Saturday, November 17, 2018

Sunday 25 November 2018 - Sunday before Advent ...

[Note: this Sunday, the last beore Advent and the beginning of a new church year, could also be Aotearoa Sunday]

Theme: Christ the King / Christ Reigns Over the World / Christ Reigns in Me / Stir Up Sunday [i.e. preparation for Advent]

Sentence: But as for me, I keep watch for the Lord; I wait in hope for God my Saviour; my God will hear me. (Micah 7:7 adapted)

Collects: (The collect for Stir Up Sunday is so lovely it is a pity not to cite it here].

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people
that, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
they may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Christ our Redeemer King,
you have crushed the serpent's head;
you have freed us from our sin;
rescue all your suffering world from the evil that attracts us still. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Rev 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Comments:

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Daniel is an extraordinary book on any reckoning, combining as it does court tales from Persia, miraculous deeds of rescue and protection, extraordinary stories of discernment and interpretation of dreams and visions, as well as descriptions in the second half of the book of Daniel's own visions of impending events. In these visions the common thread (itself coherent with great themes in the first half of the book) is the question of rulership. Who rules over Israel? Is it one of the invading, oppressing empires, symbolised by the wild beasts of Daniel 7:1-8? Is it the Lord God of Israel?

The answer is not surprising: God rules! But the form it is given in is surprising for readers unused to the colourful, if not bizarre language and imagery of apocalyptic literature. In our first two verses we see God as 'the Ancient of Days', ('Ancient One' in NRSV) described in human, earthly terms familiar to us: clothing, hair, throne, wheels, white, snow, wool, flames, fire. We do not for a moment think that God looks like this, or indeed, is merely an 'ancient' being rather than a timeless being (i.e. a being unshackled by time). So we ask, what does this vision of God convey to us? It conveys (at least) unshakeable power and lots of it. The Ancient of Days has a throne, takes his place on it (9) and exudes power as fire issues and flows from it and as a vast multitude serves him and stands on attendance to him. Moreover, this retinue constitutes a court of judgement (10). In the context of the "wannabe" kingdoms envisaged in the first eight verses of the chapter, verses 9-10 should give all readers (who are on God's side) confidence and hope. Indeed, in verses 11-12 we see judgement leted out to the beasts.

But there is a twist to the vision of divine power in verses 9-10. In verses 13-14 we are introduced to another impressive, powerful figure, 'one like a human being.' This figure is clearly powerful ('coming with the clouds of heaven,' 'To him was given dominion and glory and kingship ... his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed'). This figure is also clearly subordinate to the Ancient of Days: 'he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.' Who is this kingly figure? Scholarly debate ranges over three identifications.

Briefly, this human like figure has been identified as (1) the archangel Michael, that is, as the principal angel whose focus of guardianship is Israel (see Daniel 10:13, also Revelation 12:7); (2) the (forthcoming) Messiah, that is a new Davidic rule, reminiscent of the power and might of the great King David; (3) a representation of Israel, that is, this single figure in some way sums up the whole corporation of Israel - see verse 18 where 'the holy ones of the Most High' receive a kingdom similarly to what the human like figure receives in verses 13 and 14. But there is a further identification, which Christian readers are open to reading back into the text, prompted by Jesus self-identification as 'The Son of Man:' this vision is a prophetic view of one who comes in the future, one with Davidic Messianic character (as Jesus had), who in some sense represents Israel (as Jesus did) and who has heavenly characteristics, reminiscent of great angels such as Michael (as Jesus had - in the first Christian centuries there was quite a bit of discussion about whether Jesus was an angel or not)!

Psalm 93

In this psalm we sing the praises of the Lord who is king (1). The character of the Lord's kingship is worth noting, especially in these days when the world is terrorised by bombs and indiscriminate shootings. 'He has established the world; it shall never be moved;' (1b). Challenging times ask of us what faith we have and what we have faith in. The psalmist invites us to have faith in the Lord girded with such strength (1a) that the world - notwithstanding any appearances to the contrary - is established, it shall not be moved.

Rev 1:4b-8

The Book of Revelation is mostly understood as an example par excellence of 'apocalyptic literature', full as it is of visions (revelations). Since these visions have a prophetic character in the sense that they convey the judgement of God against injustice, Revelation is also an example of prophetic literature (see 1:3). Less noticed and discussed is that Revelation also has the form of a letter. But this observation begins with this passage. In verse 4 John writes like Paul, Peter and James: "John to the seven churches that are in Asia." The greeting in verse 4b is particularly reminiscent of Paul writing to the churches: "Grace to and and peace from him ..."

But the description of the God in whose name this greeting comes is quite a bit different from anything Paul writes at comparable points in his letters. Where we might meet 'God the Father' we are greeted by 'who is and who was and who is to come' and where we might have invocation of the Spirit or Holy Spirit we hear 'from the seven spirits who are before his throne'. What is being communicated here has occasioned quite a bit of debate. Are there seven spirits, really? Surely John means the 'sevenfold' Spirit? Are the 'spirits' effectively the 'angels', groups of seven of which reappear in Revelation? We will pass by such discussions since today's reading has been chosen for 'Christ the King Sunday.'

The greeting from Jesus Christ is a bit closer to what we find in Paul's writings, who speaks of Christ's faithfulness, of his being the first born from the dead and one who has dominion over all things (noting especially Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1). But the specific phrase, "the ruler of the kings of the earth" is unique to John's language about Christ. Why this phrase in this book? As the visions unfold it becomes clear that God is communicating through John to the churches that when they are pressed and pressured by 'kings of the earth', principally the great king or caesar of Rome, their trial is temporary not permanent, for these kings are subject to another king, to Jesus Christ who is ruler of the kings of the earth.

John 18:33-37

Is Jesus a king? Yes and no, as we read this passage. When asked the question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (33), Jesus does not give a straight answer (34-35). The nearest he gets is to talk about "My kingdom" (36) and to acknowledge that Pilate has made a statement which he does not deny, "You say that I am a king" (37). But since Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world" (36) we readily understand why he does not give a simple answer to the initial question about being 'the king of the Jews'.

In everyday terms, referring to a human ruler of human citizens, Jesus is not king of the Jews or any other sort of earthly king, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews" (36). Yet Jesus has a kingdom, even if it 'is not of this world,' so he is a king of a kind we do not ordinarily experience on earth. What kind is that? That is, what does Jesus mean when he says he has a kingdom but the kingdom is not from this world?

Sticking to the passage, we are given a clue in verse 37: "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Working backwards the logic seems to be this: a king has loyal followers, that is, people who "listen" to the king's voice; such people "belong to the truth"; in order to be such a king "I came into the world, [not to conquer it, nor to inherit some pre-existing kingdom, but] to testify to the truth." Jesus is not "king of the Jews"as such but "king of the belongers to the truth, of the listeners to his voice (including those Jews who so belong)."

But that begs the question, which Pilate helpfully asks on our behalf, "What is truth?" (38) No answer is given in the succeeding passage, but the answer, in one important sense, is given by the Gospel of John understood as a whole: the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Jesus is the king of those who believe in him, who assent to this truth and who abide in the One of whom this is the truth.

In our world today we see the clash of kingdoms of the kind whose followers are willing to fight (see 36). But the willingness to fight for a kingdom presupposes a belief in the ultimate importance of that kingdom. Jesus' kingdom may not be 'from this world' but it is connected to the kingdoms of this world because the kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom which embodies ultimate truth, truth at variance with the beliefs on which other kingdoms are founded.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sunday 18 November 2018 - 33rd Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): You have been warned! / Be faithful, whatever happens / Christ's amazing achievement on our behalf / Joy in the presence of the Lord

Sentence: 'In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore' (Psalm 16:11)

Collect:

God our creator,
you entrust each of us with great treasure.
Help us to be responsible stewards of the gifts and skills you have given us.
May we honour the trust you have in us
and use our talents as generously as you have given them.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Comments:

Daniel 12:1-3

As we move through Mark chapter 13 (sometimes described as 'the Little Apocalypse') we tune into Jesus' teaching about the future, coming tribulation, vulnerability of God's people and are repeatedly reminded of the importance of being faithful through all such trials.

Such a message, delivered with such strong picture language is a familiar aspect of apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel, Revelation and Mark 13.

In this reading, we have Daniel, a century or two before Jesus, in the context of the "God trashing" empire of Greece, sharing his vision of what is going to happen. He sees Michael, the archangel of Israel, being the protector of Israel. (We might now substitute Jesus for Michael). There will be a time of anguish (as Jesus also sees) but all will end well for 'those who are wise' (3), that is, for those who wisely live righteously and so side with God and not with the God-trashers.

Psalm 16

I love this psalm. Perhaps you do too. What makes it special? I suggest it is because it is intensely personal as it conveys the devotion of the psalmist to God (likely David, and it is not hard to imagine David composing these words). Yet that intensity of devotion has a light, joyful tone to it. David is secure and confident in his relationship with God.

The devotion, for example, comes through in 5a,

'The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup'

and the security and confidence are expressed in 6,

'The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.'

My favourite verse in this favourite psalm is the last verse, within which is this poignant line,

'In your presence there is fullness of joy.'

Is that our daily experience of the Lord?

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25

This is one of the greatest passages in the Bible! It sets down, repeats and underlines the basis of assurance that our sins are forgiven and forgotten, that we are perfectly sanctified (made holy).

What is that basis? Christ's 'single sacrifice for sins' (12). His 'single offering ... by (which) he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified' (14). Since this single offering has accomplished the forgiveness of sins, 'there is no longer any offering for sin' (18).

Now there are things to debate here: what does it mean that we are perfectly sanctified (surely none of us are experiencing this here and now in this life)? Does God truly forget our sins and lawless deeds (for, we might think, does he not recall them on the day of judgment)? But I suggest that we might set those debates aside for another day. Today let's bask in the wonder of what Christ has accomplished for us and let's praise him for his finished, complete, never-needs-to-be-repeated single offering for the forgiveness of our sins.

Mark 13:1-8

Having excoriated the scribes in chapter 12, and compared them to a poor widow putting all she had into the temple treasury (41-44), Jesus now pronounces the end of the temple (2).

Despite its magnificence (1), the temple is doomed. We now know that this pronunciation became truthful when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and razed the temple in 70 A.D. But when Jesus said these words the disciples had no idea 'when this will be' (4) and so they ask him (4).

The reply Jesus gives is found in verses 5-8 but these verses turn out to also be an introduction to a much larger teaching by Jesus on the future for his followers (persecution, 9-13; tribulation, 14-23; coming of the Son of Man, 24-37; with a resounding concluding instruction, 'Keep awake', 37).

When we finish today's passage we may wake up to a kind of trick Jesus played on the disciples. They asked him a question. He gave a reply which was interesting and stirring. But he did not answer their question. They want to know when  the event of the destruction of the temple will happen. He wants them to remain faithful to him and his gospel message. A date in the diary is not vital to Christian engagement with the future. What is vital is not being led astray in the run through the future. So, for instance, we read at the end of the next section,

'But the one who endures to the end will be saved.' (13)

Our trick in understanding the passage is not to take the events Jesus speaks of and compose a timeline from them but to note inwardly the variety and intensity of the challenges we may face as Christians. It would be good to pray today for Christian brothers and sisters who are facing war and rumours of war, stricken by earthquakes and suffering famine.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Sunday 11 November 2018 - 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday is 100 years since the signing of the Armistice on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Churches may wish to mark this anniversary with readings other than those set down for this day as the 32nd Ordinary Sunday. Plus bells might be rung, across the land ...

Theme(s): Spiritual modesty versus showing off / True devotion to God / Finality and completeness of Christ's sacrifice

Sentence: Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26)

Collect:

God our desire and our judge,
we look for your coming and know that when we meet you
we will have to account for our lives.
Assist us to live so we are ready to greet our Lord with joy,
fully prepared for the feast which lasts forever.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Comments:

1 Kings 17:8-16

This story has obvious connection with the second part of the gospel passage: 'a widow' with very meagre resources, indeed with the last food in her house, after which she faces death, is asked by Elijah to use all those resources in the service of God.

In this story - unlike in the gospel story - we find out what happens when the widow gives all she has. Instead of the last of the food in her pantry running out, 'she as well as he and her household ate for many days' (15). In fact, 'The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah' (16).

Many of God's people have told similar stories since: with God's power a little has gone a long way, and God's provisions for our needs have never failed. In this context we see relevant background to the petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Give us today our daily bread."

Psalm 146

The perfect psalm to go with our Old Testament and Gospel passages!

Hebrews 9:24-28

Hebrews is a fascinating book for many reasons.

One reason is that while on the face of it, the author is a Christian engaging with the Old Testament and (so to speak) bringing it up to date in understanding in respect of Christ as its fulfilment, there is another engagement going on which is not quite so obvious. The former is obvious because lots of Old Testament passages, characters and themes are either directly cited or indirectly alluded to. The latter is not so obvious because the author never says, 'As Plato once wrote.' The not so obvious engagement is with a theme in ancient Greek philosophy, associated with Plato and possibly mediated into the world of Christian-and-Jewish thinking by a Greek speaking Jewish theologian/philosopher based in Alexandria, called Philo. That theme is the true nature of 'reality': what we see and touch here on earth tempts us to think of it as ('concrete', physical) reality but, Plato argued, it is not reality, but only a copy of shadow of the reality which exists in another world. Thus here in verse 24 the writer betrays this kind of thinking when he writes that

'Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered heaven itself.'

The 'tent' (or 'tabernacle') discussed in previous verses, entered by ordinary high priests, was not the real tent/tabernacle of God. That one exists in heaven and not on earth, and it is that one that Christ the extraordinary high priest has entered (24). (Note also verse 23, not part of our designated passages which speaks of the cleansing of the tent/tabernacle through prescribed ritual as 'sketches of the heavenly things'.)

Whether or not we now think it helpful to think in Platonic terms of plural worlds, one of which is a copy or shadow or sketch of the other, we can follow the writer of Hebrews in terms of what Christ has achieved through his death on the cross. When we understand this as a high priestly action of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins we see it as a superior action relative to the sacrifices of the ordinary high priests. That is, we understand this is about an action not simply 'better' but also now 'final - no further sacrifices required.'

In that sense, the most real or substantive sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is the sacrifice of Jesus.

The remainder of the passage, 25-28, reinforces the finality and completeness of Christ's sacrifice in terms which do not invoke Platonic underpinnings. The language has been deeply influential in some eucharistic prayers (notably that in the Book of Common Prayer and, with reference to the New Zealand Anglican church's prayer book (1989), that found on pp. 436ff).

Thus:
- 'nor was it to offer himself again and again' (25)
- 'he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself' (26)
- 'so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him' (28).

Incidentally, in a past comment about Hebrews 7:23-28 I wrote this:

"Verse 25 is straightforward in one way: Jesus saves those who approach God through him. In another way it is enigmatic and has given rise to various theological developments: the words 'since he always lives to make intercession for them' has raised questions about the relationship between our time and heavenly time and thus led to consideration that in certain ways the sacrifice of Jesus (as a form of 'intercession' that people might be saved) is continually 're-presented' before God, with the possible implication - much argued over - that when we celebrate the eucharist we may properly 're-present' the sacrifice of Jesus, the earthly mirroring the heavenly."

That is, Hebrews 7:23-28 opens up the possibility that our eucharistic actions here on earth in some way connect with the sacrifice of Jesus which is eternally present in the heavenly realm.

But Hebrews 9:24-28 firmly and very clearly reminds us that the sacrifice of Jesus was and remains, at least from our time perspective, a one off, never to be repeated and never needing to be repeated event. By all means we may explore - with all our human limitations - the relationship between 'history' (human, earthbound, chronologically sequential events) and 'eternity' (divine, heavenly, all history being present to God). But we should take care in our eucharistic language never to diminish the uniqueness of the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross: in one action Jesus did what all other repeated actions did not accomplish. No repetition is required. Our eucharistic language should always bear witness to the singularity of the event of the cross.

In respect of application of this passage to our lives, we might usefully reflect on the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice: all has been done to remove our guilt, to ensure the forgiveness of our sins and to provide the way of new and holy life. There is no further theological assurance required though some of us may need - through prayer and spiritual counsel - further psychological assurance.

Mark 12:38-44

When we find a passage such as this has two distinct parts, 38-40 and 41-42, it is worth asking why they are joined together (at least in the sense that one follows the other).

On the face of it a warning to 'Beware of the scribes who like to ...' and a commendation 'Truly I tell you, this poor widow ...' are not connected. But if we first observe the wording of each part we find at least one common word, 'widow' (40, 42). That may be enough to connect two such passages because we can imagine that as the first Christians transmitted sayings and stories of Jesus to one another they connected two or more pieces of the overall story via common words, sometimes called 'catchwords.'

Putting it colloquially we are invited to imagine one Christian telling others about the time when Jesus warned against the scribes and 'Oh, speaking of widows, that reminds me of the story of a poor widow Jesus once saw putting the last of her money into the collection plate.'

(Additionally we note that 'scribes' have been mentioned in preceding passages, 12:28-34 and 12:35-37).

Secondly, however, we can also reflect on the thematic content of the passages and see at least one further connection. The scribes of 38-40 are show offs. They do good works and make sure people know it. But behind these outward scenes they scandalously 'devour widows' house' (40). By contrast, when people see the ostentatious rich people putting large sums into the temple treasury (41), Jesus sees one who puts in virtually nothing, is not a show off, has ripped off no one and in fact is one of the widows, and he sees more deeply that she 'has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury' (43). If 'widow' provides a catchword connection between the two parts, then the contrasting themes of 'showing off' and 'modesty' provide another connection.

We can readily understand the condemnation of the show off scribes but we likely would like to know how they devoured widow's houses. We can also readily understand the commendation of the widow: the rich have given a proportion of their wealth but the widow has given 'everything' (44); they have 'contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty' (44) but we might like to know more about what the 'treasury' funded.

Devouring widow's houses

One line of thinking, represented in the New Annotated Oxford Bible, suggests the scribes induced widows 'to give their meagre resources to the Temple'. This makes sense and receives some support by the presence of the next passage, 12:41-44. But a recent, 2012, commentary by French scholar Camille Focant, The Gospel According to Mark: A Commentary (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick), makes the point 'it is not easy to see what specific practices the criticism could make reference to' (p. 511). Focant canvases views of various commentators but finds their speculations are not backed up by contemporary evidence. It would appear that we simply accept that Jesus knew that scribes in some way or another preyed on the vulnerability of widows and consumed their 'houses' (i.e. resources available to them after the death of their husbands). The destruction of the temple soon to be forecast in Matthew 13:1-2 seals their fate.

Treasury

Focant (see above), p. 518, says that Mark is referring to 'one of the thirteen chests in which people deposited their offerings. They were narrow at the base and large at the top, which gave them the form of a trumpet.' On each chest the 'destination of the gifts was written in Aramaic.'

Application?

The contrast between the modest widow and the show off scribes and show off rich folks suggests that Mark tells us this story as an example for disciples. The total commitment of the woman is in keeping with the total commitment of Jesus himself. The application is at least twofold:

(a) in keeping with (e.g. Matthew 6:1-4), we should avoid the example of the show offs and do our works of devotion to God with modesty;

(b) proportionate giving no doubt contributes to the work of God in the world, but God longs for signs that we are wholly committed to the kingdom.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sunday 4th November 2018 - (suggest) All Saints Day (transferred from 1 November)

Theme(s): All Saints / God's holy people / God's new and exciting future for all God's people

Sentence: Know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe. (Ephesians 1:18-19)

Collect:

Eternal God,
you have always taken men and women
of every nation, age and colour
and made them saints;
like them, transformed,
like them, baptised in Jesus' name,
take us to share your glory. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24:1-6
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

Comments:

Isaiah 25:6-9

This passage is background to the Revelation passage below. It looks ahead to what the seer of Revelation 21:1-6 sees.

In the Isaiah passage the future new world for the saints of God is seen in an especially lovely way in verse 6:

' ... a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.'

Perhaps it is just as well this is a metaphorical attempt to envisage the unknown and unknowable future: the extravagance of the feast - if literally true - does not sound the best of things to do in respect of arteries, heart and liver!

Psalm 24:1-6

Saints are sanctified people, holy persons. In gospel terms, all those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are made holy through Christ's death on the cross which cleanses us from sin. Whatever view we have about offering the title 'St.' to an especially revered person, we should be clear: saints are you and me (as well as St Peter, St Mary, St Francis, St Teresa and so on). To be a saint - saved and sanctified by Jesus - is to be a person who can answer the question in verse 3 of this psalm:

'Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?'

The psalmist's answer is

'Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully' (4).

The gospel says that we are blessed by the Lord and our salvation is assured on the basis of what Christ has done for us and then expects that we will live a life worthy of that blessing and that salvation. Such a life is a holy life, a life lived with clean hands and pure heart,

Revelation 21:1-6a

The celebration of 'all saints' is a celebration of what is coming as much as it is a celebration of what has come to pass (that all God's people, past and present, belong in one fellowship, unbroken by death - see below).

What is coming is a full fellowship of the departed and the living, of the resurrected and the yet to be resurrected saints in one 'space.' So John in his final vision sees that 'space' which he describes as 'a new heaven and a new earth' (1) AND as 'the holy city, the new Jerusalem' (2). In this new 'space' all the saints dwell with God, 'they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them' (3); there will be no more separation brought on by death, for 'Death will be no more' (4). This glorious and God-filled future is a sure bet, a promise we may trust because 'these words are trustworthy and true' (5).

We might, if we paused at this point in the passage, reflect on the way in which the visionary promise of the new heaven/earth/Jerusalem is a kind of glorious confusion of spaces/'spaces' merging into one new 'space' for God's people that we end up being none the wiser exactly what this location will actually be like.

Perhaps there are clouds with harp playing angels and perhaps there are not. Perhaps Revelation 4-5 (another vision, of the opened heaven centred on God's throne) is more accurate. But even that vision, on close inspection has its obscurities, since what God looks like is very obscure (4:3) and will we really see Jesus as the seven-horned lamb with seven eyes (5:6)? What is easier to grasp is that in this 'space' some things will be so and some not: in particular, no death, no mourning, no pain and no tears (21:4). A good space then to which we can look forward, without worrying whether we like harp music or not, or whether God has a "face" which we will "see"!

Lastly, we reflect on 6a:

'Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."

How can what is yet to be already be 'done'?

Throughout Revelation, somewhat muted, is a recurring theme of Christ's victory over sin and its effects through the shedding of his blood on the cross. That past victory, around 30 or 33 AD, is the work that needs doing for the new Jerusalem to be the place in which death etc is no more. And that work is DONE! The words are 'trustworthy and true' because what needs to be done has actually taken place.

That the full realization of that achievement is yet to be is not in doubt because God-in-Christ is 'the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,' that is, the Lord of time has the future sorted as much as the past.

John 11:32-44

I am approaching this reading as a reading for 'All Saints' and not as a reading in a sequence of readings in John's Gospel, for which we might approach the passage in terms of the connections between the resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus, the provocation of this miracle in the run up to Jesus' arrest and trial and so forth.

From the perspective of 'All Saints' we read this passage as an invitation to believe in the resurrection of the saints.

We all face death, we all grieve the death of loved ones, and we all fear aspects of death, including the prosaic, but real fact that if we do not do something about burying the dead, there will be an awful stench (39).

Mary and Martha understand the reality of death (33) but they also understand the power of Jesus (23-27). He could have prevented this death (32). Surely there is nothing he can do now? Even Jesus himself weeps (35). Rolling back the stone (39a) won't do anything except reveal the stench (39b). Jesus presses the point he wishes to make: do the sisters truly believe in him? (40) He proceeds to call on God and Lazarus is raised from the dead (41-44). The sisters have their brother back.

The point of the passage is not whether we would see more resurrections of loved ones if we (really/truly/definitely) believe. The point is that God working through Jesus has power over death. Death is no longer the end of life. Thus we are invited to believe in the resurrection of the saints. They are alive with the Lord in heaven even as we, in another way, are alive with the Lord on earth.

"All the saints" means all those who live in relationship with Jesus Christ: the departed and the living, the dead-but-now-raised and those alive today. Death does not break down our fellowship with the saints. Today we join their celebration of resurrection life and their example inspires us to continue faithfully walking by faith towards our full life with them when time ends and complete fellowship with God begins.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sunday 28th October 2018 - 30th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Intercession / Faith & Following

Sentence: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and tongue with shouts of joy (Psalm 126:1-2)

Collect:

God of love,
your Son teaches us the heart of the law.
Open our minds, souls and hearts to discern what you ask of us.
Empower us to love you with our whole being,
to love our neighbour as ourselves and thus fulfil your law.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52


Comments:

Jeremiah 31:7-9

In the background to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, as 'Son of David' (see gospel reading below), are a series of visions of glorious, better days for Israel.This passage is one of those visions. The Lord speaks through Jeremiah of a return of the 'remnant of Israel' (i.e. of those scattered by exile, 7). Among them will be 'the blind and the lame' (8). The healing story in today's gospel is a fulfilment of this vision.

Psalm 126

Ditto for this psalm is much of the comment above re the Jeremiah passage. Here is another vision of 'When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion' (1). The psalm is a little complicated because the first verses seem to presume the restoration has occurred and the last verses (from verse 4) seem to be praying for restoration. An explanation is that a partial restoration has occurred (e.g. when the fist exiles in Babylon returned to Judea) but there are more to come and so the prayer is for the restoration to be completed.

Hebrews 7:23-28

We need to approach each passage of Hebrews through these weeks - noting that sometimes significant omissions have occurred between passages - recalling that the overall argument is that Jesus is superior to all significant people and significant roles within Israel (greater than the angels, than Moses, than the high priests etc).

Since last week's Hebrews 5 passage (which introduced the priesthood of Melchizedek) the writer has:
(1) warned of the peril of falling away (5:11-6:12);
(2) discussed the making of oaths, with special reference to Abraham and come back to Melchizedek and the fact of Jesus being a high priest in the order of Melchizedek (6:13-20);
(3) described the ministry of Melchizedek (in glowing terms), pointed out that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the priesthood of Levi (i.e. the priesthood of the temple of Israel, 7:1-10); and
(4) reiterated the point of the stronger priesthood through Melchizedek such that, 7:22, 'Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant' (7:11-22).

Thus we can read and, hopefully, understand our passage today.

Essentially the passage summarises the perfections of Jesus' priesthood:
- he is a permanent priest 'because he continues forever', 24, contrasted with the mortal lives of Israel's priests;
- 'he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them' (25);
- he is 'holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens' (26);
- he has 'no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people' because 'this he did once for all when he offered himself' (27);
- he is 'a Son who has been made perfect forever' (28).

A song of praise would be an appropriate ending to the sermon based on this passage!

Note that verse 27 uses language which the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service takes up.

Verse 25 is straightforward in one way: Jesus saves those who approach God through him.

In another way it is enigmatic and has given rise to various theological developments: the words 'since he always lives to make intercession for them' has raised questions about the relationship between our time and heavenly time (or, indeed, timelessness) and thus led to consideration that in certain ways the sacrifice of Jesus (as a form of 'intercession' that people might be saved) is continually 're-presented' before God, with the possible implication - much argued over - that when we celebrate the eucharist we may properly 're-present' the sacrifice of Jesus, the earthly mirroring the heavenly.

Mark 10:46-52

This is the last event in the journey of Jesus towards Jerusalem. At first glance it looks like 'another miracle' but there are aspects to consider.

When we go back to 8:22-30, we find that there is a similar healing miracle there, also healing of blindness. Scholars suggest, reasonably, that the two healing of blindness events frame the intervening material which, as we have been seeing in recent weeks, highlights the spiritual blindness of the disciples. They do not understand who Jesus is. By contrast the physically blind man in today's story has good 'spiritual' sight. He 'sees' (i.e. understands) that Jesus is 'the Son of David' (47, 48). Unlike the disciples in the most recent Sunday passage (10:35-45), the blind man wants 'mercy' from Jesus and not 'glory.'

So Jesus heeds the call for healing and responds to the spiritual sight of the man (49ff).

But Jesus does not instantly heal him. He pauses and asks a question first,

'What do you want me to do for you?'

This sounds like an oddity. Surely Jesus knew what the man wanted. His disability would have been obvious. Yet he asks the question nevertheless. We may puzzle over that, but Jesus has left all readers with an important question. When Jesus comes to us, What do we want him to do for us? He is open to us telling him!

In conclusion, note that the blind man, now physically seeing as well as spiritually seeing 'followed him on the way' (52).

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday 21 October 2018 - 29th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Suffering, Service, Servanthood, Ransom for Many, High Priest

Sentence: For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)

Collect:

Almighty God,
you reign over all things and have created each one of us in your own image.
Assist your people to give to earthly rulers and powers what belongs to them
and to give our allegiance and ourselves to you alone,
the one whose image is imprinted on every human soul.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Comments:

Isaiah 53:4-12

We cannot read this passage too often when we are engaging with the suffering of Jesus on our behalf that we might be saved. Today's gospel involves looking ahead to Jesus' suffering. This passage in Isaiah, graphically, poetically, memorably looks ahead to that suffering.

Psalm 91:9-16

This psalm looks ahead (we say with hindsight!) to the suffering of Jesus (see today's gospel reading) and offers to Jesus (and all who suffer in his name) the promise that God will see us through our troubles, even if (as it turns out for Jesus and many martyrs since) the protection of God invoked here is protection from death's power and provision for resurrection.

Hebrews 5:1-10

The writer is now into his stride on the theme of 'high priesthood'. Verses 1-4 outline broadly what the familiar high priests of Israelite religion used to do and the general character of these high priests ('subject to weakness', 2). A characteristic of the role of high priest is that the high priest does not usurp the role, 'but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was' (4).

Thus Christ is introduced. Neither did Christ 'glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed ...' (5). Incidentally, we may see why there has been an anticipation of this theme in chapters 2 and 4 (last week's passage): Christ was not, in fact, in his earthly life and functioning a high priest. The high priests of his day opposed him! The two previous mentions in Hebrews function to identify for the reader that Christ had, especially through his death on the cross effectively functioned as a high priest, indeed as 'the' great high priest. So now the writer discusses Christ's special priesthood.

With reference to the appointment of Christ, the writer takes up two OT scriptures Psalm 2:7 (often taken to be referring to the appointment of the Messiah) and Psalm 110:4 (also a Messianic psalm) and joins them together to (effectively) say, Jesus the Christ = Messiah, as foretold, was also appointed to be priest in the order of Melchizedek. By verse 10 the 'priest ... according to the order of Melchizedek' becomes 'designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.' We could say the writer is being a bit slippery here, sliding from priest to high priest without further explanation. But we have already seen in chapters 2 and 4 that the specific ministry of Jesus, offering sacrifice (himself) for the sins of the whole world is the ministry of a high priest.

Melchizedek returns in Hebrews (chapter 7) so for now we simply recall him as an enigmatic character in the story of Abraham (Genesis 14:18).

What did Jesus do? Verses 7-9 outline that Jesus 'in the days of his flesh' offered 'prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death' (the Garden of Gethsemane seem to be in mind here).

These prayers were heard 'because of his reverent submission' (7). That submission was demonstrated in that, 'Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered' (8). When verse 9 goes on to say that he was 'made perfect' we recall 2:10, where perfection for Jesus was not shifting from failure to success, from sin to righteousness, but being made complete.The comment on Sunday 4 October 2015 was, 'Perfection here is about the completion of God's purposes. For the purpose of salvation Jesus needed to suffer. By suffering (in particular suffering as the ethically perfect one to become the perfect sacrifice for the sins of imperfect humanity) Jesus completed God's purposes for the world.'

In this way: submitting to the cross, being made perfect by completing God's purposes for humanity, Jesus 'became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.'

Mark 10:35-45

What ratbags James and John were! After all that Jesus has been saying in the preceding passages, about being child-like, about the first becoming last, they have the gall to come forward and ask of Jesus that he grant them to 'sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory' (37). Jesus plays along with them and does not rebuke them so much as point out that they misunderstand what they are asking for (38). But they still misunderstand (39). When Jesus talks about drinking from the cup he is about to drink from and be baptised with the baptism he is going to be baptized with (38) he is speaking of his suffering, his death through crucifixion.

Be careful what you ask for! When John and James say 'We are able' (39) Jesus says that they will indeed drink such a cup and be baptized with such a baptism (as indeed many Christian disciples found would be the case as they suffered persecution). Nevertheless, they are not necessarily going to end up sitting at Christ's right and left hand when the kingdom comes (40). On the one hand, humanly speaking, Jesus defers to the divine power and authority of God to make such appointment; on the other hand, we are left with something of a mystery, to whom does 'but it is for those for whom it has been prepared' refer to? (40)

Naturally the other ten disciples are none too pleased when they learn about their request. (Who leaked the memo?) But Jesus speaks to them all - after all, the anger of the ten suggests they are no less ambitious than James and John, just too slow off the mark. So verses 42-45 become some of the most influential of all Jesus' teaching: in his kingdom  we do not lord ourselves over others, we aim to be servants. The greatest ambition we can have in the kingdom is to serve all the rest and to rule over no one. The clinching point is that this is the example of Jesus' himself: 'For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve' (45).

The fuller statement at the end runs on to 'and to give his life a ransom for many' (45). It is an odd feature of the four gospels that when the epistles make so much of Jesus being redeemer, saviour, sacrifice for our sins and so forth, very few examples can be found of Jesus himself using such language. But here he does. He looks ahead to what the cup of suffering and baptism of suffering is all about: he will be 'a ransom for many' when 'he gives his life.'

Yes, we can then have a great discussion about what 'ransom' means. To whom, for example, is the ransom paid? Is it about paying the devil so the devil lets us sinners go free? In the end it may not matter whether we can push this metaphor to the point where we understand who receives the ransom. What we can see clearly is that humanity is in a bind and Jesus, as an act of sheer service to us, will release us from the bind.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Sunday 30 September, Sunday 7 October, Sunday 14 October 2018 - 26th, 27th, 28th Ordinary Sundays

I need to vary my usual practice of publishing notes in full for each Sunday by simply linking to past notes (three years back in 2015).

For Sunday 30 September - 26th Ordinary Sunday - 2018 go here.

For Sunday 7 October - 27th Ordinary Sunday - 2018 go here.

For Sunday 14 October - 28th Ordinary Sunday - 2018 go here.