28 April 2020

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 3 May 2020

Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10
Psalm 23

I’ve made a change here, moving the Collect from the end of our study to a point at the beginning so that we might begin our study in prayer.

The Collect

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Background: Ancient shepherds

Sheep with their valuable milk, meat and wool became the impetus for one of the oldest professions, that of shepherding. It originated around 5,000 years ago in Asia Minor. Throughout the Levant it emerged along with the culture of the nomads who first circulated in this region. The requirements of keeping sheep meant that someone in either tribe or family would need to be dedicated to following the flock from pasture to pasture, and thus farmers soon separated themselves from the shepherd (see Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel). The shepherd followed the flock, protected it, and then led it to market or to shearing.

If they were not a part of the family (usually one of the youngest) then they might be hired (see John 10:12), which made them a valuable part of the economy. They lived apart from society, males without children. They lived in small cabins, but not in the lowlands which would have been used for growing grains. Usually they were found in the hills and mountainous areas. The shepherd’s crook developed into the crozier, the staff of office that a Bishop or Abbot would use. 

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This reading not only describes what are the essentials of Christian life (the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers), but also their common life and their sharing of worldly essentials. One wonders if this common life wasn’t what led to the development of ascetic life in the early Church. The former hallmarks are mentioned in the Episcopal rite at the Renewal of Baptismal vows. 

Celebrant:     Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 
People             I will, with God's help.

If we look at the essentials, we see both dialogue but also communal life and common concerns. In Eucharistic Prayer D, in the Book of Common Prayer, one can see the combination of the “breaking of the bread”, and “the prayers” in the full context of the mass (the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship. This is what the Risen One calls us to: gathering (difficult in this time), learning, praying and eating – all for the sake of the community.

Breaking open Acts:

1.     What do you share in common with others?
2.     Where, other than in church, do you break the bread?
3.     Who is in your prayers?

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

1      The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2      He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3      He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4      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.
5      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.
6      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.

There are two important themes, or images that this psalm employs – that of the shepherd, but also that of hospitality. Both are significant features of nomadic life and culture that are at the root of Israeli life. The first three verses inform us about YHWH in the guise of the shepherd, guiding, providing, and protecting. The latter verses form a prayer spoken to YHWH, asking for what the psalmist has already honored – guidance, protection, provision, and healing. 

Shepherding although a humble but necessary task (see Background above) was also seen as a metaphor for kingship. All the tasks of the shepherd were those that befit a king or a queen. Thus the David story combines those aspects beautifully. Here in the psalm God is the Shepherd King – who encompasses all of human need. 

Breaking open Psalm 23:

1.     Who are other shepherds in your life?
2.     Whom do you shepherd?
3.     What is the role of hospitality in your life?

Second Reading: I Peter 2:19-25

It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

This must have been written at a time of deep trouble, and thus is especially good for us in this difficult time. The author speaks about suffering, both deserved and undeserved, and then offers the example of Jesus in his own suffering. He quotes Isaiah 53, where the prophet gives the example of the Suffering Servant. What society expects when one suffers is not what is recommended, but an opposite course of action. The wounds become healing, going astray is countered with being led. God is the shepherd and guardian.

Breaking open I Peter:

1.     Where do you see suffering in the world?
2.     Where in your life are you suffering?
3.     What do you do about it?

The Gospel: St. John 10:1-10

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

If you would like to seriously study this Shepherd Discourse, our reading for today, you might want to take some time a read through the ninth chapter, in order to review Jesus’ discourse on disciples and teachers, with the healing of the man born blind as a metaphor. The image of the shepherd and the sheep is used by Jesus as a way of developing his argument and teaching on disciples and teachers. The lesson on the shepherd is addressed to the Pharisees. In this lesson we meet the thief and the shepherd. The scene is set in a sheepfold, and the thief does not enter by means of the gate, just like those guys who leap over the gates to the subway. A helpful image of this character of the “robber” can be seen in Ezekiel 34:2-8. The proper entry is made by the shepherd, whom the gatekeeper recognizes. The shepherd then leads and guides the sheep.

What follows next is the important image of the voice. It calls to mind so many other references of the word, the ru’ah, the spirit. It is the voice that creates and the voice that continues to identify, lead, and protect. We understand that in the recent Gospel reading in which the Magdalene hears and recognizes the voice of Jesus. This voice interplay also indicates the relationship that the shepherd (Jesus) has with the sheep (the disciples, those who follow him). 

What follows is interpretation about those “who came before me” (thieves and robbers – the pharisees and other religious leaders), about the gate (Jesus himself), and the purpose of the story, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What a ripe Sunday for preaching.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1.     Where do you hear Jesus’ voice?
2.     Where do you think he is leading you?
3.     How do you follow him?

General Idea:              Life in the sheepfold

Image 1:                       A place of guidance, protection, and hospitality (Psalm)

Image 2:                       A place of living with suffering – dealing with these times (Second Reading)

Image 3:                       A place for hearing the voice (Gospel)

Image 4:                       A place for a community gathered around the essentials (First Reading)

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

20 April 2020

The Third Sunday of Easter, 26 April 2020

Acts 2:14a,36-41
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

I’ve made a change here, moving the Collect from the end of our study to a point at the beginning so that we might begin our study in prayer.

The Collect

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Background: Bread and culture

Bread plays a significant role in not only the Christian Eucharist, but in the Jewish Passover rites as well. It’s not that bread is extraordinary, but that it is rather common to all of life and in all cultures. It was a sign of welcome and hospitality, as we see in the word “companion” a combination of the Latin cum and panis – literally “with bread.” If you have ever been to an Ethiopian restaurant you will likely see your meal of vegetables and some meat served on a huge bread “plate” that covers the table top. Diners tear off a piece of the “plate” and scoop up a bit of the food – sharing the offering with those dining with them. Bread is the basis for beer, and its baking is, for many peoples, a part of the daily routine, making life possible for the household. That Jesus would break the bread at Emmaus is not only a Eucharistic signal, but a signal of the hospitality of the men who saw him as guest.

The First Reading: Acts 2:14a,36-41

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

You may wish to read Psalm 110 to give you some background from the Hebrew Scriptures that is very much a part of Peter’s conclusion to his sermon. Two titles are mentioned here “Lord” (Adonai) and “Messiah” (Mashiakh, or Christos) – Anointed One. He asks the crowd listening to him to think back on what was prophesied, to see how Jesus was a part of the ancient plan, and a part of their own tradition. It is interesting that the term “Lord” was used by political leaders as well, and the title or descriptor, Messiah, was applied to great leaders.

The question asked of Peter by the crowd, “Brothers, what should we do?” is also used by Luke in his reporting of the people attending to John the Baptist, “What then should we do?” The Baptist’s answer includes providing for the poor, not pilfering from the people, and be satisfied with your wages and duties. Peter sees it differently, and in a way mirrors other of the Baptist’s preaching, “Repent and be baptized.” Luke also adds the gift of the Holy Spirit to the baptism – the promised gift of the Father. It is a missionary sermon, and many were added, according to Luke. So preachers, how do you exhort those who do not know Jesus?

Breaking Open Acts:

1.     What do you think you need to do in your life with Jesus?
2.     How does Peter appeal to both Jew and believer in his sermon?
3.     What would you have said to the crowd?

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17 Dilexi, quoniam

       I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.
       The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.
       Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: *
"O Lord, I pray you, save my life."
10      How shall I repay the Lord *
for all the good things he has done for me?
11      I will lift up the cup of salvation *
and call upon the Name of the Lord.
12      I will fulfill my vows to the Lord *
in the presence of all his people.
13      Precious in the sight of the Lord *
is the death of his servants.
14      Lord, I am your servant; *
I am your servant and the child of your handmaid;
you have freed me from my bonds.
15      I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and call upon the Name of the Lord.
16      I will fulfill my vows to the Lord *
in the presence of all his people,
17      In the courts of the Lord'S house, *
in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

Here the psalmist renders thanks to God for listening to ‘the voice of my supplication.”  The author is clearly in the midst of life, threatened by death. In the face of that threat (war or just plain life) the author calls upon the Name. The elided verses expand on this theme, and at verse eleven begin a response. Lutherans will be familiar with this section as it is one of the Offertory Hymns in the Lutheran Liturgy with its Eucharistic symbols, “I will lift up the cup of salvation.” The scene quickly changes to the Temple and to lifting up and pouring out a cup of libation. Vows are made, along with the offering, in public, “in the presence of all (God’s) people.” The thanksgiving is complete.

Breaking Open Psalm 116:

1.     During these difficult days, for what might you give thanks?
2.     What is your cup of salvation?
3.     For whom might you give thanks?

Second Reading: I Peter 1:17-23

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

The author reminds the readers of important scenes from the tradition, the exile in either Egypt or Babylon, and the treasures taken from Egypt. Here, however, the treasure that accompanies is the blood of Jesus – the Lamb. Here we have echoes of the Passover liturgy, and Jesus as the Lamb. Blood was painted over the lintels of the doors in Egypt so that the pestilence might fly over and avoid them. The assurances that the ancient promises have been kept is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, “for your sake.” The life that accompanies and proceeds from this revelation is to be of a different sort. The author describes its elements, “mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. We are born again for this purpose. The seed of this new life is the “living and enduring word of God.”

Breaking Open First Peter:

1.     How is Jesus’ blood a treasure?
2.     What are your other treasures?
3.     Have you ever been in exile?

The Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of Jesus' disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This particular resurrection appearance is only given in Luke. Like the Magdalene’s story in John, there is a period of not seeing, and then a revelation and seeing. What is especially interesting are the words in which the men describe their belief about Jesus. It is almost credal, reciting his judgement, death, and crucifixion. They also speak of their hopes about him, specifically the liberation of Israel, and then finally the words of the women, which astonishes them. The notion of “astonishment” in Luke is a code word for “belief.”

What follows is Jesus’ “sermon” to the men. He begins with Moses and all the prophets and interprets to them what the Scriptures had been teaching all along. He ties himself in their own tradition, and really into their confessed hopes, related to Jesus. Here the tradition is related again as the men invite Jesus (but still the stranger) into their home – the gift of hospitality. But the hospitality of the bread is made into something more as Jesus breaks the bread and blesses it. This is a Eucharistic revelation, and the present Christ vanishes, but is still with them – in their hearts burning within them. Like the Shepherds of the Christmas Narrative, they cannot hold in the good news. They witness ot the Eleven, and have an important lesson about the breaking of the bread.

Breaking Open the Gospel:

1.     How would you tell the story of Jesus?
2.     About what parts do you have questions?
3.     When and how does Jesus appear to you?

General Idea:              The Eucharistic Feast

Instance 1:                   Washed for the Feast (Baptism in Peter’s sermon) First Reading

Instance 2:                   Raising up the Cup in Thanksgiving (Psalm)

Instance 3:                   Rebirth in the precious blood of Christ (Second Reading)

Instance 4:                   Recognizing Christ (Gospel)

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller