Getting on With Business (Psalm 1, Acts 1:15-17,21-26; John 17:6-19)
One of the things that we’ve been talking about during the 50 days of the Easter season is what discipleship is like looking back on the Resurrection rather than looking forward to it. The New Testament as a whole, and especially the four Gospels all look back on the Resurrection, even though much of the story they tell is set in the period of Jesus’ life before it. Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels was originally received by and is intended for people who did not know of the Resurrection, but who looked back to it as a glorious beginning. So it still is.
Maxine’s family loves to get together, and though we all live in different places, we try to do it when we can. I’ve told you before the story about one of Maxine’s brothers who really hates to say good-bye, and used to take many small loads of things to the car, and each time he would come back and say something like “Bye now, it’s been great to see you.” And, then, one time, he just wouldn’t come back, and we knew we wouldn’t see him again until the next time we were all together.
Last Thursday (May 10th) was Ascension Day in the Church calendar. Every time Jesus was with his disciples in the days following Easter, he would say a few more things to them to prepare them for his leaving. In fact, the 50 days of Easter have always been a time when the Church, as Jesus’ community in the world, figures out the significance of the resurrection and how it’s going to be when Jesus finally (to use the analogy of Maxine’s brother), “gets in the car and goes.”
As I say, last Thursday the Church marked the day of Jesus’ final good-bye to the disciples. The ancient text of the Bible speaks in an ancient way about this, it speaks spatially, or, almost geographically. It says that Jesus was “taken up” to be where God is. This metaphor is attempting to say that something very significant has happened between last week and this. The disciples went from being a community of folk who enjoyed the presence of the Risen Christ in a direct way, to a community that remembered that presence – and so it has been to this day. In fact, Jesus’ “going” really points to the importance of what happens next week at Pentecost with the Spirit’s “coming.” Our lessons this morning have in common that they all deal with the kinds of communities God calls those of us in the post-resurrection world to be. Each lesson is also capable of being misread in a way that can warp a community into something God does not call it to be. E.g., Psalm 1 can be understood as a rigid glorification of the rules and regulations found in the legal portions of the Old Testament, so that all one has to do is look up an answer in the “right place” in the Bible. The Acts lesson can be misread as a commandment on the method of making contemporary Christian decisions by ancient non-rational means, such as “casting lots.” “That’s the way they did it, and, if we’re really spiritual, we’ll either do it that way, too, or just as close as we can come.” This mistakes the chaff for the wheat and enshrines biblical culture rather than the principles to which a text points. Even the Gospel Lesson from John 17 can be read in a unhealthily “otherworldly” way. Here’s Jesus, who came from heaven and is going back there, telling his disciples is that they should only care about that other world, not this one, because this world is evil and hates them. This interpretation is especially difficult, because there are actual words in this text that could lead us to this conclusion.
Since, it’s difficult, let’s stick with the Gospel for a while, John 17 is the so-called High Priestly prayer of Jesus in which he reports to God on what he has accomplished and intercedes for the community of disciples that he will be leaving behind. John sets this chapter in the Upper Room on the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. The most common way of misinterpreting this passage, as I say, is to assume that when Jesus prayed that the community would be separate from the world, he meant that the church should stay separate and insulated from any real-world issues and simply engage in evangelism of a certain type to help people escape the world when they die.
In fact, however, Jesus’ prayer is not that the disciples and, later, the larger community be taken out of the world, but really, that the community not sell out to or be enslaved by the values and power structures of the world that buy influence in all kinds of institutions. Jesus prays that this community be one that is protected from this very kind of evil (or harm), that does not set a value on people and their needs in the real world. He prays that his disciples will be unified in such a way that the pattern for their unity is the way in which Jesus and God relate. Jesus and God relate in such a way that we know that the way to see into the heart of God is to look at Jesus’ heart. Jesus is the great revealer of God in the world. There is a mutuality between Jesus and God that Jesus prays may be given as people work together with him and with one another in serving their world. As, an extension of this mutuality, Jesus prays, third, that this unified community be filled with joy. Now, joy isn’t the same as warm, fuzzy, coziness. Rather, joy is the quiet assurance that God is in charge and things will be all right in the end, no matter what. Jesus prays that his community of disciples will not be upended by worry over the many things that could endanger their lives – just because God is in charge, no matter what happens in the world.
Jesus prays that the community of faith be in the world, but not of it. In a sense this passage is otherworldly, not in the sense of being uninvolved, but rather in the sense of being the hands and feet of Jesus in our community be our highest value and priority. Jesus prays for a community that is protected, unified, joyous, and distinct in its values – a community that will not belong to the world but to God in the world.
The other two scripture lessons propose how such a community might look and how it might proceed to get there. The Lesson from Psalm 1 starts with the assumption that the community belongs to God in the world and talks about how such a community reflects on what the Bible calls the Torah. I think most people need to have a course disabusing them of the mistaken idea that all Jews were legalists, that all of them thought they were “saved” by keeping the law. Of course, there’s no accounting for the crazy things people (including Christians), but it is neither official biblical nor Jewish theology that the law saves anybody. Never was! The word Torah is mistranslated as “law,” and better translated as “teaching.” It was intended to be the basis of community reflection on new moral and community issues that gave a direction – or a trajectory – for thinking about them, but not a predetermined outcome for all time. One only need read some of the rabbis to discover that Jewish communities did what they could to encourage creative engagement with and reflection on the tradition so as to take these communities through the uncharted territory that all communities of faith encounter.
It is no accident that Psalm 1 stands at the head of the whole Book of Psalms. It forms a preface to this collection of worship materials in order to ground them all in the living of life within the willing embrace of God’s way for the community. The Psalm says that there are those who willingly embrace the tradition – God’s Torah – and those who don’t. The ones who are “blessed” (or, better, “who get it right”) are those who do embrace it, but not as some kind of code carved in stone, but as a living reservoir of teaching that points in certain directions, and invites constant, the text says incessant, reflection. Those who seek to free themselves from such a commitment are not free at all. Although the goal of being free from reflection on the God-given tradition is autonomy, its end is irrelevance and isolation. The metaphor that is used for the one who utilizes the tradition as a source of continual reflection is a healthy, well-watered tree. In most of the world of the Bible, trees really only grow in oases, near good water. For the rest, vegetation is low to the ground, scrubby, and stunted. Those who seek to separate themselves from creative reflection on God’s teachings are called “wicked,” “sinners,” and “scoffers,” and the metaphor for these is chaff that is simply blown in every direction by every puff of wind. I don’t think that this is intended as an arrogant threat of punishment for those who won’t come into community, but is the result of much difficult observation of those who try to make it through life without community and the creative give and take it brings. We are, I think, so used to hearing words like “wicked” and “sinner” with our “moral” ears, that we think that such people are bad, evil, people. They’re not. They are simply those who have chosen to live as a solitary matter, without a commitment to God’s Torah, and who do not recognize any authority beyond themselves. Such folk, unfortunately, are impermanent, like chaff, and are blown away by the moral force of new situations and predicaments.
In our world, what does Torah mean? It, certainly, means the scriptures, taken, not as absolute and unchanging rules, but as pointers to new conclusions about new things, as teaching that allows us to think critically and creatively beyond the bounds of old commands. Torah also means the godly witness of our forebears in the faith. We do not simply adopt their words as ours, but use them as springboards to new trajectories for new questions as new demands are placed on our community.
Briefly, at the end, we come to our lesson from Acts 1 and see a reflective community in action. Just before this, Jesus has “ascended” to God. The community realized how important it was to have a full complement of apostles there to lead the community in their creative reflection of where Jesus was leading. There were two candidates to replace Judas, Matthias and Barsabbas. The chairperson, Peter, said that in order to become a candidate at all one had to have been a disciple from Jesus’ baptism to his resurrection (as Judas had). In short, such a one had to have had a long-term, personal relationship with Jesus. After an open admission that God knew everyone’s heart, the community prayed for guidance. They then followed an ancient practice and cast lots, and thereby chose Matthias.
Here was the early church, confronted by an issue of leadership. They really had no words of Jesus to depend upon, but Peter set the stage by pointing to passages from Psalms 69:25 and 109:8. In their original setting these are both prayers for deliverance and safety. The first says that, it’s OK to replace wrong-doers, the second really says it’s a good idea. Peter sees these passages as pointing to their situation of having to replace Judas, and they proceed on that basis to reflect creatively and to use the tools they had to make a decision. They got on with it.
As we look at that text, the lesson is not that we copy Peter’s method of citing the Bible, or that we cast lots rather than ballots in our choosing leaders. The point is that the decision was taken with prayer, and with reflection, and when it was made, we read it was made, with no going back or grumbling. The text itself reaches beyond itself and points to its own trajectory.
As we seek to be a community of disciples remembering the Lord Jesus and remaining rooted in him, let us think of these passages, and seek to be the community for which Jesus prayed, a community protected by belonging to God in Christ, whatever the powers of the world might do. Let us seek to be a community unified by abiding in God through the word and witness of Jesus. Let us seek to be a community of the joy of the quiet assurance that God is in charge, and a community that refuses to sell out to the baser methods that the culture calls successful, but rather the community that willingly binds itself to creative reflection on the Torah and tradition that we’ve been given through Christ. And, so, gets on with business!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.