Saturday, May 25, 2019

Sunday 2 June 2019 - Ascension Day [transferred] or Sunday after Ascension = Pascha 7

First I give the readings for Ascension Day, with Comments
Then I give the readings etc for the Sunday after Ascension also know as the 7th Sunday after Easter.
This post takes no view on whether Ascension Day should be celebrated on Ascension Day or transferred.

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


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! 

Further theological reflection on Ascension and its significance may be found at Psephizo.

Sunday After Ascension = Pascha 7

Theme(s): God's power at work / Church in mission / Unity for sake of the gospel

Sentence: "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).

Collect: Easter 5:1

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.
Alleluia! Make us salt of the earth;
make us yeast in the loaf. Amen.


Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26 


Acts 16:16-34

We continue reading through Acts (though, bear in mind, next Sunday is Pentecost, and we will switch back to Acts 2 and the coming of the Spirit who drives the apostolic mission forward through Acts 16).

Here Paul and is band, including the narrating author Luke, continue their work in Philippi and run into trouble. Casting out a demon from a fortune-telling slave-girl is one thing, facing her profit driven owners is another and Paul and Silas find themselves in the presence of a lynch mob. Flogged and thrown into jail they do the only thing they can do while constrained by stocks: sing hymns to God.

Such singing: the earth shakes, chains are broken, the jailer wakes to a reality which is a nightmare and thinks killing himself is the simplest way to escape impending doom. But peace rules: no prisoner has actually escaped and the nightmare turns to vision for the jailer. He has been saved from death, can he be saved by God?

Paul assures him he can. To the jailer's brilliant question, "What must I do to be saved?" Paule replies with words echoing down the centuries of gospel ministry, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, you will be saved, you and your household."

The following verses tell us of remarkable transformation as the jailer hears the gospel ("the word of the Lord"), responds with ministry to their needs ("washed their wounds"), and is baptized with his household. The pattern here has been followed through the centuries: response to the gospel proclaimed, teaching in the faith, baptism.

Psalm 97

In these verses we have the earth responding to the Lord (cf. the earthquake in the Acts reading), the bowing down of the gods before the Lord (cf. the pagan jailer seeking salvation in the Acts reading) and the Lord guarding the lives of his faithful and rescuing them from the hand of the wicked (cf. the release of Paul and Silas from the jail in the Acts reading).

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

It is a pity that verses are missed out in this reading. The discomfort those verses provide are part of the reading as it was written and we damage the integrity of the reading, if not the integrity of ourselves as readers by omitting these challenging, confrontational verses. (They are also, as I saw observed on Twitter recently, somewhat ironical re the lectionary and its excision of verses to make for worship readings of "appropriate" content and length!)

But the verses we are prescribed to read speak of our Lord who is Lord of time and Lord through time. The Lord Jesus is beginning and end and will come again. What occurs in time, our lives and thus the flow of history through time, is under his Lordship and to Jesus as Lord we are all accountable: "my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work" (12).

Yet the Lord is gracious: the one who is coming in judgment also says to those who will be judged, "Come". The elapse of time between the beginning and the end is time for responding to that invitation, "Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift" (17).

John 17:20-26

We could read this passage simply as a lesson in ecumenicity in the body of Christ ("that they may become completely one", v. 23) but it is worth asking first, Why this reading on this Sunday after Ascension and before Pentecost? To what "Ascension" and "Pentecost" themes does the reading speak?

Putting the question like that, I do not see an easy answer! But here goes:

First, as Jesus ascends to the Father and as the Spirit is about to descend to birth the church, the vision and plan is for one united church. There is only one ascended Lord of the church and only one indwelling Spirit of God. The Johannine Jesus prays for the unity of the church not that disparate fragments of a divided church might be somehow moulded into one body but because the church is intended to be one, to remain one and to be renewed as one body of Christ.

Secondly, the ascended Jesus departs from his disciples and thus to the disciples Jesus hands over his mission (that for which God "sent" him, with "sent"/"send" being a fundamental conception of God's work through Christ in John's Gospel). Jesus prays for unity not for its own sake but "so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (v. 23, see also v. 21).

In other words, between Ascension Day and Pentecost we are invited via this reading to reflect on who we are as church and what our task is the continuing mission of Christ. To get a bit technical, ecclesiology meets missiology on this Sunday and via this reading.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday 26 May 2019 - Pascha 6

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 receiving baptism (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 into the inner courts of heaven!

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 it is 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 verses which follow, though not part of our passage today, that is, 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, May 11, 2019

Sunday 19 May 2019 - Pascha 5

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, May 5, 2019

Sunday 12 May 2019 - 4th Sunday of Pascha

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.