Saturday, May 27, 2017

Sunday 4 June 2017 - Pentecost

Theme(s): Holy Spirit / Coming of the Holy Spirit / Spirit of creation and renewal / What a great day Pentecost was!

Sentence: For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Collect:

Living God, eternal Holy Spirit,
let your bright intoxicating energy
which fired those first disciples
fall on us
to turn the world again, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: the lectionary offers some alternatives this week. The following are my choices.

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Commentary:

Acts 2:1-21

No Pentecost celebration could be complete without the unique story of the great day of the coming of the Spirit being read.

What a great day it was!

It was a day in which a promise was fulfilled (see Luke 24/Acts 1).

It was a day in which prophecy was fulfilled (see Peter's citation from Joel in his sermon).

It was a day in which prayer was answered (the prayers made between the Ascension and Pentecost).

It was a day in which the Spirit came upon God's people in a new manifestation.

It was a day in which the gospel was preached with power and great effect.

Something to ponder is this. In Acts 1 Jesus commissions his team of disciples for their work in the world, essentially to carry on the mission of God. In Acts 2 the Spirit of Jesus empowers the disciples for that work. Jesus does not ask us to do something which he does not give us the power to carry out.

Pentecost is the festival day in which we celebrate what a great day it was and still is, for the same Jesus unleashes the same powerful Spirit to help us to be obedient to his commission.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

What kind of spirit came down at Pentecost? We say this psalm because it draws our attention to the work of God in creation, a work which is accomplished by the Spirit of God ('your spirit', v. 30). The unstated assumption in the choice of this psalm is that at Pentecost the same creating Spirit of God is 'at it again' - creating a new thing or (picking up the emphasis in the second part of v. 30) renewing creation. From this perspective the day of Pentecost is not simply the creation of one new thing, the church, but the creation of a new world. In part, according to Acts 2, this is exemplified by the gathering of the nations in Jerusalem, with their many tongues, who are now forged into a new people of God by the overflowing Spirit of God who breathes new life into them.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

There is a whole book to be written about this passage, not least because we could write a chapter on each of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned here: utterance of wisdom through to the interpretation of tongues, nine gifts in all (8-10). As an aside, these nine gifts are not the whole list of gifts of the Spirit since in, e.g., Romans 12 we find some other gifts mentioned.

Nevertheless, more briefly, we can highlight three important aspects of the Spirit of God at work in the life of the church.

1. The Spirit of God is completely coherent with the lordship of Jesus Christ over the church. The Spirit is at work where people confess that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit is not at work where people curse Jesus (3).

2. The Spirit of God works in the church through gifting members of the body of Christ, the church, with abilities which further the mission of Christ in the world and enhance the 'common good' of the church (4-11).

3. The Spirit of God welds people together into one body of Christ, incorporating individual believers into the corporation or body of Christ. In doing this one Spirit makes one body of Christ, the Spirit of God's work is completely coherent with the work of Christ. Paul does not use the term 'weld' but 'baptized' which alludes to the outward physical activity which expresses the body-making activity of the Spirit: 'For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body' (13).

Let's remember that when Paul also mentions the kinds of different people being welded into the one body, 'Jews or Greeks, slaves or free' (13), he is making the point that the Spirit of God can bind together the kinds of people with the humanly speaking greatest and seemingly impossible-to-overcome differences.

John 20:19-23

Here I reprise my comments from a few weeks ago. Those comments were made then to expand on the meaning of the passage in a resurrection setting for a post-Easter sermon. Here they might more directly influence the course of a sermon on the day of Pentecost itself:

Familiar with Matthew's and Luke's ending to their gospels, and with Luke's beginning to Acts, we are not surprised that John incorporates into his narrative an act of commissioning for service and an act of bestowing the Holy Spirit on the disciples. What is surprising is that John offers this incorporation on the first day of resurrection rather than some time subsequently - though there is an interesting point to consider about Luke's Gospel ending and Luke's Acts beginning with the former offering a kind of very long single day of resurrection through to departure/ascension and the latter explicitly stating an interval of forty days between resurrection and ascension.

John offers his commission and bestowal of the Spirit in characteristic manner.

Throughout the gospel Jesus has been the one sent by the Father to do a special work in the world. Now this sending and its associated mission becomes that of the disciples: 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you' (21). Simply said, profoundly full of implication: our mission is the mission of Jesus; the Father sends the Son, the Son sends us because the Son has the Father's authority (before you know it, we have the Trinity)! Our mission is worldwide in scope (see John 3:16), it follows through a divine plan hatched since before the world began (see John 1:1-18) ... no pressure then!

The Holy Spirit has been coming into view as we read through the Gospel. In his final testament to the disciples (see chapters 14-16 and his final prayer for them, chapter 17), Jesus has promised the Spirit will assist them in various ways, principally in recalling to their minds all that he has taught them and opening up for them the significance of that teaching. Now, Jesus having died and been raised to life, and commissioned the disciples for service, the time comes for the bestowal of the promised Spirit: 'he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit".'

Again, simply said, but full of profound implications. What equipment does the church of God require to do God's work? Theological degrees, certificates for training undertaken, an iPhone, a photocopier, an internet connection and a car. All those are useful but the primary equipment is the Holy Spirit!

Two questions might then arise.

a. would we have then said what is said in verse 23 about forgiving sins? Wouldn't we expect, say, something about 'go and preach the gospel with power' or 'discern which gifts the Spirit has given you and get on with using them for God's glory'? Yet, when we pause and reflect on these words, we can see a profound connection between the work of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. 

What is the forgiveness of sins but the healing of the past which so often prevents people from living well in the present and rejoicing with hope for the future. The Holy Spirit comes to heal the fallen creation and to initiate the new creation of God. Those who receive the Holy Spirit have the power to enable this work of healing through forgiveness or withholding it (e.g. by keeping the gospel of grace to themselves).

b. If we call verse 22 the 'Johannine Pentecost', how does this fit with 'the Pentecost' of Acts 2, much celebrated as a specific event of bestowing the Holy Spirit fifty days after the day of resurrection?

- there is not a strict incompatibility as though this event happening in this way for ten disciples prohibits a different (but related) event happening for 120 disciples

- John tends to tell us about Jesus in his own Johannine way. 'Let John be John' is the title of a famous paper by Prof. James Dunn. Perhaps the Johannine Pentecost is the bestowal of the Holy Spirit told in John's manner, associated with John's version of the commissioning of the disciples. Luke's version is Luke's version. Thus we might reflect on what between and across the two accounts we learn.

- that the Spirit comes upon believers more than once (albeit with one of the many such occasions perhaps being more distinctive and memorable than others); even in Luke's Acts, the Holy Spirit is manifest on more than once occasion.

- the way of John telling the story of Jesus bestowing the Spirit must stand for a means of bestowing the Spirit which is available beyond this specific instance: Thomas was missing (for starters); no woman was present (contrast Acts 1-2).

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday 27 May 2017 - Either Ascension Day (transferred) or 7th Sunday of Easter

It is appropriate and possible to transfer the celebration of Ascension from Thursday 24 May to this Sunday, 27 May. Rather than make that decision for you, I offer below two sets of readings/comments.
(1) 7th Sunday of Easter = Sunday after Ascension
(2) Ascension Day

(1) 7th Sunday of Easter = Sunday after Ascension

Theme(s): Ascension, Departure, Suffering for Christ, Unity, Prayer for disciples

Sentence: This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11)

Collect:

Jesus Christ, you left your disciples,
only that you might send the Holy Spirit
to be our advocate.
Grant us the Spirit of truth
to convince the world that you are risen from the dead.

Readings:

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Commentary:

Acts 1:6-14

The ascension of Jesus is the departure of Jesus from everyday human experience of Jesus as a fellow human being, with whom meals could be eaten and conversations had. Our prime human reporter of the ascension as a specific event in history (i.e. one moment Jesus is present, the next he is not, after that there is no return) is Luke. To an extent Matthew is another witness as the ending of his gospel is consistent with a departure after the last speech of Jesus (28:16-20) but this witness is coloured by Matthew's variance from Luke as the former places the implied ascension in Galilee and the latter is very clear about it being on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Nevertheless an extraordinary connection is formed between the geographical variations across the two gospels when the disciples are addressed as "Men of Galilee" in 1:11.

From Luke's perspective, as narrator of what we could call "The Acts of Jesus" and its sequel "The Acts of the Holy Spirit," it is important to delineate the period of Jesus (conception to ascension) and the period of the Holy Spirit (anticipated in the life of Jesus as a man filled with the Holy Spirit, available to all believers from the day of Pentecost). This delineation occurs in chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles. With Jesus of Nazareth departed, the way is paved for the Holy Spirit to come in a visible and audible experience in Acts chapter 2.

For us, as followers of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, inclined (it seems, from current experience) to celebrate Christmas, Easter and Pentecost in colourful, festive ways, what does Ascension mean? Do we properly value it?

At the heart of the theology of Ascension lie two important considerations.

One, touched on in verse 11, is the connection between departure and return. The Ascension of Jesus is a departure of significance in its own right (our only direct experiences of Jesus in visible form are the occasional visions of Jesus granted to some believers) but it is also a departure which underlines a promise and a prediction in Jesus' own teaching: one day he will return. We are now between the Ascension and the Second Coming. To commemorate the Ascension should be to anticipate the Second Coming.

Two, the Ascension as departure is also an event of conclusion. The whole extraordinary character of the life of Jesus from miraculous conception to notable birth to special commissioning through baptism by John and the Spirit to death and resurrection is now brought to a conclusion. Jesus remains alive but not present to us in any kind of physical sense. With the ascension we celebrate the end of the earthly life of Jesus.

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

The virtues of God as provider and protector of his people are praised in this psalm.

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Continuing through 1 Peter, today's reading returns to a key theme woven through this letter: participation in the sufferings of Christ. To suffer for and with Christ is 'blessed' (4:14) and thus Christians can appropriately 'rejoice' when suffering (4:13).

Yet Christians need a certain kind of vigilance (5:6-11). Life should be lived in such a manner as to not incur deserved suffering (4:15) and to avoid suffering that might be a consequence of giving in to the devil's wiles (5:8-9).

All of which is worthwhile (5:10-11). With such a God on our side, we can confidently 'cast all [our] anxiety on him because he cares for [us]' (5:7).

John 17:1-11

Verse 11 is key to understanding why we have this reading on the Sunday after Ascension:

'I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you.'

John may not have a specific description of the event of ascension but he has a clear view of its occasion (see also 20:17).

This chapter is a final prayer of Jesus, sometimes called 'the high priestly prayer of Jesus.' Within the context of the gospel the content of the prayer is a masterful recollection of the great themes of the gospel (check out, for instance, words and phrases such as: glory, eternal life, sent, the hour has come, revealed, world, believe).

In continuation of our gospel readings in John through these weeks, the final verse reminds us of what is arguably the greatest theme in the gospel: the unity of the Father and the Son and the desire for unity between the disciples as a reflection of the continuity of divine life between God Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the disciples:

'... so that they may be one as we are one.'

(2) Ascension Day

Theme                  Christ risen, ascended and glorified        

Sentence             Lift up your heads you gates! Lift yourselves up you everlasting doors! That the king of glory may come in. (Psalm 24:7) [NZPB, p. 601]

Collect                  Eternal God,
                                By raising Jesus from the dead
                                You proclaimed his victory,
                                And by his ascension
                                You declared him king.
                                Lift up your hearts to heaven
                                That we may live and reign with him. Amen [NZPB, p. 601]          

Readings         Acts 1:1-11
                      Psalm 47                                     
Ephesians 1:15-23
                             Luke 24:44-53

Introduction: this post takes no view on whether Ascension Day should be celebrated on Ascension Day (in 2013, Thursday 9 May) or the Sunday after Ascension Day. It does however deal with Ascension Day readings on the basis that, most likely, Ascension Day is being celebrated on the Sunday afterwards.

Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53

I do not think this need be brought into a sermon, but it is fascinating to see how Luke deals with the last event in Jesus' physical presence on earth in his two texts, the ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts. There are similarities and there are differences.

In 'big picture' (or 'big theme') terms, each passage conveys two messages: the gospel mission of Jesus must now spread throughout the world, but first new empowerment through the Holy Spirit must come upon the disciples.

The 'event' in each passage is the departure, depicted physically as an 'ascent', of Jesus from the disciples. Never again, save in episodic visionary experiences will they see their Lord again.

Where does Jesus go to? Both texts answer "heaven". Later, Peter, in his Pentecost Day sermon will add "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). Obviously the physical talk of upwards travel to a place beyond the observable world of earth-and-space both assumes and contributes to an understanding that "heaven" is above us. It also offers a physical image to match the increase in glory and honour implicit in the idea that Jesus is now 'exalted' to the right hand of God (i.e. seated on a throne on the right side of the divine throne).

Ascension then is a celebration of both departure and exaltation, of the physical loss of Jesus to his followers and of the triumphant gain of Jesus exalted to glory in the realm of heaven. With exaltation the victory won in the resurrection, the defeat of the power of death as the last enemy against humanity is completed. With departure the door is open to a new history of God being present among God's people, God the Holy Spirit will dwell among them.

Yet this event is also about us. The departure of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come in power is integrated with the great commission. We misunderstand Ascension and its importance if we think of it as (say) a postscript to the life of Jesus, or a snapshot of the glory of the exalted Jesus. Ascension is also the beginning of a new era in our history, the time when we are responsible for the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ. Luke in both texts is keenly alert to this point. If (as some scholars of Luke's writings have supposed) Jesus has come in the middle of history, then we are now in its last period. That this is so, according to Luke, is underlined in Acts 1:11. Jesus has departed, but he will return.

Psalm 47

This is a fitting song of praise to God on this festive occasion.

Ephesians 1:15-23

Obviously verse 20 in this passage links the text to the theme of 'exaltation' which is an important aspect of the theology of Ascension.

The passage is part of a long introduction to the epistle in which Paul sets out a profound set of insights into salvation, Christ, Christ's relationship to those who believe in him, and the great purpose of God being worked out through history - all given in the context of prayer and thanksgiving for his readers.

There is a sermon in every verse of this passage! 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunday 21 May 2017 - Sixth Sunday of Easter

Theme(s):

Preaching the gospel today / The importance of the resurrection / Our identity in Christ / The promised gift of the Advocate

Sentence:

They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father (John 14:21a)

Collect:

Holy God, you feed us
with earthly and with spiritual food.
Deathless, unalterable, you have chosen us,
sinful as we are,
to hear your word and to proclaim your truth,
may we do so boldly and creatively,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Commentary:

Acts 17:22-31

Paul has a tough speaking assignment here. He has a listening audience in Athens but their ears want to hear novelties rather than the truth.

Astutely Paul takes up an opportunity within the existing worldview of the audience. In their love for religious speculation about a diverse array of gods and philosophies they have allowed for 'an unknown god' (23) as one of their 'objects of worship' (23). That is the ultimate 'covering the bases' around pleasing all possible gods! So Paul picks up the concept of an unknown god and adroitly makes this god the God of Jesus Christ whom he serves through preaching the gospel.

Actually, careful reading of the sermon shows that Paul continues to build bridges to his audience by not talking about Jesus whose name would have meant nothing to the Athenians.

Instead Paul talks about 'the God who made the world and everything in it' (24) - few would have disputed the general concept of a divine power as cause of the world's existence. He goes on to talk about the God of Adam and Abraham without invoking names and makes the point that this God is not confined to 'shrines made by human hands' (25). Offering an explanation for his gospel in this manner means we are unsurprised to find him quoting from local Greek poet-philosophers (Epimenides with shades of Plato, Aratus) (28).

Naturally Paul's God is different from the totality of gods already known to the Athenians so, eventually, he has to move his speech into new territory for his audience. If they agree with him thus far that there is a God who is their unknown god then they need to know this is not all about idle and interesting speculation: a day of reckoning is coming (31a) and it will be conducted by 'a man whom he has appointed' (31b) and the assurance that this is so is that this man - obviously Jesus - has been raised from the dead (31c).

Two reactions follow: scoffing and invitation to hear him again (32) with the result that some become believers (33). By the time we get to verse 33 we think Paul has exhausted himself, this preaching has been so tough!

Two things are worth pondering deeply here. One directly relating to the importance of Eastertide.

1. The resurrection of Jesus is vital to Paul's argument. He speaks to an audience with a largely cyclical understanding of time (things go round and round and never come to an end). To them he says, Time is coming to an end; history has a point of completion. In support of that claim he cites a fact of history they are not aware of: God's appointed agent of judgment has been raised from the dead. The resurrection is not incidental to the story of Jesus. It is not just a happy ending after a very sad death: it is the decisive turning point in the plans and purpose of God for human history.

2. In a Godless Kiwi society, which is also pretty ignorant of who Jesus was and is (though prone to use his name profanely), what does Paul model in preaching the gospel which we could use in our context?

Psalm 66:8-20

The psalmist never gives up his faith, even though the toughest times are really tough. In fact, the psalmist can go a bit further: God has answered his prayers and done things for him. He will tell any who listen about this.

With a small amount of tongue in cheek, verse 12b is the favourite verse of the Anglican church. Perhaps especially in this past week when the Anglican church of these islands has resolved in its General Synod that we will be a church with a very wide view on seemingly opposing ideas, this verse especially applies: "you have brought us out to a spacious place."

1 Peter 3:13-22

We continue our reading through 1 Peter having jumped over 3:1-12. Why are the hard bits of the Bible left out of the lectionary?

This passage begins innocuously (13). This letter is addressed to Christians scattered, likely through persecution, so verse 14 likely applies. In which case, verse 15 is challenging: whether it is your mates or your persecutors asking you what makes you tick as a Christian,

'Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you'.

Obviously this implies that a sign of being a Christian is that we are ever hopeful. In practical terms that means we do not whinge, whine, or harp back in terms of the good old days. Instead we are always open to the future, believing that under God it will be better than today.

Verse 16 then says something about the character of our witness and the importance of keeping a 'clear conscience' in order that our persecutors may be put to shame. A comment in verse 17 about suffering for doing good then leads to an exposition of Christ and his suffering, picking up a theme already introduced in 2:21ff.

But here we are introduced to some thinking about what happened at the time of Christ's death which is unique to the New Testament: Christ as the risen spirit descended to the disobedient (i.e. evil) 'spirits in prison' (19-20). In turn this is linked to Noah and that leads to the theme of 'saved through water' (20) and thus to baptism (21). This passage is like a fast moving sermon in which many topics are introduced briefly, touched on profoundly, but never lingered on - not necessarily a great way to preach!

Verse 21 importantly says that Noah and his family's experience 'prefigures' baptism; and also says that 'baptism ... now saves you'. But the saving power of baptism does not lie in its literal effects, 'removal of dirt from the body' but in what it symbolises 'as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ'. That is, we are saved by what Christ has done for us, suffering 'for sins once for all ... in order to bring you to God' (18), a matter of the meaning of the Christ which is made apparent because Christ was raised to new life, as we now also are raised to new life. Baptism is the action done to believers which signifies what Christ has done for us.

The final verse is a clause of praise to this saving Christ who has suffered for us (22).

John 14:15-21

Continuing from last week's reading, Jesus, speaking in the hours before his death, looking ahead to where death will take him, and what he brings back after the resurrection to his disciples, in particular a life in which they are identified with him as he is identified with the Father, turns to practicalities of discipleship.

1. 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments' (15). This love is not a state of emotion but a series of acts of the will.

2. There will be a gift to the disciples of 'another Advocate' i.e. of another one to walk alongside them (lit: paraclete) as Jesus has been doing (16). This permanent presence is 'the Spirit of truth' or the Holy Spirit (17) who is beyond the world's comprehension (because they have not entrusted themselves to Jesus Christ so they cannot know the alternative who will be and do what Christ did) and will abide with them and will be in them (see, e.g., John 6).

Thus Jesus can say that he will not leave the disciples orphaned because, in the Spirit, 'I am coming to you' (18). Implicit here is also the coming or return of Jesus - temporarily - after the resurrection, which is also predicted in verse 19.

3. Most importantly, in respect of the resurrection, 'because I live, you also will live' (19b). As a consequence the disciples will, once and for all, understand the relationship - central to the characteristic manner of presentation of Jesus in this gospel - between the Father and the Son and the Son and the disciples (20). This is tied to the beginning of the passage in verse 21.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunday 14 May 2017 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

Theme(s): I am the way, the truth and the life. The people of God. A holy nation. The first martyr.

Sentence: Jesus said, If you dwell within the revelation I have brought, you are indeed my disciples; you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31-32)

Collect:

Eternal God,
your Son Jesus Christ
is the way, the truth and the life for all creation;
grant us grace to walk in his way,
to rejoice in his truth,
and to share his risen life;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Commentary:

Acts 7:55-60

Stephen becomes the first martyr of the fledgling Christian movement after the ascension of Jesus.

In Luke's telling of the dying of Stephen he makes the remarkable and inspiring claim that Stephen was 'filled with the Holy Spirit' and 'gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God' (55) His basis for doing so is Stephen's own words in verse 56. Violent and horrible though his death was, it is worth reading Luke carefully at this point. The rage against Stephen is the rage of those provoked on several counts by claims about the death and resurrection of Jesus. They have been sorely accused by their victim of disobeying God and of betraying and murdering the Righteous One of God. If he is right about the status of Jesus as vindicated at God's right hand then they are facing the wrath of God for their sins. They threw the stones which killed him as an intense reaction to Stephen's bold but highly provocative and (justly) accusatory sermon.

By contrast Stephen himself is Christ like (compare verse 60 with Luke 23:34).

But the death of Stephen is the beginning of Luke's story of Saul. He will pick up where the stone throwers left off and persecute the new movement. But, like Stephen at his death, he will have a visionary encounter with the risen Christ and everything will change for him in an instant. Stephen's death is not in vain since we can rightly presume that it made an unsettling impact on Saul.

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

These verses, simply, are woven into the story of Stephen's death and shed light on the character of the martyr who entrusts everything about suffering evil into the hands of God who is good.

1 Peter 2:2-10

Not sure why verse one is omitted! We could do with ridding ourselves of malice, guile etc.

Peter's language here is steeped in the Old Testament with his talk of a living stone(s), a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, spiritual sacrifices, actual citations from the Old Testament and talk of his readers - scattered Christians - being a chosen race and so on. But what we find as we observe carefully is that this is (so to speak) the Old Testament with a Christian revision.

There is no talk here of a Temple dedicated to Christ built with stones, nor of animals being sacrificed inside it, nor of a priesthood dependent on belonging to the tribe of Aaron nor of a priesthood separate to the rest of the believers. 'God's own people' (9) are now those who belong to Jesus Christ (as set out in chapter 1). The language of the Old Testament, directly cited or indirectly employed makes the point that the people of God in the Old Testament are now redefined in terms of a new covenant.

Although Peter does not specifically use the word 'covenant' here (we read the Epistle to the Hebrews to find exposition of the redefined people of God in the context of 'covenant'), the idea is implied in talk of 'a chosen race ... once you were not a people, but now you are God's people' (9-10).

Theologically this is all very exciting. For a preacher, however, there could be some challenges.

Does the average person in the pew in an age when the Bible, seemingly, is less well known, find their world is rocked when told that they are 'a holy nation' let alone 'living stones'?

The challenge here, perhaps, is to focus on what it means to be God's people, perhaps even God's gang or God's team, to find language to communicate both what an amazing team it is to belong to, what an unimaginable price was paid so we could join the gang (see 1:18-19).

In many ways the remainder of Peter's letter is focused on what God expects of God's people and how they will live.

John 14:1-14

John presents us with Jesus drawing closer to his death. Is John himself drawing closer to his death as an old man? Has he shaped this account of Jesus' own will and testament to his disciples so as to speak to members of the Johannine community?

In these last hours of Jesus' life he sets out to communicate some important truths to the disciples who remain, at this point, uncomprehending of key matters in the revelation of God which Jesus has taught (see verse 8).

First, Jesus says that his disciples are not to be troubled in their hearts (1). They are to believe in God and to believe in Jesus. The future need not trouble them because Jesus has it in hand. He is going from them but for purposes which will benefit them (2-3). Most importantly, Jesus 'will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you will be also' (3, see Matthew 28:20).

We can easily imagine Thomas being quite confused by all this (5). Moreover he had no idea what kind of journey or place that Jesus was talking about.

Jesus is undeterred and remains focused on the theology he wishes to impart rather than yield to some kind of geography lesson! 'I am the way, the truth and the life ...' (6) In these words John sums up his gospel. Jesus is the way to the Father, the source of true truth and life lived abundantly for eternity. That is the message of the gospel and here and elsewhere the gospel does not back away from presenting Jesus as the one source of life and truth, as the one way to the Father.

What Jesus goes on to say, verses 8-11, also goes to the heart of the gospel and its message: Jesus is the way to the Father because when we see Jesus we see the Father (9) and we see the Father through Jesus because of their unique relationship, 'I am in the Father and the Father is in me' (10). This has been previewed for us in the Prologue to the gospel in 1:14-18.

There is an implication to this relationship of identity between Father and Son. What Jesus has been saying is not his own words, a kind of interpretation of the truth. No, it is the truth itself, Jesus can say 'I am the truth' because 'The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works' (10)

Interestingly 'words' at the beginning of the sentence in verse 10 is balanced not by a repetition of the word but by the use of 'works': Jesus has spoken by word and deed (i.e. the signs he has performed) all of which is the working of God in his life, giving Jesus the words to say and working through him the signs which direct people to the Father.

What is then reported to us, verses 12-14 carries an assumption that the one who believes Jesus is not an assenter to what Jesus says or a professor of loyalty to Jesus. The believer in Jesus is him or herself drawn into a relationship with Jesus similar to his relationship to the Father: the believer dwells in Jesus and Jesus in the believer (see also, for instance, John 6 or 15). Thus the believer can expect to the things that Jesus has been doing, if not greater things. Here John reflects something about the Luke-Acts composition in which the believers in Acts do the mighty works which Jesus did in Luke.

For ourselves we need to take care to understand the promises here carefully. Verse 14 within context does not mean that if I want a new car for Christmas I just ask and expect to get it (sometimes this manner of expectation is associated with the so-called 'prosperity gospel'). It means that when 'I am in Christ and Christ is in me' I should expect Christ to work in and through me as Christ himself once worked. When we pray for healing, people will be healed; when we command deliverance from demons, demons will be expelled; when we break bread amidst hungry people, hunger will be satisfied.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Sunday 7 May 2017 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

Theme                  Jesus the Good Shepherd

Sentence             Shine forth from your throne upon the cherubim; restore us O God; show us the light of your face and we shall be saved (Psalm 80:1, 3) [NZPB, p. 597]

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. [NZPB, p. 598] 

Readings:

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Commentary:

Acts 2:42-47

There is no doubt in my mind that Luke at certain points in his history of the fledgling Christian movement sets out a vision for how the church should be at its best, in its life together (e.g. here) and in its work engaging the world in God directed mission (e.g. Acts 11, 13). (This is not to say that Luke invented these ideal moments. We can well believe that the early church did have an amazing period of wonderful, harmonious, radical outpouring of love for one another. Such moments happen - I have been privileged myself to experience one or two - and I am sure Luke reports to us what happened. But he does so in a way which quietly implies to his readers through the generations: this is what church should look like!)

Lest we beat up on ourselves for falling short today of the vision painted here, let's note all the things which remain at the core of church life.

Verse 42 continues to this day through ministry of Word and Sacrament in our services of Holy Communion = Holy Fellowship (including our fellowship over a cuppa afterwards) in which we hear the apostles' teaching, break bread and pray together.

What can be harder to find today are 'many wonders and signs' (43). But wonders and signs are not unknown to the history of the church, and in my own lifetime I have experience of preachers who preached and whose message was accompanied by miracles.

Except in monasteries and in some exceptional Christian communities it seems impossible to find churches where the believers have 'all things in common' let alone selling all possessions and distributing to the poor (44-45). However all around the world the church remains at the forefront of charitable works for the benefit of the poor. Thankfully Christians from a global perspective are being 'added to [our] number those who [are] being saved' (47) but in the Western world it is rare for this to be the experience of all local churches.

In verse 46 we have a slight interpretational issue around 'they broke bread at home' (or 'they broke bread from house to house'). Is this a reference to breaking bread in imitation of the Last Supper or a reference to shared hospitality (noting 'at their food with glad and generous hearts') or both?

I suggest the reference is both to shared hospitality and to the Lord's Supper. The impression we then get from verse 46 is the early believers going to the Temple to pray and praise (as they were used to doing) but going to each other's homes to share hospitality together both in the usual way of shared meals and in particular acts of celebrating the risen Lord's presence with them through remembering his death for their sakes (a new custom, and one not welcomed by the Temple).

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, yet 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 depends entirely on  who our shepherd is, the Lord.

1 Peter 2:19-25

Arguments rage (or sputter) about 'what happened on the cross, that is, what was God doing in and through the crucifixion of Jesus' with various 'theologies of the cross' being proposed. In this passage we effectively have two theologies set out.

(1) Jesus set an example: on the cross: Christ suffered 'leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps' (21). The prelude to this statement (19-20) sets out the value of enduring suffering but it is a pity that the lectionary which tends to follow a policy of omitting embarrassing verses omits the starting point for this exhortation: how slaves should behave (18). The follow up to the statement (23) sets out some details of Christ's suffering: 'when he was abused ... when he suffered ...'. Perhaps the most important thing each Christian can do in every situation is to follow Christ as 'he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly' (23).

(2) Jesus bore our sins: as Christ suffered on the cross (setting us an example,) 
'He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed' (24). 
On the one hand this is very good news: by bearing our sins, Christ sets us free and heals us - good news for those who feel trapped by sins, burdened by the weight of them, and wounded and hurt by them (if not by the sins of others against us). On the other hand, these verses give no direct clues as to how we are set free and healed: is it through Christ taking on himself the punishment we are due for these sins (Isaiah 53:5)? Is Christ made sin so that we might be unmade as sinners and reconciled to God (see 1 Corinthians 5:20-21)?

An indirect clue is given through the words 'by his wounds you have been healed (24) which cite Isaiah 53:5 and thus take us to the passage known as one of the 'songs of the suffering servant', Isaiah 53:5-12. Here I do not have time to discuss that passage but reflection on it could form part of preparing to preach on this passage in 1 Peter.

Finally, note verse 25 which connects with the theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd in both Psalm and Gospel readings.

John 10:1-10

Why, so soon after Easter, are we contemplating Jesus the good shepherd (10:11) in  a passage occurring before the death of Jesus according to John's Gospel? One answer lies in the last verse of our epistle reading: the apostles connected the work of Jesus in dying and rising to new life to his role as great pastor/shepherd of the church/flock of God - see also 1 Peter 5:4; Hebrews 13:20; Revelation 7:17 (Christ the sacrificial Lamb becomes the shepherd).

The interpretive key to the passage lies in the unusual 'I am' statement in verse 7 and 9: 'I am the gate (for the sheep)'. This is explained in the next phrase in verse 9, 'Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture'. Jesus is the unique agent or broker of salvation and nurture. (In Kiwi terms we might explore the image of a stock agent who has an exclusive contract with the farmer to take his sheep to a new farm with better (i.e. 'abundant', see v. 10) pasture).

With this image established the verses before and after the statement 'I am the gate' can be understood as Jesus in competition with false claimants to be 'shepherds'. Likely John has in mind here the competing claims of rabbis in the first century as the future of Judaism post the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was being worked out. But we should not exclude the claims of teachers of various philosophies in the Greek and Roman worlds which collided with Judaism and nascent Christianity around the Mediterranean. In the background is talk among the prophets of false and true shepherds for God's people (see especially Ezekiel 34:11-16).

Note the way in which John blithely mixes together his metaphors. In verse 3 the gatekeeper is separate to the shepherd (one might even think of John the Baptist as the gatekeeper) but by verse 7 and 9 the shepherd and the gate itself are fused together in the one person of Jesus!

Finally, this exposition of the Shepherd leads to a beautiful summation of the good news of Jesus Christ:

'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly' (10).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday 30 April 2017 - Third Sunday of Easter

Themes: Reality of the risen Jesus. New, radical community of the risen Lord. Resurrection joy.

Sentence: In your constant love, O Lord, you have led the people whom you ransomed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy dwelling place. (Exodus 15:13)

Collect:

God of peace,
by the blood of the eternal covenant
you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,
that great shepherd of the sheep;
make us perfect in every good work,
and work in us that which is pleasing and good;
through Jesus Christ to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Commentary:

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Jesus has risen from the dead (36). So what? Peter is a model sermon giver because he offers the important answer every sermon should offer to the 'so what?' question which every sermon should raise.

Perhaps a little differently to sermons we hear, Peter is helped to ask the question because his hearers interrupt the sermon and ask it for him! "Brothers, what should we do?" (37)

Peter does not offer fifty shades of discipleship grey. He tells it like it is. Two actions with a consequential promise (38).

Repent
Be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven
You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit

In our language today this might be expressed as:

Make a decision to walk in God's ways with Jesus as your boss and stop being self-centred

Be baptised as an action which makes public your decision to walk in God's ways (or, if already baptised, let's find another way to express publicly your decision)

You will experience God's powerful Holy Spirit working in your life, empowering you to make good the decision you are making.

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

Another way of responding to the resurrection of our Lord is in praise. These verses set out, from another time and situation, the psalmist's joy at having a near death and therefore near resurrection experience (1-4).

How can the psalmist repay the Lord for his saving him? The second part of the reading is summed up in verse 17, "I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice."

1 Peter 1:17-23

Another way of answering the 'So what?' question from the resurrection narrative is put in these verses:

"live in reverent fear in the time of your exile" (17).

 Around this general direction (which will receive some detailing of specifics as the letter continues), Peter offers a theology in which God as Father is 'judge' (17a), believers/readers 'know' that they have been 'ransomed' by something more precious than 'silver or gold' (18). That ransom was paid 'with the precious blood of Christ' (19). In this theology the ransom was no random event. Rather Christ 'was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for our sake' (20).

The generality of 'live in reverent fear in the time of your exile' is unpacked with one further general direction in verse 22 (with particular directions not far away in chapter 2). Note the way in which Peter does not lay down rules or instructions for living so much as implications from experience of life in Christ:

"Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual lovelove one another deeply from the heart."

The passage then finishes with yet further theological statement about Christian experience,

"You have been born anew ..." (23).

For us, preaching from this passage, the So what? or So whats? are laid out for us. In this season of Easter, grasping what it means that Christ died for us and that God then raised the dead Christ from the dead, we are to live in reverent fear during these days, which includes living with deep mutual love for fellow believers.

If we pop futher down the page to chapter 2 and begin reading
"Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice and all guile, insincerity, envy and all slander ..."
we begin to understand the specifics of both living in reverent fear before God as judge and loving one another deeply from the heart.

Luke 24:13-35 On the road to Emmaus

On any reckoning Luke excels himself as the teller of stories of Jesus.

This is actually one of the longer episodes in the life of Jesus and that allows Luke to build in lots of narratival detail.

Importantly the length of the story allows Luke to both build up to a climactic appearance-and-recognition of the risen Jesus to two disciples and to set out, via the long conversation between the not-yet-recognised Jesus and the two, both the story of the resurrection in relation to the ministry of Jesus (19-24) and the story of the resurrection in relation to the revelation of God through "Moses and all the prophets" (25-27).

Since this story is told at the end of the gospel, Luke cleverly utilises the long conversation to be part of the conclusion of the gospel, setting the whole story of Jesus life, death and rising again into the larger story of God and God's people Israel (see also 24:44-47).

The last part of the story, in which the journey having ended, the two disciples press the stranger to stay with them for a meal, is beautifully told. It is hard for us, the readers, not to have our hearts "burning within us" (32) as we read through the build up to the moment of recognition (31).

This part of the story is clearly an encouragement to believers in every age because we too can sense the risen Jesus speaking to us through the opening of the Scriptures, and a significant experience for most believers in their ongoing encounter with the risen Christ is participation in the Lord's Supper, receiving the bread and the wine as the body and blood of Christ.

A final point to note. In this story, of opening of Scripture and breaking of bread, we find a model for Christian worship, for ministry of the Word and ministry of the Sacrament, for reading the Bible together and having it expounded while also sharing bread together after the bread has been taken, blessed and broken.

Incidentally, when Luke tells us that "he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures" he uses a Greek word which gives us our modern word, hermeneutics, the art and science of understanding the Bible. Every preacher's task is to
"interpret to disciples the things about Christ in all the Scriptures."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Sunday 23rd April 2017 - Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday)

Theme(s): Resurrection. New life in Christ. Our mission, God's gift of the Holy Spirit. Victory in Christ. Our inheritance in Christ.

Sentence: Let us give thanks to the Father who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Alleluia! (Colossians 1:12 (adapted))

Collect:

Almighty God
by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
you have broken the power of death
and brought life and immortality to light;
grant that we who have been raised with him
may triumph over all temptation
and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory;
through him who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Commentary:

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Peter, preaching on the Day of Pentecost, sets out that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Note the emphasis Peter puts in the resurrection being a release of Jesus from the power of death (24).

When debates with sceptics involve doubts about whether the tomb of Jesus became empty because the body of Jesus was raised up to new life, note the enigmatic description in verse 29. There Peter describes David - the writer of the psalm which prophetically looks ahead to the resurrection - as

'both died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day'. 

He doesn't quite say it, but the implication is there: David died, we know where his tomb is, we can enter that tomb and touch his bones; whereas Jesus died, we know where his tomb is, we can enter that tomb but we cannot touch his bones for 'he is not there' (see Mark 16:6).

Psalm 16

This lovely psalm - a portion of which is cited in the Acts reading above - needs little explanation or attention paid to its details. Save that the last two verses express a hope in God's saving power beyond the grave which are consistent with the later developed doctrine of the resurrection for (some) Jews and then for Christians.

When Paul claimed that Jesus was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:4) did he have these (as well as other) verses in mind?

1 Peter 1:3-9

What is the importance of the resurrection of Jesus?

In these verses, Peter gets his whole epistle going to Christian readers, an epistle written mostly to encourage the readers through tough and difficult days. He launches straight in to the basis for hope in the face of troubles, but does so with a homage to God:

'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he had given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead ...' (3)

The importance of the resurrection of Jesus is that it has great relevance to us who believe: through God's mercy we have new birth into a living hope. This hope is life-giving because the resurrection of Jesus is a promise that we one day will inherit something spectacularly magnificent (imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for us).

Further, this inheritance is sure because the power of God, the same power which raised Jesus from the dead, protects us through difficult times until this inheritance, also known as 'a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time' (5), is granted to us.

In other language (influenced by many other parts of the New Testament), the resurrection of Jesus offers new life now which one day will become complete: everlasting, abundant life. The experience of that life now and the hope of that fullness to come enlivens us, especially when the going gets tough between now and then.

Finally, note the importance of 'faith' (5, 7): God has raised Jesus from the dead. Our response of faith, entrusting our lives to God, believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (see notes below) is both crucial to receiving the blessing of life through the resurrected Christ and vital for maintaining relationship with life through days of testing. In fact, our faith itself is being tested. Its genuineness is important to God. One day it will result in 'praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed' (7).

John 20:19-31

There is a lot going on in this passage! In one passage we have two significant appearances of the risen Jesus (to the Ten, to Thomas with the other ten disciples), the Johannine commissioning of the disciples for mission (21-23), the (so called) Johannine Pentecost (22), and the purpose of the whole gospel (30-31).

Naturally, one Sunday after Easter Day itself, we might prefer to focus on the two resurrection stories and treat the other themes in passing. Yet we could appropriately use this Sunday to focus on what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means for us today and how we live as Christians.

The two appearance stories are masterfully told. The disciples are behind locked doors. Why? 'for fear of the Jews' (19) But this detail serves to tell us something about the body or 'body' of the risen Jesus: it is not his normal pre-death body, Jesus has not been raised as Lazarus was, he has a new body, it can appear at will in rooms otherwise locked to the ordinary human body. Yet this body still bears marks of the pre-death body and carries the possibility of feeling specific marks (indentations) on that body (20, 27). The risen Jesus is in a 'resurrection body', not in an ordinary body now revived and resuscitated.

With the second story, lines of continuity connect it with the first story but this time Thomas is in view. Assuring this doubting believer that Jesus really and truly has been raised from the dead is an assurance for all future readers with doubts that

(a) they do not need to doubt, and

(b) their situation as believers never having met Jesus of Nazareth (pre-death or post-death) is more blessed than the situation of those who did meet him.

Familiar with Matthew's and Luke's ending to their gospels, and with Luke's beginning to Acts, we are not surprised that John incorporates into his narrative an act of commissioning for service and an act of bestowing the Holy Spirit on the disciples.

What is surprising is that John offers this incorporation on the first day of resurrection rather than some time subsequently - though there is an interesting point of comparison to consider: Luke's Gospel ending offers a kind of very long single day of resurrection through to departure/ascension. (By contrast, Luke writing the first chapter of Acts offers a different sense of time passing, explicitly stating there was an interval of forty days between resurrection and ascension.

John offers his commission and bestowal of the Spirit in characteristic Johannine manner.

Throughout the gospel Jesus has been the one sent by the Father to do a special work in the world. Now this sending and its associated mission becomes that of the disciples: 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you' (21). Simply said, profoundly full of implication: our mission is the mission of Jesus; the Father sends the Son, the Son sends us because the Son has the Father's authority (before you know it, we have the Trinity)! Our mission is worldwide in scope (see John 3:16), it follows through a divine plan hatched since before the world began (see John 1:1-18) ... no pressure then!

The Holy Spirit has been coming into view as we read through the Gospel. In his final testament to the disciples (see chapters 14-16 and his final prayer for them, chapter 17), Jesus has promised the Spirit will assist them in various ways, principally in recalling to their minds all that he has taught them and opening up for them the significance of that teaching. Now, Jesus having died and been raised to life, and commissioned the disciples for service, the time comes for the bestowal of the promised Spirit:

'he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit".'

Again, simply said, but full of profound implications. What equipment does the church of God require to do God's work? Theological degrees, certificates for training undertaken, an iPhone, a photocopier, an internet connection and a car is a possible answer. All those are useful but the primary equipment is the Holy Spirit!

Two questions might then arise.

a. would we have then said what is said in verse 23 about forgiving sins?

Wouldn't we expect, say, something about 'go and preach the gospel with power' or 'discern which gifts the Spirit has given you and get on with using them for God's glory'?

Yet, when we pause and reflect on thee words said in verse 23, we can see a profound connection between the work of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. What is the forgiveness of sins but the healing of the past which so often prevents people from living well in the present and rejoicing with hope for the future. The Holy Spirit comes to heal the fallen creation and to initiate the new creation of God. Those who receive the Holy Spirit have the power to enable this work of healing through forgiveness or withholding it (e.g. by keeping the gospel of grace to themselves).

b. If we call verse 22 the 'Johannine Pentecost', how does this fit with 'the Pentecost' of Acts 2, much celebrated as a specific event of bestowing the Holy Spirit fifty days after the day of resurrection?

- there is not a strict incompatibility as though this event happening in this way for ten disciples prohibits a different (but related) event happening for 120 disciples

- John tends to tell us about Jesus in his own Johannine way. 'Let John be John' is the title of a famous paper by Prof. James Dunn. Perhaps the Johannine Pentecost is the bestowal of the Holy Spirit told in John's manner, associated with John's version of the commissioning of the disciples. Luke's version is Luke's version.

- the Spirit comes upon believers more than once (albeit with one of the many such occasions perhaps being more distinctive and memorable than others); even in Luke's Acts, the Holy Spirit is manifest on more than once occasion.

- the way of John telling the story of Jesus bestowing the Spirit must stand for a means of bestowing the Spirit which is available beyond this specific instance: Thomas was missing (for starters); no woman was present (contrast Acts 1-2).

So, finally (with much left unsaid here, see commentaries ...) there are the last two verses of the passage to consider.

John offers a kind of "bog standard" cliche at the end of his story (30): I could have told you more but I have run out of space.

On the one hand that is a humble acknowledgement of the limitations of his project; on the other hand that allows his readers freedom to value and appreciate many other stories about Jesus (especially those told in other gospels circulating through the churches).

Then in verse 31, John  gives a summarizing purpose for what he has told us about, 'But these are written ...'

On a plain reading of what follows, John has written an essentially evangelistic gospel, a gospel for non-believers with the purpose that they would 'come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah ... and that through believing you may have life in his name'.

Yet a non-believer is taken through some amazing material, which has given believers much food for thought as they have read the gospel. Is it possible that John is also saying to believers who read the gospel,'This is for you too, that your belief might grow stronger and your experience of life in Christ grow deeper'?

Either way, note that John is very clear about what a 'believer' believes: 'that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.' A believer is more than someone who thinks highly of Jesus and sets out to live like Jesus' example and according to his teaching. A believer believes something distinctive and potentially challenging (as it was and is, e.g. for Jews then, for Muslims subsequently), that Jesus is a specific being with a definitive identity: 'the Messiah, the Son of God'.

Further, John clearly links the benefits of belief ('life in his name') with the content of the believers' confession, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

Finally, note the theme of 'life' making its presence felt here. Throughout the gospel Jesus has offered life or eternal life to people. His signs have been signs of that life. The signs have always been some kind of transformation (water to wine, blindness to sight, etc) in which life has come to the recipients even as the signs point to the greater and deeper transformation of the whole of life offered by Jesus to believers.

In John's Gospel the resurrection of Jesus is the final and most complete sign of the power of God to change lives.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sunday 16 April 2017 - Pascha!

Theme(s): Christ is risen. Jesus risen from the dead. The resurrection. Victory over death.The empty tomb.

Sentence:

Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Alleluia! (Luke 24:34; Revelation 1:6)

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:

Note that the NZL gives a few ORs. I have not found a way to bend the space-time continuum to my advantage so I offer 'my choice' below rather than commentary on all possible readings!

Acts 10:34-43*
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10


Commentary:

Acts 10:34-43

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."

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

We have already used this psalm on Palm Sunday (principally verses 26-29). Here we repeat its reading in our service because it speaks to the triumph of God over death in raising his Son: verses 17, 18, 22 in particular. 

In the reality of Jesus' life and death there is variation from the psalm: Jesus was given over to death. But his death was not permanent, he has not been given over to the state of death in perpetuity. With the psalmist Jesus could say, verses 17-18,

"I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death."

Our response on this Easter Day would then be verse 24:

"This is the day which the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Colossians 3:1-4

What does the resurrection mean for Christian believers? What difference does it make to our lives, or for our lives?

Sometimes we can talk as though the resurrection of Christ is a kind of 'life assurance' certificate: when we die we will live again; when life on earth ends, life in heaven continues. Whew! Thanks Jesus for rising from the dead.

Now there is an important truth about the resurrection of the dead in the paragraph above: Jesus rose first so we can rise too. We do not need to fear death and we can now see death as the gate of glory.

But that is not all. There is much much more than an eternal life assurance scheme involved in our understanding of the meaning of Christ's resurrection. One reason we say that is our passage from Colossians. Here Paul refers back to (at least) Colossians 2:12,

"when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead."

Paul is saying that even as we live our ordinary life in our physical bodies, when our lives are connected with Christ through faith and baptism, a burial occurs which reflects our state before God as sinners, "you were dead in trespasses" (2:13) and a resurrection occurs in which "God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses" (2:13).

What we need to understand is that Paul is not speaking metaphorically (i.e. nothing has actually changed about you): he sees a reality in which the life of Christ becomes the life of the believer (e.g. 2:9-10), Christ lives in us, we live 'in Christ'.

Now to Colossians 3:1-4, in particular verses 1-2: a few verses previously Paul has said his readers have 'died to the elemental spirits of the universe' (2:20), now he offers a similar reflection in a different direction, 'you have been raised with Christ' (3:1). This reality, of being raised now with Christ, even though it will be completed later (3:4) at least in one sense occurs in a realm our lives live in which is not everyday, ordinary life as we know it (waking up, having breakfast, going to work or to the shops or the gym ...), so Paul says that that reality needs to be connected to the reality of everyday life. Thus,

"So if you have been raised with Christ (i.e meaning, Since you have been raised with Christ) seek the things that are above ... set your minds on things that are above ... (going on to verse 5) put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly ... (then to verse 8) now you must get rid of all such things ..."

That is, as raised-with-Christ-people live your lives in a raised-with-Christ-like-way: minds attuned to heaven, sin put away, dark deeds which make you dead in your trespasses gotten rid of.

Note that this is a long way from any kind of 'Here is the book of rules, read them, obey them' way of life. Paul's instruction here is to 'become what you are'. That is, 'You have a new reality to your earthly lives, because you now live simultaneously ordinary human life (in a body destined to physical death) and extraordinary divine life (in which you are raised to new life in Christ), so live what you are becoming rather than what everyone else around you is doing.'

Back to Colossians 3:3-4: in these verses Paul characterises the new reality of life in Christ in terms of 'hiddenness'. You have died (to sin, to your old self, to your old way of life), he says, and the fullness of what you are now becoming is not yet seem, 'your life is hidden with Christ in God'. The day is yet coming, verse 4, when this fullness of life, that is, the very life of Christ itself, is going to be revealed. On that day, 'you also will be revealed with him in glory.'

Matthew 28:1-10

A reality of engaging with the stories of the resurrection in the gospels and Acts is that we encounter stories which raise many questions, perhaps even more questions than the questions which the narratives do answer.

With Mark's Gospel's (shorter) account, 16:1-8, for instance, we are left with the question, 'When did the disciples actually encounter the risen Jesus?' and 'Why are we not told about the encounters?'

Matthew, perhaps the next written gospel after Mark, and almost certainly using Mark's Gospel as a source, offers us a narrative in which the disciples do encounter the risen Jesus. But the narrative still raises some unanswered questions!

As we read through verses 1 to 10, doing so with Mark's account alongside, we see familiar elements to the story, which are also found (with variations) in Luke and John: e.g. women visiting the tomb on the day after the sabbath, the tomb being empty, a messenger informing the initial visitors as to what has happened.

But we find new elements, some of which are only found in Matthew's Gospel, including, an earthquake, an angel sitting on the stone guarding the entrance to the tomb, glorious appearance of the angel, description of what happens to the guards.

At least one detail is a little odd within the structure of the narrative itself: the angel tells the women to go tell his disciples that he will see them in Galilee (7) implying no appearances in Jerusalem itself but Jesus then appears to the women as they rush from the scene (9-10). However, note that this is not a contradiction per se: the message re Galilee is to the disciples, the appearance is to the women.

Nevertheless, as we read across all four gospels, Matthew and Mark turn out to be distinctive re confining Jesus' appearance(s) to the disciples to Galilee whereas Luke and John offer accounts in which Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem (or nearby), with John offering an additional appearance in Galilee (John 21). How do we explain that?

Simply, the gospel writers are doing two things simultaneously as they tell us about the resurrection. One, they tell us about the resurrection; two, they are concluding their gospels.

For Matthew and Mark, a story which begins with Jesus in Galilee at the beginning of his ministry must end with Jesus in Galilee.

For Luke and John, with their respective concerns to place Jerusalem at the centre of their narratives (think of Luke's interest in Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, from 9:51 onwards; think of John's stories of Jesus returning again and again to Jerusalem), their accounts present Jesus appearing alive and well in the place where he had been killed, in the city most central to God's plan for Israel. (With John 21's Galilee account, we could think of John acknowledging Matthew and Mark's interest in Galilee appearances also).

Back to Matthew: if we read on to 28:11-15  we find Matthew answering a question which must have troubled some of his readers, Was the empty tomb due to the disciples stealing the body? 'No,' says Matthew. Presumably this question did not trouble the readers of Mark, Luke and John. But if Matthew in this last chapter answers some questions such as that, as noted above, he also raises questions which are difficult to answer. For instance, why does Jesus, when he appears to the women, essentially repeat the message of the angel to them? They were on the way to repeat the angel's message to the disciples: it does not seem that they needed the message being reinforced!

Yet if we can hold those questions but not get stuck on them, the narrative yields important themes for reflection as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord:

- the women left the tomb 'with fear and great joy' (8): if we have no fear as we meet the risen Jesus, are we underestimating the shattering impact of death being overcome? if we have no joy at hearing the news of Jesus being raised from the dead, have we lost sight of how wonderful and amazing this news is?

- the women 'came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him' (9): what is the proper response to the risen Jesus in our midst? It is certainly not to debate and discuss all the details of the varied narratives across the gospels and Acts! No. The proper response is to worship Jesus. The women here represent the early church of Matthew's experience: certain of the resurrection of Jesus, conscious of the risen Jesus being alive within the gathering of believers, they celebrated the power of God at work among them as God's new people by offering worship to Jesus.

- 'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers' (10): the resurrection is not a secret. This fact is to be shared with others. The good news is public news. The gospel is to be preached so that disciples are made 'of all nations' (19).

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sunday 9 April 2017 - Palm Sunday, 6th Sunday in Lent

NOTE: This Sunday it is possible to prepare a 'Liturgy of the Palms' and 'Liturgy of the Passion'. 
I recognise that in our church (in my experience and according to my knowledge) there are broadly two traditions or customs followed.

1. Today is Palm Sunday and the readings should focus on the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem with the Gospel reading being the story of Jesus' entry to Jerusalem from the gospel of the year.

2. Today is the Sunday in which we celebrate both the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. Thus the gospel story of entry to Jerusalem is told near the beginning of the service, in conjunction with a procession of palms, but the gospel readings in the normal place for readings to occur in the overall service should concern the passion or suffering of our Lord.

I am offering comment on readings for a liturgy which solely focuses on Palm Sunday. Accordingly I am combining readings from the two columns set out in NZL 2017 for Sunday 913 April in order to offer commentary on a standard set of three readings plus psalm.

The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with acclamation is also the beginning of a week of intense suffering on the part of Jesus.

Theme(s): The coming of the King/Beginning of Holy Week/Jesus' last days before the cross/The suffering of Jesus

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:

Isaiah 50:4-9a (for a service focusing on Palm Sunday, an alternative could be Zechariah 9:9-12)
Psalm 31:9-16 (a good alternative is Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29)
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

Commentary:

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Speaking in the voice of the 'servant' - a strong Isaianic theme through these chapters - the prophet envisages the servant of the Lord perfectly in tune with his master, speaking as the Lord tells him and obedient to the will of the Lord.

Christians reading Isaiah - recall this great prophetic book has functioned in some Christian minds as 'the fifth gospel' - see in this (and other servant passages) hints of the story of Jesus in his journey to the cross.

In our journey through this Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we see Jesus having set his 'face like a flint' (7) towards the cross, and we will find through our readings that he 'gave [his] back to those who struck [him]' and that he did not 'hide [his] face from insult and spitting' (6).

No one will find Jesus guilty during his trials (9) and the Lord will vindicate him on Easter day (8).

Psalm 31:9-16

David's life had its ups and downs. At certain periods he was 'on the run', pursued by relentless forces determined to end his life and thus his influence on the course of events in Israel. These verses in this psalm 'of David' express pain and sorrow with a heartfelt tone which conveys bitter experience.

We read this passage as an expression of what we understand the suffering of Jesus to have been. With some phrases we might first think of Jesus dying on the cross (for instance verses 9-10, 11a-12), with others we might think of Jesus journeying through the following days when people were plotting against him (for instance verse 13), or our attention may be drawn to the specific circumstances of the journey to the cross between Pilate's headquarters and Golgotha (verse 11).

What kept Jesus going? What might keep us going through our own suffering? The answers lie in verses 14-16.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

This psalm provides background to and inspiration for the procession into Jerusalem (26-29) as well to the whole story of Jesus passion (22 = Matthew 21:42).

Philippians 2:5-11

These verses tune in well with the readings that precede it. In theological terms they set out the historical pathway of Jesus as one come from heaven to earth in order that humanity might be saved before his return to heaven.

Paul, however, is not writing an abstract 'theology of the cross' for the attention of later theologians contemplating a new article for a prestigious journal (though many of those have been written!). Rather, Paul has been urging his Philippian readers, troubled by some varying schools of preachers, to be united in Christ (verse 2). To get to this place of unity something is going to have to give and so Paul entreats his readers to act in the interests of others rather than in their own interests (verses 3-4). The icing on the cake of this argument is that the Philippians should,

'Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus' (5).

What might this mind be, Paul? A good question and one Paul is glad we have asked. Thus his answer proceeds through verses 6-11. Many scholars think that the words Paul writes here were an early Christian credal hymn.

Time/space considerations preclude proper examination of verse 6 - good sized commentaries will have something to say on this verse about which many articles and theses have been written. In part the issues are around details such as the meaning of 'form of God', 'equality with God' and 'something to be exploited'. In another part the issues concern whether this verse constitutes a fairly early declaration by Paul that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, also divine. (If so, this challenges those theologians (and sceptics) who say that the attribution of divinity to Jesus came from the later, Greek-influenced church rather than from the early, Jewish-derived church). To say nothing of questions of whether this verse neatly anticipates later thinking about the Trinity, for instance, thinking about the 'co-equality' of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here we can observe that, with the context of 2:1-4 in mind, Paul is making the point that Jesus had exalted status which he did not cling to. He jettisoned all privilege and power in order to look to the 'interests' of ourselves.

Similarly, much ink has been expended on the related question of what 'emptied himself' means in verse 7. For instance, did Jesus empty himself of all divinity or of all divine knowledge (e.g. in order to be fully human), but, if so, can we talk of Jesus being divine during his life on earth? One can easily multiply many such questions! This subject, of Jesus emptying himself is called 'kenosis.' What we can say, confidently, is that Paul is saying that whatever it took for Jesus to be in the place where our interests were placed ahead of Jesus' interests, Jesus did it. Nothing was held back by Jesus in order that we might be fully saved.

With verse 8 we may feel we are on ground which yields less questions: in Jesus' life as told in the gospels we encounter one who is humble, who walks obediently to God, even to the cross and death on it.

Through verses 9-11 we have no specific use of words concerning 'resurrection' or 'ascension' yet what we read implies the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, captured and expressed in the word 'exalted'. Jesus came down from heaven to earth, from high status to no status, from life to death. The journey has been reversed: earth to heaven, no status to resumed status, death to life. Verses 9-11 set out this reversal but the focus is on 'resumed status': 'highly exalted,' 'name that is above every name,' 'so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,' and 'every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.'

In a sense these verses both look back to the event of the resurrection-and-ascension of Jesus (understand as one event of lifting Jesus up), look up to where Jesus is today (from other NT passages, e.g. Acts 2:32, the exaltation of Jesus is to 'the right hand of God') and look ahead to the day of the end of all things when the exalted Jesus will be revealed to all humanity.

Matthew 21:1-11

As with many gospel stories, the preacher is faced with the challenge of refreshing the impact of familiar stories. Christians are generally not in danger of finding that 'familiarity breeds contempt' for stories about our wonderful Lord. But we may be in danger of familiarity breeding comfort or complacency. Can we hear this story this year as though for the first time? (This is a question for the preacher writing here as much as for every preacher).

We have already met the crowds following Jesus (at least 'following' in some loose sense of the word). In the story immediately preceding this one, 'a large crowd followed him' as Jesus left Jericho (20:29). Healing the blind is impressive and would have done everything to 'hype' the crowd. It does not take much imagination on our part to work out that the crowd gossiped what is happening and heightened anticipation as Jesus walked from Jericho towards Jerusalem.

Jesus himself makes something of a public event about his arrival in Jerusalem for he organised his disciples to secure animals to transport him (21:1-3) and this organisation seems to presuppose earlier organisation between Jesus and the supplier of the animals (2-3).

Thus we must confront the fact that Jesus did nothing to avoid Jerusalem (he intended to go to the city), refrained from quietly and unobtrusively entering Jerusalem (e.g. by nightfall, face covered up) and created a public event via entry on an animal.

From a narrative perspective this makes sense: if Jesus is to die at the hands of others then the 'others' (i.e. various authorities with the power to execute someone) need some provocation.

From a theological perspective it helps us as readers to continue to be presented with the reality of Jesus who is no ordinary citizen in Israel. With the impressive entry to Jerusalem comes the opportunity for the crowd to give voice to their understanding of Jesus (the Son of David = Messiah, 9; and 'the prophet Jesus', 11) and for the writer to give his understanding of Jesus (king of Zion, prophesied beforehand, 5 = Zechariah 9:9 from an alterantive Old Testament reading for today).

But these descriptions and titles of Jesus also contribute to the sense of provocation: if one does not listen to a prophet, perhaps the prophet should be done away with so his voice is silenced; if one does not like rival authorities around being acclaimed as king and messiah, there is one way to effectively end the claims.

As always through the gospels, the royal claims of Jesus are as much about a particular kind of royalty as about being a king. So Jesus comes on a humble animal, fulfilling a prophecy about humility (5). He has not come to replace either Herod the Judean king or Pilate as representative of the Roman emperor. But he comes in the name of the greatest power, the Lord God.

What is our response to this reading?

Partly we hear the reading as a chapter in the unfolding story of the whole gospel and in the development of the specific story of this last week of Jesus' life. To this reading our response is the response we make to the larger story of which it is a part. The preacher, for instance, could ask today the same question as on Good Friday and Easter Day: what do you make of this Jesus? Do you entrust your life to him?

But we can also focus on this reading separately (but perhaps with the other readings of the day in our minds) and ask questions about power and politics. What kind of kingship brings salvation to the world? To the extent to which we ourselves have power (in the home, at work, in community affairs), how do we exercise that power? Are we humble, as Jesus was? In the face of powers which do not have the best interests of humanity at heart, what kind of provocative action can Christians engage in? (A tricky question to answer as today's gospel reading offers a wonderful model of 'non violent' provocation of powerful authorities, but the next passage, 21:12-17 offers a different kind of model in which violent action takes place).

We might also ask, what is salvation according to the gospel such that it takes this different form of royal power rather than a direct overthrow of the existing authorities?