The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 13 May 2018

May 13, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26 Psalm 1 1 John 5: 9-13 John 17: 6-19

Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26
This story of the apostles making sense of the betrayal of Judas by contextualizing it with prophecy and the following replacement of his spot in the 12, a number symbolizing the 12 tribes of Judah, speaks to the group dynamics and importance of the Holy Spirit and prayer in the disciples seeking guidance. Their prayer is a bit of a springboard into some Process theology. “Lord, you know everyone’s hearts. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” Process theology posits that God is the One Being who does know everyone’s hearts—God knows and incorporates the experience of all things into God’s being. Through this ever-evolving incorporation of experience, God offers us the best possible outcome in every moment. There is also the potential of us choosing the self-centered spiral of “our own place.” It is up to beings to discern that best possible outcome, and thus Process Theology is completely affirmative of free will. The Process Preacher may not be completely affirmative of the method of discerning the divine aim, (casting lots), since it would reveal a belief in the coercive action of God to determine the roll of the dice, but nonetheless, if we choose this scripture to preach from, it might be worth lifting up that God does indeed “know all of our hearts” and more!

Psalm 1
This wisdom Psalm describes two paths, the way of the wicked, and the way of those who follow the law. The Psalm speaks of the confidence and happiness of those who follow in the way of the law, and describes them as “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in their season, their leaves do not whither.” This preacher has organized several stewardship campaigns around this image (which is repeated in Jeremiah 17:8), and it makes for a good Process image. Also, (if you have been reading this commentary throughout Eastertide, are you surprised?) it is a frequent theme in Ska/Reggae music, with a great recording, “I Shall Not Remove” recorded by Delroy Wilson in 1963 and Cornell Campbell in 1975, which is itself a Jamaican version of an old Afro-American spiritual, “I Shall Not be Moved,” recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash, and others, “I shall not be moved, just like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”  It is a statement of resolve and faith used by the Civil rights movement as well.

In this image, the one who follows the law is like the tree, and I would propose the stream of water would be a symbol of the Divine influence. It is notable that the water is a stream, and not a brackish swamp or even a pond. The stream is moving. It brings the nourishment the tree needs. On the contrary, the wicked are likened to the chaff, which the wind dries out and blows away. The wicked will not stand in the judgment, and the righteous have the benefit of God watching over their path. Though the Process theologian would likely point to the gracious persuasive lure even in the lives of the wicked, the image of the fruitful tree, secure roots, and nourishing river is a compelling one that speaks of the creative-responsive love of God.

1 John 5: 9-13
“Those who believe in the son of God have the testimony written on their hearts.” (v. 10) This phrase reminds me of Romans 2:15, “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them,” and Hebrews 10:16, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” It is clear the early Christian community relied heavily on the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:33, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The notion of the law, or testimony “written on the hearts,” (or minds) of people gives the process preacher the opportunity to speak about the “invisible attractions,” as Catherine Keller calls them, of the divine lure. She writes,

“The commandments of justice and mercy, indeed of love or the golden rule, have after all inspired historic resistance to lawless aggressions and to oppressive law. The Torah, the Jewish law, is not reducible to legalism or exclusivism, but supports the ‘struggle for justice and mercy.’ Perhaps it is a matter of infusing the commandments within the atmosphere of the Eros: ‘Arise my love, and come away’ is also an imperative—a proposition in the sense suggested in our earlier discussion of truth-claims! After all, the ethics of “should and should not” may also encode, should also encode the divine lure. For without strong supportive structures of community, society, liturgy, theology, the chances are minute that we can, individually or communally, even discern the initial aim.”  (On the Mystery, 104-105)

Discerning the initial aim takes place in a community of people shaped by the Word of Life (see John 17 commentary below) written on our hearts. As John saw it, that recognition of the Christ in the person of Jesus was the necessary component of salvation. “Whoever has the son has life; whoever does not have the son does not have life.” The exclusiveness of this passage is notable, but rather than dwelling on that, we might choose to interpret the passage from a process perspective. The “eternal life” that God gives us, which is “in the son,” begins when the believer connects herself to the life of Christ. As Cobb and Griffin write in Process Theology; An Introductory Exposition, “The work of Christ in us is enhanced as we accept Jesus as God’s decisive revelation, and hence think of God as creative-responsive love. It is also enhanced as we deliberately place ourselves in his field of force, and as we renew our contact with his teaching. As we do these things, we allow our mode of existence to be decisively shaped by him.” (105-106)

John 17: 6-19
As we’ve journeyed through the farewell discourse in the season of Eastertide, this final selection gives us the opportunity to overhear Jesus praying to the Father for the safety of those he is leaving behind. As Ron Allen noted in the previous cycle’s commentary on this text on this website, “Johannine literature is sectarian.” This explains the divisive tone of Jesus’ prayer and his concern for them in the context of the world’s hatred of the disciples, “because they do not belong to the world.” As Ron Allen articulately describes, “John’s language, ’world’ is a technical term for the lower story of existence where the devil exerts power and which is a sphere of death, darkness, lying, slavery, violence, fractiousness, and scarcity. . . . The Johannine congregation lives in the midst of the world but lives according to the values and practices of heaven and rejects the assumptions, values, and practices of the world.”

It is into this world though, that Jesus charges his believers with a world-changing ministry of carrying his mantle. He specifically clarifies to God (and the readers) that this is his prayer, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” Though this world is loved by God (3:16) and the whole reason why God left that place of glory before the world came into being (17:5), in John’s view it is entirely other to God, and because of God’s presence in Christ to Jesus, and because of Christ’s presence in the believers, to them as well. Even so, the way to salvation for the believers goes through the world, and a radical loving response to what we encounter.

At the end of this selection, Jesus asks for the sanctification of the believers through the Logos that is the Christ’s identity. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” It is notable that the question of “what is truth?” will be on Pilate’s lips only a few lines down from this statement. (18:38) Catherine Keller concludes a fantastic section of On the Mystery, “Heaven, Hell, and Here,” with a challenge to the over individualized notion of personal salvation, which this prayer for the collective sanctification of the followers of Jesus would affirm,

“So we can only abide in God by abiding in the spirit and the truth of that love. . . . No matter how tightly some Christians hold on to their Jesus—he has made his own ‘identity’ clear: he is for us none other than the other. The historical Jesus lived, testified, and died. After the resurrection, the Christ no longer appears as the person Jesus. He is then for us the one we encounter not in the person who was ‘The Lord,’ but in the persons who are of the least. When Christians focus on Jesus’ lovely identity rather than on his love priority, they make the mistake of the goats.”  (146)

The language Jesus uses to describe the relationship between himself and God and between God and himself and his followers in the farewell discourse is one of reciprocity. He confers the benefits and identity of himself on his followers, and reminds God of his mutual identity with the Father. However, what Catherine Keller says is also true, Jesus is other, and anytime we try to romanticize the person of Jesus, it is helpful to work against sentimentalizing his power by focusing on his identification with the least. This is why Pilate, fixated on power and control, is vexed by the question, “what is truth?” while Jesus and his followers are sanctified by it. “Your word is truth,” and I, says Jesus, am your Logos that creates the world. God’s word is Creative-Responsive Love. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (1:1-4) Life, especially life that is most threatened, ignored, and devalued, is what we who are sanctified in the Word/Truth are called to love and uplift. That is the love priority in which we discover the everlasting life.

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four chidren, a dog and a cat.