Saturday, April 23, 2016

Sunday 1 May 2016 - Sixth Sunday Of Easter

Theme                  The radiant glory of God              

Sentence             Speak out with a voice of joy; let it be heard to the ends of the earth: The Lord has set his people free, alleluia.

Collect                  Ever-living God,
                                Help us to celebrate our joy
                                In the resurrection of the Lord
                                And to express in our lives
                                the love of God. Amen.               

Readings              Acts 16:9-15                       
     Psalm 67
     Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
                           John 14:23-29


Acts 16:9-15 continues the story of the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ, from Jerusalem to Rome, today reaching Philippi. Note the strong role of God in directing the movement (verse 6, forbidden to go to Asia; verse 9 a visionary lead to Macedonia), down to the personal detail of "The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly" (verse 14).

Yet Lydia makes a response by being baptized (and in keeping with her culture, insists her whole household is baptised with her). Of course she was in a position to have her heart opened by the Lord by being already a worshipper of God (verse 14).

Note also that the direction Paul and his companions receive is not all "spiritual" (i.e. visions and such). They stay in Philippi for a period through the simple pressure from Lydia to stay.

We never meet Lydia again (and she is not mentioned in the letter of Paul to the Philippians) but she stands as an impressive example of a woman in leadership in the fledgling church of God. Perhaps she herself moved on geographically, for instance back to Thyatira from whence she came (verse 14).

Psalm 67 is a fitting accompaniment to the story of Lydia and the reception of the gospel in Philippi. Beginning in prayer for God's merciful grace, the psalmist asks that God's "way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations" (verse 2; also 3-5). Three requests (actually two since the first one is repeated after the second) follow: that the peoples of the earth praise God (verses 3-5).

Why? "The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us."

As it began, so the psalm ends, with a further prayer, in a kind of summary of what has gone before, asking for God to continue to bless us and for "all the ends of the earth" to revere him (verse 7).

This psalm is an intriguing model of a prayer which calls for praise of God in a manner which makes us think as we say the words that we are praising God!

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 What is heaven like? 

It is simply impossible after reading these verse to sustain notions of heaven as consisting of wafting clouds, harps, and a strange assortment of characters who walk out of comedians' jokes, past Peter standing guard at the pearly gates! Two simple points are made about 'heaven' (strictly, going back to last week's readings, "a new heaven and a new earth", 21:1): it is full of the radiant glory of God (especially 21:22-27) and peopled with healed, restored, whole servants of God devoted to worshipping God. 

There will be "strange characters" there (actually, you and me!) but not in all our imperfections, faults and failings. "Nothing unclean" will be there; nor anything "accursed" (22:27; 22:3 respectively). Only those made whole by the healing and cleansing blood of the Lamb will be in heaven (from Revelation itself we might pay attention to 1:5b-6; 5:9-10; 7:14). All this comes from the gracious initiative of God, the source of life and of the healing water of life (22:1).

When we reflect on the radiant glory of God, the light of light which makes all thoughts of either sun or lamp redundant, we understand why nothing imperfect could be in heaven: the intensity of God's radiant glory would burn up all dark spots and shadows! Thanks be to God that his promise is to make us fit to be in his presence for eternity.

John 14:23-29 brings us back to earth! Jesus speaks to his disciples (and therefore to us, for we also are his disciples) of the time between his departure from this world and the end of all things.

(1) During this time we are to "keep" Christ's word (i.e. his new commandment). This will result in
(2) Father and Son making their "home" with us. That is, we will not be alone as we now begin to enjoy experience of fellowship with God which never ends.
(3) Although Jesus will physically leave his disciples, through the Holy Spirit (the Advocate/Paraclete/Helper/Counsellor/One who walks with us) Jesus' work continues (here, emphasis falls on Jesus' teaching). 
(4) Jesus leaves his blessing of "Peace" on the disciples, a peace not as this world would give (i.e. attempt to give) but a peace based on the promise of God's dwelling with them, continuing presence with them through the Holy Spirit, and promise already made (14:1-6) that all will be well.
(5) Far from despairing at the loss of Jesus, the disciples should be rejoicing "because the Father is greater than I". At this point we may be wise to acknowledge some limitation in our understanding of this enigmatic phrase. We might be more helped if Jesus had said "because the Father has everything under control" or "the Father is able to continue working in the world as if I were still with you." Jesus doesn't say that, though something of those two sentiments may be bound into the meaning of "the Father is greater than I."

(With respect to the following verses, though not part of our passage today, verses 30-31:

Then Jesus in the last few verses of the chapter faces (in the enigmatic manner of the Jesus presented to us in this gospel) the immediate future: "for the ruler of this world is coming". 

When Jesus says that "He [= ruler of this world] has no power over me" he must be talking about ultimate power, for within a few hours the ruler of the world, also known as the prince of darkness, will have drawn Jesus to his execution on the cross. But, as we readers know (but the disciples present on that occasion did not), it is not death which is the end of Jesus on earth but resurrection. So the ruler of the world is undone and the gospel spreads throughout that world. However John does not put it like that (which a gospel writer like Mark might have done, see Mark 14:9). John actually writes in v. 31,

"but I do as the Father commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father."

What does Jesus mean? Why is it important that the world knows that Jesus loves the Father (= does as the Father commanded him)? The sense here seems to be that only through obedience to the Father (i.e following the path leading him to the finished work of salvation on the cross as the final and complete Passover Lamb) is salvation possible. If Jesus were to stumble at the end, to disobey the Father, then he would not love the Father and we would know that what God wanted had not, in the end, been fulfilled. Conversely, when we ask with Johannine thinking, what our salvation consists of, it consists of us responding to Jesus with a similar love, a love which means we "keep" his words (14:24).

In relation to life in heaven, John 14:23-29 sets us on the way to growth in Christian maturity, built on confidence in God's promises to us in Christ and on the gift of the Holy Spirit to us.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sunday 24 April 2016 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

Theme                  Love one another

Sentence             By this love you have for one another everyone will know that you are my disciples. (John 13:35)

Collect                  Abba God, we call you Father,
                                And your care for us
          Is motherly as well.
                                Protect our power to love and be loved
          And make us glad to be called your children,
          One whanau in Christ;
                                Through whom we pray in the power of the Spirit. Amen. [adapted, NZPB, p. 608] 
           Acts 11:1-18
           Psalm 148
           Revelation 21:1-6
                                   John 13:31-35


Psalm 148 is both a hymn and a vision. A hymn of praise to the Lord, which calls on the whole of nature to praise the Lord, including kings and princes, young men and women, old and young. Everything and everyone, Praise the Lord! The vision is of the world understanding that it does not exist as existence without primary cause, or work in an orderly manner without prior design. Rather, the world is to praise God because it has been 'created ... established ... [with] fixed bounds' (vss. 5-6).

Acts 11:1-18 draws us into a new insight into the way of the world, with the aid of an account of a vision of nature which has some resonance with Psalm 148. This insight is that what in the minds of Israel was an 'established' fact in respect of 'fixed bounds' was changed. The fixed bounds involved circumcision by which the bounds of the Israelite nation were established. Within those bounds people might eat together as the people of God. Across those bounds table fellowship could not occur. Now, through a vision to Simon Peter the bounds were not just being broken but abolished. The first Christians did not understand the scope of the cross, that on it Jesus died for the world and not only for Israel. Now they know differently. But there remain pockets of resistance to this deeper understanding of the gospel, a resistance which will feature through the remainder of Acts, through Romans, Galatians and Ephesians and, to a different extent, through Hebrews and Revelation.

In the psalm we have no reckoning with creation gone wrong or creation being wrecked. The reading from Acts is an engagement with the creation gone wrong through disruption to the unity of humanity. One way to understand the gospel is that it is God's message that the time has come and the power is available to restore unity to humanity. 

In Revelation 21:1-6 we have a portion of an extraordinary vision of the restoration of creation, so beautifully and completely restored that is is 'a new heaven and a new earth'. It is an extraordinary vision because it gives multiple expressions of this restorative healing work in the space of a few verses: 'new Jerusalem' ... 'Death will be no more' ...'To the thirsty I will give water', to note just some of the inspiring images presented here.

Thus, we come to the gospel reading, John 13:31-35, with an openness (via the preceding readings) to hearing Christ's new commandment, 'that you love one another', and to understanding it, not merely as an instruction for relating to people when worshipping and meeting with them in church, but as a key which unlocks the door to the new reality of a gospel-oriented world. 

A united humanity comes into being as we love one another. The gospel message spreads to every corner of the world ('by this everyone will know that you are my disciples') as we love one another. The power of God to change the world is the power of God's love. The power of God at work in us is the power of divine love empowering us to love one another. To love one another is both to obey Christ's specific commandment to us and to forward the plan of God for the restoration of creation.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday 17th April 2016 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

Theme                  The Lamb will be our shepherd 

Sentence             Shine forth from your throne upon the cherubim; restore us O God; show us the light of your face and we shall be saved (Psalm 80:1, 3) [NZPB, p. 597]

Collect                  We praise you, God,
                                That the light of Christ shines in our darkness
                                And is never overcome;
                                Show us the way we must go to eternal day;
          Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [NZPB, p. 598]      
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
                        John 10:22-30

In some ways this week's sermon writes itself: shepherding or pastoral care is a pervasive theme through all readings!

Resurrections apart from the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ were not common occurrences in the first century AD, but they did happen. In Acts 9:36-43 we are told about the death and resurrection of Tabitha. The way Luke tells the story, significant emphasis is put on Tabitha's worthy life as a kind of justification for her receiving this special blessing. Given that earlier in the chapter we have been told about Saul/Paul being soundly converted through a special intervention, a most undeserved intervention because of his persecution of Christians, we can scarcely develop a doctrine of salvation by good works from the story of Tabitha! Instead we look at the effects of the miracle (indeed, miracles through chapter 9): 'many believed in the Lord' (v. 42, see also vss. 31, 35). Tabitha was a person whose good deeds made her known to many. Her resurrection became news which spread widely and led to new conversions to the Lord.

Nevertheless a minor theme here is the work of Peter as a shepherd of the flock of Christ: he responds to need, he prays for the one in need, and he does a work of healing.

Our psalm is undoubtedly the most popular and well-known psalm of all, Psalm 23. It might be worth pondering why this psalm is the most popular of all. What is in this psalm which leads to its wide and warm reception? What sentiments are in the psalm which give it a timeless appeal? Likely our answers will include the way in which the psalm speaks of life which has its good days and bad, its green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death, sparks hope of better days to come, and offers a rich vision of overflowing provision for our needs. In passing we might note that the language used by the psalmist has a poetic quality so that the style of the poem captures our attention in every generation as much as the substance of its content. It is almost impossible to translate this poem badly!

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

As we approach our epistle reading, Revelation 7:9-17, it might be worth pausing to think about grieving in the congregation! Psalm 23 and this epistle reading are popular choices for funeral services. Could the very act of reading either or both connect with grief which is present in our service. A consoling acknowledgement that this might be so could be worth making.

The vision in Revelation 7 is extraordinary. John the visionary sees a vast multitude, described prior to verse 9 as 'one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel' (v. 4) and in v. 9 described as 'a great multitude ... from all tribes and peoples and languages.' This is Revelation's way of describing the full extent of the people of God, Jews and Gentiles, Israel and the rest of the nations. Here the multitude has a special characteristic, 'These are those who have come out of the great ordeal' (v. 14). Revelation is written out of  and into a context of intense opposition to Christians. Intense opposition to Christians is not the universal experience of Christians today, but it is the appalling experience of many Christians, including Christians in countries such as Syria and Iraq when long-standing Christian communities are being devastated.

Many things can be said from this inspiring vision, for example, about worship, response to opposition, the throne of God, and the christology of Revelation (here repeating a theme, God and the Lamb are worshipped together). Under the theme given above, special attention falls on verses 16 and 17: the Lamb is the shepherd of the suffering saints. With more than a few resonances with Psalm 23, these verses inspire hope. One day suffering will be no more, neither will there be sorrow. Instead life will be pleasant, nourished by 'springs of the water of life.'

John 10 begins with the famous claim of Jesus that 'I am the good shepherd.' Our reading, John 10:22-30 initially appears to have 'moved on' from the theme of 'shepherd' as Jesus is relentlessly pursued on the question of whether he is the Messiah or not. In passing we might recall interconnections in the Old Testament re 'shepherd' (or shepherd-king) and 'messiah' (i.e. the Lord's coming anointed one). Jesus' response takes his questioners back to the matter of his being the good shepherd, v. 26. They do not believe (in him) because they do not belong to his sheep. An implication here is that they would believe in him if they were one of his sheep, that is, if they recognised or could see his value to them as their shepherd, they would see further into who he really is.

Jesus then says a few things about the character of the sheep who belong to him: they listen (rather than question) and follow the one who knows them - a knowing which is the knowledge of a caring, loving guide for their lives who (as Jesus goes onto say) will protect them and keep them in his flock.

Then, perhaps unexpectedly, Jesus moves from talking about his role as shepherd to making a theological claim which turns the world of theology upside down: 'The Father and I are one' (v. 30).

John's whole Gospel turns on this claim, on this great insight into who Jesus really is. Jesus is more than a servant (sent by the Father), more than a son (who does the Father's will), more than a prophet (who speaks words given by the Father), more than a teacher ... The servant is one with the Master, the son one with the Father, the prophet one with the source of his words, the teacher one with the origin of his teaching. 'The Father and I are one.'

The Messiah or Christ, in Johannine understanding, is not a subordinate or subservient role in the great plan of salvation. The Messiah comes from God as God; God comes to us as the Christ, the Son of God. Christian theology from henceforth will engage with the paradox of the servant/son who is both subordinate to God and one with God the Father. The Christian movement will part dramatically from its earthly mother, Judaism.

In the season of Easter, this gospel passage invites us to reflect on an implication of the resurrection: when we talk about God raising Jesus from the dead, we are also talking about God being God for whom death cannot be a greater power. In a sense, what John 10:30 means is that the resurrection must take place, for God is not God if subject to a greater power.

In turn, the Godness of God which is confirmed through the resurrection validates the promise Jesus the good shepherd makes here about his sheep not being snatched away: neither shepherd nor sheep are subject to another power, together they form the imperishable flock of God.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Sunday 10 April 2016 - 3rd Sunday of Easter

Theme                  Breakfasting with Jesus            

Sentence            Jesus showed himself to his disciples and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. Alleluia! (Acts 1:3)        [NZPB, p. 594]          

Collect                  God of peace,
                                By the blood of the eternal covenant;
                                You brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,
                                That great shepherd of the sheep;
                                Make us perfect in every good work,
                                And work in us that which is pleasing and good;
                                Through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen. [NZPB, p. 597]        

                                Acts 9:1-6
                                Psalm 30                                 
        Revelation 5:11-14
                                John 21:1-19


General observation about post-resurrection readings in the gospels: between Matthew, Luke and John a form of apology or defence of the resurrection faith is presented. Matthew's narrative in ch. 28 rebuts the charge that the tomb was empty because the disciples stole the body of Jesus. Luke's narrative in ch. 24 twice makes the case that the risen Jesus was a physical person to the extent that he ate and drank with disciples. John's narrative in ch. 20 makes the case that a believer who has not directly experienced the risen Jesus is no less privileged than the believer who has had that experience. In ch. 21 John also presents Jesus in 'physical' mode, but more making breakfast than eating it! John may also be defending a strand of Christianity ('Johannine Christianity') as valid alongside the strand associated with Simon Peter.

Acts 9:1-6

Paul (then known as Saul) encounters the risen Christ in a manner unusual for the telling of the history of Jesus through Luke-Acts. After the ascension (i.e. cessation of appearances of the risen Jesus Christ as 'earth-bound' experiences), the risen Christ appears to Paul. According to the narrative, Paul does not necessarily 'see' an 'appearance' of the risen Jesus: we are told he experiences a 'light from heaven' and hears the voice of Jesus, a voice also heard by his companions. Nevertheless in his own account, 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul describes this event as an 'appearance', using the same word to described the appearances before the ascension to the apostles and other disciples.

Many things can be said about this passage, for instance, there is a body of literature on the extent to which in this appearance Paul also received the whole revelation of the gospel which drove forward his subsequent preaching and writing, including his conviction that the gospel was for Gentile as well as Jew. Here we note two points.

First, the murderous intent of Saul/Paul against 'disciples of the Lord' is described by Jesus as persecution of himself (compare 9:1-2 with 9:5, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.') This could be an implied theology of the body of Christ: the church is the body of Christ on earth, to persecute the church is to persecute Christ. It could also be an insight into Saul/Paul's psychological state: he was outwardly raging against disciples, but the anger within was actually an anger focused on Christ (e.g. as a disruptive figure who was disturbing the settled state of Judaism).

Secondly, the transformation of Paul, from bloodthirsty crusader against disciples to humbly obedient disciple  is a paradigm of conversion. 

Psalm 30

Sticking with Paul, in his great discourse on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, one of the puzzling statements he makes is this (v. 4): 'that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.' Ever since Christians have wondered, where in the Old Testament do we find 'scriptures' which look ahead either generally to the resurrection or specifically to resurrection 'on the third day'. One possibility for the latter is Hosea 6:2. Our psalm today is chosen as a text which speaks generally to the possibility of resurrection. The psalmist (David?) speaks of a transformation from death to life, from weeping to joy, and from mourning to dancing.

Since David did not himself write this as a resurrected person, he must originally have been speaking of the situation in his life when all looked bleak and dark but God led him to a better place.

One aspect of resurrection which applies to us in this life is that we see God at work in raising Jesus from the dead as the God who is able to 'raise' us up from difficult situations.

Revelation 5:11-14

This portion of the great vision of the open heaven in Revelation 4-5 takes us to the slain but conquering Lamb, that is, to the risen Lord Jesus Christ (see also Revelation 1:13-20). Captured for us is the most appropriate and timeless response to the risen Jesus: worship!

The Lamb is 'worthy' of worship, on heaven and on earth, because he was 'slain/slaughtered' for us (we might go back to John's Gospel, 1:29, 36; also to 1 Corinthians 5:7 and 1 Peter 1:18-19 for a range of insights into Christ as the Lamb slain for us). But we worship no dead Lamb. The Lamb has conquered (sin and death) and exists forever with God on the divine throne, together 'the one seated on the throne' and 'the Lamb' constitute for Revelation's vision one object of worship.

John 21:1-19

This story is full of 'angles'. A good commentary will help with possible solutions to the puzzle of significance of the number "153".

Here I simply observe that the story begins with one point being pressed (the reality of the resurrection as a real time event with many witnesses to subsequent appearances of the risen Jesus, appearances not confined to Jerusalem and its surrounds) moves through another point (the forgiveness and restoration of the thrice-denying-Jesus Peter with a thrice-affirming-commission) and ends just before a further point is pressed home about discipleship (21:20-23). This last point is that discipleship takes varied but equally valid forms.

In other words, in keeping with the feel of John 21, that it is an 'epilogue' or 'afterword' to the main part of the gospel, some loose ends are tied up here. The gospel ends perfectly well with 20:30-31. The addition (it need not matter for the present purpose whether by the author's hand or by the hand of a later editor) suggests a community which engaged with this gospel and raised some important questions. Now they are answered.

That might be a clue to how we preach from this passage on Easter 3. What are our pressing questions about the resurrection or about how we are to live for Christ as people of the resurrection? What answers would Jesus himself give, as he himself answered the questions being answered here? 

Broadly speaking the questions being answered here are still our questions today:
- Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen? John answers "Yes!"
- Will God forgive me and restore me to divine communion? John answers "Yes!"
- What does it mean to follow Jesus? John answers "All disciples follow Jesus wherever he leads them, whether to peaceful death in old age or to martyrdom."

The net was not torn (v. 11)

In a chapter on fishing and following Jesus, our minds are taken to Jesus' commission to the first disciples that they will become fishers of people. Jesus' expectation is that his movement will grow. Here the unbroken net speaks of a promise of Jesus that no matter how large his movement grows, it will cope with growth.