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.

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