Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sunday 27 April 2014 Easter 1 or Second Sunday of Easter or Low Sunday

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

Commentary:

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

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

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

When debates with sceptics involve doubts about whether the tomb of Jesus became empty because the body of Jesus was raised up to new life, note the enigmatic description in verse 29. There Peter describes David - the writer of the psalm which prophetically looks ahead to the resurrection - as 'both died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day'. He doesn't quite say it, but the implication is there: David died, we know where his tomb is, we can enter that tomb and touch his bones; whereas Jesus died, we know where his tomb is, we can enter that tomb but we cannot touch his bones for 'he is not there' (see Mark 16:6)

Psalm 16

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

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

1 Peter 1:3-9

What is the importance of the resurrection of Jesus?

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

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

The importance of the resurrection of Jesus is that it has great relevance to us who believe: through God's mercy we have new birth into a living hope, that is a hope which is life-giving because the resurrection of Jesus is a promissary note that we one day will inherit something spectacularly magnificent (imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for us) and that this inheritance is sure because the power of God, the same power which raised Jesus from the dead, are being protected through difficult times until this inheritance, also known as 'a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time' (5), is granted to us.

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

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

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

With the second story lines of continuity connect it with the first story but this time Thomas is in view. Assuring this doubting believer that Jesus really and truly has been raised from the dead is an assurance for all future readers with doubts that (a) they do not need to doubt, and (b) their situation as believers never having met Jesus of Nazareth (pre-death or post-death) is more blessed than the situation of those who did meet him.

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

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

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

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

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

Two questions might then arise.

a. would we have then said what is said in verse 23 about forgiving sins? Wouldn't we expect, say, something about 'go and preach the gospel with power' or 'discern which gifts the Spirit has given you and get on with using them for God's glory'? Yet, when we pause and reflect on these words, we can see a profound connection between the work of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. What is the forgiveness of sins but the healing of the past which so often prevents people from living well in the present and rejoicing with hope for the future. The Holy Spirit comes to heal the fallen creation and to initiate the new creation of God. Those who receive the Holy Spirit have the power to enable this work of healing through forgiveness or withholding it (e.g. by keeping the gospel of grace to themselves).

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

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

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

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

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

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

John offers a kind of "bog standard" cliche at the end of his story (30): I could have told you more but I have run out of space. On the one hand that is a humble acknowledgement of the limitations of his project; on the other hand that allows his readers freedom to value and appreciate many other stories about Jesus (especially those told in other gospels circulating through the churches).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday 20 April 2014 Easter Day

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

Sentence:

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

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

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

*Note the NZL rubric that the Acts reading 'must be used as either the 1st or 2nd reading'. I would love to know why we have a 'must' here but in the entry for the day before we have a 'should' re three OT readings ... however I note that readings from Acts are a 'must' feature of Sundays in Eastertide.

Commentary:

Acts 10:34-43

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians 3:1-4

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

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

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

But that is not all. One reason we say that is our passage from Colossians. Here Paul refers back to (at least) Colossians 2:12,

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

Paul is saying that even as we live our ordinary life in our physical bodies, when our lives are connected with Christ through faith and baptism, a burial occurs which reflects our state before God as sinners, "you were dead in trespasses" (2:13) and a resurrection occurs in which "God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses" (2:13). What we need to understand is that Paul is not speaking metaphorically (i.e. nothing has actually changed about you): he sees a reality in which the life of Christ becomes the life of the believer (e.g. 2:9-10), Christ lives in us, we live 'in Christ'.

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

Matthew, perhaps the next written gospel after Mark, offers us a narrative in which the disciples do encounter the risen Jesus. But the narrative still raises some unanswered questions!

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

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

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

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

Simply, the gospel writers are doing two things simultaneously as they tell us about the resurrection. One, they tell us about the resurrection; two, they are concluding their gospels. For Matthew and Mark, a story which begins with Jesus in Galilee at the beginning of his ministry must end with Jesus in Galilee. For Luke and John, with their respective concerns to place Jerusalem at the centre of their narratives (think of Luke's interest in Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, from 9:51 onwards; think of John's stories of Jesus returning again and again to Jerusalem), their accounts present Jesus appearing alive and well in the place where he had been killed, in the city most central to God's plan for Israel. (With John 21's Galilee account, we could think of John acknowledging Matthew and Mark's interest in Galilee appearances also).

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sunday 13 April 2014 Palm Sunday

NOTE: This Sunday it is possible to prepare a 'Liturgy of the Palms' and 'Liturgy of the Passion'. Personally I am finding the readings and instructions set out in NZL 2014 unhelpful. For instance they imply that if I wanted to focus on Palm Sunday but didn't actually have a palm procession then I should not have the Matthew Palm Sunday reading, Matthew 21:1-11.

Nevertheless I recognise that in our church (in my experience and according to my knowledge) there are broadly two traditions or customs followed.

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

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

I am offering comment on readings for a liturgy which solely focuses on Palm Sunday. Accordingly I am combining readings from the two columns set out in NZL 2014 for Sunday 13 April in order to offer commentary on a standard set of three readings plus psalm.

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

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

Commentary:

Isaiah 50:4-9a

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

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

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

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

Psalm 31:9-16

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

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

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

Philippians 2:5-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 21:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is our response to this reading?

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

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

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


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lent 5 Sunday 6 April 2014 Passion Sunday

Theme(s): Death and Resurrection // Resurrection and Life // Lazarus anticipates Jesus' death and resurrection

Sentence: They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upong them, for the One who loves them will lead them and guide them beside the springs of water. (Isaiah 49:10 adapted).

Collect:

Most merciful God,
by the passion of your Son Jesus Christ
you delivered us from the power of darkness;
grant that through faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may be found acceptable in your sight,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings:

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Commentary:

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Few passages in the Old Testament are more famous than this vision of 'The Valley of the Dry Bones' with its haunting yet hopeful vision of the rattling bones (7) being brought together, sinews and flesh joining them together and skin covering them (8) and, most importantly, the breath of God coming into them and so the bones live again (9-10).

From a New Testament perspective the vision is a vision of the resurrection of the dead.

But if we were with Ezekiel when he announced this vision we would have latched on to the explanation in verses 11-14: Israel in exile in Babylon (where Ezekiel exercised his prophetic ministry) was effectively dead as a nation, "our hope is lost" (11), but God says otherwise, "I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves" (12) and "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live" (14).

The God of Israel is the God of new beginnings, of life beyond the grave, of new life when the old has been thrown away.

Psalm 130

This psalm would be as appropriate to read in an ancient Jewish synagogue in conjunction with the Ezekiel reading as it is today in a Christian church. The psalmist is far from being in the place he or she wants to be. From the depths the cry of the psalm is made.  Please hear my prayer, Lord! (1-2) In the meantime, I will wait patiently (5-6), acknowledging that if there were no divine forgiveness then nothing could change (3-4). From the individual psalmist a turn is made to Israel: don't give up! "O Israel, hope in the Lord!" (7). The Lord, that is, with whom "is great power to redeem" (7).

Romans 8:6-11

Where is resurrection in this life? What does the 'life' of Christ, expressed in the gospel reading as "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25), mean for the believer in day to day terms while the physical body is alive? Romans 8:6-11 answers such questions. In particular, Paul argues that since the same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead is 'in'/'dwells in' believers (11), that raising from the dead Spirit will 'give life to your mortal bodies' (11). That is, though 'the body is dead because of sin' (10), the 'Spirit is life because of righteousness' (10). The death of Jesus Christ has secured righteousness for all believers (Paul's argument through Romans 1-7), thus the potential for life in the Spirit (the theme of Romans 8) in opposition to the terminating character of sin can be realised. Specifically, in the battle for the mind, between 'flesh' and 'Spirit', the Spirit can bring victory (verses 6-8). But by the end of Romans 8 it is clear that the potential for life in the Spirit is also for life undefeated by the death of the body (e.g. 38).

In other words, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead along with the death of Jesus Christ on the cross sets in motion the possibility of the sinner being declared righteous, the 'dead man walking' sinner having hope of resurrection in the life to come and the believer in this life experiencing the power of the resurrection in the battle between good and evil, between his or her mind set on God rather than on rebellion against God.

John 11:1-45

This story functions in two ways within the larger story which John narrates in his gospel.

One way is that within the building crescendo of conflict between Jesus and Jewish authorities (7), this story provides the clinching reason for the authorities to take action against Jesus: see 11:46-53 which includes the reasoning of the high priest, 'it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed' (50). To raise Lazarus from the dead is one miracle too much for the authorities for the miracles are gathering believers in Jesus (45).

Another way is that the story highlights the extraordinary impact of the transformative ministry of Jesus. Thus far he has transformed water into wine, a few loaves into an over supply of food for 5000, blindness into sight, etc. But the final enemy of life, death itself is going to be transformed. Jesus will die yet live again: 'I am the resurrection and the life' (25). This will transform death for all who believe in Jesus (25-26). In the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Jesus paves the way for believers to begin to grasp the ungraspable: Jesus will die but death will not conquer him.

The actual telling of the story is full of its own intrigue. Messengers race to tell Jesus that his friend Lazarus is dying (1-6) but Jesus deliberately lingers where he is (6). A brief interlude conversation ensues re the wisdom of deliberately going up to Judea, and this serves to remind the reader of the state of the conflict between Jesus and the authorities (7-10). Lazarus dies. Only then does Jesus make an effort to do something about the situation, explaining this as an opportunity for God to be glorified (11-16).

So we arrive with the disciples and Jesus near (but not actually at) the tomb of Lazarus with the body 'in the tomb four days' (17).

Perhaps this is a good time to note that the complete family of Lazarus are his sisters Mary and Martha whom we meet (without their brother) in Luke 10:38-42. We have not met them before in this gospel but through this and the next chapter the family figure prominently as John's story of the anointing of Jesus before his burial takes place at their home (12:1-8).

Mary and Martha are distraught with grief (17-21, 32-34). They have lost their brother (and their breadwinner?). Nothing is hurried as Jesus now lingers outside the tomb. He talks with Martha (21-27), Martha fetches Mary (28) and Mary hurries out to Jesus and says to him just what Martha said to him (21=32). Intriguingly Jesus responded to Martha with a confident, "Your brother will rise again" (23) whereas with Mary, Jesus 'was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved' (33) and begins himself to weep, leading to the shortest and (arguably) most moving verse in the Bible, 'Jesus wept' (35). Here the divine and human Jesus intersect as Jesus experiences genuine grief for the loss of his loved friend (3, 35 - giving rise, incidentally to a possible but not quite plausible identification of the 'Beloved Disciple' as Lazarus).

Meanwhile John the story teller is in no hurry to take us readers to the climax of the story and so we have a very long gospel reading this week! Jesus arrives near the tomb in verse 17, arrives at the tomb in verse 38 and Lazarus leaves the tomb in verse 44. John is not trying to wind us up, rather he pours into this telling as much of his theological perspective on the significance of Jesus as he can. More simply, the sign (or miracle) is significant and John majors on the significance more than on the sign itself (which, effectively, is told in verses 41-44).

What then, of John's theology? No claim is made that the following is exhaustive:

1. concern for the glory of God (4, 40): Jesus will do that which brings glory to God; bad things happen to good people but they will bring glory to God (see also last week's gospel reading, 9:3); later Jesus' own death will glorify God (12:23).

2. death is not the final enemy because resurrection defeats death: note the dialogue in verses 7-16 in which concern is raised about Jesus returning to Judea. There he might die. But Jesus in this dialogue treats death (in this case the death of Lazarus) as 'falling asleep'. It is not the end, 'he will be all right' (12). Yet Jesus is not denying the reality of death 'Lazarus is dead' (14).

3. Jesus is the fulfilment of Jewish hope and expectation: when Martha speaks of 'the resurrection in the last day' (24) she spoke as an ordinary Jew of her time. She looked forward to a future day when the resurrection of the dead would occur. Thus she could concur with Jesus promising that "Your brother will rise again" (23) while crying bitter tears of grief. But Jesus turns this response on its head. The resurrection is not a future event: it is here ("I am the resurrection and the life", 25). But that means that Jesus is no mere 'Rabbi' (7) - a teacher who teaches the future of resurrection. As Martha has consistently recognised, Jesus is 'Lord' (3, 21). But what kind of lord? In verse 27 she recognises that "you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." Here (in Johannine terms, see 20:30-31) is the ultimate recognition of the significance of Jesus. The Messiah has come, the resurrection is present, the new age of the kingdom of God is inaugurated.

4. the gospel is an invitation to 'come and see': John's Gospel has many recurring motifs and themes, along with what we could call 'signature' phrases. One of those phrases is the invitation "come and see". The first occurrence is Jesus himself inviting would be disciples to 'come and see' where he was staying (1:39). The second occurrence is Philip persuading a sceptical Nathanael that the prophesied messiah has been found, 'Come and see' (1:46). The Samaritan woman at the well invites her fellow Samaritans to 'Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?' (4:29). Variations on this invitation are the expressed wish of some Greeks in Jerusalem to Philip, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus' (12:21) and the invitation of Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, 'Come and have breakfast' (21:12).

Here, when near the tomb it is Jesus himself who is invited to go to the tomb of Lazarus:

'He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see".' (34)

At face value this occasion is not a 'gospel' invitation: it is a mundane use of a characteristic expression of John's Gospel, inviting Jesus to visit the tomb of his friend. But let's dig deeper. That invitation paves the way for Jesus to perform the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. It is a gospel miracle. A loved man has died, people are grieving, including Jesus himself (35). Death is the end of life, that is the bad news about life. All die. Except Jesus disagrees. The good news is that resurrection has come. The grave is not the end. "Come and see" is the invitation which leads to the visible sign of the good news, a dead man is raised to life.

Jesus performs this sign/miracle "so that they [the gathered crowd] may believe that you sent me" (42). The invitation to Jesus to "come and see" is, in fact, also an invitation to all readers of the gospel to "come and see" for ourselves the good news in action.

A final note to wrap up

Alert readers of all four gospels may puzzle as to why this story of great significance in John's telling of the story of how Jesus came to die is omitted from the other gospels. Surely, we might reasonably say, if such a mighty miracle occurred and if it was of decisive importance in the Jewish leaders coming to firm resolve to kill Jesus, there would be a sign of it in the other gospels?

Richard Bauckham (who, incidentally, will visit NZ in August) offers an explanation worth considering (in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 194-196).

In the gospels some characters are anonymous because there was a need for certain people involved in the events of Jesus' life, still alive at the time of the composition of the gospels, to be protected from harm. Bauckham calls this 'protective anonymity.' In the case of Lazarus the need was so great in the period of the earliest three gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) that not even the story of his resurrection is mentioned, let alone his name. By the time of John's Gospel being composed, Lazarus, so the explanation goes, was dead (for the second time). His story could be told and his name could be mentioned.

Important for the explanation is the reference in John 12:9-11: there was a plot to kill Lazarus as well as to kill Jesus.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lent 4 Sunday 30 March 2014

Theme(s): Light and darkness // Blindness and sight // Having eyes but not seeing // Jesus the light of the world // Recognising Jesus

Sentence: I am the light of the world (John 9:5)

Collect:  Heavenly Father,
You see how your children hunger for food, and fellowship, and faith.
Help us to meet one another's needs of body, mind and spirit,
In the love and light of Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings:

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Commentary:

1 Samuel 16:1-13

This reading intrigues as we wonder what brings readings together on this day.The story of the choosing and anointing of David to be king of Israel ties in with the choice of Psalm 23 (the Lord as shepherd who guides the shepherd through the perils and pitfalls of life). Is there a connection with the gospel (which is about the healing of a blind man and ties in with the epistle and its theme of light and darkness)?

(An aside: to try to answer this question with its, to me, non-obvious answer, I thought I would use the commentator's friend, Google, but that proved somewhat fruitless in the time available to me, so what follows is very much my own 'stab in the dark').

In this reading, many things are of interest, because here the greatest king of ancient Israel is chosen. God intervenes in the sad history of Israel under Saul to discern a new and better king. But our special interest is whether and how this reading forms a 'seamless robe' of scriptural text for the fourth Sunday of Lent. From the perspective of the healing of the blind man in John's Gospel which necessarily is also a lesson in healing of spiritual blindness or the inability to see Jesus for Who He Really Is, the choice of this reading makes sense. Samuel, religious leader that he is, seer and prophet by way of office or role in Israel, cannot see with his own eyes whom God has chosen to succeed Saul. However with God's assistance he can see that the fine sons of Jesse brought before him are not God's chosen one. Persistence yields reward. There is one more son, obscure by being the youngest and by being the one furthest away from the scene. David will be king.

Later Jesus will be Messiah, the new king of Israel who will fulfil God's promise to David that his throne will be everlasting (2 Samuel 7). In the gospel reading the question of Messiahship lies at the heart of the controversy told in John 9:1-41.

The choosing of David expresses a great them in the biblical narrative: God is the God of surprises, choosing the unexpected ones to be the decisive leaders of his people (Abraham from nowhere; Jacob rather than Esau; Amos to be a prophet when not a prophet, etc).

Psalm 23

If we associate any psalm with David, it is this psalm! But it is a good choice for a Sunday in Lent. Where is the new David, Jesus heading through these days?

'Even though I walk through the darkest valley ...'

The cross is the darkest valley. But it is not death as final destruction. God will restore Jesus to life.

'he restores my soul (3) ... You prepare a table before me (5) ... I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (6).'

Ephesians 5:8-14

Some people are not keen on binary alternatives: good/bad, black/white, hero/enemy, cops/robbers. The world, it is objected, is a messy place with more shades of grey than division into black/white alternatives suggest. There is a bit of good and bad in each of us, it is said. Action films of the James Bond type with instantly distinguishable goodies and baddies have their place but the more thoughtful films explore the subtle realities of flawed humanity. Thus, it is argued, the great films are more The Shawshank Redemption than Goldfinger.

All this seems a bit lost on Paul in these verses! He launches into a neat division of the world, 'For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light' (8). Our reflection on this from a world keen on shades of grey could start by asking what the big issue is. For Paul the big issue is whether we are on God's side or not, whether we intend to live worthily of the Lord (see 4:1) or not. There are no greys between living for the Lord and living against the Lord or between living in the light or in the darkness or between trying to find out what pleases the Lord and trying not to find out what pleases the Lord (10). The edge here is that 'because of these things [sinful deeds, 5:3-5] the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient' (6).

This is sober talk about a serious matter: how Christians are to live. The summary here could be: live in the light with no compromise with darkness. A further couple of observations are these. First, the temptation to live with compromises with darkness can be fostered by false teachers (6) and Paul says we are not to associate with them (7). Secondly, when Paul writes in v. 12, 'For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly', have we drifted into shamefulness through our culture's obsession with news about sexual immorality (a particular aspect of 'darkness' Paul is concerned about, 3-5).

In relation to our gospel reading, the overall message of the passage about light and darkness connects with the overall theme of the gospel reading in which those with sight cannot see the light of Christ and one who has been blind is enabled to see who Jesus is.

John 9:1-41

All four gospel writers are telling a story about how Jesus died. To make sense the story needs to explain how Jesus died. All four broadly tell the same story: conflict with religious authorities escalated to the point where the authorities determined that Jesus must die and found a way for him to be executed by legal authority. In John's Gospel the conflict has been escalating through chapter 8. In chapter 9 it goes up a notch and (interestingly) does so with some themes common to the other three gospels, particularly conflict over Jesus healing on the Sabbath (9:14-17). Soon, in chapter 11, the conflict will hit 'red alert' with the raising of Lazarus from the dead (an event not reported by the other three gospels). So John 9, today's reading is an important stage in John's account of Jesus' journey to the cross.

The sub-plot in the chapter itself is fairly straightforward: Jesus heals a beggar who was blind from birth (1-12), this is drawn to the attention of 'the Pharisees' (13) who spot a problem with the healing: it has taken place on the sabbath (14-16). Some questions arise around the true nature of the miracle and its implications ('how can a man who is a sinner perform such signs? (16); 'The Jews did not believe that he had been blind' (17)) with the outcome being persecution of the healed man (34). Jesus finds the man and leads him deeper into belief in himself (38) while 'Some of the Pharisees' are told by Jesus that they are trapped in sin as people who claim they can 'see' when in fact they are 'blind' (40-41).

Less straightforward and requiring careful and close reading are all the theological themes being developed in the chapter. For a Sunday with a super-long reading and a need (I presume) to keep the sermon to reasonable length I suggest here that just one theme is focused on. Here are some of the themes:

- who is Jesus? Trace the blind man's responses to Jesus through the story: 'The man called Jesus' (11); 'He is a prophet' (17); 'If this man were not from God, he could do nothing' (33); 'Lord, I believe [that you are the Son of Man]' (38 [35]).

- the nature of suffering: The story starts with a standard explanation of suffering, 'Someone has sinned' and thus the only question worth asking Jesus is whether it was the blind man or his parents who had sinned (1-2). Jesus replies, enigmatically, 'he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him' (3). This can be read in at least two ways. One, seemingly cruel, is 'some are selected for disability and disease so magnificent healings bring glory to God.' This reading does not particularly explain why many are born without disability and avoid diseases. Two is 'the point of suffering is not to ask why it has occurred but to ask what God can make of it.' The second reading coheres with verse 4, 'We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.' Human suffering is an opportunity for God's work to be done in the world.

- becoming and being a disciple (complementary to the question about, 'Who is Jesus?'): the blind-now-seeing man's journey into discipleship begins with bare recognition 'The man called Jesus' (11) and deepens to the point of calling Jesus 'Lord' and believing that Jesus is 'the Son of Man' (35-39), noting that in John's Gospel 'Son of Man' (notwithstanding many debates about what this phrase refers to in other gospels) is about Jesus' heavenly status and journey from heaven to earth (see especially John 3:1-16). The 'believing' of this new disciple is no idle matter: he is persecuted for his belief (34). Note the parallel between the gradual 'seeing' of Jesus which comes to the man and the gradual manner of his healing from blindness (1-11).

- light and darkness (especially verses 4 and 5, and the claim of Jesus repeated from 8:12, 'I am the light of the world').

- true sight and real blindness: the blind man received physical sight and (eventually) spiritual sight; the Pharisees/Jews have physical sight but are blind to who Jesus is, from where/whom he has come and to what God is doing through him (note 40-41).

Finally, note that this chapter is enigmatic in respect of trying to trace the story of John writing this gospel. Verse 22 tells us that 'His parents said this because they were afraid that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.' Many scholars think this comment could only refer to events from about 80 AD onwards when conflict between Jews and Christian Jews over the messianic status of Jesus drove Christians out of the synagogues. Some go further and suggest that both the gospel as a whole and the writing of individual episodes such as John 9 reflect conflict between Jews and Christians at the time of John's composition (late first century AD?). John, it is argued, writes into the old story of Jesus the characteristics of present or recent conflict. Further questions then arise, such as whether John is splicing genuinely old stories about Jesus with new stories about present or recent conflict. If so, in this chapter a possible sign is the way in which 'Pharisees' is used (13, 40) in contrast and comparison to 'the Jews (18, 22)


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lent 3 Sunday 23 March 2014

Theme(s): God's gracious love / Living water / Jesus Saviour of the World

Sentence: But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)

Collect:

Give us courage to hope, and to risk disappointment.
Teach us to pray expectantly,
and when our prayers seem to fail,
bring us to pray again and again;
for you are our God,
who acts and will act again
through Christ in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

Readings:

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Commentary:

Exodus 17:1-7

Water is a recurring theme in Scripture and rightly so as water is necessary for life. In the gospel reading Jesus offers 'living water' meaning the possibility of eternal life (i.e. life undefeated by any opposing force, including death). Here Israel in its journey from Egypt to the promised land is in desperate straits. The 'wilderness' in the Middle East is no place to be short of water.

Understandably the Israelites complained and Moses forwarded the complaint to the Lord. Moses is reluctant to do this as he sees Israel 'testing' the Lord which is a role reversal. The Lord is the Lord and thus able to impose a test on Israel; Israel ought not to be taking the role of the Lord and imposing a test on the Lord.

The provision of water at Rephidim is an act of kindness on the Lord's part while also offering supply and sustenance for Israel on its journey to the promised land which is the Lord's plan for Israel. In a sense the Lord has no choice but to provide the water but Israel has exercised a poor choice: it could have trusted the Lord to provide for their needs without putting him to the test. This kind of poor choice is exercised both through the wilderness years and later in the history of Israel when living in its promised land.

We are reminded in the psalm for today that this testing had consequences for Israel. (See also Numbers 20:2-13).

Psalm 95

This psalm is a joyful expression of thanks to God for God's goodness but it has a kick in its tail which relates to our Old Testament reading: Israel the beneficiary of God's grace must 'listen to his voice' and (by implication) trust that voice. The alternative, testing God as an expression of lack of faith, has consequences for future blessings, as lack of trust in the wilderness had consequences for the length of the journey to the promised land.

Romans 5:1-11

If we graph the Epistle to the Romans in such a way that peaks on the line represent gathering up points or provisional conclusions along the way to the grand conclusion, then chapter 5 would be one of those peaks. The clue is to look for the word 'Therefore' (and, as an old saying goes, ask 'What are the 'therefores' there fore?').

After four chapters expounding the history of faith in Israel in relation to the crisis in Rome over the fate of Judaism and the future of nascent Christianity, an exposition which sets out the nature of justification (that is, what it takes to make us just or righteous in God's sight), Paul writes in 5:1, 'Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ ...'. In the next ten or so verses Paul plumbs the depths of this conclusion before restating it in 5:11,
'But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.' (Incidentally, 'reconciliation' and 'justification' are theological synonyms: to be justified by God is to be reconciled with God).

Space does not permit anything like a full commentary on these wonderful verses which assure us of the generous grace of God but note these aspects:
- grace (5:2) and expansion of this theme through 5:6-10
- reflection on the role of suffering in the life of the believer (5:3-5)
- hope (5:2,4,5) and talk of 'hope' as an assurance of God being for us (rather than 'hope' as a vague anticipation of the future), signalled for the believer through the experience of 'God's love ... poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us' (5:5)
- God's love for us (5:5,8)

Perhaps the most vital message here in respect of salvation is in 5:9, 'Much more surely then ...'. There is no need for any believer in Jesus Christ to be anxious about whether we are saved or not.

John 4:5-42

This is a long reading but it does tell a complete story of a unique-to-John's Gospel encounter with a Samaritan woman.

Much can be taken out of this reading. Possible major themes to consider are: mission, women in ministry, women in the particular ministry of apostle (here, Apostle to the Samaritans, 4:28-30, 39-42), living water, life in the Spirit, the nature of Christian worship, christology: Jesus as prophet, Messiah, Saviour of the World and, significantly, one of the 'I am' statements (4:26).

There is some controversy in scholarship concerning this story: does it 'promote' women because it shows Jesus honouring a woman with dignified and intelligent conversation (i.e. counter to cultural 'male to male' norms for those days in Palestine/Samaria) as well as (effectively) commissioning her to be an apostle of the gospel? Or, does this story reflect poorly on Jesus who places her in a position of shame re the conversation drawing out from her the admission of her much married and now unmarried sexual relationship status (4:16-18)? (On that possibility note that the woman's own response is not to protest but to acknowledge Jesus' status as a 'prophet'. However, is that a respectful recognition or her own mocking riposte to Jesus' frank declaration of her personal history?) Further, note that John's own telling of the story invites criticism: the woman is not given a name.

In our journey through Lent, this story is about journeying: Jesus is on the move and needs to stop for a rest and for food and drink. As we look ahead to the cross we look to the event in which Jesus dies to save us - in this story we meet the Saviour and are invited to understand the global scope of salvation, 'we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world' (4:42). But our own 'food and drink' for our journey is at hand: through Jesus we drink the living water and eat the living bread of God's life (especially explained in John 6). In this perspective the Samaritan woman at the well is each of us: battered and bruised by life we go about our ordinary lives only to unexpectedly meet the extraordinary Jesus Christ who offers us an above ordinary life.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday 16 March 2014 Lent 2

Theme(s): gospel of grace / inclusiveness of the gospel / Jesus the Beloved Son / the cross of glory and shame / the glory of Christ

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress (Isaiah 33:2)

Collect:

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amn.

Readings:

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Matthew 17:1-9 [or John 3:1-17 but this being the year of Matthew, I will stick with Matthew]

Commentary:

Genesis 12:1-4a

Linked to the epistle reading, here we read of God's promise to Abraham. Without offering any justification such as Abraham being virtuous or virile or very worthy through some attribute such as intelligence, wealth or skill, that is, as a matter of gracious election, God promises to Abraham that he will become:

- a great nation

- a great name

- a blessing (so that God will bless those who bless Abraham, curse those who curse him, and so that through Abraham 'all the families of the earth shall be blessed' (3).)

Here lies the whole future of Israel (the great nation which will be famous for it bears witness to the Lord God as unique among all other claimants to divine status and which will influence the whole course of the world).

Later (e.g. in our epistle reading) those who love God and receive God's revelation will understand this promise to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 121

This psalm is 'A Song of Ascents', a psalm recited by pilgrims to Jerusalem as they drew near to the Temple and this (according to the topography of Jerusalem) climbed up God's holy hill, Zion. Mention of plural 'hills' in verse 1 perhaps implies this psalm is to be recited some way off from Jerusalem when several hills/mountains can be seen by the pilgrim.

As the pilgrim lifts his eyes to the hills, from where does help come? One answer in those days could have been 'from the gods believed to dwell on the shrines placed on each hill.' To any such thought the answer is a resounding 'No!' The pilgrim's help comes from 'the Lord, who made heaven and earth' - the God, that is, of all the world, not any local god with local concerns. Another answer, focusing on the Temple on Zion, perhaps out of sight at this point in the journey, is that help does not come from here or there or somewhere else but from one source and only one source, from the One who dwells in the Temple, the Lord who made heaven and earth.

This Lord needs no arousal (e.g. through shouted prayers or loud songs) because the Lord 'will neither slumber nor sleep' (4). In the heat of the day, climbing up towards Jerusalem, who keeps, protects and sustains the hot, sweaty and weary pilgrim? The Lord will do so (5-6).

The pilgrim is confident as he or she journeys towards the Temple in the holy city that nevertheless the Lord is at hand.

So too we might have a shared and similar faith in the Lord as our protector and keeper this Lent as we journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Last week we were in Romans 5 and this week we continue to read Romans ...backwards! However the connections between the two passages are clear: Paul is exploring and expounding the gospel of grace. The connection with our Lenten journey is also clear: as we walk with Jesus to the cross, we walk to the place where God in Christ acts generously that we might be freely forgiven and generously reconciled to God.

In these verses Paul is making a point within the many points of his great argument in this epistle that the gospel is a gospel in which the grace of Jesus Christ trumps the law of Moses, faith in response to that grace saves when obedience to the law does not. The point is captured in these words from v. 13,

'For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law but through righteousness of faith.'

That is, in the context of arguments between Jews and Christians and between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians about the significance of the law of Moses after the coming of Christ, Paul points out that the great promise of God to Israel made to their father Abraham was made to one who lived apart from the law but was counted righteous by God because of his faith.

In a way Paul is saying that the gospel of grace has its roots in the story of Abraham. As a Jew and Jewish Christian he reaches into the story of Israel in order to assert the superiority of the gospel. His argument rests on going further back into that story than to Moses. He goes to the founding father himself, Abraham.

There is then a related point which is made and worth noting here. Through verses 16-17 Paul works in the theme of inclusion. If faith in God is more important than works of the law (1-5) then to whom does the promise of God to Abraham apply? Answer: the promise applies 'to all his descendants' but these are not confined to 'adherents of the law' (i.e. Jews) (16). No, the promise applies 'also to those who share the faith of Abraham' (16), that is, to all who believe in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles, Israelites and Romans, Greeks and barbarians.

Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration at first sight is an odd reading for the Season of Lent (why not in the Season of Epiphany?). Yet it is an event in the journey of Jesus to the cross. (And, as an aside, if we read the alternative gospel, John 3:1-17, then we meet Jesus talking about his heavenly experiences (compare with the 'transfiguring'of Jesus into a heavenly kind of figure) and connecting them to the cross).

In particular Jesus says to the disciples at the end of the passage, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." That is our clue (and cue) to think about how this reading sheds light on the cross and resurrection.

One insight is shared by N.T. (Tom) Wright in Matthew for Everyone (Part 2 Chapters 16-28), pp. 14-15: the transfiguration is the story of Jesus being glorified on a mountain, clothes shining white, between two great figures of Israel, Moses and Elijah and declared God's Son by God himself whereas the cross is the story of Jesus being shamed on a hill, stripped of his clothes, flanked between two bandits and declared God's Son by a Roman centurion. Wright writes, 'The mountain-top explains the hill-top - and vice versa. Perhaps we only really understand either of them when we see it side by side with te other. Learn to see the glory in the cross; learn to see the cross in the glory; and you will have begun to bring together the laughter and the tears of the God who hides in the cloud, the God who is to be known in the strange person of Jesus himself' (p. 15).

Another insight flows from recognising the parallel between the divine affirmation in 17:5 and the divine affirmation at the baptism of Jesus 3:17. If the death and resurrection of a mortal man mean anything (noting that thousands were crucified by the Romans, and that resurrection from the dead was not unique to Jesus (compare the son of the widow of Nain and Lazarus)) then that is due to a specific, special person within the plan of God being killed and raised to new life. At both baptism and transfiguration the special status of Jesus is disclosed and confirmed: Jesus is 'my Son, the Beloved' (5). Here in the transfiguration, alongside Moses and Elijah, representing the revelation of God in the law and the prophets respectively, Jesus is declared God's voice for Israel, 'Listen to him' (5) As Moses and Elijah were set apart by God for special purposes in God's plan for the world, so is Jesus. But only Jesus is 'my Son, the Beloved' so one who is greater than Moses or Elijah is present.

Later, down from the mountain, the disciples will enquire further. Their questions about Elijah (an enigmatic figure at that time as expectations ran that Elijah would return to rescue Israel from its imperial oppression) elicit from Jesus an interpretation of John the Baptist: he was Elijah returned. But Jesus goes on to point out that just as John suffered, so also he will suffer. Thus, unlike Moses and Elijah whom God took to himself (the former at the point of death and the latter without death), Jesus will suffer before rising to God in the resurrection-and-ascension.