easter. They carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus…. There is a continuity between the post-Easter conviction that God has vindicated Jesus and the message of the pre-Easter Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” is the post-Easter equivalent of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. (287, 288, 289) What did Easter mean to the first followers of Jesus?... First, the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death. They continued to know him as a figure of the present, and not simply as a figure from the past…. Second, Easter meant that God had vindicated Jesus…. To put these two meanings as concisely as possible, Easter meant “Jesus lives,” and “Jesus is Lord.” (276)

Finally, before I add a few more words of my own, a few words from George Ricker (What You Don’t Have To Believe To Be A Christian). “Christians do not agree theologically, and they never have. The essence of Christianity is not in the literal truth of the story language of the faith. In all of this I am pleading that Christians not be divided over opinions about which obvious differences exist. Christians are united in the love of God revealed by Jesus, whom we call Christ, and not by our opinions.” (69-70) Ricker imagines what an experience of the risen Christ might have been like for the first disciples of Jesus. He pictures them together sharing a meal and in the midst of that sharing they experience Jesus as present. “By the inspiration of God, the intrusion of the Spirit, they suddenly realize that it was not all over. The Lord was with them…. Jesus is dead. Jesus has a new body. They tried to kill the Christ, the activity of God, they could not. The Christ is raised in a new body.” (72-73)

What am I trying to say with all these extended quotes? Am I trying to convince you that your view of the resurrection of Jesus is wrong if you disagree with Crossan or Borg or Ricker? No. With Ricker, I am asking that we give each other permission to ask questions about this important part of our Christian faith. I am asking that we allow that people of deep and genuine Christian faith can disagree about the exact nature of the experiences of the disciples as they proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. I do think that Borg and Crossan are right when they say that the meaning of the resurrection, whatever its precise nature is to be found in the statements “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.” How do we now live our lives in light of this?

Back to John 20:1-18. All of the gospels report that women, who were not considered reliable witnesses at the time, were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Only in John does Mary Magdalene go to the tomb alone, and only in John is she the first person to see Jesus after his death. Mary goes to the tomb and discovers that the stone has been rolled away. None of the gospels or other early Christian writings tell of the resurrection itself – only of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus. Mary assumes that the body has been moved and says so to Peter and the rather mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved.” These two run to the tomb to investigate, the “beloved disciple” reaching the tomb first. This is probably an indication that the Johnannine Jesus community traced its beginnings to this “beloved disciple.” Early on in the Jesus movement there were “competing streams” and this little note in John’s gospel was perhaps his way of claiming that the beloved disciple stream was a little better than the Peter branch of the movement. There is now a great deal of literature available about the diversity in the early church. At a later time, some of the streams of early Christianity were considered to be “outside” the faith. Notice, too, that it is the beloved disciple who first comes to “believe” (verse 8).

The two disciples go back home, but Mary stays at the tomb, weeping. And it is as if the tears cleared her eyes, for soon she sees two angels, then Jesus himself. He asks a question, “Who are you looking for?” It is the same question asked at the beginning of Jesus ministry. This will be a new beginning. However, she does not “see” Jesus, she does not recognize him, until she hears him call her name. What a beautiful image. In the midst of tears and confusion, Jesus is present, and Jesus calls Mary’s name. Sometimes it is that way for us. Jesus is present to us in dark and difficult moments, and we hear him calling our name – not audibly but in our hearts. Hearing the voice of Jesus, she responds, “teacher.”

Verse 17 can be translated “Do not cling to me.” Jesus will not continue to be experienced in this way for long, and the disciples must not cling to such experiences. No doubt this was written as much for John’s Jesus community, people who had never known the earthly Jesus. They are not to be seen at a disadvantage as people of faith. John will make this point again. Mary shares the good news of the resurrection with the other disciples.

John 20:19-23: Jesus has appeared to Mary, now he will appear to others. Verse 19 would have been a familiar circumstance to John’s Jesus community. They are fearful and meeting behind closed doors. Nevertheless, Jesus arrives and offers a word of peace. Peace over fear is central to resurrection faith. That John makes a point of having Jesus show his hands and feet isn’t a macabre show and tell, it is his way of saying that the presence of Jesus they are now experiencing is the same Jesus who was crucified. Crucifixion carried with it shame, and here God overcomes that shame. If peace over fear is central to resurrection faith, so is being sent in mission to the world. But we are not sent alone. We go as followers of Jesus filled with the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God. Forgiveness of sins is the community’s Spirit-empowered mission to continue Jesus’ work of making God known in the world and through that work to bring the world to judgment and decision through its response to Jesus (New Interpreters Study Bible). Justice, compassion, forgiveness, love – these are all a part of the work of the Spirit in our lives and through us the world.

John 20:24-29: For whatever reason, Thomas, one of the disciples was missing from the previous gathering. They tell Thomas the story, but he is unwilling to believe their testimony. He needs to see for himself, and to see that the risen one is also the one who was crucified. Only John’s gospel mentions nails at all, and they, and the scars they leave, are important to John. A week after Thomas greets the disciples testimony with questions, all the disciples are together in a closed room. Jesus appears again and offers peace. He then offer Thomas a look at his hands and side, inviting him to believe. Jesus’ words are all it takes – like Mary earlier who hears Jesus calling her name, Thomas responds to Jesus voice with belief. Jesus words in this context would have been music to the ears of John’s Jesus community – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This story is not about Thomas’s doubt and skepticism, but about the abundant grace of Jesus who meets Thomas’s demands point for point in order to move him to faith (New Interpreters Study Bible).

John 20:30-31: These are the original concluding words to John’s gospel. Chapter 21 is a later addition, pulling together Johannine themes into two stories – an epilogue of sorts. These verses, one telling us that Jesus did so much more than can be reported in the current work and one telling us the purpose of the gospel, could fit each of the gospels. The gospels are not disinterested history or biography, they are works with a purpose – “these are written so that you may come to believe that that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” We are invited to trust that God was up to something very special in Jesus, trust that the same God wants to touch our lives and give us life – in all its fullness. The phrase “come to believe” may also be translated “continue to believe” so that the author’s primary purpose may have been to encourage his Jesus community to keep and to deepen their faith.

A Couple of Additional Thoughts:
John Sanford, in Mystical Christianity shares some powerful thoughts about cross and resurrection that I want to pass on. The pain and torture of the crucifixion express the difficulty and painfulness of the process of psychological and spiritual transformation…. It would be a mistake, however, to identify the crucifixion and resurrection with a purely psychological process…. On the cross the powers of darkness did all they could to destroy the light of God, but the light rose again indestructible. This I take to be a central message of John’s Gospel, and a fundamental meaning to Christianity, which makes it a most hopeful faith, not because all will be well in this world, but because nothing can separate us from the love and light of God. Evil, which did all it could to destroy the light of Christ on the cross, could not destroy that Light, for the power of the Light rose again. (328-329)