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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday of Easter - Year A
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; I Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fifth Sunday of Easter - Year A


ACTS 7:55-60			Stephen's martyrdom introduces the young man 
Saul, soon to be converted to become the apostle Paul.  The main character 
of the whole narrative of The Acts of the Apostles is not any one of the 
apostles who carried the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.  That role belongs 
to the Holy Spirit.  The church still has a problem with human hero 
worship.  The real agent of God's mission in the world is still, as 
always, the Spirit of God who was in Christ.


PSALM 31:1-5,15-16  		Do not the words of this cry for deliverance 
recall the previous passage in Acts 7 describing the death of Stephen?  As 
their only scriptures, the Old Testament was the source and model which 
the writers of the New Testament adapted freely in narrating the gospel 
story.


1 PETER 2:2-10  		Again Old Testament references were the 
source for understanding Jesus as a person and the nature of the new 
community created through faith in him.  The temple of Jerusalem was the 
centre of Israel's religious heritage.  Built first by Solomon in the 10th 
century BC, it was razed and rebuilt twice before finally destroyed by the 
Romans.  This passage reflects a time after its destruction in 70 AD when 
the Christian community was finding an existence separate from Judaism.


JOHN 14:1-14  			Whether these are actual words of Jesus or 
only attributed to him by the Gospel writer, the passage contains 
important theological truths.  Most notable is that Jesus is the only way 
to God.  Is this an exclusionist point of view or a declaration of faith 
that all we can ever know of God is found only in Jesus? Adopting the 
latter attitude would certainly advance tolerance and peace among the wide 
variety of religions traditions in our global society.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

ACTS 7:55-60   The brutal end of the story of Stephen's martyrdom 
introduces the young man Saul, soon to be converted to the apostle Paul.  
The main character of the whole narrative of The Acts of the Apostles, 
however, is not any one of the named or unnamed apostles who carried the 
gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.  That hero role belongs to the Holy Spirit.  
This story tells of the first Christian martyr to illustrate how 
challenging and dangerous that mission would be.

Stephen was one of the seven Hellenistic leaders in the Jerusalem church 
chosen to assist the apostles.  Their primary role was as stewards 
commissioned to distribute food to the needy (6:1-6).  Stephen, however, 
had a special gift for preaching and soon ran afoul of the Sanhedrin, the 
supreme religious court of the Jews, (6:8-15) where he was convicted of 
blasphemy and sentenced to death by stoning.
	
We should note that Stephen’s witness before the Sanhedrin had significant 
differences from the Jerusalem tradition.  Generally speaking, Luke held a 
favorable view of the temple and Christian participation in Jewish 
worship.  Stephen expressed the more radical view that in Christ the 
temple order had given way to something better.  His review of Jewish 
religious history reached its climax in a condemnation of temple 
observances not unlike that of the great pre-exilic prophets (7:48-53).  
This sentiment is not without parallel in the NT, primarily in the Letter 
to the Hebrews, and later in the Alexandrian tradition represented by the 
pseudonymous Letter of Barnabas.  A similarly negative view of the temple 
system was held by the Samaritans and several Jewish sects such as the 
Ebionites and the Qumran community.

Nonetheless, Stephen made his mark as the first Christian to pay the 
ultimate price of martyrdom, which literally means witnessing for Christ.  
The church still has a problem with human hero worship and martyrdom.  But 
the real agent of God's mission in the world is still, as always, the 
Spirit of God who was in Christ.  This story presents the first evidence 
in Acts that the Spirit was motivating the apostolic church to reach out 
beyond the narrow confines of Judaism and Palestine to the vast Hellenic 
world with new insights of who Jesus Christ was for them too.


PSALM 31:1-5,15-16   Do not the words of this cry for deliverance recall 
the previous passage in Acts 7 describing the death of Stephen?  As their 
only scriptures, the Old Testament was the source and model which the 
writers of the New Testament adapted freely in narrating the gospel story.  
Stephen’s paraphrase of vs. 5 and his prayer asking forgiveness of his 
persecutors recall Jesus own words from the cross (Acts 7:59-60; cf.  Luke 
23:34, 46).  Many scholars believe that both of these consciously 
reflected the words of this psalm.  

We know little or nothing about the origins of this psalm.  It appears to 
be a composite of three different laments (vss. 1-8; 9-12; 13-18) with a 
final liturgical hymn of thanksgiving (vss. 19-24).  Some of its notable 
phrases and metaphors have parallels in other psalms.  The opening verses 
are almost identical to Ps.  71:1-3.  Vss. 6-8 refer to a conflict with 
those who worship idols, a frequent act of faithlessness in ancient Israel 
and today.  The adversarial attitude throughout the psalm almost reaches 
the point of paranoia before being sublimated to a profound expression of 
trust in vss. 14-15.  For those seeking a devotional sermon text none 
could be better than vs. 15a “My times are in your hand.”  


1 PETER 2:2-10   Again Old Testament references were the source for 
understanding person and work of Jesus, and the nature of the new 
community which faith in him had created.  This passage recalls several 
such references from the Psalms and to the prophet Isaiah.  The majority 
of references to milk in the OT (vs.2) are to the promise of Yahweh to 
give the Israelites “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Vs. 4 contains 
an obvious reference from Psalm 34:8.  The reference in vs. 6 is to a 
combination of Isaiah 28:16 and 8:14.  Vs. 7 quotes directly from Ps.  
118:22-23 as did Jesus according to Mark 12:10-11.  Peter repeats the 
quotation in Acts 4:11.  The concept of Israel as “a chosen race” came 
from Isaiah 43:20; and that of “a royal priesthood (and) and holy nation” 
(vs. 9) first occurred in Exodus 19:6.  Vs. 10 mirrors Hosea 2:23.

The passage also contains several phrases found in the letters of Paul.  
In vs. 2, for example, there is a clear allusion to 1 Corinthians 3:2 
where Paul spoke of feeding ‘milk’ to that new congregation.  The same 
verse contains a Greek word *logikon* (literally translated ‘reasonable’ 
or ‘rational,’ but in most modern translations ‘spiritual’) which appears 
elsewhere in the NT only in Romans 12:1.  Similarly, vs. 5 speaks of 
“offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” which is a direct 
quotation from the same source.  Paul also used the metaphor of the church 
as the temple of which Christ was the cornerstone (1 Cor.  3:10-15) while 
John quotes Jesus a saying that he would “destroy this temple and in three 
days (he) will raise it up.” (Cf.  Mark 14:58 where Jesus was charged with 
these very words.) These Paulinisms mitigate against Peter being the 
author of this letter, for it is hardly possible that Peter would have 
quoted Paul so extensively.  
	
The temple of Jerusalem was the centre of Israel's religious heritage.  
Built first by Solomon in the 10th century BC, it was razed and rebuilt 
twice before finally destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  Only part of its 
western wall have been discovered by 20th century archeological research.  
Jewish and Christian pilgrims praying at the foot of the wall is one of 
the most frequently photographed scenes from Jerusalem today.  It has 
become the inspiration for religious and political claims Israelis make 
for Jerusalem as their capital city.

This passage reflects a time after the destruction of the temple when the 
Christian community was discovering a spiritual existence separate from 
Judaism and its whole panoply of liturgical practices, yet still retained 
the Hebrew scriptures as their own.  All of the OT and NT references show 
that the early church regarded itself as the true people of God and heir 
to all God’s promises to Israel.  Now that the temple no longer existed 
and as the church moved further and further from its place of origin, the 
risen Christ became the centre of its worship and the source of its 
inspiration.


JOHN 14:1-14   The long discourses in John’s Gospel always raise the 
question whether these are actual words of Jesus or only attributed to him 
by the Gospel writer.  Christian piety profoundly endorses a verbatim 
record.  Christian scholarship almost universally accepts attribution with 
the probability that there are some remembered sayings of Jesus contained 
therein.  Either way this passage contains important theological truths as 
valid today as for the second or third generation of believers for whom it 
was written.

Most notable is that Jesus is the only way to God.  Is this an 
exclusionist viewpoint or a declaration that the full revelation of God is 
only found in Jesus? The debate continues without ceasing.  A few years 
ago it once again came to the fore by a press report of a statement made 
by a former Moderator of the United Church of Canada, Very Rev.  Bill 
Phipps.  The issue is complex in a pluralistic age where the history of 
religions, Christian and non-Christian, is much more clearly understood 
than when John’s Gospel was written about 90 CE.  As with so much else 
that confronts the serious believer these days, “one’s stance depends on 
where one sits.”

William Barclay gives several pages to this passage which anyone seeking 
to understand it more clearly should study. (*Daily Bible Readings: The 
Gospel of John.*)  He points out that it has many allusions to the OT as 
well as to the cross and the resurrection, and to the future church 
carrying on his ministry in the world.  With regard to Jesus as “the way, 
the truth and the life,” he describes how these form “three great basic 
concepts of the Jewish religion,” how Jesus made “the tremendous claim 
that in him all three found their full realization, and their full 
expression.”  However, claims in this passage for Jesus and Christian 
faith cannot be isolated from the rest of this discourse, especially the 
life of obedient love which Jesus commanded his disciples to follow.  
This, perhaps, is the clue to a more satisfactory interpretation of the 
uniqueness of our faith.  Many who are not Christians still live a genuine 
life of faith and sincere love for their neighbours.  They do not wish to 
be associated with the Christian institutions which seem so hypocritical 
in many important aspects of human behaviour.

The use of this passage to assuage the grief of those whose loved ones 
have died has special significance in the light of so many tragic murders 
and wartime atrocities reported daily with such graphic description.  Yet 
this was reality too for the first audience to read vss. 1-3.  In highly 
metaphorical language of a mansion with many rooms, these sentences give 
us assurance of never being separated by death from God and Jesus Christ.  
Whatever else the word “heaven” may mean, that is its minimal 
interpretation, as Paul also said in Rom.  8:38-39.  Everything here 
attributed to Jesus, however, depends on his being the one in whom God 
dwelt fully and on his “glorification” through the resurrection (vss.10-
13).  Human imagination and art have made much of this truth, but the 
whole of it rests on faith in the risen Christ, Son of God.  Life beyond 
death depends not on our resurrection, but on his.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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