In the first reading (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29) we hear of an important development in the early Church. Jesus was a Jew, it was the God that the Jews believed in Who was the God of Jesus, and He and His Father were equally God. It was this God who chose the Jews and gave them certain guidelines by which to live and to distinguish themselves; among other things the men were to be circumcised. But now, with the preaching of Paul and Barnabas, many non-Jews had come to believe in Jesus and join His followers. It seemed to most Jews that if Gentiles accepted their God, then the they should accept His requirements, including circumcision. But this was not the view of Paul who had come to see following Jesus as a radically new phase in God’s plan of salvation – salvation for all. It was because of the great increase in the number of Gentile converts that the issue became urgent and was taken to the centre for Christianity at the time in Jerusalem. The reading omits verses 3-21 where Luke tells us how the matter was considered. The reading we have takes up again with the letter that was sent accompanied by delegates to confirm the message – circumcision was not required of male Gentile converts. This gives us a hint of how Luke saw the development of centralized authority in the early Church.
The second reading as last week is from the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse (21:10-14, 22f). It is a further description of the glorious completion of God’s creation in heaven; some verses which elaborate on the description are omitted from our reading . It is a vision of a place somewhat in terms of the city of Jerusalem, which was a recognised symbol of God’s chosen people considered as a whole community; but this is the ideal, the heavenly Jerusalem. It is seen as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, the heavenly gathering of the twelve tribes. But it is renewed since the work of Christ through his apostles who are spoken of as the foundations of this new Jerusalem. It is a city that has entrances in all directions throughout the world; the six verses that follow our reading indicate its openness to all nations. It is a city of light, a further symbolic word for all that is open and wonderful; it is a city with no need for a special temple where God may be found, a city suffused with God’s presence. The whole description is a vision of what this world in which we live today is in process of becoming.
The gospel of John is a well-developed exposition of the life and death of Jesus and consequently often has a depth that we cannot easily plumb. But this passage (14:23-29) chosen for the reading today is perhaps meaningful to us for two reasons. Because of the celebration this week of the feast of the Ascension and also because in two weeks’ time we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the reading Jesus tells his disciples that he will be leaving them and they will no more have Him to teach them in the way that he has up to now. But the Holy Spirit will come to them once he has gone; they will be supported in their work as disciples by this Advocate who speaks now for Jesus just as Jesus spoke the words of the Father. Those who live by these words will be loved by God. The passage also is copied in the prayers used just before the Peace in our Sunday service ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.’ The common Hebrew word shalom’ for peace has also the rich and deep meaning of fulfillment and completeness.
See Jeff’s Jottings on the feast of the Ascension.
In the first reading (Acts 14:21-27), we hear of the last stages of what is, according to Luke, Paul’s first missionary journey. It was beset with difficulties and would have covered about 600 miles in two or three years, mostly travelling on foot together with Barnabas. If this wasn’t enough, he suffered rejection, abuse and even stoning in one place, though even worse would come on his next two journeys. On this first journey Paul really settled into his distinctive mission of attracting the Gentile listeners to become followers of Christ. He would address the Jews in their synagogue first, since he was well-educated in that religion and would be welcomed by them; but many of them couldn’t bring themselves to accept Jesus as the Messiah; and possibly many didn’t like the idea that Paul welcomed non-Jews to join as well, for Paul believed God was for all the human race as Luke tells us here in Acts.
The second reading is from the penultimate chapter of the last book of the New Testament in the Christian bible (Revelations 21:1-5). It is the final vision of John the author of this book. This picture is the ultimate revelation of how creation is fulfilled; the world that we presently inhabit is changed; and since the Christ event, we can already begin to participate consciously in this new and final replacement of our world. ‘New’ is the word, for it is ever surprising, fresh and remarkable; ‘Jerusalem’ is the symbol of God’s people together with Him; and there is no ‘sea,’ as the symbol of all that is fearful and monstrous. The daring image attributes to God both the attractive beauty and the overflowing rapture of the ‘bride’ in the presence of her man. And in the vision, as well as this warming spirit, there is the word of God making us aware of how things are but from our point of view in time, how it is already beginning to be – and it is our privilege to progress this work.
The gospel reading is from chapter 13 of the fourth gospel. The author tries to put into words what Jesus means to us, what his life on earth meant, what it is now when His work is coming to its completion, and most importantly what we, his disciples, have to do. This is the beginning of the final discourses of Jesus that occupy several chapters in John’s Gospel, probably used in Christian meetings prior to Easter (and could be spread over a different number of weeks depending on the time of Easter). The stress is on the love which we, His followers, should have for others.
In the Acts of the Apostles Luke presents his view of Christianity in the 70’s or 80’s AD by writing about the even earlier history of the church. Our first reading (Acts 13: 43-52) comes after Luke’s account of Paul and Barnabas preached by invitation during the synagogue service in Antioch in Pisidia. Paul himself was a well-educated Jew, confident in his religious beliefs about the chosen people and enthusiastic in his efforts to live in the way he felt sure was right – Judaism. But he was open to change and to questioning how things were; this enabled him, quite suddenly and dramatically to be converted to Christianity; however the church was suspicious of this one-time enemy of theirs, Paul. Barnabas was a Cypriot Jew with a sense of caring and pastoring others; it was he who befriended Paul in this difficult situation and the two became real friends and worked together for a time. But as Peter had opposition from Jews in Jerusalem (last week’s first reading) so, we read in Acts that Paul and Barnabas had similar difficulties from the Jews in the diaspora (outside of the Jewish homeland).
The second reading is, as last week, from the Book of Revelation (Rev 7:9, 14b-17). After expressing in visionary language the presence of people of all kinds in heaven before God, an explanation of the multitude of the saints in heaven is given in today’s reading by one of the elders. It was a time of great tribulation when many Christians were suffering and even being put to death because of their beliefs. The vision is of the reward that these people now have in heaven; the martyrs are like Christ Himself, who was executed really because of his loyalty to the will of the Father. But the pattern of history that this picture shows is one that will repeat itself for many individuals and groups throughout history; it is the case that those who live selflessly for others can be persecuted one way or another by others; so the vision reminds the readers that they must brace themselves for this as they also try to follow the life of Christ – to consciously share in His Life.
The gospel of John (Jn 10:27-30) uses many images of God, none of which can capture the mystery of His Being nor even of His relationship with us but all show something of it. Perhaps because humans at one stage of their development where like shepherds looking after flocks of animals, the image of shepherding was used by many peoples for their ruler or deity. In the Jewish religion, we think back to king David and the psalm attributed to him which is so popular, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want.” In our reading from chapter 10 Jesus makes this application of shepherding to Himself and affirms that He and the Father are one, God, stressing the commitment of the shepherd to his sheep and the safety in which they can be confident. This expresses something of the relationship we reside in, between God and ourselves.
In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:27-41 passim), Luke tries to present to us his ideal vision of the church. He writes from a time when the number and placement of Christians has grown and spread into the wider world; a time when it has become distinguished from its roots in the Jewish religion and, through the initiative of Paul opened up to the Gentiles. But he writes from this later standpoint about the beginnings of it all in the early days in such a way as to express and address his contemporary issues. So it seems awkward to us in our different situation and after centuries of developing thinking about the impact of Christ on everything. We now want to distance ourselves from any hint that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ; for we see the way humanity both in the centuries before and after Christ has fallen short of all that it should be and appears to thwart the creative intent of God. Notice that a section of what Luke wrote is left out of the lectionary reading; the missing verses tell of the wise conclusion that the Jews came to about this matter.
The second reading is from the Book of Revelation (5:11-14) (or as I explained last week, the Apocalypse). We saw in last week’s reading that the writer can produce a visionary description in a style of writing that is as unfamiliar to us as the cartoons and computer games of our days would be to him and his original recipients. Here he tries to picture the glory of heaven where Christ is now present after the success of His earthly life and, especially, death – the completion of His life’s work. From our standpoint it is a vision of the future that we expect to experience, but it is a setting which we already key into at times – we become a remote part of this heavenly scene symbolically when we celebrate together in communion with the saints, but also when we live out the life of Christ by applying His attitude of loving care and forgiveness in the ordinary meetings with people we have from day to day. It is in these that we are amongst all the creatures and the thousands that worship in this scene of heavenly praise. However, the people that lived nearer than us to the time of Jesus had no difficulty with his humanity, but him being divine was all the more difficult to comprehend; so in this scene, there is no mention of the Holy Spirit, but rather an emphasis on Jesus being praised and worshipped as God.
The third reading is from chapter 21 of this the fourth gospel (John 21:1-19). Chapter 20 ended “All this has been written so that you may believe … and believing may have life;” that ends the original work, but then a final chapter was added. It has an account of Jesus meeting the disciples after a night’s unsuccessful fishing – have they not yet settled down to the task of founding a new community of the followers of Jesus? Yet they do have a large catch and the net isn’t broken, which may symbolize the growing community (and no one really knows the symbolism of the 153 fish for certain). The chapter also has the purpose of confirming the leadership position of Peter; he was the one that in the passion account denied having anything to do with Jesus – three times! Now, in a touching tale, the risen Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter is able to counter his denials, saying at last, “Lord, you know everything, you know I love you!” In our present time, we notice the role of leadership in the church is meant to be one of feeding the followers
Luke, in this extract (Acts 5:12-16) has awkwardly put together allusions to tales about Peter in the early Church. He wants to impress us with the power of the resurrection and the expansion of the number of believers. They gather together in a public place sheltered from the weather, where people generally could meet as friends, for business or for learning from expert teachers; so the gathering Luke describes shows the believers as such a group but highlights the miraculous power of the leader (the power of Peter’s shadow sounds legendary to our ears); but this is often the attitude of religious people to their senior representative.
The second reading is from the last book of the Christian bible, called the Book of Revelation (1:9-19 passim) or, by some, called the Apocalypse (meaning momentous or catastrophic). It is attributed to John though its style is different from the Gospel and letters attributed to him. It is from the last decades of the first century when the Christians where suffering persecution within many parts of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. The author indicates that he is in exile on the island of Patmos as a result of this. The text is tightly written in places as we hear, “I share with you the distress, the kingdom and the endurance we have in Jesus;” referring to the difficult times they are in, but also the joy of belonging to the kingdom of God and hence being able to put up with the situation successfully with the power of Jesus in whose life they share. Then the literary genre turns visionary as he writes about the seven churches – bright lights in these dark times – to each of whom he has a message latter on. He describes an encounter with Christ, affirming the new life he now has with God and the influence of this life in the whole of creation; it is this that urges him to write this book.
The gospel passage (John 20:19-31, is the conclusion of this great gospel of John (chapter 21 reads as a later addition). Jesus comes to the weak and scared humans; He comes with renewed life, physical but also transcending the physical – the resurrected Christ. John always emphasised that Jesus is sent by God, is obedient to God’s will and empowered by God’s Spirit. Now Jesus passes to His followers this same commission; to bring deliverance to all who can accept it (in Chapter 9 Jesus met people who could not receive faith). This moment is like a new creation, with a renewed infusion of the Holy Spirit, as at the first creation. Then the gospel brings in the story of doubting Thomas – the sceptic who wants evidence (but who makes a baptismal confession “My Lord and my God” when he sees Jesus; and the masterful conclusion which speaks to us all “Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed.”
What Luke has passed on in the Acts will be the sort of message that Peter would have delivered and the style that preaching actually had in those early years. They all contain reliable information about the way the early churches understood and expressed their beliefs. The reading we have today is a sermon that Peter delivered after his understanding had been expanded by his experience with Cornelius. It is significant that the public life of Jesus is referred to and not just the resurrection. For Jesus gave His whole life for others – not just His death. So that’s what we are encouraged to do with our lives as we celebrate the fulfilment of Jesus’ life this season of Easter! Cornelius was not a Jew and Peter came to realise the universality of the redemptive benefits of the life of God in Jesus – for all, not just Jews. In all the centuries since then, Christians, as individuals and as organisations, have often failed to grasp the enormity of this message – the absolutely unlimited range of God’s love for everyone who recognises Truth and does Good! Today we particularly celebrate and rejoice over the achievement of God in the resurrection of Jesus, but it is regrettable that the few verses omitted at the beginning of our reading are the ones that proclaim this universality – “Then Peter addressed them: ‘The truth I have now come to realise’ he said ‘is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right, is acceptable to him.’ “ (Acts 10:34f The Jerusalem Bible 1966).
Paul’s encyclical letter, Colossians, is direct evidence for us of his understanding of the impact of the resurrection which he preached to the Christian communities that he initiated. The second reading makes the same point as the first. We celebrate the success of Jesus, but want this to affect the way we live now! This is utterly apposite for our celebration today of the resurrection. Paul teaches that our humanity is elevated by Christ in terms alluding to the imagery of Christian baptism; this ceremony for early Christians included immersion under water followed by elevation out from it, actions that symbolised a dying to an ordinary this-worldly life and rising into a new extraordinary life in union with Christ and hence with the Life of God, where Christ is now enthroned. He reminds his readers of the consequences of this elevation; their aim in life on which they should set their hearts should be on a way of life like Christ’s; all their thoughts should be on higher ideals. As we celebrate Christ’s victory over death we should let Paul’s words speak to us who are trying to live up to our baptism into Christ.
The gospel we hear today shows us the truth of the resurrection, but also the amazement and confusion about what it really means. It is a new beginning so it starts “on the first day of the week.” It is a transition from an ordinary and even inadequate life – as it says “while it is still dark.” But there is a possibility of something better for those who are kind and gentle and loving, so it is Mary Magdalene who “came to the tomb in the early morning.” She is an important witness and announcer of the physical absence of Jesus’ body. Such a person can notice that there might be more to life – “she sees the stone removed.” But she will humbly seek confirmation from others so she “ran… and told them.” But she can’t yet believe for its beyond belief, so vaguely says “they have taken the Lord.” Peter and the other disciple are in the same state of uncertainty, so she includes them saying “we don’t know…” The two of them run to see, though the beloved disciple runs faster, he only looks “and did not go in.” Peter, the leader seeks out the evidence and sees that rather than a stolen body there are signs of an orderly departure of Jesus, for the burial cloths are neatly arranged. Then the moment of the beginning of the transition of their lives starts with the other disciple for “he saw and believed.” And it is celebrated by us today as we begin to understand the whole story of Scriptures. But we should now realise, as the Church began to, that it is the body of Christians and followers of Jesus’ way of life that comprise the body of Christ here and now.
See Jeffs Jottings – Risen life
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.
In the first reading (Isaiah 50:4-7) the prophet is lyrical about his own experience, He has faithfully heeded and delivered God’s word, but it is met with rejection and physical abuse,. Yet he has faith that all will be well in the end. His words are easily applied to Jesus’ life and are appropriate at this season of the Liturgical year. Because God is ‘a stable character’ people are treated in basically the same way by Him in whatever century, though differently according to their circumstances and response; in this way the suffering but faithful life of a past individual, like Isaiah, can be seen as a foretelling of how God deals especially in His Incarnate Son, Jesus, but also with us in our corporate and individual lives. The responsorial psalm shows the same pattern and personal anguish and hope.
The second reading (Philippians 2:6-11) is part of a hymn expressing Christian belief about the Divinity of Jesus. It is difficult to translate the words used to describe this enormous mystery. So the phrase “being in the form of God” (King James Version) is quite a literal translation of the original Greek, but our understanding of the Incarnation is better expressed as “His state was divine”( Jerusalem Bible); it is interesting to look at various translations of this opening phrase. The hymn that this reading is part of, goes on to say that Christ took on human life and became like us; and this meant he was involved in and effected by all the messiness of human life and all the struggles and temptations it brings. But, as He held firm to his calling by the Father in the face of enormous difficulties, so we could expect to be elevated to be with God in glory if we hold to our call as Christians through the difficulties of our lives.
The Passion narrative in Matthew (selected from chapters 26f), generally follows that of Mark. In recent decades the Catholic Church has emphasised the resurrection and the element of joy and glory more than the trials that led up to it. Yet as well as this great message of hope and new life, it is almost reassuring to know that what leads to this is a life dedicated to the good of others and of the world, and this means a life subject to great disappointment and, for many, much suffering both emotional, psychological and physical. With this in mind we follow the story of the completion of Jesus’ life. Passion is not just suffering, Donald Senior points out, that passion is also a great enthusiasm for something you believe in – so each of us can consider, what is my passion?
See Jeffs Jottings – Deadly celebrations
On the left of this website under MONTH BY MONTH you can Select Month to see the notes on the readings for each Sunday in any past month.
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.
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.