Sunday, July 27
Acts 14:19-28: The apostolic activity in Derbe, some sixty miles east of Lystra, is not described in detail. On their return to the churches that they had earlier evangelized, the apostles endeavor to strengthen the faith of the believers, reminding them in particular that the life of the Gospel involves the mystery of the Cross. In each place the apostles establish a local hierarchy (literally "sacred order") to pastor the new congregations. This is the burden of the expression "appointing elders" (presbyteroi, the Greek root of the English word "priests"). We note that these men derive their pastoral authority, not from their congregations, but from the apostles themselves, who act for the Holy Spirit (cf. 20:17; cf. Titus 1:5). Having done this, the apostles reverse their steps back on Antioch in Syria, the church that had sent them out on mission (13:3). Thus ends PaulŐs "first missionary journey" in the year 48. In Antioch the apostles give their report, using the analogy of the "open door" to describe their apostolic opportunity. It was an expression that Paul liked (1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12). The final verse of this chapters suggests some passage of time prior to the summoning of the council in Acts 15. During the two years or so that Paul and Barnabas have been away on mission, things have not been idle back at Antioch and Jerusalem. It is clear that a crisis is building with respect to the ChurchŐs relationship to the Mosaic Law and Jewish institutions generally. The sorts of resistance that Paul met at the various local synagogues during the journey were typical of the emotions and motives involved in this crisis. Prior to the next missionary journey, there will have to be some practical resolution to the question about the Christian ChurchŐs relationship to the Law. Specifically, with the great increase among Gentile believers, the question of the obligation of the Law on the Christian conscience will have to be addressed.
Monday, July 28
Mark 6:30-44: One may discern three layers of tradition in this account of the multiplication of the loaves by Christ our Lord: first, the event itself; second, the way that event was transmitted in the preaching of the early Church, prior to the narrative in MarkŐs Gospel; third, the particular setting in which Mark places it.
First, with respect to the event itself. What did it mean to the Jews who were present at the time and partook of this simple meal? >From Jewish written sources of the period we know that the Jews of that period were expecting the Messiah, when he came, to reproduce the miracles associated with the Exodus, including the miraculous feeding of the people in the desert. This expectation is reflected in the account of this event given in John 6:1-15(especially verse 15),30-32. Thus, at the very time that this event occurred, it was perceived as a sign that the Messiah had arrived.
Second, as we see in the discourse that follows this event in John 6:41-58, this dramatic event led immediately to thought about the sacred mystery of the LordŐs body and blood. Since there is nothing in the event itself that would explain why Jesus suddenly refers to the drinking of His blood, that reference can scarcely be explained except as pertaining to what Christians would soon be calling "The LordŐs Supper," in which Jesus identified the bread and wine as His body and blood. It is not surprising, then, that MarkŐs account of the event, particularly in verse 41, employs the traditional four verbs (took, blessed, broke, gave) that describe the action of Jesus in the Gospel accounts of the LordŐs Supper. In the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus demonstrated His authority over the substance of bread. In the walking on the water, which immediately followed that event, Jesus demonstrated His authority over the substance of His own body. Both aspects of His authority are contained in the LordŐ Supper, where He transforms bread into His very body.
Third, Mark himself (alone among the evangelists in this respect) links the multiplication of the loaves with the theme of the Good Shepherd (verse 34). This linkage evokes the imagery of Psalm 23 (Greek and Latin 22), which has always been supremely the psalm associated with the LordŐs Supper.
Tuesday, July 29
Acts 15:1-11: The time has come to address the question that has been nagging the Christian Church since the conversion of Cornelius in Chapter 10. Are Gentile Christians obliged to observe the Mosaic Law? Or, put another way, must one become a Jew in order to become a Christian? This is a question of great moment for those many Jewish Christians who gladly accept the Gospel as the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, but who find in the Gospel itself no warrant for the abrogation of the Law. It is the Law, after all, that separates GodŐs chosen people from the other peoples of the earth. It is the observance of the Law that makes Israel a holy people. If the Gospel involves the dissolution of the Law, then does it not simply subvert the notion of a chosen people? This is a very serious question for Jews who believe in Jesus. Are they now simply to be like everyone else in the world? Of course not, they know, but how is this distinctiveness and consecration of the a chosen people to be reconciled with holding communion with Gentiles who do not observe the Law? It is to address this dilemma in a practical way that this first "council" of the Christian Church is convened halfway through the Book of Acts. It is at this council that the Church takes a first official, formal step toward becoming an institution recognizably distinct from Judaism. In his description of this council, Luke mentions Peter and the original apostles for the last time. The councilŐs final voice will be that of James, "the brother of the Lord," who pastors the Church at Jerusalem. The rest of the Book of Acts will be devoted to the apostle PaulŐs ministry to the Gentiles, which benefits from the councilŐs authorization. This authorization touches two practical questions in particular: circumcision and the dietary laws. In respect to both of these points the council decides that Gentile Christians are under no obligation of discipline. The decision is entirely practical. A more general and theoretical treatment of the ChurchŐs relationship to Judaism will require more time and reflection.
Wednesday, July 30
Acts 15:12-22: Peter, guided by his own experience in the conversion of Cornelius and his friends, enunciates what will henceforth serve as the practical principle to be followed in the evangelization of the Gentiles; namely, that they will not be compelled to submit to the Mosaic Law. By way of response, James rises to give his own consent to this principle, which expresses GodŐs intention to draw even from the Gentiles "a people of His name." In addition, James goes on to cite this divine intention as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Amos 9:11-12, which he quotes in a variant of the standard Greek translation (Septuagint), not the Hebrew text that we may have expected at Jerusalem. The burden of this text from Amos has to do with the rebuilding of the Davidic house and the re-gathering of GodŐs scattered children. As in the case of Cornelius, to which Paul alluded (verses 7-8), the active agent of this rebuilding and re-gathering is God: "I will return . . . I will rebuild . . . I will set up . . . says the Lord who does these things." This evangelical principle now established, however, James reminds the rest of the council that a certain pastoral delicacy will be needed in its application. If all of the Mosaic Law is neglected by the Gentile Christians indiscriminately and right away, the result can be a considerable scandal, because Jewish sensitivities may be deeply (and unnecessarily) offended. If, James argues, the Gentile converts should not be disturbed (verse 19), neither should the Jewish Christians (verse 21). Therefore, he urges that four restrictions be placed on the Gentile converts with respect to the Mosaic Law (verse 20). James is not pulling these four components out of thin air. He is drawing them from Leviticus 17-18, which contains a list of rules for aliens living in the Holy Land: abstention from food sacrificed to idols (Leviticus 17:8-9), from the consumption of blood (17:10-12) and strangled animals (17:15), and from illicit sexual intercourse (18:6-18). Later on, even though St. PaulŐs epistles never refer to this decision of the Jerusalem council, we will find him applying exactly the same sensitivity that James expresses here to address a concrete pastoral situation (1 Corinthians 8-10).
Thursday, July 31
Acts 15:23-35: Since the letter to be sent to the churches represents the mind of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, two envoys from Jerusalem are commissioned to carry it. These will now join Paul and Barnabas, who are returning to Antioch. One of them, Silas, determines to remain in that city. With respect to the letter itself, it is important to observe its pastoral intent and the fairly restricted application of its mandates. It was not a document intended to be universally applied in the Christian mission at all times and in every place. The letter was addressed only to the "mixed" congregations of Syria and Cilicia that had been evangelized by the "mixed" congregation at Antioch. Although the document upheld the principle that Gentile converts are not subject to the Mosaic Law, it determined nothing definitive regarding the ChurchŐs relationship to that Law in general. (This question would be theologically worked out by Paul a few years later in connection with the Galatian crisis.) Neither should the letterŐs four-fold restriction on Christian freedom be understood as Holy ScriptureŐs definitive word on the subject. For instance, notwithstanding the prohibition against eating meats sacrificed to idols, PaulŐs own treatment of the question will be considerably more nuanced (cf. 1 Corinthians 8). (Similarly, it would be a distortion to understand that apostolic letter as containing a permanent and universal prohibition against consuming blood, and, in fact, some Christians over the centuries have become quite expert in the production of excellent blood-sausages!) The letter itself manifests another aspect of its apostolic authority: It appeals to the Holy Spirit as revealing His will in the apostolic action itself. This body of men was clearly aware of itself as possessed of authority to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit (verse 28). This principle of the conciliar authority of the Church to determine matters not only of discipline, but also of the content of the Christian faith, was to become one of the defining characteristics of the Church that wrote the Creed and determined the canon of the New Testament.
Friday, August 1
Psalm 69 (Greek and Latin 68): From the very beginning the Christian reading of this psalm has uniformly interpreted this prayer in the context of the LordŐs suffering and death. "Save me, O God, for the waters have come even unto my soul. . . . I have come to the depths of the sea, and the flood has submerged me" prays the Man of sorrows who described his approaching Passion as the baptism with which he must be baptized (cf. Mark 10:38; Luke12:50; Romans 6:3).
This same Sufferer goes on to pray: "Zeal for Your house has consumed me," a verse explicitly cited in the New Testament with respect to the LordŐs purging of the temple (John 2:17). In the context this consuming of the Lord was a reference to His coming Passion; He went on to say to those who were plotting to kill Him: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." In saying this, the evangelist noted, "He was speaking of the temple of His body."
The very next line of Psalm 69 says: "The reproaches of those who reproached You have fallen on me," a verse later cited in the Epistle to the Romans as bearing on the sufferings of the Lord. The apostleŐs lapidary and understated comment was that "even Christ did not please Himself" (15:3). In this passage St. Paul could obviously presume a common Christian understanding of Psalm 69, even in a congregation that he had not yet visited.
Still later in our psalm stands the line: "Let their dwelling be deserted, and let no one live in their tabernacles." Even prior to the Pentecostal outpouring the Church knew this verse for a reference to Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:20), that dark and tragic figure who guided the enemies of Jesus and betrayed his Lord with a kiss.
Psalm 69 is the prayer of Him "who in the days of his flesh . . . offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death" (Hebrews 5:7). The Christian Church has ever been persuaded that Psalm 69 expresses the sentiments of that soul "exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death" (cf. Matthew 26:38). In this psalm we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of His Passion: "Deliver me from those that hate me, and from the depths of the waters. Let not the flood of water submerge me, nor the depth swallow me down, nor the mouth of the pit close over me."
This is the Christ who in dereliction sought in vain the human companionship of His closest friends during the vigil prior to His arrest: "What? Could you not watch one hour with Me?" (cf. Matthew 26:40). Psalm 69 speaks of this disappointment as well: "My heart waited for contempt and misery; I hoped for someone to share my sorrow, but there was no one; someone to console Me, but I found none."
According to all four Gospels, the dying Christ was offered some sort of bitter beverage, oxsos, a sour wine or vinegar, as He hung on the cross. This is the very word used at the end of the following verse of Psalm 69: "And for my food they laid out gall, and for my drink they gave me vinegar."
But there is another dimension to the Passion of the Lord Ń the resolve of His victory. Even as He was being arrested, his enemies were unable to stand upright in His presence (cf. John 18:6). This was the Christ, "who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame" (Hebrews 12:2). No man takes the LordŐs life from Him, for He has power to lay it down and to take it up again (cf. John 10:18). This is the Christ whom death could not hold, who descended a very conqueror into hell to loose the bonds of them that sat in darkness, and who "went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19).
This crucified Jesus, then, is truly the Brazen Serpent that God has raised up in these latter days, so that salvation will come to all who look on Him with faith in the power of His blood to save. Raised on the Cross, He is the fulfillment of that type of which we read today in Numbers 21 and Wisdom 16.
Saturday, August 2
Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamos is the modern Turkish city of Bergama, which is about one-tenth the size it was in antiquity; it has had an unbroken history since the fifth century B.C. There is a still a small, poor congregation of Christians at Bergama, the direct descendents of that congregation to which was addressed the Book of Revelation. One may also see there the ruins of a once magnificent church dedicated to St. John by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. Thanks to the excavations begun under the auspices of the Museum of Berlin in 1878, we know quite a bit about the ancient city. The problems in the church at Pergamos seem to have been largely internal. There was a laxist group, apparently to be identified with the Nicolaitans (verse 15), who advocated sexual immorality and the eating of sacrifices made to idols (verse 14). Those internal problems were compounded, nonetheless, by external pressure in the form of occasional persecutions, during one of which there perished the martyr Antipas (verse 13), identified by Christian tradition as the first bishop of that city. So resolute was the opposition to the Gospel in that city that Satan was said to throne there, perhaps a reference to the temple of the god Asculepius, whose symbol was a staff with a coiled serpent. That image, now universally known as the symbol of the healing professions (for Asculepius was the god of healing), would have reminded the early Christians of the serpent in Genesis 3, who will reappear several more times in the Book of Revelation (cf. 12:9 and 20:2, for instance).
That coiled serpent on the staff will further put us in mind of The Brazen Serpent in yesterdayŐs readings from Numbers 21, Wisdom 16, and John 3. The image of the snake, as a type of the Lord Himself, is full of immense irony. It represents, as it were, GodŐs own deception of Satan in the work of salvation.