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Tuesday, April 29, 2008
John 17:1–11 Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14–17 prepares the disciples for Jesus’ departure. It closes with a prayer, the first half of which forms our focus scripture. This is sometimes called Jesus’ “high priestly prayer.” Like the high priest who prayed on behalf of Israel, Jesus prays for others on the eve of his death on the Passover. In John’s gospel, Jesus dies when the Passover lamb was slain in the temple. The other gospels place the death a day later. Jesus offers this prayer immediately before entering the Garden of Gethsemane. Unlike the other gospel accounts where Jesus’ prayer in the garden struggles with his impending death, John’s gospel describes Jesus as affirming the hour that has come as one of glorification. Jesus prays in the hearing of the disciples, for while the prayer is addressed to God, its concern is for the disciples. The immediate focus of this prayer is the disciples of that time and those who will follow. The wider focus encompasses the world. Taken out of context, concern for the world in this prayer might appear to be cast in negative expressions (see especially verses 14–16). John 3:16–17 provides the balance. Jesus’ coming has been generated by God’s love for the world. The purpose of that love is the world’s saving. Jesus prays for those called to embody that love in his absence. If God’s love is to be seen in this world, it will be through their (our) witness. “Glory” and “community” are key themes in Jesus’ prayer. “Glory” in John has to do with the revealing of God. The cross and the Resurrection together form the “hour” when God is revealed through Jesus. “Community” is understood in several ways. Jesus prays for the immediate community of disciples who follow him. Jesus prays for the later community of those who will believe through the witness of these first disciples. Jesus prays that these communities will in turn know the intimacy of relationship that Jesus enjoys with God. Community’s hope is relational. Community’s hope is also missional. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21b). Jesus’ prayer intends to empower those who follow. Likewise, empowerment for witness is a backdrop in the other readings. Acts 1:6–14 awaits the witness made possible by the coming of God’s Spirit. The mention of Samaria and the ends of the earth hints this witness will go far beyond traditional borders and limits. Psalm 68:1–10 witnesses with praise and awe to a God concerned for those who are vulnerable. 1 Peter 4:12–14, 5:6–11 sees suffering as the context of the church’s witness. That context is said to be shared with “brothers and sisters in all the world.” God’s empowering Spirit is another common theme in these texts. Jesus’ words in Acts 1:7–8 steer disciples away from end-time speculations to preparation for God’s presence in Spirit now. The psalmist praises God, who brings power and strength to God’s people. The writer of 1 Peter celebrates the Spirit who rests upon us, and the God whose power is without end. To be a community of faith is to be a community of prayer. In what ways does our congregation function as a community of prayer? When have you prayed for, or been prayed for by another, in memorable ways? Where do you experience the connections between prayer and hope; prayer and witness; prayer and power?
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
God has listened to our searching for holy presence. Spirit’s gift comes as response to that listening. The language of relationship with God is Spirit-ed love. Love keeps this relationship in word and deed. Love casts out fear. Love does not abandon. Love is eager to do good. Love provides place. Through love we find, and are found, by God. John 14:15–21 Sunday's passage continues Jesus’ farewell speech to the disciples. It is the first of four teachings in the gospel of John about God’s Spirit. Here, the Spirit is described as “advocate,” from the Greek parakletos. “Paraclete” has a range of meanings that communicate who Spirit is by what Spirit does. Among other things, paraclete can mean to encourage, help, or comfort. The use of “advocate” here comes from the way the word is used in other settings to convey the equivalent of a defence attorney. Spirit comes as a gift from God, just as John earlier portrayed Jesus as God’s gift (3:16). The emphasis in this passage is not so much belief in Jesus as it is love for Jesus. The importance of the Paraclete as “advocate” is one who supports and helps us as we seek to love. Such love is revealed in this passage through action. All five occurrences of love in this passage are verbs. The same is true of the remaining five uses of love in the rest of this chapter. Here the exercise of love is connected with keeping Jesus’ commandments. Jesus had announced a new commandment in John 13:34: “love one another.” Disciples keep Jesus’ commands in acts of love in and for the community. Power in Christian community is given a fresh understanding by Spirit’s gift and love’s command. Power is not the ability to coerce. Power comes in Spirit’s gift and our openness to that gift. Our love does not earn God’s love. Instead, our love is the way we keep faith with Jesus’ expression of God’s love. Jesus’ revealing of power comes in the revealing of love. The language of family is applied here to a variety of relationships. The imagery of God as “Father” continues. A new expression identifies the community as not being left “orphaned.” “Orphan” makes several connections. John declares that Jesus gave us “power to become children of God” (1:12). Jesus addresses his followers as “little children” (13:33). The language makes an interesting connection with Paul’s word that we are “God’s offspring” (Acts 17:29). This longing for intimate relationship with God, and God seeking such relationship with us, flows through the other readings. Acts 17:22–31 asserts a universal human longing for God. Psalm 66:8–20 names the psalmist’s approach to God in worship and God’s openness to that seeking. 1 Peter 3:13–22 describes God’s seeking in the farthest of places in its imagery of Jesus visiting the “spirits in prison.” God’s reach includes the places and people others might write off as hopeless. God’s love knows no bounds. Witnessing to faith is also an aspect of these additional scriptures. Paul’s sermon in Acts 17:22–31 communicates faith to those of another culture in a way that takes social context seriously. Psalm 66 opens and closes with witness to God’s actions and grace. 1 Peter 3 not only relates Christ’s witness, but encourages our own witness. We are to seek good with gentleness, reverence, and fearlessness. God seeks to create community by the gift of Spirit and the exercise of love. We, in turn, find the means to live in community by Spirit’s gift and through love’s call.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
In word and deed and character, Jesus shows us God. In that revealing, Jesus assures us we have a safe place with God. That promise remains secure in times of joyous presence and of troubled absence. Such hope takes shape in the psalmist’s trust of God as rock and fortress, and in Stephen’s dying graciousness. This is the way, and the One, we follow. John 14:1–14 Two contexts are at work in the focus passage. The immediate context is the time before Jesus’ death and resurrection. These verses are the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse and prayer, a section that runs through John 17. In these words, Jesus prepares the disciples for what is to come. The wider context involves the community to whom this gospel was first addressed. What for them (and for us) does Jesus’ “absence” generate? What will their (our) “place” be with God? The first verse hints that Jesus’ absence created anxiety for those first disciples and likely John’s community. It is interesting to note that John uses the verb troubled three times to describe Jesus (11:33, 12:27, 13:21). Thus, Jesus speaks these words with empathy, as one who knows such distress. The key is not to dwell on the trouble – or in it. Jesus offers the hope and promise of a dwelling place in verses 2–4 as a way to move beyond being troubled. Our place with God is assured in words that describe on ongoing relationship. Verse 6a offers another in a series of Jesus’ “I am” statements in John’s gospel. The name God gives at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) is believed to be some form of the verb “to be” (“I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be”). The “I am” statements in John suggest strong ties between Jesus and God. They also point to the ways in which Jesus reveals God (“I am” the bread of life, light of the world, good shepherd). In our text today, way, truth, and life can each stand as separate assertions of who Jesus is. The words also can modify one another. For example: Jesus is the way and truth that lead to life; Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life; Jesus is the true way of life. Cautions are in order about several elements of this passage. Often in John’s gospel, Jesus refers to God as “Father.” The exclusive use of this name for God proves difficult for many. In John, the point of its imagery is intimacy, not gender. Even so, intimacy can be terrifying. Verse 6b (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) is another challenging statement. Is this about Christian exclusivity or about Jesus making relationship possible? Verses 13 and 14 invite careful consideration. Asking “anything” is not the point. The gift and discipline is to ask in Jesus’ name, which invites thought of how the request aligns with Jesus’ way. The gift and role of “place” runs through the other readings. Acts 7:55–60 recounts how a vision of God is opened to Stephen as he faces death. That vision enables Stephen to offer forgiveness to his executioners. Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16 uses the image of God’s hand to reveal our place of refuge in God. 1 Peter 2:2–10 reveals our place in community, as those graced with the standing of now being God’s people. Stones that build and destroy form an intriguing connection within these texts as well. Stephen is put to death by stoning. The psalmist speaks of God as “rock.” The writing in 1 Peter 2 quotes Psalm 118 about a rejected stone now made the cornerstone. How we view and use stones is revealing of our place before God. Jesus shows us God, and invites us to trust that in life and in death, our place with God is secure. We need not be anxious.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
God shepherds by providing all that we need, which is not the same as all we may want. The good shepherd does not abandon us in times of suffering and danger. God stands with those who enter and dwell in such places. Even there, especially there, God leads as a companion whose presence may still our fears. God’s steadfast love is trustworthy. Always. Psalm 23 The beauty of this psalm is deepened by layers of symbolism about shepherds in Judaism. Shepherds were away from community and worship ritual for long periods, which led some to view shepherds with suspicion and some to consider them “unclean.” Central to this psalm is that shepherds had long been associated with kings and other public leaders. That symbolism is not always positive. The prophets had charged Israel’s “shepherds” for failing to care for the flock entrusted to them. What do these traditions add to your understanding of the meaning behind this psalmist’s affirmation of God as shepherd? The voice and structure of the psalm fall into three main sections. Verse 1 opens with a first person (“my,” “I”) declaration of God as shepherd. Verses 2–3 shift to a series of third person (“he”) statements that describe the actions by which God shepherds. Verses 4–6 move into a personal address (“I,” “you”) of God that affirms the results of God’s shepherding. At the centre of the psalm, and the “hinge point” between affirmations and personal address, is this word: “you are with me.” God’s presence is at the core of this psalm, even as the name of God opens and closes its verses. We live and trust in the midst of God’s presence. Two words merit special attention. “Want” in verse 1 has a meaning in Hebrew closer to “lack.” It is the same word used in Deuteronomy 2:7 and 15:7–8. There, God provides in the wilderness for what the people truly need. The psalm invites distinction between desires and needs for the sake of understanding what God promises to provide. The second word that draws our attention occurs in verse 8. Translated there as “mercy,” the Hebrew hesed is a covenant word that has to do with the tenacious loyalty or fidelity of one partner to another. Hesed moves beyond what is obligated for the relationship to whatever needs to be done to sustain it. It is often translated “steadfast love.” Near its close, the psalm offers the intriguing image of sitting at table with one’s enemies. Is this simply another affirmation of God’s providential care that will keep us safe even in the presence of those who might wish to do us ill? Or is the psalm subtly hinting that another act of God’s providential care is reconciliation of those once estranged? What do you think? Images of community flow through the other texts. Acts 2:42–47 portrays the religious and social practices of early Christian community. 1 Peter 2:19–25 addresses a community who knows such suffering as the psalm’s “darkest valley.” John 10:1–10 witnesses to community gathered by recognition of the One who names them. The theme of guarding and keeping also mark these texts, along with the psalm. The community’s sharing of goods in Acts 2:42–47 provides shepherd-like care for the poor and vulnerable. 1 Peter 2:19–25 affirms God in Christ as “shepherd and guardian” in the context of trying times. The image of Jesus in John 10:1–10 as the “gate of the sheep” suggests sheltering and guarding the flock. Our safe-keeping is promised, even when God’s absence seems more pronounced to us than God’s presence. God provides for our needs. That truth – not material excess – defines life abundant. What in this psalm is most comforting to you; most puzzling; most promising? In what ways have you experienced God’s shepherding in good times and not-so-good times?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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