SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (ASCENSION SUNDAY)
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
ACTS 1:15‑17, 21‑26 This passage tells us of the first company of believers appointing a successor to Judas Iscariot. The full complement of twelve apostles was necessary in order for the church to fulfil Old Testament prophecy and the task of proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ until his return. The choice fell to Matthias, one who had participated in Jesus’ earthly ministry and a witness to the resurrection. These were the two qualifications for being an apostle in the early church.
PSALM 1 As the prologue to the whole psalter, this psalm describes the kind of person who will benefit most from all the hymns of praise, petition and lament that follow. It may have been written intentionally for this purpose when the many disparate songs of Israel were being collected into one volume.
1 JOHN 5:9‑13 The heresy which this letter sought to confront denied that Jesus of Nazareth and Christ, the Son of God, were the same person. The Christ was supposed to have come to Jesus at his baptism and departed from him before his death.
The test of faith was to believe that the human Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God in the flesh. The gift of God to those who believe is eternal life in fellowship with God and Jesus.
JOHN 17:9 – 19 We can never know whether or not John heard Jesus utter a prayer for his disciples something like this. It is a prayer for us as well as we live in a world still not rushing to hear of God’s saving love.
Because he will no longer be with them, the work he has begun rests entirely with the disciples. He prays that they will be kept safe by the power of the Holy Spirit; that they will experience the fullness of joy in their ministry; and that they will be committed to God in spite of all the pressures placed upon them.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
ACTS 1:15‑17, 21‑26
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This passage tells us of the first company of believers appointing a successor to Judas Iscariot. Much scholarly discussion has occurred regarding the number and post-resurrection role of disciples. The Gospels and Acts maintain that there were twelve, but most of these do not appear in the narrative except to be listed. The lists vary in different Gospels as does the definition of what “disciple” means. In Mark and Luke, the term is more limited than in Matthew, who included anyone who is a follower of Jesus. The late British scholar, B.H. Streeter, claimed that the post-resurrection disappearance of the twelve is “one of the great mysteries of history.”
Most 20th century New Testament scholars hold that the twelve were called and commissioned by Jesus himself to be missionary preachers, i.e. “apostles.” Some redaction critics such as the late Professor Heinz Guenther, of Emmanuel College, Toronto, questions the historicity of this claim. Guenther’s The Footprints of the Twelve in Early Christian Traditions (Peter Lang, 1985) found three independent strands of the early tradition which “attests to the high pre-synoptic age.” Identifying the three strands with the pre-Markan, pre-Pauline and Q traditions, he traced the creation of the twelve to “the earliest post-Easter period of the Christian community.” The number twelve is symbolic in both Hellenic and Judaic cultures. “The common denominator of all three traditions is that they bespeak of the church’s new Israel consciousness…. In the service of the church’s new Israel axiom, the historical, foundational and eschatological implications of the symbolic number have each been reactivated by these three early Christian traditions.”
Guenther also finds no historical validity to the selection of Matthias except to replace Judas in order to make up the twelve at the beginning of the “Acts of the Apostles.” But as soon as he had been appointed, Matthias disappeared from the biblical record. None of the apostolic fathers knew anything of him either. “In all other areas of his work Luke was well able to produce new Christian ‘facts’ on the basis of his own faith concerns,” concluded Guenther. “Would those who allegedly informed him of the function played by the twelve apostles not also given him some clues about the individual work of Matthias or the earthly activity of the other ‘apostles’?”
Here we are faced with a theologically generated interpretation of the apostolic mission. The full complement of twelve was necessary in order for the church to fulfil Old Testament prophecy and the task of proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ until his return. The choice fell on Matthias, one who had participated in Jesus’ earthly ministry and a witness to the resurrection. These were the two qualifications for being an apostle in the early church.
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As the prologue to the whole Psalter, this psalm describes the kind of person who will benefit most from all the hymns of praise, petition and lament that follow. It may have been written intentionally or adapted for this purpose from another source when the many disparate songs of Israel were being collected into one volume.
The psalmist focuses on a particularly astute and faithful Israelite as the typical person who would turn to the Psalms for spiritual sustenance. He construes the Psalter as a handbook for the pious whenever historical events tested faith. This viewpoint is strengthened by the fact that Jesus himself was depicted in the Gospels as quoting from or interpreting the Psalms, especially during his Passion. Other NT authors frequently quoted from the Psalter to substantiate their claim that Christians are the New Israel.
The psalm is didactic and belongs to the time of Ezra or later when the whole nation was seen as a religious community under assault by heathen religious traditions. Zeal for the law had become the mark of the righteous man. No one could escape a divine reckoning of their behaviour determined by adherence to or departure from Torah. Yahweh was ever mindful of what each person did and judged him or her accordingly. Woe to the person who scoffed at the inevitability of such judgment.
The simile of the productive fruit trees by streams of water had poignant local interest. Irrigation is essential in the arid climate of Palestine. Water lies at the core of the Middle Eastern political negotiations for peace. The whole region once known as the Fertile Crescent, home to three great religious traditions, could be fruitful and prosperous if the limited water supply could be equitably shared.
The simile of chaff blown before the wind presents the very opposite image. In ancient times and as recently as pioneer days in North America, thrashing was done by flail. The instrument consisted of two sticks loosely tied together by a leather thong. One was held tightly in the hands – much like a baseball bat. The other was swung down on the grain with stalks and heads still attached and spread thinly on a stone floor. Then the grain and chaff were gathered in baskets and flung into the air so that heavier grain would fall to the floor while the wind blew the chaff away. The image fitly described the moral and spiritual instability of the person who did not follow the Torah.
1 JOHN 5:9‑13
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As we have seen in earlier comments on 1 John, the heresy which this letter sought to confront denied that Jesus of Nazareth and Christ, the Son of God, was the same person. The unorthodox, now known to scholars as Docetists, held that the divine Christ was supposed to have come to Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism and departed from him before his death. They thus denied the Incarnation of God and removed from Jesus the redemptive function of his death and the symbolic efficacy of Christian baptism into his death. Their doctrine expressed the Hellenistic philosophical concept of the impassibility of God based on an absolute separation of flesh and spirit.
The community to whom John wrote may well have been experiencing a conflict that led to schism over this issue. The test of true faith was to believe that the human Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God in the flesh, and that his death on the cross had been God’s loving way of dealing with human sin. As one commentary puts it, “John’s blunt repudiation of this heresy is part of the great doctrinal struggle the church has often fought to preserve the central truth of the gospel – that Calvary reveals the suffering love of God as well as the loving suffering of a man.” (The Interpreter’s Bible. 12.293).
If this heresy was, as many scholars presume, an early stage of Gnosticism, it placed excessive emphasis on knowledge as the way to confront sin. The Christian gospel dealt not so much with a deficiency of knowledge as with the corruption of character and the enslavement of the will for selfish ends. This has great relevance to our own age which tends to treat human sin as a something we can handle on our own without God’s intervention. Greater knowledge can overcome sin; so we can ignore it as insignificant or just regard it as a source of cynical humour.
This brief excerpt is not easy to understand because it introduces the new concept, “testimony.” The Greek word is marturia which immediately causes us to think of the early martyrs to the faith. Much more than that lay behind John’s use of the word. Its Hebrew counterpart ayd appears throughout the OT. The root meaning of the Hebrew verb was “to duplicate or report,” as a witness would do in court.
In the Hebrew context the word referred to witnessing to criminal offences, commercial or property transactions. The Torah prohibited the bearing of false witness (Exod. 20:16; 23:1; Deut. 5:20) and Wisdom literature warned against such hypocrisy (Prov. 6:19; 14:25; 19:5, 9; 21:28; 25:18). In prophetic literature, Yahweh was frequently called as a witness (1 Sam. 12:5; Jer. 29:23; 42:5; Micah 1:2; Mal. 2:14). Most significantly, in Second Isaiah 43:9-10; 44:8-9 Israel was called to serve as a witness to Yahweh’s power as Deliverer and Lord of history. It was this role as the suffering servant that spoke so deeply to the apostolic community as it undertook its mission. The violent end to which many of those early Christians came gave the word its present meaning.
John’s use of the term recalls both the OT context and the contemporary Christian situation. God had testified to the Son in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those who believed might well suffer persecution and death as Jesus and many of the apostles had done. Those who denied this testimony made God a liar (vs. 10) and forfeited the gift of eternal life God gives to those who believe (vss. 11-12) despite whatever persecution they might have to suffer. This assurance John could give to a community which had not yet been called on to suffer the ultimate consequences of their faith, but for whom the threat was nonetheless present.
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Known to many as “the high priestly prayer,” we can never know whether or not John heard Jesus utter a prayer for his disciples something like this. It is a prayer for us as well as we live in a world still not rushing to hear of God’s saving love.
Because he will no longer be with them, the work Jesus had begun rested entirely with the disciples. The whole world was not immediately in Jesus’ mind, only the few he had gathered about him during his earthly ministry (vs. 9). Everything depended on their faithfulness.
There is an ancient legend that when Jesus arrived in heaven the angel Gabriel asked what plans he had made for his work to continue. He replied that he had left it all in the hands of the disciples. “And if they fail?” asked Gabriel. And Jesus said, “I have no other plans.”
On the whole, the passage has a definite post-resurrection connotation. In John’s Gospel Jesus’ earthly ministry had already been glorified by his death and resurrection. The gospel was written to witness to this spiritual reality (20:31). Those who wish to use this reading on what is often celebrated as Ascension Sunday might well use this approach to the text written at least 60 years after Jesus glorification.
No longer in the world, Jesus prayed that the disciples would be kept safe as he had guarded them in safely while with them (vss. 11-12; 15-16). John did not elaborate on how Jesus did this. Does this lend some credibility to the speculation that Judas was commissioned to make a deal with Caiaphas to let the disciples go when Jesus was arrested? In April 2006 the widely publicized National Geographic television special, The Judas Papers brought to the surface once again the 2nd century Gnostic tradition that Judas was indeed Jesus’ co-conspirator in arranging the crucifixion.
John did have a very negative attitude toward Judas, but here he had Jesus acknowledge the loss of Judas Iscariot. He placed the betrayal in the context of an undefined scripture. He may have had Psalm 41:9 or 109:5-9 in mind. Acts 1:20 makes specific quotations from Pss. 69:25 and 109:8. These references further indicate how the early church found justification for the events they had experienced by searching the Hebrew scriptures. For them, the scriptures had been fulfilled in the death of Jesus, however that may have come about.
Jesus also prayed that the disciples would experience the fullness of joy in their ministry in and to the world (vs. 13). This reiterates a theme John had first referred to earlier in the farewell discourse (John 15:11; 16:20). The theme is faithful to the post-resurrection tradition which marks so much of John’s Gospel. He knew intimately how the apostolic tradition had been kept alive by telling and retelling the story as joyful news of the resurrection. The disciples had witnessed the full revelation of God’s love. That was the truth which for which they had been sanctified and commissioned to report (vs. 17). That is what we too must be about in our ministry today.
Finally in this excerpt, Jesus prayed that the disciples would be totally committed to God in spite of all the pressures placed upon them. This would appear to be the meaning of the reference to “the evil one” in vs. 17. Although John did not include the story of Jesus’ own temptations, he undoubtedly knew the tradition. In the synoptic gospels, the temptations lasted through the whole of Jesus ministry and culminated in the Garden of Gethsemane and even on the cross (Mark 15:29-30). Instead, John concentrates here on Jesus’ sanctification. The Greek verb agiazein (translated “to sanctify”) has a sacrificial meaning. Throughout his passion narrative, John conveyed the sacrifice of Christ in this sense. Whereas by his own sacrifice Jesus sanctified himself, it was by the disciples’ belief in the truth of what he done that the disciples were sanctified. This was entirely in keeping with another fundamental apostolic tradition. As Paul had stated it, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17).