You will be witnesses

Luke, in the First Reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Acts 1:6-14) lays out the theme of the book of Acts, which is: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world” (Verse 8). That is the basis for the church and its mission.

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The mandate is given in the background of the Ascension to underscore its finality. It is Jesus’ final instruction as he is taken up thereafter. We gather from this reading that the commission is from Jesus himself, it is to begin in Jerusalem and spread from there and it will have the power of the Holy Spirit. As nucleus of the witnesses, Luke lists the disciples, “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Verse 14).

Interestingly, in his first book, the Gospel of Luke 6:13, he writes that Jesus “called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles”. He is the only writer who uses the term “apostles” which means, “those who are sent” Equally interesting is the inclusion of women in this nucleus, but some Western texts refer to them as “wives and children” obviously to rid them of independence.

One more thing about the background: Jesus was covered in a cloud as he was taken up. In the Hebrew Bible, the cloud is the Shechinah, the presence of the Lord. The Lord’s Presence, in the form of a cloud covered the tabernacle. In the New Testament too, on the Mount of the Transfiguration, a cloud covered Jesus and Moses and Elijah.

Jesus being covered in a cloud on the day of Ascension means that from now on, he is no longer on earth in his earthly form but in the Presence of God.

Yet, at the beginning of this reading we see the disciples asking Jesus if he is now restoring the kingdom of Israel. This is a reflection of the messianic expectations current at that time when Israel was under occupation. The disciples too thought of Jesus’ mission as being to overthrow the powers of the occupation.

Jesus’ response is: “No, that is God’s business. When that will happen is in God’s hands and you have no control over that. Your business however, is to be witnesses to what you have experienced”.

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How does the Gospel and Epistle readings relate to the reading in Acts? Read on

In search of the unknown god among the known gods

Deep inside each one of us is a longing for the Divine, or God. We see this demonstrated in the First reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Acts 17:22-31) where Luke gives an account of Paul’s speech at the Areopagus.

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There is an irony in the story in that given the multitude of the Athenian pantheon there still was an altar to “an unknown god”, or Agnosto Theo. Paul made an observation of its significance and used it to preach the Gospel. Imagine for a moment what was going on in the Athenian pantheon. There was an altar and worship of a god for every area of life. Even that left out the possibility of a god of an unspecified area of life, hence the unknown god.

Paul points out that all these gods are of human invention or creation. Indeed there is a vast irony in that humans create and build gods and turn around and worship them. Imagine spending a lifetime creating wealth, which in turn becomes the most important or central preoccupation. Fame, power and prestige can also be gods when they take center stage in life. Actually anything around which a person’s life rotates is that person’s god.

We all, as humans, have or are still searching for that which gives or we believe will give us meaning for life. That is the longing for God or the Divine that distinguishes humans from animals – as far as we know.

The message Paul delivers to the Athenians and to us is that the Divine, the God we yearn for, the “unknown god” of the Athenian pantheon is not far but actually within each one of us.

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In New Age Spirituality we are all a part of the Divine and connected. As such what is possible with the Divine is also within our possibilities. Indeed, New Age Spirituality emphasizes limitless possibilities. The limitless possibilities in Christian spirituality are through the Divine. As Paul stated in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”

Before we look at the Gospel Reading, let us recall the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter where Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12). Unlimited possibilities.

Now let us turn to the Gospel Reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.

From death to new life

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The first thing we observe in the First Reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Acts 7:55-60) is Stephen’s vision of heaven.  He says: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (verse 56). Obviously we wonder at what he saw! Did he see God? What does God look like? Did he indeed see – and would he be able to describe what he saw – the Son of Man standing at a right hand side of God?

It is hard to find a description of God in scriptures. Even Moses in Exodus 3, we are told, saw a burning bush. And Isaiah, in chapter 6 describes seeing “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” Daniel too, in chapter 7, in a vision, saw “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One (or Ancient of Days) and was presented before him” (Verse 13).

This phrase in Daniel, “coming with the clouds of heaven”, should arouse our curiosity. Standing a few years earlier before the same tribunal that sentenced Stephen to death, Jesus declared, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). Luke 22:69 omits the clouds but carries the rest: “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God”

Speaking to his disciples on the parousia in Mark 13:24-26, Jesus said, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory”. I underlined the phrase “after that suffering” because either Stephen or Luke, or both, were familiar with both phrases and in the context of suffering.

Like Jesus before him, Stephen saw himself suffering unjustly. Like Jesus before him, that suffering would not be in vain. Suffering leads not just to triumph but glorification. Jesus saw that in the future in his declaration to the tribunal as well as in his discourse with his disciples. Stephen saw it as a present reality, no longer in the future.

We see therefore, that the stoning of Stephen is a re-enactment of the unjustifiable condemnation and death of Jesus and the resultant triumph and glorification. We should note here that the stoning of Stephen ushered in a wave of persecution, which in turn resulted in the dispersion of Christians from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean world and beyond, and the spread of Christianity to gentiles.

This Sunday’s Gospel Reading from John 14:1-14 begins with words of assurance and comfort: Do not let your hearts be troubled.

Read on


 

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The theme of the Fourth Sunday in Easter is Jesus as the Good Shepherd

The theme of the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter is the relationship between a good shepherd and his flock. In the metaphor Jesus uses for this theme he contrasts between a good shepherd and thieves and robbers. The latter have no interest in the welfare of the sheep but their own. The latter will use deceit and force to harm the sheep and achieve their ends.

 

The Good Shepherd on the other hand is prepared to lose him life to protect the sheep.

This theme of a Shepherd and sheep is prominent in the Hebrew Bible – or Old Testament – where God is the Shepherd of God’s people, Israel. Indeed, most people know by heart the words of Psalm 23, the Psalm for the Fourth Sunday of Easter,

 

Furthermore, the imagery of a shepherd and his sheep was familiar to the people Jesus was addressing. It was not uncommon for shepherds to name their sheep and when they entered the pen at the end of the day, they inspected each sheep individually and nursed the injured. Shepherds too kept sentry at the only entrance into the pen, at the gate thus keeping the sheep inside and intruders – thieves, robbers and predators – outside.

 

The sheep too, recognized the shepherd’s voice and could even detect an impostor’s voice.

 

The picture in this metaphor is one of very close relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. In this close relationship the sheep found pastures and nourishment – they found life. As Jesus puts it, “whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and fine pasture” (John 10:9). This idea of coming in and going out depicts abundance of nourishment. There is abundance of life in Jesus, limitless access to life in all its abundance. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

 

Now, let’s put these readings together as we look at the Epistle Reading from 1 Peter 2:19-25 especially the final verse where Peter writes: “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls”. Now there is a new life, in the Risen Jesus.

 

In this new life we are bound together in our experience of the Risen Christ, in fellowship with one another, in our proclamation of what salvation in Jesus Christ means to us as a community and individually, and in our prayers, both communal and individual. Indeed, in our prayer on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, in the Collect, we pray, “that when we hear Jesus’ voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads”.

 

We certainly need that in this hectic life we live in with so many voices vying for our attention.