Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Acts 16:16-34Psalm 97Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21John 17:20-26

By Russell Pregeant

Jesus’ long farewell to his disciples in John begins at 13:31-35, with his declaration of the mutual glorification that obtains between himself and God and his statement of the “new commandment” to “love one another.” It ends with 17:20-26, which reiterates both themes, so that the discourse is framed by these motifs, identifying them as the dominant thread in the entire section.[1] Although part of the farewell, these verses are spoken to God in prayer, rather than to the disciples. The prayer begins at 17:1 and ends with v. 26, which also concludes the farewell, leading immediately into the passion narrative.

Gail R. O’Day argues that “[t]he contrast in v. 20 between ‘these’ and ‘those who believe in me on account of their word’ is not between the first generation of believers and all future generations of believers but between those in any generation who already believe and those who do not believe but may come to believe on account of the witness of the faith community.”[2] Bultmann, however, states that “the prayer for the community’s unity consciously embraces its extension through time,” so that the petition is made on behalf of “all believers, without reference to space and time.”[3] Both statements, I believe, are correct. On the one hand, these verses add to the discourse a reflection on the Christian mission: those who believe in Jesus are necessarily witnesses to him before the world. On the other, the mission extends to future generations as well as those contemporary to the first disciples or the Johannine community. And John 20:29 makes it clear that those who in any generation receive the testimony of the witnesses are on the same footing as those to whom Jesus appeared following his resurrection: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What Jesus asks, on behalf of those who “now” believe and those who will come to believe is “that they may all be one.” Many commentators have puzzled over the nature of the unity envisioned—that is, whether it is organizational or spiritual. The first essential point to note is that the basis of the church’s unity is the relationship between Jesus and the Father. Just as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, so the believers must be in both Jesus and the Father—and, of course, to be in the one is to be in the other. Bultmann thus contends that the unity of believers “is not founded on natural or purely historical data” and cannot “be manufactured by organisation, institutions, or dogma”—which “can at best only bear witness to the real unity.”[4] This much seems indisputable, but Raymond Brown’s observation also has merit: “Some type of vital, organic unity seems to be demanded by the fact that the relationship of the Father and Son is held up as the model of unity. The Father-Son relationship involves more than moral union: the two are related because the Father gives life to the Son (vi 57). Similarly the Christians are one with one another and with the Father and the Son because they have received of this life.”[5]

The second essential point is that, as O’Day observes, “[t]he final dependent clause in v. 21 points to the purpose of the community’s oneness. This oneness…will offer a witness to the world about the revelation of God in Jesus.”[6] That is to say, in the unity of believers the world gets a glimpse of the unity of Jesus and the Father, and this glimpse has the power to convince unbelievers of the over-all affirmation of the Gospel of John, that Jesus is sent from God. This point is reiterated in v. 23, with the addition of a declaration of God’s love for the believers. Jesus now prays “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” We can thus see that the unity for which Jesus prays is precisely a unity based on love. Just as Jesus and God are bound together by mutual love, so Christians are bound by love to both the Father and the Son and also to one another. And if Christian unity is based on love, and church unity is what will convince the world of the truth of its message, then we can also say that it is Christians’ love for one another that is ultimately convincing to the world.

So what, then, can we say about the nature of the unity that Jesus prays for in this passage? Brown is probably right in saying that “[t]he fact that the unity has to be visible enough to challenge the world to believe in Jesus (21, 23) seems to militate against a purely spiritual union.”[7] If, however, we grant that it is precisely the love that grounds the unity that ultimately has the potential to convince, then organizational unity becomes less important than the spiritual dimension. Certainly, the fragmentation of the church—most especially when marked by animosity, persecution, etc.—is an impediment to the Christian mission. We all know, however, that there is much disunity within as well as among denominations. Without disparaging either organizational or doctrinal unity, neither means much of anything apart from the bonds of love, which would thus seem more essential than either.

Another important aspect of this passage is that it is through the believers’ “word” (logos) that others come to believe. Commentators have long wrestled with the reference of this term “logos” in 1 John 1:1 (“the word of life”): does it mean the testimony of the community or the incarnate Logos of the first chapter of the gospel? The answer, I believe, is that it means both. Just as the eternal Logos becomes incarnate in the historical person Jesus, so that Logos becomes incarnate in the logos/witness of the community. That witness thus gives life, just as the incarnate Logos is the bearer of life. And just as Jesus manifests God’s love, so the word of the community becomes a concrete means of loving the world—the world that God also loves (John 3:16). But this means, of course, that if the word/witness of the church is not a word of love, but rather one of pure condemnation, then it is by no means a word of life.

A process-relational perspective on the question of church unity will value oneness, since a degree of harmony is necessary for any institution to function meaningfully, but it will also find value in diversity as an antidote to stagnation. It is only through experimentation that the life-process can move forward. And although the tension created by alternative perspectives entails the risk of disintegration, it can also be the source of creative transformation. We can thus value the denominational differences in church governance, for example, as incentives to serious reflection and continual reformation. As a United Methodist who grew up in the deep South during the civil rights movement, I valued our connectional system as protection against the whims of congregations ready to depose any minister who brought a prophetic word on the race issue. As a witness to the way autocratic bishops used their power to punish anyone who opposed their policies, however, I could also appreciate aspects of congregational polity.

I would argue the same point, moreover, with respect to doctrine. I believe that one can take a clear stand on such issues as those at stake between Calvinists and Arminians (and Pelagians) but at the same time value the debates among these perspectives as healthy and creative when they do not descend into acrimony. And one can in fact cite the doctrinal distinctiveness of the Johannine community as an example of creativity through diversity. Although in some sense a sectarian group, distinctive over against Petrine Christianity, the Johannine group contributed to the emerging Great Church a doctrine of supreme importance: the understanding of Christ as the Logos incarnate! We might also note that a Whiteheadian understanding of language as fragmentary, imprecise, and “elliptical” on the one hand but as straining toward metaphysical systematization on the other[8] can help to clarify how doctrinal diversity can be superior to a rigidly enforced orthodoxy. If we understand doctrines as inherently inadequate human attempts to state truth, rather than exact formulations of “how things really are,” then we can treat them as more suggestive than as absolutely definitive.

The lectionary selection from Revelation has been “sanitized” by the deletion of vv. 15, 18-19. Progressive interpreters will have no trouble appreciating the apparent reasons for this—the harsh exclusivism of v. 15 that bars all manner of folk from entrance into the New Jerusalem and the punitiveness and “Biblicist” attitude toward the text of the writing in vv. 18-19. And the verses that precede the selection, which are clearly part of the same literary unit, are in some ways even worse, as they seem to deny the possibility of repentance at this final stage of the eschatological drama. Without all these verses, we have a final promise of Christ’s return in glory and a blessing on the faithful—although the theme of recompense is still present in v. 12.

With them, however, we have a very problematic text but one that could serve to provide some creative tension with the Johannine emphasis on God’s love. I could imagine a sermon, for example, that wrestles with universal salvation versus limited salvation. And it should be noted that this tension prevails even within Revelation itself—a point that Ron Farmer discusses in his process-informed commentary.[9] In 11:13, for example, all those not killed in an earthquake repent and praise God; and in 5:13 “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” praises God and the Lamb. There are also two passages describing the renewal of creation that seem to imply universal salvation: 21:5 and 22:1-2. As with doctrine, so with biblical texts, a Whiteheadian perspective on the nature of language can free us from narrow readings that lead us either into confusion or rigidity as we face tensions in or among scriptural texts.

The selection from Acts continues and completes the narrative, from last week, of Paul’s mission in Philippi. It also reflects a typical Lukan emphasis by giving a female a significant role. She is called a paidisken, a term that has various meanings, including “girl,” “slave girl,” and “maidservant.” Here it clearly indicates a female slave, since she has “owners” (kyrioi). The phrase rendered as “spirit of divination” in the NRSV is pneuma python, or “pythian spirit.” “Python” was the dragon slain at Delphi by Apollo, who thus took on the title Pythian Apollo and delivered oracles through his priestess.[10] Ivoni Richter Reimer thus speculates that the paidisken is a mouthpiece for Apollo; and she interprets the exorcism as a “battle of the gods” between the Jewish God and the Greek Apollo. This would fit well with a central motif in the plot of Acts, as the gospel makes its way triumphantly into the “pagan” world.[11]

Reimer also notes that the story differs from other examples of exorcism in the New Testament in that the spirit who possesses the paidisken is not named as unclean and does not seem to harm its host.[12] Ironically, moreover, what the spirit says is true: Paul and Silas are indeed “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim… a way of salvation.” Paul nevertheless becomes annoyed by this persistent declaration and exorcises the spirit. We hear nothing more about the paidisken, and the story takes a different turn as her owners—deprived of their income—have Paul and Silas arrested. Reimer thus observes that we cannot really treat this incident as a story of liberation, although it points to that potential.[13] What should the reader imagine happening to her? Do her owners simply abandon her? Do they sell her to someone else? Does she become a follower of Jesus and join Lydia’s house church? The story does not tell us—but, in not doing so, perhaps opens the way for reflections along these lines in a sermon.

Reflection on the odd fact that the pneuma python does not harm the paidisken and is not termed unclean might also be fruitful, if more than a little tricky. In light of the exorcism, I do not think we can claim these omissions as signaling a significant undercurrent of thought. It does seem legitimate to me, however, to use them as the occasion for reflecting on the issue of Christian exclusivism, primarily from a perspective admittedly outside the purview of the explicit theology of Luke-Acts. The dominant view of “pagan” religions in this work is clearly evident in Acts 4:12 (“no other name… by which we must be saved”), but the encounter between the Christian faith and other religions in the modern era has forced us to re-think earlier attitudes. And even in Acts we find an impetus in this direction in Paul’s appeal to the Athenians’ “unknown God” in 17:16-28.

It is important to note that it is not really the pythian spirit that enslaves the paidisken but rather her owners. And this observation points to another important Lukan theme in the story: money. The narrator makes it clear in v. 19 that the owners’ complaint has to do specifically with the loss of income derived from the paidisken’s gift. The reader is thus coached to see them as greedy and exploitative and to understand the gospel message as standing in opposition to their “business.” However, the charge they actually bring against Paul and Silas is different—“they are Jews” who are “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Robert W. Wall sees this as a way of appealing to Roman anti-Semitism and to a defunct “principle of incompatibility” that prohibited proselytizing on behalf of non-Roman cults.[14] The story thus suggests that the gospel message is counter-cultural in the context of the Roman world.

Although the charges against the missionaries are without merit, the reaction of the crowd in v. 22 reveals the social disruptiveness of their preaching. And this should caution us against readings of Luke-Acts that see it as an apologia designed to convince Roman authorities of its harmlessness. In Acts 5:19, Peter declared that he must obey God rather than any human authority, and it is in light of this that we have to evaluate Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship in v. 37. He rightly asserts his innocence of the charges, and he has no problem in invoking his citizenship as involving the right to trial. It is nevertheless clear that he has every intention of continuing to preach, no matter what any Roman authority says. The miraculous opening of the prison doors show that God is at work in the progress of the gospel, and Paul uses the opportunity to convert the jailer and his household. Although not attacking the empire directly, and willing to use his citizenship as protection, he clearly places his devotion to God above that citizenship. And the story as a whole shows that the Spirit-empowered mission is proceeding on its way, despite the opposition of greedy slave-holders, belligerent crowds bound to outmoded custom, and even Roman officials. The jailer and his family, who put themselves at risk in their quest for salvation, are ample testimony to that fact.

Psalm 97 declares God’s rule in the world, asserting divine protection of the faithful from the wiles of the wicked (v. 10). Along similar lines, a major value that Farmer finds in the reading from Revelation is its declaration that evil will be overcome.[15] From a process perspective, this affirmation has two dimensions. On the earthly level, it means that God will never abandon the world but will always remain active in seeking justice and shalom. The triumph of justice is not guaranteed in this world, however; but what is guaranteed that God resolves all evil in the divine life. A challenge for process-oriented preachers is thus to hold out hope for this world, without resorting to naïve optimism, while asserting God’s own life as the ultimate repository of value, without playing down the importance of life in this world.

[1] Fernando F. Segovia, The Farewell of the Word: The Johannine Call to Abide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 284.

[2] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 794.

[3] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 512.

[4] Ibid., 513.

[5] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1997), 776.

[6] O’Day, 795.

[7] Brown, 776.

[8] See Russell Pregeant, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew’s Christ in Process Hermeneutic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1978), 33-44, and Ronald L. Farmer, Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University, 1997), 93-99, 184-86.

[9] See Ronald L. Farmer, Revelation (St. Louis: Chalicle, 2005), 126-33.

[10] C.K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, Volume II (London and New York: T&T Clark, 1998, 2004), 784-85.

[11] Ivoni Richter Reimer, Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 172.

[12] Ibid., 156-67.

[13] Ibid., 180-84.

[14] Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 233.

[15] Farmer, Revelation, 132.