Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019
To help pagan converts understand their new church's history, Acts of the Apostles tells of Christian origins in Judaism, and how the earliest believers separated from the Jews.
The Book of Revelation bolstered the faith of persecuted Christians by depicting God's final triumph in Jesus. This passage describes a scene in the court of heaven, where angels and patriarchs, and indeed all of creation, salute Jesus the Lamb.
In this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his closest disciples, details remind us of earlier gospel themes and events: the disciples' inability to do anything without Jesus, Peter's triple denial, Jesus as the provider of food, the necessity to follow Jesus even unto death.
Our Literary and Liturgical Settings: The Acts of Apostles tries to introduce new Gentile converts to the "family history" of the church they're joining, with highlights of the growth and struggles of the earliest Christian community after Pentecost. In the Sundays of this liturgical season, we get these elements: last Sunday, early growth in numbers, and miracles like those of Jesus; today, censure from the Jewish authorities; next week, the first Gentile converts; on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, travels with Paul; then a pivotal dispute within the church about the obligation to keep the law of Moses; then the first martyrdom of a Christian; then, in calendarical if not chronological order, Pentecost.
Your Proclamation: Two features of this reading should stand out in your proclamation. The first is Peter's rendering of the gospel in response to his interrogators. Don't let this compelling summary of the Good News get lost. Imagine yourself in Peter's place. The high priest barks at you. You stare back in silence for a moment, then stand, never taking your eyes off his. You don't hate or fear this man, and you'd love for him to accept the gospel. You don't think that's likely, but you're going to be as convincing as you can be. You take a deep breath and begin:
Now that you've convinced the congregation, if not the high priest, of the truth of the gospel, note the other special feature of this story, and make sure the congregation hears how special it is. The apostles left the hearing "rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name." Note that the author of Acts doesn't think it necessary to expand on "the name." If you have the slightest doubt about whose name he means, read all the preceding chapters of Acts.
The Literary and Historical Background: The Book of Revelation was written to bolster the faith of persecuted Christians. Its imaginative language is in some ways code meant to hide its meanings from the persecutors. In paragraphs prior to today's reading, the author has set this scene: In heaven, angels and similar creatures sing praises around God's throne. In God's hand is a sealed scroll. A voice has asked who is worthy to receive that scroll and open its seals. Then a slain Lamb appears, Jesus. Voices salute him as worthy to receive and open the scroll. Then they go further, saying "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing."
Your Proclamation: This dry summary does not do justice to the rich imagery in Revelation, chapters 4 & 5, which I recommend to the lector. Nor is this the place to dig into the theology of it all. It's enough to say, perhaps, that the spirit of your proclamation of this passage should be the Easter spirit. We've gathered to celebrate that Jesus has done something unprecedented and unexpected, and given us something undeserved. His accomplishment is great enough to earn the praise of the heavenly court, and of the earthly lector and congregation. The lector should sound like a member of that court. (Click here for Handel's rendering of this text in Messiah, performed in a sprightly tempo by the English Concert under Trevor Pinnock. The composer and performers capture the spirit of this text very well. Mutatis mutandis, let the lector sound as enthusiastic.)
Jan Van Eyck, Altarpiece for Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, c. 1432 (detail). This image reproduced from Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece, following their protocol for sharing their images.
The Belgian Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage is kind enough to post its website in Dutch, French and English. To watch a conservator work on another part of the altarpiece, click here. 2.5 minutes. The artisan speaks Dutch, I'm pretty sure.
This page updated April 3, 2019