An Irony at Easter: Reflections on Psalm 133

Lectionary Reflections
Psalm 133
April 12, 2015
Second Sunday of Easter

What is a preacher to do the Sunday after Easter? Well, if you have an associate pastor or two, you take the week off and leave the service with them. After all, the sight of the half-empty sanctuary, just one week after the need for extra chairs and the glory of the brass quintet, is more than enough to drive any preacher to leave town. Of course, no self-respecting pastor would ever say what she feels on this "down" Sunday, resisting the desire to scream, "What happened to all those people who were here last week?" I am sure no one reading this has ever had such thoughts, but I have. You will be glad to hear that I have, so far, bitten my tongue when such musings have threatened to escape from my sad lips. Yet, this year, the lectionary crowd, bless 'em, has served up for us a delicious irony, whether intentionally or not I dare not hazard a guess.

Post-Easter, we are all asked to explore what we now ought to do in the light of the grand event we have celebrated. So, the lectionary offers us Acts 4:32-35, that clear socialist call to "hold all things in common." At this point, I am tempted to launch into a screed against those so-called Christians who proclaim that only a capitalist economic system can stand the test of biblical truth, while those "godless communists," who have been vanquished at last, have been shown to be beyond the pale of biblical tenets. Any reading of Acts 4:32-35 gives the lie to that claim once and for all, yet in the good old U.S. of A. one would be hard-pressed to convince many that this call for common possession is in the Bible at all! Yet, here it is, clear as light. Okay, screed over.

What interests me more today is Psalm 133, which is the choice for today's lectionary. This psalm is one of the Bible's shortest, and appears at first glance to have only a limited interest. But, as usual, a closer look may reveal hidden depths in the poem itself. And furthermore when this particular psalm is juxtaposed with Acts 4-5, a lovely irony presents itself for this second Sunday of Easter. So, eat your homiletical hearts out, you senior pastors taking the day off, and rejoice you associate pastors, for yours is the irony of the psalm!

The superscription of the psalm reads: "Psalm of Ascents ('Going up'), to (or "for" or "of") David." As I have said several times in these articles, these superscriptions were hardly original with the composition of the psalm, but may in fact be hints at the liturgical use of the psalm. Thus, a "psalm of ascent" may be a poem used for a procession up to the hill of Zion in Jerusalem or up to the great sanctuary of the temple. We can hardly know definitively, but the scholarly consensus appears to run in that direction. The announcement of what these processing worshippers represent is what offers us the irony this Sunday.

Look! How marvelous, how superb it is when kindred (literally "brothers") live
          together as one.
Why, it is like fine oil on the head, dripping on the beard,
          the beard of Aaron,
          oil pouring on the collar of his robes.
It is even like the dew of Hermon
          draining on the mountains of Zion,
          where YHWH commanded the blessing.
          Life forevermore!

To be unified, to find a sense of oneness in community is a fine thing! Why, it is just like the oil of consecration that drips down the high priest Aaron's beard, flowing even into the collar of his sacred robes. Just as good to find a genuine harmony as to be the leader of the worshipping community, says the poem. Just as good to live in genuine harmony as it is to receive the life-giving rains on the mountains of Israel, Hermon in the far north and sacred Zion in the capital city. The blessing of YHWH is always far more than priestly consecration and soaking rain. Blessing also is to find oneness and harmony. In short, shalom ("unity," "wholeness," "oneness") is the very essence of YHWH's blessing for God's people.

Most assuredly, we Easter people, we who have experienced the ineffable mystery of God's resurrection of Jesus, have been blessed by God and bound together in wholeness by that same Easter act. And the grand story of the spread of the earliest communities of this new faith as found in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke's second volume of his tale of early Christianity, announces the binding unity of those communities. Such unity is evidenced in the astonishing reality of the common possessions announced in Acts 4:32-35. The church is off to a good start as witness to the new actions of God in Christ!

But alas! The good start is very soon halted right before our eyes, as the greedy and grubby hands of two members of that same community are immediately unwilling to join the unity of the group. In Acts 5 we read the terrible story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira who act in ways that flout the basic instincts of the community for oneness and wholeness. With the agreement of his wife, Ananias sells a piece of property, but refuses to give the full result of the sale to the emerging church. The conclusion of the tale is awful to behold. Ananias is confronted by Peter with his reluctance to share all, and he falls dead at Peter's feet. Sapphira then confronts the apostle, and after he upbraids her with her stinginess, she too collapses dead, and is buried beside her husband. "And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things" (Acts 5:11). The story is not to be found in the lectionary!

4/7/2015 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.