APOSTLES OF AGAPE
By: Rev. Naomi King
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150,
Revelation 1: 4-8
Psalm 150:6 – Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
This week’s readings equip us to handle times when we face oppressive powers and are afraid. We are here to further and demonstrate God’s boundless love. Yet so often we face a world that lives in fear and we are not immune. The lectionary foreshadows the reality the apostles will face after the Ascension of Jesus, the reality already faced on the long vigil of Holy Saturday, the reality that so many of us face, regardless of the liturgical season: we will be afraid, oppressed in that fear, and need to remember how to take heart and live in service to this world, demonstrating God’s endless love. Thus, the lectionary gives us an example of how to act with courage and serve God; a song to encourage us; a reminder that when we’re serving God to counteract oppressors, we’re serving an important role; and a story evidencing that God’s love knows no bounds. Symbols and parallel situations fill the readings this week, so that we may adopt these stories, songs, and prayers to whatever tribulations we face.
We flash forward to some number of the apostles before the political authorities. The Acts of the Apostles (Apostles) is not a history in our contemporary understanding of what that means. Instead, there are at least three separate narrative draw together so that the Lukan community has an origins narrative parallel to the origins narratives of Israel that are referenced in the Good News According to Luke (Luke). We read symbolically; literal readings of this passage gave rise to the false teaching of blood libel and centuries of anti-Semitic violence and oppression. We read for inspiration, and we read for justice; steer clear of any cultural pressure for literalist historiography in these passages, for those rocky shoals are the very opposite of what the primary message is in these readings.
So here are some of the apostles, appearing in front of the same group of Herod’s political appointees, adjudicating a teaching contest. (Remember, Herod’s a client ruler, administering this state for his own profit and that of his political friends.) We are invited to ask, “Who’s teaching the truth about God?” When we ask that question, we want to remember that these are not just two groups representing religious differences meeting. We want to remember that, just as today, there are a lot of people acting in the name of God, but for earthly power. And when we who care for the orphan, the widow, the imprisoned, the hungry, the homeless, when we who labor for equity and peace and justice face earthly powers, our calling becomes clear, for we are apostles of God’s love, agape. As apostles of agape, we gird ourselves with courage and keep serving God, even though that means we are in terrible trouble, even when our lives are at stake. How shall we take heart and robe ourselves in courage? We sing a section of Psalm 118.
Psalm 118 is not particularly long, yet the lectionary breaks the psalm into two pieces. When this kind of choice has been made, we can learn something about what the lectionary creators were perhaps thinking by asking why. The whole psalm has three distinct parts, with joyful praise opening the psalm, then recapitulating sorrow, and concluding with assurance. The first part of joyful praise is removed. In our worship (what we hold worthy) we can then provide the people with a song of encouragement for their moments of trial. Worship reflects and prepares us for daily life; our liturgy and literally, the leit ourgos, the work of the people is to be prepared for trial as we serve God. We can see how the early Christian community related to such songs, for example, in the martyrdom of Thecla, as conveyed in The Acts of Paul and Thecla(Thecla). Thecla repeats words very similar to Peter’s in our passage from Apostles for today and she is rewarded with her community tossing fragrant bouquets of flowers upon her in her final dances around the altar at her death. We, too, may be asked to be living sacrifices, and in that call, remain true to praising God (Psalm 150).
We find reassurance in our labors against oppressive power through the opening of John’s letter of Revelation (Revelation) and through our gospel reading. The opening of this epistle is very similar to the openings of the Pauline letters. In this opening, John lays out his major message and his themes by which he’ll explore that message. We meet the symbolic number seven. How do we know this is highly symbolic? There are more than seven congregations in the Roman administrative area called Asia to whom this letter is addressed. But seven is mentioned more than fifty-five times as an important number in this letter. That suggests the letter writer was using this number as a rhetorical and symbolic device. At the time of its composition, the Roman world understood there were seven planets in the solar system and seven days in the week. A common Jewish belief at the time is that there were seven angels as part of the Spirit of Creation. These three sevens demonstrate a divine order. We can be assured all these goods are going to be opposed by evils, reflecting the poles of the conflict, the continuing saga in which we live, Good Vs. Evil. This isn’t really about duality, for Revelation tells us all this conflict is encompassed within the Alpha and the Omega. God’s love will prevail. This is, then, ultimately a poetics of assurance and encouragement in line with both the Pauline letters and with the book of Daniel.
We return to our previously scheduled experience of terror, interrupted by a brief reminder from our sponsor of reassurance. The apostles are frightened fugitives and hiding. John says “from the Jews” but we need to contextualize that for the same reasons above, and recognize that what John is talking about is from oppressive authorities. If you were recently released from a prison where it is acceptable to beat out your confession and kill you, then you might be hiding from the populace rather than parading on the streets. In the midst of their understandable fear and hiding, reminiscent of Jesus coming across the sea to reach the apostles, Jesus finds the apostles (Mark 6:45-52; John 20:19). Jesus sees what cannot be seen. He finds the lost and lonely. He comforts the afflicted. None are outside of Jesus’ reach. We are never without Jesus if we attune ourselves to him. None are beyond God’s love, even -- perhaps especially -- fugitives from the authoritarian state. Showing the boundlessness of God’s love even in the midst of the authoritarian state was Paul’s ministry to Thecla at the end, and ours for this world (Thecla).
But most of us struggle with staying present to God’s boundless love when we are terrified. I know that’s true for me. How well have I held out God’s love when one advanced on me pointing a gun at me? How well in the midst of far less difficult circumstances? Here’s my fear with me as I go out into the night to deliver food and water to the people I saw living in the shrubbery over there by the freeway. Here’s my fear with me ascending the pulpit – the very place many would assume I’m most comfortable – for I know what I have to say will be cause for some anger, some redirection of pain. Here’s my fear, showing up, demanding me to pick it up, and show it God’s unending and amazing grace and love.
Bless that story about Thomas Twin (our twin, the twin of all the world who fear). Bless Thomas Twin who needs to feel Jesus’ wounds, who yearns for evidence of that this is indeed the beloved teacher and not just a dream or a spirit or a figment of his imagination, who needs to feel God’s love to know God’s love is real. Jesus invites Thomas to poke around in his injuries – a painful process, but Jesus undergoes this, too, knowing what Thomas needs. John tells us we are no different from Thomas, not really, for these accounts are given to us so we may hold onto the truth, the way, and the light. That postscript to the account reminds us of the community who first read and circulated John, a community that was illicit, circumscribed, often afraid. Many of us may not have fear of being licit, but we have other fears, fears that are getting in our way of living out God’s amazing love. We may be afraid of public censure for being one with people who are not considered good or good enough, or fearful of snickers and harsh words at the simple lifestyle or the prayers which we make, or fearful of violence since our way calls us to take so many risks to show God’s love, to create peace, to cultivate all the kinds of ground that we trod. We are not so different, for we still fear and in that fear cannot access the truth of Emmanuel, the truth of Eastertide. God is with us. God is with us, whether we are aware of that or not. As long as we have breath, let us praise that fact, and gather up our courage, turning to our neighbors – for who is not our neighbor? – and showing evidence to one another of God’s bounty.