Tag: Resurrection

Give Your Anxiety to God — A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 7A (1 Peter 4-5)

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

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                Our journey through Easter is coming to a close. Pentecost is on the horizon. Preachers and congregations have choices this week. They can go with Ascension Sunday texts or they can continue with the Eastertide texts. If one chooses to stay with Eastertide, the Seventh Sunday of Easter offers us one final opportunity to engage with the letter we know as 1 Peter. Considering the moment in which we’re living, perhaps 1 Peter is a good text to stay with. Eastertide is supposed to be a season of triumph and glory. It offers us continuing opportunities to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection. The presence of the resurrection is not as evident as it is in other readings from 1 Peter, but Peter does point our attention towards the future when the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and the current moments of suffering will meet their match. 

 

When Peter talks about suffering and anxiety in this letter he has something specific in mind, even if we don’t know the full extent of what is going on. It’s clear that the community is facing some form of suffering, most likely harassment on the part of their neighbors. There is no evidence in the letter itself that this harassment is part of widespread imperial persecution. After all, Peter encourages them to honor the emperor and obey the governing authorities, who are authorized to punish those who do what is evil and Peter is insistent that if they suffer it should be on account of doing good and not doing evil (1 Pet. 2:11-14). Peter seems to have a bigger picture in mind here, one in which current suffering has to be endured so they can reach a larger reward, the salvation of their souls.

As we read 1 Peter, we may hear a different word that speaks to our moment in time. I’m reminded by Karl Barth that preaching is God’s word in the present, but it is a momentary word, not an enduring word. The enduring Word of God, which Peter speaks of earlier, if we follow Barth, the person of Christ. So in this moment, as we hear this word from 1 Peter as presented to us by the lectionary creators, we do so amid a global pandemic that has shut down much of daily life. There is a great deal of anxiety present in our communities, especially among those asked to go to work at this moment. While our anxieties might be different from those experienced by Peter’s audience in Asia Minor, they’re just as real. They can challenge our faith in God, whom Peter suggests we turn to and cast our anxieties on God who cares for us. Perhaps this will be for us at this moment a comforting word.

                The reading begins in chapter four with Peter suggesting that this “fiery ordeal” the Christians of Asia Minor were experiencing served as a test of their faith. That declaration may cause us a bit of discomfort. Is suffering a test to be endured? We have to hear this word with a degree of caution, but the truth is, being uncomfortable with the things of God isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Complacency can easily set in for us. We can rest on the promise that we’re saved by grace, and then go off and live dissolute lives believing that we’re free from all restrictions. Living in Christendom allowed Christians to become comfortable with their situation; something not possible for first-century Christians. In our day we can claim to be Christians and live lives that in no way reflect the way of Jesus. We can claim to be Christians and engage in racist and bigoted actions. We can turn our backs on those in need, even as we go to church and sing the songs of faith. So, Peter says to us, consider it an honor to suffer with Jesus. So, as Heidi Haverkamp writes “First Peter reminds us not to be surprised by adversity or tough times. Too often, we believe that to be ‘normal’ is to be happy, carefree, healthy, and successful. All of Scripture can witness this is not the case. To be normal is to struggle.” [Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Locations 10076-10078)].

                This week’s reading is divided into two sections. The first section is found in chapter 4, which contains the reference to the fiery ordeal with which faith is tested. Consider yourself blessed if you suffer for what is right, Peter says, because it is a sign that the Spirit is with you. The second section offers a word of comfort, but first, there is an admonishment. Be humble and let God lift you up. Then, “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” This word from Peter looks back to Psalm 55:22, which declares: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” Whether from the Psalmist or Peter, that’s a word for this moment in time. We all seem burdened by anxiety, due to the uncertainty of the moment.

                While there is a word of encouragement here, a word about releasing our burdens and anxieties to God, there is another word. That word is straightforward: “Discipline yourselves.” That too is a word for us at this moment, as we become increasingly restless at our situation. We may want to go out and push boundaries. No masks, no social distancing. After all, don’t I have my rights? But then Peter tells us to be disciplined and alert, because the adversary, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion. Resist the adversary. Stay focused. Be steadfast. Know that others among the faithful are also experiencing suffering. They’re not alone. This is standard procedure. But know this, Peter tells them, “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10). While this is a helpful word, reminding us that simply being a Christian doesn’t mean we’re free from suffering, there is danger in this admonition. As Luke Powery reminds us there are those who suggest that all suffering is redemptive. That is not the case. Allowing oneself to be subjected to unjust suffering, especially when that involves domestic abuse or racial injustice is not something to countenance. So, as Powery notes, “there are life lessons learned through pain, yet those in pain need to be ministered to and not left to drown in despair” (Preaching God’sTransforming Justice, p. 249).

                Peter is working here with an eschatological framework. He wants the church to know that temporal suffering will give way to eternal blessing. As Peter writes we can see that the early Christians are still working with the premise that time is short. The Parousia, the coming of Jesus in his glory is close at hand. Standing as we do two thousand years later, we may not be working with the same sense of time. Nevertheless, the call to stay alert might not be a bad one to embrace. As we do, we can celebrate the power of God forever which is revealed in the message of Easter.

               
New Growth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57419 [retrieved May 16, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mua_Mission_sculpture.JPG.

 

An Imperishable Inheritance – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2A (1 Peter 1)

Jesus in Majesty  by Christoff Baron —  Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France
 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

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                We come to this reading from 1 Peter as God’s people who have found a living hope in the resurrection of Jesus.  At least that is my starting point. We also engage this passage during an ongoing pandemic that is taking lives and causing disruption of life as we had known it. We don’t know when things will change or what they’ll look like when we begin to reenter a more normal pattern of life. Most likely we will enter a new state of normality. The way we view the world, ourselves, and God likely will have changed. That which sustains me at this moment is my faith in the living hope rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, and in the imperishable inheritance that comes with that living hope.

                Easter, like Christmas, is accompanied by a plethora of activities and meanings that may not connect directly to the message of Jesus. Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, even the word Easter itself, likely has roots outside the Christian faith. The fact that at least in the northern hemisphere Easter follows the spring equinox is also suggestive that life emerges out of death. The timing of Easter is rooted in the Passover celebration, which is in modern Judaism a spring holy event. So, whatever the roots of the day, the Easter season is understood to be a celebration of life. In the resurrection, Jesus triumphs over death, bringing life to all who would embrace his message. In this reading from 1Peter, the resurrection is connected to an imperishable inheritance, which is the salvation of our souls.  

 

                Before we go too far with the discussion of this lectionary reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, I should say something about authorship and orientation of the letter, since we’ll be in 1 Peter for several weeks. According to the letter’s self-identification, the author is the Apostle Peter, who is writing to “exiles of the Dispersion” living in what is now Turkey (1 Pet. 1:1-2). The reference to the Dispersion or Diaspora could suggest that the audience for this letter is a community of Jewish Christians, though there are also hints in the letter that the audience was Gentile. While the audience is not easily defined, neither is the authorship. On the face of it, St. Peter is the author. If so, then this letter is rather early, as it is believed that Peter died during the reign of Nero, possibly in Rome, and near about the time that Paul was also executed. Nevertheless, there is other internal evidence that suggests that this is a much later document. Ultimately, we simply can’t say for sure, and the meaning of this passage isn’t dependent on identifying the author. So, for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the author as Peter.

Contextually, Peter seems to be concerned about the relationship of these early Christians to their culture. We see this in his use of household codes that make parts of the letter very problematic for us today. In terms of this particular passage, the reference to exile suggests a particular cultural context. It suggests that Christians, like Jews, live on the periphery of society. In many ways, this is a self-chosen reality, because, like Jews, Christians would have been perceived as anti-social. This is because they refused to participate in patriotic duties like honoring the Roman gods. The Romans were very tolerant of religious differences, as long as you honored their gods. You can be a devotee of Isis or Mithras, just don’t neglect to give allegiance to the official state religion. For Christians, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar cannot be lord. Thus, to confess faith in Christ led to exile/dispersion. While this is true, this letter is suggestive that Christians should keep their heads down and not call attention to themselves. All the while, Peter urges them to keep their focus on their heavenly destination. In other words, Peter presents us with an eschatological vision that is focused on the people of God bearing witness to their faith by being a holy people, even as they separate themselves from the Roman cultural and religious life.  

 

To follow Jesus was to take a “road less traveled.” But that road led to new birth in Christ, and thus a new beginning. It is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, who provides us with an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” This is, according to the promise of God our destiny. This is the inheritance given to us in Christ and kept for us in heaven. We have access to the inheritance, but not its fullness. We can taste some of its benefits, but not all of them, because of the resurrection of Jesus. You might say that our inheritance has been in a trust until such time as we are ready to receive it. While the inheritance is set aside for us, there is, apparently a few tests that need to be experienced. The genuineness of our faith is to be tested by fire so that our faith may lead to the praise, glory, and honor of Christ when he is revealed. In other words, being heirs with Christ does not mean we do not experience suffering or pain. This is part of life. Some endure more than others. But together we share in the inheritance, that is our salvation. Thus, this is not just an Easter message, it’s an eschatological one. Easter is the starting point of something that will eventuate in our own resurrection. May we, as we hear this word concerning our inheritance find hope in this moment.

This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on,
Time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
For by the life and death of Jesus, God’s mighty spirit, now as then,
Can make for us a world of difference, as faith and hope are born again.
                                —Brian Wren, Chalice Hymnal 518 (vs. 1-2)

 

Raised with Christ – Lectionary Reflection for Easter A (Colossians 3)

Colossians 3:1-4 NRSV

 

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

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                Although Easter has arrived, this particular year (the year I write this), churches won’t be gathering for in-person services (or at least they shouldn’t be gathering in person). Instead of in-person gatherings, most of us are trying to find alternate ways of being together online. While we grieve the loss of this opportunity to join in singing the great Easter hymns (Christ the Lord is Risen, Crown Him with Many Crowns) and share in all the other elements that make Easter special, it might be worth remembering that on that first Easter morning, the followers of Jesus were either scattered to their own homes or perhaps hiding out in an upper room, while a few brave souls, including Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John checked out the tomb. They didn’t gather in a sanctuary colorfully decorated with lilies and tulips. While I find the organ to be a powerful instrument on Easter morning, they didn’t have organs either.

With that reminder concerning the first Easter morning, might we hear the witness to the resurrection offered to us by the Colossian letter? Whether the author is Paul or not (and for the sake of simplicity I’m assuming Pauline authorship), this letter offers us one of the most robust discussions of the Cosmic Christ in the hymn (Col. 1:15-20). While the reading for today comes from chapter 3, which has a more practical application, I think it is appropriate to consider that hymn as the backdrop to this reading.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

The one, whose resurrection, we celebrate is the “image of the invisible God.” In him, all things were created. In him, the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This is the one whose resurrection and exaltation we come to celebrate. We have been raised with Christ who sits exalted at the right hand of God. Yes, Easter has cosmic implications. Death has met its match. So, let us “crown him with many crowns.”

                In these four verses of chapter 3 of Colossians Paul applies the message of the resurrection to the daily lives of the Christians gathered in Colossae. Note the realized eschatology present here— “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.” Paul is assuming that they were already resurrected with Christ, maybe not physically, but they received the promissory note of resurrection, so in Paul’s mind, they should live accordingly. That is they should “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Yes, Paul presumes that the heavens lie above the earthly realm, so looking up is an appropriate metaphor. We might not view the universe in quite the same way as first-century folks did, but I think we can work with the metaphor. Paul wants the church to focus on the things of God, rather than on earthly things. That may sound like an encouragement to live our lives in such a way that we’re so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good, I don’t think so. Instead, the concern here is the orientation of our lives. Do we orient our lives to the ways of God, or do we follow the lead of a narcissistic culture?  

 

                As we read this word, we might want to think in terms of baptism. While it’s not explicit here, we could read this in light of Romans 6, where Paul makes a clear connection between one’s baptism and one’s participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the word we read in Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

                While Paul assumes that our resurrection is accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus, we still live mortal lives. We still await the full revelation of Christ’s glory, but the promise is there. If you read further along in the chapter, from verses 5-11, you will find more specific instructions as to what it means to live a resurrection life.  

But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!  (Col. 3:8-11 NRSV)

With this word of admonition, might we celebrate the day of Christ’s resurrection? And, If we understand this word in light of the letter’s cosmic vision, the resurrection of Jesus has turned everything upside down, or perhaps better right-side up. We have drawn into that cosmic vision because we share in the resurrection in Christ, and we can enjoy the blessings of that event.

                As John of Damascus declared many centuries in the past:

                Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
                                The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
                Let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
                                For Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end
—“The Day of Resurrection!” Chalice Hymnal, #228, vs. 3
               
               

 

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].

 

A Word About Salvation – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4B

A Word About Salvation – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4B

Acts 4:5-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is

‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

it has become the cornerstone.’

12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

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A healing leads to preaching, and preaching leads to arrest, which leads to a trial, and a trial gives an opportunity for preaching. At least that’s the way things seem to work for Peter and John here in chapters three and four of the Book of Acts. Peter had been preaching to a large crowd in Solomon’s Portico, after healing the man who was disabled at the gate to the Temple. In other words, an act of power opens an opportunity to explain the source of power, which of course leads to the message of the cross and the resurrection. While you might think that it would be the cross that stirs the pot here, it is really the message of the resurrection. It appears from the opening verses of chapter four that it was the message of resurrection of the dead that got the attention of the religious leaders, who order them arrested. That is the background story for Peter’s next sermon, this time delivered in front of the religious leaders who have gathered to pronounce judgment on Peter and John.

Unfortunately for the leaders, Peter takes advantage of this appearance to speak once again about the resurrection. Peter begins his defense with an acknowledgment that it seems they had been arrested for doing something good, that is, bringing healing to a man who had suffered for years. The question was—how did they do this? The answer is simple—they acted in the power of the one whom the religious leaders had crucified, but whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. If you want to know how this happened, well that’s the answer—Jesus! Yes, this Jesus whom God has raised is the source of healing, which means they have been arrested for doing a good deed in the power of the risen one!

This is all boiler-plate apostolic preaching. We hear this message time and again, whether on the lips of Peter or Paul. Central to the message is that of the resurrection, which divides Sadducees and Pharisees. While the two parties aren’t named in this selection, according to Luke, the arresting party included priests and Sadducees. In this scene the Pharisees are absent, so Peter can’t divide and conquer like Paul will do in a later scene. Since the opposition in this scene are Sadducees, for whom the resurrection doesn’t fit into their theology, you can understand their consternation at hearing Peter preach about the resurrection in their presence. For Peter and the early church, as was true of the Pharisees, the resurrection was the key to their theology. It was the revelation of God’s power present in Jesus. Since this is the Easter season, this passage offers the preacher and the church an opportunity to again reflect upon and celebrate the Resurrection.

Where this passage becomes controversial in modern contexts, is the wording of verse 12. This verse is often used as a proof text to defend the premise that one cannot be saved without confessing faith in Jesus, for “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” In other words, it is a foundational text for an exclusivist vision of salvation. A question that might be asked of Peter concerns what he means by salvation and how Jesus is the name by which one is saved. Is Peter setting up a point of division? Is this a red line, at which Peter is asking his accusers (and anyone else) to dare to cross? That is, one’s eternal destiny hangs on how one responds to the message of Jesus. That is how it has often been read, but is this how Peter means it to be heard? Is it how Jesus would have us hear it? Or, could we read it in a more inclusive way?

We might want to start by remembering Peter’s audience, which is comprised of fellow Jews. It’s important that we remember that Peter was a Jew before he met Jesus, and that he remained a Jew after he met Jesus, and he remained a Jew even as he stands before the Sanhedrin, accusing them of their complicity in the death of the one by whom he has engaged in healing ministry. So, once again this is an intra-family debate, with Peter inviting the religious leaders to affirm God’s work in and through Jesus. Yes, they had participated in his death, but God overturned that deed in the resurrection. Of course, the court here is composed of a group of leaders who deny the resurrection of the dead, and so they would be reticent to accept Peter’s message of vindication. In their minds, Jesus is dead and remains dead, and therefore is unavailable to empower Peter and John. Nonetheless, this is Peter’s testimony, and apparently some 5000 people had stepped forward to follow Jesus through his ministry. In other words, Peter and his partner John were stirring the religious pot, undermining the authority of the religious leaders, who were charged with keeping order by the Roman occupiers. Nonetheless, Peter remains firm: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no other name.

When we hear the word salvation (Greek: soteria), it is good to remember that this word has a variety of nuances and meanings. Context is important if we’re going to understand its meaning. When it comes to Acts 4:12, almost all translations offer up “salvation.” However, we could translate this word as healing, which makes sense in this context. After all, they are under arrest, at least in their own minds, for healing someone in the name of Jesus. There are other ways of rendering the word, including rescue and spiritual wholeness. In other words, Peter might have something in mind other than getting to heaven. In fact, there is nothing in this passage that hints at salvation being the means of gaining heaven. So, he might be speaking in very terrestrial terms.

I find wisdom in the reading of the passage by Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, who point out that “Luke is not here addressing the theoretical issue of the eternal destiny of people in distant centuries and countries who have not heard the Christian message.” In context, he is expressing his belief that the God of Israel has acted in Jesus, who was crucified, but was raised by God, and it is in Jesus that the power of God is being revealed in the healing of this man who had been disabled, but who is now running around proclaiming his healing. Craddock and Boring also remind us that Luke’s theology of salvation is not reflected either in the view that “the Christian way is only one of ‘many roads to God,’” nor are we being “encouraged to believe that only confessing Christians are finally accepted by God.” As we ponder this passage, we would be wise to heed our commentators and affirm that “on the basis of this text, Christians ought to say neither than only Christians shall ultimately be saved nor that people can be saved through a variety of saviors. Christians should confess their faith that the God revealed in Christ is the only Savior, without claiming that only those who respond in faith will be saved” [The People’s New Testament Commentary, (WJK Press, 2009), p. 378].

As we continue the Easter journey, may we ponder together the power of Jesus name, by which God brings healing and salvation. For Peter, the risen Jesus was the only means by which the God of Israel acted to bring healing, wholeness, and salvation. In him God’s power was let loose.Peter invites us to embrace the Risen One, as we walk in God’s wholeness.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Christian Community in the Shadow of the Resurrection

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Acts 4:32-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

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During the Easter season, the first reading in the Revised Common Lectionary comes from the Book of Acts (as opposed to the Hebrew Bible). As we move through this season of post resurrection visitations on the part of Jesus, we hear words about life in the early church. On this Sunday we hear a word about a community that has chosen to live the common life. When I was teaching a college class on the book of Acts years ago, I liked to tell the students, who were from a conservative Christian background, that this was evidence that the early Christians were communists—long before Karl Marx came around. I’m not sure they appreciated my making note of this, after all communism is a dirty word in some circles. but it was a good conversation starter.

Throughout the history of the church, there have been attempts to approximate this model of Christian life, but it never became the dominant form of Christian community. We don’t even know how long this form of community existed in Jerusalem. But, even if it did not last more than a year or two, what might we take from the message that they were all “of one heart and soul?” At one level there appears to have been a concern for the welfare of the entire Christian community. They shared equally of their resources so that no one was in need. Gustavo Gutierrez, who is one of the founders of Latin American Liberation Theology, writes in his seminal text that this act on the part of the Jerusalem church “was not a question of erecting poverty as an ideal, but rather seeing to it that there were no poor…. The meaning of the community of goods is clear: to eliminate poverty because of love of the poor person” [A Theology of Liberation, (Orbis)1973), p. 301].

We’re told that the members of the community sold their property and brought the proceeds, laying them at the feet of the Apostles, who then distributed the goods among the people. One member in the community stood out as an exemplar, and that was Barnabas. Barnabas is an intriguing figure in the history of the church. We are told that he came from Cyprus and that he was by descent a Levite. Thus, he was of the priestly caste. He seems to have been a person of some means, as he is held out as an example of one who sold all so that the community might thrive (as opposed to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5). Barnabas will go on to become a leader in the church at Antioch, and a partner in ministry with Paul on Paul’s missionary journey. Luke likely mentions Barnabas and his example because he was known to the readers, at least by name and story.

One of the messages of this passage is that standing at the heart of the Gospel is compassion for the other. One of the attractions to the early Christian church was the welcome given to people on all socio-economic levels. It wasn’t always easy, as we discover when reading 1 Corinthians. Despite the challenges, the Christian community was one of the most economically diverse religious communities of its day. That commitment, which was always difficult to put into practice, helped spread the faith throughout the Roman Empire.

The reading for the second Sunday of Easter has a stewardship element to it, connecting as it does money to discipleship. Willie James Jennings, in his theological commentary on the Book of Acts, writes that “money matters are inescapable. They are at the heart of discipleship, but they are not the heart of discipleship.” Our relationship to money says a lot about us. There is no joy to be found in poverty, despite St. Francis of Assisi’s claims. At the same time, money doesn’t necessarily make a person happy (there a lot of unhappy rich people). People who give, however, tend to be happier people. So, there does seem to be a benefit of giving, even if we don’t sell everything and give it to the church (that’s not a stewardship message that will go over well). Back to the insight into this matter from Willie James Jennings:

“Money here will be used to destroy what money normally is used to create: distance and boundaries between people. Distance and boundary is not merely between the haves and have-nots, but also between the needy and the comfortable, and between those who testify to Jesus and those who, like Jesus, help those with little or nothing” [Jennings, Acts: Belief, (WJK Press, 2018), p. 50].

Ultimately, this is not only the story of giving, but as Jennings points out, it is about the joining together that comes because of these acts.

The message of community expressed here was not new, at least not to the Jewish community. The principles of sabbath and jubilee were strongly implanted within Judaism, even if these principles might not have been fully embraced or developed. The principle of Jubilee, with its plan of redistributing land back to the original owners after fifty years, was designed to prevent monopolies of land or money. Thus, this is part of an overarching theme of justice that marks the biblical story.

As we attend to this passage today, in an age of increasing gaps between rich and poor, between management and worker, what message do we hear? How is Jesus speaking to the church on matters of income inequality? We need not go as far as this community, but what is it that we hear in this reading? To put it differently, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? For American Christians, who tend to grow up with an individualistic world view, what do we hear in this passage? Even if the model espoused here is not perfectly adaptable to our community, and may have been quickly abandoned, what does it mean for us to be “of one heart and soul?” How might we better exhibit God’s compassion for the poor in our own lives. It’s possible that some reading this are struggling financially, while others are blessed. How might this speak to both situations?

These are all important questions that for us are being raised in the shadow of Easter. So, the further question concerns the connection of resurrection to community, and how it is lived out in a world that often devalues human life. As Gutierrez prophetically writes:

“The ‘poor’ person today is the oppressed one, the one marginated from society, the member of the proletariat struggling for his most basic rights; he is the exploited and plundered social class, the country struggling for its liberation” [A Theology of Liberation, p. 301].

What then is the message of resurrection in this context?

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Death Has Been Swallowed Up Forever – Lectionary Reflection for Easter B – Isaiah 25

Isaiah 25:6-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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                Easter celebrates the victory of life over death. We gather on Easter morning to declare in song and prayer: “Christ the Lord is Risen today.” We joyfully sing: “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won, the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!” Easter is a glorious moment in the Christian year, for it celebrates resurrection—God’s victory over death. As Paul reminds us, our resurrection is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. (1 Corinthians15:20)
                The Gospel reading for this cycle of texts comes from either Mark 16 or John 20. Mark 16 gives us a rather abbreviated version of the Easter story. It may leave us wanting more, which is why many will turn instead to John 20, which invites us to encounter the risen Jesus through the witness of Mary Magdalene.

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