Last revised: June 1, 2017
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SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
RoCa: Acts 1:12-14; 1 Peter 4:13-16; John 17:1-11
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 81-82. For example:
First he announces the closeness of the kingdom of God and works signs. At the same time he begins to choose people to be his witnesses. And he chooses twelve. This already tells us something about what he thought he was doing: that is, he was symbolically refounding Israel, with its twelve tribes. It’s very important that we notice this, since this number continues to be stressed until Pentecost. The ones who were chosen themselves understood that they had been chosen to bring about a restoration of the kingdom of Israel: that’s why they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if it is now that he will restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). And immediately after the Ascension, and before Pentecost, they choose Matthias to fill the empty place among the twelve which had been left by Judas. Their criterion for choosing was that the one chosen should have accompanied Jesus and the twelve original witnesses during the whole of Jesus’ public ministry up until his Ascension. That is, it was understood that fundamental to what Jesus wanted to do was the bringing about of some sort of new symbolic Israel, and that what makes this possible is the presence of people who had lived through the whole process of the change of mind and of heart produced by the ministry and passion of Jesus and then his presence as risen victim.
2. In The Joy of Being Wrong, James Alison stresses even more the human process of discovery of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (cf., pp. 77ff.). The disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 illustrates the frailty of this human process. They were completely in the dark before the resurrection, and the opening of their eyes after the resurrection is still only gradual. Here they have had the Risen Jesus among them for 40 days, and their question still betrays a misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. Peter will still have an “Aha!” moment with Cornelius several chapters later in Acts 10-11.
3. Link to a sermon that Alison’s notion of the power we see in the Ascension as a power that stands up to evil nonviolently. The central illustration is the movie Dead Poet’s Society, with the suggestion that the Church is to be a “Risen Lord’s Society.”
4. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (ch. 7, “Jesus, Heaven, and New Creation,” begins with a section on the Ascension) and Acts for Everyone: Chapters 1-12. Wright has been one of the strong proponents that recent Christianity has had the vector of salvation wrong when it hopes for going up to heaven some day after death. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the opposite, for God’s Kingdom to come down to earth. So why does the Ascension have the vector pointing up? In Surprised by Hope, Wright cites other uses of the up as metaphorical, such as, “My child moved up to 4th Grade,” or, “I was promoted up to CEO.” His explanation in Acts for Everyone is excellent:
But once we grasp that heaven and earth mean what they mean in the Bible, and that heaven is not, repeat not, a location within our own cosmos of space, time and matter, situated somewhere up in the sky (up from whose point of view? Europe? Brazil? Australia?), then we are ready, or as ready as we are likely to be, to understand the ascension, described here quite simply and briefly by Luke. Neither Luke nor the other early Christians thought Jesus had suddenly become a primitive spaceman, heading off into orbit or beyond, so that if you searched throughout the far reaches of what we call space you would eventually find him. They believed that heaven and earth are the two interlocking spheres of God’s reality, and that the risen body of Jesus is the first (and so far the only) object which is fully at home in both and hence in either, anticipating the time when everything will be renewed and joined together. And so, since as T. S. Eliot said, humankind cannot bear very much reality, the new, overwhelming reality of a heaven-and-earth creature will not just yet live in both dimensions together, but will make itself himself at home within the heavenly dimension for the moment, until the time comes for heaven and earth to be finally renewed and united. At that point, of course, this renewed Jesus himself will be the central figure.
That is the point of the event, and its explanation, as we find them in verses 9-11. Jesus is lifted up, indicating to the disciples not that he was heading out somewhere beyond the moon, beyond Mars, or wherever, but that he was going into God’s space, God’s dimension. The cloud, as so often in the Bible, is the sign of God’s presence (think of the pillar of cloud and fire as the children of Israel wandered through the desert, or the cloud and smoke that filled the Temple when God became suddenly present in a new way). Jesus has gone into God’s dimension of reality; but he’ll be back on the day when that dimension and our present one are brought together once and for all. That promise hangs in the air over the whole of Christian history from that day to this. That is what we mean by the second coming.
There are two other things which are, as we say, going on in this passage. Some first-century readers would have picked up one of these, some the other, some perhaps both. First, one of the central Old Testament promises for the early Christians was in Daniel 7, where one like a son of man is brought up, on the clouds of heaven, to the Ancient of Days, and is presented before him and given kingly power over the nations, and particularly over the beasts, the monsters representing the forces of evil and chaos. For someone who had long pondered that passage — and there are plenty of signs that the early Christians did just that — the story of Jesus ascension would indicate that Daniel 7 had been fulfilled in a dramatic and unexpected way, with the human figure who had suffered at the hands of the evil powers of the world now being exalted into the very presence of God himself, there to receive kingly power. This fits so well with the previous passage (verses 6-8) that it is hard to suppose that Luke did not intend it.
Second, many of Luke’s readers would know that when a Roman emperor died, it had become customary to declare that someone had seen his soul escaping from his body and going up to heaven. If you go to the top end of the Forum in Rome, stand under the Arch of Titus, and look up, you will see a carving of the soul of Titus, who was emperor in the 80’s of the first century, ascending to heaven. The message of this was clear: the emperor was becoming a god (thus enabling his son and heir to style himself son of god, which is a useful title if you want to run the world). The parallel is not so close this time, since Luke is clear that it was not Jesus soul that ascended into heaven, leaving his body behind somewhere, but his whole, renewed, bodily, complete self. But there is then a sense that Jesus is upstaging anything the Roman emperors might imagine for themselves. He is the reality, and they are the parody — a theme we will notice more than once as Luke’s story unfolds. And when, at the end of Luke’s book, the good news of Jesus is being preached in Rome itself, openly and unhindered, we have a sense of ”Of course!” That’s how it had to be. He is the world’s true and rightful king, sharing the very throne, and somehow even, so it seems, the identity, of the one true God.
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 12, “Stories That Shape Us,” uses this passage as a primary text. McLaren recounts the story of Elijah being taken into heaven by chariot and wonders about a basic reading strategy for the Bible’s stories, one that focuses on the meaning conveyed without getting hung up on literal readings. He writes:
In that light, the Elijah story addresses an urgent question: What happens when a great leader dies? Typically, a blaze of glory surrounds the hero’s departure symbolized by the fiery chariot and horses in the story. After the leader is gone, the actual life and message of the leader are forgotten, obscured by the blaze of fame and glory. People become fans of the leader’s reputation but not followers of his example. That’s why the old mentor Elijah puts his young apprentice Elisha through many trials and warns him about the spectacle surrounding his departure. The fireworks are not the point, Elijah explains; they’re a distraction, a temptation to be overcome. If the apprentice resists that distraction and remains resolutely focused on the mentor himself, a double portion of the mentor’s spirit will rest on him.
We see something very similar in the story of Jesus departure. Will his followers look up at the sky and speculate about their departed leader with their heads in the clouds? Will they be fans instead of followers? Or will they get down to work and stay focused on living and sharing Jesus down-to-Earth way of life, empowered with his Spirit? (p. 52)
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2011, a number of things had come together. I had attended the 2011 Annual Conference of Theology & Peace (with Brian McLaren as a featured speaker), where I had led the closing Eucharist, using words from Richard Rohr‘s, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Traveling to the conference, I was reading Tony Bartlett‘s Virtually Christian, where “down is the new up” — with Rob Bell‘s Love Wins still fresh, where “here is the new there.” The result was an Ascension oriented sermon on “Getting Our Prepositions Straight.”
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
1. 1 Peter 4:16 (a verse omitted from this lection in the RCL but not the Catholic lectionary) is quoted by James Alison on pages 181-182 of Raising Abel in reflecting on the NT picture of reputation, shame vs. glory, in the context of suffering.
1. didōmi, “to give,” appears 11 times in these eleven verses.
2. zoe aionios, vs. 2-3, “eternal life.” 17:3 is the verse where John’s Jesus himself explains what this phrase means: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.” But the significance of this phrase goes beyond these verses to contemporary New Testament theology.
Crucial to changing interpretations of New Testament theology is get a more accurate translation of zoe aionios. Here, for example, is an insightful commentary by Brian McLaren, in The Secret Message of Jesus:
Interestingly, John almost never uses the term kingdom of God (which is at the heart of Jesus message for Matthew, Mark, and Luke). There are two exceptions, both of which occur in this unique conversation [with Nicodemus in John 3]. Instead, John normally translates kingdom of God into another phrase that is notoriously hard to render in English. Most commonly, John’s translation of Jesus original phrase is rendered eternal life in English. Unfortunately, the phrase eternal life is often misinterpreted to mean life in heaven after you die — as are kingdom of God and its synonym, kingdom of heaven — so I think we need to find a better rendering.
If eternal life doesn’t mean life after death, what does it mean? Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus reduces the phrase simply to life, or life to the full. Near the end of John’s account, Jesus makes a particularly fascinating statement in a prayer, and it is as close as we get to a definition: This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [God has] sent (John 17:3). So here, eternal life means knowing, and knowing means an interactive relationship. In other words, This is eternal life, to have an interactive relationship with the only true God and with Jesus Christ, his messenger. Interestingly, that’s what a kingdom is too: an interactive relationship one has with a king, the king’s other subjects, and so on.
The Greek phrase John uses for eternal life literally means life of the ages, as opposed, I think we could say, to life as people are living it these days. So John’s related phrases eternal life, life to the full, and simply life give us a unique angle on what Jesus meant by kingdom of God: a life that is radically different from the way people are living these days, a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God. (pp. 36-37)
McLaren is following recent New Testament scholarship on this rendering — preeminently N.T. Wright, especially in his books The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope. He offers the translation of “eternal life” in his The Kingdom New Testament, as the life of the coming age, or “life in God’s new age.” His best explanation of translating the Greek phrase zoe aionias is in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels:
God so loved the world, reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two aions (we sometimes use the word eon in that sense): the Present age, ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the age to come, ha-olam ha-ba. The age to come, many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the present age. You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this age to come is eternal in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
3. kosmos, “world.” Walter Wink has an important discussion of John’s use of kosmos in Engaging the Powers, pp. 50-59. He suggests we hear it as “Domination System,” or simply “the System.” A Girardian might instead think in similar terms using language from Mimetic Theory — something like Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s phrase “Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism” (GMSM), which he uses in The Gospel and the Sacred.
In keeping with Wright‘s thesis about “eternal life” (above) — that it renders the Hebrew phrase ha-olam ha-ba, “age to come” — we might also render kosmos as the Hebrew twin of “age to come”: ha-olam hazeh, “present age.”
4. An alternate translation of John 17:1-11. It begins with N. T. Wright‘s Kingdom New Testament translation, including his rendering of “eternal life” as “the life of God’s coming age.” So I translate kosmos as the contrasting “this present age.” Finally, I translate doxazō as “exalt” instead of “glorify,” and doxa as “splendor” instead of “glory.” It’s not a big change, but “glory” is a loaded term in contemporary English, and I wanted to try something perhaps less loaded. The resulting translation is as follows:
Father, he said, the moment has come. Exalt your son, so that your son may exalt you. 2Do this in the same way as you did when you gave him authority over all flesh, so that he could give the life of God’s coming age to everyone you gave him. 3And by the life of God’s coming age I mean this: that they should know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah, the one you sent.
4I exalted you on earth, by completing the work you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, exalt me, alongside yourself, with the splendor which I had with you before this present age existed.
6I revealed your name to the people you gave me out of this present age. They belonged to you; you gave them to me; and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything which you gave me comes from you. 8I have given them the words you gave me, and they have received them. They have come to know, in truth, that I came from you. They have believed that you sent me.
9I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for this present age, but for the people you’ve given me. They belong to you. 10All mine are yours; all yours are mine; and I’m exalted in them.
11I’m not in this present age any longer, but they’re still in this present age; I’m coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, the name you’ve given to me, so that they may be one, just as we are one.
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 95. Alison cites John 17:5 as one of the NT texts which posits creation through a pre-existent Christ. His argument is amazing in showing how creation in Christ developed from the experience of the Resurrection as the forgiveness of sin; link to an excerpt of “Creation in Christ.”
3. James Alison, Knowing Jesus, p. 109:
The point of these remarks is that Jesus real concern is that people should know the Father, not him. At the same time he is aware that he is revealing the Father, and that it is only through him that a real knowledge of the Father is made available. That is: it is only in seeing the pattern of Jesus life, lived with the intelligence of the victim, that it becomes possible to know the Father, who is revealed only in the casting out. Let me try to make that clearer. The whole process of Jesus life, leading up to and including his death, is what defines who the Father is. This is because the life is lived in obedient response to the Fathers love, and is an exact imitation of the Fathers love lived out in the conditions of the human race. The imitation reveals the one imitated. It was Jesus life and death that made possible the human discovery of who the Father really is.
So, Jesus makes himself known, not as an end in himself, but strictly as the means of revealing the Father. His famous response to Philip in John 14 says exactly this: I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me. What Jesus is, he is as revealing the Father. Later on, this is made clearer still when Jesus says, and this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent. (John 17.3).
4. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, ch. 19, “How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?” McLaren offers a close reading of John 13-17 in this chapter, especially 14:1-6. In a footnote to his explanation of 14:6, he writes:
This reading takes seriously the play on the word know. Thomas is saying, ”How can we have intellectual clarity on where youre going or the route or technique to get there?” Jesus replies, ”You don’t need intellectual clarity; you need personal knowledge. It’s not a matter of knowing about, but rather knowing.” Similarly, when Philip says, ”Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus replies, “Philip, don’t you know me?” Remember, this theme of personal knowing as interactive relationship (closely related to friendship) is strong through all of Johns gospel. Just three chapters later Jesus says, ”And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). ”I am the life” in John 14:6, then, has a powerful resonance with John 17:3, in effect saying, “Eternal life is to know God and to know Jesus Christ, whom he has sent.”
(See, also, a slide presentation on Girard, in the context of A New Kind of Christianity, that Brian McLaren made to Theology & Peace on June 1, 2011. McLaren shared that his next book — which was Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? — will make substantial use of Girard’s work.)
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 45, “Spirit of Unity and Diversity,” uses this passage as a primary text. It fits even better for Trinity Sunday in two weeks. McLaren outlines five shifts in understanding God according to the Trinity. The third one is most relevant to this passage:
Third, through the Trinity we transcend us-them, in-out thinking. Imprisoned in our old familiar dualistic thinking, we were always dividing the world into mine and yours, one and other, same and different, better and worse. In the Trinity, we move beyond that dualism so that mine and yours are reconciled into ours. One and other are transformed into one another. Same and different are harmonized without being homogenized or colonized. Us and them are united without loss of identity and without dividing walls of hostility. To put it in philosophical terms, dualism doesnt regress to monism. It is transcended. (pp. 228-29)
6. N. T. Wright, John for Everyone: Chapters 11-21. Wright has been one of the consistent champions against ‘going to heaven’ as the goal of Christian eschatology. So it is no surprise that he would write of “eternal life” in this passage:
This eternal life, this life of the coming age, is not just something which people can have after their death. It isnt simply that in some future state the world will go on for ever and ever and we shall be part of it. The point is, rather, that this new sort of life has come to birth in the world in and through Jesus. Once he has completed the final victory over death itself, all his followers, all who trust him and believe that he has truly come from the father, and has truly unveiled the fathers character and purpose all of them can and will possess eternal life right here and now. That, too, has been one of the great themes of this gospel (e.g. 3.16; 5.24).
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 4, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2008, the TV show ER was winding down. I recalled Dr. Mark Green’s “Farewell Address” to his daughter, as he lay dying, leaving her with the words, “Be generous.” Keying on the use of “to give” eleven times in this passage, I preached a sermon on Jesus’ Farewell Address as climaxing in the message “Be Generous!”
2. In 2014, a book I was reading was making a big impression on me — from an unexpected source — titled 10% Happier, by ABC news anchor Dan Harris. It’s basically his personal account of being ushered into the benefits of meditation pretty much kicking and screaming. I had been dabbling in Contemplative Spirituality for several years, primarily influenced by Richard Rohr and Sr. Nancy Brousseau, the Director of our synod’s center for continuing education. Harris’ book was leading me to rededicate myself to regular, consistent practice (which soon received a ‘shot in the arm’ from Brian Robinette‘s presentation at the 2014 Annual Conference of Theology & Peace). For several weeks I had been building to a point of elaborating further on meditation as an opening to the experience of God abiding in us — “abiding” being a main theme in John, including the previous two weeks. With the prayer for Oneness in John 17, this was the ideal time to focus on contemplative prayer. The sermon “Contemplation and Oneness” has raised a lot of interest in our parish that will likely lead to developing growth in the ancient practices of silent prayer.