A great shift in theological thinking is to be observed between the Old and the New Testaments. For much of the Old Testament, God is conceived in ethnic or tribal terms; God is our God, meaning, the God with whom Abraham and his descendants have entered into an agreement. God agrees to show the Israelites special favour and protection, and in return, Israelites promise to worship God in the right way. When they don’t, retribution is certain to ensue. That is almost always what calls forth prophetic warnings.
Here and there in the book of the prophet Isaiah (three different prophets, probably) we catch glimpses of a less ethnic conception of God, but in this week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah clearly re-affirms the old restrictions, and condemns “a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good. . . sacrificing in gardens, offering incense on bricks . . . eating swine's flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels”. “I will repay their iniquities and their ancestors' iniquities”, Isaiah hears God say. Punishment always falls short of outright destruction, however, because just as wine can be made from a small cluster of grapes, so God can “bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains”.
It is here we find the radical theological innovation of the New Testament. Paul, himself a Jew of the deepest dye, comes to see that the God we find in Christ Jesus transcends all ethnic and social divisions. “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now . . . we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God . . . there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring”.
This is the central topic of the first two readings, but it is not obvious how the Gospel is related to it. Yet the connections are there. “The country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee” takes Jesus into Gentile territory, and thus beyond the world of the Jews. This echoes Isaiah: “I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, "Here I am, here I am," to a nation that did not call on my name”. Symbolically, the demons from which Legion is freed take up residence in pigs, traditionally categorized by Judaism as ‘unclean’. Yet that location cannot save them. Their final destination has to be the abyss in which all evil is destroyed.
The message is clear: God transcends the tribe that first discerned his purposes. Salvation is open to all. Yet, in an intriguing twist, Luke tells us that the presence of Jesus proves too alarming for the local Gentiles, and they ask him to leave their neighborhood. It is not only the Israelites, plainly, who can turn a deaf ear to God saying "Here I am, here I am”.
The Sunday after Pentecost is unique in the Church’s year. Whereas every other holy day celebrates an event or a person, Trinity Sunday celebrates a theological doctrine – and what is more, a doctrine that is very perplexing. The God in whom Christians believe, it holds, is ‘Three in One’ and ‘One in Three’. This seems to defy even the most basic principles of arithmetic.
How can anything be both three things and only one thing? Yet that is what the doctrine obliges Christians to hold. Furthermore, this is not some optional extra that we may or may not choose to go along with. Since the fourth century, when the Creeds were finalized, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been central to all the major branches of the Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed. There are Unitarian churches who deny it, certainly, but these have always been in a small minority.
Why has Trinitarianism been thought so crucial? The answer is revealed in part by this week’s readings. The Epistle and the Gospel comprise two short and familiar passages. The first comes from Paul’s most important letter – his Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this several centuries before theologians came up with carefully formulated doctrines, and over a thousand years before Trinity Sunday became a fixture in the Church's Calendar. So here, we must say, Paul is not advancing a complex theological proposition, but simply trying to capture, and convey, his own profound experience of what it means to be a Christian. Trinitarianism arises because in doing so, he simply cannot avoid talking about God, and about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit, all in equal measure.
In this respect, however, the Epistle does no more than the Gospel passage itself. Like Paul, John wrote these words of Jesus a very long time before theologians set to work on them. Yet here too we find that if Jesus is to describe his mission properly, and convey his promise to those who believe in him, a threefold reference is inescapable -- the Father who sends, the Son who obeys, and the Spirit who remains. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is certainly perplexing, but this is because it reflects a great mystery to which we are necessarily compelled, whenever we try to affirm the truth about Jesus Christ.
The English word ‘enthusiasm’ does not, generally speaking, have religious overtones. It is most likely to be used in the context of sport or some personal interest. But in fact it comes from Greek words meaning "possessed by a god". The special kind of zeal or ardour that results from divine inspiration is exactly what the disciples display in this week’s passage from Acts. Possessed by the Spirit of God, they displayed such 'enthusiasm' that passers-by stopped to stare, and concluded that people acting in this way in a public place must be drunk.
The Feast of Pentecost is observed six weeks after Easter and commemorates this event. Though it no longer has anything like the same profile as Christmas and Easter, even among practicing Christians, it is in fact the third major festival of the Christian year, and no less important than the other two. Why is it so important?
The answer lies in today’s Gospel. The passage begins with a request – ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’. Everyone who has a feel for religion can hear the deep longing that Philip expresses. But Christ’s answer -- 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’ – contains a salutary reminder. We can fail to be satisfied with the truth.
The Spirit that took possession of the disciples, John tells us, was expressly sent by Jesus – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is in Truth, Peace and Love that this Holy Spirit is to be found. While it is to be understood as a gift, it is not given ‘as the world gives’. The spirit of truth, love and peace raises human beings to their finest level, but it does not lay any store by accomplishment, popular endorsement, or vindication in the eyes of the world. All these are things to which both societies and individuals lend great importance. That is why we are so prone to reject the gift of Holy Spirit, and keep on looking elsewhere and for something else.
The lesson to be drawn is this. While we should work at being successful wherever God has placed us, if this truly Holy Spirit is to ‘abide in us’, we must not let our hearts 'be troubled' by worldly aspirations, or 'be afraid' of worldly failure. Peter's new found mission, of course, is a shining example of just what this means.
Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter and and Pentecost. Yet it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church, or in the practice of individual Christians. Perhaps this is in part because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke (though that is also true of the Epiphany which is found only in Matthew). Perhaps it is because over the centuries, its precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates -- Ascension -- is very hard to separate from the two events by which it is surrounded -- Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
One way of identifying the unique significance of Ascension, however, is to note the special way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. The Apostles Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched, listened to him and ate with him over the three years of his ministry. That ministry ended in apparent failure, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, the Apostles were granted a second opportunity to be in the company of the Son of God.
In the pursuit of our discipleship, we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. The Ascension is special because it marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, importantly by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight" meant that for a short time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, but without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his Ascension required them to relinquish their privileged position and prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.
It is this same Spirit that prompts, and enables, Paul’s response to the dream recounted in the Epistle. An unknown person in far off Macedonia calls on him to share the Gospel, thereby indicating that its power and relevance must break all geographical and ethnic boundaries. In short, the Gospel Paul preaches speaks to the human soul that lies within everyone.
Between the Gospel promise and the missionary Acts of Paul the Apostle, lies Revelation’s compellingly beautiful statement of the ultimate goal in which the work of the Spirit will culminate. What is striking is just how God centred it is. The picture of the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem that it paints, is not a paradise in which all our desires and needs are met, but one in which they are transformed and transcended within the Person of God. In the world to which we have been raised, we no longer need sunlight, or clean water, or political security, or even places of worship. God’s presence will be so immediate that everyone ‘will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. This vision is no promise, of course, for those whose hearts are set on wealth and power as the world understands these. But to those who long for a full realization of the spiritual nature that God has planted in us, no more wonderful prospect could be imagined.
In these passages, Jewish scribes asked Jesus to identify the most central of the several hundred commandments -- including the dietary restrictions the reading from Acts refers to -- that were to be found in their scriptures. He picks just two – one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus – and declares that everything else in the Jewish law and prophets hangs on these two commandments. He also declares that he has not come to abolish the law. However, he does not expressly say that these two commandments summarize his own faith.
In contrast to the other three Gospels, the Fourth Gospel does not record this episode. Rather, in the brief Gospel for this Sunday, John tells us that Jesus offered his own disciples a third, new, and ‘great’ commandment – ‘that you love one another’. As faithful Jews, the disciples commitment to love of God and neighbour could be taken for granted. To mark them out as followers of Christ, they were called to obey a third commandment -- special love for each other.
Given the divisions, persecutions and mutual contempt that have so often marred the history of the Church – and still do – this third, distinctively Christian commandment has proved very much harder to live by than the other two, so hard as to be virtually impossible in fact. The judgment of history, then, seems to make the Christian faith a hopeless undertaking. Still, this Sunday’s reading from Revelation reminds us that ultimately we must place our hopes in a world that God has promised, not in a world that human beings, however well intentioned, will make. It is God, not us, who makes all things new, and God does so in ways that human beings may well find hard to discern. The implication is that we must wait patiently until ‘the home of God is among mortals’. Only then can we expect ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.
Most of the first Christians were Jews, but quite early on they departed from the Jewish prohibition on religious images and started to make pictures. One of the most ancient is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This decorated the walls of the Roman catacombs, and of course, has deep Jewish roots in the 23rd Psalm. Over the next two millennia, it has proved to be one of the most enduringly attractive subjects for artists of all kinds.
Its contemporary appeal is reflected in the fact that our modern lectionary makes the 4th Sunday of Easter “Good Shepherd” Sunday in all three years, and with unusually little variation between them. The appointed Psalm is always ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and the Gospel for the day, with slightly different selections, is taken from John Chapter 10, where Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself.
The continuing popularity of the 23rd Psalm has made the language of sheep and shepherd familiar and comforting to most church people. And yet the world in which we live – even in rural areas – is so far removed from the world in which the biblical shepherd was a familiar sight, that we might wonder whether the image can actually speak to us still. For a modern audience, describing faithful Christians as ‘sheep’ can be expected to have negative connotations – suggesting a docile inability to think for themselves.
To make the metaphor speak afresh, it is essential to understand that shepherds in biblical times had two crucial tasks -- to lead the sheep to sources of water that they couldn’t find for themselves, and to protect them from wild animals. The superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd was vital if the sheep were to survive and flourish. Without it, they would “go astray, each to his own way” as Isaiah famously puts it (Is.56:3).
So the message in the image is this. However earnest our spiritual seeking and searching, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. The challenge is to relinquish paths through life of our own devising, and have the wisdom and strength to recognize and follow His call.
This week’s readings record two of the most important events in the history of the Christian church – Christ’s post-Resurrection commissions to the apostles Paul and Peter. Taken together, these two figures tower over all others in the Acts of the Apostles, and even now, two thousand years on, they remain the most compelling models of what it really means to be an ‘evangelist’, that is to say, a preacher of the news that humanity’s salvation is to be found in the life and death of Jesus.
The striking contrast between Peter and Paul is instructive. Christ’s appearance on the road to Damascus is probably the most famous conversion experience in human history. Saul, renowned for his strength of will, and motivated by a profound hatred of Jesus, is first reduced to the helpless position of someone being led by the hand. He is then dramatically transformed -- into Paul, Christ’s most passionate and theologically articulate servant. Peter, by contrast, is a simpler and a softer character. In his case, the transformation brought about by the risen Christ turns an almost dog-like faithfulness into inspirational leadership, a new and powerful spirit that quickly wins Peter the deepest respect of the earliest Christians.
Peter and Paul were both good Jews, and as Christians they remained so. When they finally met it was their attitudes to Judaism that caused their disagreements. Paul heard in Christ a call to transcend traditional boundaries that Peter was reluctant to abandon. It was a dispute they found ways of negotiating, and like the other differences between them, it reveals something very important. Right from the outset, the Bible tells us, Christ chooses to entrust his ‘flock’ to shepherds with a wide variety of gifts -- and with sharply contrasting styles and opinions. Our perpetual task is to acknowledge that while we must continuously strive to understand the mystery of Christ, the answers we arrive at are never the last word, but always provisional. We now see, as Paul says, in a mirror darkly. Only in God's good time, will we come to see face to face.
Today’s short passage from Acts reveals that a marked feature of this ‘new life in Christ’ is a special kind of fearlessness. Peter is in conflict with the Temple police and the High Priest once more. But how very different is this Peter from the one who denied Jesus out of fear, and then burst into tears as he acknowledged his own wretched fearfulness. Now he speaks out boldly, even though he knows what risks he runs by doing so. The important point for us is that the Resurrection has not put an end to persecution and oppression. These things continue, and intensify even; tradition has it that Peter himself was crucified in the end. But the Resurrection gave him, as it gives us, the Spirit with which to overcome fear.
By taking us back to the theme of Advent, the lesson from Revelation makes the same point. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”. This is the passage that provided Charles Wesley with the words of his great Advent hymn. In the light of the Resurrection, we can now read them differently. It is God, not human institutions like the Roman Empire or the Temple police, who will be our ultimate Judge.
It is against this background we should understand the famous 'Doubting Thomas' episode that this week's Gospel of John records. Thomas is granted his demand for empirical evidence. But his declaration 'My Lord and My God' goes far beyond anything that his eyes or fingers might be called upon to confirm. Perhaps this is why John notes, but does not recount all the other Resurrection signs. Faith in the risen Christ is not simply a belief about an historical event. It is something that sets us free to live with the kind of confidence that the love of God alone can give.
'Triduum Sacrum' means 'the three holy days' -- the culmination of Lent and Holy Week. The readings for these three days are always the same, and like the traditional liturgies, invite us to reflect on the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb -- the best possible preparation for the great culmination of the Easter Vigil and Easter Day.
GOOD FRIDAYGood Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist lest this should detract from the supreme sacrifice that took place on the Cross. Instead, after the story of the Crucifixion according to John is read, people are invited to express their veneration of the Cross in the physical action of kneeling before it, and to participate once more in the Last Supper by receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday.
A curiously empty day,
As if the world's life
Had gone underground.
The April sun
Warming the dry grass
Makes pale spring promises
But nothing comes to pass.
Relaxes into despair
As we remember our helplessness,
Remember him hanging there.
We have purchased the spices
But they must wait for tomorrow.
We shall keep today
For emptiness and sorrow. Elizabeth Rooney (1924-99)
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