Saturday, May 22, 2010

It Is This Disciple Who Testifies To These Things And Has Written Them. And We Know That His Testimony Is True.

Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
When he entered Rome,
Paul was allowed to live by himself,
the soldier who was guarding him.

Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews.
When they had gathered he said to them, “My brothers,
although I had done nothing against our people
or our ancestral customs,
I was handed over to the Romans
as a prisoner from Jerusalem.
After trying my case
the Romans wanted to release me,
because they found nothing against me
 deserving the death penalty.
But when the Jews objected,
I was obliged to appeal to Caesar,
even though I had no accusation
to make against my own nation.
This is the reason, then,
I have requested to see you
and to speak with you,
for it is on account of the hope of Israel
that I wear these chains.”

He remained for two full years in his lodgings.
He received all who came to him,
and with complete assurance
and without hindrance
he proclaimed the Kingdom of God
and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today we complete the readings for the Easter season. During these seven weeks we have been going through the Acts of the Apostles. As with most of the books which form the liturgical readings, much had to be omitted but at least we do get a general picture of the extraordinary developments of the Church from a small group of uneducated fishermen to a chain of communities which in such a short time reached to the very centre of their known world - the empire’s seat of government in Rome. This would be the new centre from which it would over the centuries expand to every corner of the world.

Yesterday we saw Paul in the presence of King Agrippa and Bernice while Festus explained the reason for Paul’s arrest to them. The following day, Paul was again brought before the king and, for the third time in Acts, gave them an account of how he had tried to destroy the followers of Christ only to experience his own conversion on the way to Damascus. At the end of the speech, Festus said he thought it was all crazy nonsense but both he and the king agreed that Paul had done nothing to warrant punishment. If he had not appealed to the emperor, they agreed, he could have been released.

We are then told of the long and eventful sea journey to Rome which included a storm and being shipwrecked on the island of Malta. When they eventually arrived in Rome, members of the community were there to welcome them on the Appian Way, the ancient highway that led to the city of Rome.

It is at this point that today’s reading begins. We are told that when Paul entered Rome, he was allowed to live by himself with a soldier who was guarding him. It was clearly a benign form of house arrest. Another reading says that “when he entered Rome, the centurion handed the prisoners over to the commander. But Paul was allowed to live outside the [Praetorian] camp.” A note in the Jerusalem Bible comments that “this additional information agrees with what in fact must have happened. By the concession of custodia militaris [military guard] the prisoner had his own lodgings, but his right arm was chained to the left of the soldier in charge”. Clearly, the prisoner was not regarded as dangerous.

As he did so often in the past, Paul made contact with the local Jews. The decree of the emperor Claudius, which, we remember, had caused Apollos and Priscilla to leave Rome, had been allowed to lapse and Jews now had returned to Rome with their leaders. Paul wants to establish good relations with the Jews of Rome as soon as possible. He insists that he has nothing as such against his own people although it was certain Jews who did cause him a great deal of trouble and who were ultimately responsible for his having to appeal to Caesar. Ironically, as we saw, Governor Festus and King Agrippa had agreed that Paul had done no wrong and could have been released if he had not made his appeal to Caesar. In fact, as Paul had emphasised all along, “it is on account of the hope of Israel [for a saviour Messiah] that I wear this chain”.

In the final sentences of the Acts we are told that Paul spent two years in his place of arrest preaching “the Kingdom of God and the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ”. He was able to receive all who came looking for him and was able to preach without hindrance. The two years represents the legal period during which he could be kept in custody. Within that period his case would have to be tried, so it is likely that, at the end of the period, he was released. At the end of his short letter to Philemon he seems to be looking forward to his release and asks that a room be made ready for him in Philemon’s house. During this time also he would have written his letter to the Christians at Colosse and the letter to the Ephesians (although the immediate authorship of this letter by Paul has been questioned), as well as his note to Philemon.

As the NIV Bible points out, there are a number of indications that Paul was released from his imprisonment at the end of two years:
1. Acts stops abruptly at this time;
2. Paul wrote to churches expecting to visit them soon; so he must have anticipated a release(see Philippians 2:24; Philemon 22);
3. A number of the details in the Pastoral Letters do not fit into the historical setting given in the book of Acts. Following the close of Acts, these details indicate a return to Asia Minor, Crete and Greece;
4, Tradition indicates that Paul went to Spain. Even if he did not go, the very fact that a tradition arose suggests a time when he could have taken that journey.

It is clear that the sudden ending of Acts indicates that it is not an ending at all but a beginning. Luke’s story had begun with Jesus’ ‘mission statement’ made in the synagogue at Nazareth. From there he progresses steadily south to Jerusalem, which is the climax of his life and work - through passion, death and resurrection. The story is then taken up with Acts which begins with the Pentecost experience when the baton of Jesus’ mission is passed to his disciples. It begins where Jesus left off, in Jerusalem, and from there spreads progressively to the surrounding territories and then on to Macedonia and Greece and ultimately to the heart of the empire and the centre of their world - Rome. The Gospel is being preached freely in the very heart of the Roman Empire.

Christianity from being a tiny movement of a small number of Jews is now a world phenomenon. From now on, its mission is to make the Kingdom a reality in every corner of our planet. There are many more triumphs and tragedies to come. But to have reached Rome in such a short time was little short of miraculous.

So, these final sentences sound an understandable note of triumph for the fledgling Church. “You have come a long way, baby”, and, we might add, “And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 11
The just will gaze on your face, O Lord.
The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold,
his searching glance is on mankind.
The just will gaze on your face, O Lord.
The LORD searches the just and the wicked;
the lover of violence he hates.
For the LORD is just, he loves just deeds;
the upright shall see his face.
The just will gaze on your face, O Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++
John 21:20-25
Peter turned and saw the disciple following whom Jesus loved,
the one who had also reclined upon his chest during the supper
and had said, “Master, who is the one who will betray you?”
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus said to him, “What if I want him to remain until I come?
What concern is it of yours?
You follow me.”

So the word spread among the brothers
that that disciple would not die.
But Jesus had not told him that he would not die,
just “What if I want him to remain until I come?
What concern is it of yours?”

It is this disciple who testifies to these things
and has written them,
and we know that his testimony is true.
There are also many other things that Jesus did,
but if these were to be described individually,
I do not think the whole world would contain
the books that would be written.

Peter has been given his mandate to shepherd the Lord’s flock and been fully rehabilitated after his sad betrayal earlier on. But it is still the same old, impetuous Peter. Having heard about his own future, he now wants to know that of the “beloved disciple”.

Basically, he is told to mind his own business; it is no concern of his. Jesus says enigmatically, “Suppose I want him to stay until I come, how does that concern you? Your business is to follow me.”

As a result, Jesus words became distorted and were understood that the “beloved disciple” was not going to die. He would stay alive until the Lord came. But this is strongly denied by the author of the chapter. [It is believed that this final chapter is not by the author of the rest of this gospel.]

The New American Bible comments here: “This whole scene takes on more significance if the disciple is already dead. The death of the apostolic generation caused problems in the church because of a belief that Jesus was to have returned first. Loss of faith sometimes resulted. Cf . 2 Peter 3:4.”

Another very different explanation is possible if the “beloved disciple” is not identified with John but with the symbolic figure who represents the perfect follower of Jesus. This person appears four times in John’s gospel - and perhaps five, if we identify him with the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who spent a day with Jesus in the company of Andrew (John 1:35ff). At this point, he is not called the “beloved disciple”, as he is just beginning to be a follower. Later in the gospel, he is identified on four different occasions of special significance - leaning on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, standing at the foot of the Cross, going with Peter to the empty tomb on the day of the resurrection and understanding the meaning of the arrangement of the cloths (something which meant nothing to Peter) and, finally, as the one who recognised in the stranger who told the disciples where the fish were to be found as “the Lord”.

Hopefully, all through the history of the Church there will be “beloved disciples”, people who have lived out the Gospel to a very high degree. And such people will continue to be found until Jesus finally comes to bring us all to himself.

For our own lives, in the light of this passage, we can ask ourselves once again what we see to be the mission that Jesus has for us at this time. And secondly, while we do of course need to be responsible for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters, our main concern is to focus on where God is calling us and not be too worried about what he expects from others.

On a final note, the author claims to have witnessed everything that has been written but that it still is only a fraction of all the things that Jesus said and did. We would indeed love to know what some of those unreported words and actions were but we have more than enough with the existing texts to provide a challenge to us for the rest of our lives. And, with the imminent approach of Pentecost, we remember that the Spirit is there to continue teaching and guiding us and leading us ever deeper into the meanings of God’s Word.

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