First Thoughts on Year B First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 7

William Loader

Easter 7: 13 May Acts 1:15-17,  21-26

In the mists of the beginnings of the early church Luke constructs a picture of what might or must have been. Whether it was really so we have no way of telling. So much of what Luke writes of the early years is heavy with symbolism that it is hard to tell. Symbolism is already apparent in the 120 people gathered. People in the ancient world knew that that was 12 x 10. They would also know that there had been 12 disciples, most likely a deliberate numerical choice on the poart of the historical Jesus because the movement he founded was based on the hopes of Israel, the 12 tribes. One, Judas, had failed. By Luke's day there were various explanations about what he did and how he died. The diversity has invited speculation from seeing him as a supporter who just wanted create the trigger for Jesus to assert himself to seeing him as a traitor interested only in the money, the image of greed we find in the fourth gospel.

Clearly there would have had to have been a replacement. At least, that is the assumption in the way Luke has been told the story. It sounds like there could be only 12 apostles and to qualify one must have been with Jesus from the time of John the Baptist onwards. Later we hear of conflict over such restrictions or at least of Paul making the claim, as he regularly does in his letters, to be one of the apostles, even though he did not qualify, at least on the basis of the criteria listed in our passage. He advocated a much more open stance. Luke knows traditions which called Paul an apostle, but here he seeks to confine the role to these 12. Both in his gospel and in Acts Luke is concerned with continuity and authority. The gospel begins with devout Jews in the temple, of whom it could be said that they were true and faithful people of Israel. Acts also begins with devout believing Jews, who attend the temple. Whereas Mark has resurrection appearances of Jesus occur in Galilee, in Luke they appear in Jerusalem. Even the geography is changed because it too carried symbolism. Continuity is a priority. Keeping a group of 12 intact belongs to this concern with continuity.

Order is also important, so Luke wants to show that the first believers dealt with the problem of Judas' vacancy properly, at least judged by the standards of the time. They prayed and "tossed a coin" as it were and it was done. Luke may well have believed that such prayer will guarantee the outcome is valid, uncontaminated by human interference. It may have happened like that. It may be Luke's imagining. By more informed standards it is no way to make decisions. Even the wildest charismatic groups today would do better than that. We should not complain. It is not the only assumption we do not share with the ancient world. We do not share their views about creation's age, about the shape of the world, about what causes illness, and much more. That does not prevent us from finding our own sense of continuity amid the discontinuity.

Luke will go in in his symbolic narrative to count 40 days during which Jesus appears, at the end of which he ascends (which for us has also to be symbolic - he did not go into orbit!), matching the famous sets of 40 days and 40 years of Jewish tradition. On that basis Paul's encounter which comes later was not an appearance of the risen jesus like those in the 40 days. He then dates the coming of the Spirit, in appropriate symbolism, to the Jewish harvest festival, Pentecost, a pilgrom festival to which Jews from all over their world gathered and so an image of mission. The symbolism of breath and fire lends detail to the scene where a mighty rushing wind blows and toungues of fire appear on believers' heads. Knowing Jews would sense echoes of the legend about Sinai that at the giving of the Law a flame came from heaven, split in 70 parts, one for each nation of their world and only one nation agreed to embrace it, Israel.

The continuity, so colourfully conveyed, is about being connected to the God who was known in the past and would be known in the future as the God who seeks to bring hope and liberation. God's Spirit seeks continuity right through to our own time and right into our own congregations and lives, not just in individuals but in the messiness of groups with their patterns of leadership and organisation, parts of the corporate body which deserves as much care and respect as do our bodies as individuals. The issue is always continuity - continuity with what God has done and is doing.

Gospel: Easter 7: 13 May John 17:6-19
Epistle: Easter 7:  13 May  1 John 5:9-13