Archive for the 'Easter' Category

For June 1, 2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 1:6-14

During Easter season, our first readings come not from the Old Testament but from the book of Acts. Today’s reading returns to the beginning of the book to tell the events surrounding Jesus’ ascension into heaven, after he has readied the disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Response            Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Psalm 68 celebrates the power and might of God. What keeps it from mere triumphalism—from “Our God can beat your God”—is its emphasis on God as defender of the widows and orphans, the prisoners, the homeless, and the weary.

The Epistle            1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The first letter of Peter finishes its counsel to the followers of Jesus. Suffering for being a Christian is to be expected: suffering patiently as Jesus did will lead to being glorified as Jesus is.

The Gospel            John 17:1-11

The gospel reading concludes John’s so-called Farewell Discourse shortly before he is betrayed. It is framed as Jesus’ prayer, though the references to having already finished his work and being no longer in the world suggest that John is addressing us.

 

Ponderables

The obvious themes of the readings for the seventh (and last) Sunday of Easter is glory. Acts 1:6-14 show us Jesus, after his final promise to the disciples, lifted up to heaven like Elijah in a cloud. The psalm sings of the power and strength of the Lord, who rides upon the heavens. 1 Peter 4 reminds its readers that God has called them to glory, and John 17 shows us Jesus preparing to take up the glory that is rightly his.

For most of human history, glory has been something one gains on a battlefield, the result of besting an opponent, the perquisites of being able to lord it over others. These readings suggest, in various ways, that such a human view is entirely too limited. Acts 1 follows up its depiction of Jesus’ glorious ascent with two messengers who firmly remind the disciples to stop standing around and go get busy. The psalm praises as essential parts of glory God’s tenderness toward widows, orphans, the lonely, prisoners, the weary, and the poor. 1 Peter 4 tells us that glory in God’s eyes is achieved through suffering—a far cry from conquering others. Jesus tells us in John 17:3 that he has glorified God by doing God’s work; in the previous verse he asserts that eternal life—which we see as a perquisite of God’s glory—is simply knowing and having a relationship with God.

What if eternal life isn’t the prize of glory reserved in heaven? What if, instead, it begins now with each choice we make on earth to perceive each heart’s suffering through the eyes and heart of God?

For May 25, 2014: Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 17:22-31

Finding that Paul is in Athens, the leading intellectuals of Athens invite him to the Areopagus to give a major lecture. He suits his preaching to his polytheistic and worldly audience: he playfully mentions their shrine to “an unknown god” and quotes Greek poetry to support the idea of a supreme God whose children we are.

The Response            Psalm 66:7-18

Psalm 66:7-18 calls “the peoples”—everyone in the world—to bless God, who is with us through suffering and tribulation. We no longer sacrifice animals in the Temple, but let us praise God with everything we’ve got.

The Epistle            1 Peter 3:13-22

Paul’s educated and leisured audience in Athens craved news but admitted to little need for hope. The first letter of Peter brings hope to those whose lot is to suffer: Jesus sets the example to endure patiently and speak gently when (not “if”, in this world) we suffer, because he suffered like a slave in order to bring us home to God.

The Gospel            John 14:15-21

We continue reading Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises the uncomprehending disciples that he is not abandoning them: he will send the Spirit to comfort and guide them.

 

Ponderables

Each of the readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter reveals something about God, about the people involved in it, and about us. The Athenians of Paul’s time knew that the gods up on Mount Olympus were like human beings, but not very nice ones; as much of classical literature tells us, the gods were vindictive and quarrelsome and in the habit of reacting jealously to human successes. Paul puts a different spin on divinity for them: it isn’t that God is like humans but that humans are created in the image of a God who is powerfully invested in their good. The psalmist, writing centuries earlier, praises God not for steering trouble away from him but for being right there with him when trouble comes and seeing him through it. The writer of 1 Peter informs the slaves and chambermaids of the world that the King’s Son of the Universe loves them—us—enough to suffer as a human like us so that we can stand like him in God’s presence. And Jesus promises his puzzled disciples—and, through them, us—that, though he will not be physically present, he will not abandon us humans without comfort; furthermore, the Spirit he will send is already here in residence.

But spirit is by definition intangible, and trouble—grief, poverty, loneliness, despair—can still look and feel like being literally out of touch with God. What if the way that the Spirit’s comfort comes is chiefly through the love and comfort that we give on God’s behalf to God’s grieving, poor, lonely, despairing children in this world?

For May 18, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 7:55-60

Like Jesus, the martyr Stephen did wonders that transcended his apparent status and he spoke truth to power. His presumption brought him to a horrible death by stoning. The young man who watched the witnesses’ coats will have his own encounter with the risen Christ: we know him as the apostle Paul.

The Response            Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

In the worldview of Old Testament times, illness and trouble are taken as evidence of separation from God, though Jesus argued against this view in the healing of the man born blind. Psalm 31 both celebrates the Lord’s protection and begs for it, and it is verse 5 that Jesus quotes just before dying for us.

The Epistle            1 Peter 2:2-10

The first letter of Peter is written to new believers among people who are well used to being afflicted outsiders. Though they are slaves and the downtrodden, they are called to be the building blocks, wherever they are, of God’s house, and the call is supported by quotations from Psalms, Isaiah, and Hosea.

The Gospel            John 14:1-14

The gospel for the fifth Sunday of Easter comes from Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”, after Judas has left to betray his Teacher. Jesus speaks to reassure the disciples: he will bring them where he is going; they may believe his words or his works; and they will do greater works in his name to the glory of the Father.

 

Ponderables

Stones and things that can be done with them figure in the readings for the fifth Sunday of Easter. In Acts, We read in Acts of Stephen being stoned to death for speaking words that the powerful did not want to hear. It is easy to excoriate the religious establishment for hardness of heart… but hardness of heart is endemic to all establishments, and we do well first to empty the stones in our own fists and pockets and speech and hearts.

Stone and rock take on quite different roles in the psalm and the epistle. The psalmist envisions the Lord as a stone fortress and a crag in the mountains in which to find shelter and safety from enemies. The epistle calls its audience and us—formerly nobodies of no account to God or anyone—to be the living building blocks of a house that is surely New Jerusalem, the city of God’s peace.

In the gospel, Jesus promises to prepare places in God’s abiding house—no mere mud-brick hovel—for those who believe in him. He asserts in verse 6 that he himself is the way to the Father. For two millennia the Christian establishment has taken this statement to license specific dogmas and rituals, but an alternative reading is possible: that Jesus himself, and loving as he does, is the way to our salvation and the world’s.

What if our hearts themselves are the stones that we throw? What if our hearts are the crags in which the Lord means to shelter the psalmist, the stones of which God’s proper house is built, and—far beyond creeds and rituals—the paving for all the world of the Way to life that is Jesus?

For May 11, 2014: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:42-47

In last week’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter proclaimed Jesus in Jerusalem and thousands of people repented and were baptized. This week’s reading continues the story: signs and wonders abound, believers live and worship together, and everyone gladly and generously sees to everyone else’s needs.

The Response            Psalm 23

Psalm 23 resonates as both the soul’s response to God’s goodness and a foretelling of Jesus’ faithfulness to and beyond death. The shepherd’s rod helped him defend sheep from wolves and lions; the staff or shepherd’s crook served to guide the sheep. Anointing is a sign of the Lord’s chosen one.

The Epistle            1 Peter 2:19-25

The second chapter of the first letter of Peter is addressed to slaves: people who were accustomed to being beaten by their masters. Christians of the day were mostly marginalized people who had no control over their circumstances—but they could choose how to respond, and the epistle holds up Jesus as example.

The Gospel            John 10:1-10

Jesus’ disciples would have known that the sheepfold mentioned in John 10:1-10 was a walled enclosure into which all the flocks of a village were herded in the evening for protection; a shepherd would stretch himself out in the opening so that, through the night, no one could get in without his knowledge.

 

Ponderables

The fourth Sunday of Easter is known in some traditions as Good Shepherd Sunday; three of the four scripture texts contain references to sheep or shepherding. Psalm 23, of course, has the soul shepherded by the Lord; 1 Peter 2:25 contrasts a people straying like sheep with a people returned to the shepherd; John 10:1-10 develops the somewhat puzzling metaphor of Jesus as gate to the sheepfold, and other verses in John 10 proclaim Jesus as shepherd.

The exception to the rule of sheep in the texts is the reading from Acts. Perhaps, however, it can be read as a consequence of the other three. Psalm 23’s shepherd guides to good pasture, through death and beyond, and blesses the soul in the face of enemies. The slaves in 1 Peter’s audience—who can expect to be beaten for little to no reason—are bidden to bear it without complaint because they have returned to the shepherd who blesses them. In John, Jesus the sheepfold gate protects and ultimately lays down his life for the sheep—but also empowers the sheep to have life abundantly. Acts 2:42-47, for its part, surely shows what happens when God’s flock follows God in love: goods suffice, but more importantly love abounds in those who are willing to change their hearts and follow.

What if Jesus the shepherd calls us to be not just his sheep but also his fellow shepherds? What if each Christian is a gate through which God’s lost sheep can be gathered in love?

For May 4, 2014: Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Peter’s first public proclamation about Jesus, of which we read a part last week, ends with Peter reiterating that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. The book of Acts then gives us the crowd’s reaction—they are “cut to the heart”, or deeply affected, and ask what to do—and Peter’s response.

The Response            Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

Like Christians at Easter, the psalmist in Psalm 116 looks backward and forward. The backward glance is quite appropriately at the travails out of which the Lord has rescued him. The forward glance is a bit more surprising: not to further good things from the Lord but rather to what the psalmist plans to do to say thank you.

The Epistle            1 Peter 1:17-23

The first chapter of the first epistle of Peter instructs us how to live. Instead of trusting in gold and silver—passing signs of wealth in the world, now as in Peter’s time—we are to bank on the blood of the Lamb. Because we are ransomed from our sins by the blood of Christ, we are born again to love one another profoundly.

The Gospel            Luke 24:13-35

Gospel readings in the weeks immediately following Easter tell of the first reactions to Jesus’ resurrection. The reading from Luke relates the story of dejected followers leaving Jerusalem and the stranger they meet who explains the scriptures to them—and turns out to be the risen Jesus.

 

Ponderables

In the 1950s baseball musical Damn Yankees, the seriocomic song “Heart”, sung by members of the perpetually last-place Washington Senators, is an anthem to not giving up even when things look hopeless. “Heart” is a good theme for the time just after Easter. Luke shows us disheartened disciples who are still digesting the horrible reality of Jesus’ death as they plod back, one presumes, to the lives they had left behind to follow him. Then a stranger takes the time to explain to them via scriptures such as Psalm 116 how that grisly death was in God’s plan, along with the resurrection to follow; his kindness gives them the heart at least to extend hospitality—and he turns out to be the risen Jesus himself. The reading from Acts depicts the crowd in Judea, not harassed into rebelliousness by Peter’s words but rather encouraged—given heart—to ask what they can do differently and perhaps even consider why. The letter of Peter lays out both the why and the what: we are ransomed by a treasure greater than any amount of gold or silver, and we are ransomed in order to love each other from the heart as God has loved us.

What might the church be like, and how might God’s Kingdom come on earth, if each of us were to do likewise?

For April 27, 2014: Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:14a, 22-32

The second chapter of Acts opens with Pentecost: the Holy Spirit has just caused the disciples to speak in other languages. The shock this evokes in the crowds and the Holy Spirit impel Peter—the very person who had denied Jesus three times and then slunk off shamefaced into the night—to explain in a rousing speech.

The Response            Psalm 16

Peter paraphrased parts of Psalm 16 in his first sermon to the people of Judea. The psalm celebrates God’s goodness and protection in terms that remind us of Jesus’ suffering and his triumph. It is also reminiscent of Psalm 23: whatever difficulties may arise, our hope is in God, and it is well founded.

The Epistle            1 Peter 1:3-9

The first epistle of Peter is addressed to churches in and around Asia Minor—modern-day Turkey, for the most part—whose members were being persecuted in their local communities for beliefs that differed from those of their Jewish or pagan communities. The opening passage vividly calls believers to rejoice in the faith.

The Gospel            John 20:19-31

This gospel passage spans a week. On the day on which Jesus was raised, he suddenly appears to the disciples in a locked room. They rejoice—except for Thomas, who isn’t there. A week later, Thomas is among the disciples when Jesus suddenly appears again.

 

Ponderables

For the weeks in Easter season, the first readings each Sunday come not from the Old Testament but from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts the activity the disciples who followed Jesus in his earthly life as they live into the discipline he taught them and lead others to do the same. The first of these readings skips ahead in time to Pentecost. This reading is assigned to the second Sunday of Easter partly because it is Peter’s first public proclamation of the gospel; it also begins to introduce the concept (which, immediately following the Resurrection, the disciples had not yet assimilated) that the proper audience for the faith is all the world.

The first epistle of Peter, which will be read in church for the next several weeks, was probably not written by Peter himself: an illiterate Galilean fisherman would have known some Greek but not enough to compose the intricately structured sentences of 1 Peter 1:3-9. Whoever wrote it, it continues the themes of Jesus’ suffering and faith and our hope that are sounded in Acts and in Psalm 16.

Unsurprisingly, this week’s gospel reading and next week’s follow the disciples through the challenging early days following the Resurrection, as they struggle to make sense of what has happened. It is easy, with the hindsight of almost twenty-one centuries, to sneer at the skepticism of Thomas—but how many of us, believing ourselves badly let down by someone in whom we had reposed great hope, do exactly the same?

Again, however, the psalm tells us that God’s goodness is greater even than the very greatest heartbreak and disappointment. Given a world whose people almost cannot help but be skeptical of help, how can we as Christians live so as to make the case to them that Jesus is trustworthy and worth following?

For April 19, 2014: The Great Vigil of Easter, Year A

THE LITURGY OF THE WORD

The Story of Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:2

The Response: Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26

The Flood: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13

The Response: Psalm 46

Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea: 
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

The Response: Canticle 8 (Exodus 15:1-6, 11-13, 17-18)

The Valley of Dry Bones: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Response: Psalm 143

These four readings and their responses relate the story of humankind before the mighty acts of Easter. Genesis follows the light and delight of God’s very good Creation with the tale of how an Earth sullied by sin is scoured by the once-in-an-eternity Flood. Exodus relates the flight from Egypt, from whining Israelites to God’s literally one-sided victory over Pharaoh’s forces. Ezekiel, one of many prophets to decry the incapacity of humans on their own to be holy enough, uses the arresting image of dry bones called to life to symbolize the saving power of God.

 

AT THE EUCHARIST

The Epistle            Romans 6:3-11

During the weeks of Lent, the readings took into account the somberness of the season but also looked forward to the joy of Easter. Now the first epistle we read in Easter proclaims our liberation from sin but also looks back to the suffering that has once and for all freed us from sin’s bonds.

The Response            Psalm 114 Page 756, BCP

Psalm 114 celebrates the events of the reading from Exodus in which Israel is delivered from the power of Pharaoh. Even mountains and sea are shaken by God’s great deed!

The Gospel            Matthew 28:1-10

Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus differ in details—Matthew’s is the only one that mentions an angel-caused earthquake and guards terrified into catatonia—but the general outlines are consistent: messengers of God remind two or more women that Jesus is risen, just as he promised, and they instruct the women to bid the disciples join him in Galilee.

 

Ponderables

Matthew’s version of Jesus’ resurrection includes the counsel “Do not be afraid,” twice. The first time, these words are uttered by the angel who rolled the stone away from the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid. It seems that angels—in Greek, literally ‘messengers’—in their proper forms are so terrifying as to make hardened soldiers swoon. The second time, the words come from the mouth of the risen Jesus himself. He comes not as the familiar Rabbi with whom the disciples had eaten and walked and lived but as a transformed and astonishing messenger with other business elsewhere.

So the messenger always begins, “Don’t be afraid.”

Then the messenger passes on the sort of word that turns one’s world upside down.

The most obviously counter-to-reality claim that Jesus had ever made—that he would return from death to life—has come true, nail marks and all.

And if that is true, think of all the other things Jesus has said that are preposterous within the world as most of us know it. In God’s realm, the meek inherit the earth. The nobodies matter at least as much as the big shots. The genuine leaders are those who serve. The whole of the Law is summed up as “Love God with all your might, and love each other enough to be Christ to each other.” The people of God are each called to follow Jesus to our own crosses—and to the life beyond.

How on earth can we live up to all of that? We can’t.

But how in heaven’s name can we say no?

For April 28, 2013: 5 Easter, Year C

The Reading            Acts 11:1-18

This week’s reading from the book of Acts skips past Peter’s precedent-shattering visit to the Roman centurion and his family in Joppa to show what happens on his return to Jerusalem: he is grilled by the believers there, who have been taught from birth that they must keep away from Gentiles. How do we know who belongs to God?

The Response            Psalm 148

“Kings of the earth and all peoples… old and young together… let them praise the Name of the Lord.”

The Epistle            Revelation 21:1-6

Revelation this week closes with a vision of a redeemed world in which all the pain and grief that came into the world with Adam and Eve are no more. Strikingly, the holy city Jerusalem is not found far off in heaven: it comes as all our tears are wiped away by God’s own hand, and it comes to Earth.

The Gospel            John 13:31-35

“‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

 

Further thoughts

In this weary world it is impossible to love without grieving, because it is impossible to love without loss. Because not even mothers (whatever their small children may believe) can be in more than one place at one time, we suffer separations large and small; lacking God’s-eye insight into each other, we endure misunderstanding and being misunderstood. We grieve when others don’t live up to our expectations for them or when we don’t or can’t live up to theirs; we give each other grief, in more senses than one; and of course we grieve both for those who die before we were ready for them to—which takes in practically everyone—and, as we begin to see it coming, for our own death.

On some level we all know this. It is part of what makes Jesus’ charge to love another so darned hard: Sooner or later—sooner and later—it has to hurt, and hurt deeply. The reading from Revelation paints for us a luminous picture of a world in which that pain is no more… but Lord knows we’re not there yet.

One suspects that the believers in Jerusalem all went through some of this grief on Peter’s return to Jerusalem. One imagines brash, openhearted Peter rushing back to share the exciting news about the astonishing new definition of “God’s people”, only to hit the brick wall of the Judeans’ opposition; one visualizes the Judeans, horrified by accounts of Peter’s apparent dereliction and determined to make things as right as they possibly could. This situation could easily have led straight to impasse—to the sort of schism that has recurred, regrettably, throughout the history of religions and philosophies. Instead, however, both sides contained their disappointment and grief long enough for Peter to explain well and for the Judeans to listen well. They loved each other not only that much, but that well.

And perhaps that is exactly where the new Jerusalem is: not there in heaven, but here, and here, and here, in the hearts that we care for and cherish and in the hearts we miss with tenderness, in the praises we raise together and the prayers that we pray with and for each other, and in the drying of each other’s tears.

For April 21, 2013: Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

The Reading            Acts 9:36-43

The book of Acts shows us God making good on God’s promises to the early church. Jesus had assured the disciples that they would do even greater miracles than he had—and here we see it come to pass. Jesus had also told the disciples (though they did not reliably register it) that he is Messiah to more than the Jews; the fact that Tabitha seems to have gone by a Greek name suggests that she herself was living out this wider call.

The Response            Psalm 23

“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…”

The Second Reading            Revelation 7:9-17

Taken together with the raising of Tabitha, the vision of heaven in today’s reading from Revelation tells us many things: that in this life there is still sorrow and struggle, trial and loss, but that, if we persevere, we too may receive the bounty of life that Jesus has bought for us.

The Gospel            John 10:22-30

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

 

Further thoughts

Almost a week has elapsed since the finish line of the 117th running of the Boston Marathon was transformed in an instant from a place of celebration into a charnel house. Five people have died, including one of the suspects, a campus policeman at MIT, and an eight-year-old boy who was cheering his father on; 176 are injured; and life in the city of Boston came to a standstill and stayed that way during the manhunt for the other suspect.

In the aftermath, it can be difficult to believe in miracles, more difficult to pray for those who perpetrate such horrors, and harder still to confront the question of why a loving God would fail to step in to stop such atrocity.

Today’s readings give us very little help with the last question. In fact, the reading from Acts raises a further uncomfortable question: why choose Dorcas alone to raise from death, and not all the believers? Why spare a few but not all? This is the question that has troubled our elder brothers and sisters in God, the Jews, most painfully since the Holocaust. Some may say that the question demonstrates the Jews’ failure in faith, but I think they do well to ask it, and I think that, in this life, it has no truly satisfactory answer this side of the grave.

What I do know is that we follow Jesus, and that means, among other things, that we follow him into dying. But the promise of Revelation and of the reading from John is that dying is not the end. Whether we die peacefully at an advanced age or not, we still belong to God. And the works that we do in the name of Jesus—which include praying for and blessing even our enemies, even to the point of sharing with them the spread that Psalm 23 promises us—are the signs that we truly belong to God.

For April 7, 2013: 2 Easter, Year C

The Reading            Acts 5:27-32

During and after Jesus’ execution, the disciples had cringed and cowered as the authorities took steps to ensure no further trouble from Jesus’ followers. The book of Acts, however, recounts the astonishing lengths to which, with Jesus risen, the faithful would go to proclaim the Good News.

The Response            Psalm 118:14-29

The Second Reading            Revelation 1:4-8

The book of Revelation takes its name from the first word in it—the Greek word apokalypsis, which means ‘an uncovering or revealing’. In these opening verses, John greets us in the name of Jesus Christ, witness, liberator, ruler of kings, priest of priests, beginning and end.

The Gospel            John 20:19-31

“‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”

 

Further thoughts

In the evening of the day that Jesus arose, Thomas expressed doubt. Feeling whipsawed after the exhilaration of following Jesus in the flesh followed by the fearsome and horrible events of the crucifixion, Thomas is understandably reluctant to entrust his heart again, until Jesus reveals himself, wounds and all. Notice that the believing disciples are nevertheless still hiding in the upper room in fear of the authorities: there may be less distance between them and “doubting Thomas”—and between them and us—than is apparent in our popular myths about who the disciples are that we are not.

The reading from Acts is set weeks, after Pentecost, after the coming of fire and wind and speaking in languages one had not known before. The once-timorous disciples are now publicly preaching and teaching the risen Christ and the forgiveness of sins. The authorities are distinctly unhappy with this: what is being said runs against their ideas of what is true worship, but it also puts them in a difficult position with respect to their Roman overlords, who disapprove of the sort of public unrest that the disciples’ statements are bound to foment. It seems, though, that no threat that the authorities can unleash is enough to shut these men up about Jesus and his love and forgiveness. Is there more distance between them and us than exists in our beliefs about ourselves as Christians?

The difference between us is not, I suspect, that the original disciples became sinless. That would make them other than human. But equally clearly they’re not shackled by what they do or have done wrong, and Acts is permeated with their support for and love of each other. Might this mean that forgiveness—the getting of it and the giving of it—by releasing each of us from the shackles of self, is among the most important ministries in which we can participate?


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