Week of Sunday April 21 – Easter 4
Readings: Acts 9:36-43, John 10:22-30, Revelation 7:9-17
Their faces were triumphant and expectant.
At his feet he saw a caterpillar in its death throes, covered with tiny ants. He bent down. A very plain caterpillar; more of a grub, really, but each detail as fresh and deliberate as the minute perfection of a new born baby's fingers. He watched it writhe. "We are the chosen people of God, and yet, no more aware of our savagery than these ants."
He saw her feet, where they had her pinned against the wall, and crushed the caterpillar's head with his finger; aware that this small mercy crushed several equally innocent ants, and wearily stood up. "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."
My wonder at the world still grows. It is not just the grandeur of mountain and desert, or the vastness of sky. I am stunned by the 'sweet spot' within which we live, where carbon based life just works! Life is sustained despite all the sloppiness and wastefulness, and the sheer improbability, of biological processes. That any of this survives, let alone that it somehow supports our consciousness, is a miracle beyond understanding.
My horror grows also, and sometimes more. The world is steeped in incomprehensible suffering and pain. Watching one of those mass animal migrations accompanied across Africa narrated with David Attenborough's urbane commentary, it suddenly struck me that each one of these thousands of beasts would be killed; hunted down. No Shady Acres for the wildebeest.
We humans are not spared this trauma. We know we will die. Our society limps along between outbursts of savagery we can barely contain, and which too often still equal the worst we have ever known. It is arguable that our "everyone gets a fair go, mate" democracy in Australia, is jerry-built upon injustice; the inhumanity towards the Stolen Generation is matched by the hatreds and petty shames which drove forced adoptions and all their abuses. It is still present in the demonisation of asylum seekers. Our political leadership is at the forefront; refusing to say sorry, trivialising apologies with leadership challenges in the next breath, and racing to the bottom in the dehumanising of the poor and desperate.
It is true; the poor are not sold for the price of a pair of sandals anymore; not in Australia. They are sold for the price of a place in parliament. And in too many streets, behind the brick veneers, the words of Revelation 7 are so remote they must seem an offensive joke.
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
Their great ordeal is invisible, (7:14) recognised by no one.
And in Australia, we are the lucky ones.
A theology which does not account for the pain of life is a failure. One which takes easy refuge in those words of Revelation is a denial, an insult and abuse, and a pious platitude that is blasphemous.
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On the fourth Sunday after Easter, we are going back to work after the holydays of resurrection. Now resurrection must be lived out. We have heard the Lord has been raised; how then, will we live?
This life begins in Acts 9. There is a startling continuity between Peter, the head of the church, and Jesus. Dorcas, a shining light in her community, dies. There is no last minute call for help as with Jairus' daughter (Luke 8, Mark 5) Dorcas is dead, and laid out. The story in Acts mirrors the story of the little girl, but is also more extreme.
"The echoes of Jesus' raising of the dead girl in Mark 5 are striking, not least in Jesus' words, "Talitha com" (Little girl arise), which sounds so much like "Tabitha, arise!"" (Bill Loader) I want to be convinced by this comment, but wonder why Luke does not then use the word talitha in Chapter 8 in his own version of the story. Notwithstanding this, we are meant to see the similarity of the two events.
The message is clear: there is continuity between Peter and Jesus. In all the suffering of the world, the church carries on the ministry of its Christ. Acts show us faith, hope and love in action; the beginnings of resurrection. [More on Acts 9]
- - -
In John Chapter 10, the significance of the continuity between Peter and Jesus is emphasised by the continuity between Jesus and the Father.
27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.
Here are words of hope! "No one will snatch them out of my hand."
Bill's First Thoughts encouraged me to re-read the whole of Chapter 10 in John. The words of hope are not fanciful, but born out of grief and loss.
The language of John, which so easily seems 'other worldly' to our ears, is uncompromising and subversive.
To call Jesus the Shepherd is always to make a political statement, never a pastoral platitude. Psalm 23's idyllic green pastures and still waters are also a table prepared in the presence of our enemies. As in the arid grazing lands of Australia, the still waters are always rare places in a hard landscape.
The shepherd was the King who was to protect the nation. By styling himself as the good shepherd Jesus, was aligning himself to the tradition of the prophets who wrote
Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,
they have trampled down my portion,
they have made my pleasant portion
a desolate wilderness. Jer 12:10
Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? Ezekiel 34:2
By saying "the Father and I are one," he claimed that his politics were also the politics of God! No wonder they hated him.
By the time we come to the set text for the week we have long departed from the optimism of Acts Chapter 9. The church in which people are raised from the dead is beset by strangers; wolves indeed, and failed by hired hands, (10:1-13) who are thieves and bandits. These verses imply that, in fact, some people have listened to the strangers, even though it had once seemed they were good sheep who only listened to the voice of Jesus.(10:14,16)
Our text heaps on the irony. It is the Feast of Dedication. This remembered the great event of the Maccabean rededication of the temple after the sacrilege of the Seleucids. It is a winter feast, but the fact that John, apparently needlessly, mentions "it was winter," sounds just like Nicodemus "coming by night," and when Judas went out, "and it was night." (13:30)
Jesus is standing in the Portico of Solomon the wisest of Kings. There, at the time of renewal and rededication, he, the one who brings it, is accused of blasphemy. It truly was winter.
So it also seemed for John's community in its battle with the false shepherds and worthless hirelings. But there was growth, too. They were recognising God's other sheep, who did not belong to the fold from which they had come. There was one flock and one shepherd. (10:16)
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I stand uneasy before the vision of Revelation 7. My friends who are among the few survivors of the massacre of their entire town do not only dumbfound me with their resilience, civility and hope. They teach me that I have only the barest notion what it means to "come out of a great ordeal." (7:14) Even the one to whom the vision was given, was wary of making his own interpretation of what he saw: "Sir, you are the one that knows."
I am not sure I have any right to speak on this text. In our privileged western society, too many of us who talk of persecution, betray our lack of discipleship. We display, instead, a denial of decent society's impatience with our religious intolerance, and narrowness of vision.
For all this, I meet people, too many, whose life situation is terrible beyond my ability to imagine. I cannot comprehend how they manage to keep functioning despite trauma which refuses to subside, and while for many, abuse and horror continues. I could not deny such a person taking refuge in the hope that, one day, they will hunger and thirst no more, and that God will shelter them, and will wipe away every tear.
God's faithful ones are safe. Even though there is no hope left for the earth; it must be destroyed, the angel of God cries "Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads." (7:3)
The imagery from John 10 is at home here. The shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, becomes the lamb who was slain, yet stands alongside God. The faithful are in the white robes of the transfiguration; they have entered the realm of the Divine. They come from every tribe and people; one flock with one shepherd. And they are clear: this Jesus Christ who came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly, is the Lamb who is one with God who sits on the throne; the God who is the source of salvation.
No matter how bad things are, there is hope. There is salvation even from the great ordeal.
- - -
What gives substance to hope? What takes the church beyond desire for an abundant life to an actuality? At best we might be seen as people who take refuge in an understandable, but vain hope for a shalom that cannot be had. What prevents us from also being abusers who make the lives of those who suffer even worse, as we offer them a mirage, and exploit them as well?
The hope is that we are a people in between. The hope is that Jesus' resurrection is real, and will raise us up to justice and peace. The greatest hope, perhaps, is that God's love encompasses some variation of Origen's vision: the end will not come until even Satan is loved into heaven. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
The faith is that we will trust the Christ, and trust the vision; that we will actively hope.
Paul said of the times-in-between, that "now faith, hope, and love abide. And the greatest of these is love." Love provides the substance of hope. The fruits of sacrificial love give us reason to hope. My loving may even help others, but it transforms me!
It is one more incomprehensible of the 'sweet spot' in which we live. It transforms the words of John and Revelation and Acts, from ancient foolishness to cogent, compelling wisdom. It fills the sweet spot with beauty and wonder, transforming it from an horrific biological accident or a perverted divine torture.
Living love; that is, imperfectly practising agape, lets me see the wonder of even a plain grubby caterpillar amongst all the savagery that can drain the wonder and hope from everything.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
More on Acts 9:
Two other things occur: the story emphasises the room upstairs; it is mentioned twice. Luke's last supper was in an upstairs room. (The Greek words are different.) Peter is on the upstairs on the roof in Acts 10, when he receives his next insight into the meaning of the gospel. Is there a connection? I note too, that Simon the Tanner is not someone for whom ritual cleanliness would come easily. Our chapter finishes with reference to him. The reference to Peter is repeated as God prepares Peter for his next 'spiritual growth spurt' in Chapter 10.
Bill's comment about the almost homophones Tabitha and talitha, leave me with a new thought. I know Luke knew Mark's gospel. How much did the people for whom Luke was writing know Mark? Back
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