St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Fifth Sunday of Easter

April 28                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Theme:  The safe option is something like "A New Commandment"; but on reflection I rather like "There is no Other".  Think about that for a moment; and if the penny doesn't drop, read our first lesson and try again.  (And, no, it's not a reference to Jesus.)

Introduction.  One of the many delights of the Easter Season is the wonderful readings we get, week by week, from the Book of Acts; and today we have one of the most important.  In fact, we could argue that it's one of the most important passages in the New Testament.  Is the Gospel for everyone as they are, or only for everyone who is Jewish or is willing to adopt Jewish practice and custom (that is, be like us)?  That's the question as it arose here; but more fundamentally, it's about universalism versus exclusivity.  How different would our history have been if Peter (and those who agreed with him) had not carried the day?  In effect, we have a dry run for the more famous Council at Jerusalem meeting in chapter 15.  In our second lesson we have another wonderful glimpse of the future as God has planned it for us – no hint of any divisions, ethnic or otherwise, here.  And our brief gospel passage tells us how to get there (the glorious union of all with the All) from here (the inglorious divided world of us and them).  It is only possible through love.

Background.  That message could hardly be more timely.  I'm writing these notes on the eve of Anzac Day when we remember the consequences of seeing others as them, not us, enemies, not friends.  The news is full of the terrorist attacks in Boston, and the foiled plot to blow up the train between Toronto and New York; and it ought to be full, too, of the ongoing atrocities committed daily in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.  The funeral of Margaret Thatcher called to mind the ongoing conflict over the Falklands/Malvinas, and her displeasure when the then Archbishop of Canterbury had the effrontery (or do I mean the spiritual wisdom?) to pray for the Argentine dead as well as the British?

The Reverend John Franklin, Chaplain to Bishop Kelvin, has written a very thoughtful piece in this week's Diocesan News Update.  He asks us to reflect on what exactly we are remembering on Anzac Day, and whom are we remembering?  The TV One news tonight left us in no doubt: "not our war dead", but "our heroes".  We are to remember that everyone who ever fought in any war, conscripts as well as volunteers, is a hero – provided, of course, he or she fought on OUR SIDE.  John mentioned that he has both German and British ancestry.  What is he do – half-remember?  Remember only one side of his family?

These musings have, in part, been shaped by a three-part series Trish and I have been watching on DVD recently: it is by historian Hugh Montefiore, and tells the story of Jerusalem: the Holy City.  If ever there was a cautionary tale about what happens when people forget the fundamental truth that we are all children of the one God – and, indeed, descendants in faith of the one Patriarch – this must be it.  The history of Jerusalem is also the history of failure – failure of the adherents of the three great Faiths that claim to recognise Jerusalem as THE Holy City to act in a way that would give any credence to that claim.  Perhaps one of the things that we, as Christians, should remember is that most if not all wars are essentially civil wars, because there are Christians on all sides.  Or should we go further, and say that all wars are family affairs because we have brothers and sisters on all sides?  And if it is felt that Anzac Day is not the right occasion to remember such things, when is the right occasion?  Waitangi Day?  Or, perhaps, for Anglicans Te Pouhere Sunday when, by dictate of General Synod, we "celebrate our tripartite Church", while praying for the unity of all believers?

Dismounting from my steed before it carries me into ever greater thickets, I want to say something about our reading from Acts 11.  The issue was a major one, and people on "both sides" felt passionately about it.  But what strikes me is the manner in which it was resolved.   Not by defensiveness on Peter's part, or a determination to save face.   Not by violent argument; not by petitions, points of order, or procedural games.  Not (be it noted by devotees of Maurice Williamson) by ridiculing those of an opposing view: Matthew 5:22 comes to mind here.  And not, please note, NOT by a democratic vote.  It was resolved by acknowledging the Sovereignty of God.  Verses 17 and 18 ought to be emblazoned on every wall of every room in which any synod or other august ecclesiastical body is meeting to consider any important issue.

"If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"  When they heard this they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

Let's narrow the focus for a moment and concentrate on the vexed question of 'clean' and 'unclean' food.  Jesus had himself taught Peter and the other disciples that all foods were essentially 'clean': Mark 7:19.  But it seems from Peter's vision (reported in Acts 10) that Peter had not taken the teaching on board.  In fact, so outrageous to him was the very idea that his vision had to be repeated 3 times before he got the message.  But once he got it – and, in particular, once he realised that it was God's message and it was in conflict with his own view - he abandoned his own view and "defended" the truth declared in his vision with his customary gusto.

Today's passage starts with classic "us/them" language.  The circumcised believers demanded of Peter, "why did you (by implication, one of us, a fellow circumcised believer) go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"  In verse 17 the same language is used – at the human level there is still "us and them": but at the divine level no such distinction is recognised – God treats everyone the same, he gives them all the same gift.

The Church gets it right – the Church advances – whatever the issue – when, together, we seek God's will in respect of the issue.  If it is true that in baptism we all receive the gift of the same Spirit, then all distinctions between us can only exist through human error, and are contrary to the will of God.  If Peter can get it at the third attempt, surely we can, too!

There is another very important lesson to learn from this story.  The Church learns through actual experience of the Divine faithfully reported to others.  Peter had a particular direct experience of the Divine.   He reflected on it, got his head around it, acted on it, and faithfully reported it to others.  He also checked it out with 'Scripture': verse 16.  They were right to ask for his explanation, and they were right to accept it.  How often has anything like that approach been adopted in synod?  In my experience over 25 years, not once

Acts.  I've already said almost all I wanted to say about this reading; but I should also draw attention to verse 12: The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make any distinction between them and us.  I think that may be what the Americans call 'a slam dunk'!  And did you notice in verse 18 "they were silenced", rather than "silent"?  They had been acted upon – they were no longer the actors.  Faced with the actions of God, what can we say?  Or, as Peter would say, who are we to hinder him?

 Taking It Personally.

  • Reflect on your own identity.  What is its primary source  – your gender, your ethnicity or your faith?
  • In an argument, which of these are you most likely to use – logic, ridicule or love?
  • Can you recall an occasion when, in dispute with another person, you have suggested to that other person that you pause for prayer together?
  • What or whom did you particularly remember on Anzac Day?  Why?
  • Have you ever had your mind changed on a particular issue by God showing you that his will in respect of that issue differs from your own?
  • Put yourself in Peter's position in this story.  Would you have been convinced to change your mind as he was?  How would you go about explaining your position to the others?


Revelation.  Another bonus of this Easter Season is a reminder that, in amongst the scary and downright weird stuff in this book, there are some wonderfully refreshing passages to restore our sagging spirits and remind us that we are getting somewhere!  Perhaps we should take a moment to re-read last week's passage (7:9-17), with its wonderful vision of that vast multitude of worshippers, from every nation on earth, united in heart and voice, Jew and Gentile, Israeli and Palestinian, Maori and Pakeha, Irish from north and south of a border not visible from the Throne of Grace.  And this week, the final scene, as God reveals what he has been ceaselessly working towards from the beginning, Jerusalem the Holy City made new, and the rest of the world with it.  Isn't that what we are called to work and pray for – isn't that our common destiny?  What are we to remember on this first Sunday after Anzac Day?  Surely, this promise: Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  So let us fill our glasses "from the spring of the water of life" and drink to that!


Taking It Personally.


  • Plunge into this passage, bathe in it, let it seep deep into your soul – and be refreshed.
  • Pour yourself a glass of water.  Pray over it something like this: "O God, send your Holy Spirit that this water may be for me drawn from the spring of the water of life."  Then drink it slowly and prayerfully and thankfully.
  • Pray each day this week that you may have eyes to see God dwelling among us.


John.  This passage follows one of the most chilling verses in the whole of Scripture: So, after receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out. And it was night.  In that Jesus sees the glory of God!  And he sees something else: the only remedy, the only antidote to betrayal is love.  Whatever else we may think about Judas' motivation, we can surely rule out love – the love that St Paul wrote about so powerfully in his famous "ode".  We hear the New Commandment so often – and we sing a rather trite song about it – but do we understand the nature and character of that love?  Here is the kernel of it again:


Love is patient: love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.


That's the love we are commanded to have for one another in this short, simple New Commandment.  Lord, I love; help my lack of love!


Taking It Personally.


  • Judas went out with bread in his mouth or hand.  Next time you receive the bread and go out, reflect on that.  Pray that nothing you may do will be a betrayal of Christ.
  • Reflect on the past week and on your actions, words, thoughts and omissions.  How well have you kept the New Commandment?
  • Keep the New Commandment in the forefront of your mind each day this week.  Pray for the grace to keep it ever more faithfully.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 21                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Theme:  The safe option is something to do with "The Good Shepherd".  A more thoughtful pick might be "The Work Goes On", or "The Father, the Son and the Servant": something to encapsulate the basic idea of the work of the Father becoming the work of the Son, which in turn has become the work of the Son's disciples.  [To be theologically correct, I suppose, I should say that the work of the Father is now carried on by the Spirit through the Son's disciples, but the point is clear enough.]

Introduction.  We have now moved beyond the resurrection appearances themselves, and the emphasis is on the continuity of the divine action through the believers (collectively, the infant church).  Just as the gospels often show Jesus "re-enacting" specific actions of God, so now we see the apostles performing many of the same "miraculous signs" in Jesus' name.  We have one of the clearest examples of that in our reading from the Book of Acts, as Peter restores Tabitha to life.  Clearly the account follows quite closely the account of Jesus restoring Jairus' daughter to life in Mark 5:35-43: see also the restoration of the widow of Nain's son in Luke 7:11-17, and, of course, the "calling out" of Lazarus.  The deep underlying theology of all this is found, in very brief form, in our gospel reading, as Jesus refers to "the works I do in my Father's name"; and goes on to infuriate his questioners by asserting "The Father and I are one."  And all this is lit up, as it were, by the glorious vision of the future that lies ahead and calls us ever onward, set out in our reading from the Book of Revelation.

Background.  One of the perennial dangers we face in preaching or hearing preached short extracts from the Scriptures week by week is that of losing sight of the fact that we are concerned with only one story – the story of God as revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.  Our tendency is to deal in the separate bits – last week, the reinstatement of Peter and the conversion of Saul, this week the miraculous restoration of Tabitha, and so on.  Here are a couple of useless bits of information stored away in my mind that may illustrate the point I am trying to make this week.

The first concerns rope.  Centuries ago when I was studying criminal law, my lecturer brought into the room a length of thick rope, of the kind used to tie up large ships when they dock.  He asked us to pass it round among ourselves, and each of us was to try to unravel a bit, a task that proved very difficult.  That was his introduction to the practical side of the law relating to circumstantial evidence.  If the crown relies (as it often has to) on circumstantial evidence, the task of the defence counsel is to try to unpick it, and show how weak the individual strands are.  If the rope holds firm, the jury may conclude that it is strong enough to hang the accused!

A more pleasant example comes from a school trip to Hampton Court where, among the many treasures, we were shown a huge tapestry.  With a great (and no doubt well-practised) flourish, our guide produced a single thread of wool and said, "And this is what this whole magnificent tapestry is made of, hundreds of thousands of individual threads."  In this Easter Season we gaze upon one part of the great tapestry that God is weaving, and we need constantly to hold in our minds that each individual thread is part of the whole wonderful creative work.

So we may return briefly to Easter evening and that first dramatic appearance of the Risen Christ among his disciples.  Because of Luke' more dramatic schema, incorporated in our liturgical year, we tend to think of the coming of the Holy Spirit as "delayed" until the Feast of Pentecost.  But look again at this record in John of that encounter between the Risen Christ and his disciples and we find two elements of supreme importance for our understanding of today's readings, and of the whole story: Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.'  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'

There is so much in these brief words!  Life came into human form when God breathed into the material body of Adam.  To pinch Paul's language for a moment, as with the old creation so with the new.  Then we remember that Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism; and only then did he begin his ministry to others – only then did he start fulfilling the mission for which the Father had sent him, to do the Father's work.  And here we find that same combination for Peter and the others: receipt of the Holy Spirit and of a mission to others.

Which gets us to our story from the Book of Acts.  As mentioned above there are striking similarities between the details of this story and those in Mark's account of the restoration of Jairus' daughter (which, we are told, Peter witnessed).  The weeping mourners; the exclusion of the crowds; the command to the corpse to "get up"; the lending of a hand to get up; and so on.  God gives life to Adam; Jesus gives life to the little girl; Peter gives life to the much-loved woman.  In each case, the same divine power, the power that raised Jesus himself from death to life, is in play here.

And, of course, we can see where all this is heading, can't we; especially if, in accordance with long-established tradition, we renewed our baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil service recently.  Have we not received the same life-giving power we call the Holy Spirit?  Have we not been sent on the same mission as Peter and all other disciples of Christ?  And did not Jesus himself say: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father?

Back to my law lecturer and a slightly different use of his image of the rope.  Where for us does the rope of faith unravel?  Do we believe that God is the source of all life?  If so, do we believe that Christ had the power to restore people from death to life? If so, do we believe that Peter had this power, as shown in today's story?  And if so, do we believe that we, the baptised and commissioned followers of Jesus Christ, have that same power today?


Acts.  There are a number of other details in this story of interest.  First of all, Tabitha gets a bit of a write-up; she is not some nameless person in a story about someone else.  We are even told her Greek name, Dorcas, which suggests that she was well-known, at least in the Christian community.  She was known for her good works and acts of charity.  The lovely little detail in verse 39 attests to her skills (and generosity) as a dressmaker.  Is there a hint here that she deserved better than illness and premature death – that perhaps her death was particularly unsettling to the faith community?  Then we get some practical details about the proper preparation of the body for burial (hint of Jesus' burial?)  "Disciples" are present, but they feel the need to send for Peter.  Nothing is said about the reason for that: their request is for his urgent presence, but does not indicate what they expect of him when he does arrive.   It's tempting to assume that he is thought to have greater "healing" powers than those who send for him; but it may simply be that they need his help in responding pastorally to the people upset by Tabitha's death.  Possibly his immediate response is intentionally contrasted with Jesus' famous delayed response to a similar request when Lazarus was dying.  The story ends with an almost theatrical revelation of the restored Tabitha to the audience of saints and widows; and then a practical piece of information of no obvious importance: Peter stayed on for a while in Joppa at the house of Simon the tanner.  This seems to be a rather uncharacteristically clumsy segue by Luke to the next story about Cornelius the centurion.

Taking It Personally.

·         What do you make of this story?  Do you find it any harder to believe than those involving Jesus himself?  Do the details in verse 39 have a ring of truth about them?

·         If you were asked to pray for the restoration of someone who has just died, what would you do or say?

·         What is the most life-giving thing you have said or done in the past week?  What is the most life-giving thing anyone else has said or done to you or for you in the past week?

Revelation.  I have never quite warmed to the expression "the Church Militant", and I don't usually find "the Church Triumphant" much easier.  But it is difficult to think of any other expression that might do justice to today's portion of the extraordinary vision that St John the Divine experienced.  Perhaps it loses some of its wonder for us, with the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight, as we look at a Church of around 2 billion members in so many countries, complete with an Argentine Pope!  But at the end of the first century, when John was in captivity on the Isle of Patmos, with the number of Christians in the low thousands, and facing persecution and martyrdom regularly, such a vision must have been astounding.  And wonderfully reassuring and comforting!  Even martyrdom cannot take away what God has in store for believers.  The white robes are THE symbol for those who have been baptised; and here they are, alongside the heavenly creatures, encircling the very throne of God and the Lamb.  Of course, pedants might quibble at the Lamb being also the shepherd of the flock, but the logic of the material world gives way to a different logic is the spiritual realm (as it does in our nightly dreams).

Taking It Personally.

·         Here's a stretch – trying using the prayer of imagination with this passage!  (I haven't yet tried it myself so I can't say whether it will work or not, but I intend to give it a go.)  Place yourself in the story with the other white-robed ones.  Listen to the singing and chanting – perhaps even join in (you might want to ensure that you are alone in the house first).

·         Now think about your usual experience of worship in your local church.  What can you do to bring the worship of heaven down to earth in that place?

·         Continue the exercise of placing those things that are presently troubling you in the context of this passage, and be reassured.  Temporal problems come to an end – eventually.

John.  And now we crash back to earth with a particularly unlovely passage from this gospel.  It is winter.  Jesus is in the temple.  [This raises an immediate problem for us, because the other gospels seem to suggest that Jesus only comes to the temple once, and that in Holy Week.  John has a different view on that.]  Jesus is once again met by his critics who demand a straight answer: is he or is he not the Messiah?  As ever, Jesus does not give a yes/no answer.  In fact, his answer is strangely similar to the one he gave to the imprisoned John when emissaries came to Jesus asking virtually the same question.  Jesus draws attention to his "works", which, he suggests, supplies the answer to their question.  But their significance is hidden from those who do not belong to Jesus' flock.  The reference back to this pastoral image (so central to the first part of this chapter) strikes me as rather clumsy, as does the sudden assertion that "The Father and I are one."  It may be that some less than subtle editing has gone on with the text here, to plant the seed that will grow into fullness in chapters 16 and 17.

Taking It Personally.

·         The evidence of Jesus' true identity (Messiah/Son of God/ God Incarnate) is the works he performs in his Father's name.  The evidence that Peter has the power of the Holy Spirit is the works he performs in Jesus' name?  What is the evidence that you have received the Holy Spirit?

·         Shape your prayers accordingly.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Third Sunday of Easter

April 14                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Third Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Theme:  A number of possibilities present themselves this week.  I had originally gone for "Do we truly love him?" for fairly obvious reasons.  More traditional might be "The Re-instatement of Peter", but for reasons given below, I wouldn't go there myself.  Finally, I am plumping for "Love and Truth": it seems to me that these readings offer us a fairly rare Sunday opportunity to reflect on Peter and Paul together.

Introduction.  We open with a fairly full account of Saul/Paul's 'conversion experience' on the Road to Damascus.  Once again we should note what is not there: there is no hint of rebuke or criticism from the Risen Christ.  Last week we noted his attitude as he appeared among his disciples on Easter Evening: no word of rebuke or even disappointment at their weakness and failure.  Here he confronts an arch-persecutor of his followers, not with complaint, but with a simple question: "why?"  Peter faces a very different question in our gospel passage: "do you truly love me?"  No questions are necessary in our reading from the Book of Revelation: in the end all will be revealed and there will be no more questions.

Background.  There is little doubt that what we know as chapter 21 of John's Gospel was not part of the original version, but is an addendum written sometime later.  (One obvious clue is found in chapter 20, verse 30, which was almost certainly the original ending of the book. There is a rather jumbled version of this at the end of chapter 21: verse 25.  Which, of course, gives rise to the question, why was this bit tacked on?

In one sense verses 1-14 seem to be just another resurrection appearance, combining many of the elements of the other accounts. There is, for instance, initial difficulty in recognising the Lord: verse 4; the structure of the narrative is very similar to the story in Luke 5:1-11; and the distribution of the bread and fish in verse 13 harks back to the Feeding of the Multitude, but also accords with the breaking of the bread in the Emmaus story.  If these verses stood alone, the explanation might simply be that another resurrection story had turned up, and someone simply added it to the collection.

But they don't stand alone.  We have two other little episodes to ponder as well, one concerning Peter, and the other concerning the disciple whom Jesus loved; and these two little passages together may tell us something of what is going on here.  First, there is some support for the belief that there was tension between the community that produced the Fourth Gospel and the rest of the Christian community, symbolised in alleged rivalry between the camps supportive of Peter and the camp supportive of this other disciple.  The first hint of this is given, perhaps, in the famous "footrace" between the two to the empty tomb in John 20:1-10.  John got there first, but didn't go in, whereas Peter charged past him and into the tomb.  Peter saw everything, but the other disciple "saw and believed".  Perhaps it's no accident that in today's passage, it is the other disciple who recognises the Lord, and Peter only gets this revelation second-hand from him: verse 7.  And for real conspiracy buffs, the clear reference to the story in Luke 5:1-11 may also be to remind everyone that Peter was a self-confessed sinful man unworthy to be in Jesus' presence.

Verses 15-19 of today's passage are generally summarised as the "reinstatement of Peter", a view which I accepted for many years, but now I have my doubts.  Yes, the structure supports the traditional interpretation: just as Peter famously denied knowing Christ 3 times when put on the spot in the High Priest's garden, so now he is led to affirm his love for Christ 3 times, to blot out, as it were, each of his denials.  But as I pondered all this again, something began to rankle.  Isn't this view inconsistent with Jesus' complete acceptance and forgiveness of Peter and the other disciples, as expressed in that wonderful phrase, "Peace be with you"?  Doesn't such a reading of this short passage portray Christ as some sort of barrister in full 'cross-examination mode'?

And there is another problem.  Jesus, we are told, knew the hearts of people, knew what was in their minds.  How much more likely it is that the Risen Christ has this faculty, too.  Peter alludes to this in verse 17.  So surely, this persistent questioning of Peter is not for Christ's sake, and nor is it intended as a way of rubbing Peter's nose in his shameful loss of nerve.  It seems to me to make much more sense to read this as being for Peter's sake: perhaps in his shame and disgrace he had questioned his own love of Christ.  ["How can I love him and deny I even know him?"]  So here Christ is pushing Peter to recognise that he does deeply love Christ, despite his failings.  And because he loves Christ truly, he is fit to be the pastor of the flock, despite those failings.

But the question remains, why add this bit to the Fourth Gospel, particularly if this community had no great love of Peter or his followers?  One possibility is simply to address the obvious question: if Peter flunked out so badly, if he was so hopeless, how come he emerged almost immediately as the leader of the flock?  Or perhaps this passage was an attempt to lay the ground for reconciliation between the two groups: the Lord himself reinstated Peter, so it is alright for us to accept his leadership or that of his successors.

Or perhaps not!  For the last little episode again tends to cast Peter in a bad light.  Here the aim seems to be to explain why the other disciple has died before Christ's return, when it was apparently believed that he would live to see Christ return.  The passage shows that the belief was in error – and, incidentally, that Peter should learn to mind his own business!

Acts.  What a wonderful passage this is!  The Lectionary suggests that we might want to cut it short, just using verses 1-6.  May the authors be cast into the fires of Gehenna  for such an outrage!  Apart from anything else, that would rob us of another example of Luke's comedic genius in verse 13, when Ananias assumes the Christ is not quite up with the play, and gives him a briefing!  In fact, the whole story is wonderfully told.  Notice the opening verse, in once sense just straightforward reportage; but what drama Luke inserts with the phrase "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord".  But Paul is no vigilante: he is a man of the Law, following correct practice and procedure.  He seeks and obtains a warrant from the proper authority, before setting off in pursuit of his prey.  Then comes the encounter, again told simply, in a straightforward way. 

The question put to Saul is a psychologically acute one: "why are you doing what you're doing?  What is your real motivation?"  That is just the sort of question that can open us up to new insights and learnings because it can lead us to question our present stance.  Cynics say that Saul had some sort of epileptic seizure or other neurological episode: St Luke says those with Saul heard the same voice Saul heard (verse 7).  One of the reasons it's good to have this passage in this Season of Easter is because of the significance it gives to that little phrase "three days" in verse 9.  He had no sight, mobility or appetite: he was "dead" for three days.  And, of course, verse 15 is the key: Saul, even less likely than Peter, has been chosen by Christ – end of questions and debate.  Baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit seals the deal.

Taking It Personally.

·         Another opportunity to reflect on your own path to faith.  Have you had a dramatic conversion experience, as Saul/Paul did; or has it been much more gradual, with twists and turns along the say, as it was for Peter?

·         Are you inclined to brief God on a situation where it seems he might not be up with the play?

·         Can you recall an occasion when you thought God had got things wrong – had chosen the wrong person for the job?  Would you speak up in such a situation?


Revelation.  Given the length and importance of our readings from Acts and John today, it would be easy to let our second lesson disappear between the cracks.  After all, who really would miss the Book of Revelation if we abandoned it altogether?  But in this Easter Season it is surely good to look up every now and then and see where we are going, and in this context "we" means every creature "in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea".  The whole of creation is being brought together and back to God for an eternity of praise.  And if that sounds boring to us, that's because we lack the vision to see what God has in mind for us all!


Taking It Personally.


  • A time for praise and worship!  A time to get things into perspective.  What is bothering you at this time?  Write out a list and put it alongside this passage.  Then revise your list!




John.  Most of what I wanted to say about this reading has already been said above; but here are a few more jottings that have come to mind.  First, we are given a specific list of which disciples were there on this occasion, including 2 unnamed ones.  I'm not sure of the significance of that, but it's good to see Thomas made it this time!  It's interesting that Andrew seems to be missing.  I'm also struck by the final words spoken to Peter: "Follow me" (verse19).  There is a certain closing of the circle here, recalling Peter's original call to follow Jesus, which also occurred among the boats on the shores of Lake Galilee.  The prediction of Peter's martyrdom may be another aspect of this community recognising Peter's real merit.


And one final outrageous thought for anyone who might be on the Board of Nomination, or a Parish Nominator, or seeking to determine whether someone has or has not received a call into ministry.  Ask the candidate three times, with minor variations to maintain interest, "Do you love the Lord?"  As I read this passage again it struck me as rather odd that I was not asked this question by an Examining Chaplain when my possible ordination was under consideration; nor by any parochial nominator or Member of the Board of Nomination when being considered for a parish appointment.  And to be fair, when I was on the Board of Nomination, I never asked anyone this question either!  Yet, when you stop to think of it, isn't it rather fundamental?


Taking It Personally.


  • It's bathroom mirror time!  Ask yourself this question (or, even tougher, imagine someone else asking this question, or even tougher still, imagine the Lord asking this question).  What is your answer?
  • Focus on verse 22, and in particular on the words "what is that to you?"  Is that the answer to those who wonder what will become of atheists, agnostics, people of other faiths, or anyone else for that matter?  Should we rather concern ourselves with our own salvation?  But where does that leave our mission to others?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Second Sunday of Easter*

April 7                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Second Sunday of Easter*

[*Let's not call it Low Sunday.  Contrary to popular opinion, that designation was not dreamed up by clergy who, having enjoyed larger than usual congregations on Easter Day, were faced with the usual poor numbers a week later!  The more likely derivation is simply to contrast this Sunday with the High Feast of Easter.  If we really want to show off, we could revert to the former Latin title of "Dominica in Albis", which was an abbreviation of the expression "Dominica in Albis deponendis", being the day on which those baptised at Easter would put off their white robes.  (Yes, they wore them for a week!)  The Roman Catholic Church has abandoned all this for "the Second Sunday of Easter": this is one of those times in which I am happy to follow Rome's lead.]

Texts: Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Theme:  If we want to focus on Thomas, perhaps something like "Through Doubt to Conviction" would do.  "Seeing is Believing" comes quickly to mind; but in view of our Lord's closing remark ["blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed"] it may be better not to go there.  Other possibilities include "The Story Continues", "As with Him so with Them", or even "Life Goes On", all of which can convey something of the great paradox at the heart of Easter where discontinuity and continuity meet, not in contrast, but in harmony.

Introduction.  During the Easter Season we do not have readings from the Old Testament: instead we take our first lesson from the Book of Acts, and we see the way in which the life and ministry of Jesus continues through his disciples, and within them.  They are transformed.  Look at them at the start of our gospel reading, and we see them cowering in fright behind locked doors.  Yet in our reading from Acts we find them in prison (more locked doors) for refusing to stop preaching the gospel.  To emphasise the theme of continuity, they are brought before the Council (Sanhedrin), the very body before which Jesus was brought after his arrest.  Another way of stressing continuity, of course, is provided by our reading from Revelation, when the crucified, risen and ascended Christ speaks from the heavenly realms.

Background.  In his book "Resurrection" the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, calls this encounter between the Risen Christ and his cowering disciples on Easter Evening the greatest act of forgiveness and reconciliation imaginable.  Contrast this with a trashy novel I bought for $1 in a bargain bin a few years ago, only because it had the word "Cornwall" in the title, and I foolishly thought that meant it had some connection with the county of my birth.  It was the story of a man who had died very suddenly.  He discovers that he has survived death and is able to see what's going on where he used to live.  He finds that his wife and her lover had been responsible for his sudden demise, to which, not surprisingly, he takes rather strong exception.  He sets about planning his revenge.

Let's stop there.  That brief outline of the plot is enough for my present purposes.  However awful that novel was (and, even though it was hard-cover with over 400 pages in reasonable condition, it was not worth the money I paid for it) the "hero's" motivation did ring true.  I imagine that most murder victims would rather relish the thought of a post-mortem confrontation with the murderer(s).  Alternatively, given the opportunity to "re-visit" the earth, would we prefer to stay well clear of those who had done us wrong and use such a second chance to be with those we loved and who loved us?  Or perhaps we might feel like a complete break – a whole new start?

Jesus comes back to those who had failed him in his hour of need, not to settle the score, not to prove that he was right and they were wrong, but to assure them that they are still his friends, he still loves them, and forgives them all their failings.  Imagine the emotional turmoil in that room, the fear, the shame, the self-disgust, and the hopelessness.  And into that atmosphere Jesus' words come forth, "Peace be with you."  There, surely, is the start of the New Creation.  Into the Primeval Chaos God said "Let there be Light", and there was light.  Into the emotional chaos in that room that evening Christ said "Let there be Peace", and there was peace.

Notice how this is an extraordinary exercise of strength and power.  This is not the "doormat" peace that we see so often in our daily lives, and within parish life in particular.  "Well, better not say anything – it'll only make matters worse.  Don't rock the boat – anything for peace and quiet" – all those are the approaches of weak people, and almost always result in small problems becoming bigger.  Jesus could have decided to avoid any confrontation with the disciples – perhaps seek other converts – perhaps bide his time for a couple of years or so and lie in wait for Saul of Tarsus.  That would have avoided any unpleasantness, perhaps, but it would not have shown the disciples or us the way to the Father, the way of Christ.  It would not have shown the truth that St Paul was to express so powerfully with his "nothing can separate us from the love of God" theology.  NOTHING includes betrayal, denial and abandonment by handpicked disciples.

And before leaving this story, can we spend a moment with that word "peace", particularly as Christ uses it as a word of greeting.  How often do we hear it at the start of our Eucharistic services and take little notice of it!  Perhaps we are still gazing around to see who has turned up and who hasn't (where's Thomas?).  But if we really take these words on board, at least during this Easter Season, what a powerful effect they might have on us: Grace and peace to you from God.  Are we any more worthy than the disciples to receive such a greeting?  Do we have no emotional chaos that needs to have such words breathed into it?

Finally a word about Thomas.  He has gone down in history as "Doubting Thomas", just as Judas is remembered as the betrayer, and Peter as the one who denied Christ 3 times.  Yet the Passion narratives are clear.  All had their doubts, all had their fears and their desires for self-survival, all ran away, and all our now in hiding.  There is certainly a Thomas in me, and a Peter, and a Judas.  I need to hear those wonderful words of greeting every bit as much as those guys in that room that night.

Acts.  Luke the master-story-teller is in top form with this chapter 5 of the Book of Acts.  It has his comic touch, but also his ability to convey deep truth.  He opens with the story of Ananias and Sapphira, whose devious self-serving lies lead to (spiritual, if not physical) death.  That is immediately followed by a summary account of the healing ministry carried on by the apostles, very reminiscent of similar accounts of Jesus' ministry to the sick.  As with Jesus, so with the apostles, their very "success" leads to opposition in high places, and they are imprisoned.  But as the tomb was not able to resist the resurrection power of the Spirit, so the locks on this prison are no barrier to the liberating power of the Spirit acting for the apostles and they are freed.  It's a nice touch that from the outside of the prison all seems in order; the guards are still there and nothing seems amiss.  We are reminded that guards were posted outside Jesus' tomb to prevent the disciples stealing his body.  As mentioned above, the disciples are brought before the Council, the body before which Jesus was brought after his arrest.  Far from hiding behind locked doors the escapees have gone to the Temple to continue their teaching ministry.  Verse 29 is particularly poignant, as Peter asserts, "We must obey God rather than human beings".  We recall his rebuke by Jesus for having in mind human concerns instead of the concerns of God: Matthew 8:33.  Again, notice the direct approach: Peter does not make any attempt to water down the truth: he reminds them of their responsibility for Jesus' death.  Their attitude has changed somewhat: they are no longer willing to accept that responsibility: verse 28.  Contrast this with Matthew 27:25.

Taking It Personally.

·         With Holy Week and Easter Day still fresh in your mind, focus on the difference you see in the Peter of Maundy Thursday evening and the Peter of today.  Are you aware of such inner transformation in your character arising from your Easter faith?

·         Has there been a moment in your life when your faith seemed to lead you into conflict with the demands of the authorities?

·         Focus on verse 32: of what "things" are you a witness?  How would you explain to a friend the significance of Holy Week and Easter?

·         Did you renew your baptismal vows this Easter?  Was that significant for you or just something we do in the service?

Revelation.  And here is that wonderful greeting again!  To the seven churches of the province of Asia, the Glorified Christ sends "Grace and peace".  The Trinitarian theology has not yet been worked out so it appears that the Father and the Son are still thought of separately here, which can be a bit clumsy to our ear, but the message is clear enough.  Christ is with the Father in the heavenly realms.  He is the faithful witness (to God's work), the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler above all earthly rulers.  And when he comes, all will see him, including those who pierced him.  There again is that reference to an encounter between Christ and those who were responsible for his death.

Taking It Personally.

·         Spend some time meditating on those words "grace and peace": let them seek deeply into you.  Next time you hear them in a service, bring to mind their significance in this reading and the gospel passage.

·         Use this passage as a template for prayers of praise today.  Slowly go through the different "titles" ascribed to Christ.  "Oh, Christ, you are the faithful are the firstborn from the dead...etc.

·         Then add prayers of petition: "empower me to be a faithful witness also..."

·         End with the doxology from verse 6: "to you be glory and power for ever and ever.  Amen!"  And as we are in the Easter Season throw in a few "Alleluias" as well!


John.  Just one more thought in addition to those already offered above.  I am troubled by verse 23.  How can we reconcile this with the teaching to forgive others "70times7"?  Or, indeed, with the Lord's forgiveness of those who were crucifying him?  It may be that this addresses an issue that had arisen in the early Church as a matter of discipline.  It is well-documented that one controversial issue concerned those who had denied their faith during a time of persecution, and then wanted to rejoin after the danger had passed.  Perhaps such people had been demanding forgiveness as of right, and refusing to accept any need for a careful process of reconciliation.  It was while pondering this issue that it occurred to me (for the first time!) how strange it was that Jesus did not forgive those who were crucifying him; he prayed that the Father would forgive them.  I wonder what significance we are to attach to that, remembering that he got himself in immediate trouble when telling the paralytic that his sins were forgiven.


Taking It Personally.


·         Another great story for praying with imagination.  Put yourself in the room with the disciples.  Sense their feelings before Christ appears, and then afterwards.  Take your time: enter as fully as possible into their experience.

·         Think about Thomas.  Is he more hero or villain in your eyes?

·         Notice that these two "events" are a week apart; and the disciples are still behind "locked doors".  What do you make of that?  Were they not set free of their fears the first time – even though they received the Holy Spirit?