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The words of the child's prayer, "One to watch, one to pray, and two to keep me till the day," reminds us of the special message of each gospel. This book sketches the shape of the Gospels, the four stories of ...
The words of the child's prayer, "One to watch, one to pray, and two to keep me till the day," reminds us of the special message of each gospel. This book sketches the shape of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus. It reveals their similarities and differences and how they relate to one another.
All the evangelists have distinctive roles as messengers of the good news and guardian angels of our faith. With Mark we watch; he alerts us to the urgency of the good news. With John we pray, and from him we learn the signs of God at work in the world about us. Matthew is the teacher, who leads us forward to teach others, while Luke reveals Jesus the healer, who brings reconciliation and justice to all creation.
Clear, concise, and free of technical language, this introduction to gospel "basics" includes the spiritual and devotional aspects of each gospel as well as critical study tools. It can be used for inquirer's classes, adult study groups, and prayer groups who wish the evangelists to illuminate their faith journey.
"FOUR ANGELS ROUND MY HEAD"
We begin in prayer, asking the authors of our gospels to be our guardians, "Four pillars round my bed; four angels round my head" are the words of our prayer. This is a little startling. We are not accustomed to thinking about the authors of our gospels in this way. More often, we think of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as "the evangelists," or "saints" of the church of God. Indeed, we do have "guardian angels" in the Christian tradition, and their names are Gabriel, Michael, Uriel, and Raphael. What does it mean to think of "the evangelists" as the "four angels round my head"?
Christian art is full of angels. When we imagine angels, we see the angels portrayed by Byzantine, medieval, and Renaissance artists. They tend to have haloes and wings; they wear long, flowing dresses and are ethereal, otherworldly creatures. If we are to find meaning for our prayer, we must travel back before these artists' time. We must ask what the authors of our gospels meant by the word "angel," what "angel" would have meant in Jesus' time.
When we ask these questions, we find ourselves in the first century and we discover that we must turn to the Old Testament for understanding. When Jesus or the authors of our gospels refer to "the Scriptures," they refer to our Old Testament. In the first century, we are in the time before the New Testament, a time before the term "Christian." In the first century, our people are the Hebrew people of God, the Jewish chosen people. And we discover that our people have a long history with "angels."
We also discover that while our people are a Hebrew people, we encounter our history with "angels" in the Greek language. In the first century, Greek is the language of the Roman Empire. It is the language that the world uses to do its business across cultural boundaries. The New Testament documents are all written in the Greek language. Jesus probably spoke Aramaic in the countryside of Judea and Galilee and worshiped in Hebrew in the synagogue and temple. Had he traded in the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, however, he would have spoken Greek. By the first century, the Hebrew Scriptures had existed in a widely-accepted Greek translation for more than two hundred years.
The word "angel" is a Greek word that means "one who is sent" or "messenger." An "angelos of the Lord" is often God's messenger in the Old Testament stories. Think of the "messengers" that come to Abraham and Sarah, for example, or the "angel" with whom Jacob must wrestle for his life. These stories are the holy tradition that lives in the hearts and souls of the authors of our gospels. It is not surprising, therefore, to find "messengers of the Lord" in our New Testament as well. For instance, Luke tells us that an "angelos of the Lord" comes to Zechariah, that "the angelos Gabriel was sent from God" to Mary (Luke 1:11, 26).
In both our Old and New Testaments, an angelos can be a human or a divine envoy. The messengers that Jesus sends into Samaria to prepare his way are human ones (Luke 9:52). But most of the angels we meet are sent by God. These messengers come from God and return to God; they appear and suddenly disappear. They bear "messages" that are good news or shocking news or specific divine instructions. Sometimes, their "messages" are in physical acts instead of spoken words. In the book of Acts, for example, an "angel of the Lord" releases Peter from prison (Acts 5:19). And in Matthew's story of the resurrection, there is an earthquake, "for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it" (Matthew 28:2).
Whatever their appointed task or message, "angels of the Lord" bring God into relationship with the world. This relationship with God occurs in a single event, a onetime occurrence. An "angel of the Lord" sharpens communication between God and the People of God. In a moment, whether it be in action or in words, God's messenger brings creation and her Creator close. The angel is the connecting link between creation and Creator. The angel serves as the matrix through which conversation may occur, the matrix through which relationship is known.
The angels are the way in which God communicates with the People of God on special occasions. As a Hebrew people, we related to God on a day-to-day basis through the Law and our prophets. In the light of the resurrection, we know God and are known by God in every moment of every day through the power of the Holy Spirit. But when communication needs to be sharpened, or there is something special to say or do, God sends angels, divine messengers. We may imagine these angels with outstretched arms, holding God with one hand and those to whom God comes in the other. In the stories of our people, this has always been the case. In special times, we have held the hands of the angels so that we could touch God.
Can we, then, think of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as "angels," as God's "messengers"? Each of our evangelists was sent by God at a special time to a particular community with a special task. And each of our gospels draws the People of God into closer relationship with God. Each of our gospels sharpens the communication between God and the People of God. Each of our gospels serves as the connecting link between creation and her Creator. Indeed, it is only through our gospels that we are able to reach the stories of Jesus at all. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had a particular "message" from God for their own communities in their own time. Whether each of the evangelists knew this or not, each of these "messages" lived on with meaning and with truth long after the community and the author were gone. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the angels whose hands we hold when we reach out to touch Jesus. The authors of our gospels offer us their hands as we reach out to be in closer relationship to God.
When we touch the hands of our four angels, we remember that they are human at the same time that they are God's messengers. Our Christian tradition has given our gospels the names of men, so we presume that the hands that we hold are masculine ones. They are Jewish hands as well, for each of our angels is a faithful follower of Jesus and God's messenger within the context of Judaism. Were these hands fleshly rather than figurative hands, we would look for color and feel for age and weather-beaten lines. As it is, we hold each of our angels' hands through their words.
We began with words of prayer, asking our angels to be our guardians. With our words of prayer, we reach out to their words—the words of the gospels—as we ask them to be "one to watch, one to pray, and two to keep us till the day."
"IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD"
Each of our four gospels begins uniquely, and we learn a great deal from each of the gospel introductions. This is where we first learn something about the author's intentions, something about the literature itself, and something about who Jesus is according to the author's point of view.
Matthew, the author of our first gospel, calls his work "the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham." Our first gospel is a biblion, the Greek word that we recognize in English words like "Bible" and "bibliography."
Our second gospel has a very different introduction. This is, says Mark, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." The word for "gospel" is not a description of literature at all; euanggelion means "good news," and this is the word from which we get the religious terms "evangelist" and "evangelism." But it is also from Mark's introduction that the church has come to think of the stories of Jesus as "gospels," as euanggelia. Mark's use of the word euanggelion changed literature in western civilization for all time. It called a new type of literature into being, one in which the story of Nazareth was told in such a way as to allow the faithful family of God to carry on God's work in the world.
The author of our third gospel knows and says that he is writing literature. He has a proper literary introduction, so hang onto your seat. When Greek writers of the first century have proper literary intentions and proper literary introductions, we get very long sentences. Here is the lengthy one-sentence introduction to Luke:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1–4)
What a mouthful. "Others have written narratives," Luke tells us. "Mine, however, is an 'orderly account' and you can trust it."
A "book," a "gospel," and an "orderly account"—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. What have we from the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John? We have no explanation or title at all. Here, instead, is what we have:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1–5)
There is no title, no name, no introduction at all-John's "In the beginning ..." of the fourth gospel pushes the one who hears or the one who reads these words all the way back in time, beyond time, beyond creation. John claims that for as long as there has been time and space and life and creation, Jesus has existed with God, as God—God, the Creator of the universe, God whom Jesus calls "the Father."
"In the beginning was the logos," says John. And John's readers would know this logos, this "word," to be a for-all-time divine creative energy, a force and power of the universe. "You want to know who Jesus is?" asks the author of the fourth gospel. "I'll tell you who Jesus is. Jesus is the logos, the Word." John continues:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as from the only Son of the Father.... And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:14, 16–17)
John's gospel, John's story of Jesus of Nazareth as the logos, was written for our faithful forebears, a community that lived and loved and worshiped and prayed in the third generation in the light of the resurrection. We are the one hundredth generation of the faithful followers of Christ in the light of the resurrection. This is the figure one gets if one takes two thousand years and thinks of a generation as twenty years and then does long-division, old-fashioned mathematics.
There are good reasons for thinking of ourselves in faithful generations, and they have to do with who we are as the People of God and what it is we are to do as God's family. The first of these reasons is that our family stories in the Old Testament tell us that God thinks of the Chosen People in generations. God's promise came to Abraham, and to the generations that would follow him. And the apostle Paul reminds us that we are sons and daughters of Abraham. We are the two hundredth generation of the Chosen People, the People of God led up from slavery out of Egypt.
And then, since God thinks of us in generations, we can be sure that God is committed to the creation and the life of all creation for all time. We are God's people in this span of all time that can only be imagined in God's mind. We are called to live and love and work in our time in God's creation—always for justice, and as often as it is possible, with joy. Thinking of ourselves in generations gives us an opportunity to share that joy. Too often, preachers use "it has been two thousand years since Christ" to suggest that the People of God have failed entirely. Implicit in this remark is the suggestion that God's people are responsible for the consummation and perfection and coming-to-an-end of all creation. And we are not. We are to see that there is justice in the creation—that the poor are not hungry, that the marginalized are cared for, that the prisoners are set free. We are to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. We are to celebrate our anniversaries as the People of God, and we are to let God be God as Creator and Redeemer of the universe in which we find ourselves.
Our name is the Chosen People, the People of God. And this name describes us not as individuals, but as a collective, corporate, communal body. As God's people, we were led into the Promised Land, taken in and out of exile, and given a Messiah in answer to our prayers. As a people, we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is incredibly unique. Never in the New Testament does the Spirit fall upon an individual. The Holy Spirit is always poured out upon two or more who are gathered together. This means that in the light of the resurrection, the Holy Spirit always relates the faithful to one another at the same time it relates the faithful to God. There is no other spirit or power or principality or energy or god in the Greek or Hebrew world that behaves like this. As we become God's children in the power of the Holy Spirit, we also become sisters and brothers in the Family of God.
We can know ourselves as this people, this family only if we claim and value all our generations—our successes and our failures, our high points and our low ones, the times we recognize and to which we relate and those to which we cannot.
As Christians, we have our people in a number of different traditions, some of which go back to Henry VIII, some of which go back to Luther or Calvin, some of which go back to Jan Hus, and so forth. And as Christians, we have a catholic tradition that stretches back across time and space into the very first communities of the faithful who told the stories of Jesus and celebrated "He is Risen!" as the truth.
And then we have our people in the Scriptures. Our people sang Zion's songs in a foreign land and then at home in Judea. Our people gave us Amos's basket of summer fruit and Jeremiah's despair and Ruth's love for Naomi and Moses' sermons and Jonah's willful disobedience. Our people followed Jesus from Galilee down into Judea, shouted "Crucify him!", and wept at the foot of his cross. Our people were the congregations for whom Paul wrote.
And our people gave us a "book" called Matthew, a "gospel" called Mark, an "orderly account" called Luke, and these words: "In the beginning was the Word....
Beginnings happen with words, and with the Word—in words and with words and with the Word of God in Scripture and with Jesus, the Word become flesh—because this is the way we relate to God and to each other. This is why we read and discuss Scripture over and over again. This is why it is never enough to say "I love you" only once. In the light of the resurrection, in the life of God's people, there are never too many words. Words must be dreamt and read and shouted and whispered and debated and sometimes even taken back. As the Bible is the Word of God, written in the voices of God's people, so too our words carry God's energy, God's power, the presenee of God's Holy Spirit. It is our task and our call and our gift that we are so chosen. And thank God, we have the words of our forebears with which to walk and worship.
There is no way for us to know exactly how the words of our New Testament Scriptures were collected and arranged; exactly how this happened is known only to God. We have fragments of literature, references to writings we have never seen, the odd glimpses of church debate and discussion.
One such glimpse comes from the third quarter of the second century, the eighth or so generation of the church. From the fragments of this time, we can tell that "the Scriptures" are still the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus' Scriptures, and those to whom the early church turned. We can also see debate and disagreement, a church with diverse views about what remain big Christian questions to this day: who and what Jesus is; how the Holy Spirit can be identified among the faithful; how and what these faithful followers are to do with their lives or with each other and how the Scriptures might matter for all of this. For this glimpse, we have Against Heresies, written by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. Lyons of today in southern France is the same Lyons of the Province of Gaul in the Roman Empire in the second century. Irenaeus is commissioned, he tells us, to make distinctions, to address issues of disagreement.
Excerpted from ONE TO WATCH, ONE TO PRAY by Minka Shura Sprague. Copyright © 2004 by Minka Shura Sprague. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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1. "Four Angels Round My Head".................... 1
2. "In the Beginning Was the Word".................... 5
3. "One to Pray": John the Word-Bearer.................... 13
4. "One to Watch": Mark the Urgent Messenger.................... 27
5. "One to Keep Us Till the Day": Matthew the Teacher.................... 39
6. "One to Keep Us Till the Day": Luke the Healer.................... 53
Questions for Discussion.................... 71