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Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 20, 2007.

Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

John 11:20-26

One of the themes implicit in the Easter season is that of our living "between the times." We spoke of this metaphorically five weeks ago, in describing Acts and Revelation as ripples emanating from the historical and eschatological Easters, such that we who live between them are pushed and pulled by both. If such a conception is true of the Easter season as a whole, it is exponentially more so of this last Sunday of the season. On this day we stand between Ascension and Pentecost, between the departure of the visible Christ and the visible gift of the Spirit.

It is very much in keeping with this between-the-times theme that all three of the day's readings feature a certain open-ended closure. John 17:20-26, for example, comes at the very end of Jesus' Maundy Thursday discourses, immediately preceding the commencement of the Johannine passion narrative. These are, in a way, Jesus' famous last words. Specifically, they are the conclusion of his High Priestly Prayer, in which he turns from interceding with his Father on behalf of the disciples there present to "those who will believe in me through their word," that is, all future generations. Jesus extends to them (i.e., us) the trajectory that began with "The Father and I are one" (10:30), seen above at Easter 4, and continued in "that they [his original disciples] may be one, as we are one" (17:11). Such unity is to be manifested for a specific purpose: "so that the world may believe that you [Father] have sent me" (v. 21; cf. v. 25). Thus, the oneness of Christ's followers is the visible incarnation of the Spirit's work in the church and in the world. With respect to the church, as we saw last week, "the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,... will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you" (14:26)--including that "the Father sent me" (20:21). Regarding the world, the Advocate "will prove the world wrong," including its unbelief in the unity of the Father and the Son (16:7f.). But since the world cannot "receive" the Spirit, "because it neither sees him nor knows him" (14:17), the Spirit must act through those whom the world can see and hear.

Such service by Christ's followers will come at a cost: "In the world you will face persecution" (16:33). Jesus puts it another way in today's reading: "The glory that you have given me I have given them ... that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (17:22f.). The attentive reader of John's Gospel has figured out by now what Christ's "glory" looks like. To the terrestrial eye, it looks like unspeakable suffering. To the one enlightened by the Spirit, it is the triumph to be consummated the following day on a cross (cf. 19:30 Vulgate, "Consummatum est"). But that act will simply be the execution (so to speak) of a plan in place since "before the foundation of the world" (17:24; cf. Eph 1:4). Thus, immediately after warning his disciples of persecution in 16:33, Jesus can affirm with equal certainty. "But take courage; I have conquered the world."

As we have seen repeatedly in this Easter season, such is precisely the point of Revelation, from which the Second Reading is taken. Like the passage from John, this pericope has two facets--including both a sense of ending (the final words of the book) and a yet-to-be ("Surely I am coming soon," v. 20). In fact, "I am coming soon" (Gk. erchomai tachu) forms an inclusio around this reading, appearing in both v. 12 and v. 20. It is the "consummation devoutly to be wished" in a way and on a scale beyond Hamlet's comprehension (iii. 1). Jesus approaches as the take-no-prisoners (but neither leave any behind) conqueror of exilic Isaiah ("my reward is with me," Isa 40: 11). Jesus appropriates to himself the source-and-telos titles Alpha/Omega, first/last, beginning/end heard earlier applied to God (1:8; 21:6). He is both "the root and the descendant of David." i.e., the Messiah, and more--the bright morning star (v. 16; cf. 2:28). In v. 17 the Spirit and the bride (that is, the church) take up the plea to "come" (Gk. erchou), only to have their prayer turned around into a benefaction, "let everyone who is thirsty come" (Gk. erchestho). Indeed, the book's constant alternation between calls to faithfulness in the midst of persecution and assurances that all is already in hand is nowhere so clear as in this passage. "Blessed are those who wash their robes" (v. 14) is the seventh, final, and therefore perfect beatitude (Vulg. Beati; Gk. Makarioi) of the book, yet it refers to those who even at that moment are in the midst of the "great ordeal" (cf. 7:14, Easter 4).

The attentive preacher will not fail to note the excision of three verses (15, 18, and 19) from this pericope. One can certainly understand the omission, as these verses are painful and even graphic warnings of exclusion, plagues, and death. Such themes are not easily treated, at Easter time or anytime, and the last thing to be commended in Christian preaching is any attempt to scare anyone into submission. At the same time, we are under obligation to proclaim "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27 RSV), and, with due respect, that may begin with wrestling with texts like this in their integrity.

The Acts reading follows immediately upon that for Easter 6. The incident of exorcism with which it begins recalls earlier encounters with the demonic, above all Jesus' cleansing of the Gerasene demoniac in Luke 8:26ff. (with parallels in Matthew 8 and Mark 5). There, as here, the demonic voice confesses what the humans round about have yet to know, that they are in the presence of the Son (in the Gospels) or the slaves (in Acts) of the "Most High God." In both cases, the spirit is commanded to come out (Gk. parangello exelthein--Luke 8:29; Acts 16:18). Indeed, the parallel is so close that it cannot be accidental. In both cases, Luke is clearly stating that among the signs of the arrival of Christ's gospel in a new place (whether the gentile Decapolis or Europe) is first the confession and then the expulsion of powers that enslave the possessed.

An additional allusion to a still older time is the single NT usage of "divination" [Gk. manteuomai] in v. 16: it is used regularly in the LXX to translate nominal and verbal forms of Heb. qsm, "to divine," such as in the story of the medium at Endor, 1 Sam 18:8. Yet another change is rung on the Christus victor theme of Easter.

The reading continues with a second account of liberation. Having been beaten and jailed for the economic disruption that they have caused by ending the demonic and human exploitation of the slave girl, Paul and Silas are freed by "an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken" (v. 26). Just as Easter was marked both by an earthquake (Gk. seismos; Mt 28:2) and by Christ's proclamation to those in "prison" (1 Pet 3:19), the liberating tremors and hymns continue.

The upshot is a third liberation--following those of the slave girl and the two disciples--showing yet another ripple of the expanding Easter gospel: from last week's possibly Greek, definitely female Lydia to the unambiguously gentile and male jailer at Philippi, an official at least in Roman employ if not Roman himself. Closer and closer we draw to the goal of the book: the arrival of the Good News in the very capital of the Empire. Now to him and his household comes the "way of salvation" (Gk. hodos soterias, v. 17; cf. the several references in Acts to Christianity as the "Way," e.g., 9:2).

They enter into that way just as Christ's followers have for nearly two millennia since--by being "buried with him [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4). Baptism is, in a nutshell, Easter made personal, and the ripples of its waters continue to spread out, encountering and joining the stream from the other, greater Easter, "the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev 22:1). GCH
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Author:Heider, George C.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Previous Article:Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 13, 2007.
Next Article:Book of faith: Lutherans read the Bible.

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