Sermon 4 Easter Yr C

Read my sermon for May 12, 2019 here: 4 Easter Yr C

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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.

Sermon for 5 Lent Year C

Read my sermon for April 7, 2019: 5 Lent Yr C

A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4

Image credit: sharefaith.com

The introduction of our gospel picks up on a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel—Jesus, friend of sinners and outcasts, and here he is associating with “…all the tax collectors and sinners [who] were coming near to listen to him.” This whole chapter is devoted to parables of the lost and found. According to Luke, Jesus in this chapter is criticized by a group of Pharisees and scribes for offering hospitality to and eating with sinners. In the ancient Eastern world, hospitality and eating together were signs of friendship and love of neighbour. Today too, they have the potential of—and sometimes succeed in—breaking down categories of various kinds that serve to divide people.

Our parable, verses 11b-32, in my Bible is titled: “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.” Over the centuries the parable has been given a variety of names, and often the titles reveal what preachers focus on in the parable, for example: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Prodigal Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, and so on. Indeed, in my preaching over the years I’ve employed such titles. However, as I read and reflect on the parable now, I would title it “The Parable of Prodigals,” since I believe that both sons and their father were prodigals in one way or another. Speaking of titles, recently I read an article by Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, who had an insight that I never thought of before. She believes the father is a negligent one in that he failed to consult with the elder brother concerning how to handle the younger son. The elder son was left out of the decision-making process regarding the party that was thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return home.

On occasion—likely because I’m the eldest son in my family—I’ve sermonized in an empathic way concerning the eldest son. For example, if we take seriously the detail of verse 12, that the father “…divided his property between them,” then I believe the case can be made for the eldest son’s complaint at the end of the parable about the party—after all, the property, the food, and perhaps even the musicians and dancers were paid for from what rightfully belonged to the eldest son, since the father inherited everything to the sons. I realise this reasoning isn’t concretely substantiated in the parable; and that traditionally the eldest son often received more of the inheritance than other siblings—yet, there is something about this parable that doesn’t sit quite right with yours truly. After all, we’re told that the eldest son has been responsible all along—in fact, puts forth this complaint, the foundation of which seems to be one of a fair playing field and justice: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” He has been a model son, working hard, accepting responsibilities, doing the right thing—albeit he seems to see it as slavery rather than being motivated by compassion. Hence, in this sense he too is prodigal, if his primary motivation is not based on love for his father. Prodigal too in that he seems to want to remain—reading between the lines—angry with and alienated from his younger brother, whom we note, he doesn’t call him by name, keeping his distance from him by saying: “this son of yours,” in verse 30. Indeed, after the eldest brother’s complaint, the parable leaves it open-ended as to whether or not the eldest brother listens to his father’s plea for compassion and forgiveness and joins in the celebration.

Coming back to the other two main characters, the youngest son and the father—I think we can identify with both of them as well. The youngest son has experienced “the university of hard knocks” so-to-speak in that he was humiliated in the far country by, out of desperation, having to accept a job of feeding the pigs; and if one can take him at his word, he was “dying of hunger.” If he was Jewish, having to accept a job feeding pigs would definitely not be kosher. “Dying of hunger” would certainly be no picnic either! So he hits bottom so-to-speak and plans his repentance speech and heads back home—hoping that his father will at least take him back as one of his slaves, since even they were better off than he was now. Notice however in his repentance speech that there is no mention of his elder brother. One question that we might ask is: Did the youngest son leave home in the first place because there had been a falling out with his elder brother? The parable doesn’t tell us, but perhaps that was a possibility. Another question we may ask is: Since the eldest brother is not mentioned in the repentance speech, is the silence an indication of a broken relationship between the brothers? Such questions, I realise are not answerable with any degree of certainty.

All those of us who are fathers or mothers I think can identify with the father in the parable. Sometimes children can “push the envelope” to the limits and then some. They can leave home and go off into “the far country.” Sometimes, tragically, children never come home again. There are countless stories of “waiting fathers and mothers,” and “loving fathers and mothers,” who agonize over broken relationships with their children. Sometimes those broken relationships fail to end with compassion and reconciliation, and that is truly tragic. Sometimes however parties are thrown and parents become prodigal in going all out with their celebrations—showing generosity and compassion beyond everyone’s expectations. That indeed is a fine picture of who our God is in his relationship with each one of us! For that, thanks be to God!