Saturday, May 30, 2020

Sunday 7 June 2020 - Trinity

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


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.


Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20


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. (That is,  communion/ or 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.

If we move from Trinitarian reflection to verses 11 and 12, we see there what the impact on the church should be of the Trinity whose charatcer is love, grace and peace: the church should be a fellowship of love, a mirror of the communion of love which is God Father Son and Holy Spirit.

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.

In fact, Matthew's Gospel itself has already recognised in Jesus' own baptism the interrelationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Matthew 3:16-17.

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.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday 31 May 2020 - 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).


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


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 the 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).

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Sunday 24 May 2020 - Either Ascension Day transferred or Easter 7/Ascension 1

It is appropriate and possible to transfer the celebration of Ascension from Thursday 21 May to this Sunday, 24 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)


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.


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


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 a strong 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 (= the Spirit of Jesus) 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 continuing, direct experiences of Jesus through two millennia since, in visible form, are the occasional visions of Jesus granted to some believers, or to people for whom the vision is a critical turning point in their becoming 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. We could, to take up some Lukan language, say that we now know Jesus through the breaking of the bread and the opening up of the Scriptures, but not because Jesus sits with us teaching the Scriptures and breaking the bread himself.

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 critical 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). Perhaps more accurately we should say, John may not have as specific a description of the event of departure-and-ascension as Matthew and Luke, but he clearly talks about Jesus as the one who, rising from the dead, keeps ascending to the Father.

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 2020, Thursday 21 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 focuses our minds today on 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! 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Sunday 17 May 2020 - Easter 6


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


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)


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.


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


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' in respect of pleasing all possible gods! So Paul picks up the concept of an unknown god and adroitly defines this god as 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). 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 very 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, we could say that 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.

Further, as Christians we understand that we have an obligation to witness to Jesus Christ.

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.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sunday 10 May 2020 - Easter 5

Theme(s): I am the way, the truth and the life. The people of God. A holy nation. The first martyr.

Sentence: Jesus said, If you dwell within the revelation I have brought, you are indeed my disciples; you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31-32)


Eternal God,
your Son Jesus Christ
is the way, the truth and the life for all creation;
grant us grace to walk in his way,
to rejoice in his truth,
and to share his risen life;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.


Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14


Acts 7:55-60

Stephen becomes the first martyr of the fledgling Christian movement after the ascension of Jesus.

In Luke's telling of the dying of Stephen he makes the remarkable and inspiring claim that Stephen was 'filled with the Holy Spirit' and 'gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God' (55) His basis for doing so is Stephen's own words in verse 56. Violent and horrible though his death was, it is worth reading Luke carefully at this point. The rage against Stephen is the rage of those provoked on several counts by claims about the death and resurrection of Jesus. They have been sorely accused by their victim of disobeying God and of betraying and murdering the Righteous One of God. If he is right about the status of Jesus as vindicated at God's right hand then they are facing the wrath of God for their sins. They threw the stones which killed him as an intense reaction to Stephen's bold but highly provocative and (justly) accusatory sermon.

By contrast Stephen himself is Christ like (compare verse 60 with Luke 23:34).

But the death of Stephen is the beginning of Luke's story of Saul. He will pick up where the stone throwers left off and persecute the new movement. But, like Stephen at his death, he will have a visionary encounter with the risen Christ and everything will change for him in an instant. Stephen's death is not in vain since we can rightly presume that it made an unsettling impact on Saul.

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

These verses, simply, are woven into the story of Stephen's death and shed light on the character of the martyr who entrusts everything about suffering evil into the hands of God who is good.

1 Peter 2:2-10

Not sure why verse one is omitted! We could do with ridding ourselves of malice, guile etc.

Peter's language here is steeped in the Old Testament with his talk of a living stone(s), a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, spiritual sacrifices, actual citations from the Old Testament and talk of his readers - scattered Christians - being a chosen race and so on. But what we find as we observe carefully is that this is (so to speak) the Old Testament with a Christian revision.

There is no talk here of a Temple dedicated to Christ built with stones, nor of animals being sacrificed inside it, nor of a priesthood dependent on belonging to the tribe of Aaron nor of a priesthood separate to the rest of the believers. 'God's own people' (9) are now those who belong to Jesus Christ (as set out in chapter 1). The language of the Old Testament, directly cited or indirectly employed makes the point that the people of God in the Old Testament are now redefined in terms of a new covenant.

Although Peter does not specifically use the word 'covenant' here (we read the Epistle to the Hebrews to find exposition of the redefined people of God in the context of 'covenant'), the idea is implied in talk of 'a chosen race ... once you were not a people, but now you are God's people' (9-10).

Theologically this is all very exciting. For a preacher, however, there could be some challenges.

Does the average person in the pew in an age when the Bible, seemingly, is less well known, find their world is rocked when told that they are 'a holy nation' let alone 'living stones'?

The challenge here, perhaps, is to focus on what it means to be God's people, perhaps even God's gang or God's team, to find language to communicate both what an amazing team it is to belong to, what an unimaginable price was paid so we could join the gang (see 1:18-19).

In many ways the remainder of Peter's letter is focused on what God expects of God's people and how they will live.

Perhaps, finally, we read this passage in 2020 (COVID-19, Lockdown, Online Worship) in a new perspective as the people of God "scattered" to our homes (though not by persecution), reminded, once again, that church is people not buildings, living stones, not cemented stones and bricks.

Yet likely Lockdown highlights the value of church buildings: places to gather together to rejoice as one congregation in the mercies of God and in the hope of resurrection.

John 14:1-14

John presents us with Jesus drawing closer to his death. Is John himself drawing closer to his death as an old man? Has he shaped this account of Jesus' own will and testament to his disciples so as to speak to members of his present congregation (the so-called "Johannine community")?

In these last hours of Jesus' life he sets out to communicate some important truths to the disciples who remain, at this point, uncomprehending of key matters in the revelation of God which Jesus has taught (see verse 8).

First, Jesus says that his disciples are not to be troubled in their hearts (1). They are to believe in God and to believe in Jesus. The future need not trouble them because Jesus has it in hand. He is going from them but for purposes which will benefit them (2-3). Most importantly, Jesus 'will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you will be also' (3, see Matthew 28:20).

We can easily imagine Thomas being quite confused by all this (5). Moreover he had no idea what kind of journey or place that Jesus was talking about.

Jesus is undeterred and remains focused on the theology he wishes to impart rather than yield to some kind of geography lesson!

'I am the way, the truth and the life ...' (6) 

In these words John sums up his gospel. Jesus is the way to the Father, the source of true truth and life lived abundantly for eternity. That is the message of the gospel and here and elsewhere the gospel does not back away from presenting Jesus as the one source of life and truth, as the one way to the Father.

What Jesus goes on to say, verses 8-11, also goes to the heart of the gospel and its message: Jesus is the way to the Father because when we see Jesus we see the Father (9) and we see the Father through Jesus because of their unique relationship,

'I am in the Father and the Father is in me' (10). 

This has been previewed for us in the Prologue to the gospel in 1:14-18.

There is an implication to this relationship of identity between Father and Son. What Jesus has been saying is not his own words, a kind of interpretation of the truth. No, it is the truth itself, Jesus can say 'I am the truth' because

'The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works' (10)

Interestingly 'words' at the beginning of the sentence in verse 10 is balanced not by a repetition of the word but by the use of 'works': Jesus has spoken by word and deed (i.e. the signs he has performed) all of which is the working of God in his life, giving Jesus the words to say and working through him the signs which direct people to the Father.

What is then reported to us, verses 12-14, carries an assumption that the one who believes Jesus is not an assenter to what Jesus says or a professor of loyalty to Jesus. The believer in Jesus is him or herself drawn into a relationship with Jesus similar to Jesus' own relationship to the Father: the believer dwells in Jesus and Jesus in the believer (see also, for instance, John 6 and John 15). Thus the believer can expect to the things that Jesus has been doing, if not greater things. Here John reflects something about the Luke-Acts composition in which the believers in Acts do the mighty works which Jesus did in Luke.

For ourselves we need to take care to understand the promises here carefully. Verse 14 within context does not mean that if I want a new car for Christmas I just ask and expect to get it (sometimes this manner of expectation is associated with the so-called 'prosperity gospel'). It means that when 'I am in Christ and Christ is in me' I should expect Christ to work in and through me as Christ himself once worked. When we pray for healing, people will be healed; when we command deliverance from demons, demons will be expelled; when we break bread amidst hungry people, hunger will be satisfied.