Only a Vision?

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
Lectionary: 591

Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.(Acts 12:9) This is a most unusual remark from the narrator of the Acts of the Apostles. How could Peter not know the difference between a vision and reality? This gives some idea of what a vision was for the early Christians. We often think of visions as dreams or hazy, even if overwhelming, ideas. They are the sorts of things that can be clearly distinguished from reality just as we ordinarily distinguish thoughts from the experienced world. But this text makes clear, for the early Christians a vision was more serious. It not only took over the mind and the sense perceptions but presented itself as reality. In a vision, one could walk and talk and respond to the environment. A vision, for them, was more like being transported to an alternate reality.

This has implications for our own discernment. People often seek signs and visions from God to know what to do. They want a way forward but cannot imagine one. In this anxious state, anything becomes a sign or vision. A candle burning out too early, an unexpected thought popping into the mind, all sorts of trivialities become a basis for making a major decision. These trivialities do not rise to the level of the biblical witness. Which is not to say that God cannot speak to us through them. Rather, it means that we must be all the more discerning in those moments. The biblical witness leads us to believe the intervention of God is clear and apparent to the believer. A hardened skeptic could surely still find a way to doubt, but those possessing faith and an abiding relationship with God have certainty. Even in the example of Peter not knowing if he was having a vision or not, he was certain God was speaking. Something important was being communicated to him, so he listened and obeyed.

In our lives we should look to this standard as well. While Jesus could reach out to us by means of little coincidences, we can also easily create them in our loves. Our brains are like pattern finding machines. The brain creates order anywhere it can and this can lead us to being deceived. True discernment requires we doubt those patterns, that we open ourselves to the possibility of being wrong, and even the possibility that God will not answer. When God wants to be heard, he will be. There is no need to fear missing signs so long as we remain in relationship with him and faithful to the life of prayer.

Peace Be With You

Sunday of Divine Mercy
Lectionary 43

Three times Christ said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.” Yet, peace seemed so elusive. Despite having seen Christ’s miracles, despite now being witnesses to his resurrection, the disciples were not at peace. We might want to attribute that lack of peace to simple fear, fear of the significant change that is happening in their lives, fear of what Jesus was calling them to. Or perhaps they lacked peace because they had abandoned Jesus and now did not believe strongly enough. But I don’t think any of those reasons are correct. I believe the disciples lack peace because they abandoned their mission; they had ceased to be who they were always meant to be.
God creates each one of us with a plan in mind. We each have a particular role, a unique and essential place in the Kingdom of God. That is, in the very fabric of who we are is a mission, a mission that satisfies our deepest desires because it is the fullest possible expression of our created nature. To be at peace, to know happiness, is to discover that mission and live it out. We are only at peace when we are confident we are on the right track when we are fully expressing our inner selves and moving towards our given destiny.
That is why Christ had to say to the disciples three times, “Peace be with you.” They had abandoned not only Christ himself, but their mission to spread the good news. Because they had given up on their mission, because the disciples had given up on what they were created to be, they had, in a sense, abandoned themselves, and were now listlessly floating in a sea of uncertainty.
So Christ not only says to them, “Peace be with you,” but three times he reminds them of their mission, he tells them of where they will find that peace. The first time he shows them his wounds, the next time he says, “As the father has sent me, so I send you,” and finally, he says, “See my hands and believe.” He calls them back to the fulfillment of their lives, to embrace the people God created them to be.
The same is true for all of us. We all have a mission. We all have a unique place in this world and in the Kingdom created just for us. And we will only be happy, we will only know true peace, the peace that Christ offers, when we find it and when we are moving towards it. So in those moments in which we find ourselves, like the disciples, floating aimlessly. Let us not be afraid of drowning in that ocean of uncertainty and doubt. Instead, let us turn to Christ, let us turn to the one who created us, and we will hear him say, “Peace be with you,” and he will show us the way to happiness, the way to everlasting peace.

Never Again Speak to Anyone in This Name

Saturday in the Octave of Easter
Lectionary 266

The Bold Apostles

The actions of Sts. Peter and John, performed in this name, cause amazement in the educated leaders of the Jewish people. The leaders, whether rightly or wrongly, perceive Peter and John to be uneducated. (Acts 4:13) Wilhelm H. Wuellner wrote a wonderful book The Meaning of “Fishers of Men” where he digs deeply into ancient literature about fishers and concludes that most likely fishers were educated, business people. It is a fascinating work, but likely of little import in this pericope. Here the issue is not the truth but perception. Peter and John are definitely not part of the educated ruling class, and that is the issue. They do not have the training and experience of the priests, elders, and scribes. Peter and John are proclaiming not only the works of Jesus but also theological statements. In saying Jesus is the Messiah, they assert to have greater insight into the Scriptures and traditions than the priests who reject Jesus. For the elite who have spent their lives studying the Scriptures and guiding the people, this is intolerable. The affront to their ideals is compounded by the fact that Peter and John seem to be performing miracles, which they cannot deny, and now receive the praises of the peoples. (Acts 4:16)

In This Name

The leaders plan to prohibit speaking in this name, i.e., ban talking about Jesus and hope this all goes away. (Acts 4:17) Unfortunately for the leaders, this will not happen. (Acts 4:20) Peter and John cannot be silent anymore than the stones of Luke 19:40. This is to say, the whole of creation has awaited the coming of the Messiah, and it cannot be silenced. The desire for freedom and salvation is inscribed into the fabric of the cosmos. Nothing may silence so deep-seated a desire, and nothing will stop the disciples from proclaiming that Jesus the Messiah has risen and is now Lord of heaven and Earth.

What Else Can be Done?

The leaders were not pleased with the response of Peter and John, but they felt their hands were tied. (Acts 4:21) With the full support of the people, they risked revolt if they punished too harshly. Therefore they let the disciples leave and continue on their work. So it is with the works of the Holy Spirit. Worldly people see in these works a challenge to their power and influence and so try to stop it. However, they cannot. Even had they put Peter and John to death at this moment, nothing would have changed. God’s will is not frustrated by human freedom, and he does not allow us to stand in the way of the salvation of others. Everyone is given a chance for salvation and to be an instrument of the salvation of others. Even if these offers are rejected, God’s will is done. Therefore we should all speak in this name with confidence because we are participating in God’s will and are assured of triumph.

Outside the Gate

Wednesday of the Octave of Easter
Lectionary 263

Prayer Continues

On their way to the Temple, but outside the gate, Peter and John continued the ordinary Judean life of prayer. The coming of the Christ did not so upend the world that all that was old was immediately abolished or cast aside. As the NT repeatedly asserts, the original mission of the disciples was to the Jews, the scattered children of God. Therefore, they had to continue, in so far as possible, their old religious and ritual lives to reach out to the Jews. The three o’clock hour of prayer was one aspect of this. The ninth watch, or three o’clock hour, was the time of an evening sacrifice.[1] The sacrifice is commanded by Exodus 29:38-42 and Numbers 28:1-8. That it took place at the ninth watch, by Roman reckoning, is reported by Josephus. [2] Daniel 9:21, shows that it was known as a time of prayer. This last point is important. The disciples no longer participate in the sacrifices; their lamb has been sacrificed once and for all. However, they still pray and, seemingly, recognize in the Temple liturgy a visible sign of Jesus.

Outside the Gate

On their way to pray, Peter and John encounter a disabled man outside the Beautiful Gate. The identity of this gate is unknown, and it seems not to make a difference in the story; although, some have speculated on which gate it was. [3] Sitting outside the gate may seem strange to us, or come across as mere begging, but is a wonderful symbolic depiction of Israel. The disabled man is ritually unclean and thus excluded from the full life of Israel. [4] According to Leviticus 21:16-18, a crippled man could not approach the Temple to offer sacrifice. By remaining outside the gate, this man was a stark reminder to all who passed by of the brokenness of Israel. Not all who professed the God of Israel were allowed full participation in the community. Many were still excluded and had no hope of being included. The promises God had made to Abraham and his descendants, to build up a mighty nation and light to the world, free of suffering, had not been fulfilled. With the coming of Jesus, this will change.

Rise Up and Enter the Gates

The disciples cannot give the disabled man silver or gold; instead, they have something much better. They can give him the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and his descendants. They speak, and by the authority of Jesus, the disabled man is healed. The once crippled man leaps and walks into the Temple. He is no longer outside the gate; he is within it. Which is to say, he is no longer excluded from the community of Israel but has been liberated from his personal exile and joined to God’s people. This is an essential element of the works of Jesus. Jesus does not heal only bodily infirmity, but he builds up and restores the community. Jesus’ goal is the building up of the Kingdom of God, the fulfillment of all the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs. Now, no one will be excluded from the community of God’s people except by their own choice. That Peter and John are the instruments of this deed, means that the work of Jesus continues.[5] His visible absence is mere appearance. He continues to work in and through his followers to draw all people into his kingdom.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 5, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 64.
[2] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 14:65.
[3] Johnson, 65.
[4] Ibid. 64-65
[5] Ibid. 71

Pierced to the Heart

Tuesday in the Octave of Easter
Lectionary 262

All of Israel

Peter begins his speech, on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, by addressing the whole house of Israel. This is a wonderful expression from the Hebrew scriptures (e.g. 1 Sam. 7:2; Ezek. 37:11).[1] The house of Israel has been scattered and divided for centuries by this time. Many were lost in exile of the northern tribes, and the others were scattered during the Babylonian Exile. Even though some returned, some did not. After the exiles, the house of Israel was never again united. Even so, they were not abandoned by God. The LORD who once called his people together, would not allow them to remain forever apart. The coming of Jesus is a step in the restoration of Israel to its inheritance. Therefore Peter proclaims to all Israel, whether at home in the land or in the diaspora, the time of fulfillment is near. Through Jesus, physical distance is no longer a barrier to the promises. In his own body, he unites his people and once again makes them whole. However, this wholeness comes with a price.

Pierced to the Heart

[W]hen they heard this, they were pierced to the heart. This is a beautiful and telling phrase. The house of Israel is pierced to the heart upon hearing that they have participated in killing the messiah. Jesus too was pierced to the heart, for the sins of the people. Now, they must confront what they have done. This is an essential element of the Christian mystery. The work of Christ does not merely free us from sin and death but draws us deeper into the drama of salvation. God will not save us without us. He wants all to participate in his plan actively. Thus, when the house of Israel hears of its actions, they are called to unite themselves fully with Jesus. Just as he suffered and was pierced to the heart for the sins of the people, so must they be. They make salvation their own and actively spread its effects by becoming like Jesus. Uniting themselves to the crucified messiah, the listeners are given the freedom to submit to God’s plan. They receive baptism and the Holy Spirit. Then the new believers devote themselves to the apostolic life.

For Us

The process of conversion seen in the crowds is the same process of conversion which we undergo. We too must be united to the passion of Jesus so that we may rise with him. When we have been pierced to the heart, we gain the heart of Jesus. He gives us the freedom of conversion which empowers us to be his disciples and live the apostolic life of fellowship, prayers, and the breaking of the bread.

[1] I. Howard Marshall, “Acts,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 542.