This text from the Acts of the Apostles serves several purposes. First, the disciples of Jesus are not to occupy themselves with trying to decipher the time of Jesus’ return. Second, the nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus had preached in his earthly ministry is clarified. Third, a “table of contents” for the remainder of the book of Acts is established here to prepare the reader for how the narrative will unfold.
The most significant lesson lies with Luke’s first point. A peculiar form of Christianity has developed over the centuries that is obsessed with predicting when and how the end of the world will occur. The most recent and perhaps most notable manifestation of this was the late Harold Camping’s failed rapture prediction for May 21, 2011. This kind of Christianity is a diversion, and Luke was wise to warn us off it. Ultimately, doomsday predictions distract us from doing the hard work of the Kingdom – caring for the poor, working for a just social order, reconciling the estranged and doing our own spiritual work. Three times in Luke’s writing he addresses this problem: here; Luke 17:20-37; and Luke 21:7-9. We are better served by listening to the advice of the two interpreting angels who tell us not to worry – when Jesus returns, we’ll know it.
- What are diversions you face, from within and without, in your efforts to do the work of the Kingdom of God?
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
This psalm has long posed challenges to interpreters – is it a collection of fragments or a unity? The text might have been a processional psalm utilized in Temple liturgical procession. Through the first 10 verses, we imagine the assembly gathering behind the sacred ark as it is carried to the holy place. The power of God’s presence is tangible in the quaking of the earth and the pouring down of the rain (v. 8).
Notice also that the themes of justice remain foremost in the mind of the people as they experience the awesome presence of God – father of orphans and protectors of widows; the God who liberates prisoners; the God who provides for the needy (vv. 5,6,10). It is not by accident that poetry crafted for a liturgical procession strikes these themes.
Our ancestors in faith understood, as the best of the Christian tradition has held, that the reflective action that is the substance of our daily living should flow out of liturgy; it is not something separate from it. In other words, attendance at a worship service cannot be compartmentalized. If our daily patterns of living and the choices we make do not reflect an ethos of biblically based justice, then that worship is false. Ultimately, liturgy must serve as a conduit of divine nourishment for all of life; a way that God’s grace comes to “give power and strength” to God’s people (v. 35).
- How have you experienced liturgy as nourishment for Christian living?
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
The way of Christian discipleship is the way of the cross. These verses from the first letter of Peter illustrate this essential doctrine of the faith. Apparently, members of the community to which the author wrote were suffering persecution. Historically speaking, these trials were not at the hands of Roman government officials as the persecution of Nero was, but rather it was “pagan” converts who were facing harassment at the hands of their former co-religionists. The affirmation in faith that suffering and trial can be, and will be, transformed by God into something life giving, something glorious, is once again proclaimed.
The second half of our reading from Chapter 5 is a heartfelt and compelling testament of Christian hope and solidarity. The forces of the devil (from the Greek diabolos, related to the word “divide”) are seeking to cut through the disciples of Jesus, both personally and collectively, but do not have the power to ultimately triumph.
These closing exhortations of 1 Peter carry a cogent message for us today. The power of the Spirit bestowed upon us in baptism never leaves us, and stands to support us as we face divisive life trials. Adhering to Jesus and his vision can seem like a constant test, for so often what the world values, how the world tells us to define ourselves, is antithetical to the gospel. And we face these challenges knowing that many other sisters and brothers in faith stand with us, strengthening us in their solidarity.
- What are the powers of “division,” diabolos, which you face as you seek to live out your call to Christian discipleship?
Chapter 17 marks the culmination of what are known as the Farewell or Last Supper Discourses. Preceding chapters saw Jesus speak to his disciples of the Holy Spirit, the vine and the branches, and the expected hostility they will face in the world. Jesus concludes here with a final prayer. He underscores a consistent theme of John’s gospel; i.e., Jesus has come from God, is God, and is going back to God. As the gospel crescendos to a close, a further theme of the handing of the Spirit is drawn. We see in the scene of Jesus’ death, John 19:30, Jesus’ spirit is “handed over.”
In today’s text, the disciples have been given the “words” of God (v. 8), just as previous chapters have spoken of Jesus bestowing “life,” “water,” and “light.” As the gospel draws to a close, the disciples of Jesus have grown in faith, from partial understanding, to the point of verse 8, “they have believed that you sent me.”
For John, faith has been a journey, inaugurated in the waters of baptism, but only matured through being with Jesus, day after day, and through trial. We see in this how the experience of the first Christians mirrors our own in so many ways.
- How does this text serve as a measure of your own journey of faith?