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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

Acts 15-28

The second half of the book of Acts is dominated by the scene of the council in Jerusalem in chapter 15. The dispute over circumcision is a dispute over whether faith in Jesus as the Messiah is a new version of Judaism or something else entirely. If Gentiles, non-Jews, who are brought to Christ through the preaching and miracles of the apostles must be circumcised before being baptized, then the followers of Christ are saying that they are still Jews. Paul and Barnabas have been arguing against this practice, and in Luke's telling here Peter positions himself as the one initiating the mission to the Gentiles and as standing against circumcision. Paul's view of this dispute, which we will encounter when we read his Letter to the Galatians in a few weeks, is rather less generous to Peter. Whatever the historical truth, the important point is that the decision by the leaders depicted here – first Peter, and then James (known as James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus) – marks an assertion that Christianity, not yet really so named, is a new movement, a new faith, and something separate from its Jewish heritage. While the Pentecost event narrated in the second chapter of Acts is celebrated as the birth of the Church because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, this council's decision is perhaps the more definitive birth of the Church as a distinct new faith and a separate institution.

The rest of Acts builds on this decision, as it follows Paul on his many trips to found churches or to visit again those already founded. An intriguing aspect of his many speeches in these latter chapters is his willingness to adapt his message to his audience: the sermon on "the unknown God" he delivers in Athens (17:22-31) is radically different from his exhortation to the church in Ephesus (20:17-35) or again from his personal faith story as delivered to Festus and Agrippa (26:1-23). We will see this ability as we read his letters to various churches – Paul's great gift of seeing what aspects of the faith are most useful or applicable in specific life situations is on full display in these chapters and gives us a great view of the rapid growth of this strange new faith.

Acts 1-14

The Acts of the Apostles is the sequel to Luke's gospel. As I pointed out in our meeting this week, one can wonder why the final order of the books in the New Testament separated these two volumes by putting the Gospel of John in between - it seems a strange choice. But the emphasis on the gift of the Holy Spirit that drives and shapes John's account of the Last Supper, and therefore in many ways shapes his gospel as a whole, actually makes it a great lead-in to the agenda of Acts. For while Luke's gospel is concerned with the person of Jesus Christ – his life, teachings, death and resurrection – this book is focused on the efforts of the believers to figure out what to do next. The risen Christ has left the scene; now what?

The answer, gloriously made evident in the second chapter, is Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. This event makes the assertion that the disciples' message, their mission, their choices and decisions, are all being guided not by their own desires and hopes but by God. This underlying statement of faith shapes all of Luke's further narrative. For the second answer to "now what?" is the creation of the Christian Church as a community of faith that is linked to but distinct from its Jewish roots – and that is impelled forward by the same Spirit.

The early chapters focus on the disciples in Jerusalem slowly expanding the community of believers; the center here is the leadership of Peter, though with lovely episodes featuring Stephen's preaching and martyrdom and Philip's fabulous encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. Then Paul enters the story, and slowly takes center stage. Though he is to become the preeminent missionary to the Gentiles (non-Jewish population), the widening of the mission field is attributed here to Peter's vision that "what God has made clean, you must not call profane." All people are capable of receiving God's mercy, of receiving God's grace, of receiving God's salvation. Christianity thus begins to emerge as something radically different: not a Jewish sect or reformation or renovation, but a separate entity, a body of believers centered on Jesus Christ and powered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God's plan. The Trinity as a means of understanding God takes shape not as a theological concept but as an embodied reality. This movement is not yet complete - the arguments still need to be made and settled and acted upon in the chapters to come - but the movement is inexorable.

Next Meeting is Wednesday, January 8, 7:00-8:30pm in the Parish House!

John 13-21

And now we bring our reading of the Gospels to a close, with the second half of John. The Book of Glory (see the previous post) focuses on the Passion narrative - and Jesus' lengthy speech to his disciples that precedes it - as a story that glorifies Jesus and God in Jesus. We are returning here to the opening prologue, which declared that "...the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth." (1:14) "Glory" is often used in the Bible as a substantive thing, a radiance or light that is a manifestation of God's presence, and certainly that would seem to be central to how John understands it.

Don't worry about parsing Jesus' discourse and prayer that covers chapters 13-17, but instead enjoy the development of the imagery. The setting is the Last Supper, but the emphasis here is not on the institution of the eucharist, but on a summation of Jesus' self-identification. Thus the opening action of Jesus washing the disciples' feet sets the tone of teaching a completely different order to the world. Footwashing and betrayal yield to the language of glory, the heavenly dwellings and the way and the truth and the life; the promise of the gift of the Spirit; the true vine and the new commandment and the promotion of the disciples from servants to friends; the coming of the hour; and the oneness of Father and Son and followers of the Son. Add to all of this the image of the good shepherd in chapter 10 from last week, and you can see Jesus trying his best to find some sort of clarity and yet always being stuck with language that is metaphorical and mystical. As I say, don't try to parse it, just let it wash over you and see what it conjures up. 

Then it's on to the trial, the crucifixion, the death, and the resurrection. Watch how hard Pilate works in this version to get out of the whole thing. What is truth?? Look how dramatic John makes Peter's denials. And these resurrection appearances - first to Mary Magdalene, then the Doubting Thomas episode, the barbecue on the beach, and the conversation with Peter that sounds like badgering but is really a threefold restoration by Jesus to negate his threefold denial - oh my, they are glorious, aren't they? See you next Wednesday, we have so much to discuss!

John 1-12

We move now (OK, a bit belatedly… sorry!) into the Gospel of John, and it is immediately apparent that we are reading something quite different from the preceding Synoptics. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, all agree that Jesus does not go to Jerusalem (that is, during his public ministry; Luke, of course, has stories of Jesus in Jerusalem as an infant and as a young boy) until the triumphant entry we celebrate as Palm Sunday beginning the week leading to his death. John, on the other hand, has Jesus cleansing the Temple, driving out the merchants and money changers, as one of his first public acts. This difference in chronology reminds us that we are not reading documents meant to convey historical facts, but rather using history to make statements of faith.

John's gospel is generally agreed to have been written in the late first century, after the uprisings against the Roman Empire known as the Jewish Wars, and it manifests the effects of that turmoil. The followers of Jesus who still considered themselves Jewish (as opposed to the Gentiles Paul and others are converting) have been forced out of the synagogue during the time of war; our author here, reasonably assumed to be a student of the disciple John and one of those forced out, therefore sees "the Jews" (by which he means the leadership) to be a separate group from himself and his followers. This separation is then anachronistically put back into the gospel account of pre-separation times, leading to the strange picture of Jesus, a devout Jew, speaking of "the Jews" as though they were a different people. It is important to remember this anachronism as we read.

The focus of John's gospel is on Jesus establishing who he really is. This, too, is in contrast to the other three, where Jesus often forbade people (or demons) from making any claims until quite late in his ministry; John, however, has this issue of identity as a point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders right from the start. It is the paramount question for John, and his belief is stated in the renowned opening prologue: the Word, the creative power of God that was with God and was God in the beginning of time, becomes flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God is among us, John asserts, and he shows us in that same first chapter both John the Baptist identifying Jesus as the Son of God and Andrew declaring him to be the Messiah.

The Gospel divides fairly neatly into two main sections: the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. Our reading this week takes us through the former section, while next week we'll cover the latter. The Book of Signs is primarily concerned with Jesus' agenda of establishing his identity.

There are seven "signs" that Jesus performs to demonstrate not his own particular powers but the power of God working through him:

  • changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1-12)
  • healing the son of the royal official (4:43-54)
  • healing of the paralytic at the pool of Beth-Zatha (Bethsaida; 5:1-16)
  • feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14)
  • walking on water (6:15-21)
  • giving sight to the blind man (9:1-41)
  • raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44)

One of my favorite parts of this gospel is when the crowd asks him in chapter 6, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?" This would be after the first five signs have occurred, including walking on water! In John's portrayal, the difference between faith in Jesus and disbelief is quite starkly drawn.

The healing of the blind man (9:1-41) seems to encapsulate all of John's themes. The blind man comes to "see," both literally and figuratively, who Jesus is by stages of awareness, while the leaders of the people become progressively more belligerent in their refusal to accept what has happened. Miracles make us uncomfortable in the 21st century, with our ever-deeper grasp of the "laws of nature," the principles of the physical world; how might we approach the issue of believing in the miracles Christ performs in this gospel without leaving our rational mindsets behind?

Luke 21-24

As we come to the end of the three gospels known as the Synoptics, for sharing the same perspective and chronology, we've seen differences both minor (e.g., the blind man healed by Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, whom Mark calls Bartimaeus, is unnamed in Luke and is two men in Matthew) and major (which parables are shared by all and which are in Luke alone, for example). Luke's narrative agenda – seeing the gospel story as pointing to and continued in the story of the creation of the early church as described in the Book of Acts – may not lie behind every one of these differences, but it does shape the overall emphasis on Jesus' particular concern for the outsiders and the marginalized.

In fact, it can be seen that Luke draws our attention to what the people of his time, and of our own, might think of as the undeserving, right on through the crucifixion and resurrection: from the tax collector who acknowledges himself as a sinner in the parable, to the ten lepers, to Zaccheus, and even to the criminal crucified with him who is promised Paradise. The high point of this, for me, is the story known as the Supper on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). These two disciples heading to Emmaus are running away from the crucifixion, running away from the one they thought was the Messiah but instead has been executed as a common criminal, running away from the story the women told of the empty tomb – they are no longer devout followers of Jesus, yet they are the ones he chooses to accompany on the road, to teach them what they have failed to understand, to share with them a supper that is meal and eucharist and heavenly banquet. We are reminded, then, that there is no one who is deserving of the kingdom – rather, that we are all sinners and yet salvation is granted to all.

This theme is a most difficult one for us to accept - we work so hard to make ourselves deserving, to earn God's love and favor. As we bring Luke's gospel to a close, perhaps a useful exercise would be to examine the ways we look to make ourselves worthy of God's favor – consciously or unconsciously – and the ways we judge others by whether they are worthy of such grace or not. How do we forget that grace means precisely the unmerited love of God? Can we see faith then as living out a response to God's love, rather than making a desperate attempt to earn it?

Luke 11-20

In these ten chapters, Luke focuses on Jesus' teaching. We get a different version of the Lord's prayer, lots of back-and-forth with Pharisees/scribes/lawyers (essentially synonymous terms), some apocalyptic imagery - and fifteen, count 'em, fifteen parables! Nine of which are found only in Luke!


Shared with other gospels: 

  • the Thief in the Night [12:39-40]
  • the Faithful Servant [12:42-46]
  • the Banquet [14:15-26]
  • the Lost Sheep [15:3-7] 
  • the Talents [19:11-27]
  • the Tenants in the Vineyard [20:9-16]

In Luke only:

  • the Watchful Servants [12:35-37]
  • the Tower Builder [14:28-30]
  • the King Preparing for War [14:31-32]
  • the Lost Coin [15:8-10]
  • the Prodigal Son [15:11-32]
  • the Dishonest Steward [16:1-9]
  • the Rich Man and Lazarus [16:19-31]
  • the Widow and the Judge [18:1-8]
  • the Pharisee and the Tax Collector [18:9-14]

We talked about how to think about these odd little stories Jesus loves to tell: focus on the part that doesn't make sense, and let that force us to see what's happening from a different angle. Another tip is to try not to allegorize the story, but look for an analogy: if such and such, how much more would God? Remember the parable of the sower: who would toss seeds around like that? If this sower would be that liberal with his seeds, how much more would God be with God's love? 

What then can you make of these? Some have always been conundrums to me - the Dishonest Steward (16:1-9), the Banquet, and even the Talents (which now uses pounds instead of talents as the monetary unit), have always left me feeling confused. But the center here is the sequence of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. I think these tales of joy at the finding of what was thought to be long gone - made pretty obvious in the first two, and seen particularly in the contrast between the attitudes of father and older brother in the latter - give us such a powerful picture of God's joy at the return of his people into his relationship. This picture outweighs some of the grumpier moments in these chapters for me, and provides the possibility of reading that joy into everything Luke has to offer, not just here, but right on through the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. What do you think?

Luke 1-10

We launch into Luke's gospel by encountering the "rest" of the Christmas story - all those familiar elements that have been missing so far from Matthew's birth story and Mark's lack thereof. Here we find the annunciation, the baby John the Baptist, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds – all the good stuff. We also find some oddities: Zechariah mute for the duration of his wife's pregnancy; Simeon and Anna, the strange old folks who hang around the temple and spontaneously prophesy about the baby Jesus; the holy family that leaves its most famous son behind in the temple as a young boy; and a narrative of John the Baptist that has him in jail by the time Luke gets around to mentioning Jesus' baptism, thus leaving it rather mysterious as to who does the actual baptizing!

The keys while reading this, however, are as follows. First, do whatever you can to render the familiar unfamiliar, so that you don't skim over the Christmas story and miss the details that may not be what you really remember them to be. Second, note that Luke offers such a wide array of reactions to Jesus' birth – amazement, terror, faith – thus asking us, his readers, to decide what our reaction is to this incarnation. Third, pay attention to the pace of Luke in contrast to Mark: while everything in the latter gospel happens "immediately," here Mary ponders things, children are left behind in conversation, John engages in lengthy dialogue with the crowds. Luke wants us to examine, consider, and then choose faith.

Once past the birth narrative, we find ourselves in what appears to be pretty familiar territory after reading two previous gospels. Luke is the last of the three known as the "Synoptic" gospels, having a shared perspective and chronology; John, we will find, is rather different. Yet Luke is different as well: details, shifts, and inclusions in these chapters point to a new and significant emphasis. While Matthew ends with The Great Commission, the resurrected Christ sending his disciples out to baptize all nations, and Mark ends with only the empty tomb (and then perhaps another story), Luke's story does not end with the resurrection but continues on. We need to remember that this gospel is only volume one of a two-volume work - the Book of Acts being volume two. Luke's story continues with the creation of the Church, and particularly with the mission of taking Christianity to the Gentiles, to non-Jews. This larger agenda informs the chapters we are reading now as well.

Notice how much emphasis there is on outsiders, particularly on Gentiles, in these chapters. This begins in chapter 4, in the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue. Matthew and Mark tell the same story, but with no details at all about what Jesus has to say. Luke, however, shows Jesus not only claiming to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy - an audacious claim that arouses the congregation - but also shows Jesus referring to the times that the prophets Elijah and Elisha each healed a Gentile rather than surrounding Jews! No wonder the crowd becomes enraged - he seems to be suggesting that they are not holding up their end of their relationship with God, and that God is therefore attending to others. Notice also how often Jesus seems to deliberately provoke the Pharisees by healing someone on the sabbath, thereby suggesting to a Gentile audience that faith in Christ matters more than adherence to the commandments. In this context, the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a very pointed implication.

Where else can we find this emphasis on inclusion, on faith over rules, on bringing all people to God, in these chapters? Does this mean that the commandments are being given short shrift by Luke, or by Jesus? Can we see in Luke's agenda a disparagement of Judaism that still rankles today? Can we also see, however, a desire on Luke's part to show Jesus as calling the whole world to himself, that all might have their lives transformed? To portray Christ promising that if no one is especially deserving then all are blessed by God's love? So much for us to consider!

Mark 9-16

My apologies for the delay in posting this introduction to the second half of Mark! Hope you're reading along anyway….

Augustine considered Mark to be a "digest" of Matthew – nowadays most scholars think of it as the skeleton on which Matthew and Luke constructed their gospels. Either way, reading it after Matthew focuses our attention on what Mark considers sufficiently important to include. The Passion story emerges as the axis around which everything else turns – even the Resurrection! Mark has an empty tomb, and then controversy about whether either of the "endings" found in some early versions should be considered to be authentic. Without the longer ending, we have no resurrection appearances at all (and we probably wouldn't have any snake-handling in some of those out-there churches either). Since no scholarly consensus exists, Bibles today include all three options: ending with the first half of 16:8; adding the shorter ending; or adding the longer ending (with or without the shorter ending, to confuse things further...). Both the shorter and longer endings sound to me like a change of tone; what do you think?

Since Mark only has four parables in all, and only one in this latter half, it seems incumbent upon us to pay particular attention to the one he has chosen to accompany his focus on the Passion. The parable of the wicked tenants (12:1-12) provokes the Jewish leadership to desire to arrest Jesus. Jesus has by now predicted his suffering and death both obliquely and directly; speaking this parable to that leadership makes the prediction even more powerful. (Remember that any reference to vines, vineyards, grapes, and wine is a reference to the people of Israel.) As we finish Mark, then, we should be asking ourselves: what does the death of Jesus Christ signify to the people of his time and to us? How does the cross, the instrument of that death, become such a symbol of hope for us? Reminding ourselves of the fundamental importance of believing that Jesus is God incarnate, suffering as we suffer and dying as we die to promise us God's love, seems a good way to conclude our reading of the second gospel.

Mark 1-8

Mark, what's your hurry? Where's the fire? That's always my first reaction to the second gospel, in which the word "immediately" occurs 28 times in 16 brief chapters – twenty of those occurrences in the first eight chapters alone! This semantic peculiarity echoes the overall narrative drive of the gospel: Mark is more focused on plot than character, at least until the Passion. He starts fast, with no kings, no angels and shepherds, no manger in Bethlehem, no story of Jesus' birth at all. Instead, we plunge right in with the baptism, the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, and we're quickly barrelling through an array of healings, disciple-calling, and miracles. There are only three parables in this first half (and one more in the second), an indication of Mark's greater emphasis on what Jesus did than what he said. This will shift some in the second half. But don't miss the quick summary of the good news Mark offers in that first chapter: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Might this summary provide us with an interpretive angle on the rest of the gospel? 

Comparing Mark with our reading of Matthew, we see general agreement about chronology and major events – hence the majority of scholars see Mark as the frame on which Matthew then hung further information, particularly in the area of teaching. How, then, does this gospel's narrative drive strike you? If Mark is not really in a hurry (and I don't actually think he is), what message do we get from this emphasis on events? And what, really, is the implication of all those things happening "immediately"? Do we feel urgency sometimes in our own faith? Are there times when you've felt the call of God in Christ and felt the desire to respond immediately, yet some hesitation prevented you? Perhaps Mark's examples of immediacy are meant to encourage us to act?