Thursday, May 20, 2010

I Continue To Make Your Name Known To Them, So That The Love With Which You Love Me May Be In Them, And I May Be In Them.

Thursday of the Seventh Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 22:30; 23:6-11
Wishing to determine the truth
about why Paul was being accused by the Jews,
the commander freed him
and ordered the chief priests
and the whole Sanhedrin to convene.
Then he brought Paul down
and made him stand before them.
Paul was aware that
some were Sadducees and some Pharisees,
so he called out before the Sanhedrin,
“My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees;
I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.”
When he said this,
a dispute broke out
between the Pharisees and Sadducees,
and the group became divided.
For the Sadducees say
that there is no resurrection
or angels or spirits,
while the Pharisees acknowledge all three.
A great uproar occurred,
and some scribes belonging to the Pharisee party
stood up and sharply argued,
“We find nothing wrong with this man.
Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”
The dispute was so serious that the commander,
afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them,
ordered his troops to go down
and rescue Paul from their midst
and take him into the compound.
The following night the Lord stood by him
and said, “Take courage.
For just as you have borne witness
to my cause in Jerusalem,
so you must also bear witness in Rome.”
We are now coming to the end of the Third Missionary Journey. Events are moving very fast as we have to finish the Acts in the next three days! And a great deal is happening, much of which will have to be passed over. It might be a very good idea to take up a New Testament and read the full text of the last eight chapters of the book.
As we begin today’s reading let us be filled in a little on what has happened between yesterday’s reading and today’s. After bidding a tearful farewell to his fellow-Christians in Ephesus, Paul began his journey back to Palestine, making a number of brief stops on the way - Cos, Rhodes, Patara. They by-passed Cyprus and landed at Tyre in Phoenicia. They stayed there for a week, during which time the brethren begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. They knew there would be trouble. But there was no turning back for Paul and again there was an emotional parting on the beach.

As Paul moved south, there were stops at Ptolemais where they greeted the community. Then it was on to Caesarea where Paul stayed in the house of Philip, the deacon, now called an ‘evangelist’. (Earlier we saw him do great evangelising work in Samaria and he was the one who converted the Ethiopian eunuch.) Here too there was an experience in which Paul was warned by a prophet in the community of coming suffering. Again they all begged him not to go on but he replied: “I am prepared not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” They then accepted God’s will and let him go.

When they arrived in Jerusalem they received a warm welcome from the community there and went to pay a formal visit to James, the leader in the Jerusalem church. They were very happy to hear of all that Paul had done but they were also concerned (and their concern would seem to indicate that there were some in the city who had not fully accepted the non-application of Jewish law for Gentiles).

The local Jews (including, it seems, the Christians) would have heard how Paul, also a Jew, had been telling Jews in Gentile territory to “abandon Moses”, that is, not requiring them to circumcise their children or observe other Jewish practices. Some suggested a tactic for Paul to assuage the feelings of these people. On behalf of four members of the Jerusalem community, he was to make the customary payment for the sacrifices offered at the termination of the Nazirite vow (cf. Numbers 6:1-24) in order to impress favourably the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem with his high regard for the Mosaic Law. Since Paul himself had once made such a vow (when he was leaving Corinth, Acts 18:18), his respect for the law would be publicly known. Paul agreed with this suggestion and did as he was asked.
However, as the seven days stipulated were coming to an end, Paul was spotted by some Jews who had known him in Ephesus. A mob rushed into the temple and seized him, and might have harmed him, if the Roman commander had not seen the riot. He rescued Paul, then arrested him and put him in chains and thus out of the reach of those wanting to harm him.

It was only after the arrest that the commander realised the Greek-speaking Paul was not an Egyptian rebel. Paul then asked to be allowed to address the crowd and, in a longish speech, told the assembled Jews the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus (the second time the story is told in Acts; it will be told again in chap. 26). At the end of the speech, the crowd bayed for his blood and Paul was about to be flogged in order to find out why the Jews wanted him executed. At this point, Paul revealed to the centurion that he was a Roman citizen and that, unlike the garrison commander who had bought his citizenship, he had been born one. This created great alarm among his captors and he was released.

The Roman commander then ordered a meeting of the Sanhedrin to be convened so that Paul could address them. While those of the high priestly line were mainly Sadducees, the Sanhedrin also now included quite a number of Pharisees. This council was the ruling body of the Jews. Its court and decisions were respected by the Roman authorities. Their approval was needed, however, in cases of capital punishment (as happened in the case of Jesus). Paul being brought before the Sanhedrin was already foretold by Jesus to his disciples, Matt 10:17-18. Paul, in time, will appear before ‘councils’, ‘governors’ and ‘kings’.
He began by telling them that everything he had done was with a perfectly clear conscience. On hearing this, the high priest Ananias ordered that Paul be struck in the mouth. It was not unlike his Master being struck on the face during his trial. Paul hit back - verbally. “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall.” He said this because, although Ananias was supposedly sitting in judgement according to the Law, he was breaking the law by striking the accused. Josephus the Jewish historian tells us that Ananias was actually assassinated in AD 66 at the beginning of the First Jewish Revolt. When Paul is accused of reviling the high priest, he said he did not realise Ananias was the high priest and apologised.

It is at this point in today’s reading that one of the most dramatic scenes in the Acts, begins. Paul knew his audience and he decided at the very beginning to make a pre-emptive strike. He professed loudly and with pride that he was a Pharisee, knowing that his audience consisted of both Pharisees and Sadducees.

Addressing his words specially to the Pharisees, he said that he was on trial because “our hope is in the resurrection of the dead”. That was not quite the whole story, of course, as he made no mention of Christ but it immediately put him on the side of his fellow-Pharisees. As Paul had told the Corinthians in one of his letters, if Christ was not risen from the dead, neither could we rise and there would be no basis for our faith. The hope of a future life was at the very heart of his Christian preaching.

That, of course, is not what the Pharisees heard. They immediately latched on to the fact that Paul, as a fellow-Pharisee held a belief that was denied by the Sadducees. The Sadducees only accepted as divine revelation the first five books of the Bible, what we call the Pentateuch. The resurrection of the body (in 2 Maccabees) and the doctrine of angels (in the book of Tobit) did not become part of Jewish teaching until a comparatively late date. On both these issues, however, Paul and the Pharisees were full agreement.

In the first five books of the Old Testament, there is no mention of a future resurrection, nor spirits, nor angels. It was on the basis of this belief that the Sadducees had challenged Jesus about the fate of a woman who had married seven brothers. If there is a resurrection, which of the seven would be her husband? For those who did not believe in life after death, the question was a nonsense.

Paul’s words on resurrection immediately diverted attention from him to this contentious dividing point between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

All of a sudden the Pharisees make an about-turn: “We do not find this man guilty of any crime.” And, in a deliberate provocation to the Sadducees who did not believe in angels: “If a spirit or an angel has spoken to him…” This could be a reference to Paul’s account to them earlier of his experience on the road to Damascus.

All objectivity was forgotten and the Pharisees, despite their earlier protestations, sided with Paul, “their man”, and a brawl ensued. It got so serious - and, remember, these were all “religious” men! - that the tribune, fearing Paul would be torn to pieces, came to his rescue and put him back in the fortress.

That night Paul received a vision in which he was assured that he would be protected in Jerusalem because it was the Lord’s wish that he give witness to the Gospel in Rome.
Perhaps Paul’s behaviour in this situation is a good example of Jesus” advice to his disciples to be simple as doves and as wise as serpents! Paul was more than ready to suffer for his Lord but he was no pushover. While we, too, are to be prepared to give witness to our faith even with the sacrifice of our lives, and never to indulge in any form of violence against those who attack us, we are not asked to go out of our way to invite persecution or physical attacks. That is not the meaning of the injunction to carry our cross. Jesus himself often took steps to avoid trouble.

Joan of Arc defended herself as did Thomas More and, indeed as Jesus himself did during his trial: “If I have said something wrong, why do you strike me?”

But, like them, we will try never to evade death or any other form of hostility by compromising the central teaching of our faith.
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Psalm 16
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.

Keep me, O God, for in you I take refuge;
I say to the LORD, “My Lord are you.”
O LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
I bless the LORD who counsels me;
even in the night my heart exhorts me.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence;
Because you will not abandon my soul to the nether world,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
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John 7:20-26
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“I pray not only for these,
but also for those
who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me,
because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”
In this final part of Jesus’ prayer during his discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus now prays for all those who through the influence of disciples before us came to believe in Christ as Lord. Each one of us is among those Jesus is praying for here.

In this prayer Jesus prays above all for unity among his disciples as the most effective sign of witness. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another,” he had told his disciples earlier on in the discourse.

He now prays that we may display the same unity among ourselves and with Jesus as that which binds Jesus and the Father. It is through the love that Christians, coming as they do from so many ethnic groups and all classes of people, show for each other that they give the most effective witness to the message of Christ. “May they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me.”

It is said that, in the early Church, people marvelled, “See those Christians, how they love each other.” In a world divided along so many lines, people were amazed to see Jews and Greeks, men and women, slaves and freemen, rich and poor sharing a common community life in love and forgiveness and mutual support. It clearly would lead people to ask what was the secret of this group.
Is that the witness that we are giving today? What do people see when they look at our parishes? What do they see when they look at our families? What are they to think of the painful divisions of so many groups who claim Jesus as their Lord? How can we maintain such divisions in the face of these words of Jesus?

Obviously, we all have much to think and pray about regarding our “spiritual” life and the impact we make in drawing people to Christ (and that includes bringing back many who have left in confusion and disillusionment).

So let us make our own the last words of Jesus’ prayer today: “I have made your name known to them [his disciples] and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them.”

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