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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Second Sunday of Easter - Year A
Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
'The Insinuating Power of God'
Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Last Christmas Eve my wife and I stayed up late to watch that old black and white classic The Bishop's Wife. Remember that one? The story centers around a troubled Episcopalian bishop named Henry Brougham (played by David Niven). He's trying to do what Christians often like to do: build a monument. In this case, it's a cathedral and he prays for guidance for the project. Well, his prayers are answered. The problem is that the answer arrives in the form of a troubling angel, named Dudley, played with rascally charm by Cary Grant. Dudley discovers some rather nasty facts about the good bishop. In trying to build his cathedral, Henry is selling out his principles and forgetting why he became a priest in the first place. This is having a devastating affect on his wife who begins to fall out of love with him. The small church where Henry was once a pastor has fallen on hard times and will be shut down when the new cathedral is built. Once that happens, the poor and needy folk whom the small parish serves will be forgotten. Needless to say, it isn't long before Dudley flies into action helping everyone he meets but not in the way that they would have expected. Before long the bishop, seeing his plans for a new cathedral profoundly messed up, becomes irritated with the heavenly messenger for which he himself prayed and asks God to take him back. Well, it is one of those classic, feel-good stories that is easy to get sentimental about; but somehow, I think, it is more than that. It is a story about the salvation of a clergyman's soul. It is a story about how easy it is for Christians to get caught up in things that are not important to God at all. It is a story about how intent God is in restoring things to the way they were meant to be, no matter how much trouble it causes him or anybody else. It is a story about the only kind of salvation that matters and at one point the film tells us what that is. The bishop's wife turns to Dudley, asking forlornly whether or not he thinks the world will ever become a better place. "It will, he says, "when people start to act like human beings." No matter how that question is finally answered, one gets the feeling that God will not rest until every last one of us starts acting like human beings. Or in the words of Teilhard de Chardin, Something is afoot in the universe, a result is working out which can best be compared to gestation and birth... + It is difficult not to get the feeling that "something is afoot" in this week's Easter texts. Luke's report of Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost, for instance, lets us know the effect of Easter on the early church. Nothing in Jesus' death was merited or deserved, Peter says. Jesus was put to death for one reason and one reason only: he became the target of evil men who were intent on destroying him. In spite of that, God raised Jesus from death to vindicate everything he said and did. There are two things worth noting about Peter's sermon and they are two things we need to keep in mind about God. Good Friday and Easter are a celebration that reminds us, first of all, that God chooses to be vulnerable to the needs of this sinful world. That's what God was doing on Good Friday. He was present in Jesus, giving him the strength and integrity to withstand everything the world in its cruelty can do, without once giving up on such a world. Secondly, it's a reminder that God is powerful. But God's power is different from George Bush's because God's power is seen in resurrection, lifting up that which the world considers weak, irrelevant and powerless, in fact, confounding the powers of this world by vindicating everyone who dares to be vulnerable like God is for the sake of love. God didn't just raise Jesus up. As a result of Easter, he raised up a new people in the world, a people empowered to live and witness the way Jesus did. "This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses." That's why the real question about Easter is not how did God do it? That is a question that none of the gospels nor the epistles of the New Testament are interested in. The truth is that we can't explain what happened, how it happened or even where it happened when it comes to the physical resurrection of Jesus. The stories we have there, including this week's gospel account, are not historical accounts of what happened, much less "instant replays". The truth is: the writers of scripture didn't care about such questions. What they did care about was what they believed about it and how it affected them. That is the connection between this week's resurrection account of Jesus' appearance to the disciples, including Thomas, and this week's reading from first Peter. Both texts acknowledge the difference between the experience of those who came into contact with Jesus during his ministry and resurrection appearances and those whose faith came as a result of being told about Jesus. Thomas is given an opportunity to examine the risen Jesus, an opportunity not afforded to later believers. What is at stake in these texts is not whether you were there to see it happen, but whether or not it made a difference to your life whether you were there or not. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." - John 20.29 The people for whom first Peter was written consisted entirely of people who had never seen Jesus. Nevertheless, they had come alive. Their faith was created as a result of the disrupting power of God that began at Easter and carried over into the lives of all those who began to preach and live the way Jesus had. By his great mercy he has given us he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What we can say as a matter of historical fact is that followers of Jesus, both those who were there and who knew him and those who were not there and who never knew him came alive in ways that totally transformed how they went about their lives from that moment on as a result of their faith in a living Lord. In spite of their profound inclination not to do so. In spite of clear threats to living the kind of life Jesus lived, which were just as real and just as intimidating as they were on were on Good Friday. In principle, we can call such faith nothing more than self-deception if we like; but nothing takes away from the fact of such faith, not just for that first few generations of Christians, but for untold numbers of people who have been told about Jesus ever since. That is what first Peter is concerned to tell us: that in spite of the fact that this is still a very menacing world, in spite of the fact that goodness and integrity are often rejected and do end up on some kind of cross in the end, there are people in this world who keep being born into something that is ...imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by God through faith….. - 1 Peter 1.4-5 Something came alive in this world as a result of the resurrection of Jesus and, in spite of the way things are, it shows no signs of dying out. The question is: are you and I a part of that something? + At the start of this sermon, I quoted the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was a visionary French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist and philosopher who spent the bulk of his life trying to integrate the truths of science and religious experience. Most specifically, he tried to integrate the findings of evolutionary science with Christian theology. The more he discovered through his scientific research, the more convinced he became that humankind was moving inevitably toward what he called an "Omega point", a convergence at which humanity would finally find its heart; and at that point, he said, the human race will have discovered "fire" for the second time. He was an amazing man, an amazing Christian. And yet, the Church took exception to his writings. His religious superiors began to harass him. They eventually found him guilty of heresy, imposed a sentence of silence upon him, forbade people to read his writings and exiled him as a missionary to China as punishment. He suffered terribly for his beliefs at the hands of his fellow Christians, eventually making the remark, If one tries to break new ground, or to walk in a new path, one walks straight to Calvary. Rejected by the church, he accepted his exile to China, where he worked for 27 years, was one of the participants in the excavation that resulted in the discovery of Peking Man in 1929, and wrote two of his most famous books, Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man. He died peacefully on Easter Day, 1954, and shortly before his death said to a priest friend, "Pray hard for me that I may not die bitter." In fact, he did not die bitter, but he did die as a deserted son of the church. In spite of that he never lost that spirit of excitement and discovery that so energized every fibre of his being. In spite of the way the church treated him, he was a living demonstration of that same power that has always raised to life all those who simply put their faith in it. Little by little the great breath of the universe has insinuated itself into them through the fissure of their humble but faithful action, and has broadened them, and raised them up, borne them on. - Divine Milieu That is what Easter is all about, my friends. Something is afoot in the universe. It is not content to let this be forever a Good Friday world. It has insinuated itself through the fissure of all those who exhibit humble faith and is drawing us forward to that day when we finally learn what it means to act like human beings. + Acts 2.14a,22-32 - The report of Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost focuses on the centrality of the resurrection of Christ. Jesus, in spite of performing wonderful deeds of goodness, was destroyed by the forces of evil. Nevertheless, God raised Jesus from the dead. It is one of the clearest statements in scripture and one of the earliest statements from the early church that 1. Jesus was not just another good man and 2. that he was not a superman who somehow cheated death. God is the power behind the resurrection for Peter and for all of the New Testament writers. Life has been fundamentally changed because of the activity of God on Easter. 1. If God was at work in Jesus before his death, what does that say about God's vulnerability? How does this change or confirm your notion of God? 2. How does Peter trace God's activity throughout history? 3. What is the text saying about God's power over all those things that threaten human health and happiness? 1 Peter 1.3-9 - This week's gospel reading ends with a blessing. That blessing prompts the selection of this week's epistle. What was at stake for the author was not what the resurrection implied about Jesus, but what it accomplishes for all those who have faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ brings about something like a "new birth" of human beings. Those who are reborn through the resurrection become part of a family that nurtures and sustains them from the dangers of living in this world. What the author wants us to know is that Easter demonstrably changed the character and purpose of human life both in the present and in the future. 1. Why would this text have been so important for the second or even third generation of Christians? 2. What does the notion of "an inheritance that cannot be diminished" do to your understanding of what is important in this world? 3. How does such a rebirth change the meaning of suffering? John 20.19-31 - In the Gospel of John, Jesus' resurrection, ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit do not so much happen chronologically as they are merged. Everything happens on Easter for John. This week's passage stresses the closeness between Jesus and the church. Although the term ecclesia is never used in John, it is clear that John is talking about the Christian community. The church is rooted in and continues the ministry of Jesus. The story about Thomas is not intended to depreciate Thomas' experience of seeing and believing, but merely as a way to pronounce that the same faith is available to all who believe. 1. Why is the portrait of a church behind "closed doors" an appropriate image? 2. How is the church to forgive sins? Why? 3. List some things you or your community have done that exhibit the power of resurrection? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - My heart is moved by all I cannot save: / so much has been destroyed / I have to cast my lot with those / Who age after age, perversely, / with no extraordinary power, / reconstitute the world. - Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language HYMN: We Shall Go Out with Hope of Resurrection (Voices United 586)
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