5th of EASTER

3rd May 2015

The first reading (Acts 9: 26-31) assumes that you know what has gone before in this chapter of Luke’s story of the early church. Saul, as Paul was called then, had been trying to suppress the followers of Jesus’ Way and in his travels to do this, on approaching Damascus had had a conversion experience: Jesus appeared to him, Luke says, and asked ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ The use of ‘me’ in these words is an indication of the presence of Jesus in His followers, though this may not have been interpreted then as we might take it today. In the Acts of the apostles Luke recounts this experience three times altogether, but in the letters of Paul’s which we have, he does refer to having a revelation (see Gal 1:11-17) but not in the visual and narrative terms used by Luke. According to Luke, after this experience, Saul himself became a believer in Jesus, and in our reading he tries to get accepted by the disciples in Jerusalem and to use his fluency in Greek to speak to the Hellenists who were Greek speaking Jews; but later his vocation will be beyond Jerusalem and even to non-Jewish communities.

The second reading this week is from the First letter of John again. In chapter 3, verses 18-24 he writes about the loving and forgiving presence within those who follow the command of Jesus; the command to believe in Him and to love one another. The 10 commandments have been superseded in this new era initiated by Jesus, which we now call Christianity, although, perhaps because of our weak human nature we still have and certainly need some guideline about how we should live as Christians. The writer’s message, however, is clear – whoever believes in Jesus and loves others lives in God and God lives in him, and the Spirit of Jesus within us assures us of this. This is taken up in later Church teaching, notably by Athanasius, (whose feast it was yesterday), in his work 0n the Incarnation ( see Chapter 8 number 54 in this translation).

In the Gospel (John chapter 15), we have what might appear like the parable of the vine. The Old Testament often refers to the Jews as the vine of God; in that context it is seen as one that needs a lot of tending and that sometimes, even then, produces bad grapes (see Isaiah 5) – it is very frustrating for God to have such problematic people. But Jesus utterly dedicated Himself to please God His Father by loving others and giving them hope of a better life even here on earth. So Jesus is the true vine. But those who live in the same basic way of Jesus share in his life; and just as Jesus’ life was not easy-going, so the lives of His followers will have set-backs – and this is indicated in the parable by the reference to the pruning that the plants need in order to grow all the better and bear good fruit.

More comment on these readings here.

4th Sunday of Easter

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.

3rd Sunday of Easter

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.

2nd Sunday of Easter

8 April 2018

In the first reading from Acts, (4: 32-35) we have Luke’s view of how he thought the Church should be and which he projects on to his story of the early followers of Jesus after His resurrection. This is how history was written in those days. It is a picture not too unlike the ideal of communism or of the Jewish Kibbutz, with everyone sharing equally and no one lacking while others had more than enough. The image presents us with something to think about and perhaps to influence the way we live; though the caring described seems limited to fellow believers. Although Acts was written about 75 AD It is writing about a period very soon after the resurrection before there were churches in different places; it is the beginning of the story Acts tells of the spread of Christians throughout the world.

The Letters of John reflect a later situation for the Christians. In the First Letter, (1 John 5:1-6), the writer seems to speak authoritatively, as he (most likely a man) tries to correct the view that maybe Jesus wasn’t really a human undergoing birth and death, which are degrading and ‘worldly’ things; and he wants to stress that if we love God and are loved by Him, then the way we show and experience this, is by our relationship with the children of God (which again seems limited to other Christians). If we really believe in the humanity of Jesus then we love people – love God.

The Gospel of John, (20:19-31), has much in it for us to take in; this is because the writer packs a lot into these last chapters of his gospel; it shows the developing understanding of the churches that were the first recipients of the Gospel, in the area of Ephesus. He wants to emphasise the reality of Jesus’ resurrection by illustrating both the new mode of life of Jesus which is unlimited by space and time, and also the reality of His humanity with all its essential bodily attributes. The story of doubting Thomas is well-known, but the point of it is in the message to all others who believe without physical evidence – they are blest and happy. It is interesting to have in the three readings these witnesses of the development in understanding about the resurrection and its implications. The growth in the belief in Jesus as truly human and truly divine; the link between this belief and the consequent caring for others; the limitation of the caring to fellow believers which we have now developed beyond; and profession of faith without visual evidence. As we celebrate the transformation of humanity by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we need to live out our belief in the presence of Christ in our world, by our love for fellow humans, and by our struggle to develop the way we experience and express our faith in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Easter at St Marys

Our Easter services are

March 29th     Holy Thursday 6pm

March 30th     Good Friday 3pm

March 31st      Holy Saturday Vigil 8pm

April 1st           Easter Sunday 9.30am

Easter Sunday

The first reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, (chapter 10, verses 34-43 passim), where we hear a speech made by Peter before a Roman Official about the resurrection of Jesus. The book of Acts is written as an history of the growth, spread and preaching of the early church chiefly through Peter and Paul. The book seems to be a sequel to the Gospel of Luke and also written by him. The custom at the time of writing such an account often included speeches by key figures written by the author. However, there are definite elements in the recorded preaching of Peter that reflect the use of an early source which may well have been Peter himself. You will notice that the way Jesus is described is less developed than the way even Paul writing in the 50’s described the nature of Jesus (as Son of God); at an earlier time it was said that God was with Jesus in all the things He did and after His death God raised Him to life with Himself and set Him up as judge of all. The opening remarks of Peter may reflect the change that he went through after encountering the attitude of Paul, from seeing the Jewish practices as essential to God’s favour to saying that God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

The short second reading from Colossians, (chapter 3, verses 1-4) is addressed to a newly baptised Christian. After accepting the preaching about Jesus, a person could ask to become a follower of the Way of Jesus and be baptised and join the community of believers. Baptism was by total immersion and was a symbolic act of dying, being buried and rising anew; dying to a life of following the degrading values of money, pleasure and worldly success; putting all that behind one and rising (out of the water) to live with Christian values within the life of Christ now present on earth. The Christian lives with a new life that is visible only in the values that are followed and the sincerity of one’s life, but will be revealed completely at the end of time, when they expected Christ would come again in some way. We see here the use of a word probably coined by the writer of Ephesians (which we read on the 4th Sunday of Lent) – a single word meaning raised together with (συνηγερθητε) urging us to live up to what we are and with the life we share in of Christ!

In the gospel (John, chapter 20, verses 1-9) we have a description of the realisation that Jesus is risen. There is always much to consider in the words of this fourth gospel; we notice for example the significant role of women and that other disciples are secondary to Peter. And it makes us realise something about the resurrection that otherwise might not have been documented, namely, that none of the followers of Jesus, men or women, really had any idea that he would be raised up to life anew after His crucifixion – they thought the body had been stolen and had not understood any prediction of this event. The resurrection is a mystery – it is about the life of Christ not just after death but in a new way entirely within the Godhead but also present within our world, in all that is positive and good in it. This is a belief that we too are unable to grasp fully; and it is not so much something that we have to understand as something that we have to live out as the disciples and the early Christian showed us: this is how Easter should impact on us!

Palm Sunday

25 March 2018

The passage from Isaiah (50: 4-7), clearly reads as though it is from a prophet. He is one who knows what God wants to say to the people, and even though his words may be unwelcomed by those he addresses, he nevertheless puts up with the opposition of the crowd and follows his calling to listen to the voice of God and deliver the message to the people; their reaction may well bring him opposition, verbal or even physical. This passage, like a considerable amount of the Bible (Old Testament) would be quite familiar to the Jews at the time of Christ and in the early church. It is noticeable, for example, that in the Gospel written by Mark (probably the earliest Gospel) there are echoes and sometimes references to and quotations from his Scriptures. This Old Testament reading may well have been in mind as he wrote about the difficulties encountered by Christ in the account of the passion which we hear in the Gospel today.

In the second reading (Philippians 2: 6-11) Paul quotes from an early hymn about Christ. It forcefully and poetically attempts to express the ‘unbelievable condescension’ of God becoming human – one of us. It uses the Greek word for “to empty” (kenoein) which appears only five times in the New Testament and only here of God, of His act in Christ in person emptying Himself – from His divine nature – into our humanity becoming the man Jesus Christ This is a selflessness that we would emulate if we were utterly devoted to becoming saints. The adjective ‘kenotic’ and the noun ‘kenosis’ have now entered the English language and they are used to try and express this ‘emptying’ of Christ without denying His Divinity as well as being used about the implications of this for Christian living and spirituality. The poem we have in Philippians goes on to tell of the elevation that balances this, after Christ has undergone death – the details of which we hear in the passion account in the long Gospel reading that follows.

The passion in Mark’s Gospel came to be written somewhat like this. After His earthly life, those who were ‘followers of the Way’ (later called Christians), acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, Son of God and Saviour. This belief arose from knowing His unique personality before and after His crucifixion, and from the impact He made upon their lives. But they had to find ways to put it into narrative for later generations using what they had experienced or heard of, namely all the significant events that led up to His departure from our world to be present in it in a new way. We have no record of precisely how they did this over the period of the first two decades or so. But then Mark incorporated their traditions, some oral and some already put into writing, into his gospel. So this narrative of the Good News culminates with the last three chapters of Mark’s gospel of which we read the first two today (chapters 14 and 15). Mark tries to make sense of the fact that Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy by the religious leaders and was executed as a criminal by the secular power for claiming to be a king; both authorities were worried about the reaction of the crowd and the disturbance of the status quo; and Mark also wants to admit how Jesus’ friends betrayed, denied and abandoned Him – save for a few faithful women; and how some taunted him, but a Roman centurion seemed to recognise him as son of God. We should not read it as an historical account so much as a powerful message to us about the enormous love of God for us and the selfishness, weakness and sinfulness of ourselves – a powerful homily!