May 12 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Seventh Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:14-21; John 17:20-26
[Note: Today is the Sunday after Ascension Day, and in some churches the readings for Ascension Day may be used: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53. These notes do not cover those readings. Note also, that the Second Lesson for today as listed above is not strictly accurate. The Lectionary gives Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, and 20-21; adding to the tension of the people charged with reading any lesson from the Book of Revelation in public seems too great a price to pay for being spared the unsettling thoughts expressed in verses 15, and 18-19. Besides, isn't such censorious tampering the very thing that verses 18 and 19 expressly prohibit?]
Theme: There is something about the Second Lesson and the Gospel that suggest a respectful and sombre choice: "Jesus our Intercessor", perhaps, "Come, Lord Jesus." However, our First Lesson seems to demand something a little more adventurous: on balance I would go for "Back-to Front and Upside Down." In fact, that's a fair summary of the outcome of Easter, isn't it?
Introduction. St Luke is on top form in his story today. We have in one story a summary of the whole Easter event, as a fitting close to this Easter story. Everything is turned on its head, as the prisoners become free and the jailer becomes a slave of Christ. Our Second Lesson is also an appropriate finale for the Easter Season, ending with an offer of grace to all to come to him, and a promise by him to come to us. And from the heart of St John's mystical understanding of the new relationship with God offered through Christ we have Christ's prayer for us and all who come to faith through the Apostles' teaching.
Background. In many ways we end the Easter Season very much where we began it, in darkness, hostility, brutality, false accusations, and condemnation; but, oh how differently we now see the outcome! One of the purposes of having this long Easter Season, rather than an Easter Day, is getting away from the idea that Easter is only about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. Over the last few weeks we have been shown example after example of the consequences to other people of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth on Easter Day. One of the earliest sermons I can remember hearing was about the "ripples of Easter" spreading further and further through the waters of our lives. Unfortunately, the preacher decided to add to the dramatic image by asking, "And what do we say caused those ripples in the first place?" You may be surprised as I was then to learn that they were caused by "Satan himself picking up the stone from the door of the tomb and casting it into the baptismal font of life." Over 30 years later I still think there was some good theology in there somewhere but I still have trouble with the image of Satan as a sort of red-clad shot putter!
Today a better image might be taken from cosmology, as our scientists tell us that from the so-called Big Bang that started our universe going, the whole thing is still expanding and the energy from that initial burst is still traceable. For us, perhaps, we can think of the Resurrection as a vast explosion of Divine Life, Light and Love re-creating all things and ever expanding to fill the whole of creation. And notice that term "re-creating" – not "replacing". The New Creation is not a new and improved version intended to replace the earlier model: it is the old model transformed by the infusion of God's Spirit, the consequence of the Incarnation and taking effect though the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here's another "re-" word to ponder: in the Easter Season we reflect upon and celebrate the re-union of God and his creation. This comes through particularly well, I think, in our Second Lesson, where the Book of Revelation takes us right back to the Garden of Eden with its reference to the Tree of Life. Everything that was torn asunder by humanity's hubris and disobedience – the disunity that came about in that way – is finally healed – that which was dis-united has been re-united. Easter is the Great Festival of Divine Reunion. (Come to think of it, that might be an even better theme for today!)
Against that 'Big Picture' stuff, let's look now at this marvellous miniature from the great artist, St Luke. So much of it sounds familiar, so many of the details ring all sorts of bells in our memories; and yet everything seems reversed, somehow, as if we are looking at it in a mirror, or at the negative rather than the photo. We start with a slave-girl with a spirit of divination, and we are immediately reminded of some of the 'possession' stories in the gospels. Sure enough, the spirit recognises the truth in Paul in the same way that the spirits used to see it in Jesus. But then things start to change. First, Paul acts, not out of compassion for the suffering girl, but out of exasperation: he's had enough. He's more like the Judge who gives in to the persistent pleading of the widow or the householder who gets up at midnight to deal with his neighbour: all Paul wants is an end to her wittering; but his less than gracious motive makes no difference. The exorcism is successful. Second, far from anyone pleading for help for the suffering child, her "owner" is furious because she has now lost her market value. Human trafficking is particularly unpleasant, and here we have a gross example of it, defeated by the spreading power of Easter, better known as the Holy Spirit.
The counter-attack is swift and brutal, and surely echoes the events of Maundy Thursday evening/Good Friday morning. False arrest, perjured proceedings, brutal treatment, even the same sort of playing on prejudice and ethnicity. These Jews are trouble-makers – they are advocating un-Roman behaviour. It appears to work in the same old worldly way: the bullies win the first round.
But then comes an earthquake. (Check Matthew's account of the earthquake-causing angel moving the stone from the tomb, an apparent after-shock from the one that coincided with the moment of Jesus' death: Matthew 28:2, following 27:51-52.) We associate earthquakes with death and destruction: in the Easter story they bring liberation and new life. All – even the most powerful forces of nature – are caught up in the explosive power of Easter.
Those who were prisoners – whose fate lay in the corrupt hands of others – suddenly find themselves with the upper hand: they are now the ones with choices, with power over the others; and this complete reversal is played out with great dramatic skill by Luke. The jailer, the pawn of the corrupt officials, becomes a servant of the King of Kings, saved first from self-harm, and then from all harm. And then the liturgist in me can't resist drawing attention to a rather interesting 'order of service' in what follows.
The jailer comes to Paul seeking spiritual counsel: what must he do to be saved (verse 30)? Paul proclaims the gospel message and the teaching follows (verses 31-2). In response, the jailer washes their wounds – does what he can to make amends for the wrong he has done to them (verse 33a). Then the jailer and his household are baptised. Table fellowship follows before a closing burst of worship. Do you see what I mean? There's a Eucharistic liturgy in there somewhere, I'm sure.
Acts. I must resist the temptation to start again on this wonderful passage, but there are some other details that are worth noting. First, we should recall the physical pain that Paul and Silas were in throughout most of this episode. They had been stripped and given a severe beating. Yet they were 'praying and singing hymns to God'! Secondly, all is dark until the jailer calls for lights to see what has happened. Light brought into darkness reveals the miracle of forgiveness and love for enemies. And thirdly, if some smart Alec asks you to explain the confused detail in verses 32-34 – when do they go from the prison to the house and then into the house – you're on your own, I can't reconcile the details either.
Taking It Personally.
· This is another of those passages that cry out to be prayed imaginatively. Follow through the twists and turns of the narrative slowly and meditatively. Pay particular attention to the motives of the people involved, and to your feelings towards those people.
· What do you think of Paul's motive for exorcising the girl? Can you recall an occasion when you acted in anger but the outcome was amazingly good?
· How likely are you to sing hymns to God while in pain or distress?
· As we come to the end of the Easter Season for this year, what are your thoughts? Express them to God in prayer.
Revelation. The final words of the whole of our Scriptures surely have a special power and majesty of their own. They wonderfully summarise the whole message of Scripture, which at its heart is always concerned with the true identity of Jesus. Paul famously said that if Christ had not been raised from the dead our faith is in vain: 1 Corinthians 15:14. That's a great summary of the Easter message, too, but I suggest that it is only one aspect of the even more fundamental truth: if Jesus was not God Incarnate then, indeed, our faith is in vain. None of it makes sense if Jesus is not God. Hence, as we come to the last book of the Bible we find that once again that issue of identity is at centre stage. What is verse 13 if it is not code for "I am God"? At the same time his human ancestry roots him in our humanity: verse 17. And as noted above we have two "comings" at the end of this great treasure-trove of Scriptures: we are invited to come to the One who promises to come to us. In a nutshell, our story can now be summed up as The Greatest Re-union of All Time and All Space. Alleluia!
Taking It Personally.
· At the end of this Easter Season, who do you say Jesus is? Has your faith been strengthened, weakened or unaffected over the period of this Season?
· Reflect on verse 13. Does this image help you or leave you cold? What about the images in verses 16b?
· Write a short paragraph summing up your image of Jesus. Imagine you are being interviewed, and the interviewer says, "So in a few words, who or what is Jesus for you?"
· Repeat several times, slowly and meditatively, verse 21.
John. On the night before he died Jesus prayed this great prayer. It is fair to assume, given that context, that he addressed the most important things in his heart and mind. He prayed first for himself, that he may once again share in his Father's glory. Then he prayed for his disciples, that they may be protected. Lastly, he prayed for all those who will come to faith through the apostles' teaching, which, of course, includes you and me. And what does he ask for us? For re-union, with God and with one another. That's why unity is so important within the Church, far more than diversity, and far more than winning arguments on any subject over which we disagree. Unity is Christ's dying wish for us: how can we claim to love Christ and not seek to promote and preserve unity within his Church? Last week we were reminded that our love for one another will be the hallmark of the Church, the sign to outsiders that we are his disciples. This week we are reminded that it is our unity with God in Christ that will prove our case. There is no conflict here. The outer unity featured last week arises from this inner unity of which John now writes.
Taking It Personally.
· Make this prayer (the whole chapter 17) your own.
· What can you do to promote unity within your local church?
· End with prayers of thanksgiving for the love that is in you.
· Prepare yourself for Pentecost. What might that involve for you?