Friday, May 14, 2010

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes for the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C
16 May 2010

The Ascension

This Sunday is also known as the Sunday after Ascension Day, which is celebrated on the fortieth day of Easter, following the account in the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (1.3). The Lord’s Ascension is related in Acts 1.4-14, which is read on the feast and on this Sunday in year A In year B we read of the election of St Matthias, and this year we read of the adventures of St Paul in Philippi. If you were unable to attend a celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Ascension Day, it would be helpful to include the opening chapter of Acts in your devotions. There is another account of the Ascension at the end of Luke’s Gospel (24.50-53).
The Collect for this Sunday, like that in the Prayer Book (of which it is in part an adaptation), continues the celebration of the Ascension; unlike the older prayer, it does not look ahead to the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which the readings in John tie so closely to the Ascension.
The NJBC points out that the difference between Luke’s two accounts of the Ascension is that the one in Luke 24 is a ‘doxological’ account, which stresses the worship of Jesus, while that in Acts 1 is rather an ‘ecclesiastical’ account, which leads up to Luke’s narrative of how God’s ekklesia (church) must leave the moment of joy and travel the world with the good news. The account in Luke 24 makes no mention of ‘forty days’ but since there is no other indication of time it would be unwise to make this into a point of opposition between the two accounts.
To understand the meaning of the Ascension, the best thing to do is to read over the chapters of John’s Gospel from which readings have been taken for the past few weeks (14-17).
The Readings
Acts 16.16-34
Last week we left the apostle Paul and his companions in Philippi, a leading city of Macedonia. He is travelling with Silas, since Barnabas had gone off to Cyprus after a disagreement (15.36-40). After some some success in their first European preaching tour, they now run into some trouble. In Philippi there was a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination. This is literally a python spirit: in Greek mythology the python was a serpent slain by Apollo at Delphi, the site of the most famous oracle of antiquity, whence the name came to be used for soothsaying in general. The note that her owners made money from her divination opens a window on a link between superstition and money-making in the pagan world that should be quite familiar to us. There is also a natural human touch in Paul’s casting out this spirit because the girl’s crying after them annoyed him [17].
His annoyance is easy to understand; for many days this slave-girl was calling out after him and his companions as they went about the town. Her words are interesting: These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you [or to us] a way of salvation. This detail is reminiscent of Jesus’ exorcisms in the Gospels, when demons would declare who he was (see Mark 1.24, 57). That she spoke of a way of salvation is interesting; this was a pagan, Gentile community.
We often talk about salvation without thinking much about its meaning; the main thought is probably a vague idea of going to heaven when you die. Meeting the word in the mouth of a pagan diviner or soothsayer should prompt us to think about what it could have meant for the people of Philippi. In Greek, the word sōtēria, which we render as ‘salvation’, had a wide range of meanings: deliverance from any evil, harm or danger; preservation, security, and health. Those were superstitious days, and as the RCL commentary notes, salvation included ‘deliverance from the powers governing the fate of humans or the material world’. In that time, such gods as Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, or Asclepius were often called theos sōtēr, Saviour God! It was also applied to kings and emperors, and even town councils who defended and delivered their people from dangers and provided them with security of life. Without going into th ematter in any detail, we may say that the existence of ‘mystery religions’ such as the Eleusinian mysteries show that there was concern for security after death.
Salvation is a concept that would be understood by Jew and Gentile alike, where a concept such as ‘Justification’ might prive more difficult. At the end of the passage we find the jailer, who has just been frightened out of his wits by the thought that his prisoners had been miraculously freed, asking Sirs, what must I do to be saved [30]. We might do well to wonder just what he was thinking of.
If you would like to look at the meanings of the word ‘salvation’ a start might be made with the definitions I find in my Greek Lexicon, and the passages that are cited:
1. A saving, preservation: Acts 27.34; Hebrews 11.7
2. Deliverance: Luke 1.69, 71; Acts 7.25
3. Salvation, spiritual and eternal, Luke 1,77; 19.9; Acts 4.12; Revelation 7.10
4. A being placed in a condition of salvation (by an embracing of the Gospel, Rom 10.1, 10; 2 Timothy 3.15
5. Means or opportunity of salvation, Acts 13.26; Roman 11.11; Hebrews 2. 3 et. al.
6. “The salvation’, the promised deliverance by the Messiah: John 4.22
The word for ‘salvation’ is from a verb sōzō, which means to save, rescue; to preserve unharmed, it also means to cure, to heal and so on. Thus, in a verse such as Matt 9.23, Jesus’ words to the woman with the haemorrhage, ‘your faith has made you well’ could also be rendered, ‘your faith has saved you’.
Another very human note comes when the slave-girl’s owners see their profit disappearing and find that they have to object to the authorities about this un-Roman teaching and stir up the crowd [19-22]. It is interesting to note that the text does not directly claim that Paul’s deliverance was a miracle [26], although there is no reason doubt that the earthquake is sign of God’s working his will in and through the natural order which, though mysterious, never requires supernatural intervention. This leads to another moment of success when the jailer believes and is baptized [27-34]. You should note that the story does not end where the reading concludes, but carries on to the end of the chapter. It would be good to read the whole thing.
Psalm 97
This psalm is a song of the glory of God’s reign as lord of the whole earth. It is analysed as follows in the New Oxford Annotated Bible:
1. Summons to worship the Lord as king.
2-6: The manifestation of the Lord
7: The Idolaters will realize their folly
8-9: Israel’s faith will be vindicated
10-11: Expression of confidence in the Lord’s justice.
12: A renewed call to worship.

A Reading from the Revelation to St John 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21.
This final reading from the Apocalypse begins shortly after last week’s passage ends. The epilogue to the book consists of warnings and exhortations, from which it seems the warnings have mostly been omitted from the reading.
The opening verse ties this reading to the message of the Ascension. In Acts 1 we read that when Jesus had gone from them the apostles stood staring up into the sky as it they expected to see Jesus going up and up until he disappeared, something like Mary Poppins. Of course he did nothing of the sort; he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight {Acts 1.9) which does not require a long trip into the blue. Then an angel said to them, This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”. In Rev 22.12 he affirms this promise: See, I am coming soon! It should be noted that while tachu certainly can mean soon: its primary meaning is ‘quickly’. When tempted to ponder when this might be, there are many passages to remind us that we cannot know. Instead of listing them, I will mention an important line in Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Aslan says, ‘I call all times “soon”’.
The end of the Apocalypse of John makes it clear that the whole point of the vision is God’s triumph and restoration of the world as he meant it to be. By this point we might have forgotten that the Apocalypse began as a letter to the seven churches. By reading it in church it becomes a letter to all Christians. The final words make a fitting conclusion for John’s letter, for the New Testament and for all of Scripture: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen, a blessing on all who hear it in all the Churches.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John 17.20-26.
As always, this passage from the Fourth Gospel deserves several more pages of comments than I can provide. I give some points that have caught my particular attention as I study this passage.
The seventeenth chapter of St John’s Gospel, ‘the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus’ has been called ‘the most sacred passage even in the four Gospels’ [William Temple]. A portion is read every year on this Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost . In Years A and B the selections overlap, 1-11 and 6-19 respectively. This overlap comes in part because the natural division of the Chapter is into three main sections of which the first is rather short. With the titles provided by Temple and by the New Jerome Biblical Commentary these sections are

1-5) Temple: The Son and the Father. NJBC: Jesus returns to glory
6-19) Temple: The Son and the disciples; NJBC: Jesus sends his disciples into the world
20-26) Temple: The Son, the disciples, and the world; NJBC: That they may be one.

In this final section of the prayer, ‘Jesus suddenly looks beyond the immediate circle of disciples to those who will believe as a result of their testimony’ [NJBC}: But not for these only do I ask, but also for those who believe in me through their word [20]. This should make us prick up our ears: for here he is praying for us. It is possible to render Those who believe either in the future, as our version has it, or in the present, as in the RSV. Most old versions also have the future, but Temple notes: ‘Present tense: wherever there is a true disciple, there are others whom he has won or is winning.’ Raymond Brown also read it in the present and noted: ‘If the viewpoint is that of the Last Supper, this present participle is proleptic, having the force of a future, a usage that may reflect a Semitism. If the viewpoint is that of the time of the Johannine writer, the believers are a present reality.’ Both viewpoints are true: our Lord’s prayer for us is eternal, and therefore always a present reality. All this should keep the duty to witness Christ in our own day before our eyes. As Temple noted. Jesus’ ‘prayer was for the disciples for their own sake, but also for the sake of the others whom they would win to discipleship. We are to our Lord at once ends in ourselves, and means to other ends; it is dangerous for us to forget either.’
[21] His prayer is for unity, and in reading these words we are forced to ask just what we mean by speaking of the Church as one, and indeed just what we mean by one. These are not questions we can address here in any useful way. There is a good discussion of it in the first chapter of Eric Mascall’s book of essays on the Church and the Eucharist Corpus Christi (1953). In every age this prayer presents not only a record of Jesus’ will but a challenge to a church which lacks the unity he desires for it. Though we would like to think that the first generations of Christians lived in a sort of ecclesiastical Eden and disunity entered later like the tempter, the New Testament bears witness of disagreements and disunity. It is perhaps enough to the insistence on remembering and repeating Jesus prayer shows that the Evangelist knew his community needed to hear it.
But this unity is not just the unity of sentimental or moral attachment, and it is not simply a unity of number. The Lord prays that all may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you. To save time I will quote Mascall here:
But what is this unity into which they are to be brought? It is nothing less than the unity with which the Father and the Son are already united. … The unity which binds together Christians in Christ is nothing other than the unity which binds Christ to the Father. And this unity is not simply the moral unity which Christ enjoys with the Father through his perfect obedience and self-dedication. … Let us note the movement of thought. (1) The divine Word is one with the Father in the unity of substance of the Trinity . (2) By the Incarnation this unity is communicated to the human nature which the Son has united to his divine Person in the womb of Mary, so that with his human lips he can say, ‘Thou hast sent me into the world … Thou Father, art in me and I in thee’ [17.18, 21]. (3) And finally this unity is communicated to all who are adopted and incorporated into Christ” ‘that they may be one, even as we are one’ [17.11]. In other words, the unity with which the Church is one is nothing other than the unity with which the Persons of the Holy Trinity are one, and this unity is communicated to men, as it were, by a bridge with two arches. The first arch is the Incarnation, by which the divine Person of the eternal Son united human nature to himself in Jesus Christ—the hypostatic union; the second is the arch of our adoption into Christ by which we are incorporated into his human nature. [Mascall, Corpus Christi (1953), pp 5-6.].
[22] The glory that you have given me I have given them: ‘Glory’ is a theme of John’s Gospel from the beginning [see 1.14]. What is glory? Our word is from the Latin gloria, which means ‘fame, renown, praise, honour,’ and related ideas. It is in turn from a root meaning ‘hear’. It was used to translate the Greek doxa, which means ‘reputation, esteem, honour,’ and such things. In the LXX doxa was used to translate the term kĕbôd YHWH, the glory of the LORD, by which the sacred writers expressed the felt presence of God among his people, loving, saving, and guiding. This was applied to ‘the opening of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire, the manna from heaven, the ark of the covenant, the Temple, and among poets, the beauty of the heavens’ [NJBC]. The Lord’s glory is often depicted as a bright light, and it is interesting that in the Latin versions the Greek is often represented by claritas, ‘clarity’ or ‘brightness’. When John’s Gospel speaks of the glory of God, then, it is the loving and saving presence of God that is made visible. This is true especially on the Cross. So Temple writes:
‘We now know what that glory is—absolute love in perfect self-expression; this, in face of the selfishness of the world, is the Cross, but when the divine love has by its self-sacrifice won its response, it is he perfect happiness of love given and returned. This, of which the Cross is one aspect and the New Jerusalem is the other aspect, is what the Father eternally bestows upon the Son, and the Son historically bestows upon the disciples’. This glory is bestowed upon the disciples ‘so that the unity of the Godhead may be reproduced in them—in us—that they may be one as we are one.’
This unity is possible only as far as we are in Christ by baptism and by faithfully cleaving to him.
[23] The unity of the disciples is ‘not a private and internal experience of the believing community: it is a witness to the world and poses a challenge to the world in the same way that Jesus’ unity with the Father had posed a challenge of salvation or judgement. Its object is not to challenge the world with some programme of communal reform but with the gospel message about the relationship between Jesus and the Father.’ [NJBC] Learning that we are to be one so that the world may know that Jesus was sent by the Father, and more, to know of the Father’s love, brings us back to the truth that ‘wherever there is a true disciple, there are others whom he has won or is winning.’
In vv 23 and 25, know really has the sense of ‘recognize’.
[24] Jesus prays not only that all be one, but that they may be with him where he is, that is, with the Father. Note that here he addresses Father simply, and in the next verse Righteous Father. Temple notes on the first that ‘the simple address without epithet suggests the intimately personal nature of this prayer. He does not now ask, but states a desire for longing for the eternal companionship of His friends in the Father’s presence’; in the second case ‘He addresses the Father as righteous or ‘just’ because He must needs return from the ultimate hope of a converted and believing world to the immediate need of the present’.

1 comment:

Felicity Pickup said...

re "What is glory?"
Yeah, that's one of those religious-talk things that draws a blank in my mind. Thanks for this input.