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?