June 2, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Acts 16:16-34||Psalm 97||Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21||John 17:20-26|
by Ronald J. Allen
As on the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter, each reading for today invites its own sermon. The readings do not relate naturally with one another. As a preacher said to me not long ago in connection with another set of texts, “I would have to bend them all to my will to get them to work together.”
In their discrete ways, each passage for today helps the church think about the continuing effect of the resurrection. In Acts, the focus is on public witness, possible consequences, and divine providence within those consequences. Coming after the climactic vision of the new heaven and the new earth, the selections from the Book of Revelation emphasize the importance of preparing appropriately for the apocalyptic moment. In the pericope from the Fourth Gospel, the Johannine Jesus prays for the Johannine synagogue to be a community indwelling in God, Jesus, and one another in a oneness that reveals the veracity of the witness of Jesus and the congregation to the world.
The event in Acts 16:16-18 is the impetus for the events in Acts 16:19-34. A preacher could develop one sermon based on the relationship of these two parts. Or, since each scene has its own integrity, a preacher could develop a message on one of the two scenes.
In Acts 16;16-18, Paul, Silas, and Timothy are on the way to the place of prayer of Acts 16:13 when they encounter a young woman who is a slave who had a “spirit of divination,” or, more precisely, a “pythian spirit,” that is, a spirit of a python. According to legend, Apollo killed a snake that guarded the oracle at Delphi where many people went in search of information about the future. By the first century, the word was often associated with ventriloquists, though ventriloquism with a different sense from today. Many people in first century culture believed that ventriloquists had a spirit that could foresee the future in their bellies.
This enslaved young woman and her practice of divination — foretelling the future — make her owners a lot of money. A preacher could see her representing women who are denied freedom and are exploited to the benefit of male power systems.
Luke believes that she is inhabited by a demon. The Lukan church should look not to diviners in the tradition of Delphi for clues to the future but to Jesus and the early Christian prophets.
The young woman followed Paul, Silas and Timothy, crying out that the mission team are “slaves of the most high God who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” The demon correctly names the missionaries and their mission. Indeed, the demon recognizes the truth of the missionary message more clearly than many Jewish authorities and more than many gentiles. Perhaps this clarity results from the threat the demon feels from the presence of agents of the Realm. This point is provocative for preaching. Where do individuals and groups who are threatened by the Realm today see the Realm with more clarity than some others?
The young woman cried out incessantly to the point that she annoyed Paul who turned and exorcised the spirit. This part of the story contains problematic elements. Paul employed the power of exorcism to free the woman from possession so that she would no longer annoy him. Luke gives no indication that Paul consciously chose to act in behalf of the young woman. His act was self-interested. Nevertheless, it did have some benefit for the woman. A preacher might help the congregation think about similar circumstances — when a less-than-exemplary motive leads to positive, even liberating results. A low-level lure (the desire to get rid of the girl) led to a higher-level result (a limited level of liberation). The preacher could ponder with the congregation how it might raise the level of its perception in such situations from the desire to get rid of an annoyance to a sense of solidarity.
However, the effect of the exorcism on the young woman’s situation was limited. On the one hand, Paul employed the power of exorcism to free the woman from possession. On the other hand, the apostle left her enslaved. She is still under male domination. Her liberation was only partial. A preacher might help the congregation recognize occasions when it is tempted towards the kind of solidarity with oppressed peoples that stops short of optimum liberation and might encourage the congregation towards a more comprehensive solidarity and witness for liberation.
In Acts 16:19-21, the owners of the enslaved young woman demonstrate how deeply they are embedded with the mindset of the old age, especially regarding inappropriate relationship with wealth. They should rejoice at the manifestation of the Realm through the liberation of the young woman. Instead, when they can no longer make money from her, they seize the missionaries and drag them into a public area before the preliminary “authorities” and then before the “magistrates.” They lie about the activity of the mission team by saying the missionaries disturbed the city by advocating customs that are not lawful for Romans. This charge is simply not true. The old-age mentality grips the gentile crowd, too, as they attack the mission team. When looking for analogies in today’s world — greed, lying for profit, group-think — the preacher may be overwhelmed by the number of contemporary occurrences.
The magistrates do not give the mission team opportunity to defend themselves but seem to assume the missionaries are guilty. In accord with standard Roman legal procedure, the magistrates order Paul, Silas, and Timothy to be stripped, beaten with rods, and flogged. When they are imprisoned, the jailers place them “in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in stocks.” Roman prisons were often underground, so the innermost cell may essentially be a cave. In today’s language, they are in a maximum-security lock-up. These restrictive conditions make the release of the prisoners (Acts 16:26) especially dramatic.
This incident is one of many in the Acts that illustrate, for Luke, how the witness to the Realm can incite opposition, especially when the values and practices of the Realm call for significant change in the present economic order. Luke wants the congregation to be prepared for such resistance in its own time, and, more, to recognize that God’s providence can sustain the community within it even as it sustains the missionaries, per Acts 16:25-34.
The imprisoned missionaries exhibit confidence in the Realm by praying and singing at midnight, a time in apocalyptic literature associated with eschatological activity, as is the earthquake that opens the doors to the prison and unfastens the chains. Using these symbols — midnight and earthquake — Luke indicates that the release is a sign of the presence and power of the Realm (Acts 16:25-26). These things demonstrates the reliability of Jesus’ promise of Luke 4:18.
While Luke believes that the Roman Empire is ultimately under judgment, Luke frequently indicates that individuals within the Roman system can embrace aspects of the Realm. Moreover, Luke indicates God uses the Roman system to further God’s purposes in the way that God used Cyrus the Persian. When the jailer, a minor Roman official, awakens and discovers that the prisoners are free, he immediately seeks to kill himself (Acts 16:27). Rome put its own officials to death when they allowed prisoners to escape. By committing suicide, he would have given himself a less gruesome and less publicly shameful death than he would have had at the hand of the Empire. Instead, Paul demonstrates the contrast between the Realm of God and Realm of Caesar by shouting out for the jailer not to harm himself (Acts 16:28; cf. Luke 6:27, 35). Luke thus contrasts the violence of the Empire (which would have murdered the jailer) with the life-affirming quality of the Realm.
The imprisonment now turns into an opportunity for witness. The jailer immediately wants to know what to do to be saved, that is, what to do to be part of the movement that will eventuate in the final expression of the Realm of God (Acts 16:29-30). The missionaries immediately reply with the heart of the Lukan formula for joining the movement to the Realm: the jailer and his household must believe, which, for Luke, includes repentance and leads to immersion, and to receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This message is so important that they speak through the night (Acts 16:31-32).
Like the good Samaritan, the jailer binds up their wounds, and feeds them. The incident that began with the missionaries in stocks in a cave ends in proto-eschatological hospitality.
At one level, the story assures Luke’s listeners that God’s providential care will support them when both physically and symbolically imprisoned. A preacher might look at the prison in the text as a symbol for restrictions faced by the congregation and its members. How is God present in such situations — and seeking to open the prison doors?
At another level, there are people today who are physically jailed because of their witness to the Realm. The preacher does not want to be cavalier in making such an affirmation, but the text does claim that God supports people who suffer for the Realm. One way God works for this purpose is through people and agencies who advocate for those imprisoned in behalf of justice. How might the congregation join such efforts?
At still another level, the preacher might go beyond the text to suggest that God seeks to support prisoners across the spectrum and is working for a Realm-like social world free of prisons. That will require a social earthquake that will dwarf the earthquake in the text.
On the one hand, the jailer’s response models what Luke hopes for Roman officials and others in Luke’s culture who are in similar social locations. They can believe and come into the church as a place that is safe for them. Yet, evidently the jailer returns to the jail to continue in that job. On the other hand, then, I wish the jailer had gone farther. To be sure, the Realm of God is an implicit criticism of the prison system. But I wish the jailer had directly criticized the Roman prison system and left that system as an act of protest. In painful honesty, however, I must admit that I have never taken such an action. Nevertheless, consideration of this text is a continuing lure toward such possibilities.
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
I sketched the reconstruction of the historical situation and the purposes of the Book of Revelation that I follow on the Fifth Sunday of Easter in connection with Revelation 21:1-6. The reading today comes immediately after the climactic vision of the new heaven and the new earth. Revelation 22:6-21 functions similarly to the endings of sermons today in that this section of the Book intends to encourage listeners to respond positively to John’s message.
In 22:6-21, the prophet lifts four themes that wind in and out of the selections for today. (1) The revelation (as John describes it) of the Book is trustworthy. Listeners need to believe it and act on it. (2) The heart of the message is that Jesus is returning soon to complete the final cosmic transformation which will result in the new heaven and the new earth. (3) When Jesus returns, God will honor the faithful by welcoming them into the holy city and will punish the unfaithful with the lake of fire. (4) Consequently, John’s congregation needs to continue moving towards the future with the patient endurance (hypomonē) that bears witness during the continuing struggle with Satan that takes place through the struggle with the Roman Empire.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus repeatedly asserts that he is coming soon (Revelation 22:12). Since Jesus is coming soon, the congregation needs to retrench in faithful witness or take corrective action — repentance — very soon. At the same time, John does not propose a precise timeline for Jesus’ return. From John’s point of view, it is enough, for John, to write with eschatological urgency.
Jesus will repay everyone according to their work. By “their work” John specifically has in mind how they have related to the Roman Empire, a social embodiment of Satan. God will welcome those who have “come out” of the Empire into the new Jerusalem. God will consign those who do not come out to punishment. The stakes are high.
A preacher need not subscribe to the apocalyptic final judgment enacted by God to draw a positive notion here. When we cooperate with God’s redemptive purposes, we do experience something of the Realm. Even in midst of struggle, we can be aware of the divine presence in solidarity with us. And when we cooperate with Satan and the Empire, the destructive consequences of idolatry, injustice, and violence befall us, if not immediately, then over time.
Jesus is associated with God as Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and end (Revelation 21:13). This designation indicates that Jesus is an utterly reliable authority. As is well known, alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In John’s apocalyptic worldview, everything in history takes place under divine aegis — either by divine initiation or divine permission. Because Jesus is the definition of trustworthiness, the listening congregation needs to heed his announcement, “I am coming soon,” and respond accordingly.
Again, we need not subscribe to the idea of divine control over all of history that lies behind this text to take an important lesson from conversation with it. Hermeneutically, I can say that the wide-angle lens of the lure of God through Jesus (and through the Book of Revelation) is trustworthy. When we turn away from Empire and turn towards the new Jerusalem, we share in the process of renewal, but when we turn away from the new Jerusalem and conspire with Empire, forces of personal, social, and cosmic corrosion begin to work.
To be blessed, in the apocalyptic is to have a place in the new world (Revelation 21:14). The robes are a figure of speech for the deeds of a life. The people who “wash their robes” of filth (per 22:11) and who witness faithfully in the present will eat of the tree of life (cf. 7:9, 13–14; 3:5, 18; 6:11; cf. 1:13; 15:6). “Filth,” of course, bespeaks cooperating with Empire and otherwise living according to the principles of the old age. Those who turn away from such things enter the new Jerusalem by the gates (see 21:12–13; 21; 22:2).
In Revelation 22:16, John seeks to strengthen the authority of Jesus by citing Jesus yet again as the source of the vision and by describing what Jesus does. The designation of root and descendant of David recollects Isaiah 11:1–10 and the earlier prophet’s vision of the rule of God as a peaceful realm. From John’s point of view that day is guaranteed by Jesus and is about to arrive.
Jesus is “the bright morning star,” a figure coming from Numbers 24:17 where the star refers to one who will conquer enemies and provide safety. The appearance of the morning star means that the dangers of the night are safely past. A new day of possibility is at hand. Preachers often gravitate intuitively to the image of Jesus as the bright morning star who orients communities to the present and future new world. A preacher might ask, “Where do we see this star on the horizon of our world?”
Interpreters struggle with Revelation 22:17 with regard to who is invited to “come.” Most scholars take the first two lines as the Holy Spirit, the church, and all who hear the Book of Revelation pleading for Jesus to return and complete the work of regeneration.
Some scholars think John directs the next two invitations to people in the world at large. However, John directs the Book of Revelation to the church, that is to insiders and not to those outside. John earlier provides clues to the meaning of these images. In Revelation 7:17 John describes the Lamb guiding the martyrs to “springs of the water of life.” In 21:7 God promises to give “water as a gift from the spring of life” to those in the church who are thirsty for the Realm of God. In my view, then, John encourages the martyrs — and, by extension, all who suffer for the faith and who are thirsty for the Realm — to continue in the way of faithfulness in the confidence that Jesus will return. John urges them to come on the way to the Realm because they can be confident that Jesus will return with the new heaven and the new earth.
In today’s setting, I think it is quite appropriate — even imperative — to go beyond John’s limited invitations to those who suffer for the faith and to those who are consciously thirsty for the Realm and to invite all to disengage from contemporary forms of Empire and to take up the values and practices of the Realm of God.
In Revelation 22:20, John cites Jesus as the author of “these things,” that is, to the vision of the book as a whole. John returns yet again to the theme that Jesus will return soon, thereby reinforcing the importance of enduring in witness.
John himself responds to this word of Jesus with his own plea in behalf of the church and the world. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” The “amen” here means that John agrees with everything that has been said. The expression “Come, Lord Jesus” in Greek interprets the well-known Aramaic phrase marana tha, “Our Lord, Come.” Conditions in the Roman Empire are so desperate that John simply cries out, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
My impression is that many people in our moment feel a sense of inchoate desperation similar in kind, if not in degree, to that of people in the world of John. A preacher can help such a congregation name its feeling and think clearly about how to respond.
In the strict sense, from my point of view, we do not have to ask Jesus to “come.” Jesus, and the possibility of the Realm, are already here. But preachers may help the congregation recognize and embrace this presence and partnership with it. Having a sense of solidarity with Jesus and purpose and agency in social life are often empowering in the face of the threat.
John began the Book of Revelation in the form of a Greek letter (1:1–2, 4–6). The prophet now concludes the book with a benediction format typical of letter writers of the time. The only other place at which the word “grace” (charis) appears in the Book is Revelation 1:4. The idea of “grace” includes the trustworthiness of the Hebrew chesed, sometimes rendered “trustworthiness,” “covenantal loyalty” or “loving kindness.” By using this word, John invokes the faithfulness of God as demonstrated through the life of Israel in the face of assaults by numerous empires. This faithfulness is expressed again through Jesus Christ. John thus assures the saints facing the tensions of the final transformation that God through Jesus will sustain them in the struggle to manifest the Realm.
The preacher may need to help the congregation recognize that John was mistaken on this timeline. While John may not have posited an exact time of return, in John’s linguistic universe, “soon” meant “soon.” Moreover, as mentioned in connection with the readings from the Book of Revelation on the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter, few readers of this journal expect a singular apocalyptic event of cosmic re-creation. And, I follow those theologians who think that while God is ever acting, God does not have the kind of power to bring the Realm to expression by God’s self. Nevertheless, a deeper way of connecting John’s “soon” to today is to hear it as a reminder of the importance of acting in partnership with God now. Every moment that we delay allows the suffering of the human family to multiply. It is hard to know whether the intensity of suffering is greater now than in antiquity, but the number of people who are suffering — many in circumstances that are almost unimaginable to this upper middle-class Eurocentric almost seventy-year old writer — is higher than at any time in human history. “Soon” too often never comes for people who starve, wither from disease, or are killed.
In John 17:1b-26, the Johannine Jesus offers an extended prayer in behalf of the Johannine synagogue, often represented by the disciples in the Fourth Gospel. The prayer presupposes the historical context of that congregation. I offered a brief reconstruction of that situation in connection with the reading from John 13:31-35 on the Fifth Sunday in Easter.
The most important aspect of that reconstruction for interpreting the text today derives from the fractious character of life in the “world” as John understands it. For John, existence is divided into two spheres — the upper sphere, heaven, where God dwells (and to which Jesus goes after the resurrection), and the lower sphere, the world, where existence takes place apart from the knowledge of God. Heaven is a sphere of life, love, peace, authentic (mutually supportive) community, and abundance. The world is a sphere of death, hate, violence, fractiousness, and scarcity.
According to John “the world” (especially the inhabitants of the lower sphere who do not have the perspective on God revealed through Jesus) hates the disciples (e.g. John 17:14). While hate here has a certain emotional dimension, the larger part of hate in first century perspective is the determination to disempower and isolate so that the objects of hatred are altogether marginalized. The existence of the Johannine synagogue, then, is one of isolation, threat and violence.
The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel says directly to God (and indirectly to the listener, “The world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Indeed, after the resurrection Jesus will leave the sphere of the world and journey to God’s house (heaven: John 14:1-6). “I am not asking you,“ Jesus continues, “to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil world.” Jesus wants the disciples to continue believing while they are in the world so that, at death, they may follow Jesus on the journey to God’s house.
A key element in the strategy of protection is for the members of John’s synagogue to be one with one another and with Jesus and God. Amid the chaos and threat of the world, they can live together as authentic, mutually supportive community. In so doing, they become a colony of heaven in the midst of the world. This is consistent with John’s emphasis on believing as partially realized eschatology. The experience of the community of heaven while still in the world reinforces identity while becoming a base for mission.
In a masterful narrative touch, John pictures Jesus offering the prayer not only in behalf of the disciples who were immediately present with Jesus, but also “in behalf of those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). John’s congregation, of course, are those who believe in Jesus by virtue of the testimony of the original disciples and their successors. John thus portrays Jesus as praying for John’s synagogue.
The heart of the prayer, as indicated earlier, is that “they may all be one” (John 17:21). In the postmodern church and world, which prize diversity, the preacher needs to be clear that “one” here does not mean the complete surrender of cultural identity and adopting utter uniformity. While John’s immediate synagogue is likely made up of Jewish believers in Jesus, the Fourth Gospel raises the possibility of “Greeks” in the communities of Jesus (John 12:20; cf. 7:35).
As Jesus clarifies in John 17:21-23, the pattern for the oneness of the Johannine synagogue is nothing less than the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus. Although God and Jesus are closely aligned in the Fourth Gospel, each still maintains a measure of distinctive identity. The oneness of God and Jesus is really a unity of purpose, as when I might say of my spouse, “Linda and I are one on this issue.”
This oneness of purpose is also the nature of the way in which the believing community is “in” God and Jesus. The members of the synagogue are one in the sense of being mutually supportive around the purpose of God through Jesus. As God sent Jesus into the world to reveal God’s love for the world and to open the path out of world and to God’s house, so Jesus sent the disciples in the same way.
The language of John 17:22-23 intensifies this perspective. We noted in connection with the reading from John on the Sixth Sunday of Easter that the words “glory” and “glorify” in the Gospel of John have multiple levels of meaning, one of which is “to clarify” or even “to reveal.” According to John 17:22, then, Jesus gives disciples the clarification of the divine love for the world that God gave to him in order to effect oneness of identity and mission in the synagogue. According to John 17:23, this oneness has a direct aim: so the world will recognize that God sent Jesus and loves the disciples even as God loves Jesus.
This language functions in two levels. It has a mission undertone. It also reinforces the sectarian identity of the congregation.
In John 17:24, Jesus prayerfully reveals his desire to God for the ultimate disposition of the disciples. Jesus wants them “to be with me where I am, to see my glory.” This glory is ultimately revealed when Jesus returns to God. Jesus thus prays for the disciples to continue to abide in oneness with God, him, and one another so they may join Jesus in heaven.
John perceives the congregation experiencing antagonism from the world. It is easy to image inhabitants of the world accusing the synagogue of living on the basis of inferior perspectives on life. While John 17:25-26 continues in the form of prayer, these words function to assure the listening community of the reliability of what Jesus has just prayed, and indeed, of all that he says and does in this Gospel. The prayer closes with the affirmation that the love of God for Jesus is now, indeed, “in them” even as Jesus is also “in them.”
This text might invite a sermon considering the character of the congregation’s communal life. To what degree does the life of the congregation manifest the kind of oneness central to this text? How can the congregation reinforce and build on the qualities that are present? What can the congregation do to live more fully into this oneness, especially at points at which the congregation is divided, even fractious?
I wish that the Johannine Jesus had said directly that God loved and sent Jesus so that Jesus could love the disciples and send them to actively love the world. John does not go that far. A preacher could indicate the limit of the direct commission to the disciples (for their oneness to manifest the love of God for Jesus to them so the world would believe that God loved and sent Jesus who loved and sent the disciples). The preacher could then explain that a logical implication of this oneness of love is for the disciples to enact this love for the world itself.
When I was in college and seminary in the 1960s and 70s, leaders in the long-established churches tended to interpret John 17 from the perspective of what we then called “the ecumenical movement.” Consequently, many church leaders in those days read Jesus’ desire “that they may all be one” (John 17:20) as a desire for the denominations to come together in a new super-church. While the Fourth Gospel did not have twentieth century ecumenism in mind, that approach had many good effects, especially reducing competition among denominations and promoting cooperation.
While this spirit has continued among many of the long-established denominations, there are also continuing and new tensions around theology and ethics on the broad ecclesial spectrum, especially with (and even among) new expressions of Christian community. The text invites preacher and congregation to search for points of genuine oneness across such lines. In a time of international polarization, a little more respect among peoples who differ and a little more shared mission demonstrating love for the world can go a long way.
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.