Friday, April 19, 2019

Sunday 28 April 2019 - Second Sunday of Pascha (Thomas Sunday)

Theme                  When Jesus appeared to his disciples    

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) [NZPB, 595]

Collect                  Jesus, we believe you; all we heard is true.
                                You break the bread; we recognise you,
                                You are the fire that burns within us;
                                Use us to light the world,
                                Through the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Readings                                             
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29
Revelation 1:4-8
                        John 20:19-31

The theme for the day and the season is clear, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Each passage speaks to and about this theme. 

If last Sunday was 'the day' of resurrection, a day to reflect on the momentous discovery of the empty tomb and the initial reactions to that, then this Sunday is a day to reflect further (or deeper) on the resurrection. We might, as one instance, reflect on what the resurrection means for individual believers (what inspires us, what challenges us). For another instance we might reflect on where the resurrected Jesus is today (e.g. the body of Christ on earth, the church).

But John's Gospel passage opens a wide open door to several possible sub-themes under the general theme of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1. Doubting Thomas, John 20:24-29. We do not need to doubt the resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead and presented himself for proof to his disciples, including doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas accepted what his eyes (if not his hands) told him: Jesus had been raised from the dead. Will we trust Thomas and accept the Lord's word to him, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

2. Apostolic Commission, John 20:21 (or 20:21-23). "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." With these words the Lord commissions his disciples for their work in the world. This work is a straight-line continuation of Christ's own mission: they will serve as he has served; they will go where he has gone. 

Simply as a post-resurrection commission this is both different (in words used) to the post-resurrection commissions in Matthew 28:20 and Luke 24:44-49 = Acts 1:1-8 and similar (in meaning) to the same commissions. In particular we might usefully observe that Acts in relation to Luke's Gospel is the disciples doing what Jesus did as they continue and expand the mission of Jesus.

The resurrection, in this perspective, is a validation of who Jesus is, the Son of God. But the resurrection does not mean the Son of God remains visible in the world: the risen Jesus does not 'hang around'. Rather the resurrection is the conclusion of Christ's physical presence on earth as Jesus of Nazareth. From now on he will be physically present in the world through his disciples.

For us, the resurrection celebrations lead to the resurrection challenge: to go as, and where Jesus sends us.

3. Johannine Pentecost, John 20:21-23. In Luke 24:44-49 = Acts 1:1-8, the commission to preach the gospel throughout the world is accompanied by the promise of the Holy Spirit's power. Here also, as John presents this first resurrection day appearance of the Lord to his gathered disciples, the commission of Christ is accompanied by talk of the Holy Spirit. On this occasion there is nopromise of a future coming of the Holy Spirit but the direct gifting of the Holy Spirit as Jesus 'breathes' on them and states,

"Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (verses 22-23).

Some commentators call this the Johannine Pentecost!

(We could tie ourselves in knots trying to reconcile what John offers here with Luke's account of the promise and then actuality of Pentecost (e.g. is it a separate occasion, the same occasion told in a different way, were both Luke and John attempting to create a narrative explanation of the experienced power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers?)

The meaning of this occasion is clear: the risen Jesus will not remain but the disciples will; they will do what Jesus has been doing; the power to fulfill Christ's commission will be the very power of the Father and of the Son: the Holy Spirit (as already taught by Jesus, John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15).

The resurrection releases the power of God, the Holy Spirit, into the lives of those willing to be sent as the Father sent the Son. If we want the power we need to obey; if we obey we will receive the power!


Acts 5:27-32


Peter and the apostles have been brought before "the council" and "the high priest" himself is questioning them, as well he might do as the preceding passage has told us of the rising popularity of the apostles as they preach and heal, of their being imprisoned by the high priest but then released from prison by angelic intervention.


They are told off by the high priest because they had been instructed "not to teach in this name." Peter and the apostles give an answer which ever since has driven forward courageous Christian witness,


"We must obey God rather than any human authority."


The concise testimony then given by Peter and the apostles nails the resurrection of Jesus as decisive for their bold "rebellion" against the authority standing before them.


"The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree."


If Jesus had died on the cross ("tree" here recalls Deuteronomy 21:22-33) without further ado, then the authority of the high priest and his council would have been unquestioned. But there was further ado, God "raised up Jesus." Logically, the authority of this God is greater than the authority of the humans who had condemned Jesus to death.


This testimony (as elsewhere in the New Testament) connects "resurrection" with "exaltation." God does not merely bring Jesus back to life, God exalts him to the highest place "at his right hand." Thus Jesus is vindicated, his death has not been an irrevocable curse because it is transformed into a blessing ("that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.")


Psalm 118:14-29


This is a mighty song of praise, worth singing in response to the mighty work of God in raising Jesus from the dead and exalting him to God's right hand (see Acts 5:27-32).


But it is also a passage with some key Christian understandings about who Jesus was and is, and what God has done in and through him, most importantly the notion that Christ was "the stone the builders rejected" now "become the chief cornerstone." (See Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10,11; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7).


Revelation 1:4-8


Although most of Revelation is visions full of dark portents and challenging insights into the present and future course of the battle between God's holy goodness and evil's dastardly machinations and thus we think of this book as an "apocalypse," these verses read like John is writing a letter to churches in true Pauline style!


We won't stop on this particular Sunday of Pascha to study each detail (and thus, potentially be gloriously sidetracked into wondering why God is described in temporal terms (v. 4) and the Holy Spirit is described in terms of "seven spirits" (v.4).) Rather, we will focus on Jesus Christ, described in v. 5 as 

- "the faithful witness" (that is, a model of what Christians will need to be in the face of the onslaught of evil depicted in the pages that follow);
- "the firstborn of the dead" (that is, the forerunner for all martyrs for the faith: death at the hands of persecutors will not be the end of life);
- "and the ruler of the kings of the earth" (that is, the true king of kings who eventually will triumph over all human kings, including the Roman emperor).

When John goes on to offer a song of praise to Jesus Christ, v. 5b-6, he also notes to his readers the effect of Jesus' death and resurrection: they (and we) are loved, freed from our sins, made to be a kingdom of priests serving God.


Verse 7 then presupposes the resurrection because one who has died and not been resurrected is unable to come again to earth. In verse 7 John combines (or cites from previous Christian combining) Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10-12 to offer a vision of Jesus Christ the coming judge of all the earth, whose appearance will be particularly challenging for those responsible for his death.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sunday 21 April 2019 - Pascha [Easter]

Theme                  When Jesus was raised to life    

Sentence             Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed. To him be the glory and dominion for ever and ever. Alleluia! (Luke 24:34; Revelation 1:6) [NZPB, 592].

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 life. Amen. [NZPB, 592]     

Readings                                             
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
                        Luke 24:1-12

Comments:

There are variations in the lectionary. I am going with the gospel reading from Luke because Luke is the gospel for this year.

At the foot of the post are some general remarks about the resurrection narratives in the New Testament which I have published on my main blog, Anglican Down Under.

Our readings for today are coherently focused on the single topic of resurrection, God raising Jesus from the dead. The 'line' we could take in our sermon is varied.
- An apologetic meeting of possible doubts in the minds of the congregation?
- An account of the immense miracle constituted by raising someone from the dead?
- The vindication of all Jesus claimed in his teaching and deeds?
- The difference Jesus makes to life - to our lives - because he conquered death?
- The new world order created by resurrection life invading the normal world order?

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, and verse 41, which nails an often observed fact about the appearances, that they were made to those who already knew Jesus (a famous exception being Saul/Paul) and not to the 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. 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 variance 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 Pascha would then be verse 24:

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

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

It is not just that Christ has been raised from the dead (as a kind of "stand alone" miracle). A new possibility for humanity has begun, "the resurrection from the dead." Christ's resurrection is a "first fruits" of this  new dimension to life. Our hope for our own resurrection lies completely within Christ's resurrection.

Resurrection here is a victory over the powers that oppose God, and in particular the power of death which is the "last enemy to be destroyed." From this vantage point we see that resurrection is not an unusual or weird occasion (as some might try to paint it). Rather if God is God, the Great Power over all lesser powers, then death cannot, must not and will not have the last word on life. God is greater than death and the resurrection is both evidence for God's power and the result of God's power at work in Christ.

Luke 24:1-12

One of the interesting things about the resurrection narratives is the risky way they are told! 

Mark 16:1-8 (the likely original ending of that gospel) leaves us thinking that the first witnesses of the empty tomb told no one about it (when obviously they did). 

Matthew both admits and then rejects an explanation for the empty tomb that the disciples stole the body. 

All four accounts offer women as the first witnesses to the resurrection (in those days, it is thought, they were deemed to be counted as unreliable as witnesses)

Here Luke shares some of this riskiness but puts in his own oddity when he declares that the apostles didn't believe the women (verse 11) then straightaway has Peter running off to the tomb as though he did believe them! 

A possible explanation for the interesting ways in which the resurrection stories are conveyed to us is that the gospel writers understood that their readers had their own doubts and so they tried both to encourage them (Look, the apostles doubted too!) and persuade them otherwise (Look, Jesus did rise from the dead, lots of people attest to that!).

At this stage in the way Luke develops his account of Jesus' resurrection, the emphasis is on the empty tomb and the witnesses to that - angels, women, Peter.

Only from verse 13 onwards, in the story of the two disciples going to Emmaus, will Luke tell his readers about the risen Jesus himself appearing to his followers. Eventually, in verse 33, we find that the doubts of the eleven have been met through an appearance to Simon (and in verse 36 Jesus will appear to the gathered throng, including eating with them). In this way Luke anticipates the distinction we noted above in Acts 10:40: the raising of the dead Jesus is one event, and the appearances of the risen Jesus Christ is another.

General Remarks about the Resurrection Narratives: drawn from a post some years ago on Anglican Down Under

Meanwhile this is the season once again to reflect on the sacred mysteries of Holy Week and Pascha. I suggest we work backwards from the Resurrection. If Jesus had died on the cross and that was the end of his life, what would his legacy have been? Not much, I suggest. A paragraph, perhaps, in the history of impact-making rabbis of Israel under the Romans, mentioning some notable healings and memorable insights into the rule of God in the world. Maybe today scholars of Judaism would produce a monograph or two on ancient magicians among the rabbis, notably Jeshua ben Joseph. Perhaps there would be a brief headline making news item that the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran had been identified by an unusually radical scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls as that same Jeshua ben Joseph.

It is the resurrection which makes the difference here, which sets the Jesus movement on a trajectory which will see Christianity separate from Judaism and which drives the leaders of that movement to see in Jesus things which were not obvious to them when they walked the dusty roads of Palestine with him. We read the gospels historically forwards from Jesus' beginnings to his end because that is the way the narrative is told, but theologically we should begin with the resurrection and read backwards. What was it about the resurrection which led to the telling of the story of Jesus in the way that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John  and, also, Paul told it?

That is why, to offer a first reflection this Holy Week, the question of the witness to the resurrection is vital to Christianity. Deny the resurrection and everything about our claims to truth falls over. Personally I find the variations between the gospels, 1 Corinthians 15 and, say, Acts 10:34-43 puzzling. Why isn't the account of that collective written witness, bound in the one New Testament, more consistent? 

Modern skeptics have driven a horse and cart full of doubts through the lack of consistency (even, some might say, inconsistency). Yet closer inspection yields more consistency than some are prepared to allow. At the bedrock of each gospel narrative is the empty tomb. They are consistent on the fact that the crucified body of Jesus was placed in the tomb, on the third day the tomb was empty, and thereafter the risen (i.e. raised up from the tomb) Jesus appeared to people.

This, further, is consistent with two accounts which do not explicitly mention the emptiness of the tomb, Acts 10:34-43 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. What is 'raised on the third day' phrasing in these passages about but an act of raising from the dead, a raising of the physical body of Jesus which leaves the tomb empty. (I suggest we can talk in this way and still have a debate about what kind of "body" the earthly body of Jesus was transformed to, in the act of resurrection, noting that the resurrection accounts attest to a new body of Jesus which is different to the former body, e.g. appearing at will in an otherwise locked room). 

Acts 10:40 beautifully distinguishes between the raising and the subsequent appearances, 'God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.' So also 1 Corinthians 15:4-5, 'he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve'. If the tomb was not empty why mention the act of raising from the dead and not proceed straight to the accounts of the appearances of Jesus?

Running these accounts together, with all their variations, I suggest we can account for the variations in a couple of ways. 

First and foremost, we get the impression that Jesus appeared on a number of occasions to a range of witnesses. Between the four gospel writers and Paul's 'tradition' account in 1 Corinthians 15 we receive a set of accounts with heavy selection at work. Paul's tradition is focused on the appearances to the leadership of the Jesus movement, with the exception of the appearance to 'more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time'. The four gospels uniformly emphasise the immediate witnesses to the resurrection, women. Matthew, Mark and Luke (distinct from Acts 1) move quickly from the immediate experience of the risen Jesus to his departure (albeit somewhat implicitly in Mark). Only Acts 1 and John 21 imply a period of more than a few days or weeks in which Jesus remained with his disciples. Together these witnesses to the variety of Jesus' appearances do not provide anything like a coherent account of the history of Jesus between resurrection and ascension. That, perhaps, leads us to a second reason for the variations between accounts.

Secondly, we get the impression that the gospel writers in their gospels are focused on providing for their readers an account of the ordinary human life of Jesus, prior to death. The continuing presence of the risen Jesus via the Holy Spirit in the movement perhaps made unnecessary a prolonged account of the period between resurrection and ascension. (Luke, in his 'sequel' to the life of Jesus unveils in Acts many ways in which the risen Jesus post-ascension continues to engage with the movement). What their accounts needed was a wrap up and what we find is that the accounts of the resurrection are overlaid with conclusions to the gospels as a whole (or, in the case of Mark 16:1-8, we might say, denuded of a conclusion via intentional abruptness in the closing of the account - a kind of anti-conclusion).

Thus Matthew draws us rapidly to the Great Commission and Luke does so similarly, but in a challenging manner because in Luke 24 he almost conveys the impression that a long day (of about 25 hours?) elapses from raising to commissioning-and-ascending whereas Acts 1 is explicit that the period was 40 days. (Luke also manages the most flagrant rewriting of gospel tradition when he converts Mark's "you will see him in Galilee" into "as he said in Galilee", Mark 16:7//Luke 24:6, in the cause of emphasising the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem and its immediate environs).

John works in a different manner, having proposed through his gospel that everything is going on all at once ("my hour"): death and departure, cross and glory, descent and ascent. Thus his Pentecost occurs on the day of Resurrection but there is a epilogue or two as a week elapses before the appearance to Thomas and further time before the appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. But like his evangelical colleagues, John is all through the 'resurrection' time wrapping up his gospel: so there is a closing word to skeptics among the believers via the encounter with Thomas, then there is a word, via John 21, to Christian groups divided over leadership of the church as the first century comes to a close.

In the end, then, I am arguing that the accounts of the resurrection, between the gospels, Acts and 1 Corinthians have a coherency when we dig beneath the varied ways of wrapping up the narratives of Jesus' earthly life, acknowledge the basic facts which are shared (principally the emptiness of the tomb and the sheer multiplicity of appearances), and allow that different things mattered to different writers.

We need not doubt that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. That is the witness of the apostles. But what was the impact of the resurrection on understanding who Jesus was prior to death and who Jesus is after resurrection? Jesus rising from the dead in the midst of ancient Judaism in Israel in the first century AD was like a fox in a chicken coop. A certain theological mayhem ensued. The epistles effectively tell us about the mayhem and that it was a good kind of mayhem!

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Sunday 14 April 2019 - Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday for many Anglicans (including myself) is focused on "Palm" Sunday: celebrating and remembering Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, with the readings coherent around the gospel story of that entry - a story told in all four gospels. But Palm Sunday can also be celebrated and commemorated as a combination of two liturgies, "Liturgy of the Palms" and "Liturgy of the Passion" (with readings as provided for by the lectionary).

Liturgy of the Palms readings (and, if only "Palm" Sunday is focused on) 

Theme:  When Jesus rides into our lives

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) [NZPB, p. 580]

 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.
 Hear this prayer for your love’s sake. Amen. [NZPB, p.580].

 Readings: 

 Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
 Luke 19:28-40


Comments:

In one sense the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem as a 'king' is a surprise in Luke's gospel, as we reflect on the reading for this Sunday, Luke 19:28-40. The intentional journey of Jesus to Jerusalem (go back to Luke 9:51 for the start of this) has been a journey in which Jesus has taught his disciples how to be disciples and touched the lives of people in need with transformations (e.g. healing for some, change of life for Zacchaeus).

But this has not been the journey of a king preparing for enthronement in the usual sense of the word 'king.' To an extent, however, Luke prepares his readers for the kingly passage of Jesus into Jerusalem by telling them, immediately before the entry, the parable of the nobleman who goes to a far country to get royal power for himself (Luke 19:11-27, which we also know as the Parable of the Pounds).

Another surprise is that Jesus should be greeted by 'multitudes of disciples' (19:37). We have not formed the impression during the journey told in 9:51-19:27 that Jesus has attracted to himself lots and lots of disciples! (John's Gospel may help us here as he explains that the raising of Lazarus from the dead had made Jesus very popular in the days before the entry to Jerusalem, John 12:9-19).

With those observations made, what is at the heart of this unexpected story?

The citation of Psalm 118 (Luke 19:38a = Psalm 118:26, with substitution of 'king' for 'one') furnishes a clue. Luke bears witness (with the other gospel writers) to the multitude's interpretation of Jesus as the one sent by God to take up a kingly role in the rule of Israel. In the context of an imminent festival, Passover, and on the edge of Jerusalem city of David, it is natural for this scripturally informed multitude to acclaim Jesus with familiar words from an appropriate psalm.

By including the word 'king' in the citation, Luke ensures a connection between the end of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the end of his life: the charge against him which leads to his death is his claim to be 'king' (Luke 23:2). (Incidentally, Luke furnishes in 19:38b words which take us back to the birth of the king, 'Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven', see 2:14).

At the heart of the story, then, is Jesus' arrival in several senses of that word as 'king'. But the question raised by the story, for example, by the humility of the means of transport, is 'what kind of king?' When Jesus is charged and convicted of being 'king' the level of understanding behind the charge concerns human power. That is, there can only be one 'king', the Roman Caesar. Jesus as king, on this understanding, is a seditious revolutionary who must be dealt with.

But Luke is telling his readers that there is another level of understanding: Jesus' kingship comes from heaven, his arrival is part of a heavenly plan for earthly history, and when he acts as king it is God's own power and authority which he represents to the world. Some king!

Thus while the story has a dark shadow, the shadow of the cross, it is a story which looks ahead to the triumphant rule of God over history. The seed of that rule is here, a few days before trial and execution; the fruit is after the resurrection. Rightly our response, to which we could go back again to Psalm 118, is joyful praise.

An additional comment, reflecting on events in 2016 (first written then, but noting that, in 2019, Donald Trump is President of the USA, and Bernie Sanders is a candidate for the 2020 USA Presidential election)

The world continues to appreciate significant human figures who offer political hope and salvation. The unexpected popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the Republican and Democratic primaries in the USA seems to represent US citizens looking for a political saviour who will lift the US economy out of the doldrums (Trump and Sanders both offer solutions) and, for Republican voters, a lift in US status and standing around the globe seems important and they are responding to Trump saying he will make America great again.

Jesus entering Jerusalem to popular acclaim on Palm Sunday seems to be a piece with this kind of human expectation. A few days later the crowd will no longer support Jesus because being crucified on a cross is not their idea of a successful king who will lift Israel out of the doldrums of continued oppression by foreign rulers. For Christians - with the gift of (theological) hindsight - we see that in fact Jesus wrought new political possibilities through the way of suffering rather than the way of power and might. But that same way to victory through suffering and death is easily forgotten: Christians all too often have left Jesus the Saviour at church in order to acclaim X the Political Saviour in the ballot box or in a public rally. (Indeed, adding a note in 2019: many Christians around the world have been disturbed by the uncritical support President Trump has received from (mostly evangelical) church leaders, despite aspects of Trump's life and policies being at variance with Christian values. The most tragic and disturbing uncritical support, however, for dubpolitical leadership, occurred in the 20th century, when many Christians in Germany acclaimed and supported Hitler.)

Liturgy of the Passion

Theme: Jesus suffers

Sentence: see above

Collect: see above

Readings:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56 or
Luke 23:1-49

I am not offering detailed comments on these readings, save to observe that in the Liturgy of the Passion, it is important to let the readings "tell the story". (Indeed, a full set of readings, without abbreviation, might be best served by the briefest of sermons).

The gospel reading speaks for itself: it tells the story of the ending of Jesus' life with its attendant suffering,humiliation and pain.

The Isaiah reading, with Christian hindsight, is a foretelling of the Passion.

The Philippians reading, with Christian insight, is a theological setting of the suffering of Jesus in the larger cosmic story of Jesus descending from heaven and ascending again to heaven, with a specific "kenotic" theme, that is, the emptying [kenosis] of Jesus' glory and honour as God's Son.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Sunday 7 April 2019 - Lent 5

Theme                  When we love the Lord

Sentence             Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. (Lamentations 1:12) [NZPB, p. 579]

Collect                  Jesus, they hung you on a cross
                                Because you love sinners.
                                Save us from our self-righteousness
                                And from our contempt for those who differ from us.
                                Hear this prayer for your love’s sake. Amen [NZPB, p. 579]          

Readings                                             
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126           
Philippians 3:4b-14
                        John 12:1-8

Comments:
It is exciting to read Isaiah 43:16-21 a couple of weeks out from Easter Day: 


'I am about to do a new thing' (v.19). 

As we journey with Jesus to the cross we are allowed an anticipation of what lies beyond, the resurrection as a 'new thing', a new dimension to life which is not accounted for in terms of the 'former things' (v. 18). 

To be excited in this way is to be open to laughing, shouting for joy and generally rejoicing at the Lord's great work, for which Psalm 126 is a great aid. The psalmist, in a series sometimes known as 'Songs of Ascents' (Psalms 120-134), is either looking back on God's restoration of 'Zion' (i.e. of Israel, its great city and the temple within it) following the Babylonian exile or looking forward to it. 


In the former case either a new misfortune has struck Israel or, perhaps more likely, the completion of the restoration of the exiles has not yet occurred (vss. 4-6), in the latter case, the prayer of the last three verses is a fervent prayer for restoration from Israel's plight under Babylon. In the context of Passion Sunday (reflecting on the suffering of Jesus), this psalm speaks joyfully of what God accomplishes in the resurrection of Jesus and realistically of the suffering of Jesus.

Paul writing to the Philippians, 3:4b-14, can speak of suffering and resurrection in one passage (and what a passage it is, as Paul's sets out his reasons for being confident because of Christ that his life is on track and steadily moving towards 'the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus' (3:14).) Thus Paul's personal ambition is 'to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if I may somehow attain the resurrection from the dead' (3:10-11).

It would be a mistake to think that Paul's last words in the citation above mean he is uncertain and doubtful as to whether he will 'attain the resurrection from the dead.' He knows (and we know he knows), as he expresses through his writings with the most extraordinary confidence, that Christ has saved him. Not because of something he has done but because of what Christ has done for him.

The sense of 'may attain' is more that Paul is eager to embrace the experience of Christ within him fully. He is up for experiencing suffering that he might identify with and understand Christ better. He wishes to attain the resurrection from the dead via this empathetic route of suffering with Christ. But will he experience real depth, or will his life be snatched away from him peremptorily?

When finally we bring our attentive reading to the gospel, John 12:1-8, we are in a mind and mood to engage with the solemnity of a special dinner party at Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem. Here the smell of Jesus' death is in the air. Perhaps only Jesus and Mary sensed this at the time. But as readers we know that Jesus' death is close at hand. In contrast to the other three readings, there is no anticipation of the resurrection. Indeed the concluding words of Jesus imply a permanent loss when he departs, 'You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me' (v. 8).

From a narratival perspective this dinner party functions to turn the plot's development from the raising of Lazarus from the dead to the death of Jesus. (Indeed the raising of Lazarus from the dead  is the specific occasion of turning opposition to Jesus into a plan that Jesus will die, 11:45-57; 12:9-11). 


The anointing by Mary is a prophecy of Jesus' burial. The significance of Jesus is great enough to warrant the donation of this costly perfume to his body ahead of any good the equivalent money might have achieved for the poor. Reflection on this calculation also allows John to tell us that Judas Iscariot was about to betray him - another link in the chain of events which will take Jesus to the cross (12:4).

Dinner parties feature frequently in the gospels, normally as occasions for debate or discourse. Here there is little of either. But this dinner party sets the scene for the tumultuous events which are about to unfold, the first of which is the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (i.e. 12:12-19: Palm Sunday). It will parallel a meal later in the week in which Jesus will begin his final testament of teaching (John's Last Supper and its afterwards, 13:1 - 17:26).

Whether Jesus was anointed by a woman on several occasions or just one, the motif of a meal made memorable by anointing must have stayed strongly in the memory of the first Christians as the four gospels give us three versions of a meal of this kind. 


One meal, early in Jesus' ministry (with an unnamed sinful woman at the home of Simon, Luke 7:36-50).

Another meal, 'six days before passover,' specifically associated with 'the home of Lazarus' in Bethany with Martha serving and Mary anointing  (John 12:1-8).

Finally, a meal 'two days before Passover ... at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper' with an unnamed woman (Mark 14:1-10 = Matthew 26:6-13). In each case, we are struck by the central action of the anointing of Jesus by a woman clearly and unmistakably devoted to Jesus.

What do we do to show that we love the Lord?

Is our love for Jesus given extravagantly or cautiously?


Are we willing to share with Jesus' sufferings that we might experience his resurrection?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Sunday 31 March 2019 - Lent 4

Theme                  When we are far from God        

Sentence             They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon     them, for the One who loves them will lead them beside the springs of water (Isaiah 49:10) [NZPB, p. 577]

Collect                  Heavenly Father,
                                You see how your children hunger for food, fellowship and faith.
                                Help us to meet one another’s needs of body, mind and spirit,
                                In the love of Christ our Saviour. Amen. [NZPB, p. 578]                  
Readings                                             
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
                        Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

We all know the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11b-32. Or do we? What is the best title for this story? 

It is also known as the parable of the waiting father. It ends with the story of the elder brother. Should it be called the parable of the two brothers? 

Then there is the thought that the parable reflects traces of a very old story of Israel, a story involving a father and two brothers, inheritance, wastefulness, rivalry, and reconciliation, the story of Jacob and Esau. Does Jesus' telling of the parable also reflect traces of the later history of Israel (Jacob's other name) in which Israel went into exile (1 and 2 Kings) and returned to some hostility from those who never left (Nehemiah)? But if either or both of these influences are in the story, how does that influence the meaning of the story for us today?

Let's come back to that question having explored the other passages.

Joshua 5:9-12 is an example of the lectionary doing its best to capture something important - the return of Israel to its promised land, after slavery in Egypt - but with a certain abruptness as the reading begins. The 'disgrace of Egypt' is the great throng of children born during the years of wandering in the wilderness who had not been circumcised. The story of the circumcision is told in 5:1-8. Nevertheless, these few verses in Joshua underline the inheritance of Israel under God. They were promised a land. They had begun to live in it. They were displaced through famine. Now they have returned. The land is doubly precious.

Psalm 32 is a prayer of confession. A sinner's psalm! We can imagine that if David wrote this he might be thinking of his guilt over his adultery with Bathsheba (though Psalm 51 is normally given that 'honour'). Whatever sin David has in mind, it has troubled him greatly. Most of us who say we feel a little bit guilty about this or that are not talking about our body wasting away, groaning all the day long, feeling the hand of God heavy on us and our strength drying up. David has been in the pits of oppressive guilt. He has not felt a little bit guilty, he has felt guilty distressingly. Then he experiences release. What is the key to this release? He confessed his sin to God. Has that been our experience, that we have been tormented by guilt, locked up in it and weighed down with it till we feel nothing but guilt, and then we have confessed (possibly through verbal confession to a confessor)? If, indeed, today we are oppressed with guilt then we must confess. It is the only way to be free.

The rest of the psalm is the psalm of the person without great cares: God is there for us, we should follow in his ways and trust in him; then, quite opposite to when we are weighed down with guilt, we are confident and grateful that we are surrounded by God's steadfast love.

Such confidence permeates Paul's gospel acclamation in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, the centre of which is this,

'in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them' (2 Corinthians 6:19).

Whether we are Israel in disgrace, David in guilty despair, or the prodigal son lost from his family in dissoluteness, the ultimate good message from God is this: the last word on sin belongs with God and not with us. Our sin may overwhelm us (Psalm 32) but it never overwhelms God who is both willing to and has acted on a plan to reconcile the world (each of us, in every generation) to himself.

Nevertheless, the last word from God on sin is not a set of words (such as we might say when someone apologises to us, "Oh, that's okay. Not much harm done. Let's be friends again."). The last word from God is the deepest and darkest deed possible in dealing with sin,

'For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin,so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' (6:21)

We will never be able to fathom the depths of this transaction. We can, perhaps, come up with an image or two to help us get the drift. One that springs to mind is a body full of poison which another person is able to draw the poison out of by absorbing it into their body.

One response to Paul's insight into God's reconciling work through Christ's saving death for us on the cross is praise.

Another, expressed in this passage, is that we might be 'ambassadors for Christ'. God has reconciled the world to himself, but the world is not reconciled to God until it responds to the ambassadors appeal, 'be reconciled to God' (6:20).

The epistle reading is most apt to be linked to the gospel reading, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. The son has declared his father as good as dead in claiming his share of the inheritance. In his pursuit of a way of life foreign to his father's and to his own Jewish heritage (highlighted by the fact that his life hits rock bottom in a pig farm), the son is driven as far from home and culture as possible. He is effectively dead as well as lost (see Luke 15:24). The gap appears too great for reconciliation between father and son but by the story's end, reconciliation has been achieved (but with a twist). The waiting father never gave up on wishing to be reconciled to his prodigal son. In at least this sense, the father is analogous to the God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself.

The twist to the tale lies in the exposure at the end of the story. The stay-at-home elder brother is as unreconciled to the father as his dissolute brother. He does not understand the heart of his father. In location he never leaves the father, in empathy of feeling what the father feels he may as well live on the other side of the world. It is not only the obvious trespassers of the world who need reconciling to God, it is also the outwardly right living folk who do not understand the grace of God and thus want no part of his reconciling work.

From this perspective we can see how the traces of older Israelite stories influence the meaning of the parable. Esau (the older brother of Jacob) is cast aside from God's purposes because he has no understanding of God's true heart. Israel, like the younger brother in the parable, driven into exile through disobedience to God's commands nevertheless does not lose all understanding of God's great plan for the world. A remnant keeps faith, and expresses through the prophets the possibility of Israel yet returning to God and taking up its role as a blessing to all nations (see Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 42:1-6). They are the younger brother of the parable coming to their senses while in exile (= herding pigs). The older brother, following such lines of reflection, with respect to Jesus himself (as representative of the repenting Israel-in-exile coming back to God ever more fully) is the Israel of the Pharisees and Sadducees, of the scribes and the lawyers who, again and again in the gospels, neither see what Jesus is doing in his ministry of reconciliation nor share in the joy of the people who do understand. (Acknowledgement: the great exponent of this parable as a parable of Israel returning from exile is the British scholar, N.T. Wright.)

What then of us today?

Do we need reconciling to God? To return to God?

As ambassadors of God, to whom are we making our appeal, 'be reconciled to God?'