Easter 7 – To Live in Hope

In today’s readings, we catch a glimpse of the glorious unity of God’s people. This week is the seventh Sunday of Easter, and the Scriptural texts reflect the tensions and juxtapositions that are so characteristic of this time in the Church calendar. We read of freedom from bondage, extravagant divine power and sovereignty, the eternal and eschatological reign of Christ, and the invitation to respond to Christ – to live in the unity and love at the heart of the Christian story

At the same time, such triumphal and exuberant words and themes may be experienced as alienating, clanging loudly in the ears of those who do not experience freedom, joy, belief, and love. This is a tension worth remembering, acknowledging, and grappling with openly and honestly: how do we recognize and affirm the reality of the Gospel’s power and the centrality of Christ’s life-giving love, even while we (and parishioners) may be existing in darkness, pain, doubt, bondage of all forms?

Acts 16:16-34

This passage, set in Philippi a Roman Colony begins with an admittedly troubling encounter between Paul and a slave girl.  Many of us will be uncomfortable with Paul’s insensitivity to the girl’s plight: she is a slave not only in the obvious sense of the word, but is also enslaved by a spirit. It is only after he becomes “very much annoyed” at her outcries (v.18) that Paul commands the spirit to leave her. Through the exorcism of a slave girl, Paul announces the message of “salvation,” the deliverance from subjection by evil spirits that Greeks sought through their mystery cults. 

Note the important tension in this passage between bondage and freedom, and different levels of meaning associated with the language of slavery. The girl recognises Paul and his companions as fellow slaves (v.17); but while her enslavement to a spirit of divination also binds her to a life of enriching her earthly owners through fortune-telling, Paul and his companions are bound to the “Most High God”, who brings salvation (v.17). Paul’s bondage to Christ enables him to speak freedom to the slave girl as he orders the spirit to leave her (v.18).

The second part of this passage continues to explore the juxtaposition of bondage and freedom. Motivated by fear of the gospel’s threat to property rights, the girl’s owners charge that Paul and Silas have violated the law that forbade Jews to proselytize Romans. Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten and thrown into jail. Set free by an earthquake, they do not flee, thus keeping the jailer from suicide and effecting the conversion of the jailer and his family.

Now it is Paul and Silas who have been arrested and are in bondage, when they are miraculously set free from their chains. The jailer, perhaps himself bound by a sense of shame at failing to dutifully guard his prisoners, is ready to kill himself for allowing the prisoners to escape (v.27). But now it is the former prisoners (Paul and Silas) who announce freedom to the jailer. In a question that continues to echo down through the ages, the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” (v.30). The layers of meaning are striking: the jailer is seeking immediate, temporal salvation and freedom, but what is being offered to him is something much more significant. Paul and Silas encourage him to “Believe on the Lord Jesus” (v.31), which he does, and then join the jailer’s entire family in a celebration of the freedom from spiritual bondage that has been offered to them.

Psalm 97

This psalm is one of a group (Psalms 93, 95–99) that celebrate the kingship of the Lord. Many scholars believe that there was a yearly ceremony commemorating the enthronement of Yahweh, a ‘feast of the epiphany of Yahweh’. The Lord’s appearance is described in terms that recall both God’s manifestation at Sinai and on the coming day of the Lor

The triumphant message and tone of this psalm are clear: “The Lord is king! Let the earth  rejoice!” (v.1) This psalm draws heavily on nature imagery to demonstrate God’s power and reign over all that exists: note the dramatic references to “clouds and thick darkness” (v.2), “fire” (v.3), “lightnings” (v.4), and the mountains that “melt like wax” (v.5). This is imagery that borders on being violent, and may seem far removed from the experiences of peace and calm that many associate with seeing God in nature. Indeed, Psalm 97 as a whole may be unrelatable for many, relying as it does on kingship to describe the relationship between God and creation. This is a divine king who will “put to shame” those who worship idols, and who insists that all other gods “bow down before him” (v.7). A clear message here is that it pays to align oneself with the God of Israel: God will “guard the lives” of the faithful, and “rescue them” from the wicked (v.10). The message here is consonant with the tone of the reading from Acts, when God dramatically and violently rescues Paul and Silas from prison as they pray and sing hymns (Acts 16:25): God will rescue God’s faithful worshippers.

Psalm 97 is not a literal description of God’s brute power over the physical world and human beings, but is instead a powerful, poetic acknowledgement

Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21

This final reading from Revelation sums up Jesus’ titles and promises. He shares the Father’s title of Alpha and Omega, first and last. He is both root and offspring of David and the “morning star” identified with the Messiah. He brings to those who deserve it the reward of access to the holy city, the one who issues the call to the thirsty: “Come” (v.17). This chapter offers not only a vision of eschatological hope, but also an implicit call to live for Christ, to “wash [one’s] robes” (v.14).

The last of the seven blessings is pronounced upon those who, not only in the end-time but as an ongoing process, “wash their robes,” maintaining the purity of their baptismal promises.  There is something of a tension here between earning the reward and right of eternal life with Christ on one hand, and accepting “the water of life as a gift” (v.17). Christ is the beginning and the end, the source and end who offers access to the tree of life, but human beings are active participants in this drama of salvation. 

The final coming of Christ should be constantly anticipated in the individual and corporate crises of life. The repeated divine affirmation “I am coming soon” is answered by the human response, “Come, Lord Jesus!” “Come” – this is an invitation to anyone who wishes, and there are no restrictions on who has  access to “the water of life” (v.17). He is “the beginning and the end” (v.13), already and always encompassing the full spectrum of human experience Thirst, it seems, is the only prerequisite to receiving life. It is not with fear but with hope that all who are thirsty can join the call, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (v.20).  

John 17:20-26

Belief, oneness, and love are all emphasized in this passage, drawing together themes that lie at the very heart of the Christian narrative.  

Chapter 17 is often called the “high-priestly prayer” of Jesus in the sense that, like a priest, he offers intercession on behalf of his people. The prayer describes the union between the Father and the Son, given to the disciples so that they may share that union. It is therefore revelation as well as intercession. Jesus prays for himself, for the disciples and for future believers.

Jesus here foresees that the circle of His followers will expand, eventually including those who “will believe in me” through the testimony of those who have come before (v.20). This a recognition of the difficult reality that future believers will not have the benefit of knowing Jesus in His physical body – but will yet be able to know that Jesus is “in them” and they in Him (v.21). God as Creator exists outside of time, even as God is present to each and every person in the historical particularities in which we each exist. There is admittedly a deep mystery in this oneness, a oneness that is experienced through belief and love.

For these believers, as for the disciples, Jesus prays for a unity and indwelling of divine presence that will challenge the world to belief. He does not pray directly for the world, but asks that the unity of believers will witness to the Father’s love for the world. Their unity is based not upon their own effort but upon the act of God, who loves them as God loves the Son.

Note the text’s emphasis on community. Jesus is here not interested in only a oneness between Himself and the individual believer, but a oneness between Himself and the believing community (v.22). We are encouraged to view the Father’s indwelling of Jesus as a model of the unity to be exemplified by the community of Jesus’ followers (v.22). This communal oneness is vital to the Church’s mission in the world: Christians are called to embrace unity “so that the world may believe” (v.21). Belief, love, and oneness are thus tied together, and inextricably so. It is not argumentation or coercion that draws people to belief, but a recognition of the unity and love that marks those who already do believe.