Reflecting on Acts for Pentecost Sunday

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 2:1-11

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The listeners are astounded, because they all understand the Galilean speakers in their respective languages: “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?”

The countries mentioned cover most of the world that was known to first-century Palestine and symbolize the fact that the Church will embrace the whole world, transcending all barriers of race, class, and nation. They include the regions of Israel’s historic enemies, Mesopotamia (the center of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires) and Egypt, fulfilling God’s promise that Israel’s oppressors would one day turn and acknowledge the God of Israel as the true God (Ps 87:1–4; Isa 19:22–25).

The list refers to Jews from the Diaspora who have relocated to Jerusalem, or Jews who have come there on pilgrimage for the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus promised his apostles that they would be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), as had been prophesied concerning the Servant of the Lord in Isa 49. Their witnessing to God’s mighty acts in many languages is an initial fulfillment of this promise.

The fact that Jews from many different nations all heard the disciples speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God portends that the ancient tragedy of Babel (Gen 11:1–9) is now being reversed. The people at Babel had arrogantly tried to “make a name” for themselves by building a tower to the heavens—symbolizing the human attempt to seek power, wealth, and security without any reference to God. In consequence God confounded the universal human language into many different languages, which made it impossible for them to complete that tower. Instead, they were scattered throughout the world as separate nations, each with its own language.

At Pentecost, the Spirit-given ability of Jesus’ disciples to speak in various languages signifies that God is beginning to overcome human divisions. Now the Spirit has miraculously enabled Jesus’ followers to speak and be understood in many languages from all over the known world. The unifying power of the Spirit will be frequently demonstrated throughout Acts as people who would never before have associated with one another—Jews and Gentiles, slaves and prominent people, the upright and the formerly impious—share a common life of brotherhood and sisterhood in the Church.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 1:1-11

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Luke’s description of Jesus’ ascension looks backward to its Old Testament foreshadowings and forward to Jesus’ prophesied return at the end of time.

….The scriptural theme of the passing on of Spirit-filled prophetic vocations—from Moses to Joshua, from Elijah to Elisha, and now from Jesus to his apostles—shows that succession of authority has always been part of God’s saving plan.

As Moses ascended Mount Sinai in a cloud (Exod 19:16–20; 24:15–18) to receive the gift of the law and then give it to the people, so Jesus is now lifted up to heaven on a cloud to receive the gift of the Spirit and give it to his Church (see Acts 2:33). Often in Scripture a cloud represents God’s presence (see Exod 13:21; 16:10). The angelic figures’ appearing as two men dressed in white garments recall Moses and Elijah, who appeared with Jesus in the cloud at the transfiguration (Luke 9:29–35).

As the disciples are looking intently at the sky as he was going, the two men chide them, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” They remind the disciples that Jesus had prophesied his parousia, his return in glory on a cloud at the end of the world (Luke 21:27–28): “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven,” that is, on a cloud.

Jesus’ ascending in a cloud alludes to Daniel’s vision of “One like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven to receive everlasting dominion from God (Dan 7:13–14). Jesus had indicated that he himself is the Son of Man foreseen by Daniel who will come with power and glory (Luke 21:27).

Jesus’ ascension does not imply his absence from the Church. Rather, as Acts will show, he will be present and active in a new way through the Holy Spirit (see John 14:18). As his disciples speak and act “in his name,” Jesus himself will be at work through them (see Acts 3:5–16).

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

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Here for the first time Luke specifies that the believers who had accompanied Peter to the home of Cornelius were circumcised Jewish Christians. They were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also. Gentiles were not members of God’s chosen people. Although Jews knew that Israel was called to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 49:6; see 42:6; 60:1–3), most expected that that would happen by Gentiles joining the chosen people, being circumcised, and keeping the law of Moses. Yet these uncircumcised Gentiles had obviously been filled with the Spirit of God.

The evidence from which Peter and his companions arrived at this understanding was hearing these Gentiles’ speaking in tongues and glorifying God, just as had happened to Jewish believers at Pentecost, who “were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues” (Acts 2:4). The gift of the Holy Spirit is evident in its effects in the recipients, such as tongues and prophecy (see Acts 19:6), which Paul will call gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:4–11). For the New Testament, the Holy Spirit’s coming on believers is not something imperceptible, to be accepted only on faith, but observable, sometimes even dramatic (see Gal 3:2–5; Heb 2:4). On this occasion it caused the Jewish believers who were present to expand their limited conception of God’s plan and be docile to his purposes.

Peter’s leadership is decisive in this momentous development. His response to the surprising outpouring of the Spirit on his Gentile listeners is to obey God’s obvious guidance and fully incorporate them into the Church without further ado: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people . . . ?” Because they have received the holy Spirit even as we have, what objection could anyone raise to God’s evident will to accept them fully as fellow Christians?

The Ethiopian eunuch had raised a similar question to Philip: “What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Here there would normally have been even greater resistance to baptizing a whole group of uncircumcised Gentiles. Luke makes it clear that it is God’s own direct action of giving his Spirit to these Gentiles that overrides all objections that would prohibit baptizing them. For they now have the same Spirit as the Jewish believers.

This confirms Peter’s realization that “God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). These Gentiles too are now adopted sons and daughters of God and members of the body of Christ, God’s Son.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 9:26-31

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After his arrival in Jerusalem, Saul tried to join the disciples. The Jerusalem disciples naturally avoided him out of fear, not believing that he was a disciple.

It took the mediation of Barnabas to incorporate Saul into the Jerusalem church. Barnabas took charge of Saul to facilitate his acceptance and introduced him to the apostles, who were still leaders in Jerusalem. He related to them the story of Saul’s vision of the Lord and his subsequent bold witness in the name of Jesus. Paul considered it essential to remain in unity with the original apostles (see especially Acts 15 and Paul’s collection from Gentile Christians for the poor of the Jerusalem community in 1 Cor 16:1–3).

Because of Barnabas, Saul was thereafter able to associate freely with them in Jerusalem. There he spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord, as he had done in Damascus.

The focus of this account, which highlights Paul’s acceptance by the apostles in Jerusalem, differs from Paul’s emphasis in Gal 1:15–20, where to some degree he minimizes his contact with the apostles in Jerusalem in order to emphasize that his apostleship came directly from Christ and was therefore as authentic as that of the Twelve. Although details of the accounts here and in Galatians 1 are difficult to harmonize, the main facts of the two reports can in general be reconciled.

It is unclear to what extent Paul’s fifteen-day private visit with Peter and James (Gal 1:18) may coincide with Barnabas’s introduction of Saul to the apostles and Saul’s witness to Jesus in Jerusalem described here in Acts 9. In any case, Saul’s bold speech in Jerusalem was not to last long, as the following verses make clear.

When Saul spoke and debated with the Hellenists, they reacted the same way as those in Damascus: they tried to kill him. But also as in Damascus, this plot against Saul became known. Therefore his fellow Christians took him down to Caesarea, and in that port city they put him on a ship to Tarsus, his hometown in the province of Cilicia in Asia Minor.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 4:8-12

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Jesus instructed his disciples not to be afraid when they are brought to trial for their faith: “When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Luke 12:11–12). Here, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic instructions, Peter is filled with the holy Spirit as he answered them.

His response manifests Spirit-inspired wisdom and boldness. The same Peter who cowered before the challenge of a serving girl (Luke 22:56–57) now fearlessly confronts the Sanhedrin: Leaders of the people and elders. He implicitly reproaches them for interrogating him about a good deed done to a cripple, then solemnly proclaims to them and to all the people of Israel the cause of the healing: it was done in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene. Even though Jesus was the one whom you, the Sanhedrin, crucified by handing him over to Pilate with a capital charge (Luke 23:1–2), God reversed that action and raised him from the dead. Peter declares that in his name, Jesus’ name, the lame man stands before you healed.

In this testimony Peter states the facts and, in so doing, reproves the Sanhedrin for opposing God’s plan. Jesus is the stone rejected by you, the builders which has become the cornerstone. The Sanhedrin are the “builders” of Israel, yet they had rejected the Messiah, the cornerstone, or capstone, essential to the building’s structure. In the Gospel, Jesus quoted this same line from Ps 118:22 to show that his rejection by the Jewish leaders was part of God’s plan and to illustrate the divine reversal of human purposes (Luke 20:17–19). God raised up the crucified Jesus and made him the cornerstone of the new temple, the Church.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Third Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 3:13-15, 17-19

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With the phrase the God of our ancestors, Peter emphasizes his shared Jewish identity with his listeners. The expression underscores the continuity between God’s present action through the apostles and his former deeds for his people in the Old Testament. The God who is acting through the apostles is the God of Abraham, [the God] of Isaac, and [the God] of Jacob (see Luke 13:28; 20:37; Acts 7:32), who revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:15). The same God who made promises to the patriarchs of Israel—the only God—continues to act through Jesus his Son.

This healing is a sign that God has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you, his Jewish compatriots, had rejected before Pilate (see John 1:11). Though “servant” can also be translated “child,” here it alludes to Isaiah’s prophecies of the Suffering Servant, who would suffer for the sins of the people but be glorified by God (Isa 52:13–53:12; Acts 8:32–35).

Peter calls Jesus the Righteous One, a title used by the centurion at the cross who recognized Jesus’ innocence (Luke 23:47). In sharp contrast, the listeners had a murderer, Barabbas, released (Luke 23:18–19) and killed the author of life. The word for “author” can mean that Jesus is the cause or originator of life (see John 1:1–4) or that he is the pioneer or leader of life, inasmuch as he is the first to rise to life after death (see Col 1:18). Although the Jews who clamored for Jesus’ crucifixion chose death over life, God reversed their decision and raised him from the dead, of which the apostles are witnesses.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Mass of Easter Day

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 10:34a, 37-43

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Peter’s sermon reaches its climax with the early Christian creedal statement “This man God raised [on] the third day.” As confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection, Peter focuses not on the empty tomb but on the testimony of us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance. He testifies that Jesus did not appear to all the people, but to us only. The risen Jesus will not be seen by his enemies or unbelievers, nor even by the vast majority of followers, until his return at the end of the world, when “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Until then, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

Peter declares that Jesus commissioned us to preach to the people and testify to him. This speech to Gentiles differs from Peter’s earlier speech to Jews, where he had cited the resurrection to argue, “Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). To Gentiles, who would not be familiar with Jewish messianic prophecies, he cites the fact of the resurrection to argue that Jesus is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. Paul’s speech to the Athenians will similarly refer to the risen Jesus as universal judge on the last day (Acts 17:31).

Christian belief in the risen Jesus is also grounded in all the prophets of the Old Testament, who bear witness to Jesus. That is, faith in the resurrection is based on both the living witness of apostles who saw Jesus risen and on the Old Testament prophecies. The aim of both the testimony of eyewitnesses and the prophecies is that every believer in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sins through his name. The essence of salvation is that people’s sins are forgiven by invoking Jesus’ name, because of all that he has accomplished on their behalf.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:2-10

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Jesus’ triumphal entry takes place among thousands of pilgrims arriving in the Holy City for the feast of Passover (14:1). There is a sense of excitement and elation, as the crowd around him shouts for joy and spontaneously shows him signs of honor. To spread cloaks on the road was a gesture of homage before a newly crowned king (see 2 Kings 9:13).

Mark’s description evokes an occasion some two centuries earlier, when Simon Maccabeus and his followers entered the city after their successful revolt “with shouts of jubilation, waving of palm branches . . . and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been destroyed” (1 Macc 13:51).

The crowd chants from Ps 118:25–26: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! This psalm, originally a royal song of thanksgiving for a military victory, was one of the great hymns sung by pilgrims processing into the temple for a festival. Jesus will later apply it specifically to his coming passion and resurrection (Mark 12:10–11).

Hosanna is a Hebrew word that originally meant “Save us!” but in liturgical usage had become a shout of praise or acclamation, much like “Hallelujah!” The blessing on “he who comes in the name of the Lord” was a customary greeting, but also has a deeper significance: Jesus comes in God’s name as his faithful representative, who will perfectly accomplish his will.

The cry, Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Expresses messianic hope, but without directly acknowledging Jesus as Messiah. The people’s enthusiasm is genuine, but they do not seem to recognize that the time of fulfillment has already arrived (1:15), and that the kingdom has come in the person of Jesus himself, the “son of David” (10:47). Nor do they realize that his kingship will be exercised not in a political restoration of the Davidic monarchy, but on the cross.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Third Sunday of Lent

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 1:22-25

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The tendency of the Jews who opposed the ministry of Jesus and that of Paul (compare Matt 12:38–42; Luke 11:29–32), was to demand signs, miracles or spectacular deeds of power, and Greeks look for wisdom, something that will captivate but not disturb the cultured mind.

Paul here shows his grasp of the psychology of both cultures, which made him an apt instrument for reaching both, but he does so by proclaiming something that goes counter to, because it goes beyond, the natural tastes of each: Christ crucified.

Jews indeed looked for a Messiah, but the fact that Jesus died on the cross proved that he was not the glorious liberator they desired. For them, the cross was a stumbling block, an obstacle to faith.

The Greek understanding of time and history was not eschatological: it did not have a conception of a goal toward which history was moving. “Time,” Aristotle said, “is a kind of circle.” Thus a religious founder should be one who more than any other would lead one to contemplate the order and harmony of the universe and lead humanity to a more harmonious subjection to its inevitability.

This was at least the view of the Stoics, who were Paul’s contemporaries and with whom he argued in Athens (Acts 17:18). In short, such a founder should be a philosopher. A founder who stands the world’s values on its head by going to death on a cross—the fate of the criminal dregs of humanity—would indeed have no chance of winning the Greek, even less by claiming that the cross was followed by the resurrection of the body.

As for the Jewish critic, the apparent failure of one who claimed to be the Messiah was proof that he was not. That is why it takes a special grace, a divine call, to read in the cross more than stupidity and weakness.

 

© 2011 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Second Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:2-10

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The Transfiguration, like Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11), is a Trinitarian event, with the Holy Spirit’s presence now symbolized by the cloud rather than a dove. Just as at the baptism, the heavenly Father gives audible testimony to his beloved Son. At the baptism God had addressed Jesus himself; now he speaks to the disciples about Jesus, revealing a status that far exceeds that of Moses and Elijah.

This testimony to Jesus (here and at his baptism) is the only word the Father is recorded as saying in the Gospels, since Jesus is the fullness of all that he has to say to humanity.

The command to Listen to him recalls Moses’ promise that God would one day raise up “a prophet like me . . . from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen” (Deut 18:15). The disciples are to listen to everything Jesus has to say, but especially, in the context of the conversation that has just transpired (Mark 8:31–38), his prophecy about his messianic suffering and its implications for them. They have been shown a glimpse of the road far ahead: if they listen carefully and obey his commands all the way to the cross, their destiny will be joined to his, and they too will one day be transfigured with divine glory.

At the pinnacle of this experience the disciples suddenly find themselves with Jesus alone. Moses and Elijah have already accomplished their tasks, but Jesus must now complete the Father’s plan by going to the cross alone. His own life and mission will be the fulfillment that transcends all that took place in the Old Testament.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.