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Introduction To The Scripture For The Sixth Sunday of Easter - Year B
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; I John 5:1-5; John 15:9-17

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION  TO THE SCRIPTURE 	
Sixth Sunday of Easter (B)


ACTS 10:44-48.   This story reads like the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 
and may well have been intended as its sequel. Before Peter had 
finished preaching, the Holy Spirit came upon the household of 
Cornelius, a Roman military officer and a Gentile. Presumably most of 
those present were also Gentiles.

Jewish Christians accompanying Peter were astonished that the Spirit 
had come to a gathering of Gentiles.  With the baptism of Cornelius, an 
influential Roman army officer, and his household, a new phase of the 
church's mission to the Greek-speaking Gentile world began in earnest.


PSALM 98.   This triumphant hymn may well have been used in the temple 
ritual for the Jewish New Year when Israel celebrated the enthronement 
of God as sovereign of the world.   Not only God's special people, 
Israel, but the whole earth and all of nature are summoned to join in 
the praise.


1 JOHN 5:1-5.   In the controversy with Gnosticism, the heretical 
teaching which is the background of this letter, actions as well as 
words were essential.  Believing in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God 
meant obeying God's commands to love above all else.  
	 
To those early Christians, "the world" represented all that was evil 
and tempting.  Living love for God and neighbour was the way to live in 
the world without being dominated by its sinful ways. This is still so.


JOHN 15:9-17.   As in several other places in John's Gospel, chapters 
13 to 17 use a familiar literary device of the time, an extended and 
stylized discourse. This particular discourse includes some of Jesus' 
most incisive teachings remembered by the church 60 years after the 
resurrection.
	
John takes us to the heart of the Christian discipleship: Love others 
as God has loved us. This is the practical implication of Jesus'  
loving sacrifice of himself for us on the cross. 

************

ACTS 10:44-48.   The idea of sequential stories is not new to modern 
television, movies or mass market publishing. This story reads as the 
sequel to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. It repeats many of the same 
details of the coming of the Holy Spirit to a Gentile community in the 
same way the Spirit came to the Jerusalem fellowship. Before Peter had 
finished preaching in the house of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came upon 
the household of Cornelius, a Roman military officer and a devout 
Gentile (10:1). It would serve well to read the whole story as the main 
lesson during worship. If it is not read but used as the sermon text, 
the preacher should tell the story briefly from the beginning.

Caesarea Maritima was a major city on the Mediterranean and the main 
headquarters for Roman governance of Palestine. The ruins of its great 
amphitheatre, with an arena larger than the Colosseum in Rome, its 
fortress and aqueduct are marvels of Roman engineering still clearly 
visible after having been dug from the beneath sands that hid them for 
many centuries. The breakwater that protected the artificially 
constructed harbour can also be seen extending hundreds of feet from 
shore. In the time of this story, a cosmopolitan population included 
many Jews as well as Roman officials. The lingua franca of the eastern 
Mediterranean world was still Greek, although Latin would have been 
spoken in Rome and perhaps among Roman officials.

In its earlier stages this narrative points out how Peter learned in a 
dream that the gospel was for Gentiles as much as for Jews. Dreams were 
a typical means biblical authors used to describe a theophany in which 
God's will was revealed. This passage in Acts differs from what Paul 
said about Peter's struggle with the expansion of the Christian 
mission. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul told how he had challenged Peter at 
Antioch on this same issue. Either Peter was a slow learner or the 
event in Caesarea told in this passage is a softer, kindlier version of 
the tradition about the apostolic church having its vision enlarged. 

Heinz Guenther, late professor of NT at Emmanuel College, Toronto, 
believes that Acts presents a post-apostolic age tradition with 
parallel versions of the successful work of the Spirit through the two 
primary apostles. In some respects Peter and Paul competed with each 
other in the Gentile mission. At the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), both 
of them appear to be equally effective in convincing James and the 
Jerusalem fellowship to move in a new direction. Thereafter, Peter 
disappears from the narrative of Acts, but Paul's activities as an 
apostle are given full treatment.

Note that in this Caesarean instance, some Jewish Christians were 
present. They had accompanied Peter from Joppa to Caesarea. As Jews 
they had the usual prejudiced attitudes toward Gentiles and so were 
astonished to witness the gift of the Spirit to this assembly. Most 
unexpected, perhaps, was the evidence of glossalalia, which adds to the 
hypothesis that this event was the Gentile Pentecost. Baptism followed 
the coming of the Spirit, not vice versa.

The primary emphasis of Peter's message was not repentance, but the 
life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who "went about doing good" (vs. 
38). Peter had  spoken of repentance only in the context of John the 
Baptist and concluded his message with prophetic testimony of the 
forgiveness God grants to those who believe (vs.43). Cornelius had 
already told Peter of his theophany in which God approved  of his alms 
(vs.31). Was the *kerygma* being shaped for a Gentile audience to whom 
emphasis on sin, guilt, repentance and forgiveness might have been 
relatively meaningless? 

Those negative aspects of human morality were based on Jewish concepts 
found in their scriptures. It was Paul in particular, the ardent 
Pharisee, who transferred those concepts to the Christian tradition. 
Further, in Peter's sermon at Caesarea, Jesus is not declared the 
Jewish Messiah, but "the one ordained by God as judge of the living and 
the dead" (vs. 42). The concept of a judge with command over life and 
death would certainly have been more meaningful to a Roman military 
officer. The way the gospel was communicated appears to have varied 
from culture to culture. That is not to say, however, that the basic 
meaning of it changed. Behind the concepts of law and judgment lies the 
moral principle distinguishing good from evil.

A university class in ethics included both students studying for 
ministry and students from a non-religious background. The professor 
introduced the problem of evil for discussion. "It doesn't really 
matter," said one student from the non-religious group. "It's all 
relative anyway. For some people what is good is evil and for others 
what is evil is good." A student who had been in the war in Bosnia 
spoke up in protest. "My job in the war was to find and prosecute the 
people responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica. I can tell you that 
what I saw there is evil and it is not relative." Said another, "Is it 
not possible that to call evil good and good evil, is what Jesus meant 
as the sin against the Holy Spirit?"


PSALM 98.   This triumphant hymn may well have been used in the temple 
ritual for the Jewish New Year when Israel celebrated the enthronement 
of God as sovereign of the world. Scholars thus regard it, together 
with Pss. 47, 93, 96, 97 and 99, as a group designated as "Psalms of 
Enthronement." All of them envision Yahweh seated on a heavenly throne 
exercising dominion over all of creation for the coming year. The 
imagery may have derived from a similar Babylonian religious tradition 
which enthroned their god Marduk at the beginning of each year. The 
idea of Yahweh's kingship was a common theme among OT authors. Israel's 
monarch ruled as Yahweh's anointed representative. In post-exilic 
times, after the monarchy had disappeared and Israel suffered  
subjection to foreign domination, the concept of Yahweh as sovereign 
filled a deep spiritual need. It provided Israel with a distinctive 
national identity enabling them to survive as a people despite their 
political subjugation.

The prophetic influence of Second Isaiah can be seen in this psalm. It 
has even been suggested that the psalm originated in Babylon inspired 
by the coming of Cyrus, the Mede, to overthrow the Babylonian dynasty. 
Faith interpreted this as a divine victory (vss. 1b-2) and an 
expression of Yahweh's love and faithfulness to Israel (vs. 3). 

The psalmist summoned not only Yahweh's special people, but the whole 
earth and all of nature to join in the praise of divine sovereignty. As 
in all cultures, music from both stringed and brass instruments, had a 
prominent place in the celebration (vss. 5-6). One wonders if the 
phrase "a joyful noise" referred to a cacophony rather than melodious 
sounds. References to sounds of nature - the roaring of waves on the 
seashore or sudden floods in dry wadis; and the moan of wind whistling 
through the hills - vividly reflect the psalmist's powers of 
observation and imagination that these too sing their praise to Yahweh. 

No believer in purely natural religion, the psalmist is also aware of 
the role the sovereign played in rendering justice. To him Yahweh is 
the just judge whose decisions are equitable for all people (vs. 9)


1 JOHN 5:1-5.   The division of this letter into chapters and verses 
causes some difficulty at this point. Paragraphing as in newer English 
versions sufficiently carries forward the argument of the previous 
passages. 

As did Jesus in his teaching and actions, John carefully balances love 
for God and love for one's brothers and sisters as equally important 
for Christian behaviour. In the controversy with heretical teaching 
which was the background of this letter, actions rather than words were 
the measure of one's beliefs.  Believing in Jesus as the Messiah and 
Son of God meant obeying God's commandments.

It would appear from vs.1 that the heretics had separated Jesus of 
Nazareth from Christ, the Son of God. The fundamental apostolic creed 
was that Jesus was the Messiah/Christ and Son of the living God. This 
Christological claim was the *sine quae non* of apostolic teaching. 
However, membership in the Christian community involved more than just 
a verbal declaration and a profession of love for God. It also required 
strict adherence to God's commandments. That seems to have been the 
point at which the heretical people had failed. Their difficulty with 
the Christian way was ethical as well as theological.

One can assume from vss. 3b-4 that obedience to the commandments had 
become burdensome to some members of the fellowship. It was ever thus 
in the church. The cultural milieu always seems more attractive and 
acceptable than "the narrow way" of the Christian life. "The world" 
represented all that was evil and tempting to those early Christians, 
as it does to us.  Living love for God and neighbor was - and still is 
- the way to live in the world without being dominated by its sinful 
ways. 

John puts this moral challenge in terms of a conflict in which faith 
that Jesus is the Son of God enables the believer to emerge victorious 
(vs. 4b-5). He thus sets before his audience the means for living 
effective Christian lives in an unfriendly world. He does not use the 
word, but he certainly has in mind what is meant by the confession that 
Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the religious and ethical authority who guides 
and governs Christian behaviour. 

Humanity has devised innumerable means of dealing with the inevitably 
difficult circumstances of life - flight from the world, persuasion 
that evil does not exist and so cannot harm us, anesthetizing ourselves 
with various kinds of addiction, distracting ourselves with pleasure or 
cynically striking mephistophelean bargains for limited ends. All 
ultimately fail except the one that provides both meaning and purpose 
for every one with the faith and courage to follow in the footsteps of 
the Son of God.


JOHN 15:9-17.   As in several other places in John's Gospel, chapters 
14 to 16 use a familiar literary device of the time, an extended and 
stylized discourse. The style is characteristic of John's Gospel. These 
discourses were attributed to Jesus and through the centuries have been 
given literal authority. More probable, however, they contain profound 
theological affirmations of who Jesus is and what he means to the 
Christian fellowship and to the world. This is particularly true of the 
several places where John quotes Jesus as saying "I am ...."

Containing much of John's own thought about the relationship of Jesus 
to the church, this discourse includes some of Jesus' most incisive 
teachings remembered by the church some 60 years or more after the 
resurrection. The dominant issue for the church had changed from 
awaiting the imminent return of Christ to living in a world that showed 
no signs of readiness to believe or to follow the Christian way. The 
theme of this brief excerpt concentrates on self-sacrificing love 
(*agapé*) as the unique focus and life force of every Christian. Behind 
this passage stands the intense shadow of the cross and the contrasting 
power of God to raise Jesus from the dead and give the Holy Spirit to 
all who believe.

So John takes us to the heart of the Christian discipleship: Love for 
others as God has loved us.  He interprets the meaning of Jesus' death 
on the cross as his loving sacrifice of himself for us in obedience to 
God's loving will and purpose, not only for himself but for the whole 
world. 

We cannot begin to imagine how disturbing the cross must have been to 
those early Christians immersed and they were in Roman civilization and 
frequently facing corrupt Roman justice. As a means of execution, 
crucifixion was the ultimate in cruelty, indignity and violence. 
Despite all that, the apostolic church transformed it into the only 
credible symbol of living creatively in a world for which death on a 
cross was the ultimate punishment for criminal behaviour. 

Could this really be understood as the ultimate joy for Jesus and for 
those who had committed themselves to follow him (vs. 11)? Yet this is 
a repeated affirmation of other NT writers (Heb. 12:2; Gal. 5:22; Rom. 
14:17; 15:13).

Furthermore, as John has phrased this tradition, there can be no 
greater love for one's friends than to follow in Jesus' footsteps even 
to the point of death (vs. 13). The emphasis on friendship has 
considerable significance. The Christian way of life exists only in 
effective human relationships. Every human institution - the church 
included - works best when relationships are firmly based on mutual 
respect and humane values, at the root of which is love. As we move 
toward a global civilization no other value system will prove 
worthwhile. The selfless relationships of *agapé* love have been proven 
in the crucible of the divine-human experiment which is Jesus Christ. 
This is what John is having Jesus say throughout this passage. This is 
the fruit that Jesus prophesied his friendship with these few disciples 
would yield (vs. 16). It began with his love for them and their love 
for each other. We who believe are called to make a similar witness in 
our time and place.

                                              
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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