Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 6, 2007.
In 1931 Gustav Aulen published Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (ET: SPCK, 1953). In that monograph Aulen presented a powerful case for the temporal and theological priority of what he termed the "classic" model of the atonement, that Christ's saving work is best conceived of as his triumph over sin, death, and the devil. With due respect, I believe that he was overly dismissive of the "objective" model of Anselm of Canterbury, which stresses Christ's sacrifice as payment for sin, particularly in view of the theology of the Passion history in Matthew's Gospel. But there is no question that he raised to the consciousness of Western Christianity what those of the East had never forgotten: "He [God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]" (Col 2:15 NRSV; Gk. en autoi also permits the RSV's "in him [Jesus]"). Nowhere is this "classic" understanding of the work of Christ more clearly displayed than in two of the three books that are supplying the readings for this year's Easter season, the Gospel according to John and Revelation.
Holding this theme in mind is particularly helpful as one considers the reading from John. The preacher faces a challenge in this passage, because it so recently served as part of the Gospel on Maundy Thursday. The issue is, in brief, to consider this text in a new light, that of the Easter dawn. At least one entree appears when we note a subtle difference from the Maundy Thursday pericope, which omits the beginning of v. 31, "When he [Judas] had gone out." By including this temporal clause in the Easter 5 Gospel, the lectionary highlights the typically Johannine contrast between the successful work of Jesus ("Now the Son of Man has been glorified") and the instrumental but ineffectual efforts of the powers of darkness ("Satan entered him [Judas]," v. 27; "And it was night," v. 30).
It is in view of this contrast and triumph that Jesus spells out the implications for his disciples. Soon they will not be identifiable by visible proximity to Jesus ("Where I am going, you cannot come," v. 33), because the consummation of his victory in the cross and resurrection will take him physically away from them. Rather, "by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (v. 35). Otherwise put, the chief mark of Christian discipleship is the triumph of agape over the self-interest (Luther's "incurvatus in se") that is the essence of human sin.
The Revelation reading skips from last week's section, past the preponderance of the book's contents, to its penultimate chapter. The promise of the First Reading for Easter Day, Isa 65:17-25, has now come to full flower: Endzeit has recapitulated and exceeded Urzeit, as God has created "a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea [i.e., the embodiment of chaos and evil] was no more" (v. 1). A new creation is adorned with a new Israel, God's bride, picking up on a pervasive OT metaphor for the Sinai covenant and all the history that followed. As was true from wilderness days on, God "tabernacles" among mortals--just as John's Gospel would remind us he did climactically in Jesus Christ (1:14).
What is new and different is that the old Israel's mission has now been fulfilled. Following the collapse of God's attempts to restore humanity as a whole to himself in the course of the Primeval History (Genesis 1-11), God had chosen Abraham and his descendents to serve as his channel of blessing to the world ("in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed," Gen 12:3). That work is now done, and God's covenant marriage is now with "his peoples" (v. 3; cf. last week's reading, "from all tribes and peoples and languages," Rev 7:9). Even the summary formula of the covenant is that of old: "they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and be their God" [reading with Nestle-Aland text to include italicized words: cf. underlined phrase with Exod 6:7: Lev 26:12; Hos 2:23]. A similar covenantal echo is heard in God's assurance of the reliability of the promises represented by this vision: "these words are trustworthy and true" (v. 5: Gk. pistoi kai alethinoi). "Trustworthy and true" may be likened to the Hebrew chesed we' emet, used more than twenty times in the OT to refer to God's "gracious loyalty," by which God binds himself by his own being to "marriage" with Israel.
This citation of God's very being continues in v. 6, as "the one seated on the throne" reiterates the self-identification from chapter 1 ("I am the Alpha and the Omega"; cf. 1:8) and then explicates it with "the beginning and the end." By claiming he arche kai ho telos as attributes, the divine voice reminds us that "beginning" and "end" are more than dots on a timeline; God is personally the source and goal of all that is and will be. In other words, God is not the same as creation (old or new), but God is, we might say, intimately engaged.
The victory is now complete. As was promised last week to those "who have come out of the great ordeal" (7:14), God has done away with the briny water of both sea and eye and now provides fresh "water as a gift from the spring of the water of life" (vv. 1, 4, 6; cf. 7:17). Indeed, what was implicit by reference to Isaiah 25:8 then is now explicit: "Death will be no more" (v. 4). It was St. Paul who called Death "the last enemy" (I Cor 15:26), but it is Revelation 21 that speaks of the enemy's end as fait accompli.
Once again this week, the First Reading does not fit into the suggested theme (this time, Christus victor) in a way that one can wrap neatly with a bow. But that is not to say that there are no interconnections at all. The reading is an apologia for the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles that is delivered by Peter, evidently before the division of labor that assigned to Paul the "gospel for the uncircumcised" and to Peter the "gospel for the circumcised" (Gal 2:7f.). Unlike later debates over circumcision as a prerequisite for gentile Christians, Peter is challenged to defend simple association--specifically, eating--with gentiles, i.e., whether they belong at all. Peter relates a vision with eating at its nub, in which he is instructed to "kill and eat" animals excluded by the Torah, because "what God has made clean, you must not call profane" (vv. 5-10). In fact, the point of the vision is not the kosher laws of Leviticus 11: neither the original account of Peter's vision and subsequent visit to the gentile household in Acts 10 nor the retelling in today's reading ever speaks of anyone actually eating a meal. It is only mentioned in 11:3 by Peter's critics. The transcendent issue is the extension of "the repentance that leads to life" "even to the Gentiles" (v. 18; cf. "repentance to Israel" in 5:31, Easter 2). When the Spirit sent Peter to the household of Cornelius and subsequently "fell upon all who heard the word" (10:44), the hitherto-Jewish "Jesus Movement" took its first but ultimately irrevocable steps toward the "all tribes and peoples and languages" of Rev 7:9.
What has arisen here is simply a transcription of a tension to be found throughout much of the Old Testament and, indeed, throughout the history of the church. On the one hand stands God's call to his people to be "holy" and therefore distinct from others; on the other is God's expressed love for all nations and the expectation that God's people will be blessing and host to them. (For select OT examples out of numerous possibilities, contrast Leviticus and Ezra-Nehemiah with Ruth, Jonah, and Isaiah 60.) At a different time and place, St. Paul addresses this tension at least in part through a call to "live in the flesh, but not according to the flesh" (2 Cor 10:3). Yet even that has always been more easily said than done. Today's church wrestles hard with issues of discerning the will of God in a cultural context that is worlds away from that in which the Bible was written. Some argue for "inclusivity" as a theological trump card, others for "hate the sin, but love the sinner" as a modus operandi, still others for a deliberate pushback against secular cultural trends.
God's people look to the pulpit for guidance that is "strong, loving, and wise" (2 Tim 1:7). If that expectation does not drive preachers to their knees, nothing will. It may be helpful, or at least comforting, to observe that for all the rejoicing at the end of Peter's speech, the issue of what to do with the gentiles doesn't go away quickly. The "Council of Jerusalem" comes but four chapters after today's reading in Acts, and at some point Peter and Paul had a face-off on the matter (Gal 2:11-14). Today's passage challenges the preacher to ask exactly what has God made clean, or, in the terms of the other two readings, what the triumph of Christ has wrought even now. If Peter's experience is any guide, it will take some doing for the Spirit to get through to us, so that we can at last join him in asking (at least in retrospect) "who was I that I could hinder God?" (v. 17). GCH
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Heider, George C.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2007|
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