Sunday, May 29, 2011


Mosaic of Christ Ascended
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

In older calendars the period following Ascension Day was a distinct liturgical season. Nowadays, though the theme of Ascension is still prominent, this Sunday is demarcated as the last Sunday in the season of Easter. Appropriately the Lectionary chooses Bible readings that will link its beginning with its close. The passage from the first chapter of Acts recounts the final Resurrection appearance that Jesus made to his disciples – the occasion of  his ascension to the Father. The Gospel passage – from John – is linked to this event by having a similar theme. Jesus expressly says “I am coming to you, Holy Father”. The difference, though, is that he says this before his trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection, which means he still has a long and arduous path to tread. Yet it is at this point that he declares “Now I am no longer in the world”. What can he mean? Even when he has risen from the dead he appears in Galilee. Doesn’t his departure from ‘this world’ have to wait for Ascension?

The answer to this question, and the key to the mystery that underlies it, requires a proper understanding of the relation between heaven and earth. Though ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ are often at war within us, contrary to what people commonly suppose this does not mean that the spiritual heavenly realm is radically divorced from the earthly one. This week’s Gospel makes it plain that Heaven is not somewhere we travel to at death, a place just like Earth only purged of all its imperfections. Jesus came “to give eternal life”, it tells us, but, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  We need not wait until we die to know God. In Christ the human spirit is offered a way of living now that will continue in indifference to death. 

How are we truly to know God in Christ? Part of the answer lies in our own conduct. This week’s Epistle says “Discipline yourselves, keep alert”, and so we should. But that is only part of the answer. The real Good News is that thankfully we are not at the mercy of our own, often feeble, efforts. When the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you”. Jesus can save us because he loves us in precisely the way that God does. We hold out our hands, but he it is who reaches down to us; we open our hearts, but it is his saving spirit that enters them. That is the promise of Pentecost, the season just about to come.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Raphael Sanzio  -- St Paul Preaching in Athens   (1515)

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

In the passage from Acts for this Sunday Paul preaches in front of the Areopagus in Athens. It is a key moment in the history of Christianity and the world. Two great cultures meet for the first time -- the religion of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks.

Athens and Jerusalem are the streams of thought and culture from which all the most important aspects of our civilization take their origin – philosophy, theology, history, the arts, the sciences and technology. Both Jew and Greek were passionately concerned to understand how the lives of human beings could be rooted in reality, how they could transcend individual fads and passing fashions, and be lived in harmony with the whole creation. When the Epistle for this Sunday says “even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed” it could be taken to be stating one of Socrates’ most fundamental ideas. This shows that in some ways Jew and Greek were not so far apart. But while the Greeks looked to philosophy to learn this lesson (today it is science to which people turn), Peter adds that what is required is that ‘in your hearts you sanctify Christ as Lord’.

Paul is clear about this vital shift of perspective. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth . . .will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”. The implication of this is that humanity needs more than science or philosophy, valuable though these are.  At bottom, the ‘Spirit of truth’ is not something impersonal – knowledge -- but something personal -- love. It is only when we grasp this profound insight that our experience of human nature (who we are) and of the human condition (the world in which we find ourselves)  can be fully reconciled. It is love that animates the world that God made for us.

In the Gospel, Jesus describes this reciprocity in these words: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them”.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Edy Legrand -- LAPIDATION D ETIENNE 1950

In this week’s Gospel, the disciple Thomas says to Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" The reply he receives is famous: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. The other readings show how, thanks to the Apostles’ preaching, this message could also speak powerfully to people who had not themselves followed Jesus of Nazareth, or witnessed his mysterious post-Resurrection appearances.

The passage from Acts is especially compelling in this respect. It is a very truncated version of the story of Stephen, a man held in such high regard by the early Christians that he was elected to the new office of deacon, a person entrusted with special responsibilities for the welfare of the fledgling Church. One day, as the price of this trust, Stephen faced a much greater, and far more difficult call – to be the first in a long line of Christian martyrs.

‘Martyr’ does not mean ‘victim’, as it is often taken to mean in modern English. It means ‘witness’. Stephen had found his salvation in Christ. Jesus was for him THE way, THE truth and THE life. Accordingly, his pre-eminent task was to witness to this fact, to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”, as the Epistle for this week puts it. Christian witness of this kind was not merely a duty, but a sacred privilege that could transcend even martyrdom. In death, Stephen remained what through Christ’s Cross he had become in life, one of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people”.

Nowadays, we find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between martyrs and fanatics, and the ideology of multiculturalism pressures us to say that Jesus is just one way, not the way. This is certainly a more comfortable message for contemporary Christians to affirm, but it is not what these Bible readings actually say. So how should we respond to them?

We know what membership of the Church meant to Stephen. What does it mean to us? Is it a matter of belonging to a welcoming group whose social life we enjoy, and whose 'good causes' we endorse? In that case, we will commit two or three Sundays a month to it, and maybe other times as well. Or is it something much deeper than this – the privilege of belonging to a ‘royal priesthood’ called 'out of darkness into light' by the saving work of God in Christ? If it is the second, we will be willing to sacrifice a very great deal for it -- perhaps even life itself, if (God forbid) the occasion should ever arise.



Monday, May 9, 2011


The Good Shepherd mural from the Catacombe of Calistus in Rome (3rd century)
Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vandebilt Divinity School

Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10 Psalm 23
The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday, so called because the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. In many churches, appropriate “shepherd” hymns (often versions of Psalm 23, in fact) are sung on this Sunday to underline the theme.

In successive years the Gospel passage – always from John’s Gospel – differs slightly, but it never fails to include Jesus’ application of the metaphor of the shepherd to himself. This year we are told that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them”. How much harder must it be for us to understand it, since we live in a world that – even in rural areas – is very far removed from the ancient world where the biblical shepherd was a common sight.

Thanks to the enduring popularity of the 23rd Psalm, the language of sheep and shepherd is still familiar and comforting to most church people. Yet, this very familiarity can prevent us from grasping its essential feature. Shepherds in biblical times had two key tasks – to lead the sheep to sources of water that they were unlikely to find themselves, and to protect them from wild animals against which they were powerless. It was the superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd that made this possible, and without which the sheep could be expected to “go astray, each to his own way” (Isaiah 56:3).

The message is not an entirely easy one for a modern audience. The contemporary spiritual climate emphasizes seeking, searching, questing and questioning. It is deemed enough to have set out on a spiritual journey of our own. The image of the Good Shepherd runs counter to this. It is God who finds us, not we who find God. Our task is to be able to recognize His call, and then to follow the divine Word as it uniquely comes to us through Christ. The attempt to establish a spiritual path through life of our own devising will only lead to dangerous wandering.

In this year of the Lectionary, the brief passage from Acts gives us a sense of the excitement and urgency with which the first converts heard this call. Two thousand years on there cannot be that same urgency. But the passage also gives us a clear indication of what has lain at the heart of Christian practice, even from the earliest times -- “teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers".

Monday, May 2, 2011


James Jacques Tissot -- The Pilgrims on the Road to Emmaus
Acts 2:14a,36-41
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

The Gospel for this Sunday recounts one of the best known and most intriguing of Christ’s Resurrection appearances – the Road to Emmaus. It has inspired hundreds of artists, including great masters such as Giotto, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. This popularity among painters made it a perfect subject for the world’s most famous art forgery – a ‘Disciples at Emmaus’ ostensibly by the celebrated Vermeer, but in reality by the unknown van Meegeren.

What makes the episode so intriguing is its ordinariness. Last week’s Gospel of John related Christ’s appearance in an upper room behind locked doors. There is a mysteriousness about this that provides the context for Thomas’s understandable doubts. Luke’s account of the Emmaus appearance is quite different. To begin with, these ‘disciples’ were not among the twelve, and though their sadness and puzzlement about the death of Jesus is palpable, the journey they are on seems to be for some practical purpose of everyday life. Most striking of all is this. Unlike the disciples in the upper room, they do not recognize Jesus straight away, but walk with him along the road for quite some time, assuming he is just another traveler. Their moment of recognition comes when they suddenly recognize the characteristic way in which he performs the familiar act of breaking a loaf of bread for supper.

The appearance of Christ to these unnamed disciples resonates well with the vast majority Christians.  Ordinary people, who are neither saints nor mystics, may think and wonder about Jesus certainly, but most of the time they are just getting on with the business of life. The Road to Emmaus alerts us to the possibility that the presence of Christ in the world can be experienced in ordinary life too -- suddenly, and surprisingly, as He is revealed in the people and events of everyday. Often this will be in unexpected places, or even, as Mother Theresa memorably said, in ‘his most distressing disguise’.

These little ‘epiphanies’ invite us to repeat the same ‘question and answer’ that we find in today’s reading from Acts -- “What should we do?”. Peter’s answer to his hearers was “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven”. For those who were baptized long ago, often in infancy, this cannot be the immediate response. Nevertheless, as the practice of renewing baptismal vows implies, we need to acknowledge again and again the truth of which the Epistle reminds us  -- that we have been saved from futile ways of life by the ‘death of Jesus’, and not by any ‘silver or gold’, even if this is what much of our time is spent trying to secure.

Grasping this deep truth requires spiritual renewal. The Disciples at Emmaus provide a compelling model of how that can happen. With such renewal we are enabled once more to make our own voices the voice of today’s Psalmist “O LORD, I am your servant. You have loosed my bonds.”