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?