The Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C), 26 May 2019

May 26, 2019 | by Ronald J. Allen

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Acts 16:9-15 Psalm 67 Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5 John 14:23-29

The readings today continue to highlight the continuing effects of the resurrection of Jesus as interpreted by different biblical writers. While the themes of the readings loosely cohere around the effect of the resurrection, as on most of the Sundays of Easter, the different passages ponder these effects in different ways. I think a preacher is likely better off focusing in depth on one passage than going through the exegetical, theological, and hermeneutical jerry-rigging required to bring multiple passages into the same sermon.

Each passage offers a distinct invitation. The lectionary does not select many texts that focus on women. The reading from Acts brings Lydia to the pulpit. The lectionary calls attention to just half a dozen passages from the Book of Revelation, yet here is a passage that is part of the climax of the Bible. The reading from the Gospel of John speaks to an ancient congregation whose hearts are troubled, that is, a congregation struggling with how to make theological sense of its chaotic experience in the world. Sound familiar?

Acts 16:9-15

The reading for today should include Acts 16:6-8 because this material contains a counterpoint to a theme in Acts 16:9-10. This passage depicts events early Paul’s second missionary journey, on which he is joined by Silas and Timothy. Luke shapes the narratives of the missionary journeys — as Luke shapes the Gospel and the Acts as wholes — to help explain how and why Luke’s community evolved as it did, and to serve as inspiration for mission for Luke’s congregation. Luke wants his congregation to engage in mission in ways comparable to the church in Acts.

The missionaries alert listeners to the partial presence and eventual final coming of the Realm of God through the ministry of Jesus. The missionaries invite listeners to join the movement towards the Realm by becoming part of the eschatological community, the church. The missionaries invite both Jews and gentiles into this movement.

Preachers who use a big screen could project a map depicting the geographical movement of the missionary team in Acts 16:6-15. Preachers who do not use a big screen might include a map in the bulletin. Seeing a map can help the congregation visualize the journey. Even better: include both a map with first century designations and a second map (or an overlay) that shows the boundaries and names of contemporary states and cities.

Luke seeks to show that the Holy Spirit controlled the broad patterns of the missionary journeys. This is dramatically in evidence in Luke 16:6-8 in a way that could prompt a theologically probing sermon. The Spirit forbids the mission team to visit Asia and Bithynia. Unfortunately, Luke does not indicate why the Spirit gave this prohibition. A possible explanation: Luke seeks to explain why Paul’s mission did not visit those areas. Nevertheless, as a preacher, I have to say that I disagree theologically. I do not believe the Spirit would ever seek to withhold Realm-like possibilities in any situation. Indeed, I believe that the Spirit offers some possibility of the experience of the qualities of life associated with the Realm in every moment.

By contrast, Acts 16:9-10 pictures forward movement in the mission. Paul has a vision of a person in Macedonia calling for the mission team to come to that land. Luke often uses a dream or vision motif to indicate divine control of a situation: through the vision, God authorizes the mission to Macedonia, a province of the Roman Empire in northern Greece associated with Alexander the Great, reminding the listener that the history of the Mediterranean basin is largely the story of one empire after another. While some empires were more repressive than others, all centered in idolatry and relied on violence, and none provided an optimum quality of life for the people below the upper pinnacle of the social pyramid. The call to “come over to Macedonia to help us” is a call to bring the renewing message of the Realm to settings in which the quality of life is determined by empire.

The church has often thought hermeneutically of the Macedonian call as coming from geographically far away. Indeed, some Christians describe the call to overseas missions with this phrase. Yet, while Macedonia was not on the direct route planned by the mission team, the call was defined less by distance and more by need. Macedonia can be any place where the message of the Realm is needed. The preacher might consider where pleas for the Realm similar to the Macedonian call are coming to expression today. How might the congregation respond to such calls with the values and practices of the Realm?

The missionaries make their way to Philippi a leading city of Macedonia and a Roman colony (Acts 16:11). Paul, Silas, and Timothy would often begin their work in a community by meeting first with a local synagogue to introduce conversation about the Realm. The missionaries exhibit both their Jewish identity and a part of their missionary strategy, then, by seeking a Jewish community on the sabbath.

They find a “place of prayer” (proseuchē) by the river. The mission team would often meet with a local synagogue to begin their witness to the Realm. Scholars typically think that the “place of prayer” is a gathering place in lieu of a synagogue. In either case, it is striking that only women are present. It would be anachronistic to think of this group as proto-feminist, but it may well have been a gathering of women seeking mutual support.

Lydia was there. Luke names her simply as Lydia and not in relationship to a man. She is a worshiper of God. The latter expression designates gentiles who were drawn to the monotheism, ethical values, and covenantal community of Judaism but who did not fully convert. Lydia was a dealer in purple. Today’s congregation is so accustomed to women in business and public life that we may overlook the fact that while such things had begun to occur by the first century CE, it was still noteworthy. Lydia represents women who were emerging from the patriarchal domain of the first century. Indeed, she owns her own home and is apparently the head of the household.

Because dye needed to make it purple cloth was rare, purple cloth was typically associated with people of means. She immediately listened eagerly to Paul’s interpretation of the coming of the Realm through Jesus and quickly led her household to be immersed, that is, initiated into the eschatological community. Furthermore, she invited the mission team to stay at her home.

This story has multiple lures for the preacher. While Luke-Acts does not (in my view) go far enough in calling for egalitarianism, it does contain a significant impulse towards liberation. It affirms Lydia — and women — as persons with their own self-determining agency. This story says to such women, “The eschatological community is a safe place for you. Indeed, the values and practices of the Realm are liberating.” The story says to the church, “You should be a community that values and empowers women and their possibilities.”

Moreover, Lydia is associated with the upper class. This story signals people in the upper class that they can have a place in the eschatological community, albeit as Luke indicates elsewhere, they are to renounce the idolatry of wealth and make their resources available to the congregation so that there would not be a person in need.

Revelation 21:10, 2222:5

Introducing Revelation 21:1-6, we observed that the prophet John communicates the message of Revelation through images. That principle is true in the current reading. John does not provide a literal blue-print of the new heaven and the new earth but uses word-pictures with architectural associations to represent the qualities of community in the new world. Each symbol calls to mind characteristics of covenantal community in an eschatological mode.

This holy city contrasts, of course, with the unholy city, Rome. One of the goals of the Book of Revelation is to encourage congregations in Asia Minor to continue to witness faithfully in the face of the possibility of heightened Roman persecution. Many people in the congregations are accommodating to Rome to such a degree that they are in danger of serving the Empire and its source, Satan, and, hence, of being condemned to the lake of eternal fire. John ends the Book of Revelation with an exceptionally powerful reason to remain faithful: to live forever in the New Jerusalem. John seeks to force a choice: serve God and live in the new heaven and new earth or serve Rome (and Satan) and burn.

The deep yearning for community is common to many people in the early postmodern twenty-first century. Here is a happy occasion when desire and theological vision intersect. The preacher might correlate longing for authentic community with qualities of relationship in the new heaven and the new earth.

As cities become larger and larger centers of population today, the notion of a new city, a holy city, has a special appeal. The complete manifestation of the new heaven and the new earth is in the future but many of the characteristics represented in this picture can come to life in communities in the present — urban, suburban, exurban, or rural.

In Revelation 21:10, the prophet sees a great high mountain with “the holy city Jerusalem” coming down to it. For protection and defense, people in antiquity often built cities in elevated locations. Moreover, in Jewish life mountains were often places of revelation. People went up the mountain to talk with God. The location of the city on a mountain with God immediately present makes the city the ultimate safe space. This mountain directly contrasts with the wilderness, the location of the alluring, idolatrous city of Rome (17:1–3).

In Revelation 21:11-21, John describes the walls of the city, its gates, and its size. To speak in shorthand, the wall is at the same time a symbol of security and community. The security of the new Jerusalem lies not in a typical fortification but in the nature of its community. Indeed, the gates of the city are never locked: this community does not create security by locking people out but by welcoming those who want to live in its ways. The size of the city — 12,000 stadia (or 1,500 miles) on a side — indicates that it is large enough for all the faithful.

The new Jerusalem does not contain a temple (Revelation 21:22) because God and the Lamb have become the temple. God and the Lamb are now so immediately present that an architectural reminder of that presence (the temple) is no longer needed. Indeed, the structures that supported the old age — represented by sun and moon — have been replaced. Moreover, the Romans regarded the sun and moon as deities, but they are now displaced.

The nations are gentiles who walk (live) in the city and who live by its light. Evidently these gentiles came out of Rome, that is, they repented and disengaged from the Empire (5:6; 7:9). They are now in authentic community with people from the Jewish tradition. Moreover, the rulers of the earth bring their glory into the new Jerusalem, that is, they no longer seek the self-serving control and acclaim characteristic of the rulers of empires, but they put their glory at the service of the new Jerusalem.

Revelation 21:27 reprises 21:8: some people will not be part of the new heaven and the new earth because they retain attitudes and actions associated with the dragon and the beast (Satan and the Roman empire). They include those who are unclean and those who practice abomination and falsehood. The notion of the clean and the unclean referred not to physical cleanliness but to the degree to which someone or something manifested characteristics considered essential to order in community. Idolatry is an abomination that preoccupies the Revelation (17:4–5). Falsehood refers to believing and acting on the deception offered by the beast and dragon. Such folk were condemned in 19:11–20:15, so, of course, are no longer present.

The new world will be like a renewed and perpetual Eden. In the semi-arid world of the Mediterranean basin, rivers were particularly prized because their flow of water tended to be reliable. John’s river flows from the throne of God, the ultimately reliable source, and it is “bright as crystal,” that is, remarkably clear and pure, in contrast to some of the water in urban settings in the Empire where water was sometimes non-potable.

The river begins at the throne and, following Ezekiel 47: l–12, splashes out of the temple and the city and through the desert until it reaches the Dead Sea, renewing the dry places as it flows. The river of life flows through the middle of the city so the water is available to all. Clean, fresh water is not distributed according to one’s place in the social pyramid as it was in Rome

The tree of life — a figure found in many cultures in the Ancient Near East — is a symbol of the power of life itself. As it grows it provides food for the immediate generation and seeds for trees for subsequent generations. In the new Jerusalem, the power represented by the tree is greatly multiplied by the number of trees in the city. Remarkably the tree gives fruit each month (Ezek 47:12). In Jewish literature, fruit sometimes represents qualities of life: the tree of life gives good fruit all year, that is, always makes it possible for people to live faithfully.

“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” In those days, people made some medicines from tree leaves: the leaves of the tree contain medicine that heals the nations. The sickness of the nations (so to speak) is idolatry. The symptoms: they worship the beast and the dragon (false gods). The medicine is the world-view of the Book of Revelation, especially repentance and living towards mutually supportive community.

Nothing accursed will be in the city (22:3). The effects of the general curse of Genesis 3:14-19 will not pertain. The new Jerusalem is a punishment-free zone. Furthermore, the community in the new heaven and new earth does not face temptation as the first couple did. Satan is not present to try to deceive them.

The throne of God and the Lamb will be in the new city which means that the authority of God will shape life for everlasting blessing. The people in holy city see God’s face: they have direct, unmediated access to God. They will no longer have to ask the kind of question posed by the martyrs in 6:9–11, “How long?” They will be fully aware of the divine presence and purposes.

God’s name will be on their foreheads. To use a crude analogy, the mark on the forehead, while physically invisible, is like a cattle brand (7:3: 9:4; 14:1, 9). The mark identifies the person as belonging in this city, and contrasts with the mark which the beast placed on its followers (13:6; 17:4).

The unmediated presence of God becomes their light and gives them the capacity to perceive clearly. The population now has a complete view of God and of their fellow citizens in the new Jerusalem and of the values and practices that characterize the life of this community. And, they now have an uninterrupted view of the deception associated with the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.

All the faithful will “reign” with Christ (22:5b). To reign with God is to serve God’s community building purposes “forever and ever.”

A simple approach to the sermon might be to sketch the background of the Book of Revelation (per our comments on Revelation 21:1-6 on the Fifth Sunday of Easter), explain the nature of Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5 as a symbolic word-picture, and discuss how each element in the vision bespeaks an aspect of true community. Congregations that use a big screen in worship might project this vision. A good tech team could put together a presentation that adds one element of the new city at a time, so that the picture fills out as the preacher explains the parts of the vision.

Many preachers and congregations today — especially those associated with the spirit of this journal — do not expect God to reveal the new heaven and the new earth in a singular apocalyptic moment, as does John. Indeed, people in my theological world do not believe that God can take such a singular action. However, the preacher might take the text as an invitation for individuals and groups to work with God and with one another to re-create the current church and world along the lines of the values and practices of the Realm of God as imaged in this passage. The preacher can help the congregation imagine how to work towards the kind of community pictured in Revelation 21—22.

John 14:23-29

The reading today comes from Jesus’ farewell discourse (John 13:1-17:26). The farewell discourse is a literary device through which John summarizes many of Jesus’ most important messages to guide the Johannine synagogue through the circumstances we described in connection with John 13:31-35 on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, especially conflict regarding Jewish identity within the congregation and with the traditional synagogue. Tension with Rome is also in the background.

The Johannine worldview also comes into play in today’s reading. Jesus assumes that he will leave the sphere of the world and go to “God’s house,” that is heaven, where Jesus will prepare a place for the disciples who continue to believe (John 14:1-7).

John uses 14:23-29 to encourage listeners to remain steadfastly in the congregation, and not to drift away. John assures the congregation that Jesus will see them through their period of distress. In the narrative, Jesus prepares the disciples for his coming departure to heaven. John intends for the congregation to understand that in so doing, Jesus also made provision for the congregation as it awaits a similar journey. Although Jesus goes to God’s house (heaven), Jesus sends the Paraclete to sustain the community as it awaits its own journey to the place that Jesus prepared for them.

The obvious emphasis of John 14:23-24 is the importance of maintaining integrity between words and actions. Those who love Jesus will keep Jesus’ word which, John 13:24b emphasizes, is also the word from God. That is, those who recognize Jesus as the word made flesh who reveals the way of God will do what Jesus says as set out in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus and God love such people and make a home with them (an echo of the realized eschatology for which the Fourth Gospel is so well known). John wants members of the congregation to love Jesus by doing what he says. The heart of Jesus’ commandment is to love one another (John 113:31-35; see the Fifth Sunday of Easter). By doing so, they will follow Jesus to God’s house with its many dwelling places.

Those who do not do not do what Jesus says — as set out in the Fourth Gospel — do not love Jesus (John 14:24a). The implication is that Jesus and God will not make a home with them in the present nor take them to the house with many rooms in the future. John thus draws a boundary between those within the congregation who believe as John desires and those who believe differently, and also between the believing congregation and those outside.

The preacher might explore two things with the congregation here. For one: to what degree is the congregation manifesting integrity between the love it confesses for Jesus and the deeds that put that love into action on the model of John 13:1-35? For the other: to what degree — if at all — does the preacher and congregation believe those who do not love Jesus on the Johannine model are thereby denied a home with God and Jesus?

John pictures Jesus saying these things while Jesus was still with the disciples. Because Jesus will take the way to God’s house, God will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to teach the congregation and remind the people of all that Jesus said (John 14:25-26). “Advocate” is a translation of paraklētos, one of John’s names for the Holy Spirit. The word paraklētos is sometimes transliterated Paraclete. In the original language, the word means “to call alongside.” The work of the Holy Spirit in the Fourth Gospel is to bring the continuing/resurrected presence of Jesus into the community.

While not very elegant, I think the paraphrase “Continuing Presence of Jesus” would give better English expression to the meaning of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John than Advocate or Paraclete. Having the Spirit in the community is almost the same as having Jesus in the community in the flesh. With Jesus above, the Johannine synagogue needs this presence as it struggles within, with other synagogues, and with the world.

In John 14:27, Jesus leaves peace with the community. It is not the kind of peace the world gives. The pax Romana is the definitive expression of the peace the world gives. The Romans achieve this peace by violence or threat of violence. The Roman peace is just the absence of the active expression of violence. By contrast, the peace of Jesus is the quality of mutual support characteristic of the heavenly world. It is the active pursuit of the good of community.

The peace that Jesus gives does not release the community from the dynamics of its multiple struggles — within, with other synagogues, with the world. But, the Continuing Presence of Jesus, gives the believing community the capacity to live through the struggles without being destroyed by them.

Moreover, the peace of Jesus assures them that beyond the strife of the present, they would join Jesus in the sphere above. Jesus can say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” because the Spirit will sustain them in the present and they are living towards the hope of eternal life with God and Jesus. Of course, they will feel the trouble of life, things that would make an unbeliever afraid, but Jesus gives them a perspective within it that enables them to live through it without being completely dominated by uncertainty and fear.

Jesus now explains why he told them that he is going away (to heaven) and coming to them (through the Holy Spirit, the Continuing Presence of Jesus) (John 14:28-29). In other words, the narrative Jesus describes the situation of John’s congregation: Jesus himself has ascended, but the Continuing Presence is with them. When Jesus was with them in the flesh, he told them these things so before they occurred, so that when Jesus went to be with God, they would continue to believe.

Indeed, the congregation can rejoice that Jesus goes to God because God is greater than Jesus. By being in the presence of God, Jesus can infuse the Continuing Presence of Jesus which is with the disciples with even greater power than was evident in the first ministry of Jesus.

Many congregations today are in circumstances similar to that of John’s congregation: divided internally, offering versions of the story and purposes of Jesus that are quite different from other denominations, and in various kinds of tension with the larger culture. On the one hand, this text lures the preacher to help the congregation recognize the Continuing Presence of Jesus with the community — not only recalling what Jesus said but bringing Jesus’ life-giving presence to consciousness.

On the other hand, of course, the question comes up of how the church today identifies the presence, leading, and work of the Holy Spirit, the Continuing Presence of Jesus. What criteria do the church use for identifying such work? The congregation might adapt the basic criterion implied by John: the story of Jesus as told in the Gospel. A congregation can identify the Continuing Presence of Jesus when it sees individuals and groups living according to the values and practices of the Fourth Gospel. While John pictures those values and practices in an exclusive frame of reference in the church, the preacher could make the hermeneutical move of extending the range to wider situations in life. For example, where John’s direct criterion is showing love for one another in the church, the preacher might identify any situation in which love is enacted as consistent with the Continuing Presence of Jesus.

Many individuals, households, congregations, and larger communities today live in the truncated version of peace that the world gives. People in such circumstances need to hear the affirmation of Jesus, “My peace I give to you . . . not . . . as the world gives.” Such peace enables not only survival in difficult circumstances but the power to witness. A preacher can help a congregation imagine such peace in action as the result of the Continuing Presence of Jesus.

One aspect of John’s theology that troubles many contemporary Christians is its emphasis on ultimate salvation being world denying. Jesus goes to God’s house in heaven and establishes dwelling places where believers, too, will go. Although John 3:16 asserts that God loves the world (kosmos) there is a little indication in the Fourth Gospel that God intends to redeem the world as world, nor few (if any) Johannine directives that community should care for the world. As a preacher who does not anticipate an apocalypse with cosmic transformation, I think we need the Continuing Presence of Jesus to empower us to love the world in the Johannine sense of working for its good. While John may not have intended this dimension of love in John 3:16 or in Jesus’ commands to love, it seems to me a natural — and imperative — extension.

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.