May 25 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Sixth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-21; John 14:15-21
Theme: The idea of preparation is buzzing around in my head this week as we move ever closer to the great climax of the Easter Season, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And as I have been reflecting on this it has occurred to me that we are in a sort of Advent Season; as we need to prepare for the coming of Christ, so we need these last two weeks to prepare for the coming of the Spirit. So I'm going with "Preparing the Way of the Spirit".
Introduction. We begin this week with Paul's great effort to tackle the Athenians on their home ground, perhaps to underline that intellectual effort can only take us so far, even if we are as gifted at it as the Greeks were. The resurrection does not make rational sense: evangelism by argument of that kind is never going to be hugely successful, even with a proponent like Paul. Peter advocates a different approach: always be prepared to answer anyone who asks why we place our faith and hope in Christ. Personal testimony, rather than intellectual rigour, makes converts. But first, the Spirit must come, and John shows Jesus trying to prepare his disciples for that very advent.
Background. Last week I must have distracted myself while preparing the Notes. Having made some enigmatic remark about the person whom Stephen saw standing at the right hand of God, I meant to say more about the frequency with which Jesus identified himself – or, more accurately, seemed to refer to himself, as "the Son of Man". In particular, in each of the three explicit cases where he spoke of his coming death and resurrection he used that terminology: the only exception that I can find off-hand is a general reference in Matthew 16:21, and that is not a direct quote from Jesus but an "editorial comment" from Matthew. More typical is this from the next chapter (17:22-23): Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised."
Three brief points about this usage by Jesus of this term "Son of Man". First, it is so pervasive throughout the gospels (although less frequent in John) that it is most unlikely that it was made up by the gospel writers for some theological reason: we may be pretty confident that Jesus used the term originally. Secondly, nobody else did: apart from Stephen in his death throes, no one ever referred to Jesus as the Son of Man; and the term appears nowhere else in the New Testament (in Revelation 1:13 the reference is to "one like the Son of Man"). And thirdly, nobody seemed to ask Jesus who he was talking about when he spoke about the Son of Man except a member of a hostile crowd in John 12:34.
And here's another question the disciples never seemed to have asked whenever Jesus predicted his death and resurrection: then what? "Lord, after you have been raised from the dead, what will you do next?" Wouldn't that have been an obvious question to ask? And if they had asked, the obvious answer would surely have been along the following lines: "Well, I shall appear to you so that you can be assured that I have been raised, and then I shall ascend to my Father in heaven, and we shall send to you the Holy Spirit to guide you until the end of the age." Yet, according to the synoptic gospels the question was never asked and the answer was never given. How the issue is dealt with in the Fourth Gospel we can see in this week's passage; but before that there is one more thing to say about this term "the Son of Man".
It seems widely accepted that the term is taken from Daniel 7:13-14. Unfortunately, in our desire to use inclusive language the NRSV somewhat obscures the term by referring to "one like a human being", but the editors partially redeem themselves with a footnote to the effect that in Aramaic the text says "one like a son of man". Whatever term is used, it is clear from the text that this mysterious figure is "eschatological"; and what is even more clear is that the use of those verses has shaped our mental picture of the so-called "Second Coming" of Christ ever since. A classic example is found in Matthew 24:30. In short, the belief in the early church that Christ would return in the immediate future was so dominant that no thought was given to any gap between the resurrection and the end of the age. It would be a terrible but short period of trials and tribulations, after which those who held firm to the faith would be vindicated and raised up to the heavenly realms.
What then of the Ascension and Pentecost? Despite the fact that all four gospels were written with the benefit of hindsight, there is precious little about these events in the first three gospels. Matthew ends his gospel with the Risen Christ, already imbued with "all authority in heaven and on earth", commissioning the disciples for mission to the world, and promising to be with them to the end of the age. Who knows where Mark finished his gospel! Even in the all-too-obvious "add-on" the reference is to the Ascension only, and an assurance that the Lord continued to work with the church as it went about its mission. Only Luke has anything like a prediction of the coming of the Spirit (24:49), followed by a clear reference to the Ascension, both of which he amplifies in the opening verses of the Book of Acts. But notice the wording in that verse 49: "I am sending you what my Father promised." Assuming that this is a reference to the gift of the Holy Spirit, when did the Father promise it? According to Peter in his famous Pentecost sermon, the promise was made through the prophet Joel. This surely is the clearest evidence possible that nobody thought that Jesus, before his death and resurrection, had made any prediction about the coming of the Spirit.
So what is John up to in this week's passage, and in the rest of the so-called "Farewell Discourses"? The short answer is that he is clearly wrestling with a rather large gap between what has actually happened in the 60 or so years after Christ's death and resurrection and what believers had thought would happen during that period based on the apostles' teaching. Why hadn't the Son of Man come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, as they had expected? Why hadn't this present age ended so decisively? Had something gone horribly wrong, or had they misunderstood what was to happen next? John's first answer starts here at 14:15 and runs through to the end of this chapter. But it seems that it didn't satisfy him, and he returned to it in chapters 15-17, a block widely believed to be a later interpolation between 14:31 and 18:1. As I reflect on it, it seems to me that chapters 15-17 can best be understood as John's expansion – the fruit of yet further reflection – on what he has written in chapter 14:15-31.
And we have only two weeks in which to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit!
Acts. Paul has been on the run for some time; hounded out of Thessalonica and Beroea, his security detail has brought him to Athens, and if you read verses 16-21 of this chapter 17 you can see why. For anybody who enjoys a good verbal stoush it sounds an ideal place to visit; and I just love the description of the locals in verse 21! It sounds like the annual convention of the New Atheists Association, except that there were a surprising number of open-minded people in the Areopagus. Not surprisingly, the crunch point came when Paul mentioned the resurrection, but even so only some of the audience scoffed; others asked for a further meeting, and still others were convinced and joined the believers. From Paul's point of view, a pretty good return for his time and effort.
Taking It Personally.
· Read slowly though the passage, noting the various steps in Paul's argument. How persuasive do you find his approach?
· Paul observes the number of altars and concludes that they are a very "religious" people. Is that the term you would use; or might you use "superstitious"?
· What do you make of verse 24? Why then do we have places of worship?
· What do you make of verse 25? Do we not serve God with our hands?
· Now ponder verse 27: leaving aside our modern difficulties with the word "grope", does this describe your own spiritual search?
· Is God near to you? Are you his offspring?
· Re-read verse 31. Granted that Paul is trying to be brief, what do you feel about the gist of the gospel being "the judgment of the world in righteousness by a man"?
Peter. The epistles bearing Peter's name are not among the most interesting or entertaining in Scripture; but every now and then they reward the long-suffering reader with a nugget of pure gold. In this week's passage verse 15 surely qualifies for that description. Here is the key to real evangelism – or "faith-sharing" if that sounds less scary. If someone asks us to recommend a film, a book, a car or a breed of dog we usually have no difficulty in explaining our choice: why then should we blush if asked to explain our faith? Peter links our faith back to the resurrection, baptism, and even to the Ascension. But that's all theological wrapping: the gift we offer to those who inquire is our experience of Christ in our hearts.
Taking It Personally.
· What in the manner of your life might prompt someone to ask you why you believe in Jesus?
· On a one-to-one basis, how would you explain your faith to a friend who inquires?
· Pray for the opportunity to share your faith with someone this week. Pray, too, that the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say when the opportunity arises.
John. Last week we had the first 14 verses of this chapter 14. It seemed to look backwards towards Easter, rather than forwards to what comes next. Overall the tone was comforting and assuring. Jesus is trying to reassure his disciples that life will go on, despite his forthcoming death. Although the Ascension is not referred to directly, the idea weaves in and out of those verses; but there is no mention of the Holy Spirit. The unity between the Father and the Son is stressed; and there is a possible hint of a future "coming" in verse 3. But the exact relationship between the ascended Christ and his disciples seems a bit blurred. They can ask him for help and it will be forthcoming; but it seems that he will be in heaven while they are here on earth. The new stuff begins this week, and it begins with a verse we might not have noticed too much. Verse 15 seems to be a condition precedent for the coming of the Spirit: only if we keep the new commandment to love one another will the Lord ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit/Advocate/Spirit of Truth. He will be with us (believers) for ever; in fact, he will be in us. So far, reasonably clear. But what are we to make of verse 18? Is this "coming" different from the coming of the Holy Spirit? Similarly, in verse 20, will the Lord be in us as well as the Holy Spirit? We are back to the problem Paul faced at the Areopagus: ultimately spiritual truths cannot be comprehended intellectually. John is writing from his own experience of the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit: we can only hope to understand from our own experience.
Taking It Personally
· Do you agree or disagree that Jesus did not predict, prior to his death and resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit? Does it matter?
· What might you do to over the next two weeks to prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?
· What do you make of verse 15? Does it suggest that the Holy Spirit comes only to believers who love one another? Does your local faith community "qualify"?
· In one sentence, how would you summarise your present understanding of the presence of the Holy Spirit's work in your life?