Category: revised common lectionary

Passing the Mantle — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3C (2 Kings 2)

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

2 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 

13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

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                As I grow older and can see retirement on the horizon, texts like this begin to speak more loudly. I’m not Elijah or Elisha. At one level, I don’t claim to be a prophet in the form that these two figures take. At the same time, as an ordained minister, who has preached most Sundays for the past twenty-one years, I hear in this story a word spoken to my own journey. To preach requires the Spirit. The same is true for all acts of ministry. Different people will have different takes on this passage. Personal context matters. For me, it’s that sense of seeing the current pathway closing. In other words, I’ve begun to see more clearly that a time when the mantle must be passed on to the next generation. In fact, a few years back, when I was inducted into the College of Fellows of the Academy of Parish Clergy, I saw this as a recognition of a call to assist younger clergy in furthering their journeys. This is an important calling since at least half of all clergy will leave the ministry within five years of ordination. Many leave due to disillusionment. Some of that disillusionment rests at the feet of older clergy who may feel threatened by the emerging generations. Instead of offering to help with the passage into the future, they cut themselves off and important forms of wisdom don’t get passed on. When God said to Elijah that he should anoint Elisha as his successor, Elijah could have resisted. He could have felt threatened. But Elijah understood the need to mentor his successor. So, he took up the task (1 Kings 19).

 

This passage also came to mind as I was planning for my upcoming sabbatical. The grant application the congregation was submitting required a theme, and we chose “River Crossings” because that spoke the journey ahead.  A time of transition stands on the horizon for me as a pastor and for the congregation I serve. So, stories that speak of transition stand out. There is the story of Moses, who led the people to the Jordan but didn’t cross over. That was left to his apprentice, Joshua. Elijah crossed the river, together with his apprentice, Elisha. Once they crossed the Jordan, Elijah passed the mantle. These are two images of transition. The one before us pictures Elijah and Elisha crossing the river, but in the end, it is Elisha that continues the ministry that had once been Elijah’s. His ministry would be different from his predecessor, but Elijah was willing to serve as his guide.

                These two figures can leave us confused. Who comes first, Elijah or Elisha? The writers of 2 Kings, let us know that it is Elijah first and then Elisha. When last we saw Elijah in the lectionary readings, he had fled to the desert, where he hoped to die, feeling abandoned. His cry to God was something like “Woe is me, nobody likes me, everybody hates me.” (1 Kings 19:1-15). After that experience in the desert, Elijah is told to anoint “Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.” With that instruction, Elijah found Elisha plowing his field and threw his mantle over him, and after a bit of negotiation, Elisha followed Elijah, becoming his apprentice (1 Kings 19:16,19-21). Now it was time to pass the mantle. It was time for Elijah to leave and Elisha to take his place. This didn’t occur until Elijah had fully instructed his apprentice, and for his part, Elisha is faithful in his following of Elijah. Elijah is the more famous of the two, but both men spoke for God to a people who didn’t always appreciate the message.

                The passage begins with Elijah and Elisha heading out from Gilgal. Elijah told his apprentice to stay behind as he headed to Bethel, but Elisha declared his desire to continue on with his master. When they arrived at Bethel, the disciples of the prophets came out and warned Elisha that God would be taking Elijah away from him. He acknowledged the fact. Elijah and Elisha would repeat this pattern regarding staying behind at each juncture on the path to the place where God would take Elijah. Each time Elisha pledged to stay with him. As they made the journey from Bethel to Jericho and then to the Jordan, fifty disciples of the prophets followed along with them, but at a distance, until they reached the Jordan. Here is where the moment of transition begins.

 

                Once again, Elisha is told to stay behind, as Elijah follows his path beyond the Jordan, but Elisha refuses. At this point, Elijah takes his cloak or mantle, rolls it up, and then slaps the water of the Jordan with it. With that, the water of the river divides, much like it did when Joshua led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Though, on this occasion, Elijah intends to cross to the other side, out of the Promised Land. As they cross the river, Elisha having demonstrated his loyalty to Elijah, his master asks him: “what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”  Elisha answers: “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.” (vs. 9 Tanakh). That’s asking for a lot, says Elijah. But, he’s open to the possibility, as long as Elisha keeps his focus on his master as he is taken up into the whirlwind. If not, if he fails to keep his concentration on Elijah’s departure, the deal’s off. All along the way, from Gilgal to this moment, it seems as if Elijah is testing Elisha’s resolve. This will be the last test before the mantle is passed.

                It is at this point, as they are walking and talking that a fiery chariot descends from the heavens and sweeps in to take Elijah from the earth. And as Elisha watched Elijah taken up into the whirlwind, he cries out “oh father, oh father.” When he could no longer see his master, he took his garments and tore them in grief. With that expression of mourning, Elisha picked up the mantle of his master, which Elijah had dropped. He struck the river, which parted, and he crossed over. Here is the evidence—Elisha has the spirit, perhaps more than did Elijah.  He is the heir. His turn has come. Thus, begins a new chapter, a new ministry.

Life is like that. It never stands still. Elijah was a great prophet. In actuality, his prophetic efforts were probably grander than those of Elisha, but there comes a time for the mantle to be passed. In this story, Elijah is taken from the earth. He doesn’t die; he simply is taken up. Only Enoch has the same experience. That is, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24 Tanakh). Elijah walks with God and God takes him. Elijah had his struggles. He had his victories, but he also had to flee. But the ministry goes on. A new person steps to the plate. He has shown his mettle. He stood steadfastly with his mentor. He didn’t aside and follow another pathway.  But he went forward in the spirit, having received the same spirit that empowered Elijah. The mantle, the cloak, is not the source of power but is the symbol of a spiritual power that Elisha discerned was necessary to fulfill his calling.  And off he goes, in the spirit. The same is true for us. To fulfill our callings, whether we would term them prophetic or not, requires the presence of the Spirit of God.

Picture Attribution:  Swanson, John August. Elijah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56543 [retrieved June 24, 2019]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2008 by John August Swanson.

               
                 

 

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Woe Is Me: Elijah’s Lament, a lectionary reflection for Pentecost 2C (1 Kings 19)

 

19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.  

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
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                We have moved through the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and now we begin the long journey that takes us to Advent. This season, which is nearly six months in duration (and marked by the color green) is called, by some, ordinary time. I don’t care for this designation, so I tend to count the Sundays after Pentecost. I don’t know that any moment in time is ordinary, though there are moments, like Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost that stand out, but each Sunday has its own value. During this season there usually two choices for the first reading, all coming from the Hebrew Bible. I will normally be commenting on the semi-continuous texts, rather than the paired texts. The first of these texts is taken from 1 Kings 19, which picks up immediately following Elijah’s encounter with and triumph over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. That encounter is both exciting and off-putting. It’s always good to hear that God triumphs, but the killing of the prophets of Baal—that’s not so enticing. Such violence doesn’t fit well with our sensibilities. In fact, it serves as a reminder of the tendency of religions in general and Christianity in particularity to enforce doctrinal and moral compliance with the threat of violence. At the same time, it represents the reality of the cycle of violence that is so present in our world. However, this is the background to the reading from 1 Kings 19. In fact, the prophet Elijah seems to take pride in his act of violence, which he believes cleansed the land of religious pollution (the prophets of Baal). Now it should be noted that Jezebel, Queen of Israel, had been attempting a purge of the prophets of Yahweh (1 Kings 18:4). This appears to be the way religious differences were handled back then. But despite his victory, it appears that Elijah is feeling depressed. He did his job, but it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.   
 
                When we come to chapter 19 of 1 Kings, having already watched as God answered Elijah’s prayer and had sent fire from heaven to consume the offering, something Baal could not do, the wrath of Jezebel is unleashed against him. When King Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done at Mount Carmel, Jezebel sent a message to Elijah threatening to do to him, what he had done to her prophets. Thus, the cycle of violence would continue, and truth be told, it continues into the present. When Elijah received this message he fled for his life, traveling to Beer-Sheba, in the neighboring country of Judah. He was safe, for now, unless Jezebel could get an extradition order for his arrest. Though he was safe, he felt depressed. He felt as if, despite his efforts, nothing had changed, and so he left his assistant in the town and headed out into the Wilderness (desert). He was ready to give up and even die. Why go on? He had no purpose.
He lay down in the desert and went to sleep (perhaps hoping not to wake up), but as he slept he was visited by an angel (I’m not sure why verses 5-7 are considered optional, as they detail the angelic vision). The angel had laid out food and water and commanded him to get up and eat. He did so, then went back to sleep. The angel woke him up and told him once more to eat, so he would have strength for forty days and nights (presumably a time of fasting as well as journeying). This time instructions were given. He needed to eat so he could make the journey to Mount Horeb, the holy mountain in the Sinai, where Moses saw the burning bush.  He traveled to Mount Horeb, where he entered a cave and spent the night. You can see here parallels to the story of Moses. Moses had to flee, and it was in the desert of Sinai, on this mountain, that God appeared to Moses and spoke to him (Exodus 3:1-6). It was here that Moses received his commission. It would be here that Elijah would hear from God.
The Lord spoke to Elijah, asking him why he was there. Elijah responded by reminding God of what he had done. He was zealous for the Lord. He’d torn down the altars to foreign gods and put to death the prophets of these gods. Now, he alone was left, and his enemies are after him, seeking to put him to death. Elijah is not in a good place. He feels abandoned. He’d done what he thought God wanted, but to what end. Sometimes we feel that way. We may not have torn down altars, or thankfully killed prophets, but we’ve given our all, and don’t have much to show for it. It’s one of the reasons so many clergy hang it up before they reach five years of service. Where is the fruit of one’s efforts? Where is the appreciation?
Burnout is a common concern among clergy. It’s one reason why pastorates tend to be short. Clergy give their all and then within a few years, feel as if they have nothing left to give to the congregation. So, it’s time to move—either to a new congregation where one can start over or to another vocation. Elijah is feeling it. He’s been battling in Israel for Yahweh for countless years. While he might have a token success here or there, the status quo remains in place, and the people simply don’t seem to care.
God responds to Elijah’s laments (and those of contemporary clergy, perhaps), but sending him out of the cave so he can experience the presence of God. The Lord promises to pass by, but what will be the form of that presence? First Elijah experiences a mighty wind, so mighty it splits mountains and breaks apart rocks. I’ve experienced some big winds, but nothing like that. Even hurricanes and tornados don’t split mountains. Nevertheless, despite the power of the wind, God is not present in the wind.  Then comes an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake either. Both the wind and the quake suggest power and might. Though different in its makeup, God wasn’t present in the fire either. This is fascinating because the Pentecost story suggests that the Spirit came as a mighty wind and baptized with fire. But at least here, wind, quakes, and fire, are not markers of God’s presence, even though that likely was what Elijah expected (or something like it). It’s what we tend to expect as well. Our God is an awesome God, is that not true?
So how is God is present? The reading suggests that the fire was followed by “sheer silence” or as the Tanakh puts it, as “a soft murmuring sound.” This is the opposite of power, and yet this is how God chose to be revealed. Of course, the Gospels recount the story of Jesus, the revelation of God, who reveals God’s presence in and through the cross—not something one would expect of God.
I don’t know if Elijah isn’t all that impressed with this show of God’s presence. He does cover himself with his mantle (cloak), so maybe he got a bit of a scare, from the wind, quake, and fire, but then there’s the quietness. So, maybe he’s a bit underwhelmed because he goes back to his complaints in response to God’s question: “why are you here?” Elijah’s answer is simple: I was zealous for the cause. I did everything I was supposed to do, but here I am, alone with a death warrant set out for me. That’s why Elijah has gone out to the desert—not to meet God but to flee God’s call, which doesn’t seem to have made a difference.
How does God respond? God kicks Elijah in the backside and tells him to get back in the game. Go back to where you came from and along the way stop in Damascus and anoint Hazael king of Damascus, and from there go and anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi as king of Israel. Set up a rival regime in the nations. While you’re at it, anoint Elisha as your successor. It’s time for change—politically and spiritually. The kings of Damascus and Israel had their chance, but they failed, and so it’s time for another. As for Elijah, he still has work to do, but it’s also time to prepare another to take up the mantle. In the end, all who bow to Baal will fall to the sword. That is the task set before Elijah. Oh, and by the way, you’re not alone Elijah. There are seven thousand in Israel who haven’t bowed to Baal.
The word to us as the people of God is the same. Even when things look bleak, we’re not alone. There are others who are steadfast in the faith. So, get back out there. Don’t lose faith. Trust in the Lord who is present not only in the quakes and fire but in silence as well. Now, none of this is meant to downplay the realities of burnout, stress, and a sense of aloneness that many clergy feel. I know I’ve felt it. I’ve had my moments of depression over the years. So, I understand. There are times to walk away. On the other hand, there are times to persevere—in the Spirit, of course.  It is good to know, we’re not alone.

Picture Attribution: Volterra, Daniele da, ca. 1509-1566. Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46988 [retrieved June 17, 2019]. Original source: http://yorckproject.de.

 

Holy Wisdom – A lectionary reflection for Trinity Sunday (Proverbs 8)

Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 
8 Does not wisdom call,
    and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 “To you, O people, I call,
    and my cry is to all that live.
 
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30     then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.
 
 
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                Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the sending of the Spirit, is followed by Trinity Sunday. Now that we have the Spirit on board, we can attend to the question of the Trinity as a whole. That is, how do we fit all the pieces together as one God in three persons, blessed Trinity? As a Trinitarian, who understands the challenges presented by the doctrine, I’ve wrestled with the question. I even have a book due out any minute that explores the idea in conversation with my own denominational tradition that is by intention non-creedal. That fact—being non-creedal—always makes for an interesting Trinity Sunday.
 
The lectionary invites preachers to consider a variety of biblical texts for any given Sunday, including readings from the Hebrew Bible. The question for us this week is whether we can find allusions to the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. We must do this while recognizing that Judaism, like Islam, is a strictly monotheistic tradition. The ancient church, using such devices as the allegorical method, found those allusions, but I’m not sure a Jewish reader would always agree. Nevertheless, Proverbs 8, which celebrates Holy Wisdom, is the chosen first reading for Trinity Sunday in year C. So, what should we make of this witness? What direction might we go with the passage on Trinity Sunday?
 
                As we consider the question, I confess to being a Trinitarian who believes that a faithful reading of Scripture reveals a Trinitarian vision of God’s nature. Nevertheless, we must be careful with how we handle texts like this. While Proverbs 8 speaks of Wisdom in elevated terms, using female descriptors, which lends itself to broadening our conception of God’s nature (moving beyond the traditional masculine vision), this particular text poses a distinct challenge. That is because, while it speaks of Wisdom calling us to pay attention to its witness, it also speaks of Wisdom as the first act of God’s creation not as being divine in any recognizable way (vs. 22). The doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, insists that the three persons of the Godhead (three hypostases in one substance) are eternal and uncreated. That goes for the Logos as well as Wisdom (Sophia), but the witness here is that Wisdom is the first act of creation. So, we should be wary about using this passage to inform our Trinitarian visions, even if this passage does lend itself to considering the female dimension within God’s nature. Indeed, as Liza Anderson notes, Arius used Proverbs 8:22 in reference to the Logos to affirm his premise that Christ is a created being.  She writes: 
 

Given that subsequent ecumenical councils commit us to a belief that the Spirit is likewise uncreated, a simple identification of the biblical figure of Wisdom with any of the three Trinitarian Persons seems impossible to sustain. There are still all kinds of interesting things to do with that feminine personification of Wisdom; the Russian tradition of sophiology as expressed by Bulgakov and others offers examples. But there is no easy way to conflate it with the Holy Spirit that doesn’t simply result in subordinating the Spirit to the Father and the Son.  [Liza Anderson, “Translating the Trinity,” Covenant (March 28, 2019).]

 
While the passage is suggestive, and the idea of the divine nature of Wisdom is present at points in canonical Scripture and in non-canonical texts, with this warning from a historian of the early church, it might be best if we don’t delve too deeply into conversations that take more space than I have in this essay. So, perhaps we should consider other ways of reading this passage that might prove spiritually beneficial.
 
The reading begins with a depiction of Woman Wisdom as a street preacher, calling out to all who will listen, to follow her lead. This picture of Wisdom standing at the gates calling out to any who will listen comes after the author of this part of the book of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) describes both the allure and the dangers offered by the strange or loose woman (Proverbs 7). This opening section of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) depicts a father sharing wisdom with his son (a perfect Father’s Day allusion?). The key to this bit of wisdom is the contrast between the loose woman who represents folly and the righteous creation of God who offers the boy Wisdom.   
 
With the reading prefaced by the picture of Woman Wisdom standing at the gates of the city beckoning all who will hear to follow her, we come to verse 22. We might start by affirming the premise of verse 22, that Wisdom is the first act of God’s creation.  The writer of this poem lifts up Wisdom’s role in the creative process. She was there from the beginning, before anything took form, from the sea to the sky to the land. But what was the role she played?
 
Cameron Howard suggests that “Wisdom was God’s joyful companion,” a vision revealed in the fine two verses of the passage we have before us. Joy is the operative word here regarding Wisdom, so we might consider that, as Howard suggests, “to walk in the straight and righteous paths of Wisdom, then, is to connect with this same primal joy” [Connections, pg. 3-4]. This idea that Wisdom is God’s companion as God engages in the work of creation emerges from an alternative reading of verse 30. The NRSV speaks of Wisdom being the “master worker.” However, it is also possible to read this as “child.” If we read it as “master worker” or architect, then how should we understand the reference to God taking daily delight in Wisdom? Is it in terms of the work being done or something else? If we go with “child,” then Wisdom is that companion with whom God shares the joy of creation? Whatever the case, God takes delight in what is created, as does Wisdom. Indeed, Wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world and in the human race itself. All of this goes back to the pronouncement in Genesis 1 that the creation is good.
 
                So the message of the day is really one of joy. Let’s rejoice in the beauty of creation, including human life. It is good and blessed. Such joy should lead us to a commitment to care for creation. As Leanne Van Dyke suggests, “A Christian vision that looks out onto our world with the eyes of Wisdom constantly sees opportunities for participating in God’s own intentions and plans. God is not a Creator gone missing. God is intimately related to each and every creature” [Connections, p 5]. Such a vision, one that motivates us to social engagement, brings with it a sense of joy. Again, Van Dyke writes: The church certainly better fulfill its mission to communicate the gospel to a jaded world with winsome cheer and joyful delight rather than judgment and blame” [Connections, p. 6]. It is true that prophets are known to talk turkey about things in the world, and that is sometimes needed, but a constant harangue doesn’t get us far. Joy, on the other hand, it has more to offer.
 
                Trinity Sunday highlights God in God’s fullness, however we have come to understand that fullness. In celebrating God’s fullness, we acknowledge God’s role as Creator. Knowing that God takes delight in the creation, of which Holy Wisdom is both the first act and the partner, we can sing boldly: “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing; Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Image attributionMaster of the Cité des Dames, active 1400-1415. Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56953 [retrieved June 10, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Othea%27s_Epistle_(Queen%27s_Manuscript)_02.jpg.

 

Confused Talk — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Genesis 11)

11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

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                It is truly annoying when people just babble on. That phrase or concept of speech that is confused and irrelevant takes its origins from this biblical story. Whether one knows the context or not, the story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical story people seem able to envision. It is an image that has been part of our cultural landscape for centuries. Now, it appears in the lectionary in connection with Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is concerned with the birthing of the Christian movement as the Spirit empowers this fledgling community to spread the good news across the world (I’m tempted to say globe but that might be somewhat anachronistic). If Babel has to do with the confusion languages, Pentecost might have something to do with its reversal. Or does it? The story of Babel suggests that the confusion of languages is rooted in human hubris. In some way, Pentecost is seen as a means of undoing the damage done at Babel, but perhaps not be creating a monoculture, but providing an opportunity for understanding. What is scattered is now brought back together, without the diversity being removed.
                The reading from Genesis 11 is designated as a reading from the Hebrew Bible for Pentecost Sunday. To flesh out a bit more the Pentecost setting, we must turn to Acts 2, where we find the followers of Jesus gathered in a room in Jerusalem. They’ve heard their commission to take the good news to the ends of the earth. They’ve also heard the call to wait until the Spirit comes upon them. It’s during the festival of Pentecost, when Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest, that the Spirit decides to descend. The gathered disciples, some 150 strong, break out in praise, each speaking a different language, a language they had not learned prior to this experience. There was a crowd of people standing outside who heard the message—each in his or her own language—and it got their attention. This led to Peter’s sermon and an altar call that led to some 3000 baptisms (or so Luke reports).
                This passage from Genesis 11 is, in the Genesis context, a self-contained story situated between genealogical listings. For our purposes, in the context of Pentecost, it provides a background to the Spirit’s provision of the gift of languages in Acts 2. What was confused becomes understandable to the glory of God. Genesis 1-11 is understood to be primeval history. It is a saga that reveals important elements of the faith but shouldn’t be understood to provide historical information. This Kairos (sacred) time, not Chronos time. If we can agree on this matter, then we’ll be able to hear the message present in the passage. We begin with the revelation that once everyone spoke the same language. The preceding chapter (chapter 10) gives us a genealogical listing of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Thus, we would assume that the world that is migrating to the land of Shinar, as noted in this reading, are descendants of Noah and his sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Interestingly, the story of Babel is situated between the genealogical listings in chapter 10 and the restatement of Shem’s descendants in verse 10 of chapter11, taking us up to Abram, son of Terah. 
 
So where is the land of Shinar? The name of the city—Babel—gives us a clue that this would be a city located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Now, the idea that the entire world would make this journey is assuming that the human population is rather small. In fact, the founder of Babel is named in chapter 10 as Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham. To the original readers of this passage, this story would speak of the origins of Israel’s enemy Babylon. Of course, Babylon’s origins would be rooted in human hubris. What else would you expect? 
 
According to our story, when the migrants from the east made their way to the land of Shinar they decided to make bricks and build a city. Not only did they build a city, but they built a tower in the middle of the city so they could reach the heavens, for, of course, that’s where God (the gods) live. We know something of these towers that were prominent in the cities of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. They were known as ziggurats, towers with stairs on all sides. At the top of the tower was an altar. This was understood to be a “Stairway to Heaven” (to borrow from Led Zeppelin).  The tower had the purpose of being a place of worship. That’s understood. What’s interesting here is that they chose to build the tower to the heavens, according to this account, not for worship but so they could make a name for themselves. This was considered an evil act, one that the LORD (Yahweh) did not appreciate. Even as the denizens of Babel built their way to the heavens, the LORD came down to check things out. When it came to the contrast between the temples of Mesopotamia and those built in Israel, Peter Enns and Jared Byas note: “By contrast, Israel’s worship structures (the tabernacle and later the temple) don’t have steps going up to heaven. Instead, Israel waits for God to come down.” [Peter Enns & Jared Byas,  Genesis for Normal People, Patheos Press. Kindle loc 984].
With the tower built so that the people of Babel could make a name for themselves, lest they find themselves scattered across the land, the LORD decided to confound their plans by confusing their languages. There is a bit of fear on the part of Yahweh and the divine council. Yahweh admits that since they are one people with one language, then if something isn’t done, nothing will be impossible for them. Action is required. Now the question here is whether Yahweh is afraid of them or for them. Remember in Genesis 3, God exiles Adam and Eve so they will no longer have access to the tree of life, effectively making them immortal. Putting a barrier up kept them from engaging in actions that might ultimately be detrimental to them (or so it seems). Could the same be true here?
The view of the people of Babel seems to be that if they don’t take care of themselves, no one will. In other words, they’re not considering how God fits into the situation. Nevertheless, despite the fear that they will be scattered, the LORD, in the end, confuses their languages and scatters them across the land. And thus the nations are born (in primeval fashion). Soon Abram will appear from one of these scattered tribes, and the process of scattering will slowly be unwound (perhaps).
So, how do we hear this story at Pentecost? I noted above that Pentecost is often understood to be an unwinding of Babel, but perhaps not.  Perhaps the response of Pentecost is not a return to a mono-lingual reality, but a binding together of peoples in their diversity. Thus, Cameron B. R. Howard writes: “In the Babel account, fear is the binding agent that drives the building projects: fear of dispersal, of loss, of living with otherness. Both the Babel and the Pentecost accounts emphasize the power of human unity, without expecting human sameness, sending people out into the world to forge connections with those who are different from themselves.” [Joel B. Green, et al, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 9932-9934).].
So maybe difference isn’t punishment, it’s simply reality. If this is true, and I think it is, then unity is not found in uniformity but in the way in which the Spirit, who is the binding agent, removes the fear that drove the people of Babel to build the tower and drives us to build barriers to keep each other at bay. Is this not a good message for our times when fear and hubris conspire to undermine true unity in the Spirit?  


Picture Attribution: Bruegel, Pieter, approximately 1525-1569. Tower of Babel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56948 [retrieved June 3, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpg.

 

The Power of Hymn-Singing — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 7C (Acts 16)

 
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

 

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 

 

 

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

 

 
 
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                It is the Seventh Sunday of Easter—although one could choose to observe the Day of Ascension (the reading for Ascension is Acts 1:1-11). The days of Jesus’ appearances is nearly complete. Pentecost is on the near horizon. The reading from Acts 1 for the Day of Ascension sets the foundation for what is to come. Jesus stands with the disciples, preparing to leave them. He gives them a commission, telling them that once the Spirit comes upon them, they are to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving out from there through Judea and Samaria, and then from there to the ends of the earth. In prior readings, we have seen how the gospel has been moving outward from Jerusalem in the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen the message taken to Samaria (Acts 8) and then to a Gentile community (Acts 11). We’ve witnessed the call of Paul (Acts 9) and then his crossing into Europe that results in the conversion of Lydia and her household in Philippi (Acts 16).
One thing you notice in reading the Book of Acts is that the way forward for the Gospel often requires those called to proclaim the Gospel to break through barriers. There is no easy pathway, and sometimes they have to be nudged along, so they can be in a position to proclaim the Gospel. If Paul is any indication, missionary work can be a bit complicated, filled with both setbacks and successes. In fact, Paul seems to get himself in trouble on a regular basis, and so it is with his visit to Philippi. In the reading from Acts 16 for this week, we pick up where we left off last week. Paul remains in Philippi, perhaps still residing at the home of Lydia. When the story picks up, Paul and Silas—and the rest of the mission team (note the use of the word we in verse 16)—are walking toward the place of prayer down by the riverside. As they make their way to the place of prayer, they are joined by another person. This person is a slave girl known for her prophetic powers. For some reason, she starts telling everyone that Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most High.” This reference to them being slaves of God is important because the one doing the preaching is a slave. The assumption then is that if one proclaims a divine message, one must be a slave to that god/power.  She is a slave, so they must be slaves as well. While she calls attention to them, apparently, it’s not the kind of attention that wanted. Since this happened several times over a period of days, we’re told that Paul was annoyed by her declarations. Paul stops and tells the spirit possessing her, the spirit that is proclaiming the message that they bring the word of salvation from the Most High, to leave. Such is what happens. The spirit that possessed her, the spirit that gave her the ability to reveal things about people, is now gone. That doesn’t make her owners happy. They have just lost their livelihood. This is a good example of the economic effects of religion. So, they are thrown into prison, without trial (something that is not allowed for citizens like Paul). This is the context in which we read the remainder of the story.
Note that Paul and Silas are imprisoned because they have infringed on the economic power of certain individuals. These people who are upset with Paul are concerned not about theology but about money. This woman, who was their slave, had earned them a lot of money. If she lost that power, she was of little or no worth to them. She was a commodity to her owners. Her message may have annoyed Paul, but she had revealed the truth, and that didn’t sit well with the rest of the community.
It is interesting that the charges laid against Paul and Silas is that they were Jews who were teaching things that weren’t appropriate for Romans. This represents in part the ongoing rejection and stigmatization of the Jews. In this case, the charge that they were Jews who taught things inappropriate for Romans may have been rooted in ignorance of Judaism. After all, there wasn’t a large enough community to start a synagogue. With the charges laid against them, the magistrates had them stripped, beaten, and thrown into the innermost jail cell (maximum security). Was it the religious component or the economic one? You be the judge.  
 
So, we find Paul and Silas in jail. They are not only in jail, but they have shackles on them. You would have thought they were mass murderers, but such is not the case. It’s here, in prison, that we witness the power of hymn-singing. As Paul and Silas sit there in their cell, they begin to sing hymns to God, and Luke tells us that the other prisoners were listening. They were paying attention to the songs. As Paul and Silas sang, an earthquake hit, opening the cells and knocking off the shackles. Everyone in the jail was now free to flee, but they didn’t. They stayed put. More about that later in this reflection, so we can stay with hymn-singing.
This word about hymn-singing is enticing to me. That’s because singing hymns has always been a powerful element in my worship experiences.  Whether new or old, as long as they are singable, they carry power. I don’t know what hymns Paul and Silas sang (I don’t think there were any Wesley or Brian Wren hymns in that hymnal), whatever they were singing had a powerful effect on their situation. Whatever they sang had a liberating effect. It seems to be the precursor to their freedom. Willie James Jennings connects worship, prayer, and singing to freedom and the concerns of those who have experienced torture and imprisonment.

Praying and singing join us to tortured and chained bodies, both past and present, and to the real pressure placed on disciples’ bodies as they look toward God. Praying and singing are acts of joining that weave our voices and words with the desperate of this world who cry out to God day and night. Each time we gather in the name of Jesus and lift our voices, this point of reference should shape our reverence and drive us to see and learn and know and change the situations of those who suffer especially in that holy name. Each time we pray and sing we are also joined to the shouts of joy and praise to a God who saves and delivers and invites us to take hold of divine power by faith. [Acts: Belief, p. 164].

In other words, worship should connect us to those around us who suffer. Paul and Silas’ experience of prison connected them to Jesus’ experiences as he approached death. They would be freed, but it was in the midst of suffering that they worshipped God and found liberation.
When the jailer made his way into the cells, he assumed that the prisoners would have escaped. That’s only natural. If you have the opportunity to be free, wouldn’t you take it? The implications for the jailer were much different. If his prisoners escaped, he would be held responsible. The better part of valor would be to take his own life. He was about to do so when Paul spoke up. Paul cried out to him, begging him not to harm himself, because everyone was still in the jail, including the other prisoners who had no reason to trust in the God of Paul, and yet they put themselves into Paul’s hands. All because of some hymn-singing.
Now, the jailer was over-joyed. Although he hadn’t heard the hymn-singing, he was drawn into this worship experience punctuated by an earthquake. That led to a sermon, as the jailer asked how he might be made whole (saved). With the question asked, Paul shared the gospel with him and his household, and the Philippian jailer responded positively. Paul baptized the jailer and his family, but notice that before the baptism takes place, the jailer tends to the wounds inflicted on Paul and Silas. These are the wounds inflicted by the magistrates, in response to Paul’s act of liberating a woman who had been turned into a lucrative economic tool. There was healing and liberation all around, and mixed in was a time of worship featuring hymn-singing. So, let us sing to God with boldness, and as we sing may we be woven into the healing work of God in the world.   
               

 

Come on Over – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6C (Acts 16)

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

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                The story found in the book of Acts begins with a commission in Acts 1:8. That commission involves proclaiming the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, beginning in Jerusalem, and from there, moving outward through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. The movement forward comes in fits and starts and requires guidance and regular nudges on the part of the Spirit. In Acts 9, Paul, the persecutor of the church, is called to preach, with Gentiles as his target audience. Then, in Acts 11, Peter defends his decision to go to the home of Cornelius, opening up the church to Gentiles, without qualification. That is, he baptized them without first requiring the males to be circumcised. In this action, the path forward that Paul would take is set. During this Easter season, where we focus on readings from the Book of Acts in place of the regular readings from the Hebrew Bible, the lectionary jumps from the story of Peter’s visit to Cornelius to Paul’s call to preach in Macedonia. There’s a lot of territory that is traversed between Acts 11 and Acts 16, one of which is the commissioning of Paul to take up his missionary journeys. Another event is the Jerusalem Council, at which time Paul and Barnabas explain their mission and make peace with the Jerusalem leaders on what is to be required of the new Gentile converts. When we come to Acts 16, Paul has headed out on his second missionary journey. He and Barnabas have parted ways, and Paul is joined by first Silas and then Timothy.
                The lectionary reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C) begins in verse 9 of chapter 16. If we go back a few verses, we learn that Paul had been forbidden to preach in Asia. Paul and his companions had been attempting to go to Bithynia, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them,” so they went down to Troas. That’s where we pick things up.
Now before we get to verse 9 of chapter 16, we should take note of the message that in the Book of Acts, the Spirit is the driving force in the emerging mission of the church. In this case, the Spirit is specifically linked to Jesus. It is the Spirit of Jesus who is guiding this next step in the church’s mission, and the Spirit has a specific vision of where things should go.
                When we come to verse 9, we find Paul in Troas, on the Aegean coast. He’s sleeping, not knowing what he is supposed to do. He’s been prevented from going where he intended to go, so where to next? As he slept, he had a vision—God often speaks to people in visions in Acts, sometimes they come when people are awake and sometimes when they’re asleep. In this vision a “man of Macedonia,” speaks to Paul, saying “Come on over to Macedonia.” To this point, Paul’s ministry had been focused on “Asia,” what we would call today Anatolia or Turkey. In the story being told by Luke, the Spirit is ready to move into a new field and to cross into Macedonia would mean crossing into Europe. So, things are moving forward, toward that goal of reaching the ends of the earth.
                With this vision of the “man from Macedonia” calling Paul to come on over as their guide, the missionary group sets sail from Troas and heads for Samothrace, Neapolis, and finally to Philippi, which, according to Luke, was the “chief city of Macedonia” and a Roman colony. The reference to Philippi being a Roman colony suggests that it is a rather recently planted city, having been settled—or in this case probably re-settled—by Roman soldiers and their families. Here’s where things get interesting. Since it was Paul’s custom, as a Christian who also was a Jew, to worship on the Sabbath, he went looking for a gathering of Jews to pray with. Normally, that would involve looking for the local synagogue. That proved difficult in Philippi because there was no synagogue. What Paul did find was a gathering of women, who had gone down to the river outside the gates of the city to pray. As was his custom as well, he not only prayed with them, but he shared the Gospel with them. Among this group of women was a “worshipper of God” named Lydia. The reference to her being a worshipper of God, or God-fearer, like Cornelius, suggests that she was likely not Jewish, but one who embraced Judaism without fully converting. She was also a successful businesswoman. We’re told that she sold purple cloth, which was expensive. It was the kind of cloth used to make clothes for the wealthy and privileged. It was to this group of women, that Paul preached. They responded positively so that Paul baptized them.
                Having heard Paul preach, and having been baptized by him (along with what may have been her household), he extends to him an offer of hospitality. She says to him: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Paul couldn’t say no. He took up her offer, gratefully, I would expect.
                Often, we think of the early Christians as being poor and marginalized. Often, they were, but not all of them. In fact, we see in the Corinthian letter signs of socio-economic divisions. Such was not the case here. Lydia was likely rather wealthy, but she used her wealth in this case to benefit the ministry of Paul.  In other words, she became a partner in that ministry. The other element of this story is the fact that Paul was willing to worship with and share the message with women. We know that Paul could write instructions for women to be silent. He could also proclaim that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). In this case, we see Paul expanding the circle to include not only Gentiles but women, who become partners in ministry.
                So begins Paul’s ministry in Europe. “A man from Macedonia” invited him over to help them, but it was a woman from Thyatira, who was staying in Philippi, who would be the first person to receive the Gospel. It’s a bit like Mary Magdalene, who is the first to receive the message of the resurrection (Jn 20). And, as Alice Connors notes, regarding Lydia, “there are no heroic deeds attributed to Lydia, no wrestling an angel to receive a blessing. She went about her life, praying and listening, selling and leading” [Connor, Fierce, p. 162]. Yes, she went about her life, in fairly normal fashion, but as she did, she became a leader in the church as it spread into Europe.  All of this began in the waters of baptism, which in the book of Acts are transformative. This was true of Cornelius and his household. It was also true of Lydia and her household. So, “shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?” [Robert Lowry in Chalice Hymnal, p. 701].

 

Who Am I to Hinder God? Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5C (Acts 11)

Acts 11:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

11 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

 
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                Who am I to hinder God? If God says something or someone is clean, then who am I to say the opposite? Of course, we do hinder God. We stand in the way of God’s vision for the world. God opens doors and we slam them shut. God opens up the table to those who are not of our community and we set up fences. Despite this intransigence, sometimes God gets our attention, and we discover a different path—one that brings blessings rather than curses, healing rather than wounds.
                Peter had a vision. It had to do with appropriate dietary concerns. In this vision, which is first described in Acts 10, Peter is on the roof praying. It’s near lunchtime. He’s probably hungry. A sheet is lowered from the heavens. It’s filled with food items that he is prohibited from partaking. He hears the command to “kill and eat.” Peter responds, with deep piety, “no, I can’t eat these things. They’re unclean. Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The response from heaven is clear and concise, though it is repeated three times (just to make sure Peter gets the point): “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Then there was a knock at the door.
When it comes to dietary restrictions, there’s nothing wrong with them. Judaism has them. Islam has them. So do other religious traditions. They often serve as boundary markers, helping define a community’s existence. Christianity may not have many food restrictions (if any), but we have our ways of defining ourselves. But what if God wishes to open things up a bit. Are we ready for it? Of course, the stories of Acts 10 and 11 aren’t really about eating shellfish, crustaceans, and reptiles. I don’t know whether Peter added lobster to his menu, but he was soon to learn a more important lesson that had to do with those whom God was ready to welcome into the realm of God and on what basis.  
 
That vision led to Peter going to the home of Cornelius, a Roman soldier and a Gentile. He had connected the dots between the vision and the knock on the door and went with the three representatives of Cornelius while taking along with him six of his own companions. When he arrives at the home of Cornelius, Peter preaches. As he is preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household, as demonstrated by the sign of speaking in tongues, just as occurred on the day of Pentecost. Since this enduement of the Spirit occurs while Peter is preaching, what is Peter going to do? He does the only thing he could do; he baptizes them and welcomes them into the church. You can read the full story in Acts 10.
                The story we read in Acts 11 is a summary report of the events that took place in Joppa and then at the home of Cornelius. Peter recounts the story that begins in Joppa, where Peter was residing after the church was scattered by Paul’s persecution of the church. Not everyone fled Jerusalem, which remains headquarters. Peter is summoned back to Jerusalem so he can explain himself. More specifically, it is the circumcision party that is demanding answers. On whose authority had he gone to the home of Cornelius? Why did he baptize them? It’s not that they opposed Gentiles joining the community, but there were hoops to be jumped through before you get to baptism. That is, you have to be made clean before you get the final seal of approval (baptism), and that included affirming Jewish dietary rules and the circumcision of males, at least that seems to be the case here. These questions shouldn’t surprise Peter since he needed a sign from heaven before he traveled to Cornelius’ home. This story serves as a reminder that up to this point, the church remained a sect of Judaism that followed the teachings of Jesus. There were, of course, the Samaritans, but they were essentially estranged members of the family. They were more easily accepted. Now that Peter had gone to Cornelius’ house and baptized them, another boundary marker was being crossed.
So, Peter recounts the story of his vision and the encounter with Cornelius. He makes the point that he remembered the word of the Lord: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” In this case, Cornelius and his household had been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and so the water was simply a confirmation of what God had already done. With that, Peter’s response was simple: “who was I that I could hinder God?” How do you respond to that? If God is for it, then how can you be against it? Gary Charles takes note of this question, writing:

That question assumes that God is at work in the world to bring about God’s purposes. Though religious tradition plays an essential role, it does not restrict God from building upon and even moving beyond tradition. Another key assumption in the question is that God is still at work, and God’s purpose often extends far beyond the horizon of longstanding tradition. [Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery & Cynthia L. Rigby. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary forPreaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 7895-7897). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.]

If God is still at work and is able and willing to go beyond tradition, then who are we to hinder that work? Of course, we can’t go willy-nilly throwing off traditions just for the sake of throwing off traditions. It takes discernment, itself a gift of the Spirit, to know when to hold them or fold them. The Spirit bore witness in this case by providing a sign that demonstrated to Peter that he could baptize them, and apparently, from the accusations against him, he ate with them as well. If he ate with them, then he ate what they ate. Everything was now clean.
There is a piece of the puzzle that can be easily missed, but which is important. Peter notes that “these six brothers also accompanied me.” Peter didn’t go to Cornelius’ house alone. He took six companions. The folks in Jerusalem didn’t have to take his word alone. He had confirmation, maybe not of the vision, but of the actions on the part of the Holy Spirit. They could bear witness to the fact that the Holy Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius. They observed the filling of the people with the Spirit, which included speaking in tongues, just as on the day of Pentecost. They could back up Peter’s story, just in case members of the Jerusalem community had their doubts about Peter’s veracity.
So, where is God showing offering visions of a new way of being the church? What boundaries are being crossed by the Spirit? Women have looked to this story as evidence that cultural mores that limited their place in the church have been set aside. More recently those of us who have come to a realization that the barriers to inclusion of LGBTQ persons need to be lifted have found encouragement from this set of stories. If the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives, who are we who are straight to get in the way of God?  Who else might be standing on the outside of our communities, that God would want us to embrace?
In the case of the critics of Peter’s actions, according to Luke, they were brought to silence. After all, who was he to hinder God? With that, the critics had no response, as it was clear that God had welcomed these Gentiles (and those who followed) into the fold. With this understanding, they all rejoiced.

Picture Attribution:  ngelico, fra, ca. 1400-1455. Peter Preaching – [Lectionary selection, Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C], from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47861 [retrieved May 12, 2019]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

Who Are You, Lord? – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3C (Acts 9)

Michelangelo – The Conversion of St. Paul
 

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

 
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                When it comes to resurrection appearances, not all are the same. In John 21, Jesus appears to the disciples at the lakeside where they’ve gone fishing (though until Jesus showed up the fish weren’t biting). In Luke 24, Jesus appears alongside the road to a couple of travelers, but they don’t recognize him until he breaks bread. Then he disappears. While I affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus, with Paul I do understand that whatever form the resurrected body takes, it is a spiritual body. Apparently, it has properties that we can imagine but not understand. I share all of this to get us to the story of Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience. There is a resurrection appearance here, but not a bodily one, at least not in the same way as the ones described elsewhere.
                Saul (Paul) was a zealous man. He took his faith seriously. He even was willing to enforce it with violence, if necessary. He first appears in the biblical story in Acts 7-8, where he oversees the execution of Stephen, whose preaching was upsetting the religious establishment.  Luke says that a “severe persecution began that against the church (Acts 8:1). The church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (see Acts 1:8 for background on the missional trajectory of the church’s life). While the church buried Stephen, “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:2-3). Among those scattered was Philip who preaches in Samaria and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch before heading off to Azotus and Caesarea (Acts 8:4-40). It appears that Saul’s actions had unintended consequences—it moves the church out of its home base and off to the intended mission field.  All of this leads us to the ninth chapter of Acts, where another resurrection appearance will set the table for the next act in the story.
                When we turn to Acts 9, Paul is still “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He’s been given an assignment by the high priest to go to the synagogues in Damascus to see if there are any trouble-makers there, so he could extradite them back to Jerusalem for trial. As we saw with the story in Acts 5, where the religious authorities tried to suppress the Apostles, there is, according to Luke, an effort to extinguish this disruptive group before it gets out of hand. As we see here, things don’t go as planned. To borrow from an old play, “A funny thing happened on the way to Damascus.
                The reading from Acts 9, which forms the first reading as assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary, focuses on the first six verses, though we’re encouraged to continue reading the entire story (7-20).  Paul is on his way to Damascus when a light from heaven “suddenly blazed around him” (J.B. Phillips). With the light comes a voice from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Blinded by the light, Paul falls to the ground. In most pictures of this event, Paul is riding a horse, so he has a ways to fall. Now, lying on the ground, blinded by the light, Paul cries out: “Who are you, Lord?” Paul understands that this is no ordinary event, but he’s unsure of its source, or maybe he does, but he wants to make sure. After all, he was persecuting the followers of Jesus.
                The response that comes from the light is this: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” By attacking the church, which Paul will in his letters describe in terms of the body of Christ, he is attacking Jesus. You have to wonder whether Paul understood this to be true even before this encounter. Was he there “when they crucified my Lord?” He was there for the execution of Stephen, but what about Jesus? Did have any encounters with Jesus before Good Friday and Easter? Paul never says anything about this in his letters, but you have to wonder. Regarding the nature of this resurrection appearance—Jesus doesn’t appear to Paul in bodily form. It is an appearance in the form of light. It’s just as real, but it’s different. Whatever its nature, it was transformative. Jesus tells Saul to get up and go into Damascus where he will receive further instructions.
                As the story continues, Saul’s companions hear the voice but see nothing. Knowing the Saul is now blind they lead him into Damascus, where he waits for three days. While this is happening, a disciple living in Damascus by the name of Ananias has a vision, in which he is directed to go to Saul and guide him to the truth. You can imagine that Ananias, having heard of Saul’s previous activities, would be hesitant to make that visit. Here is your enemy, the one who is being sent to haul you back to Jerusalem to face imprisonment or worse. Now, you’re supposed to go and speak with him. Despite his concerns, he follows these instructions. He goes to where Saul is staying. He speaks with him. Prays with him. Restores his sight. He delivers to Saul a new set of orders. The word given to Ananias to share with the one who will be known as Paul is this:  “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16). By now the missional plan is beginning to take shape. The word is preached first in Jerusalem by the Apostles, led by Peter. Then, Stephen gets into the act. All of this takes place in Jerusalem. Then, after the death of Stephen, and Saul’s efforts to eradicate the church, the community fans out into other parts of Judea and Samaria. Now, we see the foundation for the next step of the Spirit’s work as outlined in Acts 1:8. Saul, the persecutor of the church, has been given a new assignment. That assignment involves, taking the message of Jesus to the Gentile world. But this new trajectory won’t be an easy one, because Saul will suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus.
                As we ponder this text, with its call of Saul to move from persecutor to proclaimer, might we consider the ways in which the church, the body of Christ, has to its shame, been the persecutor rather than the proclaimer of good news. Might we consider how the message of Good Friday became the rallying point for anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish acts of violence? Might we consider the ways in which the Bible has been used to enslave and dehumanize? Might we be blinded by the light of God so we can hear the voice of Jesus calling out to us, we who see ourselves as followers of Jesus, saying: “why are you persecuting me?”
                As we ponder this encounter of Saul with the risen Christ, which takes the form of light from heaven together with a voice, what might Jesus be saying to us? As you ponder these questions, I offer these comments by Cathy Caldwell Hoop:

God redeemed Saul, gave him a new name, and placed him on a new path. This same mercy is accessible to each of us, and to our corporate communities. The Easter miracle proves that God loves and forgives friends, betrayers, doubters, skeptics…even God’s own enemies. The God, who is Love, has no need to be defended by violent means. Love grabs Saul’s fist in midpunch and unbalances him, saving him from a life of hatred and violence. What if we could do this for one another? May Easter miracles abound! [Joel B. Green, et al, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Location 7010-7013).]

In other words, this is not just a story about Saul’s conversion and his transformation into Paul, the witness to Jesus to the Gentiles. It is that, but it is more. It can serve, as we see here as an invitation to allow the Spirit of God transform our own lives so we might express through this love of God we experience in Jesus to the world. May our encounters with the Risen Christ, though they might not be as dramatic as the one described here, empower us to bear witness to God’s reconciling grace so the world might experience the peace of God.

 

Obedience to Whom? A Lectionary reflection for Easter 2C (Acts 5)

Acts 5:27-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

 

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

 

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                I woke up Easter morning to news that churches and hotels in Sri Lanka had been bombed with hundreds reported dead or injured. It wasn’t the kind of news I wanted to hear as I prepared to help lead the congregation in worship on Easter Sunday. My sermon offered hope of a new creation emerging from the resurrection. It was a good plan, but how do you celebrate life when the news reports suggest that death has once again claimed victory? Then again, Easter is rooted in a prior act of violence, the crucifixion of Jesus. It is with these competing images of violent death and God’s victory over death in the resurrection that we began our Easter season. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we respond?  

 

The Gospel reading from John 20 invites us to receive the Holy Spirit and believe the good news even if, like Thomas, we don’t have physical evidence. The first reading for the week, as laid out by the Revised Common Lectionary, points us to the Book of Acts, rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is the case through most of the year. Since my focus in this cycle of lectionary reflections is on these first readings, during the Easter season I will be taking up the witness of the Book of Acts. So, we find ourselves in Acts 5. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, in Year C, comes from Acts 5.

This reading from Acts 5 begins in the middle of a story. The Apostles have been arrested and imprisoned, but somehow, they have escaped, though the doors were locked, and the guards were at their post. To the surprise of the authorities, the apostles had gone back to the Temple and had started up preaching once again, just like before their arrest. Having been sent to look for the Apostles, the Temple guards took the apostles back into custody (without violence) and brought them before the council to be questioned (Acts 5:17-26). This is where the lectionary selection picks up the story.

The goal here, at least in the minds of the religious authorities, is to put an end to this nascent movement of Jesus followers, before it led to trouble with the Roman government. If the death of Jesus failed to suppress the movement, what would do the trick? Thus, we have before us what you might call a power encounter. Two forces are on a collision course. On the one hand there is the religious establishment and on the other there is this emergent religious sect that is flouting the rules and undermining the status quo.  The religious authorities demand that the apostles give up their preaching, while Peter and Apostles insist on preaching. As Peter puts it: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It’s one of those “Here I stand, I can do no other” moments. Something has to give, and Peter shows no signs he’s ready to give in.

                Peter and the apostles turn this appearance before the religious authorities into an opportunity to share their basic message, as if the authorities hadn’t already heard it!  To begin with, the religious authorities were frustrated that the Apostles were placing the blood of Jesus on them. That is, the Apostles were blaming the authorities for the death of Jesus, and they didn’t appreciate it. Afterall, they were just doing their job of keeping the peace when they tried to shut down Jesus. They figured that if they dealt a deadly blow to the leader of the group, it would dissipate. So far, that tactic hadn’t worked, but they still didn’t want to be blamed.  

 

When Peter and his cohorts get up to offer their defense, they reaffirm this charge. Yes, the authorities were responsible for Jesus’ death, but they had failed in their mission to deal a deadly blow on the movement, because God had raised Jesus from the dead. Not only had God raised Jesus from the dead, but God exalted him to his right hand, making him “Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” They stood before the community as witnesses to this message and did so through the power of the Holy Spirit given by God to those who obey God. Remember the question—who should we obey?

If we read between the lines, we will understand why the religious leaders were concerned about the activities of this upstart sect. The religious leaders were essentially in the employ of the Roman authorities, who charged them with keeping the peace. They were supposed to be the buffer between the empire and the people (who weren’t all that keen on being part of the empire). As for the Apostles, they were doing anything but keeping the peace. They were stirring up trouble with their preaching and their miracles, all of which occurred in the Temple precincts. This was an area of the city under the control of the religious authorities, and they didn’t appreciate the activity that cast them in a bad light.  

When we read a passage like this, we must be cognizant of the danger posed by a passage like this, which has been used to target Jews. We can criticize the religious leaders without blaming the Jews as a people. It is important that we remember that the Apostles were themselves Jews. This was in reality a contest for the hearts of the people—the institutionalists or the outsiders. As an institutionalist by profession, I find myself uncomfortable at this point in the story. Where would I be in this story?   

Peter stakes out the grounds for debate with the declaration that they must obey God rather than human authority. The opposition position is given voice by the chief priest, who in this story is representative of alliances made for political expediency. So, what we see here is a common occurrence through history, especially in the age of Christendom that extended from the time of Constantine to the present. It may seem like we’re in a post-Christendom era, but not everyone has gotten the message. Thus, we continue to see such corrupting alliances emerge to this day, with religious leaders lining up to support the reigning political authorities. In the current context, we’ve seen religious leaders bow before the President, embracing his immoral behavior, all in the name of gaining access to power. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Billy Graham discovered to his chagrin that he had been compromised by his friendship with Richard Nixon. And, consider how the religious authorities in Germany got into bed with Adolph Hitler, and in doing so compromised their beliefs and abetted Hitler’s demonic program.

You don’t need a Hitler to be corrupted. We entangle ourselves because we may believe it will benefit us or we might even believe we can steer the authorities in the right direction. As one who is engaged with political leaders, at least on the local and state level, I have to be watchful about my loyalties. It is easy to get corrupted, and it’s good to remember that whatever benefits we accrue from these alliances are often short term in nature. If we look at the history of first century Palestine, the alliance between the religious authorities and the Romans did not prevent the destruction of the Temple. It pays, then to be watchful, no matter what the politics of the governing authorities might be.

So, we come back the declaration of Peter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” This is not a call for disengagement. It is a call to be wary of corrupting alliances. The Apostles rejected the demands of the authorities, and as the verses follow note, the authorities exacting some pain and suffering on them, having them flogged. They might have done more, but Gamaliel suggested that they might want to wait and see if this movement fell apart now that its leader was gone, as had been true with earlier movements. On the other hand, if its from God, you can’t defeat it. My sense is that Gamaliel figured that the movement would eventually collapse under its own weight. Why create more martyrs?  Of course, the movement did survive, so does that mean it is of God? What then will our witness be?

               

                 

 

Easter and the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday (Isaiah 65)

The Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
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                “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” When “up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes, he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign.” [Chalice Hymnal, 224]. Yes, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and with his resurrection is born the new creation. The old is past and needs to be forgotten. The past no longer holds sway over our lives. The journey to the cross and then to the tomb has led to this point when something new is born, for out of death comes life, like an acorn that falls from the tree and is reborn as another oak tree.
                The reading from Isaiah speaks not of resurrection but new creation. At first glance it doesn’t read as an Easter text, and yet it serves to deepen our understanding of resurrection. It speaks to the implications of the resurrection, but not directly.
It’s likely that few will preach from this text on Easter morning (I am of those who will place it at the center of my sermon), and yet it might have something important to say to us, even as it spoke to the original recipients. Authorship is attributed to the post-exilic prophet whose words of encouragement and guidance are found in the book called Isaiah. The author is often designated as Third Isaiah, and he speaks to a people living with shattered dreams. Once a nation that at least thought of itself as being independent, the nation of Judah was scattered and sent into exile. The Temple was destroyed, along with the city of Jerusalem. The people of Judah had heard words of promise from the one we call Second Isaiah while still in Babylon. Now, with the exile ended, and the people (a new generation that was born in Babylon) having returned to Judah, they still aren’t complete free. They live not in the form of a nation, but as a province of the Persian Empire. They may have come home with high hopes of seeing their nation restored, but things aren’t turning out as expected. This new generation has heard stories of what once was, and what became of their people, as well as prophetic visions of a new beginning, but it still doesn’t feel right. The hoped-for transformation of their lives is not happening, at least not in the way they expected. That new beginning has yet to emerge. So, the prophet tells them to forget the former things. Forget the past. Instead take hold of a new vision. Consider the promise of a new creation. This new vision takes us back to the beginning of creation, to the garden, where all of creation lived in harmony. This is the vision of the new creation that will come upon the people. It is a vision that deepens our understanding of the resurrection.
                To get to the new creation, we need to return to the first day of the week, when in Luke’s account, women came to the tomb to finish preparing the body that was hastily laid in the tomb. Resurrection is a sign of new creation, but they’re not yet ready to experience it. When the women reach the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and the body missing. It does appear they expected to find Jesus still lying in the grave. Instead, they encounter two men in dazzling clothes (angels?) who tell the women Jesus has been raised from the dead and will speak to the community soon. When they arrive back at the place where the church is gathered, their report is received with disbelief. Jesus may have spoken of resurrection, but this message hadn’t sunk in yet. But Jesus had risen from the dead (Lk 24:1-12). The old had passed away, and the new had emerged in the resurrected Jesus. In his resurrection he embodies the vision of a new creation.  
 
                The Gospel accounts in Luke and John give us the story of Jesus’ resurrection. They remind us that death could hold him. Death had staked its claim, but God proved too powerful, and Jesus, whom the world discarded, was vindicated. Resurrection wasn’t and isn’t a singular event. It’s not just about overcoming death and moving on to the heavenly realm. Resurrection is about new creation, a new vision for the people of God. The word we hear in Isaiah is that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth. There will be a new Jerusalem where joy will be abundant. Weeping will be absent. People won’t labor in vain. The “wolf and lion shall feed together, while the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” It’s a vision that strikes us as one of peace. Now, I understand the biology of wolves and lions. They’re carnivores, not herbivores. Nevertheless, the image is striking enough to get our attention. It is the vision of a return to the Garden, where life is lived in harmony. 
 
                For those who gather on Easter morning, this vision offers comfort and perhaps a balm for the soul. It might offer a word of encouragement and empowerment. These are words that seem in short supply these days. For a moment the Easter gathering offers us an opportunity to dwell in the new creation. Our realities might change in an instant. We still must go out on Monday morning to face what is often an unfriendly world, but we go forth with this vision of a new creation as a light to the pathway we take.
                When we gather on Easter Morning, having traveled a path that led through Golgotha, we will have acknowledged that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. Now that it is the third day, we gather to celebrate the news that Jesus is risen from the dead. With his resurrection, the old has passed and the new has emerged from the tomb. This news has cosmic implications. As Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not only a witness to the promise of life after death. It is also a testament to the promise of resurrection grounded in a life given to others against all manifestations of evil.” In this new cosmic order that is initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, “relationships embody the joy of God’s creative power” [Feasting on the Word, p. 358]. These relationships are the ones represented by the Wolf and the Lamb, both are God’s creatures, and in the new creation that live together in harmony. Perhaps the word we hear as we gather to celebrate Easter is that in Christ, God is transforming our relationships with one another and with creation itself into something new.
                Too often Easter becomes little more than an opportunity to show off new clothes and share an Easter basket. There’s nothing wrong with such things, but they are not at the heart of Easter. What is at the heart of Easter, it is the triumph of “the steadfast love of the Lord,” which “endures forever” and evidenced by the new creation in Christ’s resurrection. We may not see it fully revealed at this moment, but as Paul reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of that new realm of God (1 Cor. 15:23).   

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earthy many days has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green. [John M. C. Crum, Chalice Hymnal, 230].