May 19, 2019
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|Acts 11:1-18||Psalm 148||Revelation 21:1-6||John 13:31-35|
by Ronald J. Allen
The 27 books of the Gospels and Letters assume that Jesus is resurrected. Even the Gospels that appear, on the surface, to tell the story of the ministry of Jesus on earth assume that the risen Jesus continues to do many of the kinds of things the Gospels picture him doing. A main purpose of preaching on the Sundays of Easter is to help the congregation recognize and respond to the continuing, resurrecting presence of God represented in Jesus.
While the passages from the Gospels and Letters assigned for each Sunday share this broad purpose, the different texts from the Gospels and Letters consider different perspectives and implications of that resurrecting presence. Each passage presumes a different context and issues. I approach the pericopes in the Gospels and Letters by identifying one or more lures in each one towards recognizing and responding to the resurrecting power represented in Jesus in each passage.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are significantly apocalyptic in orientation. Apocalypticism assumes that history is divided into two ages: the present, broken world of Satan, the demons, idolatry, injustice, fractiousness, scarcity, and death, and the coming new world—often called the Realm of God—marked by the covenantal purposes of God in every situation, true worship, justice, peace, community, abundance, and life. Luke presents Jesus as announcing and partially manifesting the Realm in the present but pointing to its final and complete manifestation at the second coming.
The resurrection of Jesus is the definitive sign that the movement to the Realm is underway. The church in Acts carries on Jesus’ mission and expands it. The church engages in the gentile mission as part of God’s way to end the fractiousness and violence so characteristic of human life and to begin the reunion of the divided human family by bringing together Jewish and gentile peoples in eschatological community in the church.
In no small part, Luke wrote the Gospel and the Acts to help the church deal with issues in the congregation. One issue that divided the congregation was the degree to which gentiles should adopt Jewish ways of life. Circumcision and table fellowship were key matters. In that culture, eating together was a powerful symbol of community. Some members of the congregation insisted that gentiles should be circumcised and adopt other aspects of Jewish life (such as the dietary practices) while other members believed that Jewish and gentile peoples could be in community on other bases. Luke inclines towards the latter, but with a respectful limitation.
In Acts 9:1-19 the risen Jesus calls Paul as the chief missionary to the gentiles. However, Luke depicts the twelve apostles continuing the authority of Jesus in the church. Consequently, acts 10:1―11:18 describes the first gentile conversion taking place under the aegis of the apostle Peter. In Acts 10:34-48, a group of gentile converts receive the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jewish believers received it on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-36).
Luke voices the conflict in the community regarding the gentiles and circumcision by placing this concern in the mouths of some circumcised believers in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-3). In Acts 11:4-17, Peter summarizes the narrative of Acts 10:1-48 emphasizing that the Spirit shaped the event through dreams and that the gentiles received the defining experience of confirmation — the receipt of the Holy Spirit (as in Acts 2:1-36). When Peter draws the obvious conclusion in Acts 11:17, the audience agreed and praised God for giving the gentiles “the repentance that leads until life” (Acts 11:18)
The issue is resolved more fully in Acts 15. A council convenes in Jerusalem and writes a letter indicating that gentiles — after turning from idolatry and turning to the living God and joining the journey to the Realm in the power of the Spirit — should adhere to four basic principles. They are to abstain from (1) “things polluted by idols,” (2) “fornication,” (3) “whatever has been strangled,” and (4) “blood,” i.e. from meat that was not properly killed and emptied of blood. By living in this way — which I once heard characterized as “Judaism lite for gentiles” — the church can continue to foreshadow the eschatological reunion as Jewish and gentile peoples can eat together.
Few congregations today deal with conflict over the degree to which gentiles in the church should live according to practices associated with Jewish culture. But the deeper lure of this text is for people from different cultures to come together in community marked by love, peace, justice, and mutual support.
At the immediate ecclesial level, Luke envisions the church as such a community. The preacher might help the congregation identify “others” in the world of today’s congregation who are comparable to gentiles in Luke’s world-view. How might the church be more welcoming and inclusive?
At a broader level, the preacher might take the reunion of Jewish and gentile people in the church in Acts as paradigmatic of God’s desire for reunion among separated peoples beyond the church.
When moving from exegesis to hermeneutics and homiletics, preachers should not follow Luke in caricaturing Jewish leaders and aspects of Judaism in a negative light. Although such caricature appears in Acts, scholarship over the last forty years emphasizes that it is bad history and bad theology which contribute to anti-Judaism and eventually anti-Semitism. Indeed, in a season of resurgent anti-Semitism in the United States, including a significant rise in hate crimes, the preacher can call attention to the importance of relating respectfully with Jewish people and Jewish institutions.
The Book of Revelation, like the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, is apocalyptic in orientation. John, the author, regards the Roman Empire (the beast: Revelation 13:1-18) as the social-systemic embodiment of Satan (the dragon: Revelation 12:18) in a way like the church being the body of Christ. According to John, God has begun the process of cosmic transformation that will destroy the Roman Empire and replace it with a new world. John takes the view that God will destroy the Empire less by means of external intervention and more by allowing the Empire to suffer destruction by the very means by which it has ruled, that is, by violence (e.g. Revelation 13:10b).
In most of the Book, John communicates the message by means of word-pictures. Instead of making direct statements, John paints images in which the individual elements have associations that John’s audience could identify.
John intends for the Book of Revelation to give the congregation a lens through which to interpret the real, savage identity of the Roman Empire, to recognize God’s intentions in present social process, and to encourage the congregation with the promise of apocalyptic hope. In one word, John wants the congregation to endure the present difficulty in order to be part of the new world. (e.g. Revelation 1:9; 2:2, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12).
Revelation 21:1-9 offers a theological preview of the new world. Revelation 21:10—22:5 describes the new world in vivid word-pictures.
Revelation 21:1 reveals the extent of the transformation: John sees a new heaven and a new earth. Three things are noteworthy. First, God does not take initiative in destroying the old heaven and the old earth. According to John, they simply pass away. John does not describe a moment of savage apocalyptic destruction. Second, the transformation is so complete that a new heaven comes into being along with a new earth. We learn in 21:10 that the barrier between heaven and earth disappears. Third, the sea is no more, Here, as so often in the Bible, the sea represents the destructive power of chaos. That threat of chaos no longer exists.
The new world is called “the holy city, the new Jerusalem.” It is more than a collection of individuals. It is a community. It is a gift from the grace of God in that it comes down from heaven. In apocalyptic theology, things that happen in heaven are often the pattern for things that happen on earth. Since the new world comes from heaven, its nature and relationships the qualities of life in heaven become the everyday quality of life in the new world. God is holy which means that not only is God not beholden to another power: God serves no other. Moreover, the nature and power of God are in a category of moral integrity and faithfulness all their own. God always does what is right because God can do no other. The new community partakes of that nature and quality.
John compares the coming of the holy city to the arrival of a bride adorned for her husband. On the one hand, John associates this event with the beauty and festivity of ancient weddings. Few occasions were more celebratory in ancient life. On the other hand, the bride in the world of antiquity was often a passive figure in the wedding and in other aspects of life. Unfortunately, this image reinforces the passivity of women. A preacher should critique it.
In Revelation 21:3-4, a voice from the throne expands on the meaning of what will happen in the new heaven and the new earth. The voice is loud enough for everyone to hear.
While John does not often use the word “covenant,” the prophet frequently assumes a covenantal way of thinking, as here. God now dwells in the immediate presence of the human family in a way like the way God dwelled with Israel in the tabernacle during the wilderness wandering. The tabernacle (and later the temple) were made from the everyday materials of the lives of the community. Its architecture and liturgy were arranged to show how the presence and purposes of God gave life order and security (Exod 25:9; 26:1). These qualities are now eschatologically eternal. However, God’s dwelling in the new world is not in a structure (tent or temple) but is in the community, as John indicates earlier in 13:6.
In covenantal language, the angel declares that the residents of the new Jerusalem will be God’s peoples (e.g. Lev 26:11–12; Ps 95:7; Jer 31:33; esp. Ezek 37:27; Zech 2:11). God in God’s own self “will be with them.” For God to “be with” the community is not simply to be present but is for God to seek actively to shape the life of the community in accord with the divine purposes.
The plural “peoples” (in contrast to the singular people) is significant. In much traditional expression, the singular predominates in reference to Israel the plural suggests that some gentiles have repented and turned to the God of Israel and have become part of the community of witness.
Earlier writers used language like that of 21:4 to encourage Jewish communities who had been bruised by the heels of earlier empires. Psalm 137:1, for instance, describes the exiles weeping by the waters of Babylon. Isaiah pictures God wiping away such tears and taking away the circumstances of exile (25:8; cf. 65:19; Jer 31:16). Some in John’s community have shed tears similarly at the brutal hand of the Roman Empire.
The description of tears, mourning, crying, pain, and death in 21:4 refers immediately to those whom the Empire punished because of their testimony to the word of God and to Jesus. At an intermediate level, this description refers to more general qualities of life in the Roman Empire—tears, death, mourning, crying, and pain. At still another level, tears, mourning, crying, pain and death belong to “the first things,” that is to the old age.
In Revelation 21:5 God says that God will make all things new. God is making good on God’s promises. The unmediated presence of God dwelling with the community means transformation of all of life’s personal and social circumstances. God replaces the attitudes and actions of the repressive Roman Empire with the values and practices of God.
To underline the confidence John’s community can have in this hope, God orders John to write that these promises are “trustworthy and true.” God’s promises are thus opposite those of the Empire which have so often proven exploitative and false.
God then declares, “It is done” and stresses the ability of God to make such a statement: God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, that is, all things take place under God’s authority the question comes up, “What does it mean to say, ‘It is done?’” The answer is that John is seeing a vision of things that are happening and yet to happen. God, in heaven, has decided to replace the old world with the new Jerusalem. Things that occur in heaven are the pattern that things that occur on earth. While the holy city has not fully come to expression in the world, the fact that God says, “It is done,” means that the holy city is guaranteed to appear. God’s statement means that the holy city is as good as here. John’s community can count on it.
On the one hand I doubt many readers of this journal believe that a cosmic transformation like the apocalyptic one John envisions is ahead. To be sure, here and there John takes the edge off some of the violence associated with traditional apocalypticism and even nuances some themes in ways that a process thinker can endorse. For example, without going into histrionics of language and description commonplace in apocalyptic literature, today’s passage says simply, “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” While God might not put the finger of judgment directly on a person or community, it makes sense to think that disobedience can set in motion patterns of life that bring about the collapse of personal lives and social institutions. But the idea of a singular moment of violent change, or even a season of the same, stretches what I believe about the kind of power God has, the very nature of God, and what we know about the universe today.
A preacher does not have to buy into the surface apocalyptic mindset in order to work positively with the deep lure of this passage. It asserts that God is not happy with the way things are (Empire) and that God is already doing what God can do to help the world become more like the place of love, peace, justice, and authentic community God wants it to be. John uses images to describe this world in Revelation 21:10—22:5.
To make a hermeneutical move on this text, we could say one of its invitations is to believe that God does not give up. Where John seemed to believe that God could bring about this transition from old to new through singular exercise of divine power, many readers of this resource believe that such change is a cooperative effort between God and human community.
The tone of comfort in the text for those who struggle is a vivid reminder that now, as then, those who work with God for a renewed world often face resistance. The passage assures faithful witnesses that God is with them. Moreover, the passage similarly assures those who struggle from day to day under the heel of contemporary forms of Empire that God feels their pain and does not abandon them but is ever inviting communities to ways of life more like those of the holy city.
A preacher might think that a text with a direct command to love is homiletical fruit hanging at the very lowest level. What can be easier picking than exhorting the congregation to “love one another?” But the Bible is nearly always more complicated than it first appears, and that is the case with John 13:31-35. To respect the otherness of the text, the preacher must set it in its historical and theological contexts and then listen for its lure.
The Fourth Gospel does not name its author directly. Later church tradition designated this writer as John. While Christians occasionally debate whether the John of the Gospel is the same as the John of the Book of Revelation, most scholars today see these as two separate persons writing from different historical settings and different theological perspectives.
John likely wrote the Fourth Gospel to a congregation that was a synagogue with three levels of conflict. (1) The repeated directive for the disciples to love one another suggests that there is conflict within the community. (2) Many scholars also see conflict with other synagogues over the question of whether the Johannine synagogue was sufficiently Jewish. Indeed, many scholars think that the traditional synagogue excommunicated the Johannine group (e.g. John 9:22, 34). (3) Conflict with the “world,” that is, the forces of Satan who inhabit the lower sphere of existence and who work through agencies such as the Roman Empire.
In the narrative of the Gospel, John seeks to show not only that the Johannine synagogue is faithfully Jewish but that John’s opponents — represented by the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders in the story in the Gospel — are unfaithful. John presents the Johannine synagogue as the true heir of Judaism because their eschatological rabbi, Jesus, not only received revelation from God, but came down from heaven as the Word in the flesh. The work of Jesus in the Gospel of John can be summarized in one word: reveal. Jesus reveals God and the way of life that leads from the world to heaven.
Moreover, whereas Mark, Matthew, Luke and most of the rest of the sacred 27 books are apocalyptic in orientation, John’s gospel is based less on a dualism of ages (apocalyptic) and more on a dualism of spheres (heaven the upper sphere, the world the lower sphere), a quasi-Platonic way of thinking adapted in Hellenistic Judaism. John directly echoes this way of thinking in today’s text.
In the strict sense, John’s congregation is a sect within Judaism with strict sectarian boundaries and with a focus upon maintaining the identity and purpose of the sect. Sectarians believe such things are necessary for the survival of the community.
Without wanting to press the analogy too far, John’s congregation related to mainstream Judaism and to the culture of the Roman Empire in ways that are like the relationship of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the historic churches and to early twenty-first-century postmodern culture.
In this broad context, the words of the Johannine Jesus in John 13:31-32 have meaning. Consistent with the main theme of the fourth gospel as revelation (per above), the word “glorifies” (doxazō) which occurs five times in these two verses, means something like “to be perceived as it really is.” Glorification in the Johannine linguistic universe is associated with revelation, clarification. The more typical associations of glorification are present in the background, such as giving praise or honor, magnifying, showing forth in splendor, but these qualities come into play as the Fourth Gospel reveals the relationship of God and Jesus and the consequences of that relationship for those who believe.
“Jesus has been glorified,” that is, the nature and work of Jesus have become clear. “God has been glorified in Jesus,” that is, God and God’s purposes are revealed in Jesus. These glorifications are praiseworthy because they reveal the possibility of salvation for those who are trapped in the world. “God will glorify Jesus at once,” that is, God was in the process of revealing the divine purposes at work through Jesus when Jesus was alive and continues to reveal those purposes through the Spirit after the resurrection (see John 14:23-29, Sixth Sunday of Easter). Jesus’ death glorifies God because it reveals the depth of God’s love for the world.
Jesus will be present in the flesh in the world “only a little while longer.” Jesus will soon go to heaven to be in the unmediated presence of God. Jesus’s statement that the disciples “cannot come” to where Jesus is going may initially seem enigmatic, but Jesus quickly clarifies that they will be able to follow him at the appropriate time (John 13:36, 14:1-6).
Since the disciples will remain in the world, Jesus gives them a “new commandment” which is to love one another as Jesus has loved them. The notion of “commandment” is central to Judaism. When John pictures Jesus giving the disciples a commandment, the gospel writer implies that the Johannine synagogue is altogether Jewish.
In the biblical tradition, to love is to act for the good of others and the community. It is less a feeling or emotion and more a decision and an action. Moreover, the commandment to love is central to Judaism (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18). Acting for the good of the community is constitutive of life in covenant. From John’s point of view, then, what is “new” about the commandment of Jesus to love? It is to love in the manner of God and Jesus as described in the Fourth Gospel. God loved the world so much — God wanted to act for the good of the world so much — that God sent God’s only-begotten from heaven into the world (John 3:16). Jesus gave the disciples an example of the love they are to have for one another by taking the role of a servant washing their feet (John 13:1-20). Indeed, Jesus sought to act in behalf of the good of the disciples so much that he lay down his life for them (John 15:13). The disciples are to demonstrate this quality of acting for the good of the community in behalf of one another in their besieged synagogue (Cf. John 15:21, 23, 15:9, 10, 12, 17; 17:26).
As we have already noted John seems to assume conflict within the synagogue, and John paints many traditional Jewish people as unloving and even dangerous and violent (e.g. John 5:16-18; 7:1; 7:13; 9:22; 10:31). By contrast, the love of the disciples for one another will strengthen the community itself and will identify the Johannine synagogue as the more authentic form of Judaism, led, as it is, by the more authentic rabbi/revealer. Indeed, John perceives the exercise of love as essential to the survival of the community in the face of threats from outside the community as well as conflicts within the congregation.
John directs this commandment to the disciples: they are “to love one another.” The ancient writer makes no suggestion in this passage or in other directives to love that the disciples are to love those outside their own synagogue.
The most immediate lure of the text, then, is for the members of the church to love one another. The sermon might help the congregation identify situations in which they can act for the good of the others in the community and for the good of the community. As congregations in the historic denominations get smaller, and as resources decline for maintaining staff and program and building, people often disagree about what to do. Should we put money into staff? Into the building? Into efforts to attract new members? Into the needs of the community? Such disagreements can become hostile. In other congregations, the relationship between the church and the reigning political party becomes a line in the sand. Jealousy and desire for power polarize other congregations. Jesus’ word is timely: love one another.
At the same time, the Gospel of John does point to mission beyond the congregation (e.g. John 4:35-38; 17:18; 20:21). While direct references in the Fourth Gospel to the practice of love are largely focused within the community, the preacher can help the congregation understand that as God sent Jesus into the world as an expression of love for the world (John 3:16), so Jesus sends the disciples. The preacher might help the congregation identify situations in the neighborhood and in the larger world in which the congregation can express a Johannine-like love for the community.
Ronald J. Allen taught preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary from 1982 to 2019. Prior to that, he and his spouse, the Reverend Linda McKiernan-Allen, were co-ministers of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Grand Island, Nebraska. He loves leading Bible studies in congregations. He has published more than 40 books with the next one to be released in the summer of 2019: I Will Tell You the Mystery: A Commentary on Preaching from the Book of Revelation. His A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Really Believe and his Reading the New Testament for the First Time are widely used in small group studies in congregations. With Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm and Dale P. Andrews, he edited the pioneering three volume Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Commentary on the Lectionary, which comments on every reading in the lectionary and introduces 22 new Holy Days for Justice (e.g. , Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Peace in the Home, Yom haShoa, Gifts of Sexuality and Gender, Sojourner Truth Day). With O. Wesley Allen, Jr., he urges thinking of preaching as conversation, as for example, in Allen and Allen, The Sermon Without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching. Allen and his spouse have five young adult children: Canaan, Genesis, Moriah, Barek , and Sabbath, as well as five grandchildren. He and his family spent summers teaching in Zambia and Jamaica. He has also traveled in Israel, India, South Korea, Belize, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Aruba, Canada, the countries surrounding the Baltic, as well as Mexico, Spain, the Canary Islands, Uruguay, Argentina, and Antarctica.