Chapter 1 of Ezekiel describes in an excessively elaborated way a vision of God speaking to the man as he reached the age (of 30) for practicing as a priest, and initiating him as a prophet among the exiles by the rivers of Babylon. Our reading (2: 2 -5) tells of God calling Ezekiel to be the mouthpiece of God (that’s what being a prophet meant). It seems to be a harsh message that God wants delivered to what He calls a rebellious people, though we notice that God does not tell him specifically what to say. However we know that it is going to be a telling-off for neglecting their religion. Prophets generally interpreted any misfortune or disaster that befell the chosen people as a punishment from God; the foreign conquest of the chosen people is not what is to be condemned, but the people’s rebellion against God. We notice that even in this 6th century BC the Old Testament will use the terms spirit of God and word of God which later will be seen a reflecting the novel Christian doctrine of the Trinity; and at the time of Christ the phrase ‘son of man’ had in addition to just meaning ‘a human,’ the more specific reference to some heavenly being who would come at the end of time to bring liberation to the people of God – with the definite article it is used by Jesus of Himself (the Son of man).
The Second reading is from the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians (12 : 7 – 10). It is an extract from a letter to a particular group or situation in the church at Corinth. It seems he may have been accused by them of being too gentle or hesitant in his preaching, or perhaps of having his own ideas rather than Christ’s. He seems to have been compared unfavourably with some charismatic preachers who even charged for preaching or with others who are trained public speakers. Paul is led to boast; like any of them, he is a Jew and a servant of Christ, indeed he has suffered many beatings and imprisonments for his work, many mishaps and catastrophes. He also boasts, just before the passage we have, that he has had visions, revelations and even mystical experiences. But we read that he has some ‘thorn in the flesh’ – and no one knows what that could have been. But he knows he shouldn’t boast except of his weaknesses given to him by Christ.
The gospel is from the first 6 verses of Mark chapter 6. At the time Mark is writing, the number of Christians was increasing, but mostly not from those who were Jews, but from Gentiles. This seemed strange because it was the Jews that God had prepared and who were expecting the Messiah and it was among them that he worked and taught and he himself was a Jew. The gospel reading today is yet another attempt to make some sense of this. Jesus comes to his home town where he is known as just an ordinary person, even the son of Joseph a local carpenter; it is difficult for those who knew him this way to think of him as the Messiah even though he seemed to have wisdom and miraculous powers. The proverb about the prophet not being accepted by his own and being powerless to work miracles among them, is in other gospels, but Matthew (13:53-58) and Luke (4:14-30) soften Mark’s bland statement that he was powerless to work miracles among his own people.
There is a jotting also by me (Jeff Bagnall)
There is a jotting also by me (Jeff Bagnall)
The book of Wisdom is thought to come from the Jewish intellectual setting of Alexandria in Egypt. It was written in the Greek language and was not part of the Jewish Hebrew Bible. For this reason it is not part of most Christian Bibles yet Roman Catholics have it as part of their Old Testament; it was written only about 50 years before the birth of Christ and is classed in a group of books called deutero-canonical (roughly meaning of secondary value). It shows the influence of its origin in two ways; firstly its literary quality is very systematically and attractively structured with sections and subsections with definite numbers of poetic lines; and secondly though it draws on the earlier books of the Bible, it deals with issues that arise from the philosophical thinking in the Greek culture at that time. This approach is somewhat parallel to that of the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World), but the author’s purpose may also be to oppose those Jews who had taken on the secular and worldly style and aims of life common among many citizens of Alexandria at the time. Our reading today comes from two separate sections (chapters 1:13-15 and 2:23-24) but both are parts of the first six chapters in praise of wisdom. Firstly God’s Spirit organises creation wisely and we should live accordingly for we are made for life in a world that is basically good. The second section is based on the Greek belief in a real life after death (unlike that of most of the Hebrew Bible) and so we should not live selfishly which is the work of the devil bringing the fear of death into the world; indeed in the book of Genesis, death was seen as a punishment by God for sin.
The second reading, as you can see by the reference (2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15), has some of the sentences missed out in between the three groups that the five verses are in. Despite this arrangement it doesn’t make bad sense as an enchanting appeal for a donation from a richer group towards another to bring about some equality. Yet we might be more interested in the whole section (Chapter 8:1-15) and in learning something about the early churches in the third quarter of the first century AD. In the Corinthian Church two groups are significant; one comprises converts from the Jewish religion who do not want to abandon the religious beliefs and practices that they were familiar with and think that all Christians should be like them; the other group are influenced by and enthusiastic for modern thinking and their new Christian religious beliefs and practices. But, surprisingly, the two are in some sort of agreement in their opposition to Paul; the Judaizers (as they are called) disliked Paul’s disregard for some Jewish rules – about food for example; and the more sophisticated and self-assured group were disappointed with his easy-going and non-dogmatic attitude to beliefs and practices. He sees this tentative unity as an opening and so praises them highly for many virtues and invites them to make a donation for the less well-off Christians in Macedonia from where he writes.
The gospel is from Mark (chapter 5:21-43). The permitted shorted reading leaves out verses 25 to 34, (the cure of the woman with an issue of blood), and presents us with the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Two things stand out in this story; that Jesus raised the twelve year old who was considered dead, and that he asked the few people with him to tell no one what had happened. Christians believe that death is not the end of life, but a dramatic development of the life of Christ which they share even here and now. As to the call to keep this all hush-hush, it clearly was not adhered to; it is quite likely that Mark puts this in many of his accounts, because he couldn’t imagine how any Jew wouldn’t have become a Christian if he had known all the miracles that Jesus did. Jairus, as elected president of the local synagogue, would have been a respected person and like the majority of Jews scornful of upstart and fake but popular preachers even working miracles – and Jesus came under that heading. But when his daughter is on the point of death he steps out of his social position and even begs Jesus for help.
There is a jotting also by me (Jeff Bagnall)
The book of Job looks like a tale about a happy family man whose goodness is tested by God to see if it survives ill-fortune. Even in translation it is quite poetic and has contributed various phrases to our language and themes to our literature. Nearly all of the 42 chapters of the book are long poetic speeches, mostly by his friends telling him to repent because he must have done wrong to be so treated by God; they were the first “Job’s comforters.” But Job keeps interrupting these speeches proclaiming his innocence and wanting an explanation from God Himself. In our reading (Job 38:1,8-11) God begins to speak, accompanied by a whirlwind; but it’s not quite what Job is looking for; God reminds Job that He is the one who is creating this wonderful world; with remarkable imagery God likens His act of creating to that of a mother giving birth, yet we know that this creating can be a struggle over a period of time. So is the message for us that like an infant we should just take what comes and love our Mother, creator?
Whereas in Job creation is an ongoing and developing, sometime awkward process, in our second reading (2 Cor 5:14-17) Paul expresses the Christian understanding that since Christ we experience a new dimension to creation; through His life and death in our ordinary world, there is a transformation – the impact of His resurrection manifesting the availability of a new way of living for all. We don’t know quite what he meant by “for all” because generally at that time and perhaps ever since then, Christians have assumed this graced and elevated life was just for believers, not for anybody. There are different translations into English which indicate the difficulty this idea is for some Christians: the International Standard Version has [with my emphasis] “Therefore, if anyone is in the Messiah, he is a new creation. Old things have disappeared, and—look!—all things have become new!” The King James Bible has “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The New International version has” Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Some versions seem to limit the new creation to Christians, others to the whole of creation. At least Paul is saying that we who are followers of Christ should be living in a new way; and this is a message for us.Though God is the powerful creator and there is a higher dimension to the life in the world, yet there are always going to be difficulties and always a way through them though not necessarily out of them. So now after his collection of parables, Mark begins a new section with miracles, of which we read the first in Mark 4:35-41 this day. It is the account of a mighty storm at sea as the darkness sets in; it is bad enough to really scare the disciples in their boat, despite the fact that many of them are fishermen and should be used to this weather. The crossing has been suggested by Jesus and it is from Jewish territory to Gentile territory; this reflects one of the stormy arguments in the early church about admitting Gentiles to join the followers of Jesus; it is really unimaginable for some people, but Jesus if called upon can calm the storm. This is another instance of the process that goes on in our world where problems and difficulties arise, but God is ultimately in control of everything. The reading is a lesson for us Christians today, not just for the first recipients of the gospels, for we experience this very process of storms and calming in our lives, in the church and in the world as we know it.
There is a jotting also by me (Jeff Bagnall)
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.
See Jeff’s ‘sermon’ notes here.
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
There is a jotting also by me (Jeff Bagnall) which I posted 2 years ago about the feast of the Ascension
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.
There is a jotting about the first reading also by me (Jeff Bagnall)
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
29 April 2018
Acts, chapter 4, verses 8-12 go straight into another speech of Peter that Luke inserts here. The context is the very early activities of Peter in Jerusalem. Together with John and others he had been gathering interested listeners in increasing numbers in the outer court of the Temple, and many of them were anxious to become believers and followers of Jesus. He had cured a lame man in the name of Jesus and was proclaiming the resurrection and accusing the Jews (it would be chiefly the leaders) of having Jesus brought to trial and put to death. The disciples had been arrested and kept over night, till in the morning they are brought before the high priest and other leaders and interrogated – “By what power or what name did you do this?” Peter replies to his accusers, laying the guilt for Jesus’ death upon them and referring to Psalm 118, that shows this pattern of behaviour. Peter affirmed Jesus as the one who can save people from this persistent pattern of behaviour, and can lift us out of our pattern of falling short of the Christian ideal. We have this Psalm after the reading, and the pasage quoted as the response: Jesus is the key-stone to the building of the kingdom, and we are the rest of the building – we are a bit like the awkwardly shaped stones in a dry stane wall.
From the opening two verses of first letter of John, chapter 3, we read again of the very basic aspect of God and of our relationship to Him. We are children of God even now, when we are loved by Him despite our inadequacies. It is quite unimaginable what it will be like when we pass over into the life after death and live even closer to God.
In the Gospel of John, (10:11-18) we are told that Jesus is like a shepherd to us. Shepherding was different then and there, from how it is now here in Scotland where we sometimes have severe weather conditions and the shepherd can use a trained dog and maybe a quod-bike as well. Shepherding was beset with problems from marauding wild animals, occasionally from rogues and thieves but always from the straying of the sheep away from safe areas and from the food they need. In the Old Testament shepherding was often used as an image of God and His relationship with the chosen people. But here in the New Testament in this gospel the emphasis is on the love and care that God has for us, on the risks taken and on the ultimate aim of uniting all the people of the earth. We must recognise in the various hazards and straying nature of the sheep something of the way our own lives pan out; but also how like the shepherd with his sheep, God is with us; in Jesus, God Himself lives for us here and now, and dies to keep us safe and secure in following Him.
There is a reflection also by me (Jeff Bagnall)