Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter 27 April 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Easter 6 March 27 2008 Textweek

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; I Peter 3:8-22; John 14:15-21

A classic understatement: the readings today are quite complex, and first reading them through, all I could find was exit points, places to switch off. I would doubt if there were many here this morning that actually heard the second reading all the way through. So if we had to write down what it said, gosh! And I think the complexity of the readings today is quite valuable because it does illustrate a point, the point being that to find the Divine we must actively seek the Divine and to seek the Divine requires something of us. There is no way that we will understand the revelation of the word of God hearing it read as a one off on a Sunday morning. In the time I listen the readings, they move in and out of that blah-blah space; I lose whole sentences, I lose the drift and I need to come back to it.

As I was looking through the readings trying to make some sense of them, I wanted to have a look and get some other insight into one of the readings in particular, a part of the reading from I Peter 3. So, as you do these days, I got on the net and started looking at bible commentaries, came across this – this is talking about I Peter 3, verses 8 to 22:
“These verses have been considered some of the most bizarre and obscure in the New Testament. They have occasioned a variety of interpretations, and are the foundation for the belief (which was included in the Apostles' Creed) that Jesus descended into hell after the crucifixion in order to preach the gospel to people who died in the Old Testament. I want to stress that this is not a biblical teaching, and while not overtly harmful, should nonetheless be rejected.” Fat lot of good that insight was, wasn’t it!’ There’s a temptation now to explore that whole issue, what the Greek iconographers have written in icons as the “harrowing of Hell’. There are some wonderful icons of Christ in that time in the tomb harrowing Hell, breaking in through the gates of hell to draw all out into the Resurrection and he sort of pulls them up out of the earth.

Rather than go there though, let’s just stay with the commentator’s position: ‘some of the most bizarre and obscure in the New Testament’. It’s a position that questions one of the fundamentals of the Apostles’ Creed, so where do we go with it? Well of course we go to other commentaries and see what others make of the same text. But as I looked at other commentaries I then started questioning of myself, because many of the reference points to understanding scripture, many of the commentaries that are used each and every day and week date back to the 1800’s, 1700’s, and as I’m sitting on the net reading this stuff, I thought how many other disciplines regularly refer to reference works that are so out of date. Imagine going into Fremantle Hospital and a doctor, having seen a couple of blood tests, pulls some archaic volume off the shelf and uses that as the point of reference. Consider also the early explorers and how they mapped out the known world – it’s a lot easier to get our mind around that, if we can picture those old ancient maps, because we can see from those maps that where there was an unknown, they sailed out, they explored and they charted and they started building up a picture. Where there was an unknown, they filled it in either with a best-guess or with an invention that was based on their own limited understanding. And that’s why some of the maps are stunningly odd; we can see bits of the world as we know and bits that completely and utterly off the planet. Likewise with theology – the early explorers, seeking to chart the life and the path of God, there are some bits that are really, really clear, and there were other bits where all they could do was make a best guess, or use their limited understanding, or, if we’re cynical, employ their own agenda to tie bits together.

So now with that in mind, let’s look at the first reading, Luke’s account of the ministry and the teaching of Paul. Again it’s helpful to read a little bit before the current reading: Paul is speaking in a foreign land and he’s speaking to a culture that’s different from his own. He’s therefore speaking to a people with a worldview that is quite different. If we can get that then we can also appreciate that he could be heard by us here today, for we too come from a different place, with a different culture with a different worldview. Let’s listen to what this foreigner has to say to us. Because of those circumstances, it requires that Paul gets his message across succinctly, clearly, with few words and by providing a broad brush, otherwise he’s not going to be listened to, there are competing voices. So what we find in verses 26, 27 and 28 are the cornerstones, the foundations, the bumper stickers of Paul’s theology. Verse 26, God is the creator of all – one God, one people – it’s an important thing to get; it’s still being sought. Paul’s got it, it’s clear. Verse 27, he gives us his understanding of life’s purpose, and that is to ‘search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him’: purpose of life, to ‘search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him’. Paul has given us place, he’s given us purpose, then in verse 28 he gives us process: ‘In God we live and move and have our being'. These three verses alone might be enough to motivate us to engage in a theological quest. It is no wonder that we and the world share a common experience of being lost, a common experience of not knowing God, a common experience of what is life all about? Life is not about existence, it’s not about number of years, but it’s about fullness, a fullness that is to be sought, a fullness that is to be groped for, and a fullness that is to be that is to be found in the Divine.

Now let’s go to that I Peter 3 reading. The first part of that, no problem, verses 1 to 17, they don’t actually belong with the rest of it. They’re quite good; verses 1 -17, take them home, and the way to read them and encounter them is to set some time aside, read them slowly, then read them again; read them slowly and become aware of the map that they draw within yourself, because as we read through, try not to follow the questions but rather be aware of the parts of myself within that know or don’t know the places that the readings are taking me to. And as for the ‘bizarre and obscure’ verses – this is verses 18 to 22 - leave the commentaries on the shelf, don’t bother googling them, don’t bother checking them out against the Apostle’s Creed as if they’ve somehow got to match, rather look at them with fresh eyes. It’s actually okay to question these words; you can say a lot about the Bible and not be struck down. You can question it and not break out in the plague. It says in verse 18, ‘Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit’. Is this a process that I am familiar with - put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit? Do I know that place? Consider the unending demands and desires of the flesh – plasma televisions, mobile phones with internet access, cars with heated steering wheels, security, a bank account so big that I can buy whatever I want whenever I want it, but I can’t really, because I’ve got to hang onto it, because I need it until I’m 150. All of the desires of the flesh, consider how consuming they are. Consider then the times you’ve been alive in the Spirit – sometimes they last for a while, other times they’re moments, those moments when you know that if you actually stepped off the cliff all you’d do is fly, those moments. Become aware of the reality of dying and rising as part of the everyday. As soon as I become aware of the reality of the dying and rising in the everyday, I find Easter within, and myself within Easter. Verse 21 of this ‘bizarre and obscure’ text provides us with a definition of baptism – an appeal to God. Is that the baptism that I knew and still know, an appeal to God? What is my appeal to God, how do I make my appeal to God?

We will struggle in our search and perhaps even grope as we seek the Divine. Rather than get downhearted about that struggle, because we do live in a world where as soon as it becomes a struggle, leave it alone, go somewhere else. We’re asked to stay with the struggle and we’re affirmed in it, and the Gospel today is just a wonderful affirmation, to say, ‘look, if you engage this quest, if this is the map that you seek to draw, then the spirit of truth abides with you and within you; the spirit of truth abides with you and within you. Not only that, but ‘because I live you also will live’. Super-Jesus – let’s get away from the fact that he died for our sins, get in touch with the fact that he lives and is life, so that we too may live and have life.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris