Date: May 26, 2013, Holy Trinity Sunday
Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; John 8:48-59
Contextual Notes: Holy Trinity Sunday is set apart for us to specifically consider the triune nature of our one God. This festival was first formalized by the Roman Catholic Church in the 14th century, however various unofficial celebrations of this were known much earlier. The Trinity is part of every worship, as we begin the service with the invocation, and throughout the service in the liturgy and often the songs that we sing. But one Sunday a year we spend time more specifically considering this mystery. It is often observed by the reading of the Athanasian Creed, the third (and least known) of the Ecumenical Creeds of the Church.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31: This chapter personifies Wisdom as a lovely woman – a metaphor that is used often throughout the Proverbs. We first met her in the opening chapter of Proverbs, and she is contrasted with her opposite, the woman Folly, who is often described as the adulterous woman – enticing but leading to ruin. The verses in Chapter 8 for today emphasize more the eternal nature of wisdom, and as such, link the personification of wisdom more with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God that proceeds from the Father and the Son and has thus eternally existed before all creation, which is the emphasis of the second, longer set of verses in this reading. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to his followers in John 14, emphasizing the Spirit's role in teaching and keeping the hearts of his followers. Thus it is the Spirit of God himself who makes us wise, who is the embodiment of wisdom.
Psalm 8: A psalm of praise to the goodness and glory of God. The glory of God is manifested in creation, but also in his designation of mankind as his stewards of creation.
Acts 2:14a, 22-36: The speech of Peter at Pentecost, which we began reading last week, continues today. The first section concentrated on the outpouring of God's power as prophesied in Scripture, and as an explanation for the bizarre linguistic ability suddenly given to the disciples. Now that Peter has justified their unexpected actions as the work of God, he proceeds to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah and Son of God. The hallmark of this identity, the defining factor is the resurrection (v.24). Peter preaches Jesus not just as the Messiah but as Lord, calling his hearers to repentance for the sin of crucifying Jesus. So it is that the Holy Spirit points people to Jesus as Lord and Savior, and in so doing, points to God the Father who sent the Son and the Spirit.
John 8:48-59: Some people are fond of claiming that Jesus doesn't explicitly call himself the Son of God. However this passage (and others) in John are a good place to refute that claim. Jesus counters claims about him as a demon-possessed heretic (the Samaritans were viewed as heretics and not properly Jewish by the people in Judea and Jerusalem). He is accused of being in error, and he counters by asserting that rather than dishonoring God through his error, He actually brings true honor to God the Father, rather than himself. As such, his words will continue forever. We remember John's emphasis on Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, which he lays out in John 1.
Jesus' hearers are astounded, because Jesus is claiming a greater honor than the patriarchs and prophets, men venerated by the Jews yet still understood to be only mortal men. How is it that these great and holy men could die, yet Jesus claims to hold the power of eternal life?
Jesus then claims to know Abraham, to know of his response at seeing the day of the Lord arriving in his own ministry. This also seems ludicrous to Jesus' hearers, who note his youth and mock his assertion to know Abraham. Jesus' response is telling. His claim of “I am” echoes the name that God gave himself when queried by Moses in Exodus 3:14. Jesus is equating himself to the Father; they share the same name, the holy name that the Jews refuse to even pronounce for fear of blasphemy. So it is that his hearers are prepared to kill him for blasphemy.
The idea that Jesus is also God is a difficult one for us to grasp hold of. It runs counter to our understandings – murky as they are! - of what it means to be either human or God. The doctrine of the Trinity, attested to by the Word of God, is one that we cannot intellectually grasp or understand in fullness. We can only bear faithful witness to what God himself has said about this in his Word and the Word made flesh.
Because of the challenging nature of this doctrine, plenty of people and groups have attempted to get around it or away from it. Arius denied the full divinity of Jesus. Jehovah's witnesses deny the Trinity as well. When we seek to substitute our own reasoning and logic for the revealed truth of God, we find ourselves denying and contradicting his Word in favor of an explanation that we are more comfortable with. But what a price that comfort demands!
We are forced to confess in the doctrine of the Trinity that the true nature and essence of God is beyond our understanding. We are unable to say more about it than He has revealed, and we are not free to ignore any of what He has said, either. This is the glory of God, that He is so above and beyond our ability to comprehend that we are left only with the options of worshiping him or rejecting him. We will never enjoy the presence of God by an act of the mind, by our comfort at being able to fully explain him. This is not the comfort we find in God. Rather, we find comfort in God in his revelation of himself and his will towards us through his Son, Jesus. Here it is that we find comfort from what we cannot explain, peace from the immense otherness of God. In God made flesh, we can approach God and know that He loves us, because He has first approached us.
Date: May 19, 2013, Pentecost Sunday
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 143; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31
Contextual Notes: Pentecost Sunday is the celebration of the birth of the Church. When the disciples received the promised Holy Spirit, they were enabled and permitted to go out into the world with the good news that Jesus is the promised Messiah through whom all creation can be reconciled to God the Father. The readings today run the spectrum from the division of mankind at the tower of Babel, to a Psalm pleading for rescue, to the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the Gospel reminds us that the Holy Spirit was promised ahead of time to the disciples – once again the Word finds fulfillment in the birth of the Church.
Genesis 11:1-9: Following close on the heels of the Flood narrative and the story of Noah and his family, we see that from the most righteous of human beings, humanity still is enmeshed in sin. The Flood did not cure sin – nor was it intended to. It highlights that even were all the bad people to be eliminated, the good people bear in their hearts and minds sin which will continue to work in and through them.
The result of sin is division and isolation. By sinfully seeking their own glory rather than the glory of God, this division and isolation is made manifest by fracturing the languages of mankind. Unity is not possible because we cannot communicate with one another. The division in the hearts of mankind is now demonstrated in division by the words they speak.
Psalm 143: This is the last of the penitential psalms – psalms intended to guide the speaker in asking for forgiveness. Instead of appealing to the speaker's righteousness, this psalm makes a somewhat unexpected move in asserting the universality of sin (v.2). It is on this basis – that no body can stand blameless before God – that the speaker is bold to ask for forgiveness and deliverance from God. Surely, if God does not forgive and save, nobody can be forgiven or saved. The requested deliverance is not just for the well-being of the speaker, it is for the glory of God (v.11). When God exercises loving-kindness and mercy towards his creation, He demonstrates his goodness, and his worthiness to be praised.
Acts 2:1-21: The feast of weeks or the feast of firstfruits or Pentecost was an existing Jewish feast prior to the events of Acts 2. This is why there were so many Jews in Jerusalem seven weeks after Passover. Pentecost occurred 50 days after the Passover Sabbath, hence the Greek name Pentecost. Note that the disciples were waiting as instructed in Acts 1:4-5. The gift of speaking in tongues has a very practical purpose then, communicating the Gospel to Jews from all over the Roman empire. Speaking in tongues is not demonstrated here as a personal gift. The Holy Spirit intends their speech to be understood, and they are understood. At least their languages are! What they are talking about requires further explanation, which Peter supplies. The birth of the Church is marked by this momentary reconciliation of languages, a unity that stands in opposition to the dispersion from Genesis 11. God is beginning the process of drawing his people and all creation together again by his Holy Spirit's power. The division caused by sin is beginning to crumble – the Kingdom of God is inbreaking into creation!
John 14:23-31: The beginning of the reconciliation of all of creation begins in the death and resurrection of the Son of God, and the imparting of the Holy Spirit of God after Jesus' ascension. While Jesus will not remain bodily with his followers, the Holy Spirit will dwell in them. God the Holy Spirit becomes closer to them than even the incarnate Son of God has been!
But there are two stages being described here. Jesus as the Word of God abides where the Word of God is kept. Where the will of God the Father is sought, God the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit) are present. So it is that Jesus will continue to abide with his followers yet at the same time not with others. He will be with them for a time, and then not be with them.
But then, beyond the Word of God, the Spirit of God is promised. The Holy Spirit will instruct Jesus' disciples and remind them of Jesus' teachings – the Word of God that they are to keep. Grounded in the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus will receive peace. Not the passing peace of the world, not the mere temporary absence of strife, but rather true peace that is found only in the presence of the Word of God. Jesus points forward to the day of Pentecost. He will leave his disciples bodily (the Ascension), but his Spirit will dwell with them always.
So it is with the Church today. Those who know and trust the Word of God are assured the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit of God. You and I continue to be empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit who teaches us and makes us wise and recalls to our hearts and minds the Word of God as we have read and heard it in Scripture. In this we are continually taught and made wise, and growing in understanding we gain greater peace in the midst of an uncertain world, certain of one thing – the victory of Jesus Christ over this world, and the promise of his return in glory!
Date: May 12, 2013, Seventh Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 1:12-26; Psalm 133; Revelation 22:1-6, 12-20; John 17:20-26
Contextual Notes: This is the final Sunday of the season of Easter. Next Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost! However this Sunday also directly follows Ascension Day (May 9). As such, the readings for this final Sunday of Easter have a particular eye towards the Church that waits faithfully for the return of her ascended Lord.
Acts 1:12-26: What is the Church to do now that her Lord is ascended and no longer bodily with her? She continues to act in faith, as guided by the Holy Spirit who comes at Pentecost. The disciples' first order of business following Jesus' ascension is to select someone to replace Judas Iscariot. We are told of his fate following his betrayal of Jesus. The Twelve were not the only ones to have accompanied Jesus on his ministry, and now one of these others must fill Judas' place.
As such, the Church in all places and times waits faithfully for her Lord by ensuring that the proper preaching and teaching of the Word can continue, and that this requires a steady chain of command. Where leaders are persecuted or martyred or fall into sin, new leaders must step forward to take their place. In all situations, the criteria is faith in the full message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, baptized, executed, resurrected and ascended. The purpose is to act as a witness to the resurrection, the central tenet of the Christian faith. Ensuring that the Word continues to be shared both with believers and those who have not yet heard is the central duty and privilege of the Church on earth. While tactics may differ somewhat, we should find unity in this common duty and privilege!
Psalm 133: This psalm emphasizes the blessings of unity beneath God. Oil was the symbol of blessing and abundance and health, and oil on the head was particularly the sign of one singled out by God for particular blessing and duty. It is in unity that we are able to perceive and appreciate more fully the gifts of God, namely that we will be brothers and sisters for eternity. As such, shouldn't that anticipation of future eternal unity drive our desire for unity here and now?
Revelation 22:1-6 (7-11), 12-20: The emphasis of these passages is on the imminence of Christ's return. This has implications on how we live our lives now, both individually and communally. Our actions do matter. While faith is what saves us, our deeds are often an indication of the condition of that faith. While we declare loudly that our salvation is in Christ alone, we also take seriously the impact of sin on our lives and the lives of those around us.
The duty of the Church is to remain faithful to the full Word of God, neither removing parts that cause us difficulty or adding portions to comfort ourselves or trouble others. Where the Word of God is silent, it is wise for us to remain silent. Where the Word of God speaks, we are to repeat it clearly and in love. This is how the Church, the bride of Christ, awaits the bridegroom. There is plenty to fill each day in remaining faithful to the Word we are entrusted with!
John 17:20-26: This section is part of The High Priestly Prayer – Jesus' final prayer for his followers before his arrest and execution. In whole, it is a loving depiction of Jesus' concern and love for those who had put their faith and trust in him. Considering what he knew this faith and trust would cost them, this prayer is particularly poignant.
His followers – his friends – would face major issues in the days and years following his death and resurrection. They would face persecution by religious authorities, threats on their lives, the martyring of Steven and then others, exile from Jerusalem, wanderings around the Mediterranean, and mostly premature and violent deaths, all for the sake of sharing with others the joyful news of the resurrection of the Son of God. They would have myriad forces attempting to destroy and delay them, and their unity with one another in the face of this adversity, unity mirroring the unity of the triune God itself, would be critical.
But Jesus' prayer specifically extends beyond his immediate followers to those who will believe “through their word”. This means you and I. We also are to seek unity with our fellow Christians. This means not just those in our congregation (though this is the first and most important place for unity!), but those in other Lutheran congregations nearby. But not just that, unity with Christians of all denominational stripes. Whether Catholic or Orthodox or Baptist or Mennonite, there is a unity to be found with all of them.
That unity is not in the glib glossing over of deep and pertinent differences in how we read and apply God's Word. The world's solution for unity is to pretend that there are no differences – for everyone to sacrifice who and what they are until nothing is left of any substance. This is not what Jesus is exhorting us towards. While the fracturing of the Christian faith over 2000 years is certainly not the most powerful witness to unity in Christ, it does not have to be the rejection of it, either.
We profess – with millions of Christians from varying backgrounds – the Ecumenical Creeds that have defined the Christian faith for 1700 years. The Nicene, Apostles', and Athanasian Creeds each guide us in the unity we posess – unity in the confession of the Triune God and his works: God the Father as creator, God the Son as redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit who abides with us still.
There are many things the Creeds don't address, and which have subsequently divided Christianity – issues regarding Sacraments and how the Word of God should be treated. But the Creeds form a baseline of unity. This is what it means to have saving faith, if we can confess as our own belief, the words of these creeds.
Focusing on our unity with Christian brothers and sisters through the Creeds helps us to remember that Jesus has prayed for our unity with the, unity ultimately demonstrated in fraternal love for one another. I may disagree with my Baptist brother or sister over the nature of Holy Communion or Baptism. It's an important topic with many repercussions and therefore we must agree to disagree, rather than pretend we agree or that there isn't a valuable reason to maintain our differences. But I am also called to be united with that brother or sister in Jesus Christ, demonstrating to them the love which Jesus has demonstrated to me.
Our focus as the Church in Jesus Christ is to bear witness to our unity in our Savior. To profess that as we will share eternity with one another, we love one another here and now even as we are forced by sinfulness to maintain important positions on critical applications of the faith. But it is my job never to speak poorly of that brother or sister in faith who differs from me on a point of doctrine. So long as they can affirm the truths of the Creeds as the faithful and core elements of faith as expressed in Holy Scripture, I affirm my unity with them, I pray for their well-being, and I look forward to an eternity where those differences will no longer exist.