Thursday, 15 May 2014

Stephen, Psalm 31, Living stones, the 6th I am

I don't usually write on 4 pre-selected texts at once, but of course I think about them on Sundays when that day rolls around, and sometimes delight in the connections, and sometimes not, depending on how grumpy I am in the morning. These texts are from the Revised Common Lectionary, a process that was begun somewhat recently and continues to draw in readers within the Christian congregations, that all of us might together be learning from a set of common texts read in sequence over a period of three years. There are four readings in this ministry of the Word: from the 'Old Testament', from the Psalms, from the Epistles, and from the Gospels. (See here for lots of frequently asked questions).
The Revised Common Lectionary, first published in 1992, derives from The Common Lectionary of 1983, both based on the Ordo Lectionem Missae of 1969, a post-Vatican II ground-breaking revision of the Roman Lectionary.
The Jews have a similar pattern of learning from the Scriptures, but their focus is continually on Torah, the five books of Moses. They read them in sequence once a year. Associated with each section of Torah is a passage from the Prophets. Some of the Writings also have traditional times when they are read, e.g. the Song of Songs during Passover, the Lamentations on the 9th of Av, and Esther at Purim. But it appears that in both Christian and Jewish tradition, the lectionary will not cover the whole of the canon during a complete cycle. I note in the link above that to read from the Scriptures in synagogue is called aliyah, literally, going up, or ascension. It is also the word for the whole burnt offering. Reading in public is therefore clearly important, as important as going up to the land.

So what about this week in Christendom? The first reading is from Acts (instead of the OT). I miss an OT lesson. The reading from Acts is about the death of Stephen, who asks the Lord Jesus to receive his spirit. In Ecclesiastes 12:7 we read that on death, the spirit returns to God who gave it. "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." One question arises immediately, why did Stephen (or why did Luke, the author of Acts depict Stephen so) put this request to the risen Jesus? Does this relate to what is expected of Jesus by those who knew him after his own ascension? Notice that the ascension of Jesus represents the acceptance of and completion of his own self-offering.

The next 'reading' is Psalm 31 - with a great chunk removed. (I object to the cutting out of the difficult bits of Scripture - and the readings in the lectionary seem to be strangely selected at times.) There is a clear reference to entrusting the spirit in verse 5 (Hebrew Psalm 31:6). This is a traditional Psalm for Compline, the last service of the day. The entrusting of the spirit at the end of the day is entrusting to sleep, that in the new day, we may also awaken. The first use of awaken is in Psalm 3:6 and the last in Psalm 139:18. So we see a clear link to the words of Acts 7:59. The words of this psalm are also on the lips of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion (Luke 23:46). The Psalmist, Jesus, and Stephen are seen in a single tradition.

Then we have a reading from 1 Peter, itself dependent on the Psalms, Psalm 34:9, 118:22 (part of the traditional psalms for Easter Day) and the Prophets, Isaiah 28:16. If we continue the thought experiment of one tradition, the Psalmist, Stephen, and Peter are now living stones in a temple of which Jesus is the cornerstone. They are a holy priesthood offering a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through the anointed Jesus. The building of the temple is the work of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Comforter is a rich word reflecting God's essential forbearance and forgiveness throughout Scripture, e.g. Isaiah 40:1 and also Simeon's song in Luke 2:25. (Consolation = comfort, paraclete in Greek, nacham in Hebrew.)

Now are we prepared to hear the Gospel? John 14 is part of 'the farewell discourse', a favorite portion of many readers of the NT. How well do we read it? Is our reading exclusive? Is it a comfort to us and to others? Who is this dwelling-place that we are in? (Funny question, eh?)

Psalm 90:1 has the idea for dwelling-place embedded in it.
My Lord, a dwelling-place you yourself have become for us from generation to generation.
The connection to the psalm is direct but via another Greek-Hebrew door. And where is the place that Jesus is going to? The place is a cipher for the temple, the place where God has set his name, the new temple that we have already been referring to. And our questions are many, but the confidence that we read of in John's farewell discourse on the role of the Spirit to which we have been entrusted, that confidence is as great as any question we ask.

We could spin out comment on this gospel considerably. The Father in the Son and the Son in the Father, God in Christ reconciling himself to the world in the one whose life redeems the world. Do we believe? Do we see the work that is being done? The creation and redemption of the world is what is seen in the words and work of Jesus which the Father is accomplishing (even now) through him. And greater works than these are to be done by those who believe because he goes to the Father. Somehow this needs to be translated, doesn't it? Some people are really uncomfortable with masculine imagery for God. I am not sure what can be done in this discourse, but the Spirit is not so limited, so I leave it unresolved - for the few seconds it takes you to get to the next sentence.

God the creator, in God the Redeemer, and God the Redeemer, in God the Creator are doing a work that we participate in through God the Spirit, and that is the same Spirit that is God in whom we live and who lives in us, in the same way as God the Redeemer lives in God the Creator and vice-versa. Our spirits are committed into the nurturing care of God who is Spirit.

To wrap up the thought, let's return to Psalm 31 - and here, let's look at a few words that go beyond guessing at the nature of God.

בְּיָדְךָ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי פָּדִיתָה אֹותִי יְהוָה אֵל אֱמֶֽת
Into your hand I entrust my spirit, you have ransomed me, Yahweh, God of truth

Yahweh, the personal name of God has its first entrance into the text of the Bible in Genesis 2:4. I always come back to one of my favorite poets, George Herbert, when I read that verse about the Day that the Lord God created the heavens and the earth. He says we count 300 (meaning 365) but we miss - there is but one (day) and that one ever.
The link is to the Five Mystical Songs #2
I got me flowers to strew thy way; I got me boughs off many a tree
But thou wast up by break of day, and brought'st thy sweets along with thee
The Sunne arising in the East, though he give light, and th'East perfume,
If they should offer to contest with thy arising, they presume
Can there be any day but this, though many sunnes to shine and endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse: there is but one, and that one ever.
Words by George Herbert
Simon Keenlyside
Graham Johnson, Piano
(Note that the Lego Movie has Emet = truth as the name of the hero!)

Well there is always a first post - this is too much and too little at once. Enjoy.


  1. Bob, thank you for an interesting and thoughtful post. Much to think about-despite the advent of computer screens, etc. I'm going to print it on paper.

  2. Bruce, enjoy - I am glad you have become able to comment. I look forward to your feedback.