The Acts of the Apostles is the second volume of Luke’s writings; his intention is to write a view of the development of Christianity from the Ascension (where he ended his Gospel) to its spread into Rome and its territory; and he wanted to write it as an encouragement to his readers about the successful growth of believers in Jesus under the guidance of the Spirit. In chapter 10 he tells how Peter’s view expanded to see Jesus’ work as applying also to the Gentiles. Cornelius, a non-Jew, had asked Peter to visit him, and when he arrived Luke tells us (Acts 10:34-37 passim) “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God…’;” but the section in italics is omitted from the reading we have today; namely the point that Jesus’ work of salvation is for all people; This is not just what Luke is saying to his readers but is also an important message for Christians today as we look at the many good people (who do what is right) in our secular world. The message attributed to Peter certainly reads as though it is not simply Luke’s summary of the written gospels, but a traditional statement handed down in the church; and interestingly, at the end of the speech, we have the conclusion “that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The first 4 verses from chapter 3 of Colossians is the conclusion of a section in which Paul is trying to correct those who thought that there were many rules about what they can eat and what they should do, passed to them by higher beings than themselves; they have lost sight of the liberation that Christ brings. The conclusion which is the reading for today, is an attempt to bring them back to the reality that Christ is for them, that they live a life not restricted by any earthly rules and regulations; this is symbolised in their baptism – going down into the water and rising from it in Christ; the passage concludes with a reference to the final coming of Christ which seemed imminent to early Christians but which we have not just pushed into the distant future but out of mind.
John chapter 20 opens with a very brief account of the discovery of the empty tomb; there are more and different details about this in the other gospels. Here, Mary Magdalene alone, makes this discovery; she concludes that the body has been stolen, but after this account in John, she is in the same place where she meets Jesus in an account unique to John’s gospel. It seems that in this gospel the empty tomb is not taken as evidence of the resurrection, although it says they believed, this belief doesn’t yet launch them into a confident new life announcing the resurrection. Just as Peter and John, the reading tells us, did not really understand about the resurrection, for us too it a mystery of our faith. We need, however, to consider its implications for how we live out our lives.
The first reading from Isaiah chapter 43 speaks to a people being brought home by their powerful God; this despite their many faults and failings. Yahweh is the name He uses of himself, but also announces himself as their redeemer and saviour as well as their original creator who formed them into a people. No god could be imagined as great as Him, who can bring his own through all manner of difficulties. They need have no fear now but can sing His praises. The whole chapter is worth reading to get the full force of this message, and there we have the words of a well-known hymn “Do not be afraid which expresses these sentiments for us today.”
In the second reading, Paul reminds the Philippians that he himself was once a Jew who like the Pharisees and all devout Jews, aimed to win God’s favour by keeping all the precepts of the Law and, like them too, failing in the attempt. But he adds that he has put that aside now, lost this burden of trying to keep the rules, because he has found a new insight into God through his encounter with God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He knows that righteousness (being in a good relationship with God) must come from God not from the human recipients of His love. But what he is trying to do, is to imitate the sort of life Christ lived; a life devoted to God to the very end; but this is an ongoing enterprise that he has to pursue through whatever difficulties of life – it’s all well worth it. He is most likely saying all this because there are some in the church in Philippi who have a more pharisaic approach to their religion and perhaps want to impose it on others.
The Gospel is from John but is not unlike the sort of accounts that Luke writes. It is the well-known story of the woman taken in adultery. It develops the theme from the second reading, about the inadequacy of the Law to gain righteousness, and the priority of God’s love and forgiveness. In that place and time it is the woman that is to blame for the adultery – nothing is said about the man involved. Jesus, with the love of God for all, says that the one who has no sin can caste the first stone towards her execution by stoning; but notice that Jesus is the only one there who has no sin, yet it is he who shows forgiveness towards her – He is the one who shows us what God is like, as we try to see what He is like and what He wants of us.
The first reading is Israel’s oft told story of a transition moment in their history. They were brought out of slavery in Egypt, and that is referred to by the word ‘reproach, and the name Gilgal which can mean ‘rolled away;’ they have been troubled for a generation wandering in the desert, where they displeased God but were also protected by Him; and now they have just set foot in the land they believed God had long promised would be theirs ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ Moses, who led them for so much of this physical and spiritual journey, had disappeared from the scene once they were in sight of the end. Joshua has taken over as leader, and with the help of God, and stepping stones, they cross the river Jordan, perhaps swollen from the melted northern mountain snows, reflecting the crossing of the ‘sea’ to escape the Egyptians forty years previously. So with great joy they celebrate with the fruits of their new land, a new Passover into a new future. Their bread was fresh from the wheat and hence had no time to leaven, so thereafter it became a symbol of entering the promised land, replacing the manna (meaning ‘what is it?’) that they took as a short-term miraculous food from God in the desert.
The well-chosen second reading is also about transition, this time for the Christians. It is with remarkable depth that Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, describes the radically new situation that we are now in, writing “who is in Christ is a new creation!” And he goes on to say that it is our job to bring this new being into the world – that’s the whole world, not just our own folk or just the Jews. God joined our sinful humanity in Christ, so that all humans would be in a good relationship with God, described as God’s righteousness. The old has passed away and the new reality created.
The Gospel gives us a parable unique to Luke which he says Jesus told to the scribes and Pharisees, because they were quite disturbed by His association and even goodwill towards tax collectors and sinners. We call it the parable of the prodigal son. It is about the relationship of a father with one of his sons when he returned repentant after going off and wasting his inheritance and his life and coming on extremely bad times; he runs to greet and forgive him even before he has said he is sorry. God is like that father towards people who go astray and only seem to regret their folly when things go all haywire. There is also another son who has been faithful and at home all the time, and who feels quite unfairly treated by the lavish reception given to the prodigal, but that’s what we can be like as well. It is a powerful, though simple illustration of what Jesus wants to show His Father and ours is like.
There are lots of phrases used in this well-told story (Exodus 3:1-15 passim)that give rise to expansive thoughts. The situation is that Moses had been brought up in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s household but had also learnt of his ancestral religion, and had to leave hastily when he was wanted for the murder he had committed against an Egyptian bullying one of his own race. In the desert East of Egypt, he had settled as a herdsman working for his new father-in-law. Moses is near the mountain where later in the story of Israel, God will present the Commandments. When God calls he makes the classic response: “Here I am.” There he has seen a bush which burns but doesn’t burn up – the motto of the Church of Scotland. The very ground is holy and to be trodden with care, and God is caring of his suffering people and will lead them to a most desirable place. Moses only knows from his upbringing of the god of his ancestors and so God gives out His name: Yahweh. Moses is chosen to lead the people out of the slavery they are in. However, the journey will be fraught with difficulties, failings as well as God’s help and protection.
The second reading (1 Cor 10:1-12, passim) illustrates how Christians, and specifically here Paul, interprets the texts and incidents of the past to make them relevant to the present situation – something that we should be doing with the Scripture readings we have. So in Paul’s application, the way Yahweh led the people out of Egyptian slavery across the desert is called baptism and the food and drink which was provided miraculously by God in the desert would make Christians think of their weekly service of celebration. But, as in history so, as Paul writes, the people still fail themselves and their calling and many are destroyed. Paul concludes with this method of interpretation, showing its relevance in the present: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” This is receiving the Word of God in Scripture and applying it to the here and now.
The chapter divisions in the bible are not part of the original writing; Luke chapter twelve is about the uncertainty of the End and the need for repentance; a theme that continues into today’s reading from the next chapter. The two unexpected disasters referred to are not known through any other source; the cruelty of Pilate against Galileans in the Temple would increase Jewish hatred of the Romans, but Jesus doesn’t go down that road; instead the report of the incident is used in the same way as the natural disaster of the collapse of the tower at Siloam. Jesus makes the point about the uncertainty of the hour of death or the end of the world. Luke then adds his own version of the parable of the fig tree like that in Matthew and Mark; here it doesn’t bear fruit, even over three years and so deserves destruction; or does it need another chance?
our ways for the better. We need to see our responsibility to a loving god, and act appropriately; Lent is the right time to try anew and harder.
Previously in chapter 12 of Genesis we read that God spoke to Abram and told him to uproot and go to where God would lead him, and that his descendants would be many, although his with was barren. Today (Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18) we have a second encounter between God and Abram, who is now in the land between the Euphrates river and the Mediterranean sea. God says that he will have his own offspring and the descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky; and this promise is sealed with what is thought to have been a traditional covenant ceremony usually symbolising that both parties stake their lives and their relationship together, but here it is a unilateral promise from God Who alone passes between the carcasses. These stories in Genesis are recorded after many decades of verbal transmission and inevitably after adaptation to different situations and developments in belief, but they are held as part of the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people – and now part of the Christian Bible.
We read from Paul’s letter to the Philippians on the second of Advent last year where there is some background information about this letter. In this extract Paul seems to be addressing the problem that some of the Christians there, were acting as though what they did in their material existence on earth had no impact on their spiritual lives. So Paul wants to stress the reality of the Christ’s embodiment on earth and even his death on the cross – Paul himself is suffering confinement in prison as he writes, but he believes in the value of the physical because of the glorified body which we will have after death. He has a hope in seeing his Saviour soon; we do not know whether this is referring to his own death or to the climax and End of the world. Though he has to correct them, he still expresses his love for this mainly Gentile community of Christians that started in the house of Lydia.
The Gospel is the story of the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), which links well with the second reading from Philippians. A few verses before our reading Jesus has spoken about the true attitude to have to life this side of eternity: “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world but lose or forfeit themselves?” Older translations use the word ‘soul’ but this misrepresents the meaning in our times when many think of a person as divided into body and soul, whereas in Jesus’ culture, the word referred to the whole self – its true value. These verses are suitably followed by a vision of Jesus in the after-life, where the body is glorified and the person will be in the company of all. In the stories about Moses, the end comes with him just disappearing from the scene, and as for Elijah the prophet, the story goes that he was whisked away to heaven in a chariot. The disciples are quite lost as to what to say or do, but the lesson in the context of today’s readings, is in some way about the grandeur of the human person (body and soul).
The first reading (Deuteronomy 26:4-10) is about the Jewish spring festival of Unleavened Bread (Matzah), quoting the creedal statement about the past dealings of God with themselves, His people. Their Aramean ancestor was Abram the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel; their crop failures took them down to the well-stocked Egypt where Joseph already was; but there they became slaves and only escaped under the leadership of Moses with God’s help. Wandering in the desert they were not too pleased with their God nor He with them, but after a generation (40 years), God brought them into their present (Promised) land. It was here that they could celebrate the first fruits of the harvest again. Their creed about God was not a list of doctrines, but rather about God’s treatment of them over time – His care for His people.
Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with him saying how he loves the Jews, but how they have strayed from their original creed and now seek to gain righteousness by keeping the Law (and lots of other rules); he says: “But now the Law has come to an end with Christ, and everyone who has faith may be justified.” The passage read today (chapter 10: 8-13) follows this; it is about the right relationship that we should have with God, that it comes from God, is not earned by any effort of ours and that it leads to our salvation when we die; it is by faith that we trust in God and his goodness to us. Although Paul quotes the book of Deuteronomy (30:14) he stretches its original meaning, and also when he later quotes Isaiah (28:16); but he finds what he believes about the universality of God’s love in Joel (2:32).
The Gospel is Luke’s account of the temptations of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13). He has been baptised where a heavenly voice declared him Son of God, but what does this mean and how will it work out – that is where the temptations come in. Will He use His power to satisfy the various hungers of human beings (for easy sustenance, life and prosperity), or will He submit to any evil in order to become the King of kings (ruler of all the nations), or, finally, will He use His protection from God to win people with superficial, miraculous powers? Luke treats the public work of Jesus as a journey towards Jerusalem (and all that happened there), and so he differs from the order of the temptations in Matthew’s gospel to have Jerusalem as the last one and also he implies that Jesus will get tempted further during the rest of His life.
The first reading is Sirach 27:4-7 – “When a sieve is shaken, the refuse appears;
so do a person’s faults when he speaks.
The kiln tests the potter’s vessels;
so the test of a person is in his conversation.
Its fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree;
so a person’s speech discloses the cultivation of his mind.
Do not praise anyone before he speaks,
for this is the way people are tested.”
It is plain to see that this is not just a wise statement but delightful poetry with a thought-provoking message. Like the whole of this long book of Sirach it draws on both the moral ideals of the Bible teaching and on the wisdom and culture of the Greek/Hellenistic world. It is thought to have originally been written in Hebrew but come to the West only through the Greek version of the Bible called the Septuagint (LXX for short). It is for this reason that it is not present in the general Bible but only in the Catholic versions; also it is classified with a diminished reliability and is called deuterocanonical because of this secondary nature. It also goes under the name of Ecclesiasticus.
The second reading is from 1 Cor 15:54-58. “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”
This is the penultimate chapter of this letter of Paul and is really the end of his theological message, the last chapter being mostly just practical matters. With Paul’s education in the Scriptures he considers death to be unnatural, seeing it as a punishment for sin – the first sin of Adam and Eve as related in Genesis at the beginning of the Bible. We might today see death rather as the natural completion of life, which only has a regrettable aspect to it because of our weakness in faith in the beauty of the after-life – a weakness to be expected because of sin making us unworthy of the gift of life forever within God. But we do have faith in the real meaning of the after-life.
The gospel is Luke 6:39-45. “ He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.
‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
A powerful message here about being careful not to overlook our own weaknesses and only recognise and even to point out the weakness of others. This is not to say that it is not appropriate and helpful sometimes to offer correction to others, like a parent with a child or one friend with another. But let us never do this imagining ourselves impeccable.