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.

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.

Apology for the Resurrection

Monday in the Octave of Easter
Lectionary 261

From Empty Tomb to Risen Jesus

The first day after Easter, the Church seems to go on the defensive by giving an apology. Both the first reading and the gospel take an apologetic stance; both defend the claims of the disciples against “the Jews.” In some ways, the gospel reading is more direct. The Easter Sunday liturgy ended with an empty tomb, as I noted yesterday. Easter Monday resolves this prominent absence. As Mary Magdalene and the other Mary leave the empty tomb, they encounter the risen Jesus. Matthew 28:9 makes clear the encounter is not with a ghost by noting the Mary’s touch the feet of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, perhaps the same as Mary of Bethany, who earlier anointed the feet of Jesus in preparation for his burial, now touches the feet that will never again die. However one resolves the issue of identities of the multitude of Mary’s, this is a beautiful scene of resolution.

A Secular Apology

While the Mary’s travel to the disciples, the author of the Gospel of Matthew inserts an intriguing aside. The guards of Jesus’ tomb are afraid because Jesus has disappeared. Together with the priests and elders of Judaism, they concoct the lie that the disciples have stolen the body of Jesus. The author then notes that this story remains in circulation. Clearly, the gospel is responding to a contemporary issue. The intertwining of Christianity and Judaism in the early Church demanded an answer to such rumors. It also serves a continuing value in the Church. The central proclamation of Easter to the world must be “the tomb is empty.” This is the historical and verifiable, at least in theory, claim. The proclamation that Jesus is risen —has been raised, in the biblical idiom — requires the gift of faith to accept and believe. Therefore the Church provides a purely secular and worldly answer to a common objection.

A Faithful Apology

In contrast to the pericope in the Gospel of Matthew, the speech of St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles is explicitly directed at the faithful. Peter announces he is speaking directly with the Jews, and he uses arguments that are compelling only for believers. Peter’s goal is to bring those who have rejected Jesus, but believe they cling to the God of Israel, to repentance.[1]

Apology from Power

Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you. Peter’s essential claim, and essential to Lukan Christology, is Jesus’ messianic character has been revealed in the signs God performed.[2] In the words and actions of Jesus, the power of God was made visible. For a faithful person, this should be compelling evidence. A basic intuition of faith is that God does not perform mighty deeds through the hands of sinners.[3] Whether that intuition is sound or not, it is commonly shared and was surely believed by Peter’s audience. Therefore, if they are to claim to be the true children of Israel, they must acknowledge that their God has worked through Jesus. Jesus must be who he claims to be. However, rather than accept the logic of faith, they rebelled and killed Jesus.

Apology from Death

But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. The death of Jesus was not the end. Even though the people of Israel rejected him, God did not reject him. God raised Jesus and set him free. No power is given lasting authority over Jesus. Furthermore, the Resurrection vindicates the messianic claims of Jesus. In attributing, as the Scriptures always do, the Resurrection to the agency of God and not Jesus himself, Peter makes clear that God is testifying on behalf of Jesus.[4]

Apology from David

I saw the Lord always before me…For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. Here Peter moves to a very different argument that is obscured by English and time. To understand Peter’s argument, Luke Timothy Johnson says we must recognize four presuppositions: the historical King David wrote the Psalms, David was the anointed/messiah, God promised David’s kingdom would never end, all references in the Psalms are to David or his descendants or events they would experience.[5] Accepting these “rules,” Peter is quoting David speaking in the first person. Naturally then, one would assume David is speaking of himself. However, Peter argues, this cannot be true. David died, and his body corrupted. He did not escape Hades. Therefore David could not be talking about himself; he must be referring to one of his descendants. Peter claims Jesus is this descendent because Jesus has been freed from Hades and his body did not corrupt.[6] Furthermore, David speaks of seeing the Lord, i.e. the LORD the God of Israel. Jesus alone has beheld the LORD. This apology only makes sense within its context and after the fact. It is not a case of reading prophecy and predicting its fulfillment, but comparing events with past prophecies on the presupposition that they have already been fulfilled.[7]

Conclussion

None of the attempts at apology from the Easter Monday liturgy are wholly convincing, but they are not intended to be. The articles of the faith are not subject to the scrutiny of the historical or physical sciences. Which is to say, there cannot be a proof of the faith. The actions of the supernatural within the natural world necessarily violate the laws of nature that form the basis of scientific inquiry. The best that can be hoped for is to make room for the gift of faith. Objections can be removed, and the intelligibility of the faith can be made clear.

[1]Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 141.
[2]Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Eldon Jay Epp and Christopher R. Matthews, trans. James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 20.
[3]Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary on the Book of Acts, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 81.
[4]Conzelmann, 20.
[5]Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 5, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 54.
[6]Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 31, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 250.
[7]Pervo, 75.