Easter 7, Year A: Acts 1:6-14: Jesus Ascends

Jesus Ascends

Jesus Ascends – Source: iStockphoto.com/KimsCreativeHub. I have chosen to discuss only the First Lesson reading from the book of Acts.

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the First Lesson reading from the book of Acts.

In the Acts story, we learn about Christ’s ascension.  It’s a lovely way to end the Easter season and lead up to Pentecost next week.

The apostles were together with Jesus and they asked him if it was now time for him to give the people of Israel a kingdom again.  Jesus told them only the Father knew dates and times and it wasn’t for them to know, but then he promised them the Holy Spirit would come and give them power and that they would carry his message around the world.

Then after he said that, he was lifted up into the sky. As they watched, he went into a cloud and they couldn’t see him anymore.  I think this is a beautiful image of him the risen Lord now rising away from them.  While they stared at the now empty sky, two men in white suddenly appeared and said, “Men from Galilee, why are you standing here looking into the sky? You saw Jesus carried away from you into heaven. He will come back in the same way you saw him go.” They can’t spend life staring at the sky but need to get on with things (I know some people who are so obsessed with Jesus’ return that it seems they are always looking into the sky instead of getting on with things).

The story goes on to say that they went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and were all together with other followers, constantly praying.

As I said above, I think it’s helpful this week to close out the Easter season—review what happened on Good Friday and then on Easter, review the stories of how Jesus visited people for 40 days before ascending to Heaven.  Then next week is Pentecost, when he sent the Holy Spirit to be with his followers and the Spirit continues with us today.  Though he is in Heaven, Jesus is with us all the time and the Holy Spirit guides us (as it says in our creed).

 

Easter 6, Year A: Acts 17:22-31: To an Unknown God

Areopagus Hill

Areopagus Hill – Source: iStockphoto.com/milangonda

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the reading from the book of Acts.

In this story, Paul was in Athens standing in front of the Areopagus. The Areopagus is a rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis. (see the pic above). It was also the site of a governmental body (the Council of the Areopagus), which tried serious crimes like homicide, but apparently met for other matters as well. Earlier in the chapter it reads, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” I admire their curiosity. Apparently, they were curious about what Paul had been arguing about all over town and brought him to the Areopagus to find out.

Paul noted there that the Athenians had erected an altar with the inscription, “To an Unknown God,” like they were really covering their bases in case they didn’t know about all the gods. Paul uses this as a clever segue with the words, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” to introduce them to God and the story of Jesus.

Paul was probably a very educated man, from all accounts. He was a Jew, but also a Roman citizen, which allowed him some freedoms and privileges other Jews in the Roman empire lacked. You can see him using his education in this sermon at the Areopagus as he quotes Greek poets:

[H]e is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

He is explaining God as omnipresent creator and disdaining the practice of creating gods formed by human hands. I love the idea of the “unknown god” and the mystery of God who is so beyond understanding. I also love Paul’s passion here. He yearns to bring people to know the God he knows. He is dismayed by the evidence of their many idols, but not condemnatory. He instead reaches out to them to tell them about Jesus and his resurrection. He doesn’t want God to remain unknown to the Athenians. Sharing the love of God is like sharing your love for other people, in some ways—like the way people newly in love can’t help but go on and on about their beloved—so Christians should be about the love of God. Some people laughed when he talked of Jesus’ resurrection, but others wanted to know more. And the same is true today—some will dismiss Christianity but some will embrace it. We must just continue being witnesses in the Jesus Movement.

Easter 5, Year A: John 14:1-14: Doing Great Things in His Name

John

John – Source: iStockphoto.com/tracygood1

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the Gospel reading.

A lot of times I like to paraphrase the Gospel story as I write.  This week I’m not able to paraphrase very well because it just seems best to go ahead and put it in Jesus’ own words (well, in the English translation we have of Jesus’ own words).  This week’s Gospel lesson is about another time Jesus spent with his followers after his resurrection.  Jesus is talking to his disciples and tells them not to be troubled but to trust in God and to trust in him.  He tells them, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I would not tell you this if it were not true. I am going there to prepare a place for you.  After I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back. Then I will take you with me, so that you can be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Remember Thomas, who is curious (not just doubting)—he is the one to ask a question here: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Thomas is the kind of guy who likes to be more certain he knows what’s going on.  Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. The only way to the Father is through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father too. But now you know the Father. You have seen him.”

Philip responds with, “Lord, show us the Father. That is all we need.”  (Isn’t it a shame Thomas gets a rep for being Doubting Thomas? No one ever talks about a Demanding Philip.)

Jesus answered, “Philip, I have been with you for a long time. So you should know me. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father too. So why do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The things I have told you don’t come from me. The Father lives in me, and he is doing his own work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or believe because of the miracles I have done.

“I can assure you that whoever believes in me will do the same things I have done. And they will do even greater things than I have done, because I am going to the Father. And if you ask for anything in my name, I will do it for you. Then the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son.  If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

I like the part about “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father too.”  It’s the heart of the story here—God sent us Jesus to show us Himself.

I’m less comfortable with the end of Jesus’ speech, because it’s been taken to mean some pretty crazy things by some Christians.  “And if you ask for anything in my name, I will do it for you.”  I once attended a church where people were into the prosperity gospel (believing God wants believers to be prosperous and all it takes is faith to have success, money, healing, whatever—flip side is if you have any problems you must just lack faith—I consider that very damaging theology).  The day a teacher got up and said he felt he lacked faith because he gave his daughter Tylenol I walked out and never returned.  Anyway, I think the key to that verse is the “in my name”.  It’s not a magic formula—if I just pray “In Jesus’ name” I can have whatever I want.  I think it’s more about praying in accordance with what Jesus himself would want—praying in His way, if you will.

I also love how Jesus promised that those who believe in him will do great things.  You could talk about how we can do great things for Jesus in our own community—for instance in our church we have a program that provides breakfast to the homeless every Thursday morning.  And the Episcopal church at large has so many programs of great things they are doing out in the world. For instance, Episcopal Migration Ministries is helping refugees (click here for more info and while you’re there, click the Ministries tab near the top right and see how many other amazing things the church is doing for Jesus).

We know a lot about Jesus from the Gospels talking about what he did healing and helping and also the stories he himself told about how we should live.  From there we can see the great things he did and how we can then do our own great things in our own communities. I believe that we have to look for where God is at work and join Him there—healing and helping around the world.

Easter 4, Year A: Psalm 23: The Lord is my Shepherd

Nazareth Shepherd

Nazareth Shepherd – Source: iStockphoto.com/nopow

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the Psalm reading.

First, this psalm is so beautiful I want to start by sharing the whole psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

I’m not even sure how much this passage needs a breakdown. It’s a beautiful description of God’s care for his people. Most Christian or Jewish people or even people who live in the Western world will have heard this before.  But take time to read it anew.  I think the time when this psalm is most wanted, is when its promises seem the farthest away.  It is a soothing reassurance when we are at our lowest point, so I suggest either keeping it marked with a post-it in your Bible to pray through, or print a copy to keep nearby.  Use it as a prayer when you need a dose of love and assurance.

I found a cute printable online here, but if you prefer yours with a bit more restraint, go here. And here is a link to an easy-to-read version if you prefer that or want to share it with children.

 

Easter 3, Year A: Luke 24:13-35: On the Road to Emmaus

Man in cloak tearing bread into two

Man in Cloak Tearing Bread in Two – Source: iStockphoto.com/fotograv

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the Gospel reading.

This week’s Gospel lesson occurs shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.  Two of his followers are going along a road to a town called Emmaus.  It’s 7 miles away—a long walk by modern standards, probably not too bad back then.  These two men are talking about what has occurred in Jerusalem.  While they’re walking along and talking, Jesus comes up and joins them on their walk.  The scripture says, “But the two men were not allowed to recognize Jesus” so I guess they just think he’s some random dude.  He asks them what they’re talking about and they stop.  It says they looked very sad.  One named Cleopas says, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what has just happened there.”

Jesus said, “What are you talking about?”

They tell him all about Jesus, how amazing he was, but how he was killed on a cross.  They say, “We were hoping that he would be the one to free Israel. But then all this happened.” Then they go on to tell him that some women told them that Jesus’ body was not in his tomb and that they’d seen angels who told them Jesus was alive.  Then they say that they went to the tomb and it was indeed empty, but they didn’t find Jesus.

Then Jesus tells them they are foolish and that they haven’t believed the prophets. He says, “The prophets said the Messiah must suffer these things before he begins his time of glory.”  And he goes on to explain everything about him that was in the Jewish scriptures.

Finally, they come near to Emmaus.  Jesus acts like he is going to keep going but the men beg him to stay as it’s getting dark.  So, he goes to stay with them.  As they’re eating supper, Jesus takes some bread and gives thanks and then breaks it and gives it to them.  I like this part:

 “Just then the men were allowed to recognize him. But when they saw who he was, he disappeared. They said to each other, “When he talked to us on the road, it felt like a fire burning in us. How exciting it was when he explained to us the true meaning of the Scriptures!”

So, then they go straight back to Jerusalem to find the followers of Jesus who tell them Jesus has indeed risen, and the two men tell the other followers of their experience talking and sharing bread with Jesus.

It’s kind of mysterious and interesting how they men at first were “not allowed” to recognize Jesus and then they saw who he was as he broke bread—much like he broke it at the last supper, or how we break it today during our Eucharist.

This reminds me of the previous story of Mary Magdalene we read on Easter Sunday, who at first does not recognize Jesus outside his tomb.  And just as it moved me that she turned toward him and knew him upon hearing her name, I am moved by this story—the men see Jesus for who he is in the simple act of him giving thanks and breaking bread.

This week I want to think about being on the road of life, a journey with Jesus by my side, but I hope I can recognize him day-to-day and see what he sees.

Easter 2, Year A: John 20: 19-31: Peace and Forgiveness

 

Jesus Christ Answers Doubts of Saint Thomas

Jesus Christ Answers Doubts of Saint Thomas – Source: iStockphoto.com/wynnter

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the Gospel reading.

The Gospel story this week starts in a locked room where the disciples are hiding away after Jesus’ death.  They were terrified the authorities might come after them next.  They didn’t know what was going to happen next, and they’d heard from the women who’d been to and seen Jesus’ empty tomb.  We can only imagine how scared they must have been.  Did they believe the women? Did they believe Jesus was alive? They certainly didn’t act like it (contrast it to how they act later in the gospels after they’ve seen the risen Christ).  So this is the situation we start with.  Then Jesus appears among them (it seems he just appears in the locked room) and as is typical of his loving attitude, he doesn’t condemn them for hiding nervously in a locked room, he says, “Peace be with you.”  I’m sure peace is probably what they wanted most at that moment and it’s what he gave them.  I love that this is also what we say to one another every Sunday as we pass the peace on.

Now this part I’m going to quote verbatim because I wouldn’t know how to paraphrase it: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Woah.  So here is when he gives them the Holy Spirit to be with them.  And he breathes the Spirit on them.  That’s kind of cool, I think.  I read while studying up on this passage that in their language one word meant breath, wind, and spirit.  Interesting, right?  I also read this online and I like it: “In this short passage Jesus gives the disciples (and us) two Easter gifts (the Holy Spirit and peace) and one Easter task (forgiving others as God has forgiven us).”  (Found here on the Worshiping With Children blog).

Most of us probably know the story of doubting Thomas (poor guy is forever known by that name just because of the one incident).  He’s not there when Jesus visits and he says he won’t believe Jesus is alive until he touches him (and his wounds–bit gory, that). Then again they are in a locked room and Jesus appears among them, and this time Thomas is with him.  Jesus again grants them peace, then allows Thomas to touch him and proves that he is no ghost, but flesh and blood.  He tells Thomas to believe and “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'”

Another bit I love from the link I included above is this:

In describing Thomas, remember that he was the disciple who cared enough to interrupt Jesus when he did not understand what Jesus was saying (John 14:5).  He really wanted to understand Jesus.  Thomas was also the one who after telling Jesus he was nuts to go to Jerusalem where his enemies were out to get him, replied to Jesus’ insistence that he was going anyway, “Let us go and die with him” (John 11:7-16).  He was that loyal.  Finally, upon seeing Jesus’ wounds after the resurrection, Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God!”  That was his statement of faith.

Thomas wasn’t the only confused, questioning disciple after Easter.  List the responses of Mary, Peter, John, and the others as they encounter the risen Christ.  Everyone was so confused that they were frightened.

I love this.  Thomas gets sort of a bad rap for being a doubter, but we can see him instead as someone who just really wanted to know the truth and wanted to understand.  It’s o.k. to ask questions of God. And I really identify with Thomas. I am a big believer in rock solid truth and I like evidence before I believe a story (I’m notorious for being the kind of person who fact checks other people’s Facebook posts–I can hardly help myself).

So I’ve rambled on a lot about this passage. There’s so much to it–forgiveness, peace, doubt, truth, faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit. I’d just like to emphasize again the lovely idea I found on the Worshiping With Children blog (an invaluable resource when I am teaching church school):  “Jesus gives the disciples (and us) two Easter gifts (the Holy Spirit and peace) and one Easter task (forgiving others as God has forgiven us).”  Let us go forth and share the peace and forgiveness of Christ.

Year A: Easter Sunday: John 20:1-18

Jesus Tomb in Holy land

This is a picture of a first century ancient tomb with the stone rolled aside in Israel. This is similar to the type Jesus would have been buried in. Source: iStock.com/lokibaho

You can see all the lectionary readings for Easter Sunday by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

Jesus has been dead since Friday. It’s now Sunday morning and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. She’s surprised to see the stone has been moved away from the opening of the tomb. She runs to Peter and John and tells them someone has taken Jesus out of the tomb. It seems she’s afraid the authorities or someone else has moved him for some nefarious purpose.

Peter and John (John always refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved” or in this case “the other follower” rather than saying it’s himself) run to the tomb. John got there first and looked into the tomb, where he saw the burial cloths left there, but didn’t go in. Peter did go in and saw the burial cloths including the one that had been on Jesus’ head—and it appeared to be folded neatly and laid aside. John then came in behind him and when he saw it, he knew that Jesus had risen from the dead (though the scripture specifies they didn’t know before this that it would happen).

Then the men went home, but Mary stayed there, crying outside the tomb. Then she looked into the tomb and saw two angels where Jesus’ body had been. One can only imagine how shocking that would be. They were sitting where Jesus’ head and feet would be. They asked her why she was crying and she responded that someone had taken away the body of her Lord (she was apparently not like John in immediately deciding Jesus had risen).

Then she turned around and Jesus was there, but somehow she didn’t know it was Jesus. This happens other times in the stories of the risen Jesus, such as the story of the road to Emmaus (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2024:13-35 ) . Perhaps Jesus was in some way enough different to be harder to recognize at first, or perhaps God made it so people didn’t recognize him until he wanted them to, or perhaps it was a consequence of her grief and how she wouldn’t expect to find the one she was grieving for alive. I think perhaps she just wasn’t paying attention to him very well through her own tears. I don’t know. Jesus asked her why she was crying and who she was looking for. She thought he was an official for the garden and she asked him where he’d taken Jesus so she could go get him. Then he simply said, “Mary.” She turned toward him and said “Rabboni,” which means “Teacher”. It’s such a beautiful moment. He simply says her name and she knows him, her beloved teacher. It makes me cry every time to read that he says her name and she knows him. Oh, to know Jesus so well that he will call us by name and we will know him.

Jesus tells her not to hold onto him (we can imagine her clinging to him, desperate he not leave again) and tells her he will be going back to the Father. He instructs her to go to his followers and tell them, “I am going back to my Father and your Father. I am going back to my God and your God.” So she runs to the other followers to tell them the Good News of Easter.

I love this story so much, the confusion and grief turned to hope and joy. The simple calling of Mary’s name as she turns to Jesus. This is the kind of story I turn to in any crisis of faith. I turn to it and pray that Jesus will call my name in the darkness. This is the joy and hope of Easter, the wondrous cornerstone of our faith, the love of God for us, even in our darkness.  Hallelujah, He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

Year A: Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippian's

Philippians –  Source: iStockphoto.com/tracygood1

I am late getting this online, because of some traveling and some sick kids.

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday by clicking here.  I have chosen to take a different tack this week and discuss the Epistle of the Liturgy of the Word, which is Philippians 2:5-11.

This is a lovely passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He begins with a call to unity and to being like Christ Jesus—“In your life together, think the way Christ Jesus thought.” He explains that Jesus gave up everything, even being with God, to come to us in human form. He was humble and obedient to god, making himself like a servant (common theme in the New Testament—the last shall be first and the first shall be last). And then God raised him up and “gave him the name that is greater than any other name” so that all would bow down to honor him.

They will all confess, “Jesus Christ is Lord,”
and this will bring glory to God the Father.

I like this exhortation to be like Jesus—to think like Jesus. It reminds me of the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement of years ago. It was corny and overused, I think particularly in evangelical churches, but it had a good point to it. Of course, we all fail and no one can be completely Christ-like, but it’s a good way to stop and evaluate how we’re living and whether we are following God’s will. Sometimes it’s obvious when we are not in God’s will or doing as Jesus would do—when we are doing something that would hurt someone else, whether physically or otherwise. Other times it can be a gray area. For instance, I had guilt about not getting this Palm Sunday post in before Palm Sunday—and it is one of the most important holy days of the Christian year. However, I recognize that I also must take care of my own children and I don’t think it is right to skip valuable family together-time to catch up on a blog. I had to make that choice and for me it was the right choice. If I asked, “What Would Jesus Do?” in that instance, I would remember how he wanted the little children to come to him, when the disciples thought he had better things to do, or how he praised Mary for stopping to listen to him while her sister Martha fussed that Mary should be helping her with her housework.

What will you do today to be in God’s will and do what Jesus would do? How will you confess, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and bring glory to God the Father?