St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Sunday after Ascension

June 1                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Sunday after Ascension

Texts:  Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Theme:  Whether you are using these readings, or those set for Ascension Day itself, the theme must surely be something to do with the Ascension.  It depends, therefore, on what you make of the Ascension; do you wish to skip quietly around it on the ground that to express belief in it can be almost as embarrassing as professing faith in the Virgin Birth; or having come this far through the Easter Season without flinching over the resurrection, do you intend to stand firm and stick to the doctrines of the faith as this church has received them?  Perhaps it would be wise to adopt the phraseology our Lord himself used, and go for "Returning to the Father", or some variation of that.  I have more and more a sense of the whole drama of Christ's death and resurrection coming to a final glorious conclusion with the Ascension, and perhaps something like "The Grand Finale" might appeal – although there is a sequel to come, of course.  I am taking a slightly different approach: I have spent most of this Easter Season "re-pondering" the Fourth Gospel, and recognising the need for a new term to describe the Christ I have found in that work.  So my theme this week is "The Bi-Natural Christ".

Introduction.  There is no need to stress again that only Luke has a clear account of the Ascension.  We begin this week with his description of the Ascension in the Book of Acts, but it is little more than a re-working of the last few verses of his gospel.  Our reading from Peter shows the reality of life for the believers who are suffering persecution for their faith in Christ.  John's "Farewell Discourses" reach their own glorious climax with Christ's high priestly prayer, including its astonishing description of the transformed disciples.  Once again, if we are to take the encouragement intended to be offered here, we will have to abandon our obsession with chronology.   

Background.  We hear a lot about biculturalism these days, but very little about what it means.  If our aim is to build a "bicultural" society", what would that look like?  Is that something different from "bi-ethnic" or "bi-national"?  And if we bring it down to the individual level, what do we mean by a bicultural individual (assuming we mean something by that term)?  Does it mean a Maori who is thoroughly grounded in Maoritanga and fully at ease in the Pakeha world – or a pakeha who is fully at ease in the Maori world?  Or does it mean a person who claims/owns two cultures equally and refuses to identify with only one?

Well, calm down because this is not the place to pursue such issues, and I'm not going to do so.  I'm using the term "bicultural" only to give you some idea of what I mean when I describe the Christ of John's gospel as "bi-natural".  It is, of course, orthodox theology to proclaim that Christ has two natures, meaning that he is fully human and fully divine; but where does such theology come alive?  Where does it help us to understand Christ better?  And my answer to that is in the first half of John's gospel.  Think yet again of the marvellous encounters between Jesus and Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and others.  Jesus "operates" out of both of his natures – but the person he is talking with does not.  He/or she operates only out of his/her human nature.  Just as we might say of a bicultural person, that person is at home in both cultures, so we can say of Jesus he is at home in both "realms" – the material and the spiritual.

Perhaps I can make a little clearer what I'm trying to say with another analogy.  Think of a person who is bi-lingual: let's say she speaks Russian and French with equal fluency.  If she is speaking to a French person she speaks French; if to a Russian person, she speaks Russian.  It makes no difference to her, but it would make a huge difference to the person she is speaking to if she suddenly switched to her other language.  Now apply that example to Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus.  If Jesus spoke only Aramaic and Nicodemus spoke only Greek, they would have great difficulty in understanding each other.  In fact, Jesus spoke the language of the Spirit while Nicodemus spoke the language of the world, so they had great difficulty in understanding each other.

Of course, we cannot push the analogy too far.  This is not a problem to be solved by translation from one language into the other.  The things of the Spirit require their own language: they cannot be communicated accurately in, or translated into, the language of the world.  To understand Jesus, Nicodemus would have to learn the language of the Spirit.  So, of course, must we.  Hence we must look to the Spirit to lead us into all truth.  That surely is one thing we can say with confidence as we read these difficult texts: until the Spirit came, Jesus' disciples were no more capable of understanding him than Nicodemus was.  There was a "language barrier".

Now this is where my speculations may plunge into heresy, so brace yourself.  The idea of Christ's two natures – or his bi-naturalism, as I am now calling it – may give us a picture of two natures complete and distinct from the beginning subsisting within the one body.  But let's think for a moment about his birth, or, more correctly, I suppose, his conception.  Is the incarnation to be understood as involving a separate entity (his spiritual nature) being placed alongside his physical nature, or is it the entry of the Spirit into the physical – the material of which his body is being made?  Could it be then, as he grows physically, so the Spirit becomes more and more manifested in him – his physical body – the matter of which he is made – becomes more and more "spiritualised"?

Until "a tipping point" is reached at his baptism, symbolised by the descent upon him of the Spirit and the words of divine love from above.  Only at that point is he sufficiently bi-natural to undertake the mission for which the Father has sent him into the world, the mission, of course, to bring the whole creation back to God who is Spirit.  At his death on the cross he commends his spirit into the Father's hands, and dies.  Three days later he is raised (by the Spirit) from the dead, and appears in a very different form which we might well describe as a "spiritualised body".  He is then "seen" to ascend to the Father and disappear from our sight.  From then on he is with us as Holy Spirit (Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ).

So perhaps the Ascension is the "completion" of the incarnation that began with Christ's conception?  (Matter is ultimately fully spiritualised: how else could it become one with the Father who is Spirit?)  And perhaps it is even more.  I have long thought that a better name for the Ascension would be the Transcension, because in it Christ transcends all human particularities.  This is definitely heretical – I have that on the assurance of the former Professor of Systematic Theology at Otago University – but I continue to believe it.  Briefly, the argument here goes like this.  Jesus was a certain height with a certain complexion.  We could have said of him that he was, say, 179 centimetres tall, with black hair and beard, brown eyes and a sallow complexion.  But can we say the same of the ascended and glorified Christ – the cosmic Christ?  Would that make sense?  Now comes the tough bit: Jesus was Jewish and male: can we say the same of the ascended and glorified Christ, the cosmic Christ?

In my view we can't: in the Ascension, in his return to the Father, he transcended all such particularities: male and female, Jew and Gentile, free and slave, all such particularities are transcended in and by the cosmic Christ through whom all things return to the Father.

And a final thought for now: if not the Ascension, what?  For the story of Jesus without the Ascension read again the closing paragraph of Matthew's gospel.  Is that any easier to explain – whatever your choice of language?

Acts.   Did you notice the wonderful start of this passage!  Never mind that there is no suggestion of this conversation in the relevant verses at the end of Luke's gospel.  (Perhaps he has done further research.)  Here again (verses 6-7) is a reminder that the disciples have still not got the real message.  Two other quick observations.  Christ has just commissioned them to be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth"; but the angels address them as "men of Galilee".  They have a long way to go in both senses of that expression.  Secondly, perhaps the message is don't stand there looking at the departing Christ: look forward to the time when he will return.

Taking It Personally.

·        What is your take on the Ascension?  Do you find it embarrassing?  Should the Church "play it down", or should we seek to understand it more?

·        Does the argument set out above make any sense to you or does it just add to the confusion?  Does the meaning of the Ascension have any relevance to your day-to-day life of faith?

·        Does the concept of "bi-naturalism" have any appeal for you?  Does the idea of a different "language" for spiritual truth make any sense?  Does it help to explain why the language of the Fourth Gospel is so different from the other three?

·        Try using this model on one of the stories (Nicodemus, etc) and see if it helps to illustrate what is going on in the story.

·        Spend some time each day in prayer as you prepare for Pentecost.

Peter.  This is a very pastoral passage; the emphasis seems to have changed from telling believers how to behave, to reassuring and encouraging them in their sufferings.  The idea of sharing in Christ's sufferings may not sound right to us today; perhaps better to say that they are suffering as he did and for the same reason.  But they are also reminded that the Spirit of God is resting on them, and ultimately God will vindicate them.  On that assurance they must base their hope, and stand firm in the faith.

Taking It Personally.

·        Have you suffered for your faith?  What in this passage would you find particularly helpful in such a situation?

·        Pray for people who are being persecuted for their faith.  Use this passage as a template for that prayer.

·        When have you been most aware of the Holy Spirit resting on you?

John.  There is probably no point in denying that this wonderful "prayer" does not sound like a prayer that Jesus would have addressed to Abba on the night before he died.  Verses 1-5 sound like a theological statement of John's thinking up to that point.  Apart from anything else, Jesus refers to himself as the Son in verse 1, and as Jesus Christ in verse 3, before reverting to the first person plural in verses 4-5.  But many key theological ideas are summarised in this passage, including glorification, eternal life, authority, and mission, and ending with the clearest possible assertion of the doctrine of the pre-existent Christ.  As mentioned above, verses 6-8 cannot really be a description of the state of the apostles' understanding of Jesus on the night before he died: that has got to be post-Pentecost, to put it very mildly.  It is when the prayer becomes noticeably intercessory that it begins to sound more like Jesus – more like the prayer of a Good Shepherd concerned with the welfare of his flock.

Taking It Personally.

·        The whole chapter is presented as one prayer, but in the content can be divided into three parts.  Jesus prays for himself, then for his disciples, and then for those who will come to faith after them.  What do you make of the fact that Jesus prayer for himself first?

·        Are you more inclined to pray for others before yourself?  Why?

·        Read verse 9 slowly.  Notice how the prayer "discriminates" between believers and others.  What do you make of that?

·        Now read verse 11.  Jesus asks the Father to protect his disciples, but from what?  It appears that he is more concerned about their unity than their physical well-being.  What do you make of that?

·        Do you pray regularly for the protection of your faith community from the threat of disunity?

·        Right now, what is your most heartfelt desire?  Pray accordingly.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 25                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-21; John 14:15-21

Theme:  The idea of preparation is buzzing around in my head this week as we move ever closer to the great climax of the Easter Season, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.  And as I have been reflecting on this it has occurred to me that we are in a sort of Advent Season; as we need to prepare for the coming of Christ, so we need these last two weeks to prepare for the coming of the Spirit.  So I'm going with "Preparing the Way of the Spirit".

Introduction.  We begin this week with Paul's great effort to tackle the Athenians on their home ground, perhaps to underline that intellectual effort can only take us so far, even if we are as gifted at it as the Greeks were.  The resurrection does not make rational sense: evangelism by argument of that kind is never going to be hugely successful, even with a proponent like Paul.  Peter advocates a different approach: always be prepared to answer anyone who asks why we place our faith and hope in Christ.  Personal testimony, rather than intellectual rigour, makes converts.  But first, the Spirit must come, and John shows Jesus trying to prepare his disciples for that very advent.

Background.  Last week I must have distracted myself while preparing the Notes.  Having made some enigmatic remark about the person whom Stephen saw standing at the right hand of God, I meant to say more about the frequency with which Jesus identified himself – or, more accurately, seemed to refer to himself, as "the Son of Man".  In particular, in each of the three explicit cases where he spoke of his coming death and resurrection he used that terminology: the only exception that I can find off-hand is a general reference in Matthew 16:21, and that is not a direct quote from Jesus but an "editorial comment" from Matthew.  More typical is this from the next chapter (17:22-23): Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised."

Three brief points about this usage by Jesus of this term "Son of Man".  First, it is so pervasive throughout the gospels (although less frequent in John) that it is most unlikely that it was made up by the gospel writers for some theological reason: we may be pretty confident that Jesus used the term originally.  Secondly, nobody else did: apart from Stephen in his death throes, no one ever referred to Jesus as the Son of Man; and the term appears nowhere else in the New Testament (in Revelation 1:13 the reference is to "one like the Son of Man").  And thirdly, nobody seemed to ask Jesus who he was talking about when he spoke about the Son of Man except a member of a hostile crowd in John 12:34.

And here's another question the disciples never seemed to have asked whenever Jesus predicted his death and resurrection: then what?  "Lord, after you have been raised from the dead, what will you do next?"  Wouldn't that have been an obvious question to ask?  And if they had asked, the obvious answer would surely have been along the following lines: "Well, I shall appear to you so that you can be assured that I have been raised, and then I shall ascend to my Father in heaven, and we shall send to you the Holy Spirit to guide you until the end of the age."  Yet, according to the synoptic gospels the question was never asked and the answer was never given.  How the issue is dealt with in the Fourth Gospel we can see in this week's passage; but before that there is one more thing to say about this term "the Son of Man".

It seems widely accepted that the term is taken from Daniel 7:13-14.  Unfortunately, in our desire to use inclusive language the NRSV somewhat obscures the term by referring to "one like a human being", but the editors partially redeem themselves with a footnote to the effect that in Aramaic the text says "one like a son of man".  Whatever term is used, it is clear from the text that this mysterious figure is "eschatological"; and what is even more clear is that the use of those verses has shaped our mental picture of the so-called "Second Coming" of Christ ever since.  A classic example is found in Matthew 24:30.  In short, the belief in the early church that Christ would return in the immediate future was so dominant that no thought was given to any gap between the resurrection and the end of the age.  It would be a terrible but short period of trials and tribulations, after which those who held firm to the faith would be vindicated and raised up to the heavenly realms.

What then of the Ascension and Pentecost?  Despite the fact that all four gospels were written with the benefit of hindsight, there is precious little about these events in the first three gospels.  Matthew ends his gospel with the Risen Christ, already imbued with "all authority in heaven and on earth", commissioning the disciples for mission to the world, and promising to be with them to the end of the age.  Who knows where Mark finished his gospel!  Even in the all-too-obvious "add-on" the reference is to the Ascension only, and an assurance that the Lord continued to work with the church as it went about its mission.  Only Luke has anything like a prediction of the coming of the Spirit (24:49), followed by a clear reference to the Ascension, both of which he amplifies in the opening verses of the Book of Acts.  But notice the wording in that verse 49: "I am sending you what my Father promised."  Assuming that this is a reference to the gift of the Holy Spirit, when did the Father promise it?  According to Peter in his famous Pentecost sermon, the promise was made through the prophet Joel.  This surely is the clearest evidence possible that nobody thought that Jesus, before his death and resurrection, had made any prediction about the coming of the Spirit.

So what is John up to in this week's passage, and in the rest of the so-called "Farewell Discourses"?  The short answer is that he is clearly wrestling with a rather large gap between what has actually happened in the 60 or so years after Christ's death and resurrection and what believers had thought would happen during that period based on the apostles' teaching.  Why hadn't the Son of Man come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, as they had expected?  Why hadn't this present age ended so decisively?  Had something gone horribly wrong, or had they misunderstood what was to happen next?  John's first answer starts here at 14:15 and runs through to the end of this chapter.  But it seems that it didn't satisfy him, and he returned to it in chapters 15-17, a block widely believed to be a later interpolation between 14:31 and 18:1.  As I reflect on it, it seems to me that chapters 15-17 can best be understood as John's expansion – the fruit of yet further reflection – on what he has written in chapter 14:15-31.

And we have only two weeks in which to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit!

Acts.  Paul has been on the run for some time; hounded out of Thessalonica and Beroea, his security detail has brought him to Athens, and if you read verses 16-21 of this chapter 17 you can see why.  For anybody who enjoys a good verbal stoush it sounds an ideal place to visit; and I just love the description of the locals in verse 21!  It sounds like the annual convention of the New Atheists Association, except that there were a surprising number of open-minded people in the Areopagus.  Not surprisingly, the crunch point came when Paul mentioned the resurrection, but even so only some of the audience scoffed; others asked for a further meeting, and still others were convinced and joined the believers.  From Paul's point of view, a pretty good return for his time and effort.

Taking It Personally.

·        Read slowly though the passage, noting the various steps in Paul's argument.  How persuasive do you find his approach?

·        Paul observes the number of altars and concludes that they are a very "religious" people.  Is that the term you would use; or might you use "superstitious"?

·        What do you make of verse 24?  Why then do we have places of worship?

·        What do you make of verse 25?  Do we not serve God with our hands?

·        Now ponder verse 27: leaving aside our modern difficulties with the word "grope", does this describe your own spiritual search? 

·        Is God near to you?  Are you his offspring?

·        Re-read verse 31.  Granted that Paul is trying to be brief, what do you feel about the gist of the gospel being "the judgment of the world in righteousness by a man"?


Peter.  The epistles bearing Peter's name are not among the most interesting or entertaining in Scripture; but every now and then they reward the long-suffering reader with a nugget of pure gold.  In this week's passage verse 15 surely qualifies for that description.  Here is the key to real evangelism – or "faith-sharing" if that sounds less scary.  If someone asks us to recommend a film, a book, a car or a breed of dog we usually have no difficulty in explaining our choice: why then should we blush if asked to explain our faith?  Peter links our faith back to the resurrection, baptism, and even to the Ascension.  But that's all theological wrapping: the gift we offer to those who inquire is our experience of Christ in our hearts.


Taking It Personally.


·        What in the manner of your life might prompt someone to ask you why you believe in Jesus?

·        On a one-to-one basis, how would you explain your faith to a friend who inquires?

·        Pray for the opportunity to share your faith with someone this week.  Pray, too, that the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say when the opportunity arises.


John.  Last week we had the first 14 verses of this chapter 14.  It seemed to look backwards towards Easter, rather than forwards to what comes next.  Overall the tone was comforting and assuring.  Jesus is trying to reassure his disciples that life will go on, despite his forthcoming death.  Although the Ascension is not referred to directly, the idea weaves in and out of those verses; but there is no mention of the Holy Spirit.  The unity between the Father and the Son is stressed; and there is a possible hint of a future "coming" in verse 3.  But the exact relationship between the ascended Christ and his disciples seems a bit blurred.  They can ask him for help and it will be forthcoming; but it seems that he will be in heaven while they are here on earth.    The new stuff begins this week, and it begins with a verse we might not have noticed too much.  Verse 15 seems to be a condition precedent for the coming of the Spirit: only if we keep the new commandment to love one another will the Lord ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit/Advocate/Spirit of Truth.  He will be with us (believers) for ever; in fact, he will be in us.  So far, reasonably clear.  But what are we to make of verse 18?  Is this "coming" different from the coming of the Holy Spirit?  Similarly, in verse 20, will the Lord be in us as well as the Holy Spirit?  We are back to the problem Paul faced at the Areopagus: ultimately spiritual truths cannot be comprehended intellectually.  John is writing from his own experience of the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit: we can only hope to understand from our own experience.


Taking It Personally


·        Do you agree or disagree that Jesus did not predict, prior to his death and resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit?  Does it matter?

·        What might you do to over the next two weeks to prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?

·        What do you make of verse 15?  Does it suggest that the Holy Spirit comes only to believers who love one another?  Does your local faith community "qualify"?

·        In one sentence, how would you summarise your present understanding of the presence of the Holy Spirit's work in your life?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 18                        NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts7: 55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Theme:  At the risk of seeming obsessed, I don't think we can avoid returning to the theme of recognition this week.  It is obviously at the heart of our gospel passage, and I think our other two readings offer variations on that same theme.  So I'm leaning towards something like "Due Recognition", or "Recognising Christ, Recognising Ourselves".

Introduction.  We begin this week with the famous story of the stoning of Stephen, recognised as the first Christian martyr.  In his final moments he looks up to heaven and has no difficulty in recognising the Risen and Glorified Christ "standing at the right hand of God"; at least, that's whom we think he sees, although he gives him a different name/title.  Our second reading, continuing on from last week from the First Letter of Peter, identifies Christ in yet another way – he is now "a living stone".  What is even more astonishing is the way in which the author describes us: can we recognise ourselves in his words?  And finally we have John's version of Jesus' exasperation the night before he dies as he realises that the penny has still not dropped among his chosen disciples; they still do not recognise his true identity.

Background.  "Recognition" is a very hard-working word in the English language, and we are hearing a number of uses of it today.  In simple terms it means something like "to know again", or to bring back into our consciousness something that had been there before but was not in our immediate awareness at that moment.  We have all had the experience of seeing someone in the street who looks vaguely familiar but whom we can't immediately identify.  Then, sometimes, the brain comes up trumps, finds the correct file, and we "recognise" that person.  That can be particularly difficult if we "know" that the person we think it is should be overseas or in the North Island or in hospital or something, and so this person cannot be him.  Our rational brain tries to refute the messages coming to it from our eyes.  This is the sort of thing that was probably at play with the resurrection appearances.  His disciples (and Mary) had such difficulty in recognising the Risen Christ, not because he looked different, but because they "knew" Jesus was dead so whomever it was now standing before them could not possibly be him.

This week I was reading an obituary for an American singer, and the comment was made that, despite his great talent and his long career in the music industry, he never quite received the "recognition" he deserved.  Meanwhile, western political leaders, furious with Vladimir Putin for behaving in Crimea and the Ukraine in the way Imperialists throughout history (including Greek, Roman, British, French, German, American and every other brand you can think of), have been insisting that the international community will not "recognise" the annexation of Crimea or the various referenda being conducted in eastern parts of the Ukraine.  Presumably in the arcane world of international diplomacy that's considered strong stuff, even though in the world in which everyone else lives it seems more like a wilful refusal to face the facts.  [cf. Richard Dawkins (and his many Face Book friends and Twitter followers) in his refusal to accept what is, and has been for 2,000 years, blindingly obvious to millions of people, equally gifted scientists among them.]

When I was reading the obituary of the musician I suddenly found myself thinking of our first reading again.  Has Stephen received the recognition he deserved?  Yes, he is acknowledged as the first Christian martyr, and as a very strong influence in the conversion of St Paul himself.  But if you were asked to name the 6 most important people in the New Testament (apart from Jesus himself) would he make your list?  Off the top of your head, can you remember anything else about him?  Well, go back to chapter 6 and refresh your memory.  The happy state of affairs mentioned in our reading from Acts last week has dissolved already; ethnic factionalism, tribalism, call it what you will, has seen to that.  Cries of "That's not fair!" now fill the air instead of Psalms and Alleluias!  "Our widows are not receiving the same benefit given to your widows."

The leadership took a very pragmatic approach: it was a distribution problem, nothing deeper.  They assembled a team of deacons to attend to the matter, but with interesting qualifications.  They were "seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom".  Their task, in the somewhat demeaning words of the apostles, was "to wait on tables", leaving the apostles to "devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word".  The people agreed instantly (this was long before Synods had been invented) and they chose Stephen and six others; and just in case we have a short-term memory problem we are again reminded that Stephen was "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit".  Perhaps they should have known that such a man was never going to be content as a volunteer in the foodbank, as verse 8 makes clear: "Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people."  In other words, Stephen was a great all-round follower of Jesus, living like him, serving like him, loving like him, tried like him, condemned like him, dying for him, and all because, like him, he was full of the Holy Spirit.  So how come he's not in your top 6?  Have you given him the recognition he deserves?

And so to the gospel passage.  Last week I was rather hard on John, but I suspect I wasn't alone.  My guess is that in a large majority of our faith communities last Sunday was still referred to as "Good Shepherd Sunday", even though verse 11 was not included in the reading set for that day.  (I would be even more confident that in none of our faith communities was it referred to as "Gate Sunday".)  Perhaps the importance of that passage – and the reason for its inclusion in the readings for the Easter Season – was to be found in the need to show that the great dispersal (destruction of fellowship) that seemed unavoidable on Good Friday was averted through the presence of the Risen Christ resuming the divine role of shepherd of the flock; and also on the need of the flock to develop the ability to recognise his voice rather than his face.

However that might be, it seems clear that John in particular was concerned throughout his gospel with the issue of recognition.  Recall the great stories that are unique to this gospel – beginning, perhaps with the calling of Nathaniel and the wedding at Cana, and continuing through the great "dialogue stories" with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, and Lazarus.  In all those cases the issue arises at some stage of the play as to who is this man really?  A great teacher, yes, but is he more than that?  A great prophet, yes, but is he more than that?  A great miracle-worker and healer, yes, but is he more than that?  The Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world, as Martha puts it?  Yes, but what exactly does all that mean?

Put all this together and perhaps we can see that at the heart of the problem of recognition, pre- and post-mortem, is a failure to recognise that Jesus is in every sense fully human AND in every sense fully divine.  That, I think, is the conclusion John came to, and that is why he wrote what he did in today's gospel reading – not because it happened the way he describes it but because he is describing the ongoing struggle of Thomas and Philip, and all the others, to recognise Jesus as God Incarnate.  Two thousand years later their struggle is ours.

Acts.  When I was summarising chapter 6 I left out the last verse, verse 15.  It's a great verse; have a look for yourself.  See what I mean?  Stephen has been arraigned before the Sanhedrin, the same dodgy council that purported to try Jesus.  The prosecution witnesses have all made their wild accusations against him, and when they had finished, everybody on the Council looked at Stephen, the accused.  What did they see?  A shifty-looking character?  A face red with indignant rage or white with blood-curdling fear?  No; "they saw that his face was like the face of an angel".  Then he was invited to respond to the accusations, and he "made the same mistake" Jesus had made in his infamous sermon in his hometown – he reminded them of their history.  No country likes to be reminded of its history – all of us prefer our sanitised myths.  The members of the Sanhedrin were in no mood for self-examination and repentance – and were even less so inclined after Stephen's somewhat injudicious finale.  He might have looked like an angel, but he probably didn't sound like one.

Taking It Personally.

·        Do the six-persons test.  Where does Stephen rank?

·        What do you make of his behaviour as he was being stoned?  Is it credible?  How would you defend its credibility against a sceptic?  Does it strengthen your own faith?

·        Does history belong in the past, or should we seek to know and understand the facts of our past, unpalatable as some of them may be? Why?


Peter.  I have already made passing reference to the image of Christ as a "living stone" – in fact, a cornerstone.  But to me the real interest in this passage is two-fold: first his emphasis on spiritual matters; and secondly on his images of the community of faith (the church).  If you have been in the church for a few years you will be fortunate indeed if you have managed to avoid those irritating exercises (usually inflicted upon us when we are having a "parish consultation" to consider what we would like in a new vicar) when we are asked to come up with an image of the church.  What sort of tree/ship might best represent our little faith community?  In that situation, have you ever been tempted to leap up and scream, "We are not a blankety-blank tree or a blankety-blank ship – we are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, - in short, we are God's own people in order that we might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light!"?  No, neither of I, but it's a good job I have retired, so I need never face that temptation in the future.  Of course, if you are ever in that situation in the future...


Taking It Personally.


·        Does the image of Christ as a living stone or cornerstone do anything for you?  Next time you are in your local church take time to gaze at the architecture.  Does any particular part of it suggest an image of Christ?

·        Ponder verse 1.  How's the ridding going?

·        Ponder verse 2.  Do you long for pure, spiritual milk?  Are you growing spiritually?

·        Read slowly through verse 9.  Do you recognise you and your faith community in this verse?


John.  Well, if we found last week's utopian vision from Acts a little challenging, this time the challenge is so much harder to avoid because it comes in this passage from John.  The passage starts off well enough: the first three verses can always be wheeled out for the most secular of funerals without causing too much fuss: their tone is definitely comforting and reassuring, even if (or perhaps because) their meaning is not entirely obvious.  But then Jesus baits them and Thomas takes the bait.  Undermining all our well-meaning interfaith dialogue comes verse 6(b): "No one comes to the Father except through me."  Wriggle as we might, that is, in the words of one of my mentors, both exclusive and conclusive – or plain wrong!"  It gets worse.  Jesus sets them up again, and this time Philip is hooked.  He has failed to recognise that Jesus is the Father, and vice versa.  What?  Surely that's not a reasonable summary of verses 9-11?  Well, we have a choice: we can believe it because he says it is so, or we can believe it on the evidence of the "works" (read, miracles) that Jesus performed.  But wait – there's more.  And verses 12-14 tell us what that more is.


What can we do with this passage?  Well, here are some thoughts that might be helpful.


·        It is widely believed among scholars that the community of faith from which this gospel emerged was deeply divided by various controversies, and had lost members as a result.  This can be seen, for instance, in chapter 6:66, which seems to refer to a split over the Eucharist, and in the Epistles of John.  We might therefore expect the author to be determinedly exclusivist – you are either in or out.

·        It is also widely believed that this is a very late gospel, written somewhere between 90 and 110 A.D, perhaps by a very old, wise man who had spent decades reflecting on the Jesus stories.  Perhaps he was struck by the inability of the disciples to recognise Jesus after the resurrection, and realised that it was a continuation of their inability to "recognise" him while he was still with them.  Related to this was their astonishment: had he not told them at least three times that he would suffer death and then on the third day be raised from the dead?  And yet, on those occasions Jesus had talked about these things happening to "the Son of Man".  Could it be that their real difficulty had arisen from their failure to recognise that Jesus himself was "the Son of Man"? 

·        Another approach might be to focus on the fact that Jesus is using the term "Father" rather than "God".  "Father" denotes a particular relationship, that which Jesus himself had with God and into which his followers are admitted through him.  It does not rule out the possibility that others may have a different relationship with God.

·        A further option sometimes suggested is the so-called anonymous Christ; that is, that whenever anyone comes to faith in God it is done through Christ even though the person concerned has never heard of Christ, or has heard of him but does not believe in him.

·        Personally I prefer to hang my hat on a very generous interpretation of John 21:22.  If we ask, "Lord, what of Moslems or Hindus or atheists?" we are likely to receive the reply, "what is that to you?  Follow me."


Taking It Personally.


  • Are you uncomfortable about the "exclusive tone" of this passage, or doesn't it worry you?  Do any of the points suggested above help or not?
  • Consider Thomas's contribution here, and compare it with his famous "doubts" after the resurrection.  What does John want us to take from the whole "Thomas" thing?
  • Some scholars believe that this passage owes much to St Paul's teaching, particularly in his Letter to the Colossians.  Does that get you anywhere?
  • Are you (as I am) more troubled by verses 12-14?  Do they ring true to your own experience?


Thursday, 8 May 2014

Fourth Sunday in Easter

May 11                        NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Theme:  Yes, well, good luck with choosing a theme this week!  I've had to reject a few ideas because they all fell somewhere on the spectrum between rudeness and blasphemy.  Having complained last week that the Easter Season is passing too quickly, one look at this week's readings made me wonder if it's already over.  However, reflection is a wonderful thing, and after a while some sort of link with the resurrection stories began to emerge.  If Thomas' absence might be thought of as an illustration of the breakdown in fellowship caused by the death of Christ, could we not see in the resurrection stories as a whole the restoration of fellowship flowing from Christ's resurrection?  So my pick for this week's theme is "The Shared Life".

Introduction.  We start with one of the most challenging little passages in the New Testament.  Go back a few verses and recall that in response to Peter's "Pentecost Sermon" "about three thousand persons were added" to the 120 or so believers at the start of the day.  And now we are given a summary of how those 3,120 spent their time and resources, which led to daily increases in their number!  Feeling challenged yet?  Perhaps the second reading will make you feel better?  Suffering for your faith is good for you; and we're not talking mickey-taking, scorn, or even downright hostility here.  We're talking physical violence all the way up to martyrdom.  And there's not a lot on offer in the gospel reading by way of soothing balm, is there?  To be blunt, I'm not sure what there is in our gospel passage today.  When I got to verse 6 I found myself muttering "I'm not surprised."  We have to wait until the very last sentence of this week's passage to find anything that sounds like the Good News we are called to proclaim.

Background.  Still struggling to keep up with the pace of the Easter season, I found myself this week going back to the question the Risen Christ first asked the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?"  At one level, of course, that's a pretty obvious question, an opener to get the whole encounter under way.  But Jesus so often asked apparently simple questions that turned out on reflection to be far more profound, and I suspect that this one may belong to that genre.  If the journey to Emmaus is, as is so often claimed, a model of the faith journey, then perhaps all us on that journey need to address that question from time to time.  What are we discussing with one another as we continue the journey?  When we gather for a cuppa after the service – when we gather in our Vestry meetings or AGMs – whenever we are with our fellow believers - what are we discussing?  Our faith?  The hope we have in Jesus Christ?  How best to share that hope with others?

And so to this week.  What is the link between the readings we have before us now and those we have worked through over the last three weeks?  Starting with the gospel passage, in what way is that a particularly appropriate reading for the Easter Season?  Well, I began with John 21 in mind (particularly as I had rather thought we might have something from that chapter somewhere in the Easter Season).  That's very definitely a "resurrection appearance" chapter, of course, with at least two of the familiar elements in it.  First we see the problem of recognition, and then we have another example of the Eucharistic motif we had last week.  But I'm thinking particularly of verses 15 to 19, with its unmistakeably pastoral language.  The threefold "re-instatement liturgy" with Peter is almost like a new and converse version of the Kyries elieson – "Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep."  And taking the passage as a whole, the fact that Peter does indeed love Christ is the basis for his vocation to shepherd the flock.

But what does it mean to "shepherd the flock"?  For "John" anyway, the answer to that question is to be found in chapter 10, hence the link to this week's gospel passage.  But there is a fundamental problem here.  In chapter 10 Jesus is addressing the hostile Pharisees, not his disciples; and in the course of his argument with them he changes his imagery sharply.  Although not very explicit, in verses 1-5 he appears to place himself in the role of the shepherd, and refers to someone else as the gatekeeper who opens the gate for him.  But when he meets with blank faces all round (verse 6) he tries another tack, this time describing himself as the gate; before returning much more explicitly in verse 11 to his self-identification with the good shepherd.  Once we get to that verse, perhaps, we feel more comforted, more at home.  I have seen a few stained glass windows depicting Christ the Good Shepherd; I can't recall ever seeing one depicting Christ the Gate!

Yet I do think these first few verses have something important to say if we will take the time to listen, and "listen" is the right word to use here, because of central importance is once again the theme of recognition.  The sheep need to be able to recognise the shepherd, and they do so by recognising his voice.  Similarly we need to be able to discern his voice among all the other voices with which we are bombarded today and which threaten to lead us astray.

And now to my chosen theme of "The Shared Life", about which I will have more to say when I get to our first reading.  But as a general introductory comment, I think we can discern a pattern in the resurrection stories of the slow rebuilding of fellowship.  Even though the stories tend to start with individuals, Mary at the tomb being the classic example, what follows is a sharing of the good news, and even (often) some sort of fellowship meal.   Thomas is brought back to the fellowship; Peter, too, and when he shows an unhealthy interest in the fate awaiting the other disciple he is immediately corrected.   There is to be no jealousy or rivalry in the restored fellowship.  This week's passage, perhaps, is intended to underline that a shepherd is there for the entire flock, and the well-being of each sheep is only ensured if the whole flock sticks together and follows the one shepherd.  The flock that grazes (eats) together, stays together.  Which leads us rather nicely to our first reading.


Acts.  Could this really be historically true?  Personally I find it harder to believe than the resurrection stories!  Maybe it was true just for a very short period of time; the beginning of chapter 6 sounds much more like human nature in action to me.  The more interesting question might be, would we like it to be true?  Could we live out our faith in a community of like-minded people following an agenda such as the one outlined here?  And if the honest answer to that question is no – and if the number of intentional faith communities that have arisen, flourished briefly and then collapsed in acrimony over the years is anything to go by, no is the honest answer – what does this reading have to say to us this week?  Should we blush with embarrassment, avert our glance and hurry on to the next reading?   Perhaps the middle course is to focus on the principle of cooperation, which after all is really fellowship in action.  Every time I hear one of our politicians insisting that we must build a more competitive society I want to scream: personally I want us to build a more co-operative society.  One where we believe in feeding the sheep because they are hungry, not because the market demand for "sheep fodder" ensures high profits for us.  In a week when our news media were full of awful images of addicts focused on their need for legal highs (the ultimate image of the death of any form of fellowship is surely the addict focused exclusively on himself/herself)), the one bright spot I found was an article in the ODT on the Food Share organisation, founded and managed by Dunedin lawyer, Deborah Manning.  Begun just 18 months ago, "she and her team of mostly volunteers collect about two tonnes of good, edible food a week [from supermarkets and other retail outlets] for redistribution back into the community".  I have no idea whether Ms Manning or her team are motivated by Christian belief; but I do know that what they are doing is a wonderful example of our Lord's teaching put into practice.

Taking It Personally.

  • Read slowly through these verses.  Which verse do you find the most personally challenging?
  • Have you ever sold something in order to donate the proceeds to a charity?  As a Christian, do you prefer to give to a Christian rather than a non-Christian charity?
  • Does your local faith community collect food for distribution through a food bank or similar outlet?  If not, consider suggesting it to your Vestry.  If so, do you contribute regularly?
  • Focus on verse 46.  Do you eat your food with a glad and generous heart, pausing to remember those who do not have enough to eat?


Peter.  Things get no less challenging when we come to this reading.  To accept suffering is counter-cultural in our community today.  If we are unwell, we must throw everything act it, take something to take away the symptoms, and in the worst case scenario bravely fight it to the bitter end.  If we are injured, someone must be held accountable, and justice (code-name retaliation/vengeance) must be pursued at no matter what cost.  And if we are accused of something...  So when we are told of Christ that "When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten", what are we to do when we are also told that he did all this "leaving [us] an example, so that [we] should follow in his footsteps"?  And in case we have already forgotten the teaching of the last few weeks, the passage ends with two very clear and important verses.


Taking It Personally.


  • How accepting of pain and suffering are you?
  • When you feel unjustly accused of something, how do you react?
  • Do you agree there is a difference between "being a doormat" and choosing not to react in kind?
  • We are now about half-way through the Easter Season.  Take some time to reflect on verses 24-25, lest you forget.


John.  As I have already noted, it is important to remember that this teaching is primarily aimed at the Pharisees, and purports to be a continuation of the debate with them that Jesus was having in the context of the healing of the man born blind.  But as seamless transitions go, this is not one of the author's finest examples; and it is not made any clearer with the rather muddled use of different images.  It seems that the first few verses have in mind a sort of sheep-motel, where sheep of different flocks (owned by different people) are penned together overnight, with a keeper at the gate.  When morning comes, an owner calls and his sheep respond to his voice, thereby satisfying the gatekeeper that the claimant is in fact entitled to those sheep.  (Rustlers and thieves have to try their luck at climbing over the fence and grabbing a sheep or two the hard way.)  So Jesus is the shepherd who calls his sheep out of the pen, leaving behind those who do not belong to him, and therefore do not recognise his voice (that is, the Pharisees).  But then, when that failed to get through to them, Jesus claimed to be the gate (the means of access) through which those who enter will be saved, and may then go out to find pasture.  With great respect, I'm not sure this works any better than the first part.  And the reference in verse 8 to "all who came before me" being "thieves and bandits" is surely problematic.  Presumable that is not intended to include the prophets up to and including John the Baptist; but to whom does it refer?  False Messiahs, perhaps, or false teachers of the law, scribes and Pharisees?


Taking It Personally.


  • If you understand this passage better than I do, work with your own understanding.
  • I can only suggest you focus on verse 10.  In what way(s) do you feel that your life is "abundant" because Christ has come to you?  Give thanks.