17th June 2018
At the time of the writing of our first reading (Ezekiel 17:22-24) the empire of Babylon, west of Israel, has taken many of the aristocracy from Jerusalem as captives and now controls their land. Ezekiel himself is in exile in Babylon and writes to help his people through these difficult times. He is a bit of a poet or even mystic, and uses allegories for what he wants to say. Here he uses the image of a tree, and encourages the people, who have deserved the trouble they are in, with the expectation that a messiah will come from their race who will make them great again and as grand as they could want. A sprig from the failed tree will grow into a new all-embracing tree under which the big empires will submit. The idea lives on in Christianity to this day in the prayer attributed to Mary – “… He has put down the mighty from their seat and exulted the humble…” (The Magnificat).
The NT book called the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians appears to be a collection of excerpts from as many as four separate letters from Paul, but it is still, for us, the Word of God. In 2 Cor 5:6-10, Paul was obviously addressing some particular problem his addressees had. You might confidently think, he seems to say, that the next life would be preferable to the present – your future, true home to your home here and now – but for now you had better get on with this life here, pleasing God as best you can and as you should. The word ‘body’ that he uses carried with it the connotation of presence in the world, so its use here does not necessarily imply a belief which many Westerners have in two parts of a person, a body and a soul; it refers rather to our presence in this world in contrast to our being as it will be in the after-life – the world to come. Paul is saying that although we have both confidence and hope of the world to come, we should concentrate on living in the right way here and now. These words are not just for the early Christians that he is addressing, but, as the word of God, also have something to say to us.
The Gospel reading is from Mark 4:26-34. The whole chapter is a collection Mark has made of parables he has heard of that Jesus told, but by the time of his writing they have been preached and adapted to new situations and Mark now intends them for his readers – and they have something to say to us. The message originally from Jesus to his first hearers, has to be changed for different audiences in order to convey the same basic meaning. It is like the simple equation M = W r C, (Message arises from Words related to Context); if C changes then W must change as well to produce the same M. The two parables that we have read today are suited to a local farming community. In general the first recommends patience with life, as God is really the one in control of things, just as the farmer leaves the crop to grow once it is planted. The second takes up the well understood experience, that the very tiny mustard seed grows, most surprisingly, into a large vegetable bush – rather like Ezekiel’s tree it will be a shelter for many. Big things can come from small beginnings. To a large extent we still understand the basics of crop and seed growth so it is up to us individually and as a community to see what these parables might say to us today in our particular situations.
Find the readings here: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061018.cfm
The first reading (Gen3:9-15) is about God confronting Adam and Eve because they had disobeyed Him. It is an explanation of the evil and things that go wrong in creation; it is like stories found among other nations as well. The tempter is humiliated and forewarned that eventually humanity will overcome evil. It has been read by Christians to allude to Jesus the son of Mary who will be the ideal human to seriously start this process of overcoming evil. And we know from our experience that it is a long and tedious process but one in which we must all try to play our part – till all will be fulfilled in the end.
The second reading (2 Cor 4:13-5:1) is a great comfort after the realisation that the world and we ourselves are still not free of all wrongdoing and evil. Paul has this comforting vision that – eventually – we and all people will join in the life of God that we Christians recognise as the divine/human life of Jesus, now having lived here is in the glory of heaven – yet also of course He is with us in our struggles here and now. These thought might remove and depression caused by the meaning of the first reading.
The Gospel from Mark 3, is made up of several distinguishable sections. After he returns home with his following, the worry from his own that he is ‘losing it.’ Then the charge from the Jerusalem scholars that he is possessed; followed by two illustrative responses from him in the form of parables. And the passage ends with a final remark that such an accusation is unforgivable. It is clear that Jesus is now popular and that (like some others) had been responsible for some miracles. Matthew and Luke when writing their gospels had access to the text of Mark as well as other sources, but it is quite noticeable that the first section of our Gospel reading today is not used by either Matthew or Luke. It is this short section that tells of the relationship at this point in time between ‘his own folk’ and He Himself – being accused of ‘beside himself.’ I would say that it most likely is a true representation of their attitude but it is also understandable how the other gospel writers didn’t want to expose this – the group would have included his close followers and friends as well as his mother. As good news this part of the gospel can tell us that sometimes what is right can seem quite ‘uncomfortable’ to say the least.
Find the readings here:
The first reading (Gen3:9-15) is about God confronting Adam and Eve because they had disobeyed Him. It is an explanation of the evil and things that go wrong in creation; it is like stories found among other nations as well. The tempter is humiliated and forewarned that eventually humanity will overcome evil. It has been read by Christians to allude to Jesus the son of Mary who will be the ideal human to start this process of overcoming evil. And we know from our experience that it is a long and tedious process but one in which we must all try to play our part – till all will be fulfilled in the end.
The second reading (2 Cor 4:13-5:1) is a great comfort after the realisation that the world and we ourselves are still not free of all wrongdoing and evil. Paul has this comforting vision that – eventually – we and all people will join in the life of God that we Christians recognise as as the divine/human life of Jesus, now having live here is in the glory of heaven – yet also of course with us in our struggles here and now. These thought might remove and depression caused by the meaning of the first reading.
The Gospel from Mark 3, is made up of several distinguishable sections. After he returns home with his following, the worry from his own that he is ‘losing it.’ Then the charge from the Jerusalem scholars that he is possessed; followed by two illustrative responses from him in the form of parables. And the passage ends with a final remark that such an accusation is unforgivable. It is clear that Jesus is now popular and that (like some others) had been responsible for some miracles. Matthew and Luke when writing their gospels had access to the text of Mark as well as other sources, but it is quite noticeable that the first section of our Gospel reading today is not used by either Matthew or Luke. It is this short section that tells of the relationship at this point in time between ‘his own folk’ and He Himself – being accused of ‘beside himself.’ I would say that it most likely is a true representation of their attitude but it is also understandable how how the other gospel writers didn’t want to expose this – the group would have included his close followers and friends as well as his mother. As good news this part of the gospel can tell us that sometimes what is right can seem quite ‘uncomfortable’ to say the least.
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.
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