Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trinity Sunday - 31 May 2015

Theme(s): Trinity/God is Three yet One/God is Father Son and Holy Spirit/The Triune God

Sentence: You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. (Lamentations 5:19)

Collect: God of unchangeable power,
you have revealed yourself
to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
keep us firm in this faith
that we may praise and bless your holy name;
for you are one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Comments:

On Trinity Sunday we reflect on the nature of God as the church believes God has revealed God to be through Scripture, 'We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and has spoken through the prophets.'

Isaiah 6:1-8

We can read this passage in various ways. It has been, for example, the text for many a service of commissioning for ministry and mission (noting verse 8 in particular). It is a passage which conveys the holy magnificence and magnificent holiness of God: 'the hem of his robe filled the temple' (1) speaks of magnificence and the cry of the seraphs in verse 3 underlines the depth of the holiness of God.

But how does this passage fit into thinking Trinitarian thoughts?

One way is to observe some unexpected features of the vision. First, Isaiah 'saw the Lord sitting on a throne' (1). Other parts of the OT suggest that God is unseeable, being wholly 'other' to us (which is one meaning of 'holy' or 'separate'). When Isaiah 'sees' the Lord he himself is surprised (5). Later, seeing the Unseeable (in the face of Jesus Christ) is a reality for Jesus' disciples (noting especially John 1:14-18). This vision, in other words, anticipates the later and greater surprise that God becomes Incarnate among us.

Secondly, the movement of the seraph from the heavenly throne to touch the mouth of Isaiah as part of his commissioning anticipates the sense that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds' from the heavenly throne to come towards and to dwell in humanity, assuring us of the cleansing of our sins and commissioning us for ministry.

Psalm 29

On one level this psalm praises God and that is what the church should do on a day such as this.

On another level, the focus in this psalm on the 'voice' of God performing might acts connects to the Trinity in this way. In ancient theological thinking the more God was thought of as 'wholly other' or absolutely separated from humanity and creation, the harder it was to then explain how God had any interaction with the world. One solution was to envisage an aspect of God which conveyed a sense of how God could reach out to the world while preserving the Otherness of God. For Hebrew thinking, convicted that God had spoken to Israel, the idea that the 'word' or 'wisdom' of God enacted certain things (e.g. speaking creation into being, Genesis 1) was such a resolution.

Here this kind of thinking envisages the 'voice' of God (obviously closely related to the 'word' of God) being the link between God and the world.

Later still, Christians trying to express the conviction that Christ was the embodiment of such a link, took over Hebrew thinking about 'voice', 'word' and 'wisdom' and made it their own as they began to articulate how Christ was identified with God.

The next two sections are incomplete as I post this Monday a.m. I hope to get back to this post on Monday afternoon.

Romans 8:12-17

Crudely we can observe this passage is 'Trinitarian' because it mentions the Spirit, the Father and Christ! Can we be a little more sophisticated?

Paul, writing to the Romans about life in the Spirit now that the gospel of Christ establishes that observance of the Law is no longer required in order to be saved, continues working through chapter 8 on what life in the Spirit means.

There is still a battle between good and evil in the life of the believer, but it is understood here in respect of living according to the flesh (essentially this is living a life centred on one's self and what serves one's selfish ends) or according to the Spirit (essentially living life by following the leading of the Spirit and by putting 'to death the deeds of the body') (verses 12-14).

In this context the Spirit of God is decisive concerning status before God: 'all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God' (14). The Christian life, in other words, involves a relationship with God via the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God being the presence of God in the life of the believer.

In verses 15-17 Paul develops the theme that this relationship with the Spirit is also a relationship with the Father (15-16). We are not 'children of God' in an abstract or general sense that we in some sense belong to God. Rather, God has adopted us as his children (15) which implies, incidentally, that not all humanity is automatically counted among the children of God. Further, in that same action we are able, through the Spirit, to address God as 'Abba! Father!' (15).

Two notes, before proceeding:

first, in times past (it seems to my memory) exegetes have made a lot of 'Abba' as a term of intimacy between father and child, more 'Daddy' than 'Father' and much less seems to be said about that today. (That may be because some scholars have challenged whether calling God 'Abba' was unique to Jesus himself). But Paul's invocation of 'Abba' in a letter to Christians in Greek speaking churches in Rome suggests he is invoking a special memory about Jesus' own address to God the Father. And Jesus was especially intimate - of course! - with the Father.

secondly, already we see a kind of 'cash value' to the doctrine of the Trinity: when we believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are not believing something about God-up-in-heaven-and-distant-from-us. We are believing something about God's involvement with us.

Let's proceed. Where does the Son fit into this passage on Trinity Sunday?

We have already met Christ the Son in Romans 8, for Christians are those 'in Christ Jesus' (1), freed from sin through God's own Son dealing with sin (2-3), and indwelt by the Spirit of God who is also the 'Spirit of Christ' (9). With that in the background, we come to verse 17 and read, 'if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'

'Heirs' here refers to the promises made to Abraham (of receiving God's blessing), elucidated previously in Romans 4. As adopted children of God we not only have the privilege of praying to Abba, Father, we are also heirs of the promises of God. But, wait there is more. We are not heirs in a secondary sense, so that Christ is the true Son and heir and we are lesser heirs (in the sense that, say, the eldest son gets to inherit the family farm and the other siblings get a lesser cash settlement). No, Paul writes that we are 'heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'. He writes this consistent with his understanding, e.g. in 8:1, that Christians are identified with Christ Jesus, we are 'in Christ'. That means that what Christ inherits, we inherit.

On Trinity Sunday when we celebrate the revelation that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we may also celebrate the extraordinary truth that we ourselves are being drawn into the life of the Triune God, since we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and identified with Christ the Son.

John 3:1-17

As with the passages above, we could read this passage in a variety of ways (not least as the passage which brings to us the 'most famous verse in the Bible', John 3:16). But here we are looking for the Trinitarian 'payload.'

First, note the references - implicit and explicit - to God as Spirit, Son and Father (2, 5-8, 13-14, 16-17.

Secondly, note the various works of the persons of the Trinity:
- the Spirit works on bringing new life to believers: 'no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit' (verse 5, see also verses 4, 6-8).
- God (the Father) gives and sends the Son into the world (16-17).
- the Son (of Man) descends from heaven (13) in order to be lifted up (i.e. crucified, 14), that 'whoever believes in him may have eternal life' (15) which means that the descent and lifting up of the Son of Man is the same action as God giving the Son out of love for the world (16) and God sending the Son in order that the world might be saved through him (17).

In other words, if the doctrine of the Trinity is the church agreeing on what the Bible says and means about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, once again we see that this doctrine is not only about an abstract set of relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is also about how these three persons who constitute the one God have worked for our salvation: the Father sends the Son to save the world, the Spirit enables people in the world to be born anew in order to enter into the fullness of the life of God (i.e. the kingdom of God).

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday 24th May 2015 - Pentecost

Theme(s): Holy Spirit / Spirit of truth and power / Power of the Spirit / Pouring out of the Spirit / New wine of the Spirit

Sentence: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7)

Collect:

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Your blessed anointing from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Overcome with eternal light
the dullness of our blinded sight. Amen. [Adapted].


Readings:

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104;24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Comments:

Acts 2:1-21

Luke tells the story of the day in which Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit coming with power was fulfilled. In turn this coming fulfilled an ancient prophecy in Joel. 

The Holy Spirit comes upon everyone (not just the apostles, not just on male disciples but on both women and men). They speak in other tongues, in languages which the multitude of Jews gathered in Jerusalem from around the world could understand: 'our own native language' (2:8).  

The import of this language fluency is that the Holy Spirit was promised by Jesus to give power to his followers so they could be 'my witnesses ... to the ends of the earth' (1:8). Jesus makes good that promise: his followers will be able to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth because they have the ability to testify to Jesus through receiving a supernatural gift.

The Holy Spirit both comes  on the gathered disciples (2:3) and fills them (2:4) meaning that the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers is overwhelming and complete: no aspect of life is untouched when God's Spirit comes into our lives.

Yet not all observers experience the same phenomenon as those receiving the Holy Spirit: 'others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine".' (2:12).

This accusation prompts an apologetic response at the beginning of Peter's sermon (2:14-16). No one is drunk, it is only 9 am in the morning, and let me remind you what the prophet Joel said! This is that (prophecy fulfilled), Peter argues.

This bold, courageous preaching Peter is a severe contrast to the Peter who denied his master three times. The most important outcome of the Holy Spirit working powerfully in our lives is that we are empowered to witness boldly for Jesus Christ.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Just one note here, pertaining to Pentecost. In verse 30 we read, 'When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.'

In the original creation the Spirit of God hovered over the deep. Here the psalmist acknowledges the continuing role of God through the Spirit in sustaining and caring for life.

Romans 8:22-27

In the context of the whole chapter Paul is expounding the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer, a role which is overwhelmingly life-giving (11-12). In today's verses Paul tackles the problem suffering - beginning at v. 18 - poses for his exposition of the life-giving Spirit. That is, Paul responds to the potential criticism of his eulogy of the life-giving power of the Spirit that suffering makes a mockery of the power of the Spirit to give life: Christians are persecuted, suffer illness and hardship and, of course, die: where is the life of the Spirit?

'Potential' might be a good summary word for verses 18-21: there is suffering, Paul acknowledges, but it is not worth comparing to the future 'glory about to be revealed to us' (18b).

At the beginning of our passage Paul develops the theme begun in verses 20-21 that suffering is anchored in the 'bondage to decay' of creation itself (21). In verses 22-23 Paul links creation's desire to escape the bondage to decay, via a change of metaphor to 'groaning in labour pains', with our desire for future fulfilment: 'but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies' (23).

In other words, the Spirit giving us life now is giving us a foretaste of what is to come. (If we are brutally honest, this is not obvious from reading what Paul says in verses 1-17, noting what Paul says there about 'adoption' - without qualification - and what he says in verse 23 about waiting for adoption).

Thus the Christian experience of the Spirit is both one of enjoying the foretaste (verses 1-17) and waiting patiently and hopefully for what is to come (24-25).

In a sense, we are in a weak state relative to a future strong, if not perfect state. So Paul goes back to the Spirit and what the Spirit does for us now when he writes in verse 26, 'Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness ...' The remainder of verse 26 and verse 27 spells out a specific work of the Spirit in the here and now of living in creation subject to bondage to decay: the Spirit works deep within us to enable us to 'pray as we ought' which is according to 'the will of God'.

But note an important point about the Spirit's work within us: the Spirit does not enable us to pray as we ought, but intercedes for us as ought to be the case, that is, 'the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God' (27).

Such prayers cannot fail! 

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

There are three important approaches to understanding the work of the Holy Spirit within our readings today. 

(1) There is the Lukan theology represented in the Acts reading in which the Holy Spirit powerfully propels the mission of Jesus forward by filling the disciples with the power at work in Jesus, making them brave and able to proclaim the gospel.

(2) There is the Pauline theology represented in the Romans reading in which the Holy Spirit works within the depths of believers to enable their journey from creation and its sufferings to a new creation and its blessings to be completed successfully.

(3) There is the Johannine theology represented in this reading in which the Holy Spirit as both Advocate (Comforter/Paraclete/Helper) and Spirit of truth does the following:

- testifies on behalf of Jesus (26)
- (implied but not quite made explicit) will act as though Jesus is still with the disciples (note 4b)
- will 'prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment' (8-10)
- will 'guide [the disciples] into all the truth ... speak whatever he hears .... declare to you the things that are to come' (13)
- will 'glorify' Jesus (14).

Each of these works of the Holy Spirit coheres with Lukan and Pauline theologies of the Holy Spirit (though I won't explain how here - causa brevitatis) save to note, as one example of each, the way in which 'declare to you the things that are to come' fits with Paul in our Romans' passage and testifies on behalf of Jesus fits with our Acts' passage.

We might wonder what verses 8-10 mean since the claim seems extraordinary concerning 'the world'. One insight which might begin an explanation I won't attempt to complete here is a sense in John's Gospel that, just as Jesus himself is put on trial in chapter 18, so Jesus puts the whole world on trial through his coming into the world. The world rejects Jesus (see the Prologue in John 1) and thus the world is placed on trial, charged with that rejection. The Spirit's work in the world, in part, is to convict the world that it is guilty as charged.

The claim in verse 13 is also one which many ponder. Is Jesus saying that there are all sorts of hidden, undisclosed revelations which he has not given the disciples but which the Spirit will later reveal to them? (Thus, to give a contemporary example, some say that the church ought to support same sex marriage because the Spirit is now leading us into this truth as part of 'all the truth' hitherto not revealed). 

Or, is Jesus saying that the Spirit of truth will lead the disciples into a deeper and more complete understanding of what Jesus has already revealed? That is, the Spirit's role is one of clarifying and developing what is partially understood - a point worth considering if only because in the gospel (in each of the gospels) the disciples are often quite boneheaded about what Jesus is saying to them!

We could also consider the option that 'all the truth' is both clarifying the already revealed and revealing the undisclosed.

What did Jesus mean? A simple application of logic to the situation yields the unexpected conclusion that Jesus would not contradict himself so that whatever the Spirit reveals to the disciples will be consistent with Jesus' (already revealed) teaching, 'for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears' (13). 'Whatever he hears' will be whatever the Spirit hears the Father and the Son saying.

A clue that this is the right line of understanding comes from considering John's Gospel itself. Compared to the three Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, is John's very different Gospel a new revelation of the Spirit or a deeper insight into the revelation of Jesus found in the three earlier gospels?

If we answer Yes to the former then we inevitably head in a Gnostic (i.e. new knowledge) direction and are powerless to resist the logic of (say) Mormonism or Islam which each claim new revelation from God which goes beyond the Bible. If we say No to the former and Yes to the latter then we inevitably head in the direction the church historically did head in: towards the encapsulation of the meaning of Jesus Christ for the world in the words of the Creeds, that is, towards orthodox Christian belief.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Sunday 17 May 2015 Ascension Day (transferred)

I suspect most readers/users of these notes will follow the Ascension Day (Thursday 14 May) readings on this Sunday


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

Comments:


Introduction: this post takes no view on whether Ascension Day should be celebrated on Ascension Day (in 2015, Thursday 14 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. That seems to be the custom these days.

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 3, 2015

Sunday 10 May 2015 - 6th Sunday of Easter

Theme(s): Love / Service / Divine Friendship / Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Sentence: You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15:14)

Collect:

Almighty God,
you teach us in your word
that love is the fulfilling of the law:
grant that we may love you with all our heart
and our neighbours as ourselves;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Comments:

Acts 10:44-48

We have not read the 'backstory' to this passage, that is, the story of Cornelius and Peter, the story of the Jewish Peter's reservations that God might work in the lives of Gentiles such as Cornelius being broken down.

Verse 44 begins with Peter still delivering his message after meeting with Cornelius (a meeting, so to speak, by divine appointment). Perhaps God is a little impatient with Peter's exposition because we read, 'While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.'

In the context of Acts, the falling of the Holy Spirit (or pouring of the Holy Spirit, 45) on people is a decisive indication that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been believed and received by its hearers. So here it is Luke's communication to his readers that the gospel has now 'jumped the barrier' between Jews and Gentiles.

How did those present know the Holy Spirit had come upon these uncircumcised believers (compare 45a)? Answer: 'for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God' (46).
We could reserve a discussion about speaking in tongues for a seminar on a Saturday rather than trying to deal with it within a sermon, but the point could be made that the coming of the Spirit is not about some vague action by God which we hardly know we have experienced.

Peter then asks why baptism with water cannot now proceed (47) and so it does (48). Note that the 'receiving' of the Holy Spirit following by baptism - we could even say, the baptism of the Holy Spirit followed by baptism with water - is not an absolute order which we must follow. The reverse order, for example, is seen in Acts 8:1-16. One theological reflection to consider is that God wish us to be both baptised in water and in the Holy Spirit. The order does not matter but the combination is vital.

Psalm 98

This is a great song of praise. We should say it with gusto, chant it with passion, and (if possible, perhaps via a modern hymnic version) sing it strongly.

1 John 5:1-6

John continues his letter of assurance (this is the truth about God and God's children) and argument (against the secessionists from this community, he argues that the true church is this way and not their way).

We - assuming we are not facing off secessionists challenging our understanding of church - read these verses primarily as a summary of the way of God for God's people: we are defined by belief in Jesus as the Christ of God, we love God and God's son Jesus, and we obey God's commandments. But we might be puzzled by verses 4-6! (See below).

The original readers, however, likely read these verses as a stirring challenge to those who challenged them about what the true Christians faith was all about. John underlines that it concerns the fact that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, that this belief (and only this belief) is the cornerstone of new life in God ('born of God', 1). Further, true Christians are marked by their love for other Christians (1-2) - something the secessionists were not living up to as their act of secession showed hatred for fellow Christians.

Verses 4-5 imply that in the background were assertions by the secessionists about what led Christians to victory over 'the world' (i.e. over the tempting and evil ways of the world in which the Christians lived (e.g. 2:15-17). John teaches that victory does not come from (here we guess a little) believing extra things about God or Jesus or seceding from the church (into an exclusive group living in isolation from the world?). Rather, victory comes from being a Christian (one who is born of God, who has faith in Jesus Christ, who believes the basic creed about Jesus, that Jesus is the Christ (1) and Jesus is the Son of God (5).

Verse 6 then offers some further detail about the content of belief in Jesus as the Son of God: this Jesus is the one who died a real death on a real cross - a death which issued in blood and water from Jesus' side - a true historical fact which is understood theologically as an atoning death (see 2:1-4). All this is testified by 'the Spirit' perhaps implying that the greater teaching of John, embedded in the Gospel of John, forms part of the teaching which is true, teaching authenticated by the Spirit of God.

John 15:9-17

These verses constitute something of a summary of what Jesus has been teaching from the moment he picked up a bowl of water and a towel and began teaching his disciples about the way of serving love (John 13).

The first verses pick up the theme of abiding, already brought out in 15:1-8. One emphasis here is on the visible actions of the one who claims to abide in Christ: such a disciple obeys Christ's commandments. We cannot say we abide in Christ and refuse (say) to serve other Christians in practical loving actions) - a theme developed in 1 John.

Verses 12 onwards take up the teaching about the command to love one another, even to the point of laying down one's life for one's friends. If chapter 13 has emphasised the character of disciples as servants, these verses take the theme of servanthood in a new direction, to a new dimension: servants of Christ who enact his servanthood are in fact 'friends' of Christ. They are 'friends' rather than 'servants' because one aspect of servanthood is ignorance of the master's plans. But Jesus servants disciples now know everything which is in his mind, so they are friends and not servants.

'Everything' is everything which the Father has revealed to Jesus (15). In part this is a claim that through the gospel we are reading, we are learning all that God has revealed through Jesus. In another part, this is a claim against those peddling the claim that there is additional revelation from God, not revealed to or through Jesus, but now available through (false) teachers and prophets: No!, John says through Jesus' words, Everything we need to know about God and God's ways is fully and finally revealed through Jesus' own teaching.

Verse 16 has been of great encouragement to people in ministry through the centuries. One am I persisting in what seems an unrewarding task in God's name? Jesus' answer: 'You did not choose me, but I chose you.' We are always in ministry of the gospel because Christ's hand has taken hold of us, because Christ has called us. If we have not chosen to serve God we cannot choose not to serve God. When God through Christ chooses us for service, we have no choice!

With the reference to 'fruit' in the second part of verse 16, we are back thematically with the vine and the branches.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday 3rd May 2015 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

Theme: Love / Abiding in Christ / Vine and branches / God’s love for us, our love for others /Bearing fruit.

Sentence: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4:16b)

Collect:

Christ of the new covenant,
Give us the happiness to share
With full measure, pressed down,
Shaken together and running over,
All that you give us. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Comments:

Acts 8:26-40

Note that Philip here is one of the seven deacons (Acts 6:5), and not Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve. His evangelistic adventures have been told from 8:5.

How did the gospel progress from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? A qualitative answer is “Not as well as might be expected.” Acts 8:1-4 makes the implicit point that the gospel was stuck in Jerusalem until persecution ‘began against the church in Jerusalem’ (1). This led to a scattering of Christians who ‘went from place to place, proclaiming the word’ (3). Philip goes ‘down to the city of Samaria’(5) with the gospel, thus fulfilling one specific detail in the Great Commission of Acts 1:8.

The next part of Acts 1:8, after reference to Samaria, mentions ‘to the ends of the earth.’ Acts will end in Chapter 28 with Paul proclaiming the gospel in Rome (though not as the first person to do so) and along the way we will have followed the progress of the gospel around the Mediterranean, anti-clockwise, from Antioch to Athens (so to speak), via three great missionary journeys of Paul.

But there are other ‘ends of the earth’ and the passage today tells us how the gospel went from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, a region in Africa to the south of Jerusalem, and a place where, indeed, the church is most ancient being wonderfully faithful to the gospel first shared by Philip with Candace’s unnamed eunuch (27).

Obviously there is an unusual if not unique aspect to this story which generally we do not and cannot follow by way of an example: ‘Philip’s Transport’ where there seems to be some extraordinary airlifting by the Holy Spirit at the conclusion of the encounter (39-40) and possibly in order to make the encounter happen (26-30).

But everything else in the story is worth pondering as example and guide in our own evangelistic work. Consider:

-          - Philip is open to the direction of God through his angel (26);
-          - The gospel is easier to explain to those who already have a point or points of connection with the things of God (noting the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship (27); was reading Isaiah when Philip turned up (28);)
-       -    There are ‘God moments’ we can ask God to provide for evangelism to be fruitful: the eunuch was not reading any old part of Isaiah but Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:32-33), a passage which applies to the life and work of Jesus Christ; the eunuch was an enquirer who sought to understand what he was reading (34);
-        -   Evangelists ask open ended questions which lead a conversation closer to God: The eunuch is reading so Philip asks ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’(30);
-        -   Evangelism is ultimately fruitful when hearers (a) believe and (b) are baptised (that is, enter into the fullness of life in the body of Christ the church);

One final note to observe here is the strategy of God. If we were Philip and had an Ethiopian mission in mind, we might rate ourselves pretty smart strategically if we found a key government official to convert. But Philip had no such strategy in mind! God had the strategy in mind and in an unusual mode of direction and transport, made Philip into an agent of his blessed scheme!

Psalm 22:25-31

In these verses from a psalm we mostly associate with the agony of Jesus on the cross, we find the psalmist entering into praise of the Lord with a vision which sees ‘All the ends of the earth’ remembering to turn to the Lord and ‘all the families of the nations’ worshipping him (27).

This vision is fulfilled in Acts, and our reading from Acts today tells us of one nation which will turn towards the Lord.

1 John 4:7-21

By this stage in the letter, if we have been reading every verse, we may be wondering why John seems intent on saying a few things repeatedly. One answer is that John is very concerned about the false teaching influencing his readers and thus takes the greatest of pains to make sure there is no misunderstanding about the truth (i.e. true teaching v false teaching).

We can note here that although John has previously written about ‘love’ (e.g. 2:5, 10, 15; 3:11-18, 23) he now does so more extensively than previously, and what he writes leads him to make the single most important statement about God made in all Scripture: ‘God is love’ (a statement made twice, 4:8, 16).

Reading the striking, challenging, inspiring words of verses 7-12, I am not sure that I want to ‘explain’ them. They need reflection, responsive action and should lead to praise and adoration of the One Who Is Love!

Some notes are worth making about the next verses, partly because they are more puzzling. 

What, for instance, does verse 13 mean? The confident elucidations of the Father and the Son in this epistle seem to falter when it comes to the Spirit: how do we know that we have received the Spirit who enables us to ‘know that we abide in [God] and he in us’? The answer seems to be implied rather than explicit: the Spirit is given to us to empower us to love as God has loved us (7-12), we understand that the Son has come into the world to be our Saviour (10, 14), we confess ‘that Jesus is the Son of God’ (15), and we have a sense that God loves us (16a).

When John speaks of themes of judgment/fear/punishment/perfection we are reminded of last week’s verses, 19-23.

(Thus we can surmise that in part the false teaching John was countering was a teaching which shattered the assurance which Christians ought to and can have, that if God has loved us first then we are loved and the power for us to love one another flows from the loving initiative of God who desires our blessing, and thus love in and through and from us may be perfected. Therefore we need have no fear of judgment by the God who is love).

The last few verses of the passage make clear that the love John is speaking of is not a theoretical love or a feeling of love: it is love demonstrated in the concrete actions of service to others, those whom we see and touch and thus demonstrate through our love for them that we love God who can neither be seen nor touched.

There is much more to say here. A thousand sermons will never exhaust the profound truth which permeates these verses. A specific omission in my comments above concerns the theme of ‘abiding’. To that theme we turn in the gospel reading.

John 15:1-8

Some passages of the Bible are more famous than others and this is one of them!

There is a haunting poetic quality to these words, which are part of the moving, poignant ‘last testament’ of Jesus as he sets out for his disciples what the future beyond his death is going to be for them.

Here Jesus assures them that he will always be with them and commands that they be with him. The Greek verb maneo is translated ‘abide’ in the NRSV and other translations, with ‘remain’ and ‘dwell in’ being offered by others. The sense is of a spiritual uniting of Jesus and his disciples – a uniting illustrated by the ‘vine’ and ‘branch’ imagery: the branch is nothing without the vine to which it is joined; the vine is not up to much if it has no branches.

We might (I suggest) think of the close bond of husband and wife who are united in body, soul and mind; or of two people who think alike and perhaps share feelings and attitudes in common, often described as ‘soulmates.’ We could say that Jesus is talking here about what it means to be his soulmate.

First, it means a relationship with a purpose. Jesus does not simply want us to be his ‘best buddies’, hanging out together in a closed circle. He wants us to ‘bear fruit’ (2, 4, 5, 8). Yet ‘fruit’ is not defined here! Perhaps that is because John reckons it is obvious what ‘fruit’ would be in this context. 

If so, then the obvious ‘fruit’ in a purposeful relationship would be fruit in keeping with the overall purpose of this gospel account of Jesus’ life and mission. When we go to John 20:31, we would reckon that ‘fruit’ is new believers in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, it means a relationship in which the purpose is not optional but intrinsic to the relationship. All the talk in these verses of the branches which do not bear fruit being at least pruned, if not removed is serious, pointed and (to be honest) somewhat scary (starting with verse 2). Disciples do not live for themselves alone but live to bear fruit, to bring more people into an abiding relationship with Jesus.

Thirdly, it means a relationship in which we are continuously soulmates of Jesus. We are not penfriends who occasionally ‘touch base’ with each other. ‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me’ (4). If we have any doubts, these words in verse 5 are decisive: ‘apart from me you can do nothing.’

So these words are challenging but they are also encouraging. If we abide with Jesus, allow ourselves to be pruned, then ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit’ (5).

What then do we make of verse 7 which sometimes has been taken to mean that (say) when we want a new car, we just ask and it will be provided (with possible devastation to faith when we walk out to our driveway to find the same old battered sedan is sitting there). Noting that abiding is about being ‘soulmates’ with Jesus, we should understand verse 7 to mean that when we understand Jesus and what his will is for the world, we will only ask for what Jesus wants to happen. (Occasionally that might include a new vehicle!)

Jesus’ life, according to this gospel, has been solely focused on glorifying God. It is no surprise that those who abide in him will also be glorifying God (8).


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday 26 April 2015 - 4th Sunday of Easter

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

Comments:

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

Acts 4:5-12

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

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

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

Psalm 23

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

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

1 John 3:16-24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 10:11-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why, oh why do we have so many denominations?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday 19 April 2015 - 3rd Sunday of Easter

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

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

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

Readings:

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

Comments:

Acts 3:12-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 4

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

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

1 John 3:1-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 24:36b-48

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

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

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

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

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

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


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