Revelation has earned a reputation for being a difficult book to understand. Interpreters disagree with each other and often resort to complex schemes and explanations. In this commentary William Klock works through the book verse by verse with a narrative-historical approach, exploring and explaining the meaning of the text in light of the larger narrative of the Bible and the setting of the First Century Christians to whom John wrote. Looking at the Old Testament texts on which John draws, the historical records of the time, and working through the implications of the gospel, this book shows the simplicity of Revelation. Three key themes emerge for the Church: Tribulation, Perseverance, and Kingdom. The book is seen to be an exhortation to Christians living in the midst of opposition to stand firm and to proclaim the gospel in faith, knowing the faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus the Messiah. Its message is as relevant today as it was two-thousand years ago.
Copies of “Revelation: An Expositional and Devotional Commentary” can be purchased from lulu.com through the Anglican Expositor store.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
The Collect, Epistle, and Gospel appointed for this day were those of both the Sarum and Roman missals. The Collect can be traced back to the Gelasian Sacramentary and aside from being translated into English was unchanged by Archbishop Cranmer. The 1662 revisers, however, gave us the current version by changing the preamble, which original read, “Almighty God, which dost make the minds of all faithful men to be of one will”. The current version contrasts the “unruly wills and affections of sinful men” with the godly, who love what God commands and desire that which he promises.
The Gospel continues with Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room begun the previous Sunday. These Eastertide Gospels lead us to and prepare us for Jesus’ ascension. Today’s Epistle begins a two-part reading from the first chapter of James, which puts our attention on hearing God’s word and then doing what it says. In the Epistle today, St. James writes of the Father, who sends down good and perfect gifts, while in the Gospel Jesus speaks of the “Helper”, whom he will send. James writes of his fellow Christians as firstfruits of God’s work of new creation, while Jesus speaks of the Spirit who will take what is his and declare it to the disciples. James urges his readers to receive the implanted word of God, while Jesus speaks of the Spirit, who will guide the disciples into all truth.
The Gospel — St. John 16:5-15
But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Words like righteousness and judgement, are often loaded with meaning that is easy for us to miss. Often that’s because we’ve loaded them with our own baggage and it’s just as often because we fail to read them in context. To understand Jesus here, it’s essential that we read his words in the context of Israel’s history and narrative. It’s essential to understand that what Jesus is pointing towards in this “farewell discourse” is the coming events that will fulfil God’s promises and bring the story of Israel to its climax. In the context of today’s propers, our Gospel serves two functions. First, it continues to move the narrative of God and his people forward, leading us from the events of Holy Week and Easter to the events of the Ascension and Pentecost. Second, as we couple it with our Epistle from James, it highlights the Spirit-filled and Spirit-enabled life of Jesus’ Easter people.
In verses 1-5 Jesus sets his exhortation within Israel’s narrative. He speaks of the difficult times his disciples will face on his account, as their fellow Jews who neither know him nor the Father will put them out of the synagogues and say evil things of them. Israel knew suffering well. God’s people had been slaves in Egypt, they had known defeat at the hands of unbelieving nations and kings, they had known exile and oppression by those who did not know the Lord. In the Psalms and in the Prophets, we hear Israel pleading with the Lord for her day in court. She longed for the Lord to act as the just judge to vindicate her, to convict her enemies and to find her in the right.
Now, as Jesus warns his disciples of both a time of persecution and his own departure from them, he exhorts them to stand firm in faith knowing that God’s people will finally know the justice they have longed for. The surprise is that many of God’s people—those who have rejected Jesus and in doing so revealed that they don’t know the Father as they always thought they did—they will find themselves on the wrong end of God’s justice. It will be the new Israel, those who are in the Messiah by faith, who will go home justified and vindicated. What the disciples needed to understand was that Jesus would not be the one standing as their advocate. He himself must first be vindicated as Messiah. His vindication began with his resurrection from the dead, but it would not be complete until he ascended to be enthroned as King at his Father’s side. So Jesus must leave his friends, but he will not leave them to defend themselves. Once his vindication has been completed—once he sits enthroned—he will send God’s own Spirit to his people and it is the Spirit—the Paracletos, the “Helper” or “Advocate”—who will stand with them in God’s court. The Spirit, Jesus says, will bring the evidence to convict the world of sin. Exhibit A is the world’s rejection of Jesus himself and its continuing pursuit of its own values and agendas. Second, the Spirit will bring evidence to convict the false justice of the world. Most translations make this already difficult passage more difficult by translating dikaiosyne as “righteousness” when “justice” suits the passage far better. The world believes itself to be just or in the right. We see this supremely in the false conviction and execution of Jesus. But the world’s verdict on Jesus was overturned that first Easter and God’s verdict in regards to Jesus is confirmed at his ascension. Third, the Spirit will bring the evidence to show that the world’s judgment or condemnation of Jesus and his people is wrong. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension reveal the defeat of the “ruler of this world”—of the satan, of sin, and of death. In short, what the Lord has promised and what Israel had longed for is about to be fulfilled in and by Jesus himself and will be known by those who have united themselves to him in faith.
Of course, the disciples struggled to understand any of this. Surely they heard the story of Israel in Jesus’ words, but the details were lost on them until they met the risen Jesus several days later. Even then, they didn’t understand the full importance of these words until the Spirit descended on them at Pentecost. That’s just what Jesus is getting at in verses 12-15. He knew they did not understand, but he exhorts them to be patient and to keep the faith. The same Spirit who would see to their vindication in the heavenly court, would also guide them into truth—into understanding. The Spirit, Jesus promises, will not tell them anything new, but will cause them to understand all the mysterious things that Jesus has said to them, truths that ultimately have their source in the Father himself.
The Epistle — James 1:17-21
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
The work of the Spirit that Jesus describes in the Gospel is not limited to the heavenly courtroom or to esoteric knowledge about Jesus. This should be obvious if we remember Israel’s story. Her relationship with the Lord had always been meant to work out in her life and her life was meant to be a witness to the world of life in the presence of God. If the Spirit will come alongside Jesus’ people to see them vindicated in the heavenly court, and if the Spirit is to give them understanding into just what it is that Jesus has done by his death and resurrection, St. James knew that the Spirit will also cause the life of God to well up in this new Israel that is rooted in Jesus. James is well-known for his stress on the works that necessarily accompany faith. God doesn’t merely save his people from death, he saves them to be his stewards.
It seems likely that when today’s Epistle was chosen to be paired with our passage from John 16, an association was meant to be made between Jesus’ promise of the Spirit and James’ statement that “every perfect gift is from above”. While James does not speak directly of the Spirit, the gifts from above that he does address are those conferred by the Spirit and his exhortation here closely parallels Jesus’ exhortation in the Gospel. James speaks first of the wisdom God bestows on those who ask (v. 5) and then, after urging his readers to stand firm in the face of persecution (v. 12), he reminds them that God is not the source of our temptation (vv. 13-14). Just the opposite, in fact: God only sends us good gifts. In our fallen state, our disordered desires lead us to sin and sin to death, but God has spoken his “word of truth”—his logos, surely a reference both to Jesus and to God’s word in a more general sense—to bring about a work of new creation in us. Even as we face trials and struggle against sin, the firstfruits of God’s new world are manifest in our lives. This leaves us with a choice. Will we pursue sin or will be pursue the life of God? In the heavenly court we have been declared by God to be in the right, because we have united ourselves to Jesus in faith. His vindication is our vindication. The Spirit has given witness on our behalf. But woe to the one who names Jesus while manifesting anger, filthiness, and wickedness. Try as we might to claim the vindication of Jesus for ourselves, a life characterised by wickedness rather than the Spirit reveals any such claim to be superficial. As James will write in 2:20, faith without works is dead.
O almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rather offering my own thoughts on the Collect this week, I will close with an excerpt from L. E. H. Stephens-Hodge’s exposition on the Collects.
“The years immediately preceding the revision of the Prayer Book in 1662 were years of civil strife and bloodshed, followed by the repressions and disorders of the Commonwealth, so that even Cromwell said that he would rather have lived under his own woodside and have kept a flock of sheep than undertaken the government of such an unruly nation.
This may account for the change in the opening clause which originally ran: “O God, who makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will.” In its earlier, Gelasian form, the collect was a prayer for Church unity, and showed that the way to unity is by loving what God commands and desiring what he promises. That is still the basis of Christian unity today: a common allegiance to God’s commandments as revealed in holy scriptures and an earnest seeking after his blessing.
The 1662 revisers, in altering the invocation, have simplified the collect and made it even more applicable to a time of change and perplexity such as that in which we ourselves are living. As in the perilous days of the fifth century when the Roman Empire was crashing to its ruin, so now amidst the rise of new nations and the threat of world Communism, men are passionately seeking for security and for an alleviation of their fears. Their search is doomed to failure because of the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, themselves included. Until the unruly will is replaced by the love of God’s commands, and the unruly affection by the desire of what he promises, there can be no real hope of peace.
Security is offered to those whose hearts are fixed on the right place. Where is that? Our collect leaves us guessing. The answer comes in the collect of Ascension Day. To dwell continually with Christ is to know the secret of true peace and victory.”
The Collects: An Introduction and Exposition (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961), 112-113.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
On this day we commemorate the man who penned the Gospel bearing the name of St. Mark. Who was this Mark? Longstanding Christian tradition has believed him to be the John Mark of whom we read in the Book of Acts, the companion of Paul and Barnabas. Tradition is not unanimous. Hippolytus claims that Mark the Evangelist, John Mark, and Mark, the cousin of Barnabas were all different individuals amongst the seventy whom Jesus sent out. Eusebius reports that Peter encountered and was joined by Mark at some point in his missionary journeys through Asia Minor that ended in Rome, about 42-43 BC. Eusebius writes that along the way Mark served as translator and secretary to Peter, recording his sermons and later using them as the basis for his Gospel. The various traditions agree that at some point in the mid- to late 40s, Mark made his way to Alexandria, where he was appointed bishop and later martyred, perhaps in 68. Whatever may be true of the various traditions and legends of St. Mark, what the Church highlights this day is his role as one of the four Gospel-writers. In doing this, the Church acknowledges the man, but puts the day’s emphasis on God’s providence in providing the Church with Mark’s account of Jesus and his ministry.
As far as the day’s propers are concerned, it is quickly obvious that there is nothing about them that relates directly to St. Mark. Why is this? Before unique propers were assigned to the feasts of saints the missals instead provided sets of common propers for various classes of saints. We see a remnant of this practise on pages 274-275 of our own Prayer Book in the provision of common propers for “A Saint’s Day”. The missals provided specific propers common to Apostles, Martyrs, Doctors, and, important here, Evangelists. In the Sarum Missal Ezekiel 1:10-14 is appointed as the Epistle in the Common of an Evangelist. Luke 10:1-7 is appointed as the Gospel, with a provision for John 15:1-7 should the feast fall during Eastertide—something that applies only to the Feast of St. Mark. As the lectionary evolved, the commom propers of Evangelists were replaced with propers unique to each of the four Evangelists. St. John’s Day was assigned a unique Epistle and Gospel. St. Matthew’s Day retained the common Epistle, but was assigned a unique Gospel. The Feast of St. Mark retained the common Gospel, but was assigned a unique Epistle (although, falling in Eastertide, the common already provided a unique Gospel for St. Mark). Only the Feast of St. Luke retained the Epistle and Gospel of the Common of an Evangelist. In the case of St. Mark, which came first, the assignment of John 15:1-7 to be read during Eastertide in the Common of an Evangelist or the assignment of the same passage in the propers for St. Mark’s Day I have been unable to determine. What we do know is that the observance of St. Mark’s feast day came late to Rome, in the Twelfth Century, probably because Rome had no relics of the saint. (Mark’s relics were in Venice, having been stolen from Alexandria in the Ninth Century by two Venetian merchants.) By this time the propers for the Sundays after Easter were well-established, the Gospels being taken from Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples in the Upper Room. It seems that today’s Gospel from John 15 was deliberately chosen with that larger discourse in mind. John 15:1-7, where Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches, fits well with the general theme of the Easter season even if it says nothing directly of St. Mark.
Similarly, the Epistle assigned to St. Mark’s Day in the Sarum Missal, a replacement of the common Epistle from Ezekiel, seems to have been chosen with the Easter season in mind. Some have argued, rather shallowly I think, that Ephesians 4:7-13 was chosen simply because it mentions “evangelists”. Surely those involved in the evolution and revision of the Missal lectionary knew that what Paul meant by “evangelist” is not what we mean by it when referring to the writers of the Gospels. Isaac Williams offers us a better explanation:
“The Epistle for to-day has also the like harmony with the sacred season on which this day usually falls. For it speaks of the gifts which our Lord left below for the instruction of His Church after He ascended to Heaven. And the concluding words of the Epistle, as the Text itself shortly expresses, speak of the purpose of those gifts being to build us up, to form and mould us into the Body of Christ, which is the Head over all; and thus they set forth under another figure the very subject of the Gospel for to-day, which is of Christ the Living Vine, and of the branches which by love abide in Him.”
Archbishop Cranmer retained the Epistle of the Sarum Missal, but extended it through verse 16.
Both the common Collect and the proper Collect for St. Mark’s Day in the Sarum Missal were prayers asking for the intercession of the saint. Cranmer’s collect, newly composed in 1549, draws instead on the teaching of the Epistle and asks for grace that we may be anchored in the truth of the Gospel. Minor alterations to the Collect were made in 1578, 1596, and 1662, the most significant being a reversal of the two central phrases, but the substance of the Collect remains unchanged.
The Epistle – Ephesians 4:7-16
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Ephesians 4 begins with St. Paul’s exhortation “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v. 1). In the present context this means living out the unity given to the Church by Jesus and the Spirit. Immediately before today’s Epistle begins we read those famous words, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (v. 5). We are one in Christ, but as we get into our text with verse 7, Paul begins to explain that a variety of offices and gifts have been given by God to build up the body of the Messiah so that this unity will be realised. Paul makes his point by directing us back to Israel’s story. Verse 8 quotes Psalm 68:18.
In the psalm David sings of the Lord and his people in the Exodus and Conquest. The Lord goes before his people in the wilderness and the pagan kings flee before him. In verse 15 the mountain of Bashan, a peak in the Herman range in the Trans-Jordan, looks down with jealousy at Mt. Zion. The mountains of the Trans-Jordan were higher and more majestic physically, but it was on Mt. Zion that the Lord chose to establish his dwelling. But there is a double meaning here. As is often the case, the images of Sinai, the tabernacle, and the temple for the abode of the Lord are blurred together and the imagery here takes us from Mt. Zion back to Mt. Sinai. It was to Sinai that the Lord had led the host of captives, newly freed from Egypt. There Moses ascended on high to meet the Lord, and when he descended he brought with him the gift of the law so that the Lord might dwell amongst them. What’s important here is the gift. It was the law that enabled Israel to be the people the Lord had called her to be. The law was for all, but it also included the setting apart of the tribe of Levi to serve as priests for the people.
Paul draws on this imagery to highlight the way in which Jesus and the Spirit have equipped the Church. As Moses ascended the mountain, so Jesus, who had first “descended” in his incarnation, ascended to his heavenly throne. But now, unlike Moses who returned with the law to equip the people, Jesus sent his Spirit—the supreme gift to men. Rather than a law written on stone, the Spirit gives us a law of love written on our hearts. And as the gift of the law included the gift of the Levitical priesthood, so the law given by the Spirit includes the gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
This is not an exhaustive list, but Paul’s choice of gift-offices is deliberate in light of the context. The apostles were the eyewitnesses to Jesus and, of particular significance, his resurrection. Their testimony was the foundation on which the church was built. Before the Church had the New Testament, the Lord spoke to his people giving guidance, exhortation, and rebuke through prophets. Evangelists were the official heralds of the good news about Jesus, announcing his resurrection and lordship to the world. Pastors looked after and cared for the fledgling churches like shepherds caring for new-born lambs, while teachers helped these churches to grow in their understanding of what it meant to submit to Jesus as Lord and to live as the new people of God.
Those who held these offices were meant to grow the church in both unity of faith and in knowledge of the Son of God. Paul likens the young church to an infant and those who held these Jesus-given offices were tasked with raising the infant to “mature manood”, even “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ—or as Tom Wright paraphrases the verse in his Kingdom New Testament, “Then we shall have a mature and genuine human life, measured by the standards of the king’s fullness”.
The goal, Paul goes on to write, is that the Church must “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”. It is Jesus, the Messiah, who is our head, who has equipped the body and who holds it together. Without him—or, more specifically, if we fail to fully grow into him—we will remain infants. We will be like a rudderless ship, “tossed to and fro” by false teaching, by human craftiness, and by deceitful schemes. In contrast, Jesus and the Spirit have given gifts to the Church that we might be brought together in unity, growing further into the Lord, and building everything on the sort of love that Jesus has shown us at the cross.
The Gospel – St. John 15:1-11
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
Today’s Gospel is linked thematically with the Epistle. As Paul stressed to the Ephesians the need to grow into the Messiah, so in the Gospel Jesus urges his disciples to abide in him. To make his point, Jesus draws on the imagery of God’s people as a vine, which was well-established in the Old Testament. Psalm 80, for example, portrays Israel as a vine delivered from Egypt and planted in land cleared by the Lord. While the vine flourished for a time, the wall that once protected it fell. Passers-by plucked away the fruit, while boars and other animals ravaged it. The psalmist pleads with the Lord to look on the vine and to restore Israel: “Give us life and we will call upon your name” (v. 18). In other passages, Isaiah 5, for example, Israel is condemned and compared to a vine that bore wild grapes.
In our Gospel Jesus draws on this imagery to make the point that he is the new Israel and that membership in the people of God is based not on ethnicity or the marks of distinction created by the law, but by abiding in him. Jesus uses this image to warn of coming judgement: as he has always done, the Father will prune away dead wood from the living vine. Already this work has begun. Jesus uses the unusual verb kathairo to describe the Father’s pruning and contrasts it with the “cleanness”—katharos—of the disciples. They are part of those who have already submitted themselves to the vinedresser and been pruned. They have heard the word of Jesus and believed with the result that they are bearing fruit, although this does not mean that more pruning will not be necessary.
The key here is abiding in Jesus. He is the solution to Israel’s problem, the age-old failure to bear fruit. In verses 8-11 Jesus moves from fruit, to love, to obedience, to joy. If fruit is the evidence of abiding in Jesus, we must know what it looks like. To abide in Jesus is an act of love in return for the love he has already shown. As the Father loves him, he loves us. We see this in the humility of his incarnation, but supremely in his death on the cross. We love him because he first loved us. Next we see the relationship between love and obedience. To love Jesus is to keep his commandments and lest this seem harsh, Jesus compares it to the way in which he abides in his Father’s love by keeping his commandments. The commandments of Jesus are good, the law of the Spirit gives life and we ought to submit to it in happy gratitude. Finally, Jesus explains that it is through this abiding in love manifested in obedience that we will know joy.
This is the life that Adam was meant to have, living in, abiding in the presence of God in the garden. This is the life that Israel was meant to have as she lived with the Lord’s abode in her midst. This is the life that witnesses God to the world, making known his love and manifesting new creation.
O almighty God, who hast instructed thy holy Church with the heavenly doctrine of thy Evangelist Saint Mark; Give us grace that, being not like children carried away with every blast of vain doctrine, we may be established in the truth of thy holy Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Collect unites the day’s Epistle and Gospel. That “heavenly doctrine” of St. Mark in which the Church has been instructed is the story of Jesus that he has recorded for us in his Gospel. It is here that we come to know the love of God for his people, supremely manifested in the death of Jesus. We ask for grace that the truth of the gospel might be firmly established in our hearts so that we will grow into maturity, anchored in Jesus so that we are not “carried away with every blast of vain doctrine”.
As I noted above, today’s propers have nothing to do directly with St. Mark. They seem to have been selected with the Easter season in mind. I will conclude with the closing remarks of Isaac Williams in his sermon for St. Mark’s Day. He offers what I think will be some helpful thoughts to preachers who may be struggling to bring their exegetical and expository work back to St. Mark, while maintaining a clear focus on Jesus.
‘And now to apply the whole of this to St. Mark’s day. “Ye are clean,” says our Blessed Saviour to His disciples, “through the word which I have spoken unto you.” And afterwards, “If My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” And again, “These words have I spoken unto you, that My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” Now from all such expressions it is evident that the words which our Lord spake are, like Himself, to abide in us, in order that we may partake of all that great blessedness which He here describes; and where have we these His words, and Himself as in these His words, except in the written Gospels? And St. Mark’s Gospel itself is peculiar in this: that it sets before us in the most living manner, by numerous details and incidents, the very Image and Person of our Blessed Lord. We behold Him therein as in a Divine mirror. We behold, as it were, His very countenance in approval or rejection, in joy and sorrow. Its characteristic may be said to be “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God inthe face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6) How great a gift then is this among those of which the Epistle speaks, which our Lord after His ascension has bequeathed to His Church, this work of an inspired Evangelist! How powerful a means of bringing us “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;” of so conforming us to Him as that we may obtain all those riches in Him, which the Gospel describes! If they who knew nothing but the Old Testament could say with the Psalmist, “All the day long is my study in it;” if it is said by Joshua, “This book shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night:” (Joshua 1:8) or in the figurative language of the Law, “These words shall be in thine heart,” and “thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes; and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house:” (Deut. 6:8, 9) how much more must all this be the case with a Gospel which contains the very history of Christ in the flesh; His very demeanour and bearing; His sayings and doings on all the occasions of daily life! We are so familiar with this great and inestimable privilege, that we consider not its value, nor what a loss it would be to the inner life to have been without it. How can we read over it, and pray over it, and meditate upon it, and make it our own too much?What a refuge is there within it from the conversation of the world! for here our conversation is in Heaven and with God. Here is “the mind of Christ,” and we by devoutly dwelling on it may make His mind to be our mind. It is true that there are other means of grace whereby we are to Christ united,—by Sacraments, and prayers, and His Spirit in the heart, whereby “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord we are changed into the same image;” but over and above all these is an inspired Gospel, and that too subsidiary to all the rest; His Sacraments and prayers, and His Holy Spirit are never more powerful with us than when quickened by reading and thinking over the words of His Gospel. Its power in building up “in the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God” is great indeed; when day after day, without omission, “precept upon precept,” and “line upon line,” we make it our rule to meditate on the Gospel, and throughout the day to make it our own by obedience. When does it not kindle prayer—and compose the thoughts—and afford the rule and measure of duty? What a shield against every temptation of the enemy is there in those words, “It is written!” What a tower of strength against the new philosophies of the world, and doctrines of religion spun from the imaginations of men! This is the wisdom revealed of the Father. But His Spirit Which gave must be with us to understand His own words. It is a sealed Book which the Lamb must open. It is not by reading, but by praying thereon that it gives out its sweetness. It is “a garden inclosed,” on which the winds of Heaven must come, in order “that the spices thereof may flow out.” It is “a well of living waters,” (Song 4:15, 16) unfathomable indeed, and too deep for man of himself to draw therefrom; but from whence a mist goes up to water the whole face of the ground. The tree planted thereby “will bring forth His fruit in due season; his leaf also shall not wither.”’
Sermons on the Church Year (Courtenay, BC: The Anglican Expositor, 2012), 514.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
This Sunday is popularly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” from the theme of both the Epistle and Gospel. In the Epistle St. Peter describes the risen Jesus as our shepherd and bishop, our chief pastor, and in the Gospel we hear Jesus describe himself as the good shepherd. Both passages are set before us today to exhort and encourage our own perseverance in the faith. William Durandus notes in his medieval commentary that the Epistle and Gospel are connected with an ancient Roman custom of holding councils on this day, which would imply that the practical application of Jesus as an example and as shepherd, in so far as the reason for today’s lectionary selections, was aimed at the clergy, not all the faithful. That said, there is a clear thematic line carrying us here from the Lenten propers, which had in mind the teaching of those to be baptised at Easter. In their baptism they have been raised with Jesus and now know the joy of the life of God, but opposition and persecution await those who have committed themselves to Jesus and to following his example. It is not always easy to do so and this Easter reminder that Jesus is faithful to shepherd his flock is much needed.
The Gospel is that of the Sarum and Roman missals. In 1549 Cranmer expanded the Epistle to include verses 19-20. The Collect was a fresh composition for the 1549 Prayer Book and, along with the expansion of the Epistle, points to Cranmer’s intent that the exhortation of today’s propers be aimed at all the faithful, not the clergy alone as their shepherds. The medieval Collect addressed the general Easter theme of resurrection and new creation:
O God, who by the humiliation of thy Son hast raised a prostrate world, grant unto thy faithful people perpetual joy, and cause them whom thou has rescued from the calamity of everlasting death, to have the fruition of joys eternal.
Cranmer’s collect draws on the Epistle and exhorts us to live the new life to which Jesus raises us by his resurrection and in which he leads the way as shepherd.
The Gospel — St. John 10:11-16
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. [vv. 17-18: For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”]
It is unfortunate that today’s Gospel does not run all the way through verse 18, for it is in the last two verses that we see the role of the good shepherd not merely as the one who lays down his life for the sheep, but as the one who will also be raised to life again by the Father. It is in these final that an abstract message of care for the sheep meets Easter itself and points towards the resurrection life of the age to come. Nevertheless, there is no reason why a preacher may not extend the lesson when it’s desirably to do so.
Jesus tells his friends, “I am the good shepherd.” Good here, kalos, doesn’t mean morally good, rather it means that he’s the shepherd who does his job and gets it done. Contrast this with the hireling who runs away when faced by the wolf. They’re not his sheep after all. His investment in them isn’t worth his own life, so he leaves them to fend for themselves. Many of Israel’s own shepherds had behaved this way, looking out for their own interests rather than the interests of the people the Lord had entrusted to them. Jesus, however, will fulfil the calling his Father has given him. We shouldn’t pass over his description of that calling too quickly. Jesus says that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Here the analogy with real-world shepherding seems to break down, because even if the hireling runs away in the face of danger, no shepherd sets out to protect his sheep from wolves with the expectation that he will die. He may be killed by the wolves, but his hope (even his expectation) is that he will prevail. A dead shepherd is useless and unable to protect his sheep.
And yet Jesus says here that the mission of the good shepherd—his mission—is not merely to face danger, but specifically to die. Why? Because he knows his sheep. This is set against the hireling whom, he says, cares nothing for the sheep. To know is to care. And, he says, his own know him in return. And this mirrors his own relationship with the Father: “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”. This all goes back the prophecy of Ezekiel 34. There the false shepherds of Israel are indicted and the Lord himself says, “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out” (v. 11) and “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep” (v. 15). In the latter part of the prophecy the Lord goes on to say, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them” (v. 23). “Which is it?” we might ask. Is the Lord the shepherd or is David? Ezekiel doesn’t answer, but in our Gospel today Jesus finally gives that answer. Later in the chapter, in verse 30, Jesus will say, “I and the Father are one.” This is finally how it works: the Lord and his Messiah are one; they are both the shepherd.
So Jesus will fulfil the Lord’s promise. He will lay down his life for his sheep—and not just the sheep of Israel, but somehow his death will also bring about the fulfilment of that other promise of Ezekiel 34, that the Lord will seek out and rescue his flock from amongst the peoples and countries in which they are scattered. They, too, will know the God of Israel because they have known the good shepherd and the result will be a single flock.
But how does it work? In any other setting a dead shepherd is a failed shepherd. This is where we need to continue on into verses 17 and 18, where Jesus says, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again”. The resurrection is the means by which the shepherd will break the cycle exemplified by the false shepherds and finally lead the sheep to the “good pasture” of Ezekiel 34—”where they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel” (vv. 13-14), where the shepherd will “bind up the injured”, “strengthen the weak” and “feed them with justice” (v. 16). Only as he gives his life is the shepherd able to rise from death and lead his sheep into God’s new creation and because of this he truly is the good shepherd who, by his faithfulness, reveals that love of his Father to the world.
The Epistle — 1 St. Peter 2:19-25
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Without context we might think that St. Peter is here addressing Christians facing persecution for the sake of their faith. Verse 18, however, puts these verses in the context of slavery: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” In fact, our Epistle is part of a longer passage in which the Apostle exhorts Christians to live faithfully amidst the pressures of a pagan world. He begins in 2:11-12:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
In verses 13-16 he urges Christians to be subject to “every human institution” with particular focus on the civil authorities. Why? To silence ignorant and foolish people (v. 15) who have spread rumours that Christians are trouble-makers. In 3:1-7, which immediately follows today’s Epistle, Peter turns to wives, urging them to be subject to their husbands, that by their witness unbelieving husbands may be won to faith in Jesus. We know that in the early Church this was a significant means of growth as the witness of Christian wives won over their pagan husbands. Similarly, Peter urges husbands to honour their wives. Our Epistle falls in the middle here, urging slaves to endure suffering at the hands of unjust masters. All of this is brought to a conclusion in 3:8:
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
Peter goes on to cite Psalm 34:13-16. “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.”
So our Epistle isn’t so much about persecution, but about living in light of Jesus as we experience the pressures of a fallen world that desperately needs our witness and the good news we steward. While Peter has the conditions of slavery in view, we can take this passage as representative of this greater problem and how we must live in light of it. If the Christians slave is to endure the beating of an unjust master, this sets a pattern for the unhappy marriage, living under a pagan ruler, and a host of other difficult and seemingly impossible situations.
Our first inclination is to express outrage and injustice, to assert our rights, and to fight back. It’s not that there isn’t a place for the Christian take a stand for his rights or the rights of another, but that Peter saw that in many situations the Christian has an even higher calling. As Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount, manifesting the kingdom to the world is a higher priority than defending or asserting our own rights. It’s worth noting that the specific situations given in these verses are things over which most people in the First Century has no control. Peter saw such injustice through the lens of the cross, the greatest injustice ever perpetrated by human beings. He goes back to Isaiah 53 and the song of the suffering servant. Jesus accomplished God’s saving purposes for his people by being reviled, yet without reviling in return, by suffering, yet not threatening. Rather, as he faced the false judgement of unjust men, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He who knew no sin bore on his body our sins. Why? Because his suffering and death was the only means by which we can die to sin and live to righteousness. Sin did its worst to Jesus in his crucifixion, but he came out the other side alive again, bringing the firstfruits of resurrection into the world.
Jesus’ death and resurrection have become the central point of human history, the events on which everything hinges—the moment in time when everything changed. That means we must see our own lives, the joys, the sorrows, and the suffering in light of those events. In allowing evil to do its worst to him at the cross, Jesus has caught up in his suffering every last bit of human suffering, including the suffering afflicted upon us and the suffering we afflict upon others, and he has turned it into the means by which he has brought redemption to the world. And here Peter recalls today’s Gospel: through his suffering and death, the shepherd has rescued the lost and straying sheep. He is our shepherd and overseer—our bishop, our chief pastor—and no hireling. He who has laid down his life for our sake and in doing so suffered the penalty of our sins, will hold us close as we suffer the injustices of the world and, in turn, the faith we exhibit in entrusting ourselves to him becomes a profound witness to the world. We can face injustice knowing that as the Judge who judges justly has vindicated Jesus, he will also vindicate us for our faith.
Almighty God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an ensample of godly life; Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
To follow in the blessed steps of Jesus’ most holy life, particularly thinking of today’s Epistle and its exhortation to endure suffering as did Jesus is only possible because he has first been “unto us…a sacrifice for sin”. The Collect first centres us on the cross before exhorting us to the otherwise impossible. We pray for grace to “thankfully receive” the “inestimable benefit” of his death and resurrection, for it is only as we have been empowered by Jesus and the Spirit that we can ever hope to follow in his holy and blessed steps. And yet, we still acknowledge that this must be our “daily endeavour”. To follow Jesus is no passive undertaking. He provides the grace, but we must make the choice each day to take up our crosses and to follow him.
 See Blunt, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer (Courtenay, B.C.: The Anglican Expositor, 2012), 294.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
I apologise that today’s post is very late in the week and that I’ve only had time to write on the first set of propers for Easter Day. Last week we were allowed to resume church services here in British Columbia, but only outdoors. Dealing with the logistics of an outdoor service in a climate not amenable to to outdoor services at this time of year has consumed more of my time than I would have liked. I hope to add to this post later as well as add posts for Holy Week, or at least Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
The memorial of Jesus’ resurrection has been the principle feast day of the Church year since the her earliest days. It’s universal celebration is attested by Polycarp and Anicetus in their meeting in A.D. 158 to discuss the feast’s date. Eusebius tells us that Melitus of Sardis wrote two books on the Easter feast and Tertullian reports that its yearly celebration and its connection with baptisms. Disagreement over the timing of the feast led to one of the Church’s earliest disputes.
The feast was originally known as Pascha in Greek, derived from the Aramaic Pesach. It originally included Good Friday, but in the time of Leo the Great the two became distinct and Pascha was applied specifically to the Feast of the Resurrection. While the Pascha was used in England, the pre-Christians name of the season “Easter” persisted. Bede gives us the origins of the Anglo-Saxon names of months and reports that the month of Eostre (Ēosturmōnaþ), corresponding to April, was derived from the name of a West Germanic spring goddess. By Bede’s day the name was translated as “Paschal Month”, but the ancient name has persisted in common usage to our own day.
In the 1549 Prayer Book Archbishop Cranmer appointed two sets of propers for Easter Day corresponding to the propers for Easter Even and Easter Day in the Sarum Missal. He did, however make a number of changes. For the first Communion (or vigil) of Easter Cranmer retained the Collect, Epistle and Epistle for Easter Even, although he extended the Epistle (Colossians 3:1-4) to include verses 5-7. (The Epistle was trimmed back to verses 1-4 in the 1928 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church and the Reformed Episcopal Church followed suit in 1930.) The Missals appointed Matthew 28:1-7 for Easter Even, which began a course reading the resurrection narratives through the entire octave. Cranmer replaced Matthew 28:1-7 with John 20:1-10, which was appointed for the following Saturday in the missals. He did not leave us with an explanation, and it has often been lamented that both of our Easter Gospels leave us wondering at the empty tomb, both falling short of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. That said, this is indeed how the events of that first Easter morning proceeded and the Gospels we have been given leave us precisely where Providence left the disciples that first Easter morning.
For the second or primary Communion Cranmer retained the Epistle and Gospel as found in the missals and composed a wholly new Collect, which is also used at the Collect for the Day on the First Sunday after Easter.
In the 1552 revision of the Prayer Book the propers for the second Communion, those corresponding to the Easter Day propers in the missals, were dropped, leaving only the propers for the first or vigil Communion. The 1892 Episcopal revision restored the second set of propers, but reversed the order of the missals and the 1549 book by appointing them for the first Communion, should there be two celebrations. This was followed in the Reformed Episcopal Prayer Book in 2003. Because Cranmer’s original Collect is used on the octave Sunday, the 1892 revisers appointed the current Collect, which was originally that of the Wednesday before Easter and incorporated into the pre-Matins Easter procession by Cranmer in 1549. It can be traced back to the Gergorian Sacramentary.
Both sets of Easter propers recount the events of the first Easter morning as Jesus’ friends encounter the empty tomb as we read the Gospel. The Epistles explain the implication of the resurrection of Jesus and how this amazing event moves the narrative of the people of God forward.
A note on the Anthem: Cranmer intended to retain the ancient tradition of an Easter procession which included the singing of Easter anthems. To this end, he included a short collection of anthems to precede Matins in the 1549 Prayer Book. His intent never seems to have been realised and in the 1552 revision he retained the anthems, but as an Easter substitute for the Venite. The 1662 revisers added what is now the first anthem (1 Corinthians 5:7-8) and the Gloria Patri.
The Gospel — St. John 20:1-10
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
There are echoes of John’s prologue in those words telling us that Mary came to the tomb while it was still dark. In the beginning. The prologue in turn deliberately echoes Genesis. In the beginning…God spoke into the darkness and called forth light. John writes, “In the beginning was the word.” On the sixth day God spoke and called for man. John writes that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. On the sixth day, Pilate presented Jesus to the people and announced, “Behold the man!” Hanging on the cross, Jesus used his last gasp of breath to declare, “It is finished.” Again, an echo of Genesis. Any normal person who counted himself a friend of Jesus would have considered that first Good Friday a very bad day, but that echo from Genesis reverberates through John’s account. When God had finished the work of creation he declared that it was all very good. Jesus was laid to rest in the tomb for the sabbath—another echo of Genesis. Death is not the end, but the beginning of new creation. As Mary went to the tomb that first Easter morning, the word of God was poised to burst forth in an act of new creation.
At the time no one understood any of this. Mary went to the tomb expecting that, like every other person in history who has died, Jesus would still be there, stone cold and lifeless. She went to mourn and to meet her friends to finish the work of anointing Jesus’ body. She found the tomb was open, the great stone door rolled away. It was dark, so there was no point poking inside for a look. The open tomb meant only one thing: Jesus’ body was gone. John doesn’t reveal Mary’s thoughts, but resurrection would have been the last thing on her mind. No, the open tomb meant someone had taken the body, maybe grave robbers, maybe Roman soldiers playing a joke on some silly Jews, adding insult to injury. So she ran. She ran to Peter’s hiding place in the city and he came running with John, who describes himself as the one whom Jesus loved.
John tells us that he outran Peter and got to the tomb first. The sun is rising and as he peers into the tomb he sees the linen strips that had wrapped Jesus’ body. That’s an odd thing. Mary, John, and Peter can think of any number of reasons why someone might have taken Jesus’ body, but that they would first unwrap him is inexplicable. Peter arrives and heads straight into the tomb. If Jesus’ tomb was like others that have been found, his body was likely placed on a shelf to one side of the small, low entrance. If his head had been oriented towards the door, it would have been difficult to see without at least putting head and shoulders into the tomb as Peter did. And what a curious thing they find. Not only was the body gone with the wrappings left behind, but the wrappings appeared to be undisturbed, as if Jesus has simply passed right through them. And the cloth that had been on his head, either a face covering or a piece of linen tied around the head to keep the jaw closed, it had been moved and neatly placed nearby. It hadn’t been that long before that Jesus had raised Lazarus from death. The disciples had watched as Lazarus stumbled out of his tomb, still tightly wrapped in linen, probably not unlike a Hollywood mummy. His friends scrambled to tear the linen cloths away, making a mess in the process. In contrast, everything about Jesus’ tomb spoke of calm, even the face covering neatly set aside.
John tells us that at this point he squeezed into the tomb beside Peter. He saw and believed. But believed what? John goes on to tell us in the next verse that “as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” They did not yet understand, but he believed. Some argue that John merely believed Mary’s report of the missing body, but this seems a rather trite detail after going to all the trouble to introduce himself into the story. No, what would seem to make the best sense of this passage is to understand that John is here saying that this was the moment when he realised that Jesus had been raised from death. He said nothing to Peter or to Mary. He and Peter returned home. Mary remained at the tomb weeping. They didn’t know what to make of the missing body, because they did not yet understand the implication of either Jesus’ claims or the of the scriptures. We can hardly blame John for not saying anything. He, himself, must have been struggling to put it all together. But there it was. Suddenly all the things Jesus had said, things like his statement that he would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three day, it all made sense and his brain started reaching back into the scriptures and he began to understand. The contrast with Lazarus stands out. John had seen a sort of resurrection before, but Lazarus was resurrected to a life still subject to death and decay and emerged from the tomb still wrapped in his graveclothes. Something different had happened to Jesus. The undisturbed graveclothes spoke of something greater. Resurrection—something God’s people longed for—had happened, but not as expected. But that meant that Jesus really was the Messiah and that somehow this meant that God really was going to set everything to rights. New creation had begun that morning, but it would take some time—and a meeting with the risen Jesus—before John would be able to sort out for himself what it all meant.
The Epistle — Colossians 3:1-4
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
What are the implications of the resurrection of Jesus for his people? St. Paul wrote Colossians, at least in part, to address what seems to have been a common problem in the New Testament churches: legalism. Jewish Christians struggled with the place of the law in the new covenant and many gentile believers were told that they needed first to embrace a form of Judaism before they could really be followers of Jesus. In 2:20-23 Paul asks such people why they continue to live as if they were still enslaved by that old way of life. Sure, the law has “an appearance of wisdom” in helping a person to attain an outward appearance of piety, but that’s just it: it’s an outward appearance, an outward conformity to holiness. It’s not that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself, but that true holiness is something that wells up out of the heart—or, at least, it should. It’s not hard to hear Paul’s frustration in these words. Jewish converts should know better. This had been Israel’s struggle since the beginning and Jesus, in his death and resurrection, had finally fixed it. But as every Christian knows, we often struggle with a new problem. New life is the starting point when it comes to defeating sin, but all too often we forget and start thinking that new lift is the result of first having tackled sin ourselves. Paul knew all too well that’s not how the gospel works.
Jesus has led us in an exodus from sin and death. In his resurrection he has given us new life. We are no longer slaves. This is the basic truth of the Christian life and if we don’t get it right, we’ll get everything else wrong. As the Lord led the Israelites out of Egypt through the sea and freed them from their bondage to Pharaoh, Jesus sets us free from sin’s bondage when we pass through the waters of baptism. It’s a truth. A fact. A done deal. We have been redeemed. Even if we don’t feel it, Jesus and the Spirit have transformed us: we were slaves to sin and death and now we are free; we were in bondage to the world and are now citizens of the kingdom of heaven. This is what we mean when we speak of “regeneration”. This is what Paul gets at in our Epistle. He writes in 2:20 that we have died with the Messiah and now he writes in 3:1 that we have also been raised with the Messiah. Again, we may not feel it, but if we have truly taken hold of Jesus in faith, he has carried us through death and out the other side into a new kind of life. Of course we have to be careful to understand that what Paul is saying here is one of those “already-but-no-yet” truths. Jesus has been raised to the sort of real life and true humanity that we lost through our sin. We look forward in faith and hope to the day when we will be raised as he was, but in the meantime we have God’s own Spirit living in us as an earnest on that day. We await the resurrection, but even today the Spirit makes that future resurrection a reality for us. Maybe this is what makes life in Jesus a struggle. If we could walk through walls and never know sickness or decay again—as is true of Jesus—it would be easier to remember who and what we are. Instead, we are called today to live by faith, not by sight. One day the promise will be fulfilled. One day the things of the present age will be gone for good and God’s new age will come in all its fulness, heaven will descend to earth and man will live with God. And so we begin with first principles: If we have died with the Messiah, we have been raised with the Messiah. We need to get this truth into our heads and when we do, we’ll remember that our life and everything about it that matters, is in the heavenlies where Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Our true lives are hidden there with Jesus, Paul says. It’s a kind of mystery, this “already-but-not-yet” life we have in the Messiah. But even though it’s stored away in the heavenlies along with the rest of the age to come and God’s new world, Paul wants us to understand that it’s still very much who and what we are right now. The new age dawned that first Easter morning when Jesus rose triumphant over death and if we are in him by faith, we really are part of that new age. It may be hidden from the world around us, but it’s not hidden from us, because Jesus and the Spirit have made it our reality. And as difficult as it may be some days to live his reality, Paul urges us to do so in faith-filled hope, knowing that Jesus, who is our life, will return to finish what he has started. On that day we will know glory in all its fullness. Our hope is not merely that Jesus will return, but also that when he returns he will reveal who we really are in him. Resurrection will vindicate and reveal the faithfulness of God’s people, just as Jesus was vindicated and glorified in his resurrection. As we struggle against sin and as we labour for God’s kingdom we may feel inadequate or insignificant, but the resurrection of Jesus ought to be a source of encouragement to live the truth of who we are in Jesus even as some aspects of it are still hidden with him. Glory awaits.
Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; We humbly beseech thee that, as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
In the Collect we acknowledge that Jesus, through his triumph over death, has opened the way that restores us to the life of God we rejected in the Fall. This is the new life of the day’s Epistle. But knowing the difficulty we so often have in setting our minds on things above, we ask the Lord to go before us with his grace, for it is his Spirit within us who will properly direct the focus of our thoughts and the affections of our hearts. Not only that, but we also ask for his help to “bring the same to good effect.” The Collect recognises from beginning to end that the new life is all of God and ours solely by his grace.
At the First Service
The Epistle — 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
The Gospel — St. Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
O God, who for our redemption didst give thine only-begotten Son to the death of the Cross, and by his glorious resurrection hast delivered us from the power of our enemy; Grant us so to die daily from sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through the same thy Son Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
Palm Sunday derives its name from the procession traditionally made on this Sunday. That tradition is traced back to Jerusalem in the Fourth Century. Constantine and his mother, Helena, invested in the construction of shrines and churches at the various holy sites around the city. These locations, in turn, became the focus of various dramatic processions, re-enactments, and vigils, particularly during what came to called Great Week or Holy Week. Enthusiastic pilgrims carried these ceremonies home with them. The Palm Sunday procession began on the Mount of Olives and saw the bishop escorted into the city, riding on a donkey, as the crowd sang and waved palm branches. The procession was observed at Rome at least from the Sixth Century, but the ceremony involving the blessing and distribution of palms to the people originated in the Gallican churches in the Ninth or Tenth Century.
So far as the Mass of the day is historically concerned, the focus has always been on the reading of the Passion Gospel. The blessing and processional ceremonies involving palms came later and were not, strictly speaking, part of the Mass. On this Sunday the Epistle, Philippians 2:5-11, recounted the humility of Jesus while the Gospel, historically both the 26th and 27th chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, begins the Holy Week reading of Jesus’ Passion: Today, from Matthew; on Tuesday, Mark; on Wednesday, Luke; and on Friday, John. In the Middle Ages these long Passion narratives were chanted with different cantors taking on the roles of the characters in the drama and the choir the Jewish mob. Following the Reformation, this tradition carried on in the Lutheran churches and brought us the great Passion oratorios like those of J. S. Bach.
Archbishop Cranmer modified the Passion readings for Holy Week to include Monday and Thursday. In 1662, to shorten the long Passion Gospel read at the Lord’s Supper, Matthew 26 was made the Second Lesson at Morning Prayer, leaving Matthew 27 as the day’s Gospel and omitting verses 55-56 so that it climaxes with the centurion’s acknowledgement, “Truly this was the Son of God”. This arrangement was retained in the Episcopal Church’s Prayer Book, but sadly not in that of the Reformed Episcopal Church until 2003, where Matthew 26 is now one amongst several options for use at Morning Prayer.
The Reformers were concerned with superstitions associated with the blessing of palms and distraction from the word by ceremonies. In 1549 Cranmer did away with the extraneous ceremonies associated with Palm Sunday, which in the Book of Common Prayer was simply titled “The Sunday Next Before Easter”. “Palm Sunday” persisted in common usage as did the tradition of decking churches with willow branches. The name was restored in the American 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the English 1928 Proposed book, and the Scottish, South African, and Canadian Prayer Books. These 20th Century revisions have also included various means of recalling Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, whether by including Matthew 21:1-17 as an alternate Gospel, as our 2003 Reformed Episcopal Prayer Book does, or as the Gospel for a second service or by similarly appointing Mark 11:1-11, as in the 1954 South African book. While our Prayer Book makes no formal provision for the blessing of palms or a procession, common practise involves some form of blessing and procession that includes the reading of Matthew 21:1-17 at the beginning of the service and the reading of Matthew 27 later as the day’s Gospel.
The Epistle — Philippians 2:5-11
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Whether we read St. Matthew’s narrative of the Passion or his telling of that first Palm Sunday (or both), today’s Epistle is the lens through which we read today’s Gospel. What took Matthew two long chapters to tell, St. Paul summarises in thirty-six Greek words as he tells us about the servant-king. Most scholars believe that verses 6-11 were an early Christian hymn, perhaps even written by St. Paul himself. Whatever the case, this poem brilliantly and succinctly sums up who Jesus is as it draws on both Israel’s story and the story of the whole fallen human race.
Kings and emperors grasped at divinity, men like Pharaoh and Alexander and Caesar. Even many of Israel’s own leaders in the Old Testament, in Jesus’ day, and in Paul’s grasped for power. They knew better than to claim divinity as so many of the pagan rulers did, but they grasped at the same power that Caesar held and sought to control the reigns of empire in the hopes of one day climbing to the top of the heap. But this was not merely the problem of kings or would-be kings. This has been the problem of the human race. Ever since Adam believed the serpent’s lie and grasped at divinity for himself, we humans have been doing the same in one way or another. We fight, we kill, we steal, we cheat, we do whatever we can get away with to look out for ourselves and to get what we want. The Lord’s solution to humanity’s problem was to call forth a people for himself, a people who live in his presence for the life of the whole world, a nation of servants. Long before Isaiah’s song of the Suffering Servant was claimed by Jesus, Israel understood this to be her role.
Of course, Israel suffered from the same problem as the rest of humanity and Paul uses this hymn to show us the solution. God humbled himself. Jesus, who the hymn says was in the form of God, who was in some way God himself, emptied himself to take on Adam’s flesh and Israel’s servant role. Paul is clear that this doesn’t mean that Jesus ceased to be God or that he gave up his divinity in some way. Just the opposite. Jesus shows us what true divinity looks like. It doesn’t look at all like Adam’s grasping or Pharaoh’s grasping or Caesar’s grasping at power, authority, or divine prerogative. Rather, true divinity is revealed as God humbles himself for the sake of his rebellious people and offers himself as a sacrifice for their sins.
Jesus was rejected. Almost no one could accept that this is what divinity looks like, that this is what God would do. Jesus’ own people cried out for his crucifixion. As far as they were concerned, he was a blasphemous impostor. Even the servant people themselves could not understand the serving God. But, of course, God knew this and so the hymn turns on verse 9. The people crucified Jesus as a false messiah and God overturned their verdict against him. Precisely because Jesus had humbled himself and taken on the role of the suffering servant for the sake of his people, God raised him from the grave and exalted him to his right hand—God declared Jesus to be the world’s true King so that in time every knee will bow and every tongue confess—that one day everyone will acknowledge that Jesus is creation’s Lord—and that in this God will be supremely glorified.
Now, back to verse 5. Paul doesn’t simply tell us this so that we better understand who Jesus is and what he’s done. That’s important, but Paul has a very practical reason for writing this to the Philippian Christians. Jesus’ people are to “have this mind”. That’s why he’s done what he’s done, to solve the problem that began when Adam grasped at divinity for himself. As we identify with Jesus, we become a part of the renewed servant people of God. We are forgiven our past grasping, our past selfishness, and are filled with God’s own Spirit. As the Spirit turns out hearts and minds to the self-giving God, we become a people whose chief characteristic is self-giving humility.
The Gospel — St. Matthew 27:1-54
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor.
Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.
As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Today’s Passion Gospel is long and may be challenging to preach expositionally in its entirety. There are a number of important themes that can be preached individually or in any number of combinations.
As the priests send Jesus to Pilate, Judas returns to them, now feeling heavy with remorse. It’s not clear what Judas’ motive was. Did he betray Jesus in the hope of provoking a showdown between Jesus and the authorities? Did he do it in the hope that Jesus would finally reveal himself by summoning a legion of angels to come to his defense? We don’t know. But as Judas realised what was going to happen to Jesus he came to regret his decision. He returns to the temple and confesses his sin, but the priests refuse him. Judas casts their reward on the floor and, unable to resolve his guilt, he hangs himself. The central task of the priests was making atonement for sin, but when Judas goes to them with his guilt he is rejected, turned away. Matthew reminds us here that the days of the temple are at an end. This is made clear in the day’s alternate Gospel as we see Jesus bringing the day’s sacrifices to a halt (see below). But here we see the priests themselves forsaking their central duty. The time for a new temple, this one not made with hands, had come.
Next we see Jesus before Pilate. Matthew hints at something about redemption here—almost getting ahead of the story. Jesus’ condemnation begins with Israel’s priesthood and it ends with the Jewish mob demanding of Pilate, “Crucify him!” It makes sense. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and he was rejected and killed by his own people, but as Israel’s calling had always been for the benefit of the nations, so Jesus’ death will bring redemption, not only to Israel, but to the nations as well. And so Matthew makes a point of Pilate’s guilt. It’s impossible to miss. He symbolically washes his hands of guilt, but the stain remains for all to see. Pilate in his guilt represents the nations to whom redemption will come through the cross. And, of course, it’s Passover and Passover is all about freedom bought at the cost of another. Pilate puts two Jesuses before the crowd. Pilate’s wife reminds us that Jesus is the innocent party, but Barabbas the killer goes free anyway. At turn after turn in the story we see shame, sin, corruption: Peter, Judas, the Jewish priests and elders, the Jewish mob, and finally Caesar’s Rome and in contrast to all of that is Jesus, the innocent paschal lamb led to the slaughter, about to die for the sake of all.
As Matthew describes Jesus being mocked, beaten, and crucified by the soldiers he reveals the same truths that St. Paul tells us in the Epistle. Here we see the God of Israel revealed. Here we see what true divinity looks like. We see, but no one that day could see it. To the soldiers, Jesus was just an opportunity to take out their frustrations with the Jews. To the Jews he was a false messiah. The charge, posted atop Jesus’ cross was meant by Pilate to mock Jesus’ claim. And yet, in hindsight, in light of the Resurrection, Matthew could see God manifest in the cross as never before. Israel was the servant people called to be a light on a hill and here, in the crucifixion we see Jesus fulfilling that role and vocation—like a lighthouse slammed by a storm of evil, the waves of anger and sin and hate doing their worst to batter it to pieces, and yet even as it is broken, the light shines forth brighter than anything humanity had ever seen before.
In the taunts of those who watched as Jesus was crucified, Matthew takes us back to Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness. At his baptism, Jesus was revealed as God’s son and from there he went into the wilderness to be confronted as God’s son by the devil. “If you’re really God’s son, turn these rocks into bread.” “If you’re really God’s son, reveal yourself to the people by jumping from the temple.” “If you’re really God’s son, the earth belongs to you—why don’t you claim your kingdom the easy way?” The taunts of the crowd echo the temptations of the devil: “If you’re really God’s son, rebuild the temple like you said you would.” “If you’re really God’s son, come down from that cross.” “If you’re really God’s son, why hasn’t God delivered you?” But Jesus knew that to lead his people in this new exodus from sin and death meant taking the difficult path, allowing sin to do its worst and passing through death itself. Like the Israelites as the Red Sea, he was afraid. He cried out in the words of Psalm 22 expressing his pain—but clearly also knowing the way in which the Psalm also speaks of God’s vindication. He knew his course and he stuck to it, he trusted his Father, and by dying he defeated death. Are we his people prepared to take up our own crosses and to follow in the same way?
Finally, in the midst of a day gone dark, even as Jesus’ friends stand grieving, Matthew reminds us that it’s not over. At Jesus’ death the earth shakes, the sky goes dark. The curtain in the temple is torn in two exposing the holy of holies and signaling the beginning of the end for the old temple. The focus of the human race now turns from Mt. Zion to Mt. Calvary where God is revealed in all his majesty and glory at the cross. Even before Jesus is raised from the dead, Matthew shows us new creation dawning as he tells us somewhat cryptically about the dead rising from their graves. There are so many questions about this that we can’t answer—perhaps even Matthew struggled to understand—but it shouts to us that in his death Jesus has defeated death. And there amidst the confusion, the tears, a lone gentile centurion speaks the truth: “Truly this was the Son of God!” The light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.
Alternate Gospel — St. Matthew 21:1-17
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise’?”
And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.
Jesus was not the Messiah the people expected. He rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, but the crowds hailed him as their forbearers had hailed Judas Maccabeus when he rode into Jerusalem, triumphant over the Greeks. They had seen enough of Jesus to recognise in him the King. They welcomed him as the son of David—about as a clear a messianic title as there could be—and yet Jesus’ triumphal entry was not like the triumphal entry of either David or Judas Maccabeus. The people wanted a Messiah who would deliver them from the Romans, but Jesus would bring them something greater even as he allowed himself to be nailed to a Roman cross. The people hailed him as a prophet, but in our Gospel today we see him announce God’s coming judgement on his own people and their temple.
Jesus turns everything upside-down. This was the nature of his ministry from the beginning and it will come to a head in the events of the next week. The culmination of it all begins as he enters the temple and flips the tables of the money changers and sellers of animals. The problem wasn’t so much the folks doing business. Money changers were necessary because the temple used its own coinage and so were those selling animals for sacrifice. Not everyone raised their own animals. Many people travelled great distances to visit the temple and it was easier to purchase animals there than it was to transport them. Jesus’ accusation that the temple had become a den of robbers points not to ordinary thieves, but to the violent revolutionaries on whom many in Israel had set their hopes for deliverance—men like Jesus Barabbas. Jesus’ point is that the very place which the Lord had set apart as a place of prayer, the place where heaven and earth, God and man met and that pointed towards the day when humanity and the cosmos would be set right in fulfilment of the Lord’s promises, that place had come to represent everything that was wrong in Israel—all the misplaced hopes and expectations, her loss of mission, and her corruption of justice. No, the temple’s days were numbered and Jesus here acts out a prophecy. By Sunday of that very week the temple would be irrelevant, the great curtain torn in two, and a generation hence it would be pulled down, stone from stone.
But Matthew also highlights all of this—Jesus turning everything upside-down, the corruption of the temple, and the coming of something new—when he tells us that the blind and the lame came to Jesus in the temple and he healed them. When King David had laid siege to Jerusalem, the Jebusites had taunted him by putting blind men on watch duty and using lame men as messengers. No one thought that David would ever break the impregnable city. But David did and thereafter he barred the blind and the lame from it. (The story is told in 2 Samuel 5:6-10 and 1 Chronicles 11:4-6.) And now, after the people have hailed Jesus as David’s son, after he has upset the temple and brought the day’s sacrifices to a halt, he welcomes the blind and the lame into the temple itself and heals them. David’s son is about to turn the world upside-down—or, really, right-side-up once we’ve allowed him to reset our expectations.
Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility; Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Collect draws on the words of the Epistle and puts our attention on the humility of Jesus as we follow him to the cross this week. The Collect is from the Gelasian Sacramentary, but Archbishop Cranmer added the words, “of thy tender love towards mankind”, perhaps with John 3:16 in mind. We are reminded of the love that lies behind the cross and the love that defines true divinity as revealed in the humility of Jesus. It is as we grow to understand the great depth of God’s love revealed in Jesus and the cross that our own love for him grows in return and it is our love that motivates us to “follow the example of his patience” and that will lead us in hope and faith to the day when we will finally follow Jesus in his resurrection from death.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
With the Fifth Sunday in Lent we enter into the later portion of the season historically called “Passiontide”. In his simplification of the calendar, Archbishop Cranmer eliminated both Passiontide and Passion Sunday from the Prayer Book, but the name persisted. It was restored in the 1928 American Prayer Book as well as in the Scottish and the English proposed book of 1928. It was restored to our Reformed Episcopal Prayer Book in 2003. This Sunday has also been known historically as Iudica, from the first word of the Introit from Psalm 43. The ancient Introit sets the tone for the day and points us to the theme intended by the Epistle and Gospel selections:
Give sentence with me, O God, and defend my cause against the ungodly people:
O deliver me from the deceitful and wicked man, for thou art the God of my strength.
What was once the prayer of the Psalmist against his enemies now becomes the prayer of Jesus as he faces the final rejection of his own people. So far in the Lenten Gospels we have walked with Jesus as he made his final trip to Jerusalem. Now, in today’s Gospel, St. John recounts one of his final disputes with the Jews. The lesson picks up the theme of last Sunday’s Epistle as Jesus makes clear what it means to be the children of Abraham and inheritors of the Lord’s promise to him. The passage ends with an attempt by the Jews to stone him, foreshadowing the Palm Sunday Gospel and the events of Holy Week. The Epistle prepares us theologically for Jesus’ Passion as it holds him up, our high priest, as the fulfilment of the old covenant and its promises.
The Collect, Epistle, and Gospel are those of the Sarum and Roman Missals. Today’s Collect, like the other Lenten Collects is traced back to the Gregorian Sacramentary. The aborted 1688 attempt at a more comprehensive liturgy to the liking of the Puritans proposed a new collect using the language of the Epistle: “O Almighty God, Who hast sent Thy Son Jesus Christ to be an High Priest of good things to come, and by His own Blood to enter in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us; mercifully look upon Thy people, that by the same Blood of our Saviour, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot unto Thee, our consciences may be purged from dead works, to serve Thee, the living God, that we may receive the promise of eternal inheritance, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Again, we see in today’s propers the theology of Jesus’ Passion set before us, preparing us to walk through the narrative of his Passion over the next two weeks. That said, both the Epistle and Gospel today draw on the narrative in order to give us theology and remind us that the narrative must be our first priority.
The Gospel — St. John 8:46-59
Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
In the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel we see Jesus in the temple disputing with the Jews. Some hear his words and believe, but others continue to oppose him and we can hear the voices getting louder and angrier as we make our way through the chapter. The chapter ends with Jesus narrowly escaping an attempted stoning. Why would the people accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and of having a demon? It helps to backup to verse 37. The conversation has involved talk of Abraham and of who his true descendants are—are they those carrying Abraham’s genes or are they those who have acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah and are following him? In verses 37 and 38 Jesus acknowledges that the Jews are Abraham’s children by birth, but hints that their true father might be someone else, seeing that in opposing Jesus, they’ve rejected the Father and the covenant he established with Abraham. They protest, but Jesus continues, shifting from Abraham to God, ““If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God” (v. 42). The devil is a murderer, Jesus says, and your murderous rage aimed at me shows who your real “father” is. You’re children of the devil and this is why you refuse to listen to me.
Now we see how these folks throw the accusation back at him. They’ve already hinted at the issue of his parentage (which strongly suggests that the unique situation of Mary’s pregnancy was public knowledge) and now they accuse him of being a Samaritan (a cheap shot, accusing him of not being a real Jew), and of having a demon. “No, I don’t,” Jesus responds, “but, at any rate, call me what you will. I’m not out for my own glory. I’m here to glorify the Father and he will be my judge, not you.” And Jesus goes on pleading with them. The message of the Father is one of deliverance: “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
One might think that the Pharisees would have an “Ah-ha!” moment here. They were, after all, staunch believers that one day God would resurrect the dead to life, but they’re so furious with Jesus that they miss his point. No, they see this as clinching proof that Jesus really is possessed by a demon. It’s the only explanation for his crazy-talk. Abraham died. The Prophets died. If they were the greatest in Israel and they died, who does Jesus think he is making such claims about never dying? Yes, they believed that God would one day raise the faithful in Israel, but that vindication of the faithful hinged, they thought, on faithfulness to torah. What’s got them so worked up is that Jesus is now saying that God’s future vindication of his people will hinge not on faithfulness to torah, but on faithfulness of Jesus. He points back to Abraham to make his point. Abraham’s hope wasn’t in torah; he lived hundreds of years before it was ever given, but he hoped in the promises of God anyway. Abraham looked forward in hope to the day when the Lord’s promises would be fulfilled and Jesus is saying: “That day has now come and it’s happening through me.” This is the point of that line, cryptic to us, but was ever so clear to those angry Pharisees: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus identifies himself with the promises of God—with God’s word. “I am” is the meaning behind the divine name, Yahweh. John must have had this in mind when he penned the words of his prologue, “The word become flesh”. This is why Jesus can claim not only such a close association with the Father, but that to obey and follow him as Messiah is the criteria for inheriting the promises of God and, therefore, of being his true people, his true Israel.
The iudica theme of the day, the call for God’s vindication, runs like a thread through the Gospel. Already, the Jews are issuing a false judgement against Jesus, foreshadowing the events of Passiontide. But Jesus points them to the Father. He is the only judge who matters. He will vindicate his son and overturn the false verdict of the Jews. And this is how the Lord’s deliverance will come to Israel. As the Father vindicates Jesus and raises him to life, so he will vindicate the people who keep Jesus word (to use the language of verse 52). As death has no hold over him, neither will death have a hold over his people.
The Epistle — Hebrews 9:11-15
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
The book of Hebrews was written anonymously and debate over who its author may have been is not likely to be settled any time soon. There are good reasons to believe it wasn’t St. Paul, but there are also reasons to think it could have been. The book was written to Jewish believers and explains the good news about Jesus in light of the old covenant. That old covenant was familiar territory and many of the first Jewish Christians struggled to understand it in light of Jesus. After his conversion, Paul spent a good bit of time in solitude, working through these issues and came back having worked these matters out for himself and ready to help the rest of the Church to do the same. In many ways, Hebrews seems to work through what must have been Paul’s thought process or something very much like it.
In any case, the Church puts this selection from Hebrew before us this Sunday so that we will better understand the Passion of Jesus as it unfolds over the next two weeks. Specifically, the writer of Hebrews explains what the death of Jesus has done for his people in light of the sacrifices of the old covenant. The sacrificial system was at the centre of Jewish life under the old covenant and, particularly, the idea of atonement for sins by blood. Of course, the difficulty for many people was that the sacrificial system seemed to work just fine as it was. Yes, you had to make sacrifices repeatedly because sin still happened, but they just accepted that this is how things were and how they always would be and the Lord be praised for providing a means of redemption. Apart from that well-known passage, Isaiah 53:10, which speaks of the sacrificial death of God’s “suffering servant”, no one ever considered that this system might one day be superseded by something better, let alone that this might happen through the self-sacrificial offering of one of the priests, or even by God himself. Jesus seems to be the first person to have come to this conclusion and even his own disciples struggled to grasp it conceptually. And yet once it happened, there it was. But people still struggled to understand it. Jesus walked his friends through the Old Testament scriptures that first Easter as they travelled the Road to Emmaus and they understood. Paul met the risen Jesus and understood as well, although it took working through the implications of accepting that Jesus really was the Messiah for it to become plain as day. But this realisation that the old covenant sacrifices were preparing Israel for Jesus and for the cross is one of those things that once you see it, you just can’t unsee it. Hebrews was written so that all God’s people would finally see it for good.
Perhaps the difficulty began with the Jewish understanding of the tabernacle and later the temple. The tabernacle was the greatest place on earth, because it was the one place on earth that wasn’t simply “earth”. The tabernacle was the one place where earth and heaven intersected, where human beings could go to encounter the presence of God. How could anything top that? And yet the writer of Hebrews tells us, going back to Chapter 8, that the tabernacle was really only a temporary stand-in for the heavenly sanctuary, for the actual dwelling of God, so holy no human could ever approach. But we can draw near, as the Israelites discovered, through the work of priestly mediators who entered first bearing the sacrifices of the people. Similarly, it was difficult for Jewish people to comprehend a better sacrifice, but that’s just what Hebrews tells us Jesus is. He entered, not into the earthly tabernacle, but into the heavenly—directly into the presence of God—and he went in on our behalf, not bearing the blood of bulls or goats, but bearing his own blood.
Even if no one saw it coming, the old covenant was preparing God’s people for all of this. We see this preparatory role in the old covenant sacrifices as well. The sacrifices taught God’s people that sin and redemption from it are serious business. It costs the sacrifice of something valuable. The blood poured out from those animals reminded the people that the “wages of sin is death”, but that God mercifully accepts the death of another on our behalf. That the Lord ordained the sacrificial system was also a powerful reminder that God desires his people to live in his presence and wants us to be forgiven, cleansed, and made holy. Again, no one saw it coming, but once Jesus had died and been raised from death, it became impossible not to see that those sacrifices were preparing Gods’ people for Jesus. He took up Israel’s role and identity himself and offered himself as a once-for-all and perfect sacrifice for their sins filling the role of both priest and victim.
Finally, Jesus and the old covenant are contrasted in terms of the efficacy of the sacrifice. The old covenant sacrifices purified the flesh, but the underlying problem of the sinful heart remained. This simple predicament should have had Israel looking for a better sacrifice from the beginning, but again, it actually took that better sacrifice taking place before anyone understood. Throughout her story, the faithful of Israel lamented the nation’s predicament. No amount of sacrifices ever set Israel’s heart right. The people longed for the day that the prophets foretold, a day when the Lord would pour out his Spirit to set the hearts of Israel right once and for all. In Jesus it finally happened: a perfect sacrifice that purifies not only the flesh, but that also purifies the hearts of his people and makes them holy. Our passage here speaks of Jesus offering himself a sacrifice “through the eternal Spirit”—likely a reference to Isaiah 42:1 and to the anointing of the Spirit that took place at Jesus’ baptism—but it is difficult to read of Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry and not see the way in which, through him, the same Spirit has been poured into the hearts of his people. In this way, Jesus has purified our consciences—purified us where it really matters so as to transform our affections—that we might set aside “dead works” to serve the living God.
“Dead works” likely refers to those old covenant sacrifices and purity codes that, while good and God-given, could never fully deal with the problem of sin and death. The phrase may also include the old pagan practises of gentile converts, although the emphasis is clearly on the sacrificial system of the old covenant. The writer here uses “dead works” to contrast with “living God”. In Jesus, God’s people have finally been freed from the bondage of sin and death to live in the presence of God and as stewards of his life. Our vocation is the vocation that God gave to Abraham and his descendants, but now made possible as never before as Jesus and the Spirit have purified us from the inside out.
We beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people; that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As we enter Passiontide and anticipate Easter, we pray for God to govern and preserve his people. In the original Latin, the word that Cranmer translated as “people” is familia—God’s family or household. By our union with Jesus, we are accounted sons and daughters of God. Jesus, our master and head, makes his way to the cross that his household be forever preserved from sin and death. Being judged righteous, again through our union with Jesus in his death and resurrection, he pours into us the Holy Spirit, for salvation is not merely preservation, but also to be governed by God’s own Spirit, who sets our affections on him.
 Timothy J. Fawcett, ed. The Liturgy of Comprehension 1689 (Southend-on-Sea: Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1973), 83.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
Known historically as Laetare, meaning “Rejoice” in Latin, Mid-Lent Sunday is an occasion for relaxing the otherwise sombre tone of Lent. Easter is in sight. The name Laetare is drawn from Isaiah 66:10, the traditional Introit, which strikes a joyful note:
Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her:
Rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her;
That ye may suck and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolation.
In Rome this Sunday was the occasion for a stational mass at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. This basilica was established by Constantine’s mother, Helena, about 320 for the purpose of housing relics of Jesus’ passion. A quantity of soil was brought from Jerusalem to cover the floor of the basilica, hence the church’s name “in Jerusalem”. The day’s Epistle was chosen in light of this stational mass, the line “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother,” standing out. The name “Mothering Sunday” arose from the Epistle and led to the tradition of visiting the mother church of the diocese on this day. The name “Rose Sunday” arises from the fact that it was on this day at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme that the Pope blessed the golden roses distributed to Roman Catholic monarchs.
It was also tradition for the Bishop of Rome to distribute bread to the poor on this Sunday. The Gospel may have been chosen in light of this practise, but it is more likely that the tradition developed as a practical application of the Gospel. The Gospel is the source of the common name “Refreshment Sunday”.
The lessons converge around the themes of slavery and freedom. This theme is an obvious one in the Epistle, but the Gospel takes us there as well. What is important in the Gospel on this Sunday is not so much the miraculous feeding of the crowd itself but the wilderness setting and the acclamation that Jesus is “the Prophet”, the messianic figure who, like Moses, will deliver Israel.
The Gospel — St. John 6:1-14
After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
The sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is dominated by the theme of Passover and of the Passover bread. In our Gospel today he notes that these events took place at the time of Passover. Jesus will go on to speak of the “bread from heaven” beginning at verse 22. John means for us to recall the events of the Exodus, particularly the Lord’s provision of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness. In addition to John’s statement that it was the time of the Passover, he also makes an obvious allusion to the wilderness. The exchange between Jesus, Philip, and Andrew make clear that their situation was just as hopeless as that of the Israelites. Two hundred denarii would have barely bought enough bread to offer a few crumbs to each of those gathered. Even when they do discover a bit of food in one boy’s lunch, it’s not enough even to feed the disciples. But Jesus takes that small bit of food, gives thanks—a typical, simple meal blessing acknowledging the Lord’s provision—and begins to divide the bread and fish as the disciples distribute it. And the Lord provides. In fact, the Lord exceeds what he provided to the Israelites in the wilderness. When he provided manna there were no leftovers, but here there are twelve baskets remaining. The miracle points to the nature of Jesus ministry as a new exodus, but in exceeding the miracle of the manna, it also highlights that this new exodus will exceed the old in its scope. Similarly, while the miracle puts Jesus in the role of Moses, it also points to the fact that in this role he will exceed the greatness of Moses.
The Gospel climaxes with the acclamation of the people: “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18 and the promise that another would come, like Moses, to set Israel to rights, to lead the people from slavery to freedom. Today’s Gospel selection might seem to end prematurely, leaving out verse 15. In the conclusion of John’s telling of the event, the people draw the clear connection between “Prophet” and “Messiah”. They attempt to seize Jesus so that they can usher him straight to his throne as King. The omission of verse 15 from the Gospel is deliberate and ensures that we are left on a clear messianic note with Jesus acknowledged as filling the shoes of Moses. The new exodus is about to take place and we are reminded of Jesus’ exhortation in last Sunday’s Gospel. Acclamation is not enough. To have a share in this exodus and in the age to come, we must be willing to submit to Jesus in obedience.
The Epistle — Galatians 4:21-31
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
In his death and resurrection Jesus led his people out of their slavery to sin and death and into the freedom of the life of God and the age to come. This is at the heart of the good news. We are, however, often in danger of allowing ourselves to be led back into bondage. Life with Jesus in the wilderness is often difficult and before we realise it, we’re whining like the Israelite for the fleshpots of Egypt. Many Christians are tempted to find assurance of their status before God, not in the liberating work of Jesus, but in their own works. In some cases this may manifest itself as a return to the Old Testament Jewish law, but sometimes we make up our own set of rules by which we can judge our performance. Either way, it boils down to a denial of what Jesus has accomplished for us and what he gives us by grace.
Thanks to the missionary efforts of a group we often refer to as “Judaisers”—probably connected with the Church at Jerusalem—many Christians in the churches of Galatia were being pulled into this sort of error. This is the occasion for St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Paul had taught these gentile converts that, through their union by faith with Jesus, they had become children of Abraham and heirs of God’s promises to Israel. Now a group of missionaries had got the ear of these churches and they claimed that Paul hadn’t given them the full gospel. (Always beware those who claim to have the “full gospel”.) No, they claimed, for gentiles to become children of Abraham, they had to follow the law. In particular, they made a point of insisting on circumcision, the physical sign in the flesh that marked out a Jew. Of course, they claimed to have the law on their side.
Paul counters by going to the law himself, specifically to the story of Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac recorded in Genesis 16 and 21. In Genesis 15 the Lord had promised a son to Abraham. Seeing that she was barren, his wife Sarah suggested to him that he sire a son by her slavegirl, Hagar. This was a common custom of the time, but it was not the Lord’s plan. It backfired badly on Abraham and on his whole family. When she became pregnant, Hagar lorded it over her barren mistress. This prompted Sarah to mistreat Hagar, who ran away, but returned and bore a son, Ishmael. In time Sarah bore her own son, Isaac, and eventually insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be banished from the camp. Ishmael became the father of the Arab tribes and Isaac the father of Jacob and Esau.
It seems likely that the Judaisers were using this story to make their argument, claiming that the gentile Christians were akin to Ishmael and, therefore, outsiders. In order to become part of the the true and free family of God, these Jewish converts needed to be circumcised and to commit to living according to the law. Paul now turns the argument around and uses it against the Judaisers. There are, indeed, two families, but the Judaisers have it the wrong way around who is the slave and who is the free. One of these families was born of the flesh and the other of God’s promise. Isaac was the child born of God’s promise. Ishmael was the child born of the flesh, the child produced when Abraham tried to take matters into his own hands instead of waiting on the Lord.
So far the Judaisers would have been in agreement with Paul. But now, he writes, let’s look at these two families after an allegorical fashion and we’ll follow the promise. These families correspond to two covenants. It would be easy at this point to understand Paul to be referring to the old covenant and the new here, Judaism versus Christianity, so to speak. But that’s not quite it. Instead, he’s referring to the position of the Judaisers and his own position. One of these covenants is putting people in bondage—the one insisting that gentiles embrace the law given at Sinai. This is Hagar, the slavegirl, and Paul associates her with Sinai and the law. This would have caught the attention of the Judaisers who likely considered it tantamount to blasphemy. Paul is turning everything upside down, but he’s not done making his point yet. He began, “Do you not listen to the law?” Now he’s going to make it clear what the law—the story of Israel and the Lord’s promises to her—actually does say. Those pushing the law are, like Hagar, making converts born into a form of slavery, not the freedom established by Jesus. They, he says, correspond to the present Jerusalem—maybe a reference to the unbelieving Jews, but more likely a reference to those who sent these Judaising missionaries to Galatia and the authority behind their perverted gospel. In contrast, Paul appeals to the Jerusalem yet to come, the Jerusalem still above, the Jerusalem that will one day descend when heaven and earth are rejoined. This heavenly Jerusalem is Paul’s authority. This is the Jerusalem of God’s promise. Paul quotes Isaiah 54, the promise of the Lord to a then barren Jerusalem that one day she would bear a multitude of children. Paul understands the fulfilment of this promise to Jerusalem as a fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to Abraham. Through Isaac, Abraham would become a great people, a people who would be a light to the nations and through whom the nations would one day be brought to Israel’s God in faith, nations that would one day be incorporated into the people of God. The gentile believers were the fulfilment of that promise and thus the true heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. They were the free children born of Sarah, despite having no connection with the law.
Having established that the Judaisers are the ones putting their converts in bondage, Paul continues to draw on the story of Hagar and Sarah. What ought the Galatians to do with these false teachers who would rob them of their free status in Jesus and put them back into bondage? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman,” he writes. Get rid of them, for they proclaim a false gospel!
Paul makes a powerful exhortation here. We must follow Jesus in his new exodus and we must follow him all the way. For any number of reasons, life following him will be difficult. As the Israelites faced hardship and temptation in the wilderness, so will we. But the Lord has shown that he will provide for our needs. He provided for Israel in the wilderness and he will provide for us through Jesus and the Spirit. When we are tempted to turn back to Egypt, we must remember that we are inheritors of the Lord’s promise and that they are not merely bare promises. He demonstrated his faithfulness repeatedly to his people down through the ages and finally in the resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of his Spirit. He has given us every reason to trust in him and not to stray from the difficult path to the New Jerusalem.
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Collect reminds us of the faithfulness of God to his promises and the grounds for our own faith. We are sinners and as such we deserve God’s punishment. The weight of that sin can often feel crushing, and yet if we will admit our sins and turn to the Lord Jesus, we will know God’s merciful forgiveness and be “relieved”. The Latin is respiramus, literally “to breathe”. Admitting our sinfulness is not an easy thing to do. We’d rather deny it or, at least, try to earn our way into God’s favour by our works, but as we’ve seen in today’s lessons, that is the way into further bondage. Jesus leads his people in an exodus from the bondage of sin and death. He will free us from that bondage, all we need do is repent and put our faith in saving lordship.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
In the ancient Church this Sunday marked the beginning of an intensive period of preparation for those to be baptised at Easter. What later came to be called the “scrutinies” began this day. This is what we read in The Apostolic Tradition, dating to the Second or Third Century:
They who are to be set apart for baptism shall be chosen after their lives have been examined: whether they have lived soberly, whether they have honoured the widows, whether they have visited the sick, whether they have been active in well-doing. When their sponsors have testified that they have done these things, then let them hear the Gospel. Then from the time that they are separated from the other catechumens, hands shall be laid upon them daily in exorcism and, as the day of their baptism draws near, the bishop himself shall exorcise each one of them that he may be personally assured of their purity. Then, if there is any of them who is not good or pure, he shall be put aside as not having heard the word in faith; for it is never possible for the alien to be concealed.
Our Epistle and Gospel accordingly emphasise the commitment made by the catechumens. The Epistle stresses the Christian’s transfer from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, while the Gospel speaks of exorcism and Jesus’ triumph over the devils. The Collect, Epistle, and Gospel are those of the older Missals, although the Epistle did not originally include verses 10-14 and Archbishop Cranmer added the phrase “against all our enemies” to the Collect. The lessons this Sunday centre on the commitment that Christians must have to embrace and to live the identity we have been given by Jesus and to do so in the power of his indwelling Spirit.
The Gospel — St. Luke 11:14-28
Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
What was to be made of Jesus’ ministry to people afflicted by demons? The Gospels make it clear that Jesus had power over devils unlike anything anyone had seen before. As Jesus notes here, the Jews had exorcists, but they do not seem to have been particularly effective. Person after person came to Jesus having sought deliverance elsewhere and not found it. Each time Jesus spoke a word and the devils were gone, the person healed. Every time, without fail, they obeyed his commands without hesitation and without lengthy struggles or rituals. Everyone took note. And they could only come to one conclusion: Jesus was truly the Messiah. Confronted by this evidence the truly obstinate insisted on drawing another conclusion: The devils obeyed him because he was in league with them. They had their own ideas about the kingdom and about the Messiah and Jesus didn’t square with them. What better way of dismissing Jesus and his message than accusing him of being in league with the devil.
Jesus, of course, points out the obvious flaw in their accusation: Why would the satan be shooting his own troops? That’s a sure-fire way of losing the war. And the Jewish exorcists: Are they also in league with the devil? You’d better watch your accusations, Jesus warns. Your own exorcists are going to be pretty angry if your argument is that the devils only obey those who are in league with them. Jesus now says something that ought to catch our attention if we know Israel’s story: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” He deliberately uses the language of Exodus 8:18-19.
The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them.
The magicians of Egypt tried to duplicate the Lord’s miracles and failed. They were forced to go to Pharaoh and to admit that what was happening to Egypt and, more importantly, what was happening to undermine Pharaoh and his claim to authority and divinity was truly the work of the Lord—the “finger of God”. The Lord was breaking into history, he was displaying his power over his opposition, and he was about to deliver his people. Jesus’ point is that the same thing is happening again. In him, the God of Israel is displaying his power and authority over the forces of the present age as he prepares to lead his people in a new exodus. All the way to Jerusalem Jesus performs similar signs that point to what he will do there. As he defeats the devils he displays the same power by which he will defeat death as he turns it back on itself. There is a grave warning here in this allusion to Pharaoh and to the Exodus which amounts to “Whose side are you on?” The God of Israel is breaking into history once again to deliver his people. Only a fool in Israel would have sided with Pharaoh back then and only a fool would side with the devil in Jesus’ day. Jesus will come back to this at the close of the passage.
First, though, Jesus offers what may seem to be a cryptic illustration about demon possession. A man is delivered from demonic affliction only to have the demon return with seven of his friends. The poor man finds himself worse off than before. If we try to find some theology of demonic affliction or exorcism here, we’ll have missed the point. In his record of this event, Matthew adds “So also will it be with this evil generation” (12:45). Jesus is pointing out Israel’s problem—one that he came to fix. Throughout her history Israel had seen many reform movements. Some had been more successful than others. Some had been superficial and others really had tried to address the problem of her heart. Jesus’ point is that none of these reforms had been able to solve Israel’s problem once and for all. That was what he’d come to do. There was a reason why Israel was the man, previously delivered but now home to a host of demons. Evil was finally concentrated in one place—in Israel—so that it could rise up to its full height and do its worst to Jesus—so that in his death and resurrection Jesus could deal evil a crushing blow. In the meantime, Jesus points to the message of the prophets: Until the Lord takes up his dwelling in his people, until he fulfils his promise to pour out his Spirit, Israel will be like that man, delivered and then possessed again. This is what Jesus had come to accomplish and this is what his preaching and his miracles pointed towards.
Now, back to his warning. A woman in the crowd cries out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you!” Jesus replies, “No, blessed are those who hear what I’m saying and do it.” It’s not enough to recognise that the Lord was at work in Jesus. Pharaoh’s magicians were forced to admit that the Lord was at work through Moses. In that sense, they had acknowledged more than these critics of Jesus were willing to admit. No, when God is at work, what’s necessary is obedience. Praising Jesus for his miracles and witty comebacks isn’t the way to the kingdom. The way to the kingdom is obedience—to drop everything, to set aside one’s own agendas and false ideas of the Messiah and the kingdom, and to follow Jesus.
The Epistle — Ephesians 5:1-14
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Recall the origins of the season of Lent and imagine those early converts, perhaps in the Third or Fourth Century. They were steeped in pagan Greco-Roman culture, but they’d heard the good news about Jesus—the Jewish Messiah who had been crucified and then was raised from death to life. That a god could be—or would even allow himself to be—crucified was an attention grabber. That He was raised from death was another. They began to listen and as they did they heard the story of the people of God, from Adam to Abraham, from Moses to David, and from the Prophets to Jesus and in him they learned how the God of Israel had shown his righteousness, his faithfulness, his goodness, his mercy, and his love. In Jesus and his resurrection they saw new creation breaking into the brokenness of the world. They had only known darkness. In fact, because they’d never known anything but darkness, the light caught them entirely by surprise. They believed. They put began to trust in the God of Israel as he had revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. And their families, friends, and neighbours thought they’d lost their minds. They were accused of blasphemy and atheism and even cannibalism. They were sometimes made scapegoats when things went wrong. Sometimes they were arrested and forced to profess their loyalty to the Emperor—to offer a ceremonial pinch of incense at his shrine—or be thrown to the lions. This season of Lent was the time when they were prepared: taught what it really means to be a Christian, taught to count the cost, taught what it really means deep down to leave behind the darkness and to live in the light of God. As they prepared to be baptised at Easter they were taught what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Our Epistle continues with this Lenten theme, again highlighting the difference between the values and character of the present age and the values and character of the age to come and its people who live the life of the Spirit. Paul begins with Jesus himself. We are children of God and our calling is to imitate our Father. Jesus is our example and our motivation. We are to walk in love. How do we know what true love is? Look to Jesus who humbled himself in his incarnation and who gave his life as a sacrifice for the sins of his people.
What follows highlights just how different God’s kingdom is from the word around us. The world tells us that to love someone else is to desire their happiness and to encourage whatever it is that they believe will make them happy. In the modern world personal happiness is increasingly tied to indulging our sexual appetites and affirming our sexual proclivities, no matter what they may be. To confront extramarital sex, pornography, promiscuity, homosexuality, or any other of many activities our society has come to accept is at the very least to be accused of being a prude, but is increasingly likely to get one labelled as a “hater”—the very opposite of love. And yet, straight from telling us to love according to the model of Jesus, Paul turns to sexual immorality. He equates it with idolatry—which, if we stop to think about it, is an excellent description of the way we so often become obsessed with sex. As a pastor I’ve known many people who have turned their backs on Jesus and, in most cases, it was because they chose some sexual sin over obedience to him. Sex truly is an idol. We cannot worship Jesus and Aphrodite at the same time, any more than Israel could worship the Lord and the fertility gods of the Canaanites at the same time—but that’s just what so many Christians try to do. Paul has strong words for those of us who try to engage in this dangerous juggling act: such people have no inheritance in Jesus’ kingdom. Again, as Jesus concluded our Gospel today: It is not enough to hold Jesus in great esteem. Either we commit to him in obedience or we have no share in him.
In verse 8, Paul illustrates our situation with the dramatic contrast between darkness and light. God’s people have always been light to the world. It is impossible to live between the two, since light dispels darkness—hence Paul’s condemnation of those who continue to practise the works of darkness rather than bearing the fruit of light. Our calling is to pursue what is good, right, and true. The Epistle closes with words that Paul almost certainly quotes from an early Christian hymn. “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” This hymn speaks of the experience of conversion. We were dead in our sins, but Jesus has met us with the life of God, he has roused us if from sleep with the brightness of his light, and we would be fools not to walk in that light with him.
This was the choice to which those early converts were committing. There was a certain old comfort and familiarity in the darkness, but having experienced the light of God in Jesus and the Spirit, there was no going back. Their hearts, once bent on sin and self, had been turned to God. God had led his people in an exodus from sin and death when he raised Jesus from the dead and, having seen his faithfulness, his righteousness, his goodness, these former pagans were ready to claim their place in the people of God no matter what it cost them.
We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Collect this day expresses the commitment of those new converts preparing for baptism. Archbishop Cranmer used the expression “hearty desires” to translate the Latin word vota, a solemn promise to God, and a reference to the baptismal vows these men and women were preparing to take. They knew that the choice to follow Jesus came with challenges. They might very well be rejected by family and friends, they could face persecution or martyrdom, and they knew that it is no small task to forsake the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil—to forsake the darkness and to walk consistently in the light. Knowing that it was God who had called them to this path, they turned to him for help just as we should. He will stretch forth his hand—recalling the “finger of God” in our Gospel—and will be our defence against all our enemies.
This is part of a series of posts on preaching the Church Year in narrative-historical perspective. More on this project can be found in this introduction.
The Second Sunday in Lent was originally a “vacant” Sunday with no assigned liturgical propers. This was due to the lengthy vigil, ordination, and Mass of Ember Saturday. Our current propers are those of the Sarum Missal. The Collect originated with the Gregorian Sacramentary and the Epistle appears to have the same origin. While there is a clear connection between the Collect and the Epistle, it is difficult to find such a clear connection between the Epistle and the Gospel. It has also been noted that the events of the Gospel are out of sequence with the otherwise chronological arrangement of the other Lenten Gospels. It is possible that when the Sarum Missal was compiled, this Gospel was “borrowed” from a set of earlier weekday propers. In the Roman Missal this is the gospel of the Thursday of the preceding week. That said, the Gallican and the old Roman Missals appoint this Gospel for the first Sunday of the first month (i.e., March). This is a more likely explanation for the appointment of this Gospel in the Sarum Missal. The Roman Missal is equally disjointed in its appointment of the account of the Transfiguration for this Sunday.
The Epistle continues the theme, begun on First Sunday in Lent, of lessons aimed at preparing candidates for baptism and restoration of penitents at Easter. The Gospel is thematically linked with that of Jesus’ temptation last Sunday. Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel, overcame the temptations of the devil and now overcomes him again, this time on gentile territory, foreshadowing the fulfilment of prophecies, like that of Isaiah 60:3. Whatever the original intent may have been in the selection of our propers, the Gospel, in particular, demands to be read after a narrative-historical fashion and that is where we shall begin.
The Gospel — St. Matthew 15:21-28
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Last Sunday’s Gospel showed us Jesus following in the footsteps of Israel as he made his way through the water and into the wilderness to face temptations that recalled Israel’s exodus journey and temptations. Jesus took the identity of his people on himself so that he could eventually stand in their place to fulfil the Lord’s promises to Abraham, to Moses, and to the Prophets. We’re reminded of the specificity of Jesus’ ministry. Today’s Gospel stresses this point again. It has become very common for Christians in our day to understand the gospel in abstract and universal terms that ignore its narrative context. That sort of hermeneutic will leave us scratching our heads as we read today’s text.
Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ mission. Jesus was not merely a travelling evangelist and miracle worker with a universal message of salvation. We should note Jesus’ instructions to the twelve in 10:5-6: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Was the gospel for the nations? Yes. But the gospel hinged on Israel. As St. Paul wrote, “Salvation is of the Jews.” Israel was the Lord’s special people. They were the stewards of the Lord’s light and of his promises. As he had promised to Abraham, it was through them that he would make himself known to the gentile nations. This is why the messianic promises were centred on the deliverance, redemption, and renewal specifically of Israel. We cannot flatten the biblical narrative and make Israel historically irrelevant. As Jesus said, he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it; not to do away with the chosen people of God, but to renew that people. Without Israel there is no good news. And Israel had to hear that good news first. God’s promises to Israel had to be fulfilled before the good news could go out to the nations and make any kind of sense.
Understanding the narrative of God’s people is what makes sense of Jesus’ initial rejection of the Canaanite woman. She was not part of the people of God. Mark describes her as a Greek and a Syrophoenecian, Matthew refers to her as a Canaanite, as one of the ancient unclean peoples of the land whose continued presence not only bore witness to Israel’s disobedience, but was itself polluting. Matthew contrasts the faith of Israel with the faith of this woman who is the epitome of the outsider. He similarly highlighted the faith of the Centurion in 8:5-13, where Jesus announced, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus attitude in Chapter 8 seems to have been very different. In response to the Centurions faith he declared, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” Again, it needs to be said that this is not because Jesus was the bearer of a universal or abstract message of salvation for all. When he talks about gentiles reclining at the table with Israel’s patriarchs, he’s referencing passages like Isaiah 2:2-4 and Zechariah 8:20-23. These passages from the prophets speak first of the Lord fulfilling his promises to Israel. The revelation of the Lord’s faithfulness to his people then draws the nations: “In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:23).
Of course, this raises the question of why Jesus was so accommodating to the Centurion, but not the Canaanite woman. A common explanation is that Jesus was testing her, but this doesn’t really hold up exegetically. Matthew says that Jesus ignored her—that he said not a word to her. The disciples urged him to send her away and the context implies that what they were saying was, “Give her what she wants so that she’ll leave us alone.” Jesus responds, not to the woman, but to the disciples and reiterates the nature of his mission: he was sent to Israel, not to the gentiles. While this conversation took place in the presence of the woman, it was between Jesus and the disciples. It does not seem to be a test of the woman’s faith. But she persists, forcing herself on Jesus and Jesus responds, “It is not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” Matthew makes a point of calling her a Canaanite—a label loaded with negative baggage—but Jesus goes further and calls such people dogs. This isn’t a reference to friendly pet dogs, but to the mangy and feral dogs that roamed around ancient cities looking for refuse to eat. It’s hard to imagine Jesus being any more direct that his ministry was not for the gentiles. And yet the woman persists, “Even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.” Finally, seeing her faith, Jesus acquiesces. He praises her faith and announces that her daughter has been delivered. Again, it doesn’t seem that Jesus is testing the woman, so why is he so rude in contrast to the way he received the centurion and knowing that Jesus did, indeed, believe that there would eventually be a place at the table for gentile believers. Andrew Perriman offers what might be the best answer when he argues that the intervening time had revealed to Jesus just how great the scope of his mission to the Jews was.
“As he goes through “all the cities and villages” of Galilee healing every disease and affliction, he has compassion on the crowds, who are “harassed and downtrodden, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36, my translation). It has become apparent that the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. This is not an exhortation to personal evangelism—it is a reflection on the dereliction of Israel, the extent of hardship and suffering. It is sharp social comment.
So he sends out the twelve disciples to proclaim the imminent kingdom of God, to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, instructing them to go only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”, avoiding Gentile and Samaritan areas.
Have the Gentiles simply become a distraction? A hindrance?
The centurion’s appeal for help afforded Jesus an opportunity to reflect on the faithlessness of Israel. But by the time we get to the withdrawal to the region of Tyre and Sidon, he is in no mood to accommodate the importunities of a Gentile woman. So he says to the disciples: We agreed, right? We don’t need this. We confine ourselves to the lost sheep of Israel—and even then you will not get through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matt. 10:23).”
This explains Jesus’ statement that is wrong to give the children’s bread to dogs. He gives in to the woman’s pleas when he sees that she really does have the same sort of faith that he saw in the Centurion. She addresses Jesus as “son of David”, the messianic title that even the disciples were still struggling to comprehend, but she even goes further. She recognised that Jesus’ mission was to his own people, but that there had to be some benefit from that mission that would fall from the table to people like her. Israel was the people who stewarded God’s promises and those promises included a future where even the gentiles would recline at the table with Abraham. If Jesus was truly Israel’s Messiah, there must be at least some crumbs for the dogs in the present. Jesus simply could not let such faith go unacknowledged.
The lesson here for us today is not that if we will only badger God long enough with our prayers he will answer them. The lesson lies in the forward-looking faith of the woman. At a time when even Jesus’ disciples were unable to wrap their heads around Good Friday, let alone Easter, this woman is anticipating Pentecost and its missional fruit. In important respects, this gentile woman understood the significance of Israel’s story better than the Jews did and Matthew uses her story to foreshadow where that narrative will eventually lead. When the gentiles see the faithfulness of God revealed in the Messiah, particularly in his death and resurrection for the renewal of his people, the gentiles will be drawn to give him glory. How ought such a perspective inspire us to live in hope, looking back to the cross and the empty tomb, while also looking forward to the day when the Lord’s promise to make all things new are fulfilled once and for all? How ought such a perspective inform our witness as we proclaim this good news about Israel’s God and his Messiah that the nations might be moved to give him glory?
The Epistle — 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Our Epistle this Sunday continues the Lenten course reading on subjects concerning the duties and commitments of those who are in Christ. What Paul writes here to the Christians in Thessalonica is particularly apt for Western Christians at the beginning of the 21st Century. Israel’s narrative, once again, has something important to say to a gentile Christians living in the midst of a pagan world. Three times here, St. Paul uses the word ἁγιασμός—holiness or sanctification. Holiness was integral to the identity of the people of God under the old covenant. Repeatedly, the Lord told Israel: You are a holy people. Notably, in Exodus 19:6 the Lord told Israel that they were not only a holy people, but a kingdom of priests. Think back to the tabernacle (and the temple). The Lord had chosen the men of the tribe of Levi to be his priests and to serve in his presence in the tabernacle. They were subject to a complex and detailed purity code to maintain their holiness so that they could enter the Lord’s presence in a state of complete purity. But the need for holiness didn’t end with the Levites at the gate of the tabernacle. As the people who lived in the presence of the Lord, Israel as a people was to be holy as well. As the Levite priests mediated the Lord’s presence to Israel, so the whole nation of Israel served a priestly role to mediate the Lord’s presence to the world. This holy stewardship was a restoration to humanity’s original vocation. Paul’s point is that Jesus has renewed this vocation in the new Israel. As St. Peter wrote, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9)”. Israel’s identity and vocation are now overlaid on the Church. Jesus has purified and delivered us from sin and God has poured his own Spirit into us to make us holy, to enable us to fulfil this priestly vocation in a way that the old Israel never could. The Church is the steward of the good news about Jesus and the inbreaking of God’s new age, but the Church is also called to serve Israel’s priestly vocation in mediating the presence of God to the nations. This demands holiness. Again, Jesus has purified us from our unholiness and the Spirit now indwells us to keep us holy by turning our affections to God.
And yet holiness remains a struggle. In our baptism we solemnly renounce the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil in the knowledge that they are very real threats to our holiness. The Thessalonian Christians lived in a world, not all that unlike our own, in which sexual self-gratification was rampant. They had, themselves, been a part of this culture in which religious rituals often involved temple prostitution and the like. There are many other sorts of temptations, but deviating from God’s sexual norms is always one the most present and powerful and that’s what Paul gets at in today’s Epistle. What does holiness look like in a culture were sexual sin is everywhere? First, he writes in verse 3, Christians are to abstain from sexual immorality—from fornication. The Greek word, πορνεία, often specifically refer to prostitution, but generally refers to any sexual activity outside of marriage. We are to bring our sexual desires into submission to the Holy Spirit, putting aside lust that we might treat our bodies in a way that is holy and honourable. Paul writes in verse 6 that we are not to transgress or wrong a brother in this matter. Given the context, Paul seems to be referring to adultery or to stealing another man’s wife, but it is also true that no sexual sin is a purely private matter. Adulterous thoughts, just as actual adultery, undermine our marriages and hurts one’s spouse. Pornography, so seemingly omnipresent in our culture, involves the exploitation of those who produce it, even when they are willing participants. Sexual sins not only hurt the individual sinning, but also—directly and indirectly—hurts others, hurts our relationships, and hurts our witness and ministry.
Paul concludes the paragraph with a stern warning. The Lord will avenge in these matters. We are often prone to justifying sexual sin by arguing that it’s something we do in private or that it involves consenting adults, but Paul reminds us that sexual sin is not only against other people who might be involved, but like all sin is ultimately against the Lord. As it was in Israel, so sin (and holiness) are serious business in the Church. We cannot argue for freedom and license on the grounds that Jesus forgives sins (How often do we say, “God will forgive me,” before we dive into something we know is wrong?), because to do so ignores our vocation. Christianity is not merely about the forgiveness of sins. Christianity is about God forgiving our sins so that we can be restored to his presence and to our vocation of stewarding his promises and his good news. The primary duty of priests is to mediate God’s presence to the world, but a priest cannot do that apart from holiness. As St. Paul wrote in last week’s Epistle: Do not receive the grace of God in vain.
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
While closely tied to the Epistle, the Collect has echoes of the Gospel and the Canaanite woman’s plea, “Lord, help me!” As we make our way through Lent and are confronted on the one hand with the gospel’s call to holiness and, on the other, with the reality of our sins, we may feel overwhelmed. In our own power the task of holiness is impossible. But we are reminded today that our holiness is not dependent on our own willpower or self-control, but on our having been made new by Jesus and on his Spirit who indwells us. Jesus has made us God’s temple and the Spirit equips us for our priestly vocation. In the Collect we pray for the Lord to spare us from the physical harms of this life, but more importantly we pray for deliverance from the temptations that so easily take root in heart and mind. As is so often the case, when we ask the Lord to deliver us from evil, we ought also to be committing, for our part, to do our best to avoid evil and not to willingly give it quarter whether we find it or it finds us.