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)


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.


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


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)


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


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)


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


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.