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.”
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.