Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sunday 2 July 2017 - 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Welcome / Identification between God, Jesus and disciples / Death versus eternal life/ Slaves to God

Sentence: 'You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God (Romans 6:18)

Collect:

Almighty God,
grant that we your children
may never be ashamed
to confess the faith of Christ crucified,
but continue his faithful servants
to our lives' end. Amen.

Readings: related

Jeremiah 28:5-9

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 10:40-42

Commentary:

Jeremiah 28:5-9

Here (looking ahead to our gospel reading), a prophet's life is a perilous one. To the extent that this ministry is one of anticipation and prediction of the future, a prophet's ministry depends on words today being matched by outcomes tomorrow. Jeremiah's ministry is a running battle between himself claiming one thing and other ('official') prophets claiming another, each with such specificity that both cannot be right.

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

A celebration of God's 'great love for ever' (1) makes a supporting point to the gospel reading when it speaks of 'reward'. The ones who are 'blessed' are those who 'have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Lord.' This state of blessedness is not so much a reward at the end of some labour, like a bonus payment for a worker, or a holiday at the end of a year of effort, but a continuing state of benefit: walking in the light of God's presence is its own reward.

Romans 6:12-23

Continuing Paul's response to the question whether the abundance of God's grace means we may sin as much as we like after discovering we are recipients of God's grace, Paul clearly lays down a principle for Christian living, 'do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires' (12, effectively repeated in 13).

Verse 14 brings us to an associated principle: life is lived under some kind of lord or master. To keep on sinning is to live under the mastery or lordship of sin. For a Christian,that is, a confessor that 'Jesus is Lord,' this cannot be so.

Verses 15 to 18 expand on the principle laid down in verse 14 and verses 19-23 offer further comment in a slightly different vein. In the latter case a theme from verse 18 is taken up. The opposite of being slaves to sin is being slaves to righteousness. Verse 22 underlines the importance of living out this form of slavery: only slavery to God leads to holy living with the result of 'eternal life'. Verse 23 is then a summary of the argument: the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.

Matthew 10:40-42

It could be easy to (mis)read this message in a kind of social sense: "We, the church, need to be a welcoming body of people." We do, but is that the primary importance of this passage? The focus is actually on the welcome the world gives the church rather than the other way around! Themes here are discipleship, mission and christology.

The context (recalling last Sunday's gospel) is the 'cost of discipleship.' Now Jesus turns the emphasis in a new direction: disciples need not uniformly expect a bad reception, some will welcome them. To these good outcomes Jesus offers encouragement, both to the disciples and to the ones who welcome them.

First, since true disciples are representatives of Jesus, missioners in the mission he has commissioned, a welcome given to the disciples is a welcome given to Jesus himself, embodied in them. In turn, reflecting the relationship between Jesus as one sent from God and God as sender, the welcome to disciples is a welcome of 'the one who sent me' (40).

Implicit here is some kind of reward for welcoming God! To an extent verse 41 makes this explicit, except that we have no idea what a 'prophet's reward' or a 'righteous person's reward' is! Digging deeper into the passage we can get some sense of what is meant. From verse 40 we bring a strong identification, God/Jesus/disciple to verse 41. If we see a similar identification, God/prophet and God/righteous person, then the one who welcomes the prophet welcomes God and the one who welcomes a righteous person welcomes God and in each case the welcome is a form of identification, welcomer/prophet and welcomer/righteous person. Thus a prophet's reward belongs to the welcomer, ditto for a righteous person's reward. In each case the reward (taking into account other talk in Scripture of 'reward') is the privilege of being a participant in the life of God and standing securely in the presence of God.

In verse 42 Jesus moves from the general case of prophets and righteous people being welcomed (which hearkens back to the history of Israel) to the specific case of his disciples (looking around in the present and looking ahead to the future expansion of the kingdom). Even a cup of cold water to a quite ordinary disciple (i.e. one who may not also be a notable prophet or a distinctively righteous person) leads to reward. Given the general expectations of hospitality in the Middle East (food and accommodation), Jesus is signalling here that the slightest of welcomes counts.

Disciples may have some expectation of welcome and not persecution. Welcomers of disciples are welcomers of God and that carries with it rewards of a special kind. Disciples in mission move forward as fast as the welcome accorded them.

Secondly, woven through these verses is a very important christological note, one which undergirds the distinctive christology of John's Gospel with its great themes of the oneness of Father and Son and of the Son as the sent one from God. Jesus is God in human form: when we welcome Jesus we welcome God. When people welcome followers of Jesus they welcome Jesus and thus welcome God into their lives.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Sunday 25 June 2017 - 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Discipleship / Being disciples / Cost of discipleship / Abounding grace / Mocked for Jesus' sake?

Sentence: Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39).

Collect:

Holy God, grant us the beginning of wisdom
and love to cast our every fear:
that we may grow more brace,
more ready to hear,
more ready to obey,
the teaching of Jesus,
doing so through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings: (Related, rather than Continuous)

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:8-11 (12-17) 18-20
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Commentary:

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Jeremiah has just been brutally treated, beaten and placed in stocks (20:1-3). After his release Jeremiah has denounced his tormenter, Pashhur (20:4-6). But our verses are at odds with Jeremiah's external confidence in this denunciation. They seem to give us a sense of the internal feelings of Jeremiah. Speaking to the Lord, Jeremiah says that he feels as though he has been enticed and overpowered by the Lord because his words have led to him becoming 'a laughingstock all day long' (7).

Yet, Jeremiah goes on, this painful experience of derision (8) is not able to be stopped by ceasing to preach the word of the Lord. He cannot suppress the word which is burning within him (9a),indeed he has tried but the effort (like all suppression of raging feelings!) is too wearying. It must come out.

Despite the denunciations he experiences, Jeremiah is confident the Lord will see him through (11-13).

Thus Jeremiah is a prototypical disciple for the kind of 'tough' commitment Jesus expects of his own disciples in today's gospel reading.

Psalm 69:8-11 (12-17) 18-20

The psalmist (likely David, according to the superscription) seems to be in a similar mood to the prophet Jeremiah! He too has 'borne reproach' (7). Thus our passage begins in v. 8 with the psalmist feeling that his zeal for the Lord's house (9) has become the occasion for alienation from his own family.

David is bowed down (9-11), even broken (19-20). He cries to the Lord for help (13-18). As with many prayers in the Old Testament, his hope for answered prayer rests on the character of the Lord: 'your steadfast love ... your abundant mercy' (16).

Romans 6:1b-11

In the unfolding argument of Paul in Romans, on the nature of the gospel of grace, logic requires Paul to take up some inevitable questions. In this case, if the grace of God is so abundant as to forgive all sin (see, e.g. 5:20-21) then 'Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?' (6:1b).

That question might not quite be our question today, but we may - at least implicitly - have similar questions: God doesn't want me to be perfect does he? A few little sins don't matter, do they? Oh, well (as we succumb to a tasty temptation) God forgives us, doesn't he?

Paul is decisive in his summary answer - I will print it in caps for effect: BY NO MEANS! Even shorter would be, 'NO!'

But implicitly his readers press him to give a reason - parents experience this with their children, 'But why?' So Paul - as a spiritual father to his Roman children - sets out his case for answering, 'By no means!' It goes like this:

1. A Christian is a changed person who has died to sin through baptism in order to walk in newness of life (2b-4). To sin now, for a Christian, is a form of ignorance. It betrays a misunderstanding of what being a Christian is all about.

2. Expanding on 1, a Christian is a dead person walking, dead people are free from sin (7) and so a Christian is to live 'no longer enslaved to sin' (6b). To continue sinning, for a Christian, is to live oppositely to the work of Christ which sets us free from such slavery.

3. Lest any Christian think, perversely, 'Well, I will just keep dying and being set free,' Christ died only once ('The death he died, he died to sin, once for all' (10) and thus we are to 'consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus' (11). That is, our baptism into Christ's death (4) is a once and for all experience, a death we are to live out for all time. We by no means keep on sinning, and certainly not to invoke the abundance of God's grace, because we are dead to sin.

(Although beyond the scope of this week's passage - in fact part of next week's passage, 6:12-14 acknowledges the dual reality of Christian life: spiritually we are dead to sin, physically and mentally we remain prone to sin so we are not to let 'sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies' (12) nor to continue presenting 'your members to sin as instruments of wickedness' (12).)

Matthew 10:24-39

This is a challenging compendium on discipleship for preachers.

Challenge (1) is the painful cost of discipleship in this life.

Challenge (2) is choosing whether to say something about each topic within the passage, attend to just one or two verses, or attempt to generally speak about the cost of discipleship.

The context (see the beginning of Matthew 10) is sending out the Twelve to 'the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (6). In this mission they are to travel lightly (9-10), efficiently (11-15), wisely and bravely (16-23).

Now Jesus reminds them that he asks nothing of them which he has not experienced himself (24-25), to have no fear save for fear of God (26-31), to never be ashamed of him (32-33), to recognise the divisive nature of the gospel they bear (34-36), to belong exclusively to Jesus with relativised family ties (37), to be willing to die, knowing that life is found when it is lost for the sake of Jesus (38-39).

Within this compendium of instruction and advice, note the value placed on the disciples (30-31).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday 18 June 2017 - 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Te Pouhere Sunday

My usual timetable for getting posts up on or before a Monday has not been what it ought to have been! Here, for now, I list readings, and will try to get comments up (for RCL readings) as quickly as possible!

Collect for 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Bountiful God,
with a generous hand you sow the seeds of the Kingdom.
Grant us the grace to cultivate your salplings,
that all might find shade in the forest of love.
All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings for 11 Sunday in Ordinary Time ("related")

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

Comments:

Exodus 19:2-8a

These verses set out the special relationship between God and Israel. That relationship lies behind the restriction Jesus places on his commission to the twelve in the gospel reading below.

Psalm 100

This psalm does not need to be explained. It needs to be sung! Perhaps in response to reading Romans 5:1-8.

Romans 5:1-8

Paul begins this chapter with "Therefore" which compels us to look back to what he has been saying in the previous chapter or chapters. Effectively those chapters are summed up in the phrase "we are justified by faith" (1) (note 4:22-25). So, Paul says, since this is true, therefore "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1). In a new, healed relationship with God "we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast of our hope of sharing in the glory of God" (2). In other words, Paul having charted the path to salvation in Romans 1-4 now begins to tackle the question of what salvation means and what the saved can expect in this life. We the saved are in a new, wonderful relationship with God, beginning to experience the blessing of God, though its fullest experience is yet to come.

In the meantime, we will experience sufferings and Paul reflects on what that means (3-5).

Then, Paul, perhaps with his mind full of how we came to be saved, reverts to the theme of chapters 1-4 and again, but more briefly, rehearses the gospel story of how Jesus died for us, as proof of God's love towards us (6-8).

We  have much to be thankful for!

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Well, after the special interests of Eastertide, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, what better thing to do as we corporately read the Scriptures than to get down to brass tacks in the mission of God, in which we are graciously invited to participate.

In this reading, Jesus goes out in mission (9:35-38), and that means Matthew is telling us about it as an example for us, not just as a bit of "history of mission."

What do we learn?

1. The mission of Jesus was extensive, going everywhere in Israel.
2. The mission was in word and in deed.
3. The mission was motivated by compassion.
4. The need for the mission was great but missioners were in short supply. Prayer to God for supply was required.

We then find the mission of Jesus is extended - as though answering the need addressed in v. 37-38 - to include "the twelve" (10:1-8).

Their mission is pretty similar to Jesus', a mission in God's name of word and of deed (7-8). But they are not Jesus so they need "authority" in order to beat the power of the evil one as "unclean spirits" do their damage in the world (1). Authority  "over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and sickness" (1) is, of course, nothing less than divine authority, the authority of God now invested in them.

As Matthew tells the story of the commissioning of the twelve for mission he uses the narrative to also tell us their names (2-4). Don't miss the fact that he describes them in this context as "apostles", that is, as "sent ones" or "missioners." Later the church will look back on the twelve as "The Twelve Apostles" with potential to make "apostle" mean "senior leader." The twelve were the senior leaders in the early church but primarily they were commissioned for mission and not for leadership.

A challenge for us as readers lies in two places:
1. Verses 5-6 where the mission is narrowly focused on Israel and "not Gentiles, not Samaritans" though they were near at hand. Why wasn't Jesus more, well, inclusive? Over the whole of Matthew's Gospel (e.g. noting 28:16-20) we see a vision unfolding for an inclusive mission to the whole world. Here, perhaps, we might think of Matthew reporting to us that Jesus had concern for the Jews as the special people of God, the ones first called through Abraham and Moses into covenant relationship. Many Jews had lost their way before God. They are now called back to God before the mission extends to the Gentiles and to the Samaritans.
2. (if we extend our investigation from v. 8 to vss. 8-10, or vss. 8-15) This mission of Jesus is to be conducted with minimal resources (i.e. nothing), no pay, and a huge faith in God's provision (e.g. via hospitality (11-12). What does this mean in our day?

Readings for Te Pouhere Sunday (resources for Te Pouhere Sunday at www.anglican.org.nz/Resources/Lectionary-and-Worship )

Isaiah 42:10-20
2 Corinthians 5:14-19 or Acts 10:34-43
John 15:9-17 or Matthew 7:24-29 or Luke 6:46-49 or John 17:6-26

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sunday 11 June 2017 - Trinity Sunday

Theme(s): God is Trinity; God the Three-in-One; The Triune God: Father Son and Holy Spirit

Sentence:

Collect: Grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ. (Revelation 1:4-5a)

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

Readings:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Comments:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

We read this reading today not because we are confusing 'creation' as a theme with 'Trinity' but because this reading reminds us that God (who is Father Son and Holy Spirit, according to the witness of the whole Bible) is Creator. The work of Father Son and Holy Spirit begins (from our perspective) as the work of creating the world.

Within this reading are two fascinating phrases to reflect on today.

But before citing them and offering a reflection we need to be very clear that how we approach this passage as Christian readers is not without searching questions. In its original circulation as a completed composition, this passage was published by ancient Jews, probably in the sixth century BC or later, certainly before the time of Christ, let alone before Christians began to articulate belief that God was One yet Three. No Jew then, and no Jew now, reads this passage as offering any hint of God's Trinitarian nature. Among Christians the possibility that we may read this passage along Trinitarian lines is controversial. Some see no problem: God was more than capable of inspiring Jewish scribes to write material which harboured hidden clues concerning future disclosure about the Trinity. Some say it is disrespectful to the original publication of the passage to impose a Christian reading on a Jewish document.

Now to the two phrases:

(1) In Genesis 1:2 we read, 'the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.' Christian interpreters of Scripture have understood the 'wind' here - 'spirit' is a possible translation - as the Holy Spirit at work in creation.

(2) In Genesis 1:26 we read, 'Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; ...' Christian interpreters have understood the plural 'us' here to be a reference to God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Note also Genesis 3:22; 11:7).

[EXCURSUS: As a point of exegetical intrigue, we can readily understand how a Jewish writer would write Genesis 1:2 as no direct inconsistency regarding the Oneness of God is implied but 1:26 is more difficult, as, on the face of it, "us" implies a plurality of gods and Jews in ancient Israel believed that God was One and there was only One God. Irrespective of Christian readings of Genesis 1:26, why would ancient Jews have circulated this passage with this verse in it in this plural form? One possibility which is plausible is to think of Israel's understanding of the heavenly court of God which involved plural beings who were divine (in some sense, but not in the fullest sense of the divinity of God himself) - see 1 Kings 22:19 and Job 1:6 as well as Psalm 82:1. Thus God is saying to his heavenly court, let us make human creatures on earth who are like the heavenly beings of this heavenly court. END of Excursus.]

A Trinitarian reading of the passage Genesis 1:26-27 makes sense in this way: God as a communion of Father Son and Holy Spirit make humanity in the image of God, that is a complementary set of man and woman with capacity to form a union of love which images the union of love, or communion of Father Son and Holy Spirit. The image is not about maths (3-in-1 compared with 2-in-1)! The imaging involved is the capacity of humanity (in its diversity yet capable of unity) to represent an aspect or aspects of the very character of God (Three-in-One diversity which is also a unity).

In other readings, plausible for both Jews and Christians, being made in the image of God is about humanity's capacity to make decisions freely, and/or to be creative, especially to create life itself through procreation (1:28a), and/or to be lord of the world (i.e. God is Lord of the whole universe, humanity is lord (and steward) of the resources of the earth (see 1:28b).

Psalm 8

This psalm can be read in various ways (e.g. as a pearl of praise of great price, one which has justly received the attention of very fine composers) but here we read it in Trinitarian perspective as an address to God about the ordering of the world and the place of humanity in it. 

Above all creation is God, and within the glory of God we find ourselves inhabiting a marvellous world in which it is amazing that God has remembered us, ordered as we are to a rank below the angels (8:5). Yet God has not just remembered us, God has crowned us with glory and honour and given us dominion over creation (8:5-6). 

Thus when we consider God as Trinity we are considering God as God, utterly distinct in rank, status and glory from his creation and from us as his creatures yet also as God who in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ the Son of God has bridged the distinction, becoming one with us.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

We could sing the last verse of this passage instead of preaching on it! But the very fact that the words are used regularly as a concluding prayer to Christian gatherings, whether said or sung, is an alert to think carefully about this verse and its contents. It is a wonderful prayer but it is also an important clue to the thinking of the first Christians about the nature of the God they were realising was being revealed to them in new ways compared with the revelation made known to Israel which was embedded in the Old Testament.

Obviously Paul, concluding this letter, is not intentionally developing a piece of theological explanation. But his prayer is instructive. As a Christian community it is called into being by Jesus Christ so he prays that the grace - the generous kindness and unlimited mercy - of Jesus will be with them (and they need it, because they are a community of faith at odds with themselves). This grace is only reinforced by invoking the love of God, the love which God has for his people. A community bound together by the grace of Jesus and the love of God has an icing on this particular cake when the communion or fellowship of the Holy Spirit is also with them. (I.e. communion/fellowship is the relationship the church has with the Holy Spirit which indwells them as God's personal presence in God's living temple, the church).

We might have preferred, at least for the sake of Trinitarian neatness that 'God' in 13:13 was 'the Father', but Paul is not living in 325 AD (or later)! But this prayer looks ahead to that day. It demonstrates a Christian community aware through its apostle that God is now being experienced in the persons of Jesus Christ, who once lived among their spiritual forbears in Palestine, as well as in the person of the Holy Spirit, who now lives among them and they within him.

Matthew 28:16-20

In the Year of Matthew we could head to this passage on numerous counts: the last words of Jesus according to this gospel; the commissioning of the disciples for mission; the promise of Jesus being present to his disciples for ever. Today, obviously, we head here because of the clarity with which God as Father Son and Holy Spirit is invoked in verse 28:19, 'baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'

Given that the Gospel was written before 100 AD, this is a remarkable anticipation of full blown Trinitarian doctrine, yet to be articulated by the church's future theologians. Note, for instance, that 'the name' is singular so that some sense of the Oneness of God is present. On the other hand, the sequence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is as clear a representation of God in Three Persons, as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit, as we find anywhere in the New Testament. It is clearer, for instance, than 2 Corinthians 13:13. Other verses we might refer to are: Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Galatians 4:6: Ephesians 4:4-6; Revelation 1:4-5.

From an authorial perspective, Matthew has perhaps distilled more clearly what other NT writers were saying about the church's experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and connected this directly to baptism. If one is being baptized in the name of God then the name of this God (with 'name' reflecting the character of God as experienced by his people) is 'Father Son and Holy Spirit.' 

(By contrast we might note Luke's propensity to describe baptism as being in the 'name of the Lord Jesus', Acts 19:5. Here, however, is not the place to pursue further the question of the Lukan and Matthean understandings of baptism and the manner in which they differ and/or agree). 

From the perspective of Jesus, is this something he himself was likely to have said? It is tempting to understand the whole of this last speech of the Matthean Jesus as a creation of the author (not least because the Matthean Jesus says little about the Holy Spirit). But any haste to do so could be constrained by recognising that the Jesus we meet across the four gospels, especially in Luke and John) is quite familiar with the Holy Spirit, and in the latter gospel, very articulate about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

Finally, as a historical reflection, when we baptise 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (NZPB, p. 386) we are invoking a most ancient formula, going back at least to the time of the publication of Matthew's Gospel, but likely earlier since there is a finite chance that Matthew himself is invoking a baptismal formula already in use when he composed his gospel.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Sunday 4 June 2017 - Pentecost

Theme(s): Holy Spirit / Coming of the Holy Spirit / Spirit of creation and renewal / What a great day Pentecost was!

Sentence: For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Collect:

Living God, eternal Holy Spirit,
let your bright intoxicating energy
which fired those first disciples
fall on us
to turn the world again, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: the lectionary offers some alternatives this week. The following are my choices.

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Commentary:

Acts 2:1-21

No Pentecost celebration could be complete without the unique story of the great day of the coming of the Spirit being read.

What a great day it was!

It was a day in which a promise was fulfilled (see Luke 24/Acts 1).

It was a day in which prophecy was fulfilled (see Peter's citation from Joel in his sermon).

It was a day in which prayer was answered (the prayers made between the Ascension and Pentecost).

It was a day in which the Spirit came upon God's people in a new manifestation.

It was a day in which the gospel was preached with power and great effect.

Something to ponder is this. In Acts 1 Jesus commissions his team of disciples for their work in the world, essentially to carry on the mission of God. In Acts 2 the Spirit of Jesus empowers the disciples for that work. Jesus does not ask us to do something which he does not give us the power to carry out.

Pentecost is the festival day in which we celebrate what a great day it was and still is, for the same Jesus unleashes the same powerful Spirit to help us to be obedient to his commission.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

What kind of spirit came down at Pentecost? We say this psalm because it draws our attention to the work of God in creation, a work which is accomplished by the Spirit of God ('your spirit', v. 30). The unstated assumption in the choice of this psalm is that at Pentecost the same creating Spirit of God is 'at it again' - creating a new thing or (picking up the emphasis in the second part of v. 30) renewing creation. From this perspective the day of Pentecost is not simply the creation of one new thing, the church, but the creation of a new world. In part, according to Acts 2, this is exemplified by the gathering of the nations in Jerusalem, with their many tongues, who are now forged into a new people of God by the overflowing Spirit of God who breathes new life into them.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

There is a whole book to be written about this passage, not least because we could write a chapter on each of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned here: utterance of wisdom through to the interpretation of tongues, nine gifts in all (8-10). As an aside, these nine gifts are not the whole list of gifts of the Spirit since in, e.g., Romans 12 we find some other gifts mentioned.

Nevertheless, more briefly, we can highlight three important aspects of the Spirit of God at work in the life of the church.

1. The Spirit of God is completely coherent with the lordship of Jesus Christ over the church. The Spirit is at work where people confess that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit is not at work where people curse Jesus (3).

2. The Spirit of God works in the church through gifting members of the body of Christ, the church, with abilities which further the mission of Christ in the world and enhance the 'common good' of the church (4-11).

3. The Spirit of God welds people together into one body of Christ, incorporating individual believers into the corporation or body of Christ. In doing this one Spirit makes one body of Christ, the Spirit of God's work is completely coherent with the work of Christ. Paul does not use the term 'weld' but 'baptized' which alludes to the outward physical activity which expresses the body-making activity of the Spirit: 'For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body' (13).

Let's remember that when Paul also mentions the kinds of different people being welded into the one body, 'Jews or Greeks, slaves or free' (13), he is making the point that the Spirit of God can bind together the kinds of people with the humanly speaking greatest and seemingly impossible-to-overcome differences.

John 20:19-23

Here I reprise my comments from a few weeks ago. Those comments were made then to expand on the meaning of the passage in a resurrection setting for a post-Easter sermon. Here they might more directly influence the course of a sermon on the day of Pentecost itself:

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).

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday 27 May 2017 - Either Ascension Day (transferred) or 7th Sunday of Easter

It is appropriate and possible to transfer the celebration of Ascension from Thursday 24 May to this Sunday, 27 May. Rather than make that decision for you, I offer below two sets of readings/comments.
(1) 7th Sunday of Easter = Sunday after Ascension
(2) Ascension Day

(1) 7th Sunday of Easter = Sunday after Ascension

Theme(s): Ascension, Departure, Suffering for Christ, Unity, Prayer for disciples

Sentence: This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11)

Collect:

Jesus Christ, you left your disciples,
only that you might send the Holy Spirit
to be our advocate.
Grant us the Spirit of truth
to convince the world that you are risen from the dead.

Readings:

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Commentary:

Acts 1:6-14

The ascension of Jesus is the departure of Jesus from everyday human experience of Jesus as a fellow human being, with whom meals could be eaten and conversations had. Our prime human reporter of the ascension as a specific event in history (i.e. one moment Jesus is present, the next he is not, after that there is no return) is Luke. To an extent Matthew is another witness as the ending of his gospel is consistent with a departure after the last speech of Jesus (28:16-20) but this witness is coloured by Matthew's variance from Luke as the former places the implied ascension in Galilee and the latter is very clear about it being on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Nevertheless an extraordinary connection is formed between the geographical variations across the two gospels when the disciples are addressed as "Men of Galilee" in 1:11.

From Luke's perspective, as narrator of what we could call "The Acts of Jesus" and its sequel "The Acts of the Holy Spirit," it is important to delineate the period of Jesus (conception to ascension) and the period of the Holy Spirit (anticipated in the life of Jesus as a man filled with the Holy Spirit, available to all believers from the day of Pentecost). This delineation occurs in chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles. With Jesus of Nazareth departed, the way is paved for the Holy Spirit to come in a visible and audible experience in Acts chapter 2.

For us, as followers of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, inclined (it seems, from current experience) to celebrate Christmas, Easter and Pentecost in colourful, festive ways, what does Ascension mean? Do we properly value it?

At the heart of the theology of Ascension lie two important considerations.

One, touched on in verse 11, is the connection between departure and return. The Ascension of Jesus is a departure of significance in its own right (our only direct experiences of Jesus in visible form are the occasional visions of Jesus granted to some believers) but it is also a departure which underlines a promise and a prediction in Jesus' own teaching: one day he will return. We are now between the Ascension and the Second Coming. To commemorate the Ascension should be to anticipate the Second Coming.

Two, the Ascension as departure is also an event of conclusion. The whole extraordinary character of the life of Jesus from miraculous conception to notable birth to special commissioning through baptism by John and the Spirit to death and resurrection is now brought to a conclusion. Jesus remains alive but not present to us in any kind of physical sense. With the ascension we celebrate the end of the earthly life of Jesus.

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

The virtues of God as provider and protector of his people are praised in this psalm.

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Continuing through 1 Peter, today's reading returns to a key theme woven through this letter: participation in the sufferings of Christ. To suffer for and with Christ is 'blessed' (4:14) and thus Christians can appropriately 'rejoice' when suffering (4:13).

Yet Christians need a certain kind of vigilance (5:6-11). Life should be lived in such a manner as to not incur deserved suffering (4:15) and to avoid suffering that might be a consequence of giving in to the devil's wiles (5:8-9).

All of which is worthwhile (5:10-11). With such a God on our side, we can confidently 'cast all [our] anxiety on him because he cares for [us]' (5:7).

John 17:1-11

Verse 11 is key to understanding why we have this reading on the Sunday after Ascension:

'I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you.'

John may not have a specific description of the event of ascension but he has a clear view of its occasion (see also 20:17).

This chapter is a final prayer of Jesus, sometimes called 'the high priestly prayer of Jesus.' Within the context of the gospel the content of the prayer is a masterful recollection of the great themes of the gospel (check out, for instance, words and phrases such as: glory, eternal life, sent, the hour has come, revealed, world, believe).

In continuation of our gospel readings in John through these weeks, the final verse reminds us of what is arguably the greatest theme in the gospel: the unity of the Father and the Son and the desire for unity between the disciples as a reflection of the continuity of divine life between God Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the disciples:

'... so that they may be one as we are one.'

(2) Ascension Day

Theme                  Christ risen, ascended and glorified        

Sentence             Lift up your heads you gates! Lift yourselves up you everlasting doors! That the king of glory may come in. (Psalm 24:7) [NZPB, p. 601]

Collect                  Eternal God,
                                By raising Jesus from the dead
                                You proclaimed his victory,
                                And by his ascension
                                You declared him king.
                                Lift up your hearts to heaven
                                That we may live and reign with him. Amen [NZPB, p. 601]          

Readings         Acts 1:1-11
                      Psalm 47                                     
Ephesians 1:15-23
                             Luke 24:44-53

Introduction: this post takes no view on whether Ascension Day should be celebrated on Ascension Day (in 2013, Thursday 9 May) or the Sunday after Ascension Day. It does however deal with Ascension Day readings on the basis that, most likely, Ascension Day is being celebrated on the Sunday afterwards.

Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53

I do not think this need be brought into a sermon, but it is fascinating to see how Luke deals with the last event in Jesus' physical presence on earth in his two texts, the ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts. There are similarities and there are differences.

In 'big picture' (or 'big theme') terms, each passage conveys two messages: the gospel mission of Jesus must now spread throughout the world, but first new empowerment through the Holy Spirit must come upon the disciples.

The 'event' in each passage is the departure, depicted physically as an 'ascent', of Jesus from the disciples. Never again, save in episodic visionary experiences will they see their Lord again.

Where does Jesus go to? Both texts answer "heaven". Later, Peter, in his Pentecost Day sermon will add "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). Obviously the physical talk of upwards travel to a place beyond the observable world of earth-and-space both assumes and contributes to an understanding that "heaven" is above us. It also offers a physical image to match the increase in glory and honour implicit in the idea that Jesus is now 'exalted' to the right hand of God (i.e. seated on a throne on the right side of the divine throne).

Ascension then is a celebration of both departure and exaltation, of the physical loss of Jesus to his followers and of the triumphant gain of Jesus exalted to glory in the realm of heaven. With exaltation the victory won in the resurrection, the defeat of the power of death as the last enemy against humanity is completed. With departure the door is open to a new history of God being present among God's people, God the Holy Spirit will dwell among them.

Yet this event is also about us. The departure of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come in power is integrated with the great commission. We misunderstand Ascension and its importance if we think of it as (say) a postscript to the life of Jesus, or a snapshot of the glory of the exalted Jesus. Ascension is also the beginning of a new era in our history, the time when we are responsible for the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ. Luke in both texts is keenly alert to this point. If (as some scholars of Luke's writings have supposed) Jesus has come in the middle of history, then we are now in its last period. That this is so, according to Luke, is underlined in Acts 1:11. Jesus has departed, but he will return.

Psalm 47

This is a fitting song of praise to God on this festive occasion.

Ephesians 1:15-23

Obviously verse 20 in this passage links the text to the theme of 'exaltation' which is an important aspect of the theology of Ascension.

The passage is part of a long introduction to the epistle in which Paul sets out a profound set of insights into salvation, Christ, Christ's relationship to those who believe in him, and the great purpose of God being worked out through history - all given in the context of prayer and thanksgiving for his readers.

There is a sermon in every verse of this passage! 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunday 21 May 2017 - Sixth Sunday of Easter

Theme(s):

Preaching the gospel today / The importance of the resurrection / Our identity in Christ / The promised gift of the Advocate

Sentence:

They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father (John 14:21a)

Collect:

Holy God, you feed us
with earthly and with spiritual food.
Deathless, unalterable, you have chosen us,
sinful as we are,
to hear your word and to proclaim your truth,
may we do so boldly and creatively,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Commentary:

Acts 17:22-31

Paul has a tough speaking assignment here. He has a listening audience in Athens but their ears want to hear novelties rather than the truth.

Astutely Paul takes up an opportunity within the existing worldview of the audience. In their love for religious speculation about a diverse array of gods and philosophies they have allowed for 'an unknown god' (23) as one of their 'objects of worship' (23). That is the ultimate 'covering the bases' around pleasing all possible gods! So Paul picks up the concept of an unknown god and adroitly makes this god the God of Jesus Christ whom he serves through preaching the gospel.

Actually, careful reading of the sermon shows that Paul continues to build bridges to his audience by not talking about Jesus whose name would have meant nothing to the Athenians.

Instead Paul talks about 'the God who made the world and everything in it' (24) - few would have disputed the general concept of a divine power as cause of the world's existence. He goes on to talk about the God of Adam and Abraham without invoking names and makes the point that this God is not confined to 'shrines made by human hands' (25). Offering an explanation for his gospel in this manner means we are unsurprised to find him quoting from local Greek poet-philosophers (Epimenides with shades of Plato, Aratus) (28).

Naturally Paul's God is different from the totality of gods already known to the Athenians so, eventually, he has to move his speech into new territory for his audience. If they agree with him thus far that there is a God who is their unknown god then they need to know this is not all about idle and interesting speculation: a day of reckoning is coming (31a) and it will be conducted by 'a man whom he has appointed' (31b) and the assurance that this is so is that this man - obviously Jesus - has been raised from the dead (31c).

Two reactions follow: scoffing and invitation to hear him again (32) with the result that some become believers (33). By the time we get to verse 33 we think Paul has exhausted himself, this preaching has been so tough!

Two things are worth pondering deeply here. One directly relating to the importance of Eastertide.

1. The resurrection of Jesus is vital to Paul's argument. He speaks to an audience with a largely cyclical understanding of time (things go round and round and never come to an end). To them he says, Time is coming to an end; history has a point of completion. In support of that claim he cites a fact of history they are not aware of: God's appointed agent of judgment has been raised from the dead. The resurrection is not incidental to the story of Jesus. It is not just a happy ending after a very sad death: it is the decisive turning point in the plans and purpose of God for human history.

2. In a Godless Kiwi society, which is also pretty ignorant of who Jesus was and is (though prone to use his name profanely), what does Paul model in preaching the gospel which we could use in our context?

Psalm 66:8-20

The psalmist never gives up his faith, even though the toughest times are really tough. In fact, the psalmist can go a bit further: God has answered his prayers and done things for him. He will tell any who listen about this.

With a small amount of tongue in cheek, verse 12b is the favourite verse of the Anglican church. Perhaps especially in this past week when the Anglican church of these islands has resolved in its General Synod that we will be a church with a very wide view on seemingly opposing ideas, this verse especially applies: "you have brought us out to a spacious place."

1 Peter 3:13-22

We continue our reading through 1 Peter having jumped over 3:1-12. Why are the hard bits of the Bible left out of the lectionary?

This passage begins innocuously (13). This letter is addressed to Christians scattered, likely through persecution, so verse 14 likely applies. In which case, verse 15 is challenging: whether it is your mates or your persecutors asking you what makes you tick as a Christian,

'Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you'.

Obviously this implies that a sign of being a Christian is that we are ever hopeful. In practical terms that means we do not whinge, whine, or harp back in terms of the good old days. Instead we are always open to the future, believing that under God it will be better than today.

Verse 16 then says something about the character of our witness and the importance of keeping a 'clear conscience' in order that our persecutors may be put to shame. A comment in verse 17 about suffering for doing good then leads to an exposition of Christ and his suffering, picking up a theme already introduced in 2:21ff.

But here we are introduced to some thinking about what happened at the time of Christ's death which is unique to the New Testament: Christ as the risen spirit descended to the disobedient (i.e. evil) 'spirits in prison' (19-20). In turn this is linked to Noah and that leads to the theme of 'saved through water' (20) and thus to baptism (21). This passage is like a fast moving sermon in which many topics are introduced briefly, touched on profoundly, but never lingered on - not necessarily a great way to preach!

Verse 21 importantly says that Noah and his family's experience 'prefigures' baptism; and also says that 'baptism ... now saves you'. But the saving power of baptism does not lie in its literal effects, 'removal of dirt from the body' but in what it symbolises 'as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ'. That is, we are saved by what Christ has done for us, suffering 'for sins once for all ... in order to bring you to God' (18), a matter of the meaning of the Christ which is made apparent because Christ was raised to new life, as we now also are raised to new life. Baptism is the action done to believers which signifies what Christ has done for us.

The final verse is a clause of praise to this saving Christ who has suffered for us (22).

John 14:15-21

Continuing from last week's reading, Jesus, speaking in the hours before his death, looking ahead to where death will take him, and what he brings back after the resurrection to his disciples, in particular a life in which they are identified with him as he is identified with the Father, turns to practicalities of discipleship.

1. 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments' (15). This love is not a state of emotion but a series of acts of the will.

2. There will be a gift to the disciples of 'another Advocate' i.e. of another one to walk alongside them (lit: paraclete) as Jesus has been doing (16). This permanent presence is 'the Spirit of truth' or the Holy Spirit (17) who is beyond the world's comprehension (because they have not entrusted themselves to Jesus Christ so they cannot know the alternative who will be and do what Christ did) and will abide with them and will be in them (see, e.g., John 6).

Thus Jesus can say that he will not leave the disciples orphaned because, in the Spirit, 'I am coming to you' (18). Implicit here is also the coming or return of Jesus - temporarily - after the resurrection, which is also predicted in verse 19.

3. Most importantly, in respect of the resurrection, 'because I live, you also will live' (19b). As a consequence the disciples will, once and for all, understand the relationship - central to the characteristic manner of presentation of Jesus in this gospel - between the Father and the Son and the Son and the disciples (20). This is tied to the beginning of the passage in verse 21.