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“A.D.”

Episode12: June 21, 2015

The finale for this season of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” and the twelfth episode, was aired on Sunday, June 21.

Even thought two-thirds of the Book of Acts, or The Acts of the Apostles as Acts has more traditionally been titled, concerns the travels and travails of Paul the Apostle, “A.D.” has rightly emphasized the genesis of the early Christian church in Jerusalem.  Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and first century second-Temple Judaism was centered in Jerusalem.

As Christianity was formed through the work of the Holy Spirit, centered on the person of Jesus, crucified and risen, there was much to affirm.  The power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.  The peace of God in the midst of challenging and life-threatening situations.  The egalitarian nature of the community of the New Humanity where all are welcome and all have a place at the table.

But Christianity, just like any other important movement, had to also define itself by what it was not.  It was not Judaism.  God had revealed Himself through Jesus as a triune God.  Not that the evidence had not been there since the beginning, spread through the Hebrew scriptures (what we call the Old Testament).  But with the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, God’s revelation now had more data, more that could be known.  Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.

With Israel now reconstituted around its Messiah, Jesus was the center of Israel.  The Temple was not.  Therefore, the mark of the faithful Israelite became being a faithful follower of Jesus, not a faithful worshipper at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The center had, literally, changed.  And “A.D.” highlights this tension and shift.  We can see the decline of the significance of Caiaphas and the Temple, while also seeing the rise of the Christian church.

Christianity also defined itself against Rome and all it represented.  Rome, shorthand for the Roman Empire and its leader, the Roman Emperor, made religious, political and imperial claims for itself.  This was represented very well in “A.D.” with the threat of the installation of the statue of the Emperor in the court of the woman at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Because Rome was Rome and the Emperor was the Emperor, whatever Rome said was to take place … was to take place.  Rome was the alpha dog of the time.  So from Rome’s perspective, there was no need to respect the Temple and its traditions.  To the Jews, to have a statue of the Roman Emperor in the Temple was an “abomination of desecration,” something spoken of in prophecy that would preclude and usher in the “last days.”

“A.D.” even depicts the early Christians believing this.  They anticipated that the battle over the placement of the statue of the Emperor in the Temple would precipitate the return of Jesus to reign as King.  The seditious belief of Christians, to this day, is that Jesus is King, which means that any other person claiming to be king is a pretender to the throne.  As “A.D.” rightly pointed out, such a claim would have painful and even deadly results in the days of the early church.  Yet Christians then, as now, stubbornly hang onto such a belief.

So the early church had two battlefronts, one with the Temple and the other with Rome.  And both the Temple and its leaders, along with Rome and its leaders, including Pontius Pilate, the governor of Jerusalem, know they are in a battle.  Pilate declares he will use the force of Rome to demonstrate the power of Rome.  Caiaphas will use the tradition of the Temple to maintain its primacy.  But both Rome and the Temple will pass away.  Rome will eventually destroy the Temple (in A.D. 70) and the Roman Empire itself will gradually decline and disappear.

Only Christianity will endure.  But the weapons of power employed by the early church are the same as they are today.

When the Romans come to the Temple to install the statue of the Emperor, the force of Rome met the stubbornness of the Jews.  The Romans were willing to kill people to get their way.  The Jews were willing to die, rather than allow the desecration of the Temple.

But in steps the Christians, led by Peter, who kneel beside their Jewish brothers, willing to sacrifice themselves because they are led by the Holy Spirit to do so.  God intervenes (through the attack by the Zealots), seeming-chaos ensues, and the statue is broken and unable to be installed.

The tide of history has shifted.  As illustrated by the relationships with their wives of Caiaphas and Pilate, the Temple is doomed to die while Rome is too powerful for most to resist.  Leah, Caiaphas’s wife, is murdered as a result of betraying her husband and his effort to preserve the Temple through his leadership.  Claudia, the wife of Pontius Pilate, grows to hate her husband because of his cruel enforcement of the power of Rome.  When Claudia tells her husband he can rule differently, he says, “I have no choice.”  Then, as she turns to walk away from him, Claudia says, “But you enjoy it.”

Both are trapped, for in the end, even though her husband and his ways disgust her, Claudia, when faced with the choice of becoming a follower of Jesus or not, responds to her husband’s call with, “He calls and I must go.”

Acts does not end with the work of Peter, James and the early church in Jerusalem.  But the foundation has been established.  And it is from this foundation that Paul the Apostle sets out, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the non-Jewish world, overseeing the expansion of the Christian church.

Finally, even though “A.D.” appears to play fast and loose with biblical material,  inserting dramatic material for the sake of “telling the story,” the series got the main themes right.

Jesus is who He said he is.

The church was birthed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

History has been divided between the time before Jesus’ life on earth and all that is taking place since, for now we live “A.D.,” anon domini (in Latin), in the “year of the Lord.”

Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.

“A.D.”

Episode11: June 14, 2015

The eleventh (and I thought there would only be ten!) episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired on Sunday, June 14.

The tensions between the Temple and Rome, with the early church squeezed in the middle, continue.  Caiaphas, the high priest of the Temple, wants to preserve the Temple.  The zealots want to overthrow Rome.  The Christians, with James the brother of Jesus now leading the way in Jerusalem, are seeking to find a way to preach the good news of Jesus without being persecuted by either the Temple or the Romans.

There is a lot going on.

In the debate among the followers of Jesus, the issue of forgiveness comes up.  Can the Christians forgive the Jews and the Temple after leading the effort to have Jesus crucified?  But John, who was there when Jesus was crucified and heard him cry out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” sharpens the debate when he says, “If He (Jesus) asked forgiveness for them, then He asks it of us, too.”

As the Holy Spirit reminds the early church of the words spoken by Jesus, the church is formed and assumes the very character of Jesus Himself, thus bearing the image of Jesus into the world.  That was the task of the church then, in the early days of its formation, and it is the task of the church now.  We are the image-bearers of Jesus to the world.  We are His ambassadors, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5, “as if He were make His appeal (of being reconciled and made new) through us.”  The church is, indeed, the Body of Christ.

James is stepping into a more significant role in leading the church in Jerusalem, while Peter responds to the call to begin spreading the good news of Jesus beyond Jerusalem.  Peter bids his friends goodbye, when asked where he will go, with: “Out there.  To preach.”

Meanwhile, James appeals to Caiaphas that the Christians be allowed to preach in the Temple courts without persecution.  Caiaphas says they can, if they refrain from saying Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, is resurrected and will return again.  James replies that they can’t stop from telling the truth about who Jesus is.  But Caiaphas gives his assent anyway and Christians begin preaching in the Temple courts.

One of the women who was flogged for her witness to Jesus, Tabitha, becomes sick and it is obvious she is dying.  She asks to be brought to her hometown of Joppa, and Mary Magdelene brings her home.  While in Joppa, Tabitha dies.  But Peter is also in Joppa, preaching.  Mary sees him and asks him to come to Tabitha.  Neither is sure what to do.  After all, they are following the leading of the Holy Spirit, but they don’t have a lot of experience or knowledge about what that entails.

Peter goes to Tabitha’s house and finds people mourning her death.  He goes into the room where she has been laid and prays over her.  We see the wind blow Peter’s hair, a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and after a moment Tabitha is alive again.  It is a work of the Lord Jesus, the Lifegiver, through His church, His faithful followers.  People marvel and even Peter is both surprised and overjoyed.  He is learning about the power of the Holy Spirit and the new life given through Jesus.

Another follower of Jesus, Joanna, also suffers for being a follower of Jesus.  She is strangled to death by Pilate’s orders.  Cornelius, Pilate’s trusted commander, strangles Joanna, but before he does she tells him that she forgives him.  Afterwards, Cornelius is obviously both shaken by what he has done and touched by Joanna’s words.

This episode ends with Phillip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch.  Phillip is led, by an angel, to go to the road on which the Ethiopian Eunuch is traveling.  The Eunuch is reading the scroll of Isaiah, given to him by Pilate, and asks Phillip who Isaiah is talking about.  Phillip tells him it is Jesus and the Eunuch asks if he can be baptized.  They spot some water, the Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized, and Phillip is miraculously taken away from that spot.

The Ethiopian Eunuch is left there alone … but changed.

“A.D.”

Episode10: June 7, 2015

The tenth episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired on Sunday, June 7.

This episode brings a major player in the early church onto the stage—James, the brother of Jesus.  We see a flashback to the time when Jesus was in the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of 12, calling that building, the center of Israel and the Jewish faith, his Father’s house.  James would know that story, being the younger brother of Jesus, along with other stories of Jesus when He was a boy.  James told of Jesus’ calmness and His kindness.  This “inside track” of intimate knowledge of Jesus throughout His life gives James a tremendous amount of influence and authority in the early church, especially in Jerusalem.

Saul/Paul continues his fearless preaching about Jesus, which causes Caiaphas to try to win him back into the “Jewish” fold and for James to see Saul/Paul as an impediment to the church’s growth and influence in Jerusalem.

Caiaphas tells Saul that he forgives him for leaving the Temple faith, but Saul’s answer to Caiaphas is telling: “You cannot forgive me.  Only Jesus can do that because Jesus is the Messiah and my sins have been washed away.”  As you can imagine, Caiaphas was less than thrilled with Saul’s response, because Saul was saying there was no need for the Temple, its rituals and the washings it offered.

This point is emphasized later in the episode with a depiction of the Day of Atonement, where one goat is slaughtered, its blood paying for the sins of the people, and another goat, the scapegoat, after having the sins of the people “laid” on its head by the high priest, is led into the wilderness, sent away, and set free.

This ritual is done each year for the forgiveness of the people.  Saul tells the people they can have their sins forgiven once and for all time by coming to Jesus and believing in Him as the Messiah.  There is thus no longer any need for the Temple.  He also tells those in the Temple courts that Jesus came to fulfill the Law, all of the rules and regulations that are followed by faithful Jews, not abolish it.

James sees Saul’s words as both true and as a hinderance to the acceptance of Christians in Jerusalem.  Leah, the wife of the high priest, wants Saul killed.  James just wants him out of the way.  James wins in the end, when at the end of the episode we see Saul being sent off on his first missionary journey on the outskirts of Jerusalem, with Peter and James seeing him on his way.  Peter and James are the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.  Saul is the itinerant apostle, preaching and planting churches in far off places, in the land of the non-Jews, the gentiles.

The goal of Caiaphas and James is the same, each one wants the persecution to stop.  Caiaphas wants the Romans to stop persecuting the Jews and the Temple.  James wants the Jews and the Temple to stop persecuting the Christians.  The Romans want to set up a statue of the Emperor Caligula in the Temple.  Tensions are rising in Jerusalem.

In this  episode we see the cost of being a disciple of Jesus being paid by everyday followers of Jesus.  It’s no longer the leaders who are being punished for being a Christian, but those who are part of the underground movement of followers of Jesus.  They speak quietly to each other and promise to protect each other.

But some followers are found out, some women who serve in the palace of Herod.  One is banished and the other is flogged (whipped).  It is here that we hear some familiar words being spoken by one disciple to another.  “Don’t be afraid.  Jesus will give you strength.”  “Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ.”

It is interesting how a major character of Acts is introduced in this episode, meaning the Ethiopian Eunuch, who is an ambassador of the Queen of Ethiopia as the secretary of the treasury.  We see the entrance of this powerful character into Jerusalem and, when he meets with the high priest and expresses some curiosity about the Jewish faith, how Caiaphas hands the Ethiopian Eunuch a copy of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  This scroll becomes important in the Eunuch becoming, eventually, a Christian.

But that’s for the next episode.

“A.D.”

Episode 9: May 31, 2015

The ninth episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired on Sunday, May 31.

After Saul is converted and becomes a believer, a follower of Jesus, he preaches in the synagogue in Damascus, where he is not well-received.  He is hunted by the Jews of Damascus and, thanks to Barnabus, is saved by being lowered over the city wall to freedom and a return to Jerusalem.

Saul wants to let the Christians in Jerusalem, especially Peter, know he is a changed man and is now a Christian.  Understandable, the Jerusalem Christians, Peter included, are skeptical.  After all, this is Saul, who was only a short time earlier trying to have Christians persecuted and killed.

Not only are the Christians not glad to see Saul back in Jerusalem, but when word reaches the temple authorities that Saul has become a Christian, a follower of Jesus just like those he was trying to kill, the response of Anna, the wife of the high priest Caiaphas, is this: “Find him.  Shame him.  Kill him.”  There is really something at stake here and the producers of “A.D.” make the point well.

Later in this episode, Anna, Claudia and Herodias, the wives of Caiaphas, governor Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas, the “king of the Jews, confer together, searching for a way to make Saul a scapegoat.  But these women also rightly state what’s at stake, that Jesus is a challenge to the Emperor and the entire Roman Empire.  If Jesus is Lord, which was the church’s first proclamation and statement of faith, then no one else is, even and especially the Emperor.

This point of who is going to be Lord was the theme of this episode.  In a discussion between Pilate and Caiaphas, Pilate says to Caiaphas, in the wake of Caligula’s announcement that he wants his likeness placed in the Temple, “Now you have a new god, and he is Roman.”  Caligula will prove to be a ruthless Emperor, with an appetite for deviant desires.

As Saul tries to make inroads with Peter and the disciples in Jerusalem, he has to work hard to make his case.  He even says to Peter, “It’s like you’ve forgotten about forgiveness,” as he testifies to his conversion and acts of faithfulness.  The breach between Peter and Saul is not easily reconciled, but Peter says at last, “We’ve all been visited by the Holy Spirit and I feel him, too.”  There is reconciliation and forgiveness, which prompts Saul to say, “Now we begin.”

The main charge given to the church is to be a witness to Jesus Christ as Messiah, Lord, Son of God, Savior.  That witness is now double-pronged, with Peter leading the work in and around Jerusalem and Judea, and Saul leading the missionary effort to the gentiles far afield.

The conflict in Jerusalem between Rome and the Temple is about to get more pointed.  But in the meantime the church will continue to grow and experience the awesome work of the Holy Spirit.

The Temple will fall.  The Empire will crumble.  The church will endure.

“A.D.”

Episode 8: May 24, 2015

The eighth episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired on Sunday, May 24.

“A.D.” continues to provide good background to the historical landscape that surrounded the birth of Christianity and the Church.  The Temple in Jerusalem was troubled by the rise of the new-found faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.  The palace of Pilate is home to intrigue and political maneuvering; earthly power on display, often deadly for those who get in the way of political aspirations and personal grudges.

And while the reality of the Temple and the Palace, with their attendant power struggles and ambitions, is the larger context for the early stage of the Christian church, the true power lies both in plain sight and hidden from those who think the Temple and the Palace are all that matter, or even all that exists.

Saul travels to Damascus, Syria, from Jerusalem to hunt down Christians.  His focused journey tires his traveling companions, who wonder about the value of Saul’s obsessive quest.  After all, these followers of Jesus, not even called Christians yet, are not many, a minor sect at most.  Why bother with them?  Why give them attention they do not deserve?

Saul gives a clue to his fanaticism when he is challenged by saying that he cannot comprehend the God of the universe giving Peter, a “simple fisherman,” the task of being His spokesperson, His representative.  After all he, Saul, is the more qualified person for the job.  He is an exemplary Pharisee and by rights the job of being a representative of God should be his.  So Saul pursues Peter to Damascus.

“A.D.” faithfully tells the story of Saul’s conversion, from his encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, to his time in Damascus, blind, waiting for whatever is next to come, to the calling of Ananias, a Damascus Christian who has heard of Saul’s persecution of Christians in Jerusalem, to go to Saul, to Ananias laying hands of Saul and restoring Saul’s sight, to Saul’s public preaching about Jesus.

After Saul is healed by the Lord, through Ananias’ laying on of hands, Saul insists on being baptized.  That is the logical first step for a new believer.  To proclaim publicly that one is immersed in the Lord, fully and completely.  Baptism by immersion in water is a sign that points to that reality, one that is spiritual with manifestations that can be seen and heard by others.

Barnabas has his doubts about Saul, he questions whether Saul has, indeed, changed and become a follower of Jesus.  After all, does a zealot like Saul, who was willing to kill Christians, easily, if at all, change and become a new and different person?  Is that possible?  Barnabas, a Christian himself, changed by the Lord, needs evidence.  After Ananias baptizes Saul, Barnabus is convinced, having been convicted by the Holy Spirit that Saul is a changed person, a new man, a follower of Jesus.

The evidence that such is the case begins to accumulate quickly.  No sooner is Saul dry from his baptism that he heads to the synagogue in Damascus so he can present the case there for Jesus as the Messiah.  Barnabus and Ananias try to warn him off, saying it could be very dangerous, but Saul is not to be turned away from his new mission, to be an apostle to Gentiles and Jews.  He begins where Jesus began, with Jews in their place of teaching and worship—the synagogue.

As Saul told Barnabus, “I am not the same man.  I was blind, but now I see.”  For Saul it was both literally and spiritually true.  Jesus has made Saul unable to physically see when they encountered each other on the road to Damascus.  Saul, now a follower of Jesus, sees Jesus for who He is, while before he was blind to that reality.

Saul was blind, but now he sees, and it makes all the difference.

You?

“A.D.”

Episode 7: May 17, 2015

The seventh episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired last Sunday, May 17.

The intrigue in the palaces, both those of Pilate and of Caiaphas, continues in this episode.  In face, Pilate enlists the help and testimony of Caiaphas when the Emperor Tiberias visits Jerusalem.  It’s a big deal when the Emperor of the entire Roman Empire visits a distant outpost governed by a lifelong civil servant.  Pilate knows that he can come under the knife of Tiberias as quickly as others have come under his knife.

But Tiberias doesn’t look favorably upon the alliance of the High Priest and the Governor.  To allow the governed, indeed the occupied, people of the province, of Jerusalem, a place of debate in the palace before the Emperor is a move of desperation.

Meanwhile, Saul continues to persecute the Christians of Jerusalem at the beginning of the episode, forcing them to choose between the Temple or Jesus.  Frankly, I think this is a good depiction of the real issue at hand: Is the center of faith in the true God going to be the Temple or is it going to be Jesus?  The Christian answer, and the witness of the Bible, especially the gospels, is that the center of Israel has indeed moved, shifted, from the Temple to Jesus.  The fact that Jesus gathered twelve disciples is a clear sign that Jesus knew and intended that others know of the shift.

But Saul’s persecution is halted by the visit of the Emperor.  In fact, his persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem becomes a source of embarrassment for both Pilate and for Caiaphas.  Herod Antipas, meanwhile, is enjoying the discomfort of his two rivals.  Saul is ordered to stop his zealous work, but he is reluctant to discontinue because it is a sign of deep and authentic Jewish faith to be zealous for the Lord.  And, if anything, Saul is a good and faithful Jew.

The burgeoning Christian community continues to mature.  In a scene where the Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Peter tells them they get strength through that sacrament because it is both a sign and a reality that they are in union with the Risen Jesus, who is Lord.  Also, the beginning of the apostolic ministry, where the apostles begin to go out and both spread the word of the gospel and establish bands of believers beyond Jerusalem, is depicted with Phillip traveling to Samaria.

While in Samaria, Phillip encounters Simon the Sorcerer.  Simon the Sorcerer is a trickster and illusionist, but many believe he is actually a healer who is gifted by God.  In short, Phillip performs a healing that Simon cannot, which leads to many coming to faith in Jesus.  Phillip heals a woman who is dead by saying to her, “In the name of Jesus, the Son of God, I release you from your prison.”  Afterwards, even Simon the Sorcerer comes to Phillip to be baptized, but for a spurious reason; he wants to use the name of Jesus to make a name for himself as well as make some money.

The episode ends with Saul being tricked by Caiaphas.  A Christian who is being whipped so he will release information about other Christians is bribed into telling Saul that Peter has fled to Damascus.

And it is on the road to Damascus that Saul meets the Risen Jesus himself, having his heart, mind, name and life changed forever.

“A.D.”

Episode 6: May 10, 2015

The sixth episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired last Sunday, May 10.

The previous episode ended with the stoning of Stephen, with Saul noticably absent.  In this episode Saul comes front and center, but in ways that can be inferred from Scripture but are not based explicitly on the Bible.

First, even though “A.D.” portrays the early Christians encamped outside of Jerusalem, that is probably not the case.  In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and their followers had what was an almost-daily routine of meeting in the Temple courts of Jerusalem and in homes, also in Jerusalem, for the twin purposes of teaching and fellowship.

In this episode of “A.D.” Saul visits the Christian camp and debates the merits of the Christian faith.  This is not true, but it’s good because it makes the solid point that Saul was enthusiastic regarding the Jewish faith, life and belief.  He was well-versed in Scripture, being a Pharisee himself.  Pharisees want to, first and foremost, be keepers of the Law, the Torah.  Their strategy was to be found faithful to the command of Moses upon the return of God to the earth.  Being a faithful Jew was the highest value and goal of the Pharisees.  Saul was an exemplary Pharisee.

Later, Saul seeks out Christians in Jerusalem, actively persecuting the new believers.  He confronts Peter and John in the Holy City, upon the authority he received from Caiaphas, who continues to be stymied by the Christians and just wants them to be gone.  For Caiaphas, the Christians, as they proclaim Jesus the Crucified One risen and alive, are the source of all his problems, both in the Temple and with Pilate.  Both religiously and politically.

Pilate is facing pressure from Pilate, Herod Antipas and from even his father-in-law, Annas.  Annas is leading a movement to replace Caiaphas as the High Priest.  His daughter Anna, who is married to Caiaphas, is caught in the middle.  But the plot to overthrow Caiaphas is decided by Pilate (talk about a fiction!), who decides who will be the High Priest by the toss of a coin.  Caiaphas retains his position because Pilate uses a two-headed coin, thus appearing to choose at random when, in fact, he is choosing the “poison he knows,” rather than the one he does not know.  He takes the safer route.

The episode ends with the Temple guards setting fire to the Christian camp.  But Peter has set a trap for them, capturing them in a circle of fire.

It is a bold act for Peter, one that will certainly get him into even more trouble with the Temple and Caiaphas.  But he has been emboldened by the words of Mary Magdelene, who said to him, when Peter was hesitating and languishing as a leader, “Honor Stephen by leading us, Peter.  We must go to Jerusalem and preach the Word.  We must build the church.”

While I am enjoying “A.D.,” even with its fictional additions to the biblical story of Acts, I am increasingly wondering if it will serve the purpose of either helping people understand what the Bible says about the early church or encourage those who are wondering about the truth of Christianity and its significance.

After all, “A.D.” means that we now live in the “year of the Lord,” telling us that everything since the birth of Jesus means we are stepping increasingly into the age to come, when the Kingdom of God will exist in all of its fullness.  To use “A.D.” as the marker of time is to proclaim Jesus as Lord, which was the first formal proclamation of the church.

Jesus is more than Messiah (Christ).  He is more than Savior.  He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.  The story of Christianity is the story of how God became King in Jesus.  And consistent with the abiding themes of Creation and Covenant, God always includes human beings in His project of uniting heaven and earth as the fit dwelling place for God WITH both people and His creation.

A new heaven and a new earth, with order not chaos (hence, no sea).  Without sin and death.  God and human beings dwelling face-to-face.  And the church, with the name of Jesus on their foreheads and the Holy Spirit as a seal on their minds and hearts, bearing the image of Jesus the Lord and King into God’s good, renewed creation.

That’s where we’re going.

But Saul is headed to Damascus.

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