Seventh Sunday of Easter

May 20, 2012
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Reading 2: 
Psalm 1
Reading 3: 
I John 5:9-13
Reading 4: 
John 17:6-19
By Jeanyne B Slettom

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

This text follows the general theme of legitimating the early Jesus movement via appeals to the Hebrew bible and the work of the Spirit. It also emphasizes continuity with Jewish history by reinforcing the number 12—12 disciples/apostles, 12 patriarchs, 12 tribes of Israel. A quick Internet search results in literally millions of sites that discuss the significance of “12” in numerology, mathematics, and the Bible.

More striking, however—especially in light of contemporary ordination struggles—is the method used to select the new apostle: casting lots. To be sure, the remaining 11 did not turn it into a free-for-all. But they had a single criterion for potential candidates: that it be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to the end and could “become a witness with us to his resurrection.” Now, although most English translations read “So one of the men,” Young’s literal translation reads: “One of these . . .” and that’s enough for me to extend the argument that follows.

The original disciples had no other criteria for choosing the twelfth apostle than the one stated; that is, to have been with Jesus from start to finish, a criterion that—it should be obvious—can no longer be met by anyone, except as an expression of faith. Sidestepping apostolic succession arguments—too long and problematic to deal with here—the crucial point is that there were no other criteria. Not gender. Not sexual identity or orientation. Not some litmus test for doctrinal purity.

In the ongoing development of the church, we are all, potentially, the “twelfth” apostle”; some called to lay ministry, some to ordination. Can you testify, from you own experiences, to the life, teachings, and transformative power of Jesus? That was enough for the eleven. Of the things that divide our various denominations, especially on the subject of ordination, none of them mattered. This is empowering both for those who struggle for ordination within denominations that use other criteria for withholding it, but also for anyone struggling for the confidence and courage to speak truth to power, challenge prejudice, or embody any of the teachings of Jesus.

Psalm 1

Ethics, as a branch of philosophy, has its foundation in one of the oldest questions posed by philosophers, “What is a happy life?” The ancient Greeks, and philosophers from other ancient traditions posed the question, and it also permeates the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. The answer perennially given points to our conduct, not to our accumulation of worldly fame or goods. It is our actions toward ourselves in relation to our own bodies and minds, our actions toward others, to the natural world, that contribute to or detract from happiness or well-being.

This psalm takes the “two ways” approach also seen in the prophetic books and much of the New Testament. The language it uses to differentiate the two choices is “righteous” and “wicked,” but that should not invoke images of a punitive god, especially given the wider contextual frame of delight, stability, and fruitfulness. The wicked are like chaff, blown away by the wind, not meant for lengthy consideration. The righteous should be the focus of our attention. And what do they do? They meditate on the law of God; which is to say, they are not rigid rule-keepers. They meditate on the nature of God, who, as creator of the world, surely has some idea of its optimum well-being. 

It is interesting that the whole of the Book of Psalms is prefaced by what is essentially a beatitude. Look, it could be seen as saying, what follows is the whole of human experience—blessing, sorrow, revenge, despair, anger, delight. Read each one, keeping this psalm, with its plain presentation of the two ways, in mind. Decide how you want to live. Choose righteousness, and put it on as armor against the vicissitudes of life, which will you read about in these pages, as the rest of the book unfolds, and which you will experience as your own life unfolds.

I John 5:9-13

The letters of John are both wonderful and convoluted—wonderful in their emphasis on love and convoluted in their struggle to express a reality which cannot be grasped in the substance metaphysics of the day. John Cobb has written extensively on this in his chapter on Chalcedonian Christology in Christ in a Pluralistic Age, and what follows is indebted to his argument. His argument, in turn, relies on Whitehead’s idea of internal relations.

First, here’s a vernacular reading. God is eternal. The eternality of God in Jesus is named Christ. When we recognize the truth of the eternality of Christ in Jesus we open ourselves to this same truth in ourselves. Jesus is not the source of eternal life; that resides in God. Jesus is the conduit, the “aha” in our own understanding.

Here’s the process metaphysic. In a substance world an object, like a billiard ball, can collide with another and send it in a particular direction. This is external causation, the result of an external relationship. In a process world, the billiard ball is not a discrete entity but a matrix of relationship and event involving cue, baize, shooter, previous shooters who may have pocked either or both balls—you can almost turn it into an infinite regress going back to the manufacturer, who was working that day, the harvest of raw materials, the weather conditions. There is no simple billiard ball hitting another billiard ball. Each ball is a momentary expression of all past events and relationships that have brought it thus far. And we haven’t even started in on the agency of the pool shooter.

What the letters and gospel of John try to do with the language of abiding is convey this sense of internal relations, that what we are in this moment is the sum of all what we’ve felt, seen, done, thought, encountered, experienced in all our previous moments. We are who and what we are because of what we’ve taken in, and what we’ve considered (even unconsciously) and rejected.

To encounter the Jesus story is to encounter a consciously God-infused person—and embedded in the story, of course, is the reality of that person. To take in Jesus is to take in that consciousness of God-infusion, or what the texts call eternal life. That is why we can find it in ourselves to call Jesus the Christ, and through that also find within ourselves the eternality of God.

Back to the vernacular: Jesus points the way to God, like compass pointing north. Take in Jesus, and you take in the compass. You, too, are now internally aligned.

John 17:6-19

Note: The following is excerpted from Marjorie Suchocki’s work on the Johannine literature, published in Volume 20.1 of Creative Transformation. In this section, she reflects on the eternal life promised in this passage (and others) as a realized eschatology.

Realized eschatology claims that the life of God can be lived now, here in this world, according to the grace and empowering Spirit of God poured out through the revelation of God’s nature in Jesus the Christ. And this is the overwhelming force of the gospel of John. . . . His entire focus is on a life of discipleship that is actually a continuation of the incarnation of God in us through our active discipleship, our faith, in Jesus the Christ. Eternal life is not something reserved for the future; it is a present event.

Now take this back to the notion of realized eschatology, of eternal life in us. The teaching of the gospel of John is that given the completeness of the revelation of God in Jesus, our openness to this revelation replicates the action of incarnation. Listen to the language from John 17: “as you sent me. . . I send them” (17:18); that they may all be one, even as you, father, are in me and I in you, that they may also may be in us” (17:21); “the glory which you has given me, I have given to them, that they may be one, just as we are one, I in them, and thou in me” (17:22, 23). Do you hear the reciprocity of the relationship? It comes to this: God is eternal. The eternal nature of God is in Christ. Our faith in Christ, our reception of his revelation as pertaining to us and our lives, our faithfulness, is at the same time our openness to God through Christ. And in Christ, God’s nature in-forms us, as well, touching our very self-formation, our characters, inviting us to be molded into the loving re-presentation of Christ, of God, in our own time.

Process theology, drawing from process philosophy, suggests that God touches every element in every single moment with guidance toward its good. This guidance is appropriate to the context; it fits its social location. When we are open to the nature of God as revealed through Christ, then a Christly guidance of conformity to God’s nature is offered to us. A Christly guidance is an influx of energy seeking to conform us to the very nature of God that we see in Christ, according to the particularities of our circumstances. Our openness to this influence is Christ in us, the hope of glory. It is the eternal life of God informing us, vitalizing us, calling us onward toward deeper and deeper conformity to Christ. It is realized eschatology, God’s life in us, here and now.

But I need to refer to the way John also alludes to life beyond here and now. If process finds a deep congeniality in his understanding of realized eschatology, there is also a deep affinity with John’s notion of life beyond life, and of judgment. The evangelist does not attempt any particular description of life beyond life. He simply asserts that God is life, eternal life, and that participation in God’s life through faithfulness brings that eternal life into our very beings. Through Christ, as Martin Luther says, we are to be made “little Christs.” But that nature to which we are called to conform here and now is a deeper and wider life than we are fitted to know here and now, even though and while it forms our character. But we are told in this gospel not only that eternal life—God’s life—is in us, but that we shall also be with God. Chapters 13-20 are interspersed with sayings such as “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there you may be also.” So one can assert of this gospel that the realized eschatology of the life of God we experience now fits us for a deeper knowledge of God and participation in God in a life that extends beyond this. Such life beyond life is not described, nor need it be. It is but given.

Process theology finds the metaphor fitting, appealing. God relates to us, influencing us, affecting us, guiding us, in-forming us. But God not only gives Godself to the world, God also takes the world into Godself. We are made partakers in God here and now insofar as we accede to conformity to the divine image, and we will be partakers in the fullness of God as God takes us into God’s own self.

In all this talk of eschatology in the gospel and in process theology, I have alluded to judgment, so I briefly outline what judgment is in this gospel, and draw the comparison. The key is in the somewhat enigmatic passage in John 3:17, where Jesus is and is not the judge: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. He who believes in him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already . . . and this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, for their deeds were evil.”

Jesus is not judgment in the sense of a law court, where sentence is pronounced; rather, Jesus is judgment in the sense of light. If you come out of darkness into a bright room, the light sometimes seems a bit blinding—you shield your eyes against it. You have a choice, of just closing your eyes, or leaving, or adjusting to the light. Which you do depends upon your decision. Jesus is the light of the nature of God. Seeing him in this way illumines us and how we have been living, just as a light illumines where we are in a room. Whether we go to that light, yearn for its clarity, seek its wisdom, or whether we turn from it as too blinding is our decision. Jesus is the light—how we respond is our own self-chosen judgment. So in this gospel, there is a radical assumption of human responsibility for how we respond to God. In process thought, we would extend this to say that how anyone, anywhere, anytime, responds to the guiding touch of God finally rests with that individual. In our responses, we pronounce our own judgment.

Johannine soteriology is a soteriology of revelation—of a realized eschatology sort. Seeing God in Jesus Christ is the transformation of who we are, since the revelation is not some external thing that you could write and erase on some classroom board. Far, far to the contrary: this revelation enters into us, so that eternal life courses through our veins, conforming us bit by bit or leap by leap to the divine nature. This transformation, of course, is never only personal—although it is certainly deeply personal. Rather, we are transformed for the purpose of becoming Christ bearers—of living socially, ethically, politically, economically, ecologically as a witness to the love of God for the common good.