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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday of Easter - Year C
Acts 11:1-8; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

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	
The Fifth Sunday of Easter -  Year C


ACTS 11:1-18             In response to the challenge of the Jewish
Christians in Jerusalem Peter testified about his participation in the
Gentile mission.  The issue of circumcision prior to baptism was obviously
very difficult for Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the true
Messiah.  The crucial moment for Peter came when the Holy Spirit fell on
the assembled household in the home of Cornelius, the Roman army officer in
Caesarea as already told in Acts 10.


PSALM 148                All creation is summoned to praise the Lord in
this third of five psalms which end the whole collection with a resounding
"Hallelujah!" 


REVELATION 21:1-6        John has a vision of the whole of creation
redeemed and renewed.  This is what awaits the faithful and thus makes
those bitter experiences endurable.  Many Old Testament references colour
this vision - the creation, the city, the bride.  Perhaps the most
important insight of the passage is that "now God's dwelling is among
mortals." (vs. 3)  This reaffirms God's coming into the world in Jesus
Christ for the single purpose of redeeming the world and reconciling
humanity and all creation to God's original purpose.


JOHN 13:31-35            At the end of the Last Supper Jesus spoke to the
remaining disciples about his glorification.  In his death, which Judas was
about to initiate, Jesus would glorify God.  John had emphasized this theme
from the very beginning of his gospel.  To John, Jesus' death was a
sacrificial offering to God worthy of God's holiness and love.

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

ACTS 11:1-18   Responding to the challenge of the Jewish Christians in
Jerusalem Peter testified about his own conversion to the Gentile mission.
This was obviously a very difficult issue for Jews who had come to believe
that Jesus was the true Messiah.  Several important aspects of the Jewish-
Gentile controversy stand out in Peter's report to the church in Jerusalem. 

Behind this incident lay a long history of Jewish tradition which Jesus
himself had challenged.  The fundamental issue was ritual purity: Who was
pure enough to enter into God's presence?  The whole of Israel's liturgical
practice and the architecture of the temple itself as well as the
accepted customs of eating rested on the right answer to this question. 
The several courts of the temple maintained the purity of the temple by
excluding all who did not perform strict ritual observances to purify
themselves and their offerings before entering.  The priesthood existed as
a specially designated and ritually purified body of men who had the sole
right to offer sacrifices.  Only on the Day of Atonement was the high
priest - and he alone - permitted to enter the holy of holies, the symbolic
dwelling place of the invisible Yahweh. 

On the other hand, Jesus believed that every Israelite had the right to
come before God in worship and make his or her own offering.  Nor did he
observe the strict dietary laws required of all Jews.  As Messiah, his
cleansing of the temple challenged the exclusive authority of the
priesthood and all the ancient traditions.  Inevitably, this brought about
his own execution when he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, possibly because
Judas disagreed with Jesus on this issue. 

Even more surprising and challenging to the tradition was Jesus' inclusion
of notorious sinners and non-Jews, especially in his table fellowship
designed as a model for the community of his disciples.  It was his own
presence as the Messiah and Son of God which sanctified these gatherings
and made them acceptable as pure and holy worship.  Eventually, this
approach to the presence of God separated the followers of Jesus from their
Jewish compatriots.  The story of Peter's vision of eating food which was
unclean and preaching the gospel to Cornelius clarified this issue for the
apostolic church.

Professor George Caird noted in his study of the Apostolic Church that
strict Jewish orthodoxy demanded appropriate ritual practice rather than
belief.  At first, Jesus' followers were regarded as one more of many
Jewish sects.  They held beliefs about the Messiah, the resurrection, and
the eschatological age to come common to most Jews.  Accordingly, they did
not incur any charge of religious disloyalty as Jews so long as their
beliefs did not affect their obedience to the ancient ritual laws
prescribed by the Torah.  But Judaism was a nationality more than a
religion.  It was a religious precept, a set of social customs and civil
laws all rolled into one.  Today we might call it a national ideology.  No
Jew could not abandon the Torah as a national way of life without becoming
denationalized. (Caird, G.B. "The Apostolic Age." Studies in Theology.
London: Duckworth & Co., 1955. p.83-84.)  All this is eminently true in
this passage from Acts 11.

The crucial moment for Peter came when the Holy Spirit fell on the
assembled household in the home of Cornelius, the Roman army officer in
Caesarea.  That story had been already told in Acts 10.  In the commentary
on last week's reading, we noted that the Spirit is the true hero of the
whole story Luke tells in Acts.  This is no less true in this instance.  In
vss.12-18 in particular, the Spirit rather than Peter is the driving force
behind the transformation of the Jerusalem community; and in the subsequent
change of strategy in the succeeding vss.19-30.
     
In vs.16 Peter recalls words Luke earlier reported that Jesus had spoken
(1:5).  In all four Gospels these words are attributed to John the Baptist.
As we have seen in Luke's Gospel, he was fully acquainted with Mark's
Gospel where this statement first appeared (Mark 1:8).  It is even possible
that Jesus himself had come to this conclusion from being with John the
Baptist whom some scholars believe had been Jesus' early mentor.  That the
words are attributed to Jesus does not mean that Luke is quoting a variant
tradition.  It served Luke's purpose in Acts for these words to come
directly from Jesus who had promised to send the Spirit as his living
presence with the apostles as they carried on his ministry.  In fact, these
words and the community's response to them in vs.18 are a direct reference
to Luke 24:45-50. 
     
The history of the Christian Church from the very beginning is the story of
how the Spirit continually challenges the faithful to carry the gospel to
the world.  We are still being challenged to live and witness in that same
kind of historical environment.
     

PSALM 148   All creation and all people are summoned to praise the Lord in
this third of five psalms which end the whole collection with a resounding
"Hallelujah!" 
     
On the Sunday I retired from my last pastorate twelve years ago, two young
boys and their mother waited for me after the service.  Shyly the boys
presented me with a small gift in appreciation for help I had given the
family during an eleven year pastorate.  I had married the parents.  My
most recent ministry to them had been to conduct the baptism of the two
boys, an ordinance long delayed due to a particularly difficult family
situation. 

Everyone knew of my concern for the environment from occasional references
I had made in sermons and prayers.  I had once told the children of the
congregation that two of my grandsons had presented me with a certificate
stating that an acre of the Costa Rican rain forest had been preserved in
my name.  The boys' present on my retirement was unique.  With their
mother's help, they had created a one-of-a-kind T-shirt, brilliant yellow
in colour and hand-painted with trees of the rain forest watered by plastic
raindrops and surrounded by flags representing many nations.  The trees
have unhappy faces with beady eyes that roll with movement.  The shirt
bears the logo drawn from my chat with the children: "Rain forests need
love too!"  I treasure this memento of that pastoral experience every time
I wear it. 

This is Blossom Sunday in our part of southern Ontario, Canada.  Even in
our cities flowering trees and shrubs lift our spirits in moments of
praise.  In this glorious spring weather who can argue that God also loves
the rain forest, rural and urban beauty, and the whole of our natural
environment?  The debate between strict environmentalists and those who
would use the rain forest for economic development continues unabated.
There are no easy answers.  Nor can those of who have sinned violently
against God in ravaging the fragile environment of our own land in past
centuries blame those who seek a balanced approach to both environmental
preservation and economic development.  In the words of the creed of The
United Church of Canada, as the Church, we are "to live with respect in
creation."  God has given the care of all creation into our hands so that
as the ancient psalmist sang, the whole of creation may raise Hallelujahs
of praise to God.


REVELATION 21:1-6   John has a vision of the whole of creation redeemed and
renewed.  This awaits those who remain faithful through all their trials
and thus makes those bitter experiences endurable. 

We know from examination of earlier chapters in Revelation that the
circumstances faced by the Christians fits best into the period of the
Flavian emperors, Vespesian and his sons, Titus and Domitian.  This was a
time when the imperial cult flourished.  Christians did not hold back from
such patriotic enthusiasm.  Though there was as yet no compulsion to
participate in these quasi-religious rituals, anyone who got involved with
the law courts or was required to take an oath, would be bound to do so.
John Sweet, University Lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge, England, wrote in
"The Oxford Companion to the Bible," (London: Oxford University Press,
1993) that the chief threat to the church was not physical danger but
social exclusion, economic barriers and religious temptation.  How much
like our own times!
     
Many Old Testament references colour John's vision - the creation, the
city, the bride.  It also recalls some of John's previous visions, notably
the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:6-9).  Perhaps the most important
insight of the passage is that "the home of God is among mortals." (vs.3)
This reaffirms what God has done in coming into the world in Jesus Christ
for the single purpose of redeeming the world and reconciling humanity and
all creation to God's original purpose.  That would bring about a joyful,
creative relationship of God and humanity in which all suffering and death
have been overcome, not just for us humans but for all of the environment
on which we so much depend by virtue of divine providence for our needs.
     
Professor George Caird has an extended exegesis of the word "dwelling" in
his translation of vs.3.  He states that the word *sk‚n‚* (dwelling)
regularly translated the Septuagint for the Hebrew *mishkan* (tent).  In
the OT, the tent symbolized God's abiding presence in the midst of Israel
in the wilderness.  So John chose to use a term implying that the promise
of God's presence had been constantly fulfilled in the past wherever Israel
has been true to her calling.  Caird links this word to the derivative word
*shekinah* and its Aramaic counterpart *shekinta*, regularly used in Hebrew
theology "to prevent the sacred name of God from too close verbal contact
with men."  
     
Professor Caird also notes references, among many others, to Lev. 26:11;
Ezek. 37:27; Jer. 7:23; Hosea 1:23; and Zech. 8:8.  He recognizes, however,
that John clearly has the Incarnation in mind as the means above all which
establishes God's presence in the world.  Finally, he is unequivocal that
in making all things new is a process of re-creation by which the old is
transformed into the new.  The old world in its depravity may be doomed to
vanish before divine holiness; but faith sees the hand of God refashioning
the whole into something marvelously new.  "The agonies of earth are but
the birth-pangs of a new creation." (G.B. Caird. *The Revelation of St.
John the Divine.* Black's New Testament Commentary. London: Adam & Charles
Black, 1966. p. 263-266.)

This vision can be closely associated with Paul's powerful words to the 
Colossians that God had made know to Gentiles as well as Jews the divine
mystery of faith as he understood it,  "Christ in you, the hope of glory."
In his latest book, *The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light,* Canadian
scholar and journalist, Tom Harpur, reminds us that we too are the
inheritors of this spiritual tradition as is every member of the human
race.  He further expresses hope that this will make more realistically
possible the inclusive unity of the human race than the Christian church
has been able to bring about thus far in its rather sordid history of
hostility toward other religious traditions.


JOHN 13:31-35   John placed a great deal of emphasis on Jesus' last meal
with his disciples.  He did so by creating a final, intimate discourse in
which much of his earlier narrative is summed up and brought to a
conclusion.  In this introduction to the final discourse, John returns to
what had been his fundamental theme.  At the end of the supper, after Judas
had left, he has Jesus speak to the remaining disciples about his
glorification.  This meant that in his death, which Judas was about to
initiate by his betrayal, Jesus would glorify God.  John had emphasized
this from the beginning of his gospel. (1:14)  To him, Jesus' death on the
cross was no tragedy, but a glorious offering worthy of God's holiness and
love.
     
There is an unmistakable link between the *shekinah* (shining, glory) of
God in the OT and John's concept of the glorification of Jesus.  But this
passage as well as all other references to "glorification" make the special
emphasis that the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection can
never be separated.  The whole story must be told as a single expression of
God's redemptive purpose.  The same clarity of vision appears in Paul's
words to the Corinthians, "God was in Christ reconciling the world...." (2
Cor. 5:19) 

Another linkage claims our attention too: the new commandment to love one
another as Christ has loved us.  John utters this as a challenge to his own
community.  At the end of the 1st century, John's community (probably
Ephesus) might still have been a very mixed group of Jews and Gentiles,
slaves and free Roman citizens from many backgrounds.  A sense of community
could only come about through love for one another despite their great
diversity and natural inclination to remain separate from one another. 

This call for love within the Christian fellowship sounds across the
centuries to us.  Christians not only demonstrate their discipleship in the
world where they remain after the resurrection; they also reveal the risen
Christ to the world.  Indeed, Christ may not be known in any other way. 
But the revelation is conditional: "if you love one another."  Because of
this condition, Christians have often hidden Christ from the world. 
Because of this, the world has every right to reject us and him, no matter
how much we babble his name or thunder from pulpits that every word of
scripture is literally true.  As a wise man once said, "The only gospel
some people will ever read is the way we live."  Our living the Word
glorifies God.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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