Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday 26 April 2015 - 4th Sunday of Easter

Theme(s): Jesus the Good Shepherd / The Cornerstone / God's power to transform life

Sentence: There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved' (Acts 4:12)

Collect:

Good shepherd of the sheep,
by whom the lost are sought
and guided into the fold;
feed us and we shall be satisfied,
heal us and we shall be whole,
and lead us that we may be with you,
with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

Comments:

Jesus the Good Shepherd is a recurring post Easter theme in the lectionary but note that the gospel readings for the equivalent Sundays across the cycle are different each year, while taken from the same 'Good Shepherd' discourse of Jesus in John 10. (Psalm 23 remains the same each year).

Acts 4:5-12

We continue to read stories in Acts of people being healed in the name of the risen Jesus and through the same power of God which raised Jesus from the dead (10).

Peter speaks 'filled with the Holy Spirit' (8). The work of the Holy Spirit is a strong theme in Luke's writings. It is another way of speaking about the continuing presence of Jesus in the church and ongoing availability of the power of God at work in Jesus now at work in his followers.

Verses 10 and 11 mark a distinctive point in the early Christians' understanding of Jesus. He was not another rabbi or renegade politician. Rejected in death, in risen life Jesus is the cornerstone of God's new people - those who recognise and believe in Jesus as the true Messiah from God for Israel. Consequently Peter can declare 'There is salvation in no one else ...' (12).

Psalm 23

It might be worth pondering why this psalm is the most popular of all. What is in this psalm which leads to its wide and warm reception? What sentiments are in the psalm which give it a timeless appeal? Likely our answers will include the way in which the psalm speaks of life which has its good days and bad, its green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death, sparks hope of better days to come, and offers a rich vision of overflowing provision for our needs. In passing we might note that the language used by the psalmist has a poetic quality so that the style of the poem captures our attention in every generation as much as the substance of its content. It is almost impossible to translate this poem badly!

Nevertheless we could speak to this psalm in a way which makes it 'all about us'. We should not miss the central point of the psalm: the good life in the long run of life which is promised depends entirely on  who our shepherd is, the Lord.

1 John 3:16-24

Through the past weeks of reading this epistle we have seen that John is writing both to strengthen true Christian belief and practice as well as to refute false teaching. In today's reading this twinned approach continues as the writer strengthens conviction about what Christian practice looks like in, well, practice but with a sense that the false teachers are pushing a different line (see 19-22).

Nailed down here, underlined and emboldened is the necessity of the simple Christian action of loving others (16, 17, 18, 23). What is taught here - especially verse 16 - is coherent with what Jesus himself taught by word and deed in John 10 (the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep) and 13 (the master serves the servants and sets them an example for how they are to love one another).

The summary of the teaching on love is straightforward: love involves treating others as more important than ourselves (16), love involves practical action (18) meeting the needs of the needy (17).

Less straightforward is the object of Christian love, as taught here, that we are to love 'one another (23), that is 'a brother or sister [in Christ]' (17). Of course it is a minimal requirement that Christians love other Christians, but do not the gospels other than John point to a maximal requirement to love 'neighbour' where 'neighbour' includes 'enemy'?

Naturally we are tempted to jump to the conclusion that John's church has become hopelessly inward looking and has completely lost sight of the wider world which God calls Christians to love and to reach out to with a mission of proclamation and practical action.

Now we cannot completely dismiss that possibility but the more likely scenario, recalling the influence of false teachers who have almost certainly led a schismatic group out of the Johannine church (2:19), is that John is speaking to the desperate situation of the church he addresses, a church tempted to think that being Christian is consistent with loving those who are easy to love in the church (such as the brothers and sisters who agree with me!).

To this church John says 'No. You must love all the believers, both the easy-to-love ones and the hard-to-love ones.' And he goes further, pointing out that this is not an optional exercise. If we claim to love God then we will love those God loves. God, we recall, does not love the easy people and reject the hard people!

In other words, we cannot deduce from what is said about loving other Christians what John's views are on loving those who are not Christians. That question is not in John's sight as he writes this letter (and the gospel).

With all this in mind, we can then reflect on verses 19-22 which seem a little odd in the midst of teaching about loving others. But John's point here presumably responds to an issue connected with loving or not loving others. In some measure the confidence and assurance of the Christians he writes to (as they face the prospect of judgment) seems to have been affected. Stand tall, John writes, if you love one another and lay down your lives for one another then you can stand before God without fear.

John 10:11-18

Jesus is the 'good shepherd' but what does 'good' mean here? One commentator suggests 'noble' as a better word than 'good' (The New Oxford Annotated Bible 4th Edition) noting that 'noble' in the original time of composition would have conveyed the idea of an heroic soldier who dies for the benefit of the city and receives from the city posthumous honour. But 'noble' (in my view) is decreasingly a word in common usage.

Can we do better? We could perhaps go directly to 'heroic': the heroic shepherd would then be analogous to the heroic soldiers whose memory we commemorate and celebrate on ANZAC Day (25 April for overseas readers; 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the original ANZAC troop landings at Gallipoli). Jesus, as the shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, was certainly heroic.

Another possibility, noting the contrast Jesus makes with the 'hired hand' (12-13), is to think of 'good' as 'faithful' or 'dedicated'. As the faithful shepherd, Jesus sticks to the task given him by the Father and does not runaway from it. As the dedicated shepherd, Jesus chooses to gift his life for his sheep (18).

Bearing in mind the relationship between John's Gospel and 1 John, and noting the difficulties the Johannine church faced in respect of false teaching and secession by schismatics, we can read these words of Jesus as an implied criticism both of the leaders of Israel in Jesus' day (more hired hands than good shepherds) and of the secessionist leaders in the Johannine church (who may have acted both as 'hired hands' when they left their posts as appointed elders of the church, and as 'wolves' when subsequently they sought to draw more people away from the church.

We can understand readily the ways in which Jesus is the good/noble/faithful/dedicated shepherd as they affect us (11,14-15) but what does verse 16 refer to? Who are the 'other sheep'?

The simplest answer is that the mission of Jesus is to the fold of the Gentiles as well as the fold of the Jews. When Jesus says 'there will be one flock, one shepherd' (16) he speaks consistently with his pray in John 17 that his followers might be one (11, 20, 22).

Why, oh why do we have so many denominations?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday 19 April 2015 - 3rd Sunday of Easter

Theme: Resurrection power / Evidence for the Resurrection / Beloved children of God / The best is yet to be

Sentence: ‘Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’ (Luke 24:39)

Collect:
Lord, help us to see;
To see what is eternally good and true,
And having seen, to go on searching
Until we come to the joys of heaven.

Readings:

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36-48

Comments:

Acts 3:12-19

We continue a kind of ‘tour’ through sermons in Acts which reference the resurrection. These references underline that the resurrection was understood by the apostles to be a raising from death to life, a defeating of death as a power over humanity, a part of God’s plan for Jesus (and thus for humanity), and the unleashing of life-giving power which continues to work in the world by transforming people’s lives.

In this sermon Peter speaks in stark terms. His fellow citizens handed Jesus over to be killed. ‘You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you and you killed the Author of life whom God raised from the dead’ (14-15).

By referring to Jesus as ‘the Author of life’, Peter makes a significant claim about the ‘pre-existence’ of Jesus of Nazareth: the one who was present and involved in the creation of life itself had becomes incarnated in the flesh of the man Jesus.

A recurring theme we have noticed these last few weeks is that Peter and others are ‘witnesses’ of the resurrection (15). This is a solemn and sacred role: to ensure that the world knows what God has done by raising Jesus from the dead.

The message of the sermon as it relates to the crippled man who has just been healed (3:1-11) is that the same mighty, life-giving power at work when Jesus was raised from the dead has given new life through perfect healing to this man (16).

Finally, note how Peter moves from the healing of the man to the application of the message: the healing is not itself a cue for more people to come forward to be healed rather it is yet another sign of God at work in and through Jesus, validating all claims about Jesus as Son of God. Accordingly the appropriate response from hearers is ‘Repent therefore and turn to God’ (19).

Psalm 4

This psalm expresses confidence in God’s power to deliver the psalmist from enemies. The confidence includes verse 8 where the writer feels able to go to bed and sleep peacefully.

We can read this psalm as a psalm whose outcome has been demonstrated in the defeat of the enemies of Jesus when he was raised from the Great Enemy (Death). Thus our praise and joy as believers in the risen Jesus can be expressed in the sentiments of verse 7: ‘You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and wine abound.’

1 John 3:1-7

These verses are best read very slowly in a reflective mood. Take verse 1 as an instance. ‘See what love the Father has given us’ makes us think about God as our Father, God’s love for us, and what kind of love it is that has been given to us; ‘that we should be called the children of God’ makes us think about how this expresses God’s love for us and about what it means that we are the children of God  (‘and that is what we are’) and thus what it means that we might not be the children of God.
Put another way: perhaps we have been taking our status as ‘children of God’ for granted. Verse 1 leads us to consider the privilege of being God’s much loved children.

Verse 1b is a little odd relative to the flow of thought through these verses though the theme of ‘the world’ as that which is outside of and even against ‘the children of God’ is a recurring one in the Johannine writings. The point made here is straightforward: if the world knew who the God of Jesus Christ is then it would understand and recognise who the children of this God are.

As children of God, verse 2, we look forward to a better future. In detail we do not know what it will be but in broad terms we know this, ‘when he is revealed, we will be like him’. That is pretty amazing. Actually, it is more than that, it is beyond words amazing!

We can get ready for our better future, verse 3. It is not be complacency, moral laziness, or casual discipleship. ‘Purify’ may not be an ‘in’ word in the church today but this word challenges us to focus on what matters: if we want to share in the glorious future of the children of God we will purify ourselves in order to align ourselves with the one who is pure.

Verses 4-7 take the theme of purity forward: we should not be deceived about the character of sin (= lawlessness), Christ came to take away sin, those who abide in Christ do not sin, and on these matters we should not be deceived.

The toughest issue in these last verses is the claim that those who abide in Christ do not sin. On the fact of it this is counsel of perfection which is unattainable. We should read the verse in the light of last Sunday’s reading (1 John 1:1-2:2): the writer expects that we will sin and need to receive forgiveness. So, what then is verse 6 saying? I suggest at least (a) no one who abides in Christ should be complacent about ongoing sin (b) the one who abides in Christ steadily eradicates sin from their life (c) when we find there is sin in our life we should clearly understand that that sin represents competing forces in our life and thus we should both eradicate sin and deepen our abiding in Christ.

Luke 24:36b-48

Gospel resurrection stories are often at pains to deal with an alternative explanation for the empty tomb and/or the character of the appearances of the risen Jesus. So Matthew in his last chapter deals to the possibility that people are explaining the empty tomb as due to the disciples stealing the body of Jesus.

Here Luke – telling a ‘common’ narrative of Jesus appearing, bringing a greeting of Peace to terrified disciples – nails down a specific point: Jesus is not a ghost (39). (He might even have written ‘Jesus is NOT a ghost.’)

For Luke, both in stories in chapter 24 prior to this one, and here through multiple means, it is important to describe the body of the risen Jesus as a physical body ‘for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’ (39, also 40 and 43).

Luke also tells us enough about the appearances of Jesus, including here in verse 36, for us to realise that Jesus’ body is not a merely resuscitated body, for he can appear at will here and disappear there, in a manner unknown to ordinary ‘flesh and bones’ bodies. When we talk about ‘the physical resurrection body’ of Jesus we are always talking about (so to speak) a ‘physical plus new space-time possibilities resurrection body.’

Interestingly, Luke telling this story recognises twice (verses 38, 41) that the disciples were doubting and disbelieving that Jesus had risen from the dead. Perhaps we have doubts too: we are in good company!

The remaining verses of the passage, 44-48 move to a different topic or set of topics. First, Jesus underlines a great theme through Luke’s Gospel: Jesus is the fulfilment of past prophecy and thus (taking up a point we are finding in our Acts readings through these weeks) is fulfilling his destiny under God. Secondly, the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) may be studied in order to understand who Jesus the Messiah is, what he came to achieve and what the future work of his disciples is.


The disciples are now and in the future utterly committed to a new and special work in the mission of God in the world: ‘You are my witnesses of these things’ (48).

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sunday 12 April 2015 - Easter 2

Theme: Resurrection / Overcoming Doubts / Believing in the risen Christ / New life in Christ

Sentence: But God raised Jesus up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held by in its power. (Acts 2:24)

Collect:

we praise you, God,
that the light of Christ shines in our darkness
and is never overcome;
show us the way we must go to eternal day;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: (note that Acts is specified in the lectionary through these weeks of Eastertide as the 'Old Testament' reading).

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Comments:

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

It is appropriate to have readings such as this in place of an Old Testament reading, for this reading effectively illustrates Paul's point about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:4, that Christ was raised from the dead 'according to the scriptures' (i.e. according to what we call the Old Testament).

In the course of Peter's Pentecost sermon, these verses focus on the resurrection of Jesus as the crowning moment of God's power at work in his life, a power which had healed people through Jesus and fed people through Jesus (22) and now has worked in and through Jesus himself to free him from death and the power of death (24). Peter says that this was prefigured in the Scriptures of Israel when David wrote in Psalm 16:8-11 the words cited in verses 25-28 and, to underline the point, in verse 31.

The resurrection is not a random event on the part of God but part of the well thought out plan of God (23) which permits Jesus to be crucified (23).

Peter's final note in this passage is to observe that the resurrection has been witnessed by witnesses (32).

Psalm 133

This - second shortest - psalm starts with feel good thoughts about unity among God's people and ends with the thought of 'life forevermore' (3b). From the perspective of resurrection we can think of life forevermore lived in God's presence as a life without division, discord, dissent or dispute.

Our question from the psalm, in the light of the resurrection, could be, How do we begin to live in unity now since we are going to be doing that forever?

1 John 1:1-2:2

Introduction: The question of authorship of John's Gospel and John's Epistles is complex (at least in the sense that there are good arguments for thinking that more than one person is responsible for the composition of the gospel and three letters) but generally no scholar doubts that the gospel and epistles share common concerns about opponents of the Johannine Christians (likely based in Ephesus, late in the first century). So, it is highly appropriate that we twin this first epistle of John with the Gospel of John in our readings today. In accordance with the tradition of the church I will refer to the author of the epistle as 'John.'

Passage: On Easter 2 we find no direct words about the resurrection of Jesus Christ but we find plenty about the life of the Christian community post-resurrection. The community being addressed are those who welcome the testimony of those who personally experienced Jesus Christ as 'the word of life' (1-2). This testimony has been given and is being restated here in this epistle in order that John (or, noting the language of 'we', the authors) and readers might have 'fellowship', a fellowship which 'is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ' (3). The author seeks 'complete' joy (4) which hints at controversy and disagreement: this epistle will lay out the common ground on which the fellowship or common life of the community is built. If agreement is secured, the joy (of fellowship) will be complete.

In verses 5-7, John addresses the question of quality of fellowship between believers. This quality turns on the question of 'light' or living a pure and holy life, marked - as we see later in the epistle - by the tenderness and mercy of love. This quality of life begins with God's own life: 'God is light and in him there is no darkness at all' (5). This is the benchmark for all Christian fellowship: with God and with each other. If we claim to be in fellowship then we will walk in the light and not in darkness (6-7).

But what is John addressing here by way of issue or question? If we go down to verse 10 it appears that false teachers were affecting (infecting?) this community of believers by teaching that true believers were sinless. Not so, says John. Believers sin. Believers should not pretend otherwise (6, 8). How do sinners deal with sin while walking in the light? By admitting their sin, confessing it, receiving forgiveness and continuing to walk with the Lord (7-9).

One of the great promises in Scripture is verse 9. Every Christian should memorise and apply this verse!

But the point here, in the light of the resurrection, is that assurance of forgiveness of sin comes because the 'advocate with the Father' on our behalf, 'Jesus Christ the righteous' (2:1) has died but not remained captured by the power of death. He is 'the word of life' (1:1). Further, it is not just that Jesus is our advocate (paraclete, a word familiar from John's Gospel, but there used of the role of the Spirit) but that he 'is the atoning sacrifice for our sins' (2:2). We can confess our sins, per the promise in 1:9, confident of forgiveness because the advocate on our behalf continues to remind the Father that our sins have been atoned for.

The word for 'atoning sacrifice' is hilasmos, which is also used in Romans 3:25: Pauline and Johannine theology are coherent! Arguments abound as to whether hilasmos should be translated as 'expiation' or 'propitiation' but I find 'atoning sacrifice' to be a worthy and non-controversial alternative to the two. Indeed, acknowledging that arguments in favour of both expiation and propitiation have merit, I would argue that 'atoning sacrifice' allows us to think of hilasmos as both expiation and propitiation.

The final words of the passage are most wonderful. Jesus died for our sins (that is truly wonderful) but John goes further, 'and not for ours only but also for the sins of the world.' That is even more wonderful and could and should motivate us to proclaim the gospel of salvation to the whole world.

Postscript: When some theologians invoke John Calvin in support of the concept of limited atonement (that Christ died for the sins of the elect only), I wish they would go back in history to a greater John and note that the Scriptures themselves do not teach limited atonement

John 20:19-31

The resurrection appearances of Jesus are episodic rather than continual. Jesus appears, disappears, reappears rather than (say) visiting with a group of disciples and staying in their house 24/7 for a few weeks. In this passage, as John reports on the risen Jesus, Jesus appears at the end of 'that day, the first day of the week' (19), having (seemingly) disappeared since his early morning encounter with Mary (11-18), then a whole week elapses (26) before his next appearance.

But what significant appearances they are!

In verses 19-23, Jesus commissions his disciples to continue his mission from God and of God to the world God loves: 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you' (21, see also 17:18).

But first Jesus reaches out to the disciples who are cowering in hiding 'for fear of the Jews' (which here must mean 'the Jewish authorities', 19). Twice he says 'Peace be with you' (19, 21) and he shows them the reality of his risen body which (interestingly, for those of us who have succumbed to the temptation to think that our own resurrection bodies will be something akin to our state in our physical prime :) ) includes 'his hands and his side', testifying to Jesus' body bearing the marks of his crucifixion (20).

So the disciples who are commissioned are now disciples of the risen Lord, who 'rejoiced when they saw the Lord' (20). This joy will be vital to their energetic taking up of the commission. Its vitality will not ebb away because Jesus moves to endow them with the Holy Spirit (22). On another occasion we might engage with the question of how this account of endowment of the Spirit complements the account given by Luke in Acts 2, but here we simply note that John offers us 'the Johannine Pentecost', the moment when the Spirit of the Father is given by Jesus the Son to the disciples.

With this power comes authority, the authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness (23). Such authority is effectively the authority to grant or withhold new life in Christ for without the forgiveness of sins we are held back by the past and unable to move forward into the new future of eternal life available in Christ.

Note that through this chapter Jesus is raised from the dead (1-10), anticipates his ascension to the Father (17) and brings about Pentecost (22): for John the exaltation or glorification through lifting up of Christ is one sweeping movement through crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. In this movement Jesus returns to the Father and unleashes the Spirit to continue his work in, through and among his disciples (as taught in chapters 14-16).

(As an aside, in the great debate between Western and Eastern Christianity over the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed, that is, over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or proceeds from the Father and the Son, 20:22 underlines why we in the West believe the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son and not from the Father only.)

Verses 24-26 then forms an introduction to the next episodic appearance of Jesus, a week hence. Thomas has not been present on that first evening. He is unconvinced by the disciples' testimony 'We have seen the Lord' (25a). (To be fair to Thomas as 'the Doubter', the other disciples were not so convinced by Mary's similar testimony, 18, that they did not lock the door to their hiding place a week previously, 19!). His demands for evidence (25b) are narrated to represent all readers who doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. What Thomas requires is what any reasonable person would require as evidence for the resurrection. He needs more than the Empty Tomb (which, presumably, he could easily check out for himself  and which does not alone constitute sufficient evidence for the resurrection because it is compatible with an alternative explanation that the body was stolen, see Matthew 28). He demands (so to speak) hands on physical evidence: show me the holes in his body, let me touch and check them out for myself.

'Be careful what you wish for'! On the eight day of resurrection, Jesus reappears before the disciples, this time with Thomas present (26). Jesus knows what he wants and invites Thomas to touch him. Interestingly we are not told that Thomas does this. Instead he blurts out his instant conviction that the Lord is risen, risen indeed, 'My Lord and my God' (28). Seeing Jesus (29) is enough, he does not need to touch him. When Jesus goes on to commend those without opportunity to see the risen Jesus for themselves (29b) he is commending all John's readers, then and now, for this gospel was written long after the risen Jesus ascended to be with the Father.

It is now time to wrap up the gospel (or, at least to wrap up the main body of it, noting that chapter 21 is either an epilogue to the main part or an addition to the main part by another contributor to the gospel). So we find a classic narrator's trick to acknowledge that the end of the narrative is near but the narrative could be much longer because there is more to tell: 'Now Jesus did many other signs ... which are not written in this book' (30). Incidentally this could also be an acknowledgment of the presence in the wider Christian community of the other gospels.

Verse 31 then becomes the conclusion by way of stating the purpose of the book: '... that you may come to believe ...' John is saying that when we cannot see and experience Jesus for ourselves, the next best thing in order to elicit belief is an authoritative, authentic, intimate and true account of the events of Jesus' life and death. Here is this account (see also 21:24).

But belief in itself is not the goal of the mission of God through Jesus Christ: the goal is 'life in his name' (31).

As we contemplate the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are not being invited to be spectators, let alone judges as to whether what we 'see' by aid of the gospel is true. We are being invited to be participants in the life of God through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday 5 April 2015 - Easter Day

Theme: New life in Christ / Christ is Risen: He is Risen Indeed / Death overcome

Sentence: 'You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.' (Mark 16:6)

Collect:

Jesus Christ our Saviour,
you have delivered us
from death and sin.
You have brought with the dawn
a new beginning and an empty tomb;
grant us strength and humility
to enter into the new life granted us by the Father
through the same power of the Spirit to raise you from the dead.

Readings:

Acts 10:34-43 (=Old Testament reading), 
1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 
Mark 16:1-8

Comments:

Acts 10:34-43 (=Old Testament reading) 

This is a masterly summary of the gospel which repays careful study beyond the specific attention it gives to the resurrection. Here we might be especially interested in verse 40, which makes a distinction between God raising Jesus from the dead and allowing him to appear. 

But verse 41 is also important as it nails an often observed fact about the appearances, that they were appearances to those who already knew Jesus (a famous exception being Saul/Paul) and not to the unbelieving public at large.

The distinction in verse 40 means that the act of raising Jesus from the dead is a specific action by God, a consequence of which are appearances of the risen Jesus. Contrary to some ways of explaining the resurrection, the resurrection of Christ did not consist of a set of appearances to people, a not unknown occurrence after death in which grieving people experience the presence of a loved one. 

Rather, the resurrection was first an action by God. Jesus died and was buried but "on the third day" something happened to his body which can described only in terms of being "raised." The four gospels unitedly attest to the logical consequence of being raised from the dead: the tomb was emptied of Jesus' body. The theme of a bodily raising of Jesus continues in the second part of verse 40 as Peter describes eating and drinking with Jesus "after he rose from the dead."

It is important to note the word used in verse 41 to describe the people to whom Jesus appeared: "witnesses." Jesus did not appear, so to speak, to comfort distraught followers, or as a kind of divine party trick. He appeared so that those who experienced him as their risen Lord and Saviour might testify to him. So Peter continues in verse 42, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead." This comment is reprised from last year.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

These verses capture a number of aspects of our celebration on Palm Sunday: giving thanks (1), Jesus entering Jerusalem through one of the gates in its walls (19-20), the shouts of acclamation the crowd made on that day (26) and the use of 'branches' in the 'festal procession' on that day (27b).

But note also that this psalm mentions a keynote image for all early Christian understanding of Jesus Christ: the rejected stone who becomes the chief cornerstone (22). Additional comment for Easter Day: on the cross Israel (and the wider world created by God through the Son) rejects Jesus the Christ but three days later the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone of God's new people, those called into being (ekklesia) by Jesus the risen Lord and Saviour.

Then there is the greeting which forms part of our NZPB liturgy: 'This is the day that the Lord has made ...' (24). This comment is reprised from last week, with small addition relevant to Easter, when the reading from this psalm extended to verse 29.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

No other account of the resurrection gives so many details of resurrection appearances. 

Paul begins this passage by saying that he wishes to remind his readers of the 'good news' (1-3). For Paul the good news is telling the news which is good, the news that (a) Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (3); (b) that he was buried and he was raised again on the third day (4); (c) that he appeared to multiple witnesses to the resurrection (5-12).

Whereas Mark (see below) emphasises the emptiness of the tomb, Paul omits mention of the empty tomb* and makes much of the many witnesses to the appearances of the risen Jesus, not least because he is concerned with the (sometimes disrespectful) Corinthians that they note that he too is one of these important witnesses. *Some critics makes a lot of this omission, alleging that Paul contradicts the gospels on this point. But it is a big step to move from the absence of mention to the absence of event: the sequence 'buried ... raised' is completely consistent with the tomb being empty since 'raised' in Jewish understanding was the raising of the body of the deceased.

The extent and variation in the witnesses is important, including the reference to an appearance of the risen Jesus to 500 witnesses at one time: this suggests that we are NOT talking about grief stricken individuals having post-death impressions of encounters with their deceased loved ones (a relatively common phenomenon).
Mark 16:1-8

Let's be honest with ourselves as the Christian community as we read this resurrection narrative. It has several difficulties, especially in comparison to the other narratives.

1. Theses verses do not actually tell us of an encounter with the risen Jesus. They predict an encounter to come, and that in Galilee, despite each of the other gospels clearly relaying to their readers that Jesus was encountered in Jerusalem (with Matthew and John but not Luke telling us of Galilean appearances).

2. Most Bibles print a set of verses, 9-20 for this chapter with notes which make clear that these extra verses are likely a later addition to Mark's original manuscript. In turn that highlights the abrupt ending of Mark if it ends at verse 8. (In Greek the abruptness is underlined by the last word being 'gar' = 'for'. In the flow of the narrative the abruptness is experienced as we are left with the women experiencing fear and trembling and no joy). 

3. Much speculation and debate has ensued between scholars as to whether verse 8 is the original ending of the gospel or is the result of some misfortune to the original manuscript (such as a last piece being torn off). For instance scholars labour to tell us how 16:1-8 is a plausible ending to the gospel and a credible account of the resurrection while others see this ending as inadequate and unsatisfying and propose that the original was longer. Incidentally, to return to 16:9-20, the very least we can say about these additional verses is that they represent a very ancient dissatisfaction with the ending of the gospel at 16:8.

4. The last part of verse 8 seems quite odd: 'and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.' They must have said something to someone because we know their story!

But the verses are the verses we have. What can we say about them that makes sense of them?

First, we can favourably compare what we are told with what other gospels say: the tomb was discovered to be empty of Jesus and an angel or angel-like witness(es) were present to inform the women what had happened.

Secondly, Mark attests to the resurrection of Jesus in no uncertain terms: 'He has been raised; he is not here' (6).

Thirdly, the 'terror and amazement' which 'seize' the women (8) is in keeping with a theme in Mark, that the wonderful deeds done by Jesus inspire awe and fear among the disciples and crowds which follow him. Mark's ending may be abrupt and unexpected but it is not odd on his own narrative terms.

Fourthly, Mark beautifully captures the shock of the occasion by telling us something which he knew was only true for a short time: that the women were shocked into silence (8). But Mark knows and his first readers know that this was a momentary silence. Their tongues were soon loosened ... otherwise there would be no gospel to write! Indeed, Mark expects that they will talk because they are told to do so in verse 7!

What I am about to say is arguable (and scholars do argue about these matters). But Mark the story-teller is stronger in these verses than Mark the historian. As a story-teller he wants to tell us that the story ends where it began (Galilee, 7), that Peter is forgiven by Jesus for denying him (this is the implication of the reference to Peter in v. 7), and that the primary evidence of the resurrection was the concrete, physical emptiness of the tomb (1-8). Appearances for Mark (7) are secondary signs of the resurrection (so he postpones them, by implication, to a future point in Galilee). 

Mark the historian (I suggest) would offer something more in keeping with 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Alternatively, the compiler(s) of the so-called longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) suggest that Mark the historian would have/should have offered something which merges aspects of Luke's and John's accounts together.

What is our 'take home' message from these enigmatic and controversial verses?

1. Jesus was raised from the dead. His tomb was and remains empty of his body.

2. The magnitude of the resurrection as an event of God acting in power to intervene in the world should lead to awe, the kind of awe we have when we are shocked into silence.

3. The importance of the resurrection as a wonderful event displaying the awesome power of God should lead to telling others about it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday 29 March 2015 - Palm Sunday

Theme: Jesus enters Jerusalem / Hosanna! / Jesus the peaceful king

Sentence: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! (Matthew 21:9)

Collect:

Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem
the people waved palms
with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
we may still walk beside you even to a cross. Amen.

Readings: I find the Lectionary confusing for this day. That is because - in my understanding - some church traditions provide for celebrating 'Palm Sunday' as well as 'Passion Sunday' and thus our lectionary, following the RCL, provides readings for a 'Liturgy of the Palms' (without OT, Epistle) and for a 'Liturgy of the Passion' (with readings, including a very long gospel reading, focused on telling the whole story of Christ's suffering in the last days of his life). The reality, in my experience, is that many Anglican parishes celebrate Palm Sunday on Palm Sunday and thus look forward to working with readings focused on Palm Sunday.

Below I retain the psalm and gospel reading from the first RCL column of the lectionary, the epistle from the second column, and the OT reading from the two year cycle in NZPB (p. 581).

Zechariah 9:9-10
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 11:1-11

Comments:

Zechariah 9:9-10

Zechariah amazingly looks ahead to a day when Zion's king will come to Jerusalem 'humble and riding on a donkey.' This king will be one who 'command(s) peace to the nations'. But if he has foreseen with great detail the events of the first Palm Sunday it also is true that the way those events are recounted in the gospels are shaped by the gospel writers' knowledge of this text.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

These verses capture a number of aspects of our celebration on Palm Sunday: giving thanks (1), Jesus entering Jerusalem through one of the gates in its walls (19-20), the shouts of acclamation the crowd made on that day (26) and the use of 'branches' in the 'festal procession' on that day (27b).

But note also that this psalm mentions a keynote image for all early Christian understanding of Jesus Christ: the rejected stone who becomes the chief cornerstone (22).

Then there is the greeting which forms part of our NZPB liturgy: 'This is the day that the Lord has made ...' (24).

Philippians 2:5-11

These verses have catalysed a stream of academic articles and monographs because in these verses we find some of the most profound and also subtle christology (study of who Christ is) in the whole of the New Testament. In this comment I move past those christological issues and simply focus on the reason why we choose this reading in relation to Palm Sunday.

Our general understanding of the event in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem with acclamation as king is that he is a kind of 'anti-king': his ride is on a colt or young horse, a sign of peace and humility, rather than on a magnificent mature steed of the kind a victorious-in-battle king would ride in a triumphal procession on return to his royal city.

So this reading in which Jesus is described as the one who empties himself of divine privilege and power in order to become one of us, before being exalted to the highest place, fits well as a theological background to the specific display of humility (with exaltation) we see on Palm Sunday.

In both epistle (see 2:1-4) and in the gospel reading the question of the example of Jesus and what that means for us as we live our lives is our question as we apply these readings to our lives.

Mark 11:1-11

Comments above have a bearing on this reading and our understanding of it!

The sequence of events told in this story are familiar to us, perhaps from a lifetime of celebrating Palm Sunday. Jesus draws near to Jerusalem (1), disciples are sent ahead to fetch a colt (not a donkey, interestingly, according to Mark, verses 1b-7a), Jesus mounts the colt and rides it towards Jerusalem (7b, 11a), the crowd - their interest piqued by the exchange with the disciples when they picked up the colt - offer homage to Jesus as he rides, spreading their cloaks on the ground or 'leafy branches that they had cut in the fields' (8), shouting in acclamation words drawn from Psalm 118 (9-10).

Note, however, a detail which we may have gotten wrong as we celebrate according to our customs rather than according to the strict detail of Scripture: none of the gospel writers tell us that the palm branches were waved as part of the shouts of acclamation. Luke does not mention the branches at all. Matthew following Mark describes the branches as being laid on the road on which Jesus travelled. John is the only one to explicitly mention 'palm trees' and he does not describe what happens to the branches except that they were taken out to meet Jesus. (Nevertheless I think it fine to have a procession and wave branches!)

If Jesus comes as an 'anti-king' (see comments on Philippians 2:5-11) then he nevertheless comes as a kind of king and thus this event is a political event. 'Political' because the event effects the order and organisation of the polis or city of Jerusalem. It begins a sequence of events in this week of Jesus' life which draw attention to him from authorities already inclined to concern about his impact on the people of Israel. Mark ends his story with Jesus going into the temple and looking around it. The next political event will be the protest in the temple the next day.

In other words, Jesus who has been teaching through word and deed that the kingdom of God is near now arrives in Jerusalem in a manner which draws attention to himself as the king of the kingdom. A different kind of king (to, say, Herod or Caesar) but then the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus is a different kind of kingdom to Herod's 'kingdom' (limited rule permitted by Rome).

For us as preachers this week we have the familiar challenge of preaching on the familiar and the novel challenge of preaching the gospel on Sunday 29 March 2015 which is a completely new day in the ongoing story of Jesus and our world. What is going on today which this story speaks to?

There is no shortage of political events in our world to which this biblical political event speaks: ISIS, Syrian and Iraqi refugees (and NZ (un)willingness to receive them?), Yemen in turmoil, a by election in Northland, government use of spying agencies, organising and distributing aid to Vanuatu, and thinking of weath disasters, climate change and the possibility that a global political response could influence this change.

Try to keep within the allotted time limit for the day :)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday 22 March 2015 - Lent 5 / Passion Sunday

Theme: Suffering (Passion) of Jesus / New Covenant / Death and Glory

Sentence: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

Collect:P25:2

Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's most gentle rule;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Comments:

The 'passion' in Passion Sunday is not the 'passion' of a phrase such as 'I have a passion for growing roses'. That passion equals enthusiastic commitment. 'Passion' in Passion Sunday refers to the suffering of Jesus. In Johannine language from our gospel reading, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified [through suffering]"(v. 23).

Jeremiah 31:31-34

In one way the Bible is the Story of Several Covenants. Jeremiah, prophesying around 600 years before Christ, relays the words of the Lord. The covenant made with Moses has been broken. A new covenant is coming.

With this new covenant comes a new power to obey the covenant: 'I will write it on their hearts' (33).

Psalm 51:1-12

Initially this psalm is a confession of sin (ascribed in the superscription to David, confessing after his adultery with Bathsheba). But when we ask why we are reciting it on this day, that is, which other reading does this psalm connect to, we make our way to verse 9 where David asks God to 'Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.'

With this verse we are right in the heart of Jeremiah's prophecy (see above)!

Hebrews 5:5-10

On Passion Sunday, as we reflect on Jesus embracing the fact that he will suffer and die, this reads partly connects with the gospel reading through talk of the glory of Christ (5) and partly through commenting on Jesus' 'reverent submission' to the path that led to suffering and death (7-10).

The writer to the Hebrews makes the case that Jesus as 'Son' (and therefore perfect in all ways except one) became perfect - 'having been made perfect' (9) - in all ways because only by sharing in our humanity could the Son 'learn obedience through what he suffered' (8).

As the perfect (or, we might say, perfected perfect) Son Jesus could become 'the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him' (9).

John 12:20-33

As the 'hour' (23) of Jesus' death draws closer, John recounts to us an episode which chronologically occurs after the 'Palm Sunday' entry to Jerusalem (see 12:12-15). We read this passage a week before Palm Sunday because it captures the mind of Jesus as it reflects on the suffering which shortly he will experience.

The first few verses, however, tell us of a moving encounter between Philip and 'some Greeks' (20). We can only speculate at possible prior connections, noting that 'Philip' is a Greek name, but it would be reasonable to surmise that 'Greeks' here means 'Greek-speaking Jews'. These Greeks seek what all disciple love to seek, an encounter with Jesus: "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." (21)

Frustratingly for us as readers, we do not actually get to read about them seeing Jesus. Philip tells Andrew and together they go to tell Jesus (22) but we are not told that they saw Jesus in person. Instead, Jesus takes the occasion to speak about what is about to happen to him (23-33).

What Jesus says here is a mixture of Johannine themes (hour, glory, servant/Jesus/Father, judgment, ruler of this world, lifted up) and Synoptic Gospels paradox (verse 25).

Three matters stand out:

1. Jesus may be saying to the Greeks who wish to 'see him',
- 'What you see should not be me the person with some fame which you have heard of, but me the one whom God is drawing forward to embrace death for the sake of eternal life (25, 32).'
- 'When I have been crucified I will 'draw all people to myself', not only Jews and Greeks gathered here for this festival (32).'

2. Jesus understands his death to be the key to glory (i.e. honouring and blessing the enhanced reputation of God, 23, 28), the necessary pathway to 'much fruit' (24, 32) and the decisive step in judging the 'ruler of this world' (31).

3. Jesus teaches that his followers are called to the same destiny as himself: his death (e.g. 23-24) will be imitated by his followers who must be willing to lose their life and to follow him as servants wherever he goes (25-26).

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sunday 15 March 2015 - Lent 4

Theme: Belief in the Son / Eternal life / Wholeness / Two Ways to Live

Sentence: So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3: 14-15).

Collect:

God love,
May we through the Spirit's power and wisdom,
grasp the extent of your love for the world,
open our eyes to the richness of your mercy,
and offer from our hearts, thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of your Son,
which makes new life possible. Amen.

Readings:

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Comments:

The Old Testament and Gospel readings this week are very tightly bound together because the Numbers reading provides the complete background to the concept of the Son of Man being 'lifted up'.

Numbers 21:4-9

From a scientific perspective this story is, well, nuts: if you have snakebite problems, looking at a bronze serpent held in the air will not (ordinarily) solve your problem. But the story is not about the science of snakebites but about the actions of God and of God's people. The people grumble (4-5) and the Lord responds with a mini-plague of 'poisonous serpents' (6). People die (as we might expect, scientifically speaking) and this provokes the people to repent of their grumbling (7). Moses prays and the Lord answers in an (unscientific) way (7-8).

What the passage invites us to consider is why God answers Moses' prayer in the way he does. Why does God who sent the snakes not send them away? Why does God command Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent, attach it to a pole and ask those subsequently bitten by snakes to look at the bronze image in order to live? (We can even make the question harder by asking why God requires of his people a remedy for snakebite which Egyptians used).

One possibility is that God is demonstrating sovereign power over the situation, including the use of irony. God sends the snakes and God remedies their threat. The remedy involves God taking up an Egyptian custom (a custom from the land Israel wishes to return to) and transforming it into God's own remedy. It is as though God says to Israel, "You want to go back to Egypt? Let's go back to Egypt for a remedy for your punishment. But that is all: I will get you to the Promised Land."

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This psalm recalls the story in Numbers, set in the larger story of God's calling Israel out of Egypt and guiding them to the promised land.

Ephesians 2:1-10

We would take this passage as a commentary on the gospel passage!

What kind and scope of love for the world does God have? Well, it is spelled out in extraordinary life giving detail here, especially from verse 4 onwards. We can even (noting a question at the end of the comment below) account for the deeds of believers. According to this passage in Ephesians, they are the deeds 'which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life' (10).

We can, of course, also read the passage on its own merits. In the context of Lent we do this looking for understanding for why Jesus died on the cross for our sakes.

Paul lays it out:
1-2: 'You were dead through the trespasses and sins ...'
3: '... we were by nature children of wrath ...'
4-5: 'But (which could be 'BUT') God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ...'
(Although the cross is not mentioned in this passage, we understand the death of Christ on the cross to be crucial to our being made alive by working backwards to 1:7; we also understand his death to be implied by the talk in chapter one, and here, on the resurrection of Jesus and the power which raised him to be the power at work in us).
In other words God reaches out to humanity, destined for death and enables us to be 'made alive'. All this is God's doing 'by grace you have been saved' (5, 8).
6-7: it is not just that God 'saves us' (in the sense of making us new, making us at one with God), Paul says here that we are 'raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.' Much could be said here about (a) hope (b) heaven (c) the future becoming present reality but I would like to emphasise (d) that the great transformation through salvation is that we are identified with Christ and become 'in Christ', a union between ourselves and Christ and because of that, receive every blessing from God (see also 1:3).
8-9: Understanding everything so far we easily comprehend that nothing (repeat, nothing) we do can secure this transformation, can gain us favour from God, so it is 'by grace you have been saved through faith' and, Paul goes further, lest any misunderstanding should arise, even the faith by which we open ourselves to God's gracious action, this faith 'is not your own doing; it is the gift of God'.
10: What now? Do we sit around waiting to physically die to enjoy the fullness of life in Christ in the heavenly places? Not at all. There is work to be done, but it is God's work which is to be done.

John 3:14-21

A kind of preamble which could be skipped: Our gospel readings through these Lenten weeks are an interesting mix of forecast and interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection, centred on Jesus' own words. The epistles are clearly centred on interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection through hindsight rather than foresight. What we read in the gospels, in passages such as this one, are less clearly foresight rather than hindsight because the way they come to us involves a writing down which takes place as late as, if not later than the epistles. Inevitably the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection influences the way Jesus' own words are written down for the gospel writers' present and future audiences. In the particular case of John 3:14-21 there is a challenge - avoided here(!) - of working out where Jesus stops speaking and the Fourth Evangelist begins his interpretation of what Jesus has been saying: at the end of verse 15? 16? 21? Here we take the passage as words which, whether spoken by Jesus or the gospel writer or both, contribute to our understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Verse 14-15 really needs (at least) verse 13 to make sense of why Moses and the serpent (from our Old Testament reading) appear after Jesus has been talking to Nicodemus about other matters. The conversation with Nicodemus 3:1-13) has been about where Jesus comes from and how Jesus can do and teach what he has been doing. Verse 13 is then a kind of summary: the one who does these things is the one who has experience of heaven, the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) and that Man has descended from heaven. So the language of descent (also ascent, first part of 13) opens the way for Jesus to talk about the destiny of the descended Son of Man: he will be 'lifted up' (14).

Thus in verse 14 Jesus uses the switch from language of 'ascent' to language of being 'lifted up' to talk about the event of the cross which will differentiate his talk of ascent to heaven from that of other mystics. The usual mystical talk (e.g. within Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time) was of a significant heavenly figure being a guide to the seeker of divine mysteries who leads the seeker towards the highest heaven. But Jesus is not that guide in that sense. What will lead people to God, that is, what will 'save' them (see verses 16- 17) is the lifting up of Jesus.

By invoking the story of Moses and the lifted up serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) - the story of Israelites becoming ill through snakebite and being healed by gazing at the lifted up serpent - Jesus is actually looking ahead to when he, like Moses' serpent, will be 'lifted up' in such a manner that people will be healed (saved) as a result. He is talking about his death on the cross.

(Additionally, we might also note the subtle implication of taking up this story from Numbers: the serpent or snake that people most need healing from is the one who tempted humanity into sin in the first place, Genesis 3. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, and then lifted up from the grave through resurrection, he will heal the great wound shared by all humanity).

In v 15 then (and v. 16, 18), 'eternal life' is possible for those who believe because Jesus becomes the Mosaic serpent to whom people may look in order to be healed. (From this perspective, 'eternal life' is 'wholeness of life' or 'life healed of brokenness.')

Verses 16-21 then become a speech (by Jesus) or a sermon (by John the Evangelist) on the significance of the choice facing the world because of the event of the cross (and resurrection). Choosing to 'believe in him' leads to eternal life and choosing not to believe leads to the opposite ('perish', 16; 'condemn', 17, 18; 'judgment', 19).

Verse 16 nails down the place of God as, well, God in relation to the world: God loves the world which by implication means 'loves the world enough to do something about the problems of the world - people preferring darkness to light, doing evil deeds (19-20).' In that love God 'gave his only Son', language that is redolent of Genesis 22 where Abraham is willing to give up his only son for sacrifice, but with the difference that there is no talk of sacrifice here, and 'the Son' in the context of this gospel is the One who is one with the Father. In effect God so loves the world that God gave up himself so that the world might be saved.

Thus all talk about the decisive and eternally significant choice facing the world, light versus darkness, belief in the Son versus evil deeds, is framed by the phrase 'For God so loved the world.' As we reckon with the strong language of 'perish' and 'condemn' in succeeding verses, the starting point is God's love which reaches out through the gift of God's Son to draw all people to himself.

The reality is that the situation of the world is bleak: 'people loved darkness' (19); 'all who do evil hate the light' (20). The coming of Jesus, paradoxically, as a gift of love which brings light, makes no difference to most in the world who 'do not come to the light' (20).

A couple of tricky questions lurk in the passage!

One is that verses 18-21 raise but do not answer the question 'why' believers manage to escape from the preference of people to choose darkness over light.

Two is that there is a shift from 'belief in the Son' (15) being key to the door to eternal life to 'deeds' being seen in the light of God (21).