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!

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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 Isaiah 55:1-9, Lent 3

Image credit: godtube.com

I love the Book of Isaiah, it is so rich in communicating God’s chesedlovingkindness—and grace. Those who believe that the Hebrew Bible and the God described in the Hebrew Bible are filled with doom and gloom, judgement and condemnation need to read the Book of Isaiah. Yes, there are oracles of judgement in Isaiah, however it is also bursting at the seams with messages of lovingkindness and grace.

The Book of Isaiah is a complex one, yet, at the same time, it enunciates the beauty of simplicity. Many scholars divide it into three sections and most likely three different periods of history: Chapters 1-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. They are referred to as First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah respectively. Scholars differ concerning their authorship—e.g., some believe the Book of Isaiah may have been compiled by a group of editors/prophets or ‘school of Isaiah’ so-to-speak, while others contend each of the sections were written by three different individuals, as well as other theories. Our pericope likely dates back to the time of the Babylonian exile (ca. 587-538 B.C.E.), perhaps near the end of it, as the content of this oracle is one of a hopeful future—indeed, the title of this oracle in my Bible is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.”

The oracle begins with a message of God’s grace. The picture is rather profound in that first of all everyone is given this grace-filled invitation without exception; and second, the economy of God’s grace is the exact reversal of all human economies based on a monetary system. The invitation makes it abundantly clear that God’s grace cannot be bought with money—it is free! Therefore the rich have no advantage over the poor, all are equal in God’s eyes. In God’s economy of grace no money is required—rather, God’s banquet feast of food and drink are free and accessible to everyone. What abundance, what generosity God offers here!

Verses two and three continue with this motif of God’s abundant grace, however there is a clarifying injunction, the exilic citizens of Judah and Jerusalem are commanded to “Listen carefully…,” “Incline your ear…,” “listen, so that you may live.” I believe it was Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who once said: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Listening makes all the difference in the world, it is, or at least has the potential of being, a matter of life or death. Those who listen are often more open to the blessings of what life has to offer them through the multidimensional workings of God’s grace. Failure to listen can, and often does lead to sinful thoughts, words and actions that lead to: self-inflicted suffering, alienated and broken relationships with God and other human beings, divisions, the devastation of creation, evil, injustice, war and destruction.

In the case of this pericope, listening while eating and drinking at God’s grace-filled banquet feast is connected with celebrating God’s “everlasting covenant” now expanding from David’s line to include all of God’s chosen people—verses four and five. God’s chosen people graced with an everlasting covenant shall “call nations that [they] you do not know,” and in response to this “call,” these nations “shall run to you.” They shall do this running because of God’s grace and initiative toward his chosen people.

Verses six and seven shift in their emphasis, inviting people, including “the wicked,” to repent of their sinful ways; which involves returning to the Holy One, the One who created and loved them from the beginning. This call to repentance, to return to the LORD has a profound consequence: “he may have mercy on them…,” and “he will abundantly pardon.” Mercy and abundance are the very attributes of God; they are also associated with God’s grace, lovingkindness/chesed, and God’s fidelity to the everlasting covenant.

The closing verses of this pericope are a reminder of God’s sovereignty, God’s transcendence, God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ and in the presence of God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ our humility—reminding us of our finitude and limitations, which are a message of grace too, since they reveal our need of God, our hunger and thirst for God, our constant state of returning to God in order to live the abundant life. We are graced to share God’s abundance even as we live in our various forms of exile.

A Brief Lectionary Reflection on Deut. 26:1-11, Lent 1

Image credit: Yebin Mun

This pericope includes instructions to the Israelites when they began to settle in the Promised Land and survived via an agrarian way of life. They were to bring to the priest at the place of worship the first fruit of their harvest as an offering. This was a reminder to them of how the LORD God provided for them.

Included in the ceremony of giving the first fruit to the priest is a confession of faith beginning with the words: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor….” This ancestor, some scholars believe, was Jacob, who lived for many years in the land of Aram, modern day Syria.

The confession of faith goes on to emphasise the importance of remembering how the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt, and how the LORD God delivered them from slavery through the Exodus event, bringing them to and giving them “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In other words, God delivered them from an oppressive, poverty-stricken state of existence to a new life of freedom and opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle through the means of a fertile land.

This confession of faith connects with the gospel pericope in that it is by way of confessing one’s faith and remembering God through that act of confessing that is life-giving and helps one to depend on God for deliverance from temptation and oppression. The confession is then an act of expressing one’s ultimate loyalty to God.

Following the confession, the Levites, together with the people bringing their first fruits, along with “the aliens” celebrate the bounty provided by God. This is a beautiful picture emphasising the inclusive nature of new life in the Promised Land—implying that no one is left out, there is enough for everyone. A very pertinent message for the situation in many parts of the world today, where there is an ever-growing need to welcome and care for refugees.

This pericope has many preaching possibilities—everything from an emphasis on stewardship, giving God the first fruits NOT the leftovers, Thanksgiving, gratitude, to the importance of confessing our faith as an act of ultimate allegiance to God, to living out our faith by making our community, province, nation, world more welcome and inclusive.

A few thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13

Although today, 1 Corinthians 13 is often chosen as a favourite for weddings, the apostle Paul, in writing his first letter to the congregation at Corinth, Greece was addressing some serious issues. Among other things, there appears to have been a division or some degree of conflict in the congregation.

One of the issues causing such division or conflict was that of human pride and sin. There seems to have been some congregants who thought themselves to be better than others. They may have come from wealthy families. They may have thought it was beneath them to associate with the poorer congregants. They may have thought that their education or their achievements in the workplace and community ought to give them certain privileges and entitlements.

In any case, the apostle Paul here in chapter thirteen reaches a beautiful crescendo in this often referred to as his “Love Chapter.” The issues may very well have been closely related to what Paul mentions herein: pride in speaking in tongues or languages, displaying prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, all faith that brought impressive results, giving away of possessions, the giving of one’s body in some sacrificial (perhaps Paul had in mind marytrdom or being sold into slavery) manner. All of these things people may be tempted to take pride in—yet, without being motivated by and rooted in love, the apostle Paul says they gain absolutely nothing. According to Paul, none of these things, though seemingly impressive and valued, are not what in the end lasts. Love, on the other hand, lasts forever and is the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does the apostle Paul mean by love? The word he employs has a lot of baggage, it is in the Greek, agape. Agape love is different than romantic, sexual love (eros), or friendship and companionship (philos). Agape love is the greatest love of all in that it is not selfish, and is willing to count the cost by serving others whole-heartedly.

Paul goes on in this chapter to cite several examples of what agape love entails—if you haven’t read it before, I encourage you to do so.

Contemporary examples of agape love may include the following: anonymously being a generous benefactor—e.g., giving a large amount of money to a benevolent organisation without wanting others to know who gave the gift in order that the homeless may have a decent place to live, and funding education for the homeless to train them for employment so that they can be self-supporting. As a grandparent, providing childcare for a single parent mother. Visiting those in prison, hospital, seniors’ facilities, etc. Working without drawing attention to one’s self for a more just and humane society for every human being—with a special commitment to the weakest, most vulnerable citizens. Of course, in some nations of the world this is regarded as “criminal activity,” since it endeavours to remove despots, tyrants and dictatorial powers from office and replace them with humble, kind leaders who genuinely serve their people—especially the least, lost, last and forgotten in society.

Agape love also moves into the larger world that God created to care for: animals, birds, fish, whales, water, air, soil, etc. It lives with an ethic that there is enough for everyone when all of God’s creation is valued, respected and wisely, lovingly shared and cared for.

Agape love sees and celebrates the reality of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”