Easter 5A (18 May 2014)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Acts 7:55-60 & Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
  • 1 Peter 2:2-10
  • John 14:1-14

First Reading: Acts 7:55-60

The death scene from the martyrdom of Stephen may seem an odd choice for a Sunday reading in the Easter season, but embedded in this story is the claim that Stephen had a vision of the risen and exalted Lord:

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:55–60 NRSV)

This story is also notable for its passing reference to Saul, who will later become known as Paul. This is the very first reference to Paul in a book which will be dominated by his character as the narrative proceeds. It is noteworthy that Saul/Paul first appears in the story as an accessory to the murder of Stephen.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10

This week’s selection from 1 Peter is out of sequence, perhaps due to verses 19-25 being picked early to exploit the link with last week’s “good shepherd” theme.

This passage continues to reflect the developing interest in Christianity as a self-conscious religion, with its own rituals, priests, etc. The theological method that comes through is one that weaves together isolated statements from the Jewish Scriptures to create the impression of deep continuity with ancient biblical “prophecies.” Such use of Scripture is close to the pesher hermeneutics of the reclusive community at Qumran, whose long-lost library is known to us as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

This is not suggest that there were formal links between the Qumran sect and the writers of the NT, but simply to observe that the kind of theological method underlying 1 Peter presupposes a scribal elite with the inclination and the opportunity to engage in pesher hermeneutics. Such a development is not likely to have happened in the earliest decades of Christianity, but is more likely to be a natural dynamic with a maturing Christian movement in the decades around the end of the first century.

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”

and

“A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.” (1Peter 2:2–10 NRSV)

Gospel of John

Insiders and outsiders in the Farewell Discourse

During the second half of the Easter season the major lectionaries draw heavily on John’s Gospel, and especially on the so-called Farewell Discourse in 13:31 to 17:26.

  • Easter 4: John 10:1-10
  • Easter 5: John 14:1-14
  • Easter 6: John 14:15-21
  • Easter 7: John 17:1-11
  • Pentecost: John 20:19-23 (or 7:37-52)

Chapters 14-17 have no parallel in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). There is nothing like this is in any of the other Jesus traditions found in the canonical writings, although there may be close parallels in some of the gnostic writings outside the NT.

The idea of a farewell discourse by a departing hero is well-known from biblical and non-biblical writings in antiquity. In particular, the many “Testament” texts among the OT Pseudepigrapha should be noted: TAdam, TJob, TMoses, TSolomon, T3Patriarchs, T12Patriarchs.

Where the Synoptics chose to present Jesus delivering a farewell discourse on eschatological themes (predicting the end of the world and instructing his followers how to prepare themselves for its sudden arrival), GJohn has Jesus discoursing on themes closer to the interests of the Johannine communities.

We know from the Johannine epistles (1John. 2John and 3John) that the groups associated with the name of John were divided over the humanity of Jesus and the question of how the Spirit’s anointing could be known. In response to a split that had apparently taken place in their ranks, the elder who writes the Letters of John urges them to keep the commandments held from the beginning, to trust that the Spirit has indeed been bestowed on them all, and especially to practice love for one another. In so doing they will know the truth and their joy will be complete.

Many of those same concerns can be seen in John 14-17. However, rather than a simple line of thought that proceeds from one issue to the next, the materials seem to loop around and cover the same points over and over again. Some scholars have suggested that this reflects a process of development as these meditations on Christ were elaborated over a period of time:

  • (new) commandment: 13:34-35; 14:15; 14:21; 15:10; 15:12-14
  • untroubled hearts: 14:1; 14:27
  • going/coming: 13:33; 13:16; 14:2-4; 14:18-20; 14:28; 16:4-7,10; 16:16-24
  • promised Spirit: 14:16-17; 14:25-26; 15:26; 16:7-11; 16:12-16

What we seem to have in these traditions are not recollections of things once said by Jesus, but reflections on the significance of Jesus as the divine Son present in the lives of his disciples and active in the life of the community through his Spirit. Not surprisingly, such themes also strike those responsible for our modern lectionaries as appropriate questions for the final weeks of the Easter season.

As we draw closer to Pentecost during the second half of Easter, themes relating to the Spirit will displace stories of appearances by the risen Lord and the empty tomb. While that may simply be a function of the lack of new stories to use, it also reflects the ancient Christian tradition that the Spirit was the continuing presence of the risen One in their midst. For example, in 1 Cor 15:45, Paul writes: “the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

If these texts, including this week’s Gospel, were shaped in a context of conflict between opposing factions of the early Jesus movement, it is not surprising to find some extravagant claims being made. In the heat of such conflict, extreme positions can be adopted (rather like a theological ambit claim) which do not really represent the considered position of the claimant.

The (only) way, the (only) truth, and the (only) life

John 14:6 may be one of those theological ambit claims that we would not wish to uphold in the contemporary multi-faith world at the beginning of the third millennium. It is, after all, widely recognized that Christian attitudes to other religions must undergo profound change as the churches come to terms with the results of historical Jesus studies—not to mention other domains of human discovery and experience.

On the other hand, more conservative Christian groups may indeed wish to uphold traditional Christian claims to exclusive possession of truth and a monopoly on salvation.
In his book, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to reveal the God of Love (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), John Shelby Spong includes John 14:6 in his list of “terrible texts” that have been employed to promote hate rather than divine love. These notes will draw on Bishop Spong’s discussion of this verse.

Early in his discussion of John 14:6, Spong comments:

“No one comes to Father but by me” is a text that invariably comes up when I am lecturing on the vision of an interfaith future. It seems to be a hurdle that people must get over to break the spell of their romantic imperialism. So the question becomes: Does this text actually support this claim? The answer to that question is simple: It does only if one is profoundly ignorant of the New Testament scholarship of the last two hundred years, only if one literalizes the Bible and finally only if one knows nothing about the Fourth Gospel in which alone this text occurs. (p. 233)

Spong begins his discussion by noting that the first half of this verse (“I am the way, the truth and the life …”) is one of a series of “I AM” statements found in the Gospel of John, and which are integral to the highly developed christology that this Gospel offers the reader:

  • I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
  • I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
  • I am the gate of the sheepfold (John 10:7)
  • I am the good shepherd (John 10:11)
  • I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
  • I am the way, the truth and life (John 14:6)
  • I am the true vine (John 15:1 NB: Spong actually cites 15:7 but 15:1 is a better example.)

Allowing himself some licence to exaggerate, Spong continues:

Of course, Jesus never literally said any of these things. For someone to wander around the Jewish state in the first century, announcing himself to be the bread of life, the resurrection or the light of the world would have brought out people in white coats with butterfly nets to take him away. None of the earlier gospel writers give us any indication that any of them had ever heard it suggested before that Jesus taught this way. The “I am” sayings are clearly the contribution of the Fourth Gospel. What then do they mean? Why did John add these sayings to the ongoing Christian tradition? The answer is found in the period of history in which the Fourth Gospel was written. (p. 234)

The history that Spong then cites is the divergence of Torah-observant Jewish synagogue communities and the Christ-centered Kingdom communities during the second half of the first century, and especially in the aftermath of the Jewish war with Rome in 66-73 CE. That growing sense of mutual alienation is well-attested, but it does not really explain the high christological themes that are so typical of John and so different from what we find in Mark, Matthew and Luke.

It seems to me that the particular form of the Jesus tradition found in John, and especially its exclusive claims to offer secure access to God’s salvation, reflect internal divisions and conflict within the Johannine communities, and between the communities of John and other Jesus communities (those groups associated with Paul and Thomas come to mind for starters), even more than the familiar tensions between Christians and Jews after 70 CE. Recognizing the intra-communal nature of the primary conflicts in the Johannine literature, also softens the implicit anti-Semitism of the Fourth Gospel.

Even so, at least one of the communities with which the Johannine churches found themselves in sustained conflict was undoubtedly the Torah-observant Jewish synagogue. The familiar Johannine portrait of Jesus in dispute with “the Jews” (see 2:18 and numerous other examples) whose ultimate ancestor was none other than “the Devil” (8:44-47) and who typically expelled the followers of Jesus from their synagogues (9:22), must surely reflect the historical experience of some Christian groups in the final quarter of the first century.

To the extent that all the various Jesus movements were variants of Judaism, this affirmation of Jesus’ unique status as the entry point to God’s salvation must be understood within the context of a “fierce conversation” about the most secure way for Jews of the time to experience God’s blessing. In the course of their engagement in that debate, the Johannine protagonists have tabled their ambit claim for Jesus:

  • Jesus is the eternal Logos in human form
  • Moses mediated the Torah, but Jesus brings grace and truth
  • ritual water becomes the new wine of the Spirit
  • rival claims by Judeans and Samaritans dissolve when he has come
  • the bread of heaven provided by him surpasses what Moses provided
  • Jesus is the source of the divine Spirit in his followers
  • a person born blind can see while the Pharisees are blind
  • as authentic shepherd Jesus cares for his people and they respond to his voice
  • not even death can resist Jesus
  • Jesus remains serenely in control of events as his trial proceeds
  • Jesus is the way, the truth and the life
  • no-one gets to God except through him

The christology of the Johannine communities is highly developed and consistently expressed.

Although Spong does not focus so strongly on the particular dynamics of the Johannine communities around the end of the first century, he sketches a similar account of their rhetorical strategy:

So the battle raged on, as all battles do when religious feelings are at stake. The gospel of John was the product of these excommunciated revisionists. That is why references appear in this gospel to the followers of Jesus being put out of the synagogue (see 9:22 and 12:42). That is why this gospel reinterprets the opening chapter of the Torah (compare John 1 with Gen. 1). That is also why this gospel, over and over again, claims the divine name “I am” for Jesus of Nazareth. The Christians (formerly the revisionist Jews) were saying, “We have met the holy God who was once revealed to Moses and who has now been revealed anew, and perhaps more fully, in Jesus. We are not separated from the God of our fathers and mothers as the orthodox party was asserting. Jesus is the very way through which we walk into the same divine mystery that our ancestors in faith also knew. We know of no other way that we can come to the God of our fathers and mothers except through this Jesus.” (p. 236)

Spong concludes with this reflection on the significance of this text then and since:

That was a testimony to their experience. It was not a prescription claiming that they possessed the only doorway into the only God. It is amazing to me that this attempt on the part of the early disciples of Jesus to validate their experience journeying through Jesus into the mystery of the God they had known in Israel would someday be used to judge all other religious traditions as unworthy, wrong or even evil. Yet that is the path this text has followed as Christianity moved from minority status into majority power.
There is a difference between my experience of God and who God is. There is a differece between affirming that I walk into the mystery of God through the doorway called Jesus and that in my experience this is the only doorway that works in my journey, [and] that I must then declare it to be the only doorway that exists for all people, the only doorway through which anyone can walk. Imagine the idolatry present in the suggestion that God must be bound by my knowledge and my experience! Yet that claim has been made and is still being made by imperialistic Christians today. The text written by persecuted minority members of the early Christian community to justify their claim to be part of the larger people of God becomes a text that is interpreted to be a claim that issues in religious imperialism. Is it not interesting how little attention is paid to a text that proclaims an open and inclusive faith? It is found in the words attributed to Peter in Acts 10:34ff: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
We live in a religiously pluralistic world, but there is only one God. This God is not Christian, nor is this God an adherent of any religious system. All religious systems are human creations by which people in different times and different places seek to journey into that which is ultimately holy and other. Until that simple lesson is heard, human beings will continue to destroy each other in the name of the “one true God.” (p. 236f)

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
This entry was posted in Lectionary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s