Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lectionary Notes

Some (Incomplete) Notes for
the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
22 May 2011

After struggling for the past couple of days (against the almost incessant noise of a chainsaw and other loud tools) to prepare a sermon and some notes for you, I finally have to give up. Herewith are some incomplete notes, which I hope are better than nothing.
Acts 7.55–60
Stephen, one of seven church members chosen to assist the Apostles, fell afoul of a group in the city and was brought before the Council or Sanhedrin, where his speech in defence of the Christian preaching caused such offence that they rushed him out of the city to a death by stoning. Stephen is honoured as the first martyr (Protomartyr) among Christians. Our word for someone who witnesses unto death is from the Greek word martyros. With this in mind, note that in verse 58 those who took part in Stephen’s death are called ‘witnesses’ (martyres)
Here is an outline of the full story of the Protomartyr:
Acts 6.1-6: The Choosing of the Seven
6.6: Summary
6.8-15: The Arrest of Stephen
6.8: Miracles worked through Stephen
6.9-10: Opposition from ‘the synagogue of the Freedmen”,
6.11-14: who produce false witnesses and bring Stephen before the Sanhedrin
6.15: A moment of expectation
7.1-53: Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin
7.54-8.1a: The Stoning of Stephen

Things to note: 56: I see the heavens opened: see Acts 10.11, also John 1.51… the Son of man standing on the right hand of God: This is the only place in the NT outside the Gospels where Son of man is used as a title for Jesus (see also Rev 1.13). In the Gospels it is found 81 times, but only on the lips of Jesus. That he is standing at the right hand of God is also unusual; see Psalm 110.1, Mark 14.26, Lk 22.69; Hebrew 1.2-3; and the creeds. It is not clear why Luke has ‘standing’ here: some suggest that he is standing to welcome the martyr, or indeed to ‘acknowledge before the angels of God’ (Lk 12.8); others that it is a ‘meaningless variation’ [NJBC].
57-58: We do not know whether this examination before the Sanhedrin and the stoning were a legal trial and execution. From the improvised and passionate character of what we read we may that it was a lynching, and illegal. According to Josephus, James, the Lord’s brother, was stoned after having been brought to trial at the instigation of the high priest but the judicial process was found to be illegal and caused he deposition of the high priest (Josephus Ant. xx.199-203). Under the provisions of Deuteronomy 17.7, the witness start the stoning. (This gives a sense of legality to the affair.) Later recorded rules for this kind of execution may have been worked out. See also Hebrews 13.12f Leviticus 24.114; Numbers 15.35f; Acts 22.20
The account of Stephen’s death (58-60) closely parallels the death of the Lord Jesus; see Luke 23:34, 46. Note that whereas Jesus committed his spirit into the Father’s hands, Stephen prayed that Jesus would receive his spirit. As Stephen died, he prayed that his murderers might be forgiven, which is of course something we need to learn. If Stephen could so pray for those who were stoning him, how can we ever refuse to pray for the forgiveness of those who sin against us in lesser ways?
It is perhaps interesting to note that whereas Jesus was stripped of his garments before being nailed to the cross, the ‘witnesses’ at his stoning removed their (outer-)garments for the work, and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. This is the introduction of Saul (later known as Paul, who will be the central figure in the latter part of Acts. The note (8.1a) that Saul was consenting to his death is strangely omitted from this reading.
Psalm 31
In te, Domine, speravi
With this Psalm, described as ‘a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies’ (NOAB) we reflect on the story of Stephen’s death, particularly in verses 5 (Into your hands I commend my spirit, * for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth) and 15b-16 (My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make your face to shine upon your servant; and in your loving-kindness save me).
1 Peter 2.2–10
Responsibilities of the Christian Vocation
At the end of Chapter 1, we read that Christians have been born anew through the word of God, the word which abides forever and which is “the good news which was preached to you”. The idea of being born anew suggests a new passage of exhortation, “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander” [2.1] Since you are born again, since you have become babes, lay aside all kinds of wickedness, and desire the milk which Christ will give you. Milk causes growth ; the growth will fit them for their place in the spiritual house, the royal priesthood. Here again the Christian is addressed as member of a corporation.
Things to note: 2. Pure spiritual milk is not a good rendering of the Greek; the Av is better, ‘pure milk of the word”. The idea of new-born babies develops the thought of 1.3, 23, and suggests either that the intended readers are new converts or that in St. Peter’s view Christians are always babes, and therefore also always recently born. It is true that all Christians, however long since their Baptism, should desire the ‘milk of the word’ as eagerly and greedily as a new-born desires milk.
6. Quotes Isaiah 28.16
7. Quotes Psalm 118.22
8. Quotes Isaiah 8.14.
10. Once you were not a people: see Hosea 2.23

The Holy Gospel according to St John 14.1–14
The Way to the Father
The scene is the Last Supper; in the last chapter Jesus washed his disciples’ feet [13.3-20] and gave the new commandment that they should love one another as he has loved them [13.34-35], that is, by giving himself for them. At the same time, and intertwined in this narrative, we are told of Judas’ decision to betray Jesus [13.2] and of Jesus’ identification of him, at which he went out [13.21-30]. Jesus then spoke to his disciples of his going away: “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going you cannot come”. The disciples do not understand this [13.33, 36]. The chapter ends with Jesus’ prediction that Simon Peter will deny him [13.38]. The chapter division here is unfortunate, although it is hard to find a place that is really any better. This should remind us that such divisions were not in the Gospel, but added many centuries later as an aid for reference.
After these predictions of the betrayal by one of them, of their Lord’s departure, and of Peter’s unfaithfulness, the disciples are amazed and sorrowful. We may imagine Peter’s distress: his voice is missing through the whole scene that follows; indeed he is not mentioned again until he whips out his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane [18.10]. Jesus is aware that his disciples are uneasy and says to them, Let not your hearts be troubled.
Things to note: 1. Believe in God, believe also in me. Never forget that ‘to believe’ is not so much to have opinions about something as it is to trust someone. The disciples (and we, therefore) are to trust Jesus as we would God. This is in one sense an advance on faith in God, in another sense an aid to it, Jesus being the revealer of the Father. This comes before a time in which their faith was to be tested, and in that test they would fail. Failure can teach a lesson: that faith is always insufficient. It should drive us back to God, for it is in forgetting his grace that we fail. Then every fall into sin can become the occasion for growth in grace. (Temple).
2. In my Father’s house. Earlier in the Gospel Jesus had given this name to the Temple (2.16; see also Luke 2.49); what does he mean now? If we take this to be ‘heaven’, just what do we mean? One commentator wrote: “How to interpret the expression in a local, heavenly sense, we cannot tell. In any case the essential idea is that of being near to God and enjoying his love and favour.” William Temple: “One who so faces his own failures is steadily advancing on the pilgrim’s way; he, like his Master, in going to the Father. More than this; if he is travelling the right way at all, he is at home with the Father all the time.” In some way, then, we must understand ‘my Father’s house’ as a present reality we are brought to by Jesus. …are many dwelling places: this translates a Greek word which means shelters for travellers to rest in at stages along their road. This word, which implies progress and rest, fits well the image of pilgrimage. I go to prepare a place for you: “It was the custom in the East … for travellers to send a dragoman forward to make preparations in the next of those resting-places along the road, so thatr when they came they might find in it comfort as well as shelter. Here the Lord presents himself as our spiritual dragoman, who treads the way of faith before us” [Temple] (see Hebrews 12.2).
4. And when I go and prepare a place … I will come again and take you to myself: Jesus here refers not so much to his coming at the end of the world, or in great crises of history, or at the death of believers, as to the progressive influence of the Holy Spirit in his Church, preparing the way for the final and completed union of Christ and his people (after the resurrection at the last day, vi. 40), which is predicted in the succeeding part of the verse.

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