Oddities and grumpy angels.

Signpost for Easter 7, Sunday 1 June 2014: Acts: 6-14; Ps 68: 1-10, 32-35; 1 Pet 4: 12-14; 5: 6-11: John 17: 1-11

Like many people, I’ve heard the readings from Acts and John heaps of times but this week when I read them through two things struck me as odd.

The first one was John 17:3 – here’s Jesus calling himself Jesus Christ. Well that’s weird, I thought. It’s usually other people call him the Christ and not very often, till Paul’s letters come along.

For me this is a clue that these probably aren’t Jesus’s actual words in a real situation. It looks as if here’s Jesus praying. (And this time he’s not fallen to the ground in deep conversation with his Father while the disciples nod off. He is at the dinner table, with the disciples hanging on his every word.)

Some might and do take it that this is Jesus praying to reassure the disciples that it hasn’t all been in vain, praying about what to do when he’s gone, praying for the future, a kind of handing over the disciples to God’s care as Jesus prepares to meet his destiny.

Well sort of, because it fulfills that purpose in the story of John’s gospel. But I think this is really a prayer or even a sermon for the Johannine community (John 17:20). They have been kicked out of the synagogue, blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem and they’re not feeling the love from the great majority of Jews.

That’s why I reckon this is more likely to be the author of John telling these people, “Look Jesus thought about you guys before he died, and this is why your faith works. Hang on in there.” The disciples round the table who are listening to this spoken prayer in this gospel are really the Johannine communities listening to this being read out to them at various gatherings far away from Jerusalem.

But if life is pretty tough for the first century Johannine community, they have eternal life to look forward to (17:2). Although we 21st century people might not quite see what the author is saying here because our dictionaries define eternal as being “without beginning or end; existing through all time; everlasting.” The author of John’s gospel, though, defines ‘eternal life’ as knowing God and Jesus Christ (17:3). The point is that this has more to do with quality of life than with quantity of life (endlessness). It also doesn’t mean, as many seem to assume, that we get to meet God and Jesus after we die. I’d like to think it suggests that taking the idea of our own personal relationship with God and Jesus seriously and working out what that’s all about is as much the promised eternal life as any other interpretation. What would you like to think?

And then there’s the second thing that struck me this week: here’s Mary and Jesus’s brothers at the end of the reading from Acts. Welcome back, I say, and where have you been all this time? Sadly I’m not the only one who can’t answer that.

Of course what’s really noticeable is that although there are other references to Christ’s ascension (Luke 24:50-53; John 20:17; Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:16), only Acts gives any kind of full description of ‘the event’. But I just can’t take it literally because, frankly, if you had just seen someone (Acts 6:9) lifted up and taken away in or by a cloud, wouldn’t you be riveted to the spot, staring up at the sky (Acts6 :11)? Then along come two blokes in white robes – angels – rather grumpily saying, “Chop, chop, work to do.” Wouldn’t you just want to thump them? I would.

Paul

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