Easter 3C: Recognizing Jesus

Recognizing JesusFIRST LESSON: Acts 9: 1-6 (7-20)

To read the Acts passage

The importance of this passage is emphasized by the repetition. This is the quintessential conversion tale—a human, sure that he or she is right, passionate about what he or she thinks, is suddenly shown something else, something beyond what they had allowed themselves to see before.

Here, the success of the church’s mission even beyond Jerusalem prompts Saul to aim his hostilities northward toward the Syrian area of Damascus. But on his way to destroy the disciples of the Lord, he experiences what can only be characterized as the most Divine of reversals. Damascus at that time was an important Syrian city and a leading commercial center of the Roman Empire. It is inhabited at this time by many Jews and it is apparent that Saul felt that the religion and the belief systems of these Jews was somehow being threatened by this new Messianic movement. Now, the famous Damascus Road (which can barely be seen from Gulon Heights on the northward part of Israel overlooking Syria) is usually read as a description of transformation. But what is interesting is how Saul (now Paul) became so quickly well-versed in the Christian faith. It’s as if he took some sort of crash course in Christian theology before hammering out his masterpiece of a treatise that we call Romans. But, regardless, we know of Christ’s purpose for Saul / Paul—to bring Jesus’ name to the Gentiles. Perhaps Saul, now Paul, was incredibly smart. But, more likely, he was just searching like all of us do.

This whole thing for us 21st century educated Christians borders on the unbelievable. What does it mean for us? Do things like that really happen today? Well, there are times when someone’s closed mind and shadowed eyes are suddenly opened, right? Perhaps that’s what happened. Perhaps Paul was denying what he knew all along. I don’t know. Emilie Griffin writes that “it is clear that conversion begins with a restlessness of the human heart, which can find no resting place on earth.” In other words, it is not so much that God picks and chooses who of us is called to do God’s work but rather that there is something within each one of us that, prompted by restlessness, by the awareness that something is “missing”, or that there is something that needs to change, begins to listen to the voice that was there all along. Maybe conversion is more about listening than anything else.

The truth is, though, there is a question as to whether this was a conversion or a calling. Either way, Paul was still Jewish. He still honored his heritage. He had changed not from Jew to Christian, but from one kind of Jew to another. And ironically, this strong, zealous, somewhat angry young man, finds himself led into the city by another. Even that could be a conversion. But notice…God was not done with Saul once he saw the light, so to speak. Paul would begin a journey of discovery with God there beside him all the time.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • How believable is this for you?
  • What does “conversion” mean to you?
  • What is the difference between a “conversion” and a “calling”?

 

  

NEW TESTAMENT: Revelation 5: 11-14

To read the passage from Revelation

This passage presents two hymns of praise, one to the Lamb and one to God (“the one seated on the throne”) and to the Lamb. The hymns acknowledge the Lamb’s great deeds through the death and Resurrection of Christ. The Lamb is worthy of this worship that is depicted here. The scene occurs in the so-called “heavenly throne room”. The scene includes God, who is seated on the throne and surrounded by four living creatures and twenty-four elders. And there’s lots of singing. Singing depicts hope for the writer of Revelation. In fact, there are more than fifteen hymns in the book and, probably thanks to George Frederic Handel, we recognize most of them. These are hymns that appear in the midst of darkness and despair. They are hymns of hope. But this is the Lamb’s first appearance in Revelation. The thought of the worshipped One being portrayed as a diminutive lamb is pretty new. This is different. This is not the strong and overpowering warrior but rather one that is humble enough to call us toward the Divine.

Now keep in mind the context in which this was written. In Asia Minor, religion was prevalent and was also very woven into the fabric of the political and social landscape. The people essentially worshiped and showered high acclaim upon the emperor (the one who sat on the throne). Groups of singers would be appointed to sing for the royal household for festivals. And those who were the highest followers, the religious leaders, would earn a high place surrounding the throne. So, here the writer is using that context to depict the sovereignty of God and God in Christ. As worship names what is worthy of that worship, it also dismisses competing claims; here, that dismissal would be of the political emperor, the earthly lord. You could almost think of it as a veiled expose’ of what was really wrong with the society. (In a commentary on this passage, Barbara Rossing, equates Revelation to the climactic scene in the Wizard of Oz, when the small and innocent Toto pulls the curtain back to expose that the great Oz was not what it seemed to be., available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/14/2013&tab=3). So, essentially, the writer is saying that Rome, the great and final power, is not all it’s cracked up to be. Here, the passage names the Lamb as the one who sets people free, makes them a people, and owns their destiny. And for this, the Lamb is worthy of praise.

This passage turns us away from our own concerns. It talks about who we should look to, who we should worship and praise. It brings to mind wonder and awe, things that we don’t have a lot of all the time. It reminds us to contemplate what God has done in Christ. We are used to worshipping that which is higher than us, something that we can “look up to”. But here, we read that it is the lowly, suffering Lamb that is truly worthy. And Revelation, in its simplicity, with singing and humility, depicts the veritable hope of the world found in the brokenness of life. What does that do to our sense of wonder and awe when we find God in the brokenness of life?

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does “worship” and “praise” mean for us?
  • What does it mean to express “awe” or “wonder” about God? In other words, how do we honor God’s “God-ness”?
  • What does it mean for us to proclaim Jesus as Lord?
  • How does the context in which this was written change our understanding of this passage?

 

GOSPEL: John 21: 1-19

To read the Gospel passage

From the beginning, Peter seems to be portrayed as the leader. They have been fishing all night. Now it is day—a new beginning. And when their nets, empty before, are now beginning to tear from the weight of the fish, it is the Beloved Disciple who recognizes Jesus. Now, for me, the question as to why Peter was naked is something completely different. But St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century Bishop of Constantinople, writes this about this passage: When they recognized him, the disciples Peter and John again exhibited their different temperaments. The one was fervent, the other more contemplative. The one was ready to go, the other more penetrating. John is the one who first recognized Jesus, but Peter is the first to come to him.

The truth is that Peter, naked, baring all, holding nothing back, came to Jesus. Perhaps he was not the first to “get it”, but when he got it, he responded. Perhaps it is saying, once again, that we do not get it alone. We need each other to open our eyes, to allow us to see things we could not see before. We need each other to know of those places where God sets us free to jump in the water.

Here, Jesus, still the abundant Christ, feeds the Disciples yet again. Christ is still here—still feeding, still nurturing. The “Last Supper” was not the final meal. There is always breakfast on the shore if you’re just willing to jump in the water. However it happened, Peter was turned, “converted” if you will, from death to life. This sort of bumbling fishermen who years before had just been minding his own business and trying to eek out a life for his family, this ever-questioning disciple who often said exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, this one who never quite got it, this one who, for some reason that I haven’t figured out saw fit to remove his clothes on the boat in the middle of the lake, this is the one, finally, that “got it” and was the first to show up for breakfast.

Several years ago, I was working on the historical write-up of the Endowment Program of my previous church for its 50 years. Somewhere buried in one of the files was a copy of the St. Paul’s bulletin from November 2, 1930. I think that may have been the first worship service in the new sanctuary. (It was also my grandparents’ wedding day, but that’s totally unrelated!) Anyway, typed into the bulletin was the Apostles’ Creed…

 

…He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence, he shall come to FUDGE the quick and the dead…

 

Well, of course it’s incorrect. But think about it…all during Eastertide, we have Jesus returning to earth in different ways. Eastertide reminds us that death and life are no longer easily separated. In fact, the two are the same. They both mean life. Perhaps Eastertide IS about the fudging of the quick and the dead, the living and the gone. Perhaps that’s the whole point. Perhaps we HAVE been converted to life, where’s there’s always breakfast.

 

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does the different responses of Peter and the Beloved Disciple mean for you?
  • Where do you see yourself in this story?
  • What does it mean to be “converted” from death to life?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Give me a transformed and undefended heart. (St. Augustine)

 

Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what’s next or how. The moment you know, you begin to die a little. (Agnes de Mille)

 

“I won’t take no for an answer,”God began to say to me when [God] opened [God’s] arms each night wanting us to dance. (St. Catherine of Siena)

 

 

 

Closing

Dear Lord, grant me the grace of wonder. Surprise me, amaze me, awe me in every crevice of Your universe. Delight me to see how Your Christ plays in ten thousand places. . .to [God] through the features of [human] faces. Each day enrapture me with Your marvelous things without number. I do not ask to see the reason for it all; I ask only to share the wonder of it all. Amen.                                                          Rabbi Abraham Heschel

 

 

Easter 5B: Unless Someone Guides Me

philip_ethiopian2FIRST READING: Acts 8: 26-40

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

In this part of Acts, the author tells of the spread of good news to non-Jews in the Middle East. The writer has just finished telling about the spread of the gospel to the Samaritans and now we hear of the conversion of yet another outcast, a eunuch. (Per Deuteronomy 23:1, a eunuch could not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. The eunuch is from Ethiopia. The “angel” is essentially an agent of the Lord of some sort that leads Philip to Gaza down this wilderness road. He comes across this eunuch, who was the financial officer for Queen Candace. He finds the eunuch reading from the Book of Isaiah. A few things can be surmised from this. First of all, the eunuch is probably an admirer of Judaism, although he cannot participate in its practice. Secondly, the eunuch is well-educated and probably fairly successful (since he is so high in the queen’s court.)

Philip proclaims the good news by showing the eunuch how the prophesies of the Old Testament are fulfilled through Christ. He tells the eunuch about Jesus. When the eunuch asks for baptism, Philip obliges. At that point, Philip is in some way whisked or carried or snatched or in some other way compelled away, where he finds himself in Azotus, proclaiming the good news to more non-believers.

The eunuch is cut-off from society, shunned. And yet, in the story of Jesus, he found a place. Here, human humiliation becomes the point of entrance for relationship with God. He was obviously open to this encounter, perhaps even deeply wanting it, since he was reading the Scripture. One interesting thing is that the eunuch did not ask for a teacher. He asked for a guide—someone to travel with him, rather than telling him where to go. Perhaps he already had this God-thing figured out.

From the standpoint of Philip, keep in mind that he had always been taught to be prejudiced against eunuchs and probably against blacks. This man was from Ethiopia; he was not like Philip. Perhaps God puts those who are different in our path to remind us that it is not our job to define the Kingdom of God. There are no membership cards. It’s just that often the church has to be poked and prodded beyond its comfortable walls.

The truth is, this IS a story of conversion, but not the story of the conversion of the eunuch. It is, rather, Philip’s conversion, the story of how he left his prejudices and his cultural preconceptions, his fear of those who are different, behind and instead followed the call of the Gospel. It is the story of Philip becoming who God called him to be.

But, truth be told, all of us struggle with that. After all, it’s much more comfortable, much more validating, to surround ourselves with those like us. And yet, how does that change us? How does that change the world? If we surround ourselves with mirrors, with those things that look and act like us, that reflect only who we are, how will we ever know how God is calling us to change? How will we ever know who God is calling us to be beyond ourselves? So, who’s to say? Who’s to say who can be baptized? Who’s to say who God loves? Who’s to say who has the right image of God? The truth is, we don’t know. It’s not ours to say.

The truth is, none of us have it figured out. None of us even come close to having possession of this wild and untamed Holy Spirit through which we live and move and have our being. None of us can ever limit the Christ that lives even today in this world. And none of us will ever completely know God. The best we can hope and pray for is that we will finally come to know that part of God that God has revealed in our lives. And in the meantime, we are called, called to be the people of God building the Kingdom of God. In the meantime, we are called to break the mirrors that limit who we are and follow where God leads.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Where do you see similarities in this story and our society today?
  3. How does that speak to outcasts today?
  4. How comfortable are you leaving your “mirrors” behind?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 4: 7-12

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage can be summed up in three words: “God is love.” This love originates in God This is the kind of love we have for each other. Being lovers, then, we are God’s children and we love God. If we don’t actively love, we don’t know God – because the very nature of God “is love”. God’s greatest expression of love for us, the Church, was sending Christ, sending the very Godself, into this far-from-perfect world, thereby giving us a way to know and live as God envisions. God took this initiative, this action restoring us to unity with God. So we have a duty to love each other. It is through Christ that we can see God. The flip side is: if we love each other, God (i.e. God’s Love) is “in us”: fraternal love completes God’s vision of total love.

This is obviously sort of a circular depiction of God’s love and God’s vision of who we are. But, here, the aim of love is to enable people to live, sharing life and love in the name of God with each other. Implicit in this passage is the assumption and the directive that we will love those even that we do not see, that we will love someone not because of who they are but simply because they “are”. So, from that standpoint, the shape of God’s love is continually changing, continually growing within us. As we encounter more and more of those whom we should love, God’s love grows beyond our own limitations.

If it is true that the very core of the universe is love, then God wants us to grow in love. In the Bible, God does not command us, “grow in intelligence.” If the very core of the universe was intelligence, then God would have said, “get smarter and smarter and smarter.” But God does not say that in the Bible. If the very essence of the universe was power or wealth, then God would BE power and wealth. But because the core of the universe is love, and God is love, then God wants us to be like God; to be more loving. God wants us to experience love, to grow in love. God’s command to love is simply the command to be who we are supposed to be, who God created us to be in the first place.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How can this speak to us today?
  3. Why is this such a hard thing for many people to grasp?
  4. What does it mean for you to experience the “love that is of God”?

 

GOSPEL: John 15: 1-8

To read te Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The passage begins with a familiar image: the vine. Perhaps the “true” vine is the writer’s way of distinguishing this newfound faith in Christ from the image that was used for Israel. But the focus is probably more on the need to remain in the vine and bear fruit. Remaining in, abiding in, the vine is crucial for life. For the writer of this Gospel, salvation is a relationship with the Christ and God through Christ. So, using the vine image, branches need to insure that they remain connected.

The vine will be pruned or purified and new life will spring forth. Fruit-bearing probably refers to the bringing of others into this relationship with Christ. Evangelism which is not understood as abiding within the aspect of love becomes a form of manipulation. But, like a vine, we are all interconnected, nourished by God’s love. That is life. That is abiding. The whole thing is not about horticulture; it’s about abiding.

We love because God first loved us. Love is the highest form of abiding, of being present for one another. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If our love is only a will to possess, it is not love. We must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs of the person we love. This is the ground of real love.”

In a commentary about this passage, Walter Wink says this:

 

What does it mean, “to abide”? Deep strata of memory are excavated by those words: a former piety, a profound but now defunct Christ mysticism, prayer without ceasing, attempts to implant myself in God and an entire libretto of frozen feelings, from “I tried that” to “pious claptrap” to “let’s get on with living in the real world.” For me “abide” once meant: Think only of Jesus. Drown out all other voices. Choke down the rebellion. Manhandle the resistance. Deny the inner darkness. For me, it all added up to a religion of repression.

But we grow with the text. I had somehow mislearned to regard the command to abide as a personal admonishment. I took the “you” as singular. My God and me, and all that. But that “you” is plural, providing a rich image of the body of Christ, of Christ seeking a body in the world. Had I thought of it as plural, I would have understood it as a reference to the church. Now I would leave it loose, to apply to anyone who abides, whatever his or her beliefs or affiliations….

In such a time, the words “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” .may not come as unmitigated comfort. Look at how God loved Jesus! From baptism to crucifixion, Jesus kept abiding, and the Powers maintained their menace. Did Jesus have to undergo pruning? Is that what the Temptation was all about? And Gethsemane? And how much more we never hear about? This pruning business can get a lot more painful than anything I’ve ever known.

Someone who does know more about the painfulness of pruning than I stresses that the pruning is not to be identified with an original act of trauma, abuse or injustice. Elaine V. Emeth says that the pruning metaphor works for her only if she thinks of God as a gardener who grieves while watching a violent storm rip through a prized garden. Afterward, the gardener tenderly prunes the injured plants in order to guarantee survival and to restore beauty and harmony. Pruning is not to be confused with the tragedies that overtake us; it has more to do with clearing away the debris they leave behind. (From “Abiding Even Under the Knife”, by Walter Wink, in “The Christian Century”, April 20, 1994 available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n13_v111/ai_15177815/?tag=content;col1, accessed 6 May, 2008.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does it mean to abide in Christ? What does it mean to abide with each other?
  3. What image does the vine mean for you?
  4. How do churches today fall short of this image?

 

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so do not waste too much time protecting your boxes. (Richard Rohr))

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share, and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it. (Thomas Aquinas)

 

All your love, your your stretching out, your hope, your thirst, God is creating in you so that God  may fill you…God is on the inside of the longing.  (Maria Boulding)

 

 

Closing

Close by reading the excerpt from There Is a Season, by Joan Chittister, p. 111:

An ancient wrote:  Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “How shall I experience my oneness with creation?”  And the elder answered, “By listening.”  The disciple pressed the point:  “but how am I to listen?”  And the elder taught, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying.  The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.”

Peace will come when we stretch our minds to listen to the noise within us that needs quieting and the wisdom from outside ourselves that needs to be learned.  Then we will have something of value to leave the children besides hate, besides war, besides turmoil.  Then peace will come.  Then we will be able to say…I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free.