A Lectionary Reflection on John 17:20-26, for 7th Sunday of Easter Yr C

This pericope is often referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. It is, for the most part, an intercessory prayer for others, and also the conclusion of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples, preparing them for his imminent suffering, death and resurrection (John 13:1-17:26).

Image credit: Jesus prayed for me at LivingLutheran.org

In verse 20, Jesus is praying for all of his would-be followers beyond the first generation of disciples, right up to the present day and into the future: “I ask not only on behalf of these (i.e. his first disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Here Jesus suggests the power not only of his intercessory prayer for all of his followers throughout history; as well as the process by which people will come to believe—“through their word,” (i.e. the preaching and teaching of God’s word, which, combined with the activity of the Holy Spirit works faith within the hearts and minds of people).

Another significant theme in this prayer is an emphasis on the unity of Christians with one another; which Jesus prays for in verse 21 and develops this particular intercession further by saying that such a unity is rooted in God’s own Self: “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Again such an emphasis highlights that unity is a gift of God’s grace, it always originates from God through Jesus to us. However, this unity is not unity for its own sake. No! Jesus states the ultimate purpose of Christian unity: “that the world (not merely a few privileged folks) may know that you (i.e. God the Parent-Creator) have sent me.” Jesus repeats this emphasis on unity in slightly different words, and then repeats the purpose of unity as well with an important addition: “that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This addition, of course, is consistent with the larger schema of the Fourth Gospel, which emphasises God’s all-inclusive love for the world made incarnate through Jesus. After Jesus is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven, the incarnation—albeit imperfect because we are all sinners—is present in the world through loving servanthood of Jesus’ followers who have been given the in-dwelling Holy Spirit.

Jesus also prays that his followers would be with him “where I am,” which may refer to either his imminent suffering and death on the cross or his resurrected and ascended state in heaven or perhaps both. He asks for his followers to be with him where he is “to see my glory,” and again “my glory” may refer to at least two or more meanings—his suffering and death on the cross and/or his resurrected and ascended state in heaven.

The concluding intercession focusses on knowing God the Parent-Creator and Jesus as well as knowing God’s name, which is closely connected to the gift of God’s love dwelling in all of Jesus’ followers.

There are many homiletic possibilities based on this pericope. One may be to explore what it means to pray today in the life and faith journey of Jesus-followers. How does Jesus’ high priestly prayer inspire and influence our prayers today? Are there visible signs of Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity among Christians of various denominations today? If so, where are they, and how do we rejoice in Jesus’ prayer becoming a reality for us today?

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A Lectionary Reflection on Psalm 67, 6th Sunday of Easter Yr C

The Psalter has been Israel’s hymnbook for centuries. For Christians, too, it has been and still is an inspirational resource for congregations at worship.

Psalm 67 is given this title in my Bible: “The Nations Called to Praise God.” A sub-title also confirms that this psalm has been an integral part of worship for ancient Israel: “To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.” It is unfortunate that the legacy of the Psalms has not included the musical scores—one wonders what this psalm sounded like when stringed instruments played the score, or perhaps there were several scores or settings of it for different seasons.

At any rate, it begins on a rather positive note with a benediction in verse 1: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” Of course, those who attend worship on a regular basis will likely recognize these words, slightly different, yet very similar to the Aaronic-priestly benediction, in Numbers 6:24-26, which is proclaimed by the presiding clergyperson at the close of the worship service.

In light of this, and verses 6 and 7, which also affirm God’s blessing; one homiletic possibility may be to explore how our life is a benediction a blessing; in what ways has God blessed you? The psalm mentions a few: God’s way and saving power is known among all nations, God judges the peoples with equity and guides the nations, God causes the earth to yield its increase.

Another homiletic possibility might be to emphasize the connection between benediction/blessing and praising God with music and singing for joy. God’s benediction/blessing awakens within us a grateful heart, which moves us to praise God joyfully with the gift of music and singing. Perhaps Psalm 67 in whole or in part could be incorporated into a dialogue sermon between the preacher and the congregation employing either a psalm-tone (e.g., there are 16 psalm-tones in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 335-338, one or more which could be chosen), or a hymn score-setting of it (e.g. Saviour of the Nations Come, Praise, my soul, the God of Heaven, Joyful, joyful, we adoree Thee, etc).

A Lectionary Reflection on John 13:31-35, 5th Sunday of Easter

Agape Love

This pericope is part of a larger section of the Fourth Gospel, described by scholars as the farewell discourse of Jesus, consisting of 13:1-17:26. In the discourse, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his suffering, death, and resurrection.

Prior to this pericope, Jesus predicted that Judas would betray him. Then Jesus speaks of his glory. Often in conversations, people will employ the word glory, glorious, etc., in association with power, respect, honour, success, and victory. For example: “What a glorious victory,” in reference to a hockey team winning the Stanley Cup. Or: “She basks in glory now that she has sold over a million copies of her book.” In the Gospel of John however, the word glory, glorified, etc., is associated with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are the exact opposite of the ‘worldly’ meanings—albeit Jesus did win the victory over the powers of sin, death and evil, yet that victory came in the most unusual of ways, through his weakness, suffering and dying on the cross. Power in the world is often associated with military force or someone of great wealth. Respect and honour are often associated with outstanding achievements such as earning a PhD., excelling at a sport, becoming a Prime Minister, President, King or Queen. Success means becoming a famous movie star.

Reference to Jesus being glorified is also associated with what comes next in this pericope—his words concerning his departure from the disciples.

In place of his presence, he gives all of his would-be followers the love commandment in verses 34-35. He describes the commandment as “a new commandment.” Some might debate both those words “new” and “commandment.” For instance, the Torah teaches the faithful to love God and to love one’s neighbour, and Jesus himself sums up all of the commandments in the Torah by teaching the faithful to love God and one’s neighbour. Moreover, some would question whether love can be commanded—to command one to love may place conditions on loving, and true love is unconditional.

The word for love in this pericope is agape. Agape love is of the highest kind—it involves unselfish giving, loyalty, faithfulness, sacrifice, service. Agape love goes the extra mile, considers the needs and interests of others even before one’s own, is willing to face suffering, embarrassment, misunderstanding and even rejection at times for and with others. At its very best, agape love is prepared to die for another.

Such love is always there for us, thanks to the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He calls us as his people to share it with the world, so that: “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

In a world with more and more hatred, divisions, conflicts and wars, agape love is needed more now than ever. May the LORD help us all so to love!

A Lectionary Reflection on Revelation 5:11-14, 3rd Sunday of Easter Yr C

Image credit: Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is written in the genre of apocalyptic literature. The Greek word apokalypsis, means revelation, to unveil what was previously hidden. Apocalyptic literature has been associated with historical contexts of the persecution and sufferings of faith communities. One of the main purposes of writing in this genre is to communicate hope for the future and encourage communities to keep the faith and persevere. The language employed in Revelation is highly symbolic, a kind of underground language, written with the hope of preventing authorities hostile to the faith community from seeing it as in opposition to them and censoring it. Accordingly, the author, one John, was believed to be in exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. He addresses his letter “to the seven churches that are in Asia,” i.e. modern day Turkey. Revelation contains several visions of John.

In our pericope, the author describes, in symbolic language, a vision that emphasises the worship, the adoration of God on the heavenly throne along with Jesus the Lamb.

John sees myriads of angels, the living creatures and the elders surrounding God’s throne and singing loudly a hymn, a song of praise, first of all addressed to the Lamb. The word Lamb, referring to Jesus, emphasises the sacrifice of Jesus for humankind on the cross. Lamb is also reminiscent of the Passover, wherein the Israelites, while in Egyptian slavery, were commanded by God to place the blood of slaughtered lambs on their doors, so that the angel of death would pass over their homes and save them from death. So, in both faiths—Judaism and Christianity the symbol of a Lamb or lamb’s blood is associated with life, deliverance and freedom. The hymn of praise to Jesus the Lamb here in verse 12 is incorporated into Christian liturgy as a hymn of praise, sung by millions of Christians today.

As the vision continues in verses 13 and 14, the worship now expands to include every living creature in the universe, singing their hymn of praise addressed this time to God who sits on the throne and the Lamb. The attributes to describe God and the Lamb in both hymns or one ongoing hymn are similar: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory, and blessing.

One homiletic possibility may be to focus on the question of what does it mean to worship God and Jesus the Lamb today? In relation to that, a focus on the significance of music and liturgy in worship to offer our praise and sense of awe and wonder together in the presence of the faith community and of God, may be one way to develop a sermon. Each Sunday is a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, and the consequences of that event for the church as well as all of creation.

A Lectionary Reflection on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter

My Lord & My God by H.C. Varghese

On the first Easter evening, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, without the presence of the disciple Thomas. It needs to be emphasized that the locked doors “for fear of the Jews” is something of an anachronism. The first generation of disciples were all Jews, and most likely rather than reading into this pericope a division between Jews and Christians, we need to view the followers of Jesus here as Jews within Judaism. The final division between Jews who did not follow Jesus and those who did had not occurred at this point in time. There were likely several different groups of Jews within Judaism at this time who discussed and debated with one another concerning a variety of matters, including the risen Jesus. However, that doesn’t mean that they were extremely hostile towards one another. No. Rather, it probably means the opposite. We are usually most comfortable discussing and debating matter with whom we are closest to—our friends, family members and colleagues. The phrase “the Jews” then certainly, emphatically, does not mean all Jews, since the disciples themselves were Jews. Were they fearful of themselves on this occasion? Perhaps, or perhaps not, we cannot be certain about that. However, given the events of that last week of Jesus’ life, fear of the disciples even of themselves maybe should not be ruled out as a factor—since they were, among other things, likely experiencing a host of thoughts and emotions, including fear and grief. “The Jews,” if it does not include the disciples, most likely refers to only some Jews—perhaps a small group who made some kind of agreement with the Roman authorities, from which they benefited.

When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, his first words are: “Peace be with you.” The Shalom-Peace greeting was, and still is a common one among Jews and Christians then as well as today. Here it occurs twice, and the second time, as Jesus gives the disciples a commission, a sending out to forgive and retain sins, he breathed on them the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in Paul’s list of fruit of the Holy Spirit in his Letter to the Galatians, Shalom-Peace is mentioned as the third fruit. How we all need that fruit of the Holy Spirit in our churches, synagogues and other places of worship, as well as in our world today! This is especially so after the Islamic terrorists bombing and killing of more than 300 Christians while they were worshipping on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

Three homiletic possibilities: i) The risen Jesus’ commissioning-sending the disciples and Christians of every generation out into the world to share the Holy Spirit’s fruit of Shalom-Peace—especially in the most violent and troubled places of our globe. ii) The importance of forgiveness in our relationships with everyone—especially our enemies during times of mad hatred all around us. iii) A sermon focussing on the disciple Thomas as an exemplar for us—in processing his grief, the movement from doubt and skepticism to faith, the joyful response of confessing the risen Jesus as: “My Lord and my God!” How do we process our grief and move from doubt and skepticism to faith and joy by being among the multitude of generations of not seeing Jesus, yet believing that he is our risen Messiah and Saviour?

A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 24:1-12, Resurrection of Our Lord Yr C

In all four gospel resurrection accounts, it is significant that Mary Magdalene is mentioned; and the names and number of other women however vary. For example, in Matthew there is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matt 28:1); in Mark there is Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome (MK 16:1); in Luke there is Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them (Lk 24:10); and in John there is only Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:1, 11-18). Obviously Mary Magdalene was a respected disciple among the earliest followers of Jesus. She and other women remained loyal to Jesus right up to the end—they were present at his crucifixion when the other male disciples had gone into hiding, they followed Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb where Jesus was laid, and they were the first to show up at the tomb early on the day after the Sabbath with the intention of respectfully anointing the dead body of Jesus with the spices that they had prepared prior to the Sabbath and had now brought with them to the tomb. The women—especially Mary Magdalene, as she is the first witness and preacher of the resurrection of Jesus—then are examples of faithful discipleship.

There is a great irony in the resurrection narratives in that, at that time, women were not accepted as ‘official’ witnesses to significant events—it was a patriarchal world. Yet, here they are the first witnesses of, for many—perhaps the majority—of Christians, one of the, if not ‘the’ most significant event of all history—the resurrection of Jesus. For the resurrected Jesus to reveal himself to the women first is a radical new tradition of valuing women as equals with men in the church which, for the most part, unfortunately was not realised until the twentieth century.

In our Lucan resurrection account, the surprise element is another prominent motif, as the women come to the tomb early Sunday morning most likely expecting the stone to be covering the tomb entrance, and inside the dead body of Jesus. Instead, they discovered the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. The word in Luke to describe the womens’ first response to this is ‘perplexed.’ Perhaps they were worried that Jesus’ body had been stolen and, in the worst case scenario, that they would never find his body. What were they to do now?

The surprise motif comes to the forefront again with two men in dazzling clothes suddenly standing beside them. This terrified them so much that they wouldn’t even look at them. The two men totally surprised them with the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection, citing one of Jesus’ resurrection predictions that they had heard earlier in his public ministry.

Upon hearing this Good News, the women remembered Jesus’ words and then went to the eleven disciples—at this time Judas was no longer with them—to be the first preachers of Jesus’ resurrection.

Sadly, the eleven male apostles thought it was an idle tale—the Good News translation renders it ‘nonsense,’ and they refused to believe the women.

However, Peter being the impulsive person that he was, goes to the tomb to see for himself and ends up being ‘amazed.’

Homiletic possibilities may include: i) the significance of women in ministry and Jesus’ affirmation of the same; ii) the surprised by joy nature of the resurrection; iii) the dialectic between doubt and faith, unbelief and belief; iv) being ‘amazed’ messengers of the resurrection today; v) living with resurrection hope in the present and the future.

A Lectionary Reflection on Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Image credit: Gustave Dore

Palm/Passion Sunday frequently leaves preachers with the dilemma of choosing one over the other. Moreover, another dilemma is, if preachers choose to focus on Passion Sunday, then what pericope does one choose to preach on—given the lengthy gospel reading. It is very difficult to preach on the gospel adequately—unless the preacher focuses on only a portion of the gospel—given all of the events in the Passion Narrative. Consequently, some preachers opt for a dramatization of the Passion Narrative instead, involving the whole congregation in participating in a play or a dramatic reading. This latter option affords the Passion Narrative to ‘preach’ on its own. Another option may be to choose to preach on the epistle pericope.

Indeed, our pericope from Paul’s letter to the Philippians affords the preacher with an opportunity to deliver a sermon that celebrates both Palm and Passion Sunday.

New Testament scholars have often referred to this pericope as an early Christian Christological hymn that Paul either composed himself or cites from another earlier, unnamed source.

The opening verse 5 is an exhortation to the church at Philippi to have the same mind—the same way of thinking, the same attitude toward God, one another, and the living out of life—that was in Christ Jesus.

In verse 6, mention of Jesus being “in the form of God” may refer to his divine pre-existence, similar to that motif in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

As the hymn continues in verses 6b-8, there is an emphasis on the humility of Jesus, his self-emptying, even to the point of “taking the form of a slave.” A slave, of course, is regarded as the lowest form and class of a human being. The word humility is derived from the word humus—from the earth, or to put it another way, down-to-earth. This emphasis reminds the church at Philippi and us of the extent to which Jesus went to lower himself to be in solidarity with all of humankind. Indeed, his public ministry epitomised his humility by reaching out to society’s outcasts, sinners, the poor, etc., and drawing them into his divine realm—transforming them from being the lowest and the last to the highest and the first.

These verses focusing on Christ’s humility connect with his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he chose to enter that city by riding one of the humblest of animals, a donkey. This was the extreme opposite of what many believed at that time about the Messiah. Instead of a non-violent, peaceful, humble Messiah, riding on the humblest of animals; many believed that the Messiah would be a powerful political and military figure riding on a white stallion or riding in a decorative chariot drawn by white stallions to celebrate his victory campaign of overthrowing the Romans.

Another aspect of Jesus’ humility as the Messiah was when he: “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” This obedience, which led to his crucifixion, the most humiliating of deaths of criminals; was God’s way of offering atonement and salvation for the whole world. Therefore verse 8 especially of the hymn connects with the celebration of Passion Sunday, and may remind readers of the Suffering Servant pericope of Isaiah chapters fifty-two and fifty-three.

It should be emphasised however that Paul’s exhortation here in this pericope should not be misinterpreted to mean that obedience involves spousal or child abuse in marital and family relationships; or the acceptance of injustice in society by oppressive governments and affluent individuals and organisations who influence governments. Rather, the crucifixion of Jesus was God’s saving action to bring humankind liberation from all forms of abusive power, inequality and injustice.

Verses 9-11 shift the focus from the humility and humanity of Jesus to his exaltation and divinity as followers bend the knee and confess him as Lord in an act of faith. “Jesus Christ is Lord” was one of the earliest Christian confessions, and, as in this early hymn, likely an integral part of worship services. It is a Lordship over the tyranny of the ancient Roman empire as well as one rooted in true love made incarnate through servanthood. A love and servanthood that turns the ways of this world upside-down—or, better yet, rightside-up—ushering in God’s realm.