Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sunday 6 May and Sunday 13 May 2018 - Easter 6 and Ascension Day transferred

[I am posting two Sundays together because my presence at General Synod is going to be a squeeze on time next Monday.]

SUNDAY 6 MAY 2018 - Easter 6

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

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


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


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


Acts 10:44-48

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

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

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

Question: How did those present know the Holy Spirit had come upon these uncircumcised believers (compare 45a)?
Answer: 'for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God' (46).

We could reserve a discussion about speaking in tongues for a seminar on a Saturday rather than trying to deal with it within a sermon, but the point could be made that the coming of the Spirit is not about some vague action by God which we hardly know we have experienced.

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

Psalm 98

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

1 John 5:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

John 15:9-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY 13 MAY 2018 - Ascension Day (transferred)

I suspect most readers/users of these notes will follow the Ascension Day (Thursday 10 May) readings on this Sunday.

Theme                  Christ risen, ascended and glorified        

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

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


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 or the Sunday after Ascension Day. It does however deal with Ascension Day readings on the basis that, most likely, Ascension Day is being celebrated on the Sunday afterwards. That seems to be the custom these days.

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

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

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

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

Where does Jesus go to? Both texts answer "heaven". Later, Peter, in his Pentecost Day sermon will add "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). 

Obviously the physical talk of upwards travel to a place beyond the observable world of earth-and-space both assumes and contributes to an understanding that "heaven" is above us. 

It also offers a physical image to match the increase in glory and honour implicit in the idea that Jesus is now 'exalted' to the right hand of God (i.e. seated on a throne on the right side of the divine throne).

Ascension then is a celebration of both departure and exaltation, of the physical loss of Jesus to his followers and of the triumphant gain of Jesus exalted to glory in the realm of heaven. 

With exaltation the victory won in the resurrection, the defeat of the power of death as the last enemy against humanity is completed. 

With departure the door is open to a new history of God being present among God's people, God the Holy Spirit will dwell among them.

Yet this event is also about us. The departure of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come in power is integrated with the great commission. 

We misunderstand Ascension and its importance if we think of it as (say) a postscript to the life of Jesus, or a snapshot of the glory of the exalted Jesus. 

Ascension is also the beginning of a new era in our history, the time when we are responsible for the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ. 

Luke in both texts is keenly alert to this point. If (as some scholars of Luke's writings have supposed) Jesus has come in the middle of history, then we are now in its last period. That this is so, according to Luke, is underlined in Acts 1:11. Jesus has departed, but he will return.

Psalm 47

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

Ephesians 1:15-23

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

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

There is a sermon in every verse of this passage!

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