Deuteronomy is a book aimed at reviving the enthusiasm of the Jewish people for their religion, and re-kindling their sense of community. Centuries before Deuteronomy was even written the Jewish people had been successfully led out of slavery in Egypt, and eventually entered the land they are in at the time of its writing and which they consider to be a gift to them from God. The author puts into the mouth of Moses a whole series of speeches addressed to the people before they cross the river Jordan to enter this land. In chapter 4, (verses 32-40 omitting 35-38) what is said in the supposed context applies to the people at the time of its composition but also can be adapted to ourselves today: Look what God has done for you, do what God wants of you and all will be well! We still believe in God as a great creator, Who through His Spirit and through His Word makes us what we are, however we would not now think that we alone are God’s people or that He would give us the good things we have by doing awful things to others. Just as creation is an ongoing process so our understanding of God through creation changes and develops through time – we must never think we understand God!
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, (8:14-17), he writes among other things of the role of the Spirit in our lives. The effect of the movement of the Spirit is what we read of last week on the feast of Pentecost. The whole of the letter is a well structured discourse about life in the Spirit brought through Christ. Each verse leading up to our reading is in the original connected – using for, therefore, indeed, but or however – and literally our reading starts “Who indeed by the Spirit of God are being led, these are sons of God.” As the Son takes on our humanity, so we, by the influence of the Spirit, share in this sonship, forming a community both of suffering and of glory. Paul’s ideas are a radical development from the much narrower view of God’s activity that he would have had as a Jew. It is he who radically wrote earlier to the Galatians (3:28) “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. What would he write today about non-believers, adherents of other faiths and different Christian denominations? The mystery of the Trinity is surely partly about community in oneness.
The Gospel from Matthew (28:16-20) is the last paragraph of his gospel. He has found a good way to conclude his work. The disciples see Jesus in Galilee; something that has been planned before when the women at the tomb are told the disciples will see Jesus in Galilee. They recognise Him, but with some hesitancy. What they must do, not just in Galilee but for all nations, is bring people into the community that they have; they will use the Baptismal formula that was in use in Mathew’s own church community; it names together the Trinitarian nature of God, which throughout the Gospel has been seen under the different roles, of Father, Son and Spirit; people will be incorporated in some way in the community of God. It wasn’t really until 400 years later that some understanding of Trinity was officially formulated, but even to this day it is a mystery in which we are involved; I have tried to express something of the impact and implications of this reality and belief (see here)
Luke’s ‘history’ (Acts 2:1-11), writes of the fulfillment of the promise given by Jesus before His Ascension “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, see also Luke 24:48-51); it has the role of an introduction to the theme of the book of Acts, namely, the extension of the gift of the Spirit across the known world. It is set at the time of the Jewish feast of Pentecost (sometimes called Weeks) which is 50 days after the Passover festival, both of which started off as harvest festivals; but Pentecost had come to reflect the renewal of the covenant at the foot of mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. The message is mostly about the spread of the Spirit; so as there was fire and wind at Sinai, so here the Spirit comes on the first followers of Jesus as the initiation for the work they had to do. The Hebrew and Greek words for spirit are closely related to the word for wind, contributing to this description in language traditional for encounter with the divine. As part of this introduction to his theme, Luke also tells us that a large cosmopolitan crowd were present and understood and accepted what Peter said in his preaching to them. The idea of speaking in tongues plays on the two senses: ecstatic utterance and language differentiation. The words of Scripture in whatever language, are in some way the word of God for us if we but understand it properly.
In the alternative second reading Paul writes to the Galatians (5:16-24) of a more personal role of the Spirit in the lives of individuals; with the Spirit each of us can avoid sin and falling short of the mark, and we will receive the endowments for humanity at its very best, sometimes called the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience … self-control.” It is always easy to misinterpret what others say or write; it is hard to capture the full meaning across from one language to another; but in this reading we are also crossing the boundaries of culture and nearly two millennia. The word translated as ‘flesh’ is the most awkward; it seems to refer to what we sometimes call the secular world; but just as Paul’s and the early church’s thinking developed, so now we want to emphasise the sacredness of the secular. This development is because of our incipient realisation of the presence of the Spirit in the whole of created being. Some of our traditional prayers represent this of which the sequence(Come, Holy Spirit) is one which enumerates with delightful and poetic language, the various corrective actions of the Holy Spirit upon the world and its individuals; it ends as a prayer for the Spirit to act upon us, which is really a way of urging ourselves to let the Spirit work through our lives.
In the Gospel (John 20:19-25), we have part of a group of speeches presented after the Last Supper; they are in reality addressed to the churches for whom the gospel is written and, of course, as the word of God, they have something to say to us. After the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the Spirit will come as an advocate advising us Christians how to live out in our own situations the true kind of life for which we exist. It is a message that will come to us each in our own culture, age and particular circumstances. For it is our role as followers of Christ to live out the truth as witnesses for all. The passage implies that the truth (of beliefs and of way of life) will need to develop and adapt to ever new situations. To the extent to which we can bring ourselves to live as God wants we will enhance the glorious presence of Christ in our world. We celebrate and renew our efforts at this particularly time of Pentecost.
The first reading is from Acts (1: 15-26 passim). It is just after the account of the Ascension, which we still celebrate as a feast; it reminds us that though God is still with us in all that we do (except sin) yet He wants us to make our own decisions about the details because He wants us to be friends not blind automatons controlled by Him. So the disciples have to get on with the practicalities of life. They are all Jews and they think that being a follower of Jesus is a renewed way of living as a Jew; so just as there were twelve tribes of Jews according to the Bible, they want to have twelve leaders to help with the organisation of the growing numbers of followers of the Way of Jesus; and the gospels that list the disciples give a list of twelve men. As they consider the replacement of Judas Iscariot they look in their Bible (which Christians now call the Old Testament) and seek there for support for their planned action. They set about to arrange this replacement in the very down-to-earth way of voting, but believe that the Spirit is with them in the doing of this. God leaves us to make our own decisions in our particular circumstances and we should consider prayerfully in the light of our Bible and our beliefs what we should be doing in our lives and in day to day activities.
In the second reading, we once more read of the great love of God for and in us, and the love we must have of others in our world. The reason why this letter repeatedly stresses these points lies in the situation of the church that is being addressed at that time. Some of the people are so caught up with their personal form of holiness that they think this world is all wicked and consequently God didn’t really become one of us, but just appeared to be human in the man Jesus. But the Christian message is that this world here and now is holy. Not only is it being created every moment by God, but also humanity is joined intimately with God through Jesus Who is both human and Divine. But this perfect creative activity of God is in process: it is ongoing and it depends on us – God in some way depends on us! This is because He truly loves us and love never over-rides or forces the decisions of those loved. The world is in the process of gradually becoming what it will; Jesus illustrated in His life, right up to death, how to return God’s love by loving his world – all the people in it – even if that leads to difficulties and death. What an example He has given us, what a challenge we face! But God gives us the strength.
The gospel is part of a whole section from the gospel according to John, comprising long speeches and prayers attributed to Jesus, made after the last supper and before His arrest in Gethsemane. It is thought that different amounts of these were read in the early Christian churches using this gospel, according to the timing of Easter, which then as now, could be early or late according to the lunar calendar. The prayer in this section is for God to protect the followers of Jesus, because it is not easy to live both in the here and now and with the life of God above and in eternity. When this refers to the difficulties of life here, which Jesus had experienced and his followers will now begin to realise, the writer calls this aspect of life here as being in the world: the word ‘world’ here means its failings, short-comings and even at times the opposition to the ideal for God’s work of creation. God Himself and His planned accomplishment is holy; Jesus as one of us is coming to His place in this scheme but the followers are still on the way. To be consecrated is to be united into this holiness; it is a task for the followers of Jesus – for us – for which Jesus here prays
In (Acts 10), Luke tells us how Peter realised something new about being a follower of Jesus. It follows most suitably after the much limited beliefs of Peter that we read about last Sunday. Peter was a Jew and Jews believed that they were God’s people, which, they thought, meant that God didn’t have any regard for non-Jews. These beliefs were expressed in the everyday practices of eating – some foods were approved but others were judged to be unclean (ritually defiling). But before this section of Luke’s story, he tells us that while Peter was cooking for himself at his seaside lodgings in Joppa (not the place in East Lothian), he came to realise (see here) that these views were not in line with God’s wishes. This visionary message enabled him to welcome the Greek speaking friendly non-Jew Cornelius, and to preach to the assembled (not all Jewish) crowd and to witness the Spirit of God enthusing them. His view of God’s will for people had radically changed from what it had previously been.
The second reading (1 John 4:7-10) , as previous readings from this New testament book read during the period celebrating the Resurrection, focuses on God’s love and the core of the requirements for being a Christian – we should love one another. It says that God shows his love by sending his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. The word for sacrifice (‘ιλασμος in the Greek original) is used twice in this letter of John’s and nowhere else in the New Testament, and rarely in the Old Testament. Whereas the church over the centuries has sometimes seen the crucifixion as an appeasement of God’s wrath against human sin, this interpretation does not sit well with the overall tone of the letter which so much stresses the love of God – a God who would not make such a requirement of us or of His Son. The passage re-enforces the new expansive vision, that God’s love is not limited to the Jews but extends to absolutely all people to the extent that they themselves show this kind of love to others. This attitude supersedes the O.T. ten Commandments by including their core statements and raising the standard of what God wants of us in our lives.
The reading from the Gospel of John follows on from the image of the vine in last weeks reading. It is about the Father and the Son loving us, and how we are to remain in God’s love by keeping the commandments. But these ‘commandments’ are just the personal challenges that God as a friend, makes of each of us in our own particular circumstance: for Jesus this was that He should lay down his life for this kind of message. We each need to discern what God’s love calls on us to do with our lives: whatever, it will come under the umbrella of the commandment that Jesus spells out in our passage today – “to love one another” and that is where the reading ends
29 April 2018
Acts, chapter 4, verses 8-12 go straight into another speech of Peter that Luke inserts here. The context is the very early activities of Peter in Jerusalem. Together with John and others he had been gathering interested listeners in increasing numbers in the outer court of the Temple, and many of them were anxious to become believers and followers of Jesus. He had cured a lame man in the name of Jesus and was proclaiming the resurrection and accusing the Jews (it would be chiefly the leaders) of having Jesus brought to trial and put to death. The disciples had been arrested and kept over night, till in the morning they are brought before the high priest and other leaders and interrogated – “By what power or what name did you do this?” Peter replies to his accusers, laying the guilt for Jesus’ death upon them and referring to Psalm 118, that shows this pattern of behaviour. Peter affirmed Jesus as the one who can save people from this persistent pattern of behaviour, and can lift us out of our pattern of falling short of the Christian ideal. We have this Psalm after the reading, and the pasage quoted as the response: Jesus is the key-stone to the building of the kingdom, and we are the rest of the building – we are a bit like the awkwardly shaped stones in a dry stane wall.
From the opening two verses of first letter of John, chapter 3, we read again of the very basic aspect of God and of our relationship to Him. We are children of God even now, when we are loved by Him despite our inadequacies. It is quite unimaginable what it will be like when we pass over into the life after death and live even closer to God.
In the Gospel of John, (10:11-18) we are told that Jesus is like a shepherd to us. Shepherding was different then and there, from how it is now here in Scotland where we sometimes have severe weather conditions and the shepherd can use a trained dog and maybe a quod-bike as well. Shepherding was beset with problems from marauding wild animals, occasionally from rogues and thieves but always from the straying of the sheep away from safe areas and from the food they need. In the Old Testament shepherding was often used as an image of God and His relationship with the chosen people. But here in the New Testament in this gospel the emphasis is on the love and care that God has for us, on the risks taken and on the ultimate aim of uniting all the people of the earth. We must recognise in the various hazards and straying nature of the sheep something of the way our own lives pan out; but also how like the shepherd with his sheep, God is with us; in Jesus, God Himself lives for us here and now, and dies to keep us safe and secure in following Him.
15 April 2018
In the first reading from Acts, (3:13-19) we have Luke’s report of what Peter preached to the early followers of the Way of Jesus. A message that looks very much like it is putting the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews to whom it is addressed; yet it does add that they did not know what they were doing, and indeed they were fulfilling, it says, what had been foretold would happen. The idea of what sin is, in these words, reflects the common notion that it is going against what is just and right, with no consideration of the intention of those who are doing what may be seen as sinful by others or according to the law. We and Christians generally still have difficulty sometimes with understanding this distinction. The address of Peter as reported by Luke, outlines the pattern of life that we humans generally have whether we call ourselves Christian or not. In this pattern we do things that interfere with the creative plan of God and that misinterpret the words and actions of others who are God’s creatures on earth; we do this without fully realising what we are doing though it can cause so much damage to the world and to others; however, as we more and more come to be followers of the way of Jesus, God’s personal representative among us, we should work at changing our way of life continually for the better. So Luke tells us Peter concludes, saying “Repent,” change your whole way of life for the better,” so that your sins may be wiped out!”
In the second reading, (1 John 2:1-5), the writer confirms that our sins can be left behind. There is the notion that God requires some recompense for the wrong done, and that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice that has won from God forgiveness of the sins of the world. The early Christians to whom the letter was written do not think that being a Christian means being free from sin, but it does mean that we have to try to leave all sin behind by doing the will of God. God’s love is in us, but we must let it come to perfection in us by obeying the commandments of God.
The Gospel reading (Luke 24:35-48), announces the resurrection: It is unbelievable! In story-form Luke tells us that God is still really one of us, but unlike us he is a human who has lived entirely for others, a life sacrificed for all; and this is all part of God’s plan from the start to the end – the End of time; the whole world should know the love of God! And Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, illustrates the progress of this Way of life from Jerusalem to Rome, a progress that Jesus refers to at the end of this reading. We must try to become human like Him; He lived for others showing His love for the Father, so we must live for others, and hence for God! We, who know of this love that is everywhere, must express God’s love by loving others – a joyful but hard task.