May 14, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
It seems like in this section of his prayer that Jesus may be giving his followers a wee bit more credit than they deserved at that precise moment. The way Jesus prays here makes it sound as though the disciples are as clear-eyed and level-headed as can be when it comes to grasping all the essentials of who Jesus is, who is Father is, and what their mission is to be. But, of course, at that precise moment—if we locate this in the Upper Room just before Jesus is arrested and the disciples, to a man, scatter as a result—then it seems a bit premature to claim they’ve got all this cased. The truth is they were pretty muddled in their understanding of especially certain key truths, and their subsquent abandonment of their Master will be in part proof of that.
Yet in John 17, and in the hearing of the disciples themselves as John frames this for us, Jesus’ words are pretty lofty. And this is so despite the fact that a scant few chapters earlier Judas had already fractured the band of disciples by being dismissed to do his dirty deed even as Peter’s woeful upcoming failure of nerve and loyalty was also forecasted by Jesus.
Is Jesus praying in the future tense here? Is he more looking ahead to what will be than reflecting on what is the present scenario? Precisely because this is a lyric and well-known passage—and precisely because it presents Jesus as praying directly to his Father in heaven—it seems unlikely that Jesus was being ironic here, letting the disciples overhear words about themselves that were manifestly not yet the case as a way to shame them or make them wish they better fit inside this picture than they actually did.
But perhaps we don’t need to go all the way in the direction of suggesting Jesus was being cheeky or some other such inappropriate posture to suggest that Jesus did know his disciples were listening such that he was giving them something to shoot for. Jesus is, after all, praying in these verses and in prayer we often express what we want to be true—what needs to be true—even if (or especially if) such things are not our present reality.
Haven’t we as pastors occasionally prayed for our congregations—and prayed in front of our congregations—in ways that expressed both our genuine gratitude for these members of our flock and yet prayed somewhat aspirationally for a few things we wish were more true of that same flock? All things being equal, we’ve all surely prayed things about the congregation as a whole that we know full well are not true for the congregation in its every detail!
The truth is, Jesus was the only realist in that upper room that night. He alone was ready to face the events John will tell us about in chapter 18 and beyond. And he alone knew he’d face his trials alone—he knew not only of Peter’s impending implosion but of the failure of them all. Yet here is how he prayed about those very same people.
Of course, the good news is that post-Pentecost, everything Jesus expresses here about his band of followers would come true. But even at the moment, it was finally an act of love that Jesus prayed the way he did. When you love people, you want the best for them and you express this in also your prayers for them. You want to give thanks for the things worthy of gratitude and you also want to see them so singularly through a lens of love and compassion that you’ll say things that may not be totally accurate at the moment but that will be true by and by and that will be gloriously true when that comes to pass.
Jesus is about to be brutalized by this world. And his dearest friends on earth would do nothing to stop it or even to stand with him in his agony and dereliction. Yet far from rebuking them or being angry with them, Jesus prayed for them and he did so in the best possible light at that.
There are oodles and oodles of vignettes in the New Testament that display how much love Jesus had for his people and for his most devoted followers. But as displays of love go, this prayer surely counts as one of the finest!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
In an email recently I made a passing comment to my mother about having a bad week or being in a bad mood one night. Being the loving parent she is, she expressed dismay over this and, like any good parent, basically went on to say that she wants her kids to be happy. Period!
Or as my colleague Ron Nydam has often said: “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” Indeed. But the truth is that parents all know that as a matter of fact you cannot insure the happiness of your children. And that truth is married to another undeniable fact and that is this: the wider world in which we want our children to be happy most assuredly cannot be counted on to make that happiness a reality. In fact, the wider world has millions of jagged edges ready to tear into any given person’s happiness and success and stability at a moment’s notice.
Jesus is not the “parent” of his followers but his love for them is at least as fervent as a mother or a father. Thus as he looks ahead to his own departure, realizing that he’d have to leave his friends to keep working in the midst of a highly challenging world, Jesus knows that among the things he must pray for them is protection from the evil one, from the destructive forces of life that seem calculated to knock the stuffing out of us more days than not. Jesus knows, too, that the success of his mission depends precisely on the disciples’ not being transported out of this world nor cocooned away somewhere far away from society or from the people in this world who need to hear the Gospel message.
No, the only way this thing was going to work was if the disciples continued to labor smack in the middle of the very same world that was about to reveal its character that very night when no less than the Son of the Living God would get arrested and accosted and then nailed to a spit of wood. That was the world in which they’d have to work and that was why Jesus had to spend so much of this prayer begging his Father to give them all the help, all the protection, all the support he could provide.
If ever we in the church needed a reality check as to what we should expect in ministry and in service to this world, the fervency of Jesus’ prayer here should remind us that we should not expect smooth sailing. Yet so many people seem to expect just that. Too many in the Church are just shocked when they encounter resistance to the Gospel. It’s as though we simply cannot believe that there could actually be atheists around or people who would prefer we not pray in public schools or those who take a view of sexuality or money that just is so clearly at variance with what Christians regard as God’s own truth.
But why should any of this surprise us? Jesus knew what we’d be facing. Yes, he prayed for protection and strength but he did so precisely because he did not necessarily think the world was going to be any more receptive to God’s kingdom than it had been in his own lifetime. The truth is we need all the prayer we can get as followers of God but we need it because Jesus knew that the evil one still has some kicks. We ought to expect no less. But the Good News is that Jesus is—right now—still praying this same prayer at the right hand of his Father.
And that is Good News indeed. Thanks be to God!
In his just-released commentary on the Gospel of John, Frederick Dale Bruner makes the claim that it’s possible to view John 17 as a whole as John’s expanded version of the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus presents more straightforwardly in the Synoptic Gospels. Verse 1 contains the equivalent of “Our Father in heaven.” Verse 2’s talk about glorifying the Son that he may glorify the Father can be a gloss on “Hallowed be your name.” Verses 11-12 contain talk of the ongoing presence of the disciples in the world and this could be a version of “Your kingdom come” even as verse 15 can be seen as a “Your will be done” and also a “deliver us from evil.” Just beyond this lection in verses 20-24 one can also locate versions of “Forgive us our debts” and “Lead us not into temptation.” Whether Bruner’s idea works exactly here is open for debate but at the very least the similarities he notes shows that Jesus was indeed very consistent when it came to his own prayer life, his view of his Father, and what we need to pray for in this world.
Recently comedian and faux news anchor Jon Stewart played a video clip of a Christian leader who lamented the possibility of a Mormon being elected president because, this person went on to say, it’s just inconceivable to have a man in the White House who worships a different god. Stewart then rather cheekily replied that as an American but also as a Jew, he could assure this man “You get used to it!”
Not to make too big a deal out of this but . . . sometimes Americans in particular seem to view the world through a lens quite different from the one ground for us in the New Testament. Jesus on the night he offered his wonderful prayer, and then later Apostles like Paul, did their work and wrote their letters and preached their sermons in a world where it was merely expected that the powers-that-be would not be friendly to the Christian cause. That’s just the way the world works. And if we are blessed to have like-minded believers in positions of power, that is a blessing without a doubt but until Jesus comes again and the kingdom of God is all in all, we followers of Jesus for whom Jesus prayed what he did in John 17 should probably expect that now and then—if not on an ongoing basis—this old world of ours will provide us with challenges to our faith a’plenty and we’ll need all the help from our Father in heaven that he can graciously give us.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: The Common Lectionary during Eastertide substitutes readings from Acts for Old Testament lections.
Well, Pentecost hasn’t happened just yet and so maybe we can give Peter a break for an exegetical exercise that you simply have to assume would not pass muster in the average seminary Bible course. Replacing Judas was a sensible idea, perhaps, but proof-texting it by sliding in a Psalm 69 quote next to a Psalm 109 quote just should not cut it exegetically. Granted both psalms were speaking of “the wicked” (as the Psalms generally are wont to do) and granted that the disciples were probably sufficiently peeved at Judas as to want to lump him into that general category but still, I’d worry about anyone who tried to prove something with this kind of textual assemblage.
Small wonder the Revised Common Lectionary would have us skip over the part of this chapter where Peter invokes those two Psalm snippets! But facts are facts and the Lectionary isn’t fooling anyone: this is what Peter said!
As a Lectionary preaching text, this one seems to be little more than a placeholder in between the period following Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. What, if anything, can the preacher say about a text like this? It seems a small matter of housekeeping rather than a lyric text full of grace and truth and Gospel Good News. Jesus told the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem until something big would happen and so as they do so this was just one item on their “To Do” list for that meanwhile stretch of time: “Replace Judas.”
Still, this glimpse into the thinking of the disciples—framed as it is by a verse we should include here, Acts 1:14—is lovely and revealing in its own small way. First, we see that although still bewildered by the events of the last two months and still not at all sure what was to come (remember: earlier in this same chapter the disciples still were thinking Jesus was going to make a big political splash on this earth by restoring the kingdom to Israel by—one presumes—snatching it away from the Romans), even so they are remaining fervent in prayer AND they have an expectation that they have a future.
Jesus had floated clean off this earth in a departure they just had not seen coming. Some angels assured them that this thing was not finished yet, and they believed it. They believed it so much that they knew a replacement for Judas was in order because, apparently, there would be work to do for their Master Jesus and they wanted to be as prepared to hit the ground running in that work as they could be. There is some real faith in all that, some real hope, some real trust that the Jesus who had prayed for their role in this world (cf. the Gospel Lectionary passage in John 17) would indeed be enabling precisely that work and so they wanted to be in the best possible position to do it.
Of all the things the Church does to this day, electing and selecting elders, deacons, committee chairpersons, and the like hardly is headline-grabbing stuff. Even many church members (most?) skip the Annual Meeting in favor of grabbing a post-worship cup of coffee at Starbucks. Electing new officebearers in the church has all the excitement of running to the store for milk, eggs, and cheese.
However . . . if there is work to be done for God’s kingdom—if we have a Gospel that is every bit as worthy of proclamation today as it was 2,000 years ago in the Mediterranean Basin—then we need to be ready to do that work. Part of such readiness is having people around to do the work and making sure we continue to rely on the Holy Spirit of God to steer us toward the right people at that. As such, the event narrated at the end of Acts 1 most certainly does not count as the most astonishing story in the New Testament. But neither is it a mere blip of boring unimportance. In the maintenance of a well-led church there is at bottom a deep and abiding faith in the One who promised to be always with us and to always provide so long as there was work to be done.
There’s more than a little something to be thankful for in all that after all!
Somehow Acts 1 and its depiction of a band of believers numbering 120 put me in mind to relay Frederick Buechner’s definition of “The Communion of the Saints” whose reality we confess each time we say The Apostles’ Creed. This is taken from Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, Harper & Row 1988, pp. 30-31.
At the altar table, the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread and his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.
The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they’re doing. Maybe this is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has a part in it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumiere at Versailles, when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.
And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did—or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will—come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.
Whatever other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we come also to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with Gabriel and Michael, and the fat parson, and the Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth don’t fit, and Teresa in her ecstasy, we are the communion of the saints.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 1, in combination with Psalm 2, introduces the entire Psalter that is the book of Psalms. James May suggests that the combination of those psalms invites hearers to read and use the entire psalm book as God’s guide to a what constitutes a “blessed” or “happy life.” Some modern translators prefer “happy” over “blessed” as the best rendering of the Hebrew word asre. After all, to call someone blessed may seem to imply that God showers material blessings on her. “Happy,” by contrast seems to refer to the “righteous” person’s outlook on life in God’s world.
Those who study Psalm 1 carefully may be quickly struck by the bold, dark lines it seems to draw between “wicked” and “righteous” people. It seems to leave no middle ground, no room for the recognition that the line between good and evil runs not between people, but right down the middle of each person. That’s why James Mays is helpful when he suggests that the psalmist drawing a line not between people, but between ways of living. Concern with and the search of God’s teaching is the kind of pattern of life that pleases and honors the Lord. On the other hand, the psalmist asserts that a concern with and the search of one’s own interests is the kind of way of living that dishonors God.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 will do well to note that the psalmist fills it with many both “action verbs” and vivid images. It’s almost as if we can scarcely keep up with the breathless pace of all that walking, sitting, standing, meditating, yielding, prospering, blowing, watching over and even perishing. The psalmist’s palate is full of the vibrant colors evoked by terms like mockers, a tree planted by streams of living water, fruits, leaves and chaff. So those who exposit it will want to use lots of evocative and lively verbs and images. Psalm 1 offers no invitation to flat, dull, heavily analytical preaching.
Psalm 1’s “man” or “person” is like a hiker who has reached a kind of branch in her trail. Which way will the person walk? Will she lurch down the trail sinners and wicked people hike on? Or will she scramble up the path the righteous follow?
We might also say that this psalm’s person is like someone who’s entered a crowded classroom, looking for a place to sit. Will he sit in the back, along with the mockers? Or in the front, next to people who study God’s teaching day and night? Psalm 1 also invites hearers to imagine themselves as plants. What kind of plants will we choose to be? Worthless chaff? Or a flourishing tree? Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 may benefit from spending time looking for other metaphors for faithful and rebellious ways of living.
Of course, Psalm 1 suggests that the “wicked,” “sinners” and “mockers” are hard to avoid as we walk along life’s sidewalk. They seem to be almost everywhere. Wicked people are generous with their advice. Sinners stand along the way. Mockers even sit in various places. So is the psalmist calling worshipers to a kind of splendid isolation, to life spent crouched with other believers behind the walls of Christian “ghettoes?” Mays suggests that the psalmist is inviting worshipers to isolate themselves not from sinners themselves, but from wicked influences and affects on our ways of living. After all, while Jesus himself sat, walked and even ate with sinful people, their way of living and thinking didn’t negatively affect how he lived.
Yet Psalm 1 also offers thoughtful preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the affects of socializing with those who rebel against God and God’s good and loving purposes. Who is influencing who as Christians interact with family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers who don’t share their commitment to the Lord of life? What does it take for believers to walk, stand and sit with rebels, positively influencing them rather than being negatively impacted by them?
Psalm 1 compares the “happy” person to a tree that the Master Forester has planted by streams of living water. Its imagery is reminiscent of Jeremiah 17:7-8: “Blessed is the man that trusts in the Lord … He will be like a tree planted by the water.” Each passage emphasizes the work of transplanting, suggesting that the happy person doesn’t naturally stand by those life-nourishing waters. She may even have originally been planted among the “wicked.” Psalm 1 implies that the happy “tree” isn’t by that water by accident, but because of the loving hand of someone who has transplanted her there. It implies that it’s the work of the tranplanter God, though the psalmist doesn’t even explicitly identify God until verse 6.
The “happy tree” draws his nourishment not from the advice of the wicked, but from the life-giving “law of the Lord.” So he makes it his priority, his delight to spend his time meditating not on sinners’ teachings, but on God’s teaching as it’s found in God’s law. This teaching presents Psalm 1’s preachers and teachers with opportunities to reflect on how busy citizens of the 21st century can make God’s teaching such a high priority in the lives of those they love and them. How do we clear out time and space to meditate on God’s law for just an hour or so a day, to say nothing of all day and night long?
It’s a vital question given the stakes involved. Psalm 1 insists that those who make God’s teaching a priority in their lives do what God created them to do, yielding “fruit” in its season. Their leaves don’t wither, even in the drought of suffering and adversity. “Happy trees” that draw their nourishment from God’s teaching are fruitful. What they do brings glory to God and blessing to God.
Yet the psalmist insists that the lasting, we might say eternal stakes are even higher. After all, God watches over the way of those who make God’s law a priority. Nothing, not even the final judgment, can separate them from God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. However, the psalmist suggests that those who persistently and finally make their own ways their priority will not stand at the final judgment. Those who have permanently chosen to stand with sinners and their ways of life will not, in the end, stand in the assembly of the righteous. They’ll be blown away like chaff by the hot breath of God’s holy anger.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 may have to be careful not to even imply a kind of works righteousness that suggests that our meditation on and obedience to God’s teaching saves us. Read in the light of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, it presents an opportunity to reflect on what it means that God has already raised God’s children to life with Jesus Christ.
Few farm chores were traditionally more onerous than putting oats into storage. After all, oat chaff has a tendency to fly everywhere. Even the tiniest puff of breeze can send chaff swirling to land on a person’s clothing, as well as in her hair, eyes, nose and even open mouth. Sweat serves as a kind of adhesive that glues the chaff to skin. Such chaff feels very prickly once it’s latched onto human skin.
The psalmist compares wicked people to such bothersome chaff. She suggests that they’re so insubstantial that even the slightest hint of a breeze blows them “away.” Might it be too much of a stretch to suggest that their relative weightlessness also renders wicked people a nuisance to the people around them?