Archive for April, 2012

For April 22, 2012: 3 Easter, Year B

The Reading            Acts 3:12-19

In the verses that precede today’s reading, Peter and John are going to pray at the temple, where they see a beggar, a man lame from birth.  Once they have his attention, Peter says, “‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’”  That unexpected directive is followed by an even more extraordinary result.

The Epistle            1 John 3:1-7

The letters of John are written to a church community in the throes of disunion. John responds with hope, paradox, and a challenge: we are God’s children by adoption right now, and because God loves us we are pure—and yet we are not—and yet, by grace, we are.

 

Further thoughts

Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asks, “What’s in a name?” Based on the readings for the third Sunday in Easter, the answer can be expressed in one word: “plenty”—or perhaps “everything”.

The names of God that Peter lists for the Israelites—“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors”—establish that the God who raised Jesus is the One True God rather than the idols and gods that Psalm 4 calls “dumb” and “false”.  The additional names that Peter gives for Jesus—Holy and Righteous One, Author of Life—are from God and describe (as nearly as human language can) who Jesus is. And the power that heals the man lame from birth is nothing wielded by Peter and John but simply and solely the immense power of the Name of Jesus to heal and to forgive sin.

In the epistle, John gives us a new name: we are now named as God’s children. We are offspring whom God acknowledges before the world, and those who know and are known by God are the ones who recognize the family resemblance. We are also still minors, however: exactly how we will bear our divine Parent’s features remains to be seen, for we are still growing—and we have not yet seen God in God’s full glory. This God calls us righteous, and this God knows we are human, and still and again this God calls us to righteousness.

In the gospel, Jesus comes yet again to reclaim one name, retain another, and to disprove a third that the world had pronounced on him. The third name, the one that the shocked and dispirited disciples simply couldn’t get past, is “dead”. This Jesus, however, is very much alive. Moreover, this Jesus is alive in his body, with flesh and bones and the ability to eat, and thus he retains the name “human”: he knows what it is to die, what it is to feel temptation, and even what it is to feel frustrated at getting the message of life through the thick heads and occasionally thicker hearts of his disciples (like me and you). But this Jesus now also fully asserts himself as the Messiah in whose name repentance and forgiveness are to be proclaimed, and in so doing he reclaims the name and status he laid aside to be born of a woman. This is the God into whose image we are growing up. We have not seen the full glory of Jesus, but Jesus himself is the guarantee that, if we believe, we will not merely see that glory but live it with him and for each other, forever.

For April 15, 2012: 2 Easter, Year B

The Reading            Acts 4:32-35

On Maundy Thursday Jesus gave a new commandment: that we should love one another. The reading from Acts today shows us a community living radically in love, and Psalm 133 picks up the theme: where true love is, blessings abound.

The Epistle            1 John 1:1-2:2

We begin reading from the letters of the apostle John, written by the end of the first century AD and most probably by the author of the gospel of John. The first letter responds to a split in the community by calling for fellowship that, like the fellowship in Acts, flows from and embodies God’s love.

Further thoughts

The readings appointed for the second Sunday in Easter use imagery that is concrete and earthly (and sometimes earthy) to drive home some crucial points.

The first of the readings chronologically is Psalm 133, with its vivid imagery comparing godly unity to an extravagant anointing. Bear in mind that, in the ancient world, olive oil was not merely something to cook with: it soothed chapped skin and fueled the only artificial lights there were, and having enough of it to perform all those functions and anoint in such quantity was a sign of abundant blessing.

The reading from Acts tells a similar story of the very early church: so full of love that nobody went hungry or had to worry about shelter. Those who had property or goods gave them freely; those who had time gave it freely; those who had need of money or goods or someone else’s time were able to receive freely. No one felt taken advantage of and no one felt condescended to. It was, in short, a classic honeymoon period, and the signs of love are tangible and unmistakable—and in a world that thirsts for love, incredibly attractive.

Honeymoon periods don’t tend to last. The first letter of John is written to a community that shows signs of falling out of love: some members refuse to seek fellowship, and some are teaching that Jesus came into the world solely as a spirit. Both groups are laboring under misunderstandings.

John corrects both misunderstandings, beginning with the second, by pointing to real, concrete, earthly evidence. He writes of “what we have looked at and touched with our hands”: that is, the real physical body in which Jesus really did die and really was resurrected is as much Jesus as is his spirit. As to fellowship, John tells us, it is visible proof that we really are walking in the light of Christ, because we’re neither snubbing others nor hiding from them. What’s more, walking in the light of Christ is a sign of being in fellowship: we learn to love as Christ does from the people in our lives who give us grace when we feel unlovable, who give us work when we feel unuseful, and who give us grief when we act insufferable.

And it is to fellowship that, like Thomas, we should come even—or especially—with our questions and our honest doubts.  Where Jesus comes, he always says, “Peace be with you.” That peace is not intended to squelch our doubts but to create space in which doubt and fear and difficult messages can be expressed safely. And that peace flows, like the oil over Aaron’s beard, from the love we learn to give.

For April 8, 2012: Easter Day, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 25:6-9

Isaiah the prophet foresaw the disaster that overcame the people of God when they were taken into exile in Babylon. In today’s reading he foresees them rejoicing in their redemption and return to Jerusalem through the power of God. We  Christians read into this Jesus rising to destroy death and sin, and for all peoples. Hallelujah!

 

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 15:1-11

The Corinthians were, like humans in all times and places, a bit thick-headed. In today’s reading Paul underlines for them the main points of the gospel story: Jesus truly did die for our sins and rise again, appearing to the apostles (“Cephas” is Peter) and even to a soul as misguided as Paul had been. Hallelujah!

 

Further thoughts

As the selection today from the gospel of Mark ends, two ladies named Mary, grieving for Jesus, have just gotten news so astonishing that they can neither believe it nor share it, and they run away.

This may help explain why it is customary that one of the readings for Easter Day be Acts 10:34-43. Peter’s simple but stirring summary of the Good News fills in the rest of the story. Even better for us Gentiles, Peter insists that the resurrection is no longer merely a Jewish affair: Jesus lived and died and lives again for anyone from any background who believes in him.

Today’s other readings drive home much the same point, though in somewhat different ways. Isaiah, looking forward from the hard times around the exile in Babylon, shows us the mountaintop where the Lord will prepare the feast of feasts. For those of us who have (or could use) memberships at a gym, the allure of marrow and fat may be a little hard to understand—but what human could resist the allure of an end to grief, frustration, disgrace or fear of disgrace, and even death itself? What is more, Isaiah tells us, The Lord will feast all peoples, take death from all nations, and wipe tears from all faces—all of them.

It falls to Paul to summarize the Good News, though here he is reminding the Corinthians rather than announcing it for the first time. Paul takes the rest of the account in a different direction. We know that Jesus is risen, Paul tells us, because he appeared in the flesh to Cephas or Peter, the other apostles, and many other believers; we know that Jesus died for people’s sins, Paul tells us, because the scriptures say so; but the fact that Jesus appeared even to the likes of the church-persecuting monster Saul of Tarsus (for Paul’s phrase “untimely born” can be paraphrased as “congenitally deformed”) is how I am to know that Jesus’ death and love are enough even for my sins.

And that is astonishing good news indeed.

For April 7, 2012: the Easter Vigil, Year B

The Epistle            Romans 6:3-11

Jesus is both God and man, both high priest and sacrifice, and ready to forgive, if we can forget ourselves long enough to reach for the life he offers.

 

Further thoughts

With the Easter vigil begins the last and greatest day of the Triduum, the three holiest days of Christendom. What extraordinary stories this night tells!

We hear of a God in the business of producing wonders: God who can pull the universe out of nothing, God who can make rainbows, God who can part seas and change hard-headed humans’ minds.

More astonishingly, this God, as Jesus, has willingly taken on human life, and not just selected bits at a suitably high socioeconomic status but the ordinary person’s whole quotidian sequence. Then, in a shocking irony, this God-and-man has allowed the religious establishment to convict him on trumped-up charges and have him executed horribly and shamefully.

The gospel news that knocks the two Marys speechless dazzles us still: this disgraced-and-dead Jesus has not only not stayed dead, but rather he lives body and all, God and man.

But even this life after death is neither the end of the surprises nor the biggest one. The readings from Isaiah and Ezekiel, with their promise of abundance and salvation and real hearts of flesh, set us up for a magnificent, healing, joyous cosmic punch line. As with the best jokes, this one is with us, not on us. For Jesus knows the absolute worst of humanity (yea, even unto adolescence), how judgmental we can be and how obsessive about the unacceptability of what we really are inside; nevertheless he’s setting the best crystal, spicing up the deviled eggs, carving the roast beast, and loosening the corks on the best wines ever, just for us, once we get over ourselves enough to die to our own shame.

The punch line is delivered by the letter to the Romans, and it is this: once we’re dead to shame, we’re alive to receiving the love of Jesus and sharing it—and when we do, the magnificent, healing, joyous party is on NOW.

For April 5, 2012: Maundy Thursday

The Reading            Exodus 12:1-14

On this holy night we read instructions for the first Passover meal. Unlike most ritual meals, it is to be eaten in haste by people who are ready to flee, and the lamb’s blood marks the households of those who are to be spared.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Writing to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth, Paul passes on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: when you eat the bread and drink the wine, remember that it signifies not just food and drink but the new covenant that Jesus made with his own body and blood.

Further thoughts

The book of Exodus compiles a number of oral traditions into a grand if somewhat jumbled account of God’s power in bringing God’s people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The passage we read on this holy night sets forth God’s instructions for the first Passover. It is a ritual meal—but unlike most ritual meals, it is to be eaten in haste by people who stand ready to run for their lives, and the blood from the lamb that is slain for the meal is to mark the households to be spared when God executes judgment. In this, we Christians also see the Last Supper.

The reading from Exodus instructs the people of Israel—who were in the first covenant with God—to commemorate the Passover perpetually. The Jews, our elder brothers and sisters in belief in the One True God, do this every year in the Seder, the ritual meal to which many invite those who cannot provide their own.

In writing to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth, Paul would have had this tradition in mind along  with the words of Jesus. The tradition would doubtless also have been taught to and shared with the Gentiles. Unfortunately, things had gone awry; seen in context, our reading scolds certain of the Corinthians for treating the celebration of the Eucharist—that which we are to do for the remembrance of Christ—as an opportunity to feast richly and get drunk while others in the community at the same feast go away half-fed because they can afford no more. For Jesus’ instructions on this holy night are quite clear: Love one another, and serve one another right.

We humans can be remarkably talented at misusing and misconstruing so many of the gifts of God, but on some level we do recognize that loving and serving are the names of the game. Perhaps this recognition, and our awareness of our need to be reminded like the Corinthians, explains why, bit by bit, the older names for this day—the Latin cena Domini ‘meal of the Lord’, the Anglo-French jour de la cene ‘day of the meal’, the English Sheer Thursday (most probably ‘clean Thursday’), Holy Thursday—are giving way even in other denominations to the name Maundy Thursday, This Anglican name, which dates back to the sixteenth century, reflects the mandatum novum ‘new commandment’ of John 13:34 by way of the medieval maundy, the practices of foot-washing and giving of alms (most probably packed in the baskets called maunds).

It can be hard, though, to remember that the commandment isn’t limited to Maundy Thursday. How can we “do maundy” the rest of the week, the rest of the year, the rest of our lives?

For April 1, 2012: Palm Sunday

THE READING   Isaiah 50:4-9a
Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah, written during the exile of God’s people in Babylon, contain four “songs of the suffering servant”, the third of which is today’s reading; the identity of the speaker is unclear, though the fortitude and obedience expressed here cannot help but remind us of Jesus on Palm Sunday.

 

THE EPISTLE    Philippians 2:5-11
Second Lector:
Today’s Epistle passage tells of the very Son of God shucking off power and glory to take on human flesh. The Gospel today continues the story through Jesus’ death and burial; this luminous passage, one of the earliest hymns of the Church, looks beyond.