The Holy Spirit leads Jesus’ followers into new missions and new insights, offering joy to peoples and nations, however embattled by evil they may be.
The Easter season moves toward the climax of Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sundays. This next-to-last Sunday of the season has as one of its themes the movement of the Spirit of the Lord toward the peoples and nations who yearn to hear the good news.
The reading from Acts presents the moment in Paul’s work when the mission crosses over from Asia to Europe. This is the work of the Spirit, which has guided Paul’s route and destinations through Asia (Acts 16:6-8). At Troas on the northwestern coast of Asia Minor Paul experiences a vision of the “man of Macedonia” calling for Paul to come and help them. (It turns out, after Paul gets there, that the “man” proves to be a woman, Lydia.) Responding to the call, they go to the Macedonian city of Philippi.
Macedonia was the old homeland of Alexander the Great, who had conquered and brought Hellenistic culture to the lands east of Greece as far as India. The city of Philippi had been founded by Alexander’s father, Philip II, who named it for himself. Three centuries later (42 BCE), Philippi was the site of Mark Anthony’s victory over Brutus and others who had assassinated Julius Caesar. Mark Anthony re-founded Philippi and made it a Roman colony, a place for the settlement of retired Roman soldiers.
As the Acts passage describes this movement of Paul from Troas to Philippi, it shifts from the third person to the first. Verse 7 reads, “When they [Paul and his companions] had come opposite Mysia, …” while verse 10 reads, “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia…” and the following travel details continue in the first person. Scholars have long debated the implications of this shift in speech for the authorship of the book of Acts, but, in any case, this “we” speech gives the reading an immediacy and feeling of direct involvement. The passage of the gospel message into Europe had an eyewitness who speaks directly to the readers. (Other “we” passages in Acts are in chapters 20-21 and 27-28.)
The first convert to faith in Jesus in Philippi is Lydia, and the passage gives several details about her. She conducted a commercial enterprise, dealing in dyed purple cloth, which probably took her to other cities also. She was an immigrant to Philippi, having come from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor (one of the seven churches addressed by Christ in Revelation 2-3). She was a devout person, non-Jewish, but adhering to the Jewish faith in God (verse 14). There apparently were not enough Jews in this Roman provincial capital to form a synagogue (ten Jewish men were required), and a common practice of Jews in such circumstances was to meet on the Sabbath at some river, as happens here. There apparently were only women gathered here for prayer outside Philippi, and Paul speaks to them about Jesus. Lydia was present and “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly…” She and her household were baptized, and she pressed Paul to accept the hospitality of her home. Though Lydia is not referred to in Paul’s later letter to the church in Philippi, the first foothold for the assembly of Jesus people in Europe was accomplished.
The Psalm reading is a short composition, soliciting God’s grace and blessing on “us,” so that other peoples may see and enthusiastically praise the God who is the source of such blessing. The words “nations” and “peoples” tumble out of the psalm at almost every other line.
There are three Hebrew terms involved here, which the translations do not fully distinguish. Following the NRSV, the “nations” in verse 2 [v. 3 in Heb.] are the goyyim, nations in the most common sense, used widely in poetry and prose. The “peoples” in verses 3-5 are the ‘ammim, peoples, extended kinship groups, widely used in both poetry and prose. In verse 4, however, the “nations” are the Hebrew term le’ummim, a term used almost exclusively in poetry, having connotations more of “clan” or “tribe.” The sense may be similar to “nations” as used to refer to Native American tribal communities. In any case, the force of the psalm is to summon and anticipate that the “peoples” and “nations” all around will celebrate and praise the salvation manifested toward God’s people, who here exult in their blessings.
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
The reading from the book of Revelation continues the visions of the end time given to the seer John. For the Easter season, these are the visions of the heavenly reign entered into by the Risen Lord.
Here he sees the New Jerusalem – a city marked by the presence of God and God’s Anointed (the Lamb), who provide whatever light and holiness this heavenly city come to earth will need. There will be no sun, and there will be no temple, for the presence of God enlightens and sanctifies all. This city is for those who survive the final judgment; it is for the pure and the faithful. “But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (verse 27, NRSV).
The holy city will be recognized by the nations, who will bring their glory (wealth) to it, as the old prophecies said. (The heavenly Zion, enlightened by God and receiving the wealth of the nations, is elaborated in Isaiah 60.) Out of the throne of God in this heavenly city will flow the River of Life, with its water bright as crystal and the healing trees on both sides (verses 1-2, descended from the old vision in Ezekiel 47:1-12).
Thus the heavenly drama of the Risen Lord is projected to its incomprehensible climax. HOWEVER, this is the place to observe that the Lectionary selections from Revelation have been extremely selective. Besides the heavenly liturgies, of which we have heard much, there is also much struggle and conflict in this heavenly drama, and that part has been left out of the Lectionary readings. See Note Below on Revelation in the Lectionary.
The Gospel reading is from that prolonged scene of Jesus’ preparation for departure presented in John’s Gospel. First there is a statement of an ultimate unity between Son, Father, and loving follower: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (verse 23, NRSV).
But prior to the realization of that unity, there is departure, and in place of Jesus’ own presence to the believers, he will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is sent by the Father, sent in Jesus’ name, and is a means of teaching the disciples – of teaching them what they already have heard from Jesus himself. The Advocate “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (verse 26)
The passage intends to give confidence to the followers, and especially confidence after Jesus is gone. The whole process the disciples will go through is a continuous series of “Ah ha!” experiences. “That’s what that meant!” (See, for example, John 2:21-22 and 12:16.) Thus the reading concludes, “And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe” (verse 29). The Gospel expects a period of reflection and continued illumination on the part of the disciples, constantly assisted by the Spirit, before they move out to share the new life with the peoples and the nations.
Note on Revelation in the Lectionary
The Lectionary readings taken from the book of Revelation are heavily loaded toward the liturgical and heavenly-drama sections of that book. There is much else in this unique Christian book that has been left out of the three-year cycle of readings.
Christopher Rowland sums up Revelation in the Lectionary as follows:
The Revised Common Lectionary prescribes ten readings from Revelation over the three-year cycle. Of these ten readings, five are from Revelation 21-22 [New Heaven and Earth and the New Jerusalem], four from two passages (1:4-8; 7:9-17) [both visions of the heavenly liturgy], and one from chapter 5 [another heavenly liturgy]. …To paraphrase Bonhoeffer’s words, we have ceased to be a community that hears the Apocalypse, for the simple reason that we do not allow ourselves the opportunity of hearing, let alone keeping, its words. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon, Vol. 12 , p. 510.)
The point is that over half the book of Revelation is about the struggle and chaos on earth of the agony accompanying the birth of the new age. There is a great cosmic warfare going on, and the seer’s visions present the warring sides and the cost to faithful witnesses of the struggle between the mighty forces of evil and the good forces of the heavenly Lamb. There is not another book in the Christian Bible that presents so clearly the oppressive power of great imperial forces. This is a message that many Christians around the world need to hear, because it reflects their own experience of overwhelming forces bearing them down – but insists also on a final hope for deliverance.
Let there be a plea entered here to find a time to read at least some of chapters 12 and 13. Both chapters speak in symbols, but powerful and awesome symbols. In Chapter 12 the woman robed in sun and moon who is pregnant and flees to the wilderness from the Dragon who seeks to consume her child – this is the warfare on earth of the Israel-Church from whom the Anointed One was born. The Dragon is the central force of anti-creation, expressed in the Hebrew scriptures as the great deep and the chaos of water that overwhelms all human order. The woman’s child escapes the Dragon and is whisked off to heaven where he assumes divine authority as the Lamb. This produces an intense warfare in heaven, and the Dragon is defeated. “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (12:9, NRSV). Unfortunately for the earth, it is at the mercy of these newly rampant forces of evil. “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17).
In chapter 13 there is the presentation of two beasts, which symbolize more organized and focused evil forces than the vague Dragon of chapter 12. The beast from the sea (13:1-10) is an agent empowered by the Dragon, who utters blasphemies and “was allowed to make warfare on the saints and conquer them. … [A]ll the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written … in the book of life …” (13:7-8). The second beast (13:11-18) is from the earth, but equally empowered by the Dragon and the first beast. This beast has powers of a magician, which it uses to support worship of the first beast. It can bring an idolatrous image to life, to dazzle gullible followers, and has power to execute people who will not worship the beast. Finally, this second beast is in charge of the demonic bureaucracy of Satan: “It causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (13:16-17). The name/number of the beast is, of course, that notorious if ill-used number 666.
Such language and imagery is extravagant and takes patience to appreciate. Christopher Rowland comments,
Talk about Satan is avoided by some liberally minded people. It seems to reflect the beliefs of simple-minded believers or the fantasies of infancy, …yet it is a potent resource to help us to comprehend the forces that upset and subvert our managed lives. … As Revelation indicates, the manifestation of Satan’s power is complex. It is institutional and social as well as personal. Thus the beast is a concrete embodiment of evil power. Evil does not take the form of a single king but an imperial institution or structure; it is a way of operating, and its agents of propaganda take many shapes (13:1ff.). Likewise, Babylon [chapters 17-18] is not an individual but a city with its whole network of relationships and institutions contributing to a pattern of life, involvement in which John calls “fornication.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12, p. 653.)
Much of the language and vision materials of Revelation are highly suggestive insights into the forces of evil, the larger inertias of masses of people and power that ultimately oppose and resist the power of good indicated by the great end-goal, the Reign of God.