Tuesday, April 26, 2016

No Trouble!



FOR THE Sixth Sunday of Easter, many in the church of Jesus Christ hear a message of promised peace and hope coming from the Gospel of Saint John…

Jesus answered him (Judas, not Iscariot), "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.
 These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I go away, and I will come to you.'
 If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe.  (John 14:23-29)

In! Not Of…
The reading we peruse here is singularly within the Gospel According to John, though similar discourses appear in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21. The discussion we study here occurred in the upper room as Judas… who was an apostle, but not the betrayer Judas Iscariot… asked our Lord a question. He said, "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?"
 This question reveals to us that the disciples were beginning to realize that a difference exists between what we shall know as disciples, and what will be comprehended by world around us. In answer to the question, Jesus promised his followers a peace that the finite world cannot have. The world cannot know it because without accepting him, God’s infinite peace is not given. This perfect peace, one that is beyond understanding, is only given by God through the gift of faith given in Christ Jesus.
 Jesus assured those who were gathered with him that though he would be going to the Father, they would not be abandoned. He told them that when the Holy Spirit came to them, they would learn even more. Jesus explained that in the future, the presence of the Father and the Son would always be with them. However, the gifts given through the power of the Holy Spirit (hagios pneumatikos) would provide a faith which is grounded in peaceful certainty. That promised certainty would eternally be their possession, and that peace was one which the world would not comprehend without the Spirit’s teaching.
 The answer supplied by Jesus, therefore, was revealed by John as occurring during the latter portion of the time he spent with them in the upper room. The words were spoken, just before the statement, “Let us go hence.” Then they went out into the Garden of Gethsemane.
 The discourse had revealed the profound distance between the limits of human finitude, and our infinite God working before them. The text speaks of the disciple’s mental confusion and spiritual unbelief. Profuse questions arose from them when faced with this miraculous telling, for the words that Jesus told them had impressed that with God the impossible was possible!
 Given that this discourse was in John, and is not found in the other gospel records, the ground was laid that this recollection of Jesus’ teaching was likely designed to specifically bolster the faith of the Johannine churches. John pointed out sharply that the disciples, though not initially understanding, and stumbling thereafter during the days of crucifixion… firmly followed the Risen Christ after the Holy Spirit descended upon them. Was he not then, saying that in future days the church would need to recall these words?
 This seems as so. Historical records reveal to us that Christians of the late first century were struggling mightily under Diocletian persecutions. Therefore we ask, “Was the writer of John calling these formative churches in the Greco-Roman diaspora to put their trust wholly in God? Was he asking them to trust the empowerment and teaching of the Holy Spirit so that they will continue strong in faith and future growth? We know that during this time in history, that the emerging church split from the synagogue world around them. This is evident because of John’s expressed acrimony over against “the Jews”. For John’s churches living the world in which they and the synagogue communities strove, the gospel declaration separated them by faith declaration. When their witness was successfully made, the abyss of separation from the traditions of the synagogue became more profound. This was concretely evidenced by later persecutions. These persecutions persisted and worsened as church history unfolded. Emphasis was thus placed by John on maintaining the needed clarity of message and community faith adherence. The text points out, however, that this clarity and faith is only obtained from the Spirit. The message concerning the Holy Spirit is therefore of prime importance for all who read.

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

 The peace given from Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit is therefore different from the finite peace or strength that the world knows. The Spirit is the one who stands alongside (paracletos) the church as trials continue. The Spirit witness needs no substantiation by human science, religious or political power, media or statistic. Tht Holy Spirit is provided by God, who miraculously provides faith to us. Just as water and wine becomes the body and blood of our Lord for us by the power of the Spirit, infinite peace is also made manifest only by the Spirit.

Peace Be Yours!
 Therefore, we may conclude here that since the church is yet embroiled amid powers that struggle against the Spirit, we shall find this message as heartening. It is the message that John communicated to churches in the latter turbulence of the first century that still speaks to us in our day. Though the profound image of the Crucified and Risen Christ often fades from our minds as the weeks from our Easter celebration progress, we are yet sustained. As both familiar and new challenges arise amid our ranks, each attempting to wrest us away from orthodox and traditional faith expression, we see that just as the years may fade memories of those who have gone before us into death… we are surely brought back to true faith and heartened by the Spirit’s power.

 You see, we can know that in Christ we are not limited by our own sin and finite human waywardness. By this Eternal Word given to us in John, we know that Christ Jesus related to his disciples concerning the third person of the Holy Trinity. Thus he pointed out to the disciples, to John’s audience and we ourselves, that the Spirit shall work in us to forgive sin and give us peace. In doing so the Holy Spirit preserves the church. Thus even in our own day and within this troublesome world, we know that the church shall continue in faith until the time when everything promised is fulfilled. So it is written, and so it shall be.

  
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Monday, April 18, 2016

Gathered Unity!



THE GOSPEL lesson appointed for us on the Fifth Sunday of Easter is read from the witness of Saint John. In reading the gospel message we can grasp an echo of what Jesus had spoken on the way to the cross. We are reminded of the guidance given to the disciples before the Crucifixion, words that emphasize to us of spiritual oneness. We are to be one, like our predecessor saints in faith. We are to be in, but not of the world around us. We thus hear across the centuries from the gospel witnesses that the church gathers to love and worship God.., and to love one another.

“When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going you cannot come.' 
 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:31-35)


Disciples on the Way
In this scripture, while the Last Supper is an event not offered by John, instead we have a transition to the farewell discourses that occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane. For John, the period we have here is surely transitional. The disciples, in contrast to the sleepy followers described in the synoptic gospels, pay finite attention to Jesus. They want to hear… but are told that they cannot follow.
Without parallels in the gospels, therefore, this reading reveals a conversation about Jesus’ relationship to the Father. The text notes the glorification of the Son of Man. To glorify, by definition, is to accomplish honor for the Son of Man, and thus magnify the loving essence of Father and Son of God relationship. Therefore, realizing the being of Jesus as the fullness of humanity and fullness of God, here we witness the relational oneness in purpose as expressed in the Easter event. A duality of natures is thus reinforced, a duality which eventually lays cornerstone for Trinitarian theology when the Spirit comes upon the disciples. Within the upcoming Crucifixion and Resurrection events, unitized by the Joannine author, this central, redemptive conversation is played out before all of creation, but especially for the early church gathered. The time of persecution is already upon them. A later text in the Johannine gospel, enhances these relational words...

“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  And this is eternal life.., that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do; and now, Father, you glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.”  (John 17:1-4)

The divine dance between the Father and Son is thus portrayed. In the Crucifixion and Resurrection all that was needed for human salvation had been accomplished through Christ. But then, though not comprehended by the disciples, Jesus tells his followers that things are going to change. With rather endearing terminology, John’s parchment tells of Jesus affectionately describing all gathered as “little children” (teknia eti mikron). He thus set the stage for John’s churches. As children following their Master, their Teacher, understanding was not yet within their reach. He continued, “You will seek me, but as I said to the Jews I now say to you, “Where I am going you cannot come.”
 However, here again comes this term, as written “the Jews” (Ioudaiois) in the Johannine witness. The term becomes troublesome for many who wrestle with John’s witness. Historically, we find that if we use broad pen strokes in defining the identity of Hebrews, of yesterday and today, the term leads to anti-Semitic rantings that are much out of place. Some have carried this anti-Semitic language to foment travesty, which occurred during the Spanish Inquisition and more recent Nazi persecutions. Here we argue firmly against such views. For John, you see, the “Jews” had a more narrow and specific definition.
 Indeed, Jesus related in the gospel witness that things are going to change. For John’s community, and for us, the key meaning comes through the writer’s historical use of the “Jews” identification. If we receive the gospel within the context of its writing, we know that by the late 1st Century, the Christian communities of John were being ostracized by certain Jewish powers within the synagogue communities. These were the “Jews” of whom Jesus spoke, and John writes. Many were those who would never comprehend the gospel. However, we must also recall that John had numerous Jewish persons within the church. The churches to whom he wrote was a church that drew from Semitic, Greek and Roman populaces. These latter Jews are not discouraged in the Pax Romana, but were also lifted up.
By John’s day, however, certain Jewish authorities were persecuting the infant church, just as certain Jews persecuted Jesus unto death. This was being accomplished throughout the Jewish diaspora by synagogue leaders by using zealous Roman Empire oversight. Therefore, methods used for persecutions were primarily twofold, but used for multiple reasons. First, in the synagogue, the Christians were being separated from the Jewish orthodoxy by rabbinical fiat. For example, we note that the Christians communities were leading away many of the synagogue populace, and likely considerable “treasury” along with them.  To make the case for reaction to this movement, we cite that within his book entitled, “History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (New York, Harper and Row, 1968), author J. Louis Martyn notes that Jewish leaders were quickly moving to excommunicate Christians. We may guess that most synagogue leaders thought to get rid of them quickly, before greater damage could spread. As example, by 85A.D. in the city of Jamnia, under the authority of Gamaliel II, it was decreed and standardized that pious Jews must recite the “Eighteen Benedictions”. In recitations of this text, heard was..,

 “for the apostates let there be no hope… And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days”.

 Also heard was..,

 “Let the Nazarenes (Christians) and the “minim” (heretics) be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous.”

 If any Jew would falter in their recitation of the text during worship services, they would be immediately cast from the synagogue and separated from any community participation.
 As well, great social pressures were applied from civil authorities. It is certain that those who were practicing Christian, as we note in Galatians, by virtue of their freedom in Christ no longer needed to remain “kosher”.  Thus we see that stalwart and religious Jewish businessmen would find it in their best economic interest to see heretics persecuted. If a Jew no longer had to buy “kosher” as a Christian convert, those kosher food and sundries dispensers who had their products blessed by the rabbi because they were a pious butcher, baker and candlestick maker, would lose profitable trade. Thus historians lead us to see that the Christians were persecuted because of their non-conformity. Thus they were eventually accused of “cannibalism” by Jewish detractors, in that it was known that the Christians received the Lord’s “body and blood” during the celebration of the Eucharist. Charges were laid thus against them in Roman courts.
 Hence we see that John’s gospel rails not against the Jewish people in general, for indeed many in his pluralistic community were Jews. Instead, using this generic term, the gospel warned through recollection… that for the time before the Resurrection, neither Jews nor Greek disciples could follow where the Savior was going. Jesus said they all could not follow. The gift of following to the cross was not the Lord’s to provide as he journeyed to Jerusalem. If it were not for the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, all hope for their following would be eternally lost. Instead, the gift of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost was key.., and needful for the birth of the church.

Witness in the Spirit!
In the midst of societal turmoil, therefore, we see that the Johannine gospel exhorted Christians of the early church to understand how triumph is accomplished by God alone. This victory is not accomplished by human effort, or knowledge, but through faith given by the Spirit. This faith will be witnessed in their sight. They are told to walk toward that final day in concert. And, by staying spiritually close, they shall be giving witness to others. Jesus said…

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

 I believe this mandate looms large in today’s environment as well, for we Christians have our faith challenged by established, but errant church entities. Our witness is also threatened by worldly powers of state who challenge the worship and social practices of those baptized into Christ. Surely, we as disciples are called by this message to gather, love God, and love one another. We keep in mind that the type of love demanded by our Lord is “agape”. Therefore divine and sacrificial, in gathering for worship and feeding upon the Word poured out and consumed, we are sustained and empowered through persecutions and our weariness. In this way, the Father who sent the Son into this world that we might be saved, shall guide his “little ones”. Having faith strength thus given by the Holy Spirit, our path onward into the future is laid out before us.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Clarion Call...



OUR GOSPEL lesson comes to us for the Fourth Sunday of Easter from the community of John. This lesson speaks to the whole church, especially those of us who now walk in faith after the story of the Resurrection has been told to us once more. It reminds us of the eternal truth which our Lord had earlier spoken, that we may now be guided forward in ministry…

It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 
 So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."
 Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are One." (John 10:22-30)

Looking Back?
The Jewish teachers in the temple gathered in the court of Solomon. They were upset that Jesus laid open claim to the title of “Good Shepherd”. The claim surely raised Jesus stature from an itinerant country rabbi, to one of the Messiah… the one appointed by God who had the power to guide God’s people. Those educated in the writings of the prophets thus could call to memory the sacred words...

“Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isaiah 40:10-11)

 The tumult challenged temple leaders, in that this event occurred during the anniversary of the Dedication of the Temple. The annual celebration marked the restoration of Israel’s temple and its centralized priestly power, after sacred items had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes in 164B.C. In the worldly power struggles of that earlier event, the temple had been looted, burned, and the blood of swine poured upon the altar. We can easily guess that the minds of those who exercised temple power in Jesus’ time feared tumultuous mood swings in the Jerusalem population. Those fears could be stirred by any rebellious shepherd trying to wrestle power from the priests… to form a power center that may give rise to the Romans acting similarly to Antiochus Epiphanes. The tension that this lowly teacher created was thus very threatening for many who listened, and yet soothing to those who considered themselves as downtrodden and powerless.
 You see, the foot of foreign domination was very heavy upon the neck of Israel… just as that captivity which they had felt in earlier times. Thus it was that the jealous priestly caste took great interest in what Jesus answered. There was much comfort at stake when they hypocritically asked him, “If you are the Christ, tell is plainly.”
 A prophet had foretold that our Lord’s answer as Messiah would surely come out as it did…

"For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”  (Ezekiel 34:11-12)

 With vested interest the scribes and priests heard Jesus’ answer with alarm. The statement that the powers in the temple heard from Jesus on that day challenged the very foundations of everything the priestly caste thought they had secured.

Centralized vs Diaspora?
The writer of John, as he related this event, communicated this scene to the various powers within his church during the latter days of the first century. “Why?” we might ask. We note rightly here that there are no parallels of these passages occurring in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Thus should we assume that John had definite intent? Written in approximately 90A.D., what was the issue his communities exclusively encountered that made this telling so important?
 In response, if we consider the turmoil that was to come out of the gospel scribe’s setting, I think we may also acquire guidance for our own time. You see, Jesus’ confrontation as recorded in the Johannine text, likely brought forth memory to the writer’s Jewish audience…

"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" says the Lord.  Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: "You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 
 I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord. 
 "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” (Jeremiah 23:1-6)

We note here the movement from the plural “shepherds” to the singular “Righteous Branch”. In this citation, I find a key to the mind of John. For in the days of Antiochus, before the Jewish Temple destruction, great theological power struggles existed between the temple cult and those who attended synagogues in the Greek diaspora. The subsequent attack on the temple cult by the worldly political Antiochus kept Israel dispersed temporarily, and caused disorganization of the Temple cult. But the diaspora survived… and the cult rebounded through the warp and woof of Judean wars. They endured until the temple was restored.
 By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the restored temple powers had grown and zealously guarded against any further challenge. Thus Jesus’ very existence in their midst was a threat. Hence the cry soon came… Crucify him!
 In John’s day, therefore, the issue for the early church became… “What form should the infant Christian church rightly assume?” Should the infant Christian church be centralized? Or should it simply exist in the “haustafel” house churches. Or finally, “Should both carry the gospel forward?” Today, we in the church also rightly must ask these same questions.
 Surely I believe that the historical tensions of church polity were already at work for John, as evidenced not only here, but in the history of Paul’s dispute with Peter at Galatia many years earlier. With the early church nearly crushed in Jerusalem at the time of this gospel’s writing, the Christian communities had scattered, forming as removed from centralized Judaic temple influence. This occurred in answer to Roman attack on that structure. Then, with new church establishment and growth in various population centers of the Rome Empire, John may have been casting a wary eye upon those more powerful Christians who began to emerge in Rome’s own centralized “Portico of Solomon”
 I believe some bitter, stiff straws were being laid in the manger of John’s diaspora churches. His community stood on the thresholds of great Christological controversies that would challenge the faith expression. He pointed his communities beyond the homes, sheds and catacombs that sheltered each and every stubborn sheep who would try to lay private claim to the Lord’s mangers. He boldly challenged the growing church and pointed them back to the One who is the risen “Good Shepherd”. He boldly stated that Jesus Christ said of his sheep…

“…I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are One."

 Thus in John we hear this declaration that Jesus holds parity with the Father… that their will is the same. We need hear this in today’s world, for the church wrestles again with demons of power structure in both church and government. These parties pit the church of Christ over against those that would read onto scripture messages that which forward their own political causes upon the right interpretation of gospel message. I fear that we who are immersed in this turmoil often tend to lose our focus. I offer to all that in the fray, we as Christians within any denomination or fracturing thereof, need to remember what was told to us in John. Jesus said, “I and the Father are One”.
 We are therefore called by this text to stay as His sheep. We are all reminded toward that which the gospel of John says in his introductory Trinitarian preamble… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…”
  I echo this in the power of the Holy Spirit… that we are called to be the “one” apostolic church in Christ. We are called by scripture rightly-interpreted to be reconciled with God through Christ Jesus our Lord… even so while both sinful and forgiven. In this way we may yet work toward the proclamation of the gospel.