The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A), 24 May 2020


May 24, 2020

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Acts 1.6-14Psalm 68.1-10, 32-351 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11John 17.1-11

by David J. Lull

Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are my own translations.

In today’s texts, we are reminded that, at a time of pain, suffering, and death, we are invited into the hope of Easter faith.


Dear Lord,
This Easter …, in a world so in need of healing,
    so like that world so long ago,
    as we peer into the empty tomb,
    let us remember that
    in the midst of fear,
        there is resolve;
    in the midst of despair,
        there is hope;
      in the midst of grasping,
        giving;
    in the midst of illness,
        healing;
    in the midst of sorrow and weeping,
        joy and laughter;
    in the midst of defeat,
        victory,
            for in the midst of death,
                there is resurrection into eternal life.
Amen.

[Thanks to my friend Mark Davies (Tarrytown, NY) for this prayer, written on Easter Sunday.]


John 17.1-11

This section of chapter 17 is part of the end of Jesus’ farewell discourse that takes place in the context of the Johannine narrative of the Last Supper, which in this Gospel took place “before the Passover festival” (13.1). Its function is to explain the meaning of 13.1: “when Jesus knew his hour had come to depart from this world to the Father, because he loved his own people who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It’s impossible to capture, in a single translation, the complex meaning of the last phrase (εἰς τέλος, eis telos), which could refer to a temporal terminal point, “to the end,” or to a quality, “fully, completely, to the greatest extent possible, or until his love reached its goal,” or both, because the Johannine author liked double meanings. The sense, then, would be, “Jesus loved his own people in the world all the way to the end of his life in the world when he showed the full extent of his love by laying down his life, in order to take it up again and depart from this world to God” (see 6.51; 10.11, 15, 17). His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension finished the “work” God sent him to do (17.4; 19.28, 30), namely, to love completely those in the world whom God gave to him by making God known to them (17.6, 9).

Jesus prays for unity in the community of those who believe Jesus’ words. His prayer is not only for the Johannine community but also for all who believe Jesus’ words, including and perhaps especially during this pandemic, to unite in efforts to urge everyone to follow practices that mitigate the spread of this virus and to care for the sick, dying, and grieving. Jesus prays for churches to unite in caring for those who live in fear and without hope. Jesus prays for churches to unite in caring for the poor and all whose health and lives and financial resources are disproportionately affected by this pandemic. In this way, churches will make God known to those who suffer in the world.

Jesus prays “on behalf of” or “for” those who believe Jesus’ words but not “on behalf of (or for) the world,” because the former belong to God (17.9). That seems to contradict what Jesus earlier told Nicodemus, “God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (3.16; compare 6.51). What’s up with that? First, Jesus’ prayer also includes, “I pray not only for these [believers] but also for those who believe in me through their message, so that all may be one—just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you—so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me” (17.20-21). Second, Jesus’ prayer, which includes 17.20-21, focuses on faithfulness to Jesus and his witness to God. That’s the business of the church; it is not the business of “the world.” The business of “the world” is not unified but scattered, with each culture having its own business. The church’s business, however, is singular: witnessing to Jesus as the decisive witness to God. This unitary, singular witness takes many forms, but churches should not lose sight of Jesus’ prayer for unity around their calling to preach the gospel, with words and deeds of service in the world.

The word “hour” appears 21 times in this Gospel. Of these, 16 refer to the hour Jesus laid down his life and returned to God as the hour his glory, and his glorification of God, on earth reached its peak and goal: namely, his glorification in the presence of God (v. 5). Terms for “glory” etc. appear 42 times in this Gospel, but not at all in the Johannine letters, and only 34 times in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts together. The word “glory” can mean, on the one hand, honor or reputation and, on the other, the power, majesty, and splendor characteristic of the divine. Both apply to Jesus. His words and deeds glorified God who, in turn, glorified him, meaning they honored each other, and each raised the reputation of the other. In the use of these words for the divine, God glorified Jesus during his life on earth by being in him, giving him divine power, majesty, and splendor—that is, by making him “God’s son” and God’s “Word” in the flesh. This theological meaning of “glory” also applies to God’s glorification of Jesus when God lifted him up into God’s presence at the time of his death on the cross. No longer in the flesh and no longer on earth, Jesus continues to live entirely in divine power, majesty, and splendor—that is, in God.

The “glory” that Jesus had throughout his life and now has in God’s presence is the same “glory” he had “before the world existed” (17.5). Here Jesus is speaking of God’s primordial, performative utterance that created the world and brought life into it, which was in Jesus (“incarnated”), whose witness offers “eternal life” to those who accept it. This “Word” in Jesus existed “in the beginning, was with God, and so was divine” (1.1). This self-description (“revelation”) is expressed again in 17.24, where Jesus says God has given him glory, “because God loved me before the beginning of the world.”

“Eternal life” in this Gospel is for those who believe Jesus’ words and the God who gave them to him: that is, it is new, abundant life on earth here and now formed by knowing and believing in “the only true God” and Jesus Christ as one sent by God (see 3.36; 5.24; 6.40; 17.3; compare 6.47). To know and believe in “the only true God” is to know and believe in Jesus’ decisive witness to “the only true God,” and to know and believe in Jesus Christ is to know and believe in “the only true God.”

This knowledge is not objective information, which persons might accept or reject without affecting their lives; rather, it is a knowledge that challenges their self-understanding. Neither is it a knowledge “out there” for anyone with eyes wide open to see; rather, it is a knowledge that comes from hearing a true witness to it, that is, from “revelation,” specifically from Jesus—and, to use a Pauline word, from hearing the gospel. Because this knowing is coupled with believing, it is a knowing that calls for a decision whether to accept Jesus’ witness to “the one true God” as the “one true” foundation of one’s life.

In this Gospel, God and the world are opposite sources of life: real life comes from God; false life comes from the world. This is a contrast between life based on knowing and believing “the only true God” and life based on rejecting and rebelling against “the only true God.” For the Johannine author, Jews who “belong to the world” set their hope on Moses and yet do not believe in Jesus, although Moses wrote about him (5.45-46; compare 9.28-29); they believe Moses, not God, gave their ancestors “real bread from heaven” (6.31-32); they don’t obey the law Moses gave them (7.19; compare 1.17); they circumcise a small part of the body on the sabbath, a ritual from the patriarchs, not Moses, but are angry at Jesus because he made a whole person healthy on the sabbath (7.22-23; see 5.1-18; 9.14-16). Even worse—and perhaps as a result—those who “belong to the world” pledge their allegiance to Caesar, the Roman Emperor, as their only king (19.12 and 15). For all these reasons, this Johannine author says of those who “belong to the world” that they belong to the Devil (8.44; compare the description of Judas in 6.70 and 13.2, 27). In contrast to “those who belong to the world,” those whom Jesus chose “out of the world” and belong to God in and with Jesus (15.19; compare 10.16, 26 and 17.14, 16), who know and believe in “the only true God.”

Sadly, today even those who say they know and believe in Jesus’ words live as if their ultimate trust rests in the nation to which they pledge allegiance and the economic system that privileges their accumulation of wealth at the expense of others. “The Devil” in this world takes many forms in all our lives. They easily seduce us! To fend off these “devils,” we have Jesus’ decisive witness to “the only God.” God says, “Listen to him!”

Nevertheless, the world does support life in many ways, without which life would not survive. The world supplies the necessities of life—food, water, air, and the most basic of all life, biological parents. But as true as this is, and as good as it is to be grateful and good stewards of this world, making this world the source of our security, safety, and life mistakes the penultimate for the ultimate. God, the ultimate source of life and all its worldly necessities, alone is worthy of our complete devotion and trust. Life and all its worldly necessities can vanish at any time, but God and Jesus’ word of life in God endures forever.

Moreover, in this world, some lives are marginalized, forgotten and treated in so many ways as if they didn’t matter. But in God, no lives are lost, none are marginalized and forgotten. In God, all lives matter. None matter to God—are loved by God—more than those who suffer from poverty and racism, sexual abuse and any other form of violence. No lives matter more to God than those lost in this COVID-19 pandemic, and those who put their own lives at risk in order to serve and care for the sick, dying, and grieving.


Acts 1.6-14
[For 1.1-11, see May 21: Ascension of the Lord.]

Jesus’ ascension is described twice in Luke-Acts: Luke 24.50-53, which takes place Easter evening, and Acts 1.9, which takes place 40 days after his resurrection (see 1.3). Some redactors of the Gospel of Luke didn’t like the disagreement about the date of Jesus’ ascension or having two ascensions on different occasions, so some ancient Greek manuscript versions of 24.51 end with “he withdrew from them” (NRSV). By omitting “and was carried up into heaven” (NRSV), the Gospel ends without Jesus’ ascension. The problem is that Acts 1.1-2 states that the “first book,” the Gospel, ended with Jesus’ ascension (also see 9.51, which seems to allude to Jesus’ ascension).

Here is a clever way to resolve the differences between Luke 24.51 and Acts 1.1-3, 9 without removing the reference to Jesus’ ascension in the Gospel: Jesus’ first ascension could mark an end to Jesus’ first brief resurrection appearance as a response to Jesus’ crucifixion (see Luke 24.13-27, 39-40, and 46). Jesus’ second ascension could be a link between Jesus’ resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, launching the disciples’ proclamation of the gospel “from Jerusalem … to the ends of the earth,” as the means by which Israel’s “kingdom” (or “royal power”) would be restored (Acts 1.6 and 2.1-47). To sum up, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, his elevation to God’s “right hand,” and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit are ways of claiming God had made the crucified Jesus “both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2.36).

Also, in Luke 24.52 some ancient Greek manuscripts omit “and they worshiped him” (NRSV; the RSV omits this phrase). Evidently some redactors of the Gospel who excised the reference to Jesus’ ascension in 24.51 thought it was not appropriate to worship Jesus prior to his ascension. To be consistent, they redacted 24.52. A similar view is implied in John 20.17, where the resurrected Jesus interrupts Mary’s gesture of worshipful reverence, because he had not yet “ascended” to God. However, no one seems to have objected to Matthew 28.17, which says that some of the disciples worshiped the resurrected Jesus in a Gospel that has no ascension story. Perhaps an objection is expressed when it says some disciples “hesitated” to worship him: Does that imply it was inappropriate to worship Jesus until he had “ascended”? Or does it imply doubt about Jesus’ worthiness as an object of worship?

The purpose of the story of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1.6-11 (and Luke 24.50-53) is to explain how he could send the same Spirit on his disciples that descended on him at his baptism (Luke 3.21-22) and filled him (Luke 4.1). Also, just like Elijah’s ascension story was about passing his “mantle” to Elisha, his successor (2 Kings 2.1-18), Jesus’ ascension story is about passing his mantle to his disciples as his human, earthly successors and naming their mission: namely, to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all peoples (“nations”). In the words of Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus arose into the gospel and, according to the book of Acts, into the gospel-mission that later became the Christian church.

Jesus instructed the disciples to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit, which Jesus had told them God had promised (1.4-5). “Therefore, while they gathered together, they kept asking him, ‘Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?’ Jesus replied, ‘… you are going to receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1.6-8). The hope was that, through their witness, Israel’s two kingdoms, Judea and Samaria, would be reunited in faithfulness to the Messiah, Jesus. Perhaps they also hoped that the kingdom of Israel would arise out of the ashes of the failed revolt against the Roman Empire.

These verses in Acts, following Luke 24, express hope arising out of the darkness of Jesus’ crucifixion (and the failed Judean revolt). Believing Jesus had been “lifted up” beyond the clouds (1.9) and “taken up from them into heaven” (1.11) restored their hope. The Holy Spirit and “praying continually with one mind” (1.14) strengthened their hope. However, their hope that their witness to Jesus would reunite Israel’s kingdoms was a hope against hope. By the time Luke-Acts were written, Judeans fled or were kicked out of Judea, stripping from them the last remnants of “royal power.” Some in Judea and Samaria had become faithful to Jesus as the Messiah, but most Judeans did not, while the witness to Jesus among gentiles led to growing numbers of gentiles faithful to Jesus as their Lord. Division, not one mind, was the reality for those faithful to Jesus; and Israel existed in name only, as a fading memory, so that among Jews hope for the restoration of Israel’s “kingdom” waned.

That was the reality out of which arose hope that the crucified Jesus, nevertheless, had been “lifted up into heaven” and would return from there (1.9 and 11). The concept of Jesus’ “parousia,” common elsewhere in the New Testament, is not found in Luke-Acts. The reference in 1.11, therefore, is more likely to the event of Pentecost. According to Acts 2.33, Peter declared that Jesus, “after being elevated to God’s right hand and receiving from the Father the promised Holy Spirit,” filled the disciples with the Spirit from heaven (Acts 2.33; also see 1.2), as he had promised he would (1.8; also see Luke 24.49).

What a way to break out of despair and hopelessness! The Jesus-movement was revived. The gospel spread throughout the Roman and Byzantine empires and beyond it “to the ends of the earth.” During our current virus pandemic, may the gospel also strengthen hope for a new day.


Psalm 68.1-10, 32-35 and 1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11

People suffering from serious oppression understandably wish God would defeat, even destroy, their oppressors—sometimes physically and literally. To wish that on human enemies would violate the belief that God’s love for all people is unbounded, all-inclusive, which means this includes enemies as well. It’s ok, though, to make this new virus the object of such a wish. However, it appears that this virus, like others, cannot be wiped off the face of the earth any time soon, and perhaps ever. Nevertheless, we can and should pray God’s primal aim toward life would fill healthcare staff and other essential workers and policy makers with such skill, wisdom, and compassion to contain this virus and mitigate its deadly impact. May it be so!

The psalmist, however, has in mind God’s salvation of ancient Israel from its human enemies by subduing them and spilling their blood. See the description of Israel’s God as a mighty warrior in 68.11-31, which the Lectionary understandably cut out! Desiring protection and freedom from oppression is one thing but wishing God’s love would be only for Israel or “us” and withheld from “them” is something else. Jesus’ witness to God shows God’s love is unbounded, for all without exception, including enemies. That’s why some people abhor all violence, even when they are threatened by oppressors. Besides, if God lets “the wicked perish before God” (v. 2, NRSV), who among us can say we are the “righteous” who would be “jubilant with joy” (v. 3, NRSV)? It is better to assure those who are oppressed that God is a heavenly parent who has compassion and mercy on all “orphans” and is the “protector” of all “widows” (v. 5)—not just of Israel’s or “our” orphans and widows—and that God gives a “home” to all those who are “desolate” and “leads out” all “prisoners to prosperity” (v. 6, NRSV). God “gives power and strength” (v. 35, NRSV), not just to Israel or “us,” but to all God’s people.

The author of 1 Peter wrote to a community of people faithful to Jesus Christ who inhabit a world like the psalmist’s world. They too had to deal with the real and present danger of oppression that would test their faithfulness to Jesus Christ (1.2, 7; 4.14; 5.10). They were not themselves a nation beset with imperial nations, although they lived under the domination of the Roman Empire; rather, because of their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, they lived as a marginal community whose worldview and way of life were in tension with the dominant society and culture (2.11 and 3.15-16). The letter’s author reminded them that their experience not only mirrored Christ’s suffering (2.21; 3.18; 4.1) but was a participation in Christ’s suffering (4.13). They were promised they would also share in a “glory” like Christ’s (1.7, 10-11; 5.1, 4, 10). Like the assurance voiced by the psalmist, their assurance is that, through faith, they are a people protected by God’s power (1.5). Through Jesus Christ, in the face of suffering, they put their trust, faith, and hope in God (1.21). Like Christ, who also endured undeserved suffering, they are said to be “blessed” by God (4.14; compare Matthew 5.11-12), because “the glorious and divine Spirit” resting on them (4.14) enabled them to remain faithful in the face of suffering.

The difficult Greek phrase τὸ τῆς δόξης καὶ τὸ τοῦ θεοῦ πνεῦμα (to tēs doxēs kai to tou theou) reflects the use of a series of paired genitive substantives in the Septuagint version of Isaiah 11.2. For other translations, see the RSV, NIV, and NAB (“the Spirit of glory and of God”) and the NRSV (“the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God”; the NET and CEB are similar). These translations render the Greek genitives with the simple, nondescript preposition “of.” The first genitive could be attributive, which would make it an adjective that attributes a quality to the Spirit, and the second could be possessive: combining them would produce the translation, “the God’s glorious Spirit,” but that translation leaves out the conjunction καὶ (“and”). Among the other possible uses of the genitive in Greek, the only one that fits both genitives is the attributive use, which results in the translation, “the glorious and divine Spirit.” One adjective genitive would have been enough, since “glory” (the bright splendor of pure light, in which there is no darkness) is a characteristic quality of the divine. It is added because of the previous “glory” in v. 13. The point of this diversion into the fine points of translating Greek is twofold: v. 14 refers to one Spirit, not two; and it refers to a divine Spirit, in distinction from a person’s human spirit. This is the Spirit that will reveal the glorious transformation to come to those who, like Christ, faithfully endured undeserved suffering.

 


David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include commentaries on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee).

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