Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C, May 1, 2016
To the first Gentile converts, Christianity seemed like a sect within Judaism that had opened up to outsiders. That any Jewish group could take that unprecedented step was a great surprise in the ancient Middle East. The book of Acts tries to explain that to those converts. Today's passage gives details about the controversy.
The book of Revelation tried to encourage persecuted Christians. It uses symbols and the language of mystic visions to conceal its meanings from the persecutors. Today we continue pondering the image of a new Jerusalem, historically the symbol of God's presence among the people.
Jesus continues his farewell discourse, preparing his followers for changes in the ways they will know God is present in their lives.
The Historical Situation: This might seem like the story of a trivial controversy, but clues in the text and elsewhere in the New Testament prove that it's a very weighty issue, indeed. Within the text, the major clue is the convening of the apostles in Jerusalem to look into it. It couldn't be settled on a local level, although Paul and Barnabas tried that first.
Unfortunately, the Lectionary selection elides the great theological debate, which includes the speeches of Peter and James. The lector would do well to read all of Acts, chapter 15. Here's a daring suggestion for a good lector in a liturgically sophisticated parish: If you found the reading of the whole controversy exciting, share that excitement with your congregation. Ask the presider, or the preacher, if you can proclaim the whole story, verses 1 through 29. Do this only if your speaking skills will be up to conveying the drama. Do it early in the week, so the preacher has the chance to reckon with these verses while preparing the homily. Even if you rule out this suggestion immediately, do read to yourself the whole chapter.
The Theological Background: Elsewhere in the New Testament, the "what must we do to be saved" controversy is most weighty. In the gospels, there's the story of the young man who kept all the commandments, and asked Jesus what he must do to be saved. And there's Saint Paul's eloquent wrestling with this question, first in Galatians, then, in a more polished way, in Romans.
Finally, the issue is momentous for two reasons: It marks a significant break of Christianity from Judaism. And it marks a significant break from an ancient, but resilient mindset; it puts the burden for saving us not on ourselves, but on God. This second point is subtle, but it takes great faith to say, finally, "I can't make myself good enough to be saved, no matter how much I pray or try to keep the laws. I believe that God loves me anyway. I believe God is unlike all those who measure me only by my performance, wealth, virtue or charm."
Proclaiming It: So, whether you read the long form or the Lectionary-only verses, how are you going to proclaim this so that your assembly catches on? I'd set the stage by exaggerating with my voice the first quote, "You can't be saved unless you are circumcised according to the law of Moses." You've heard strident, petulant people trying to tell others what they have to do. Mockingly imitate them when you read this sentence. That will get everyone's attention. Then make the letter from the apostles in Jerusalem have all the gravity of a Supreme Court decision. There are a couple of windy sentences before you get to the heart of the matter. These words deserve special solemnity:
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours, too, not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary.
Casting the two sides of the controversy in contrasting tones of voice is the best thing you can do.
The Historical Situation: The book of Revelation was written to bolster the faith of persecuted early Christians. Today's passage continues what we began last week from the final section of the book.
The Theological Background: What is so special to the author about Jerusalem that he should make it the central metaphor for his teaching? The ancient Jerusalem had long been for the Jews a token of God's presence with them. God had aided them in capturing and holding it, in making it their capital, in building the Temple there, and in returning to it after their exile in Babylon. Within the holiest chamber of the Jerusalem Temple, they kept the stone tablets of the Law given to Moses in an enthroned chest known as the ark of the Covenant. God was thought to dwell in a particular way in the space above the ark. This all gives richness to the image of a new Jerusalem. This is, in the end, a metaphor for the Church, which is always called to reveal to the human race God's presence among us.
Your Proclamation: The lector should try to capture in his or her voice the awe experienced by the visionary. John is having awe-filled sensations inasmuch as he's seeing visions. But he's also experiencing an intellectual, theological revolution. Great truths about God and our relationship with God are implied in everything John sees.
That's why, in today's passage, the absence of a temple in the new Jerusalem is so astonishing. How astonishing? As much as a city without the light of sun or moon, and in the first century! For John to say that God himself is the temple implies that now the faithful have an unmediated access to God in Jesus that's unlike anything offered to humanity before, by any religion. That's the sentence that you should emphasize.
Light glints from the fish-shaped oculus above the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California, U.S.A. Image © Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP, architects, and © Cesar Rubio, photographer. See a slideshow of images from the cathedral at America magazine. For an article about the cathedral by Judith Dupré, click here.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated March 19, 2016