Nicodemus in Isaiah? It is Trinity Sunday

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What is the connection between Isaiah and his vision of the Holy One in the temple in the First Reading for the First Sunday of Pentecost (Isaiah 6: 1-8) and the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel Reading from John 3: 1- 17? Perhaps we can get some help from an analysis of the contextual background.

Isaiah describes his vision “in the year that King Uzziah died”.

According to 2 Chronicles 26 Uzziah came to power when he was 16, was a reformer and a major figure whose influence extended as far as Egypt. He reigned for 52 years from 785 – 733 BCE.  According to 2 Chronicles, “he went out and made war against the Philistines, and broke down the wall of Gath and the wall of Jabneh and the wall of Ashdod; he built cities in the territory of Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines” (Aside: This may very much sound like today).

Verse 4 notes that Uzziah did “what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father Amazigh had done”.

Then things changed. “When he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction” (Verse 16). Pride and arrogance led him to attempt to assume the priestly duties of offering sacrifice in the temple. He was struck with leprosy and ended up dying in isolation.

In the Gospel Reading, there is this Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin by the name of Nicodemus, a Greek name which means “people victory” who goes to see Jesus at night because – well, he was a member of the religious establishment which was opposed to Jesus. Only John has this story and John mentions him again in chapter 7 when he comes to Jesus’ defense and in chapter 19 when he and Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus.

It is safe to surmise that Nicodemus was a secret follower – or at least an admirer – of Jesus. Much has been written and many sermons preached on Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. Indeed, perhaps no verse in the whole bible can equal John 3: 16 in being committed to memory.

But, beyond all that, on this Trinity Sunday, what are we learning?

Rejoice and be happy on this Day of Pentecost, z’man mattan torateynu

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According to the Jewish calendar, the festival of Shavuot – or Weeks, in English – begins at sundown on the 6th of Sivan, which this year happens to be May 23, 2015. It is one of the three pilgrim festivals (Shalosh Regalim) for which Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is also an agricultural festival according to Exodus 23: 16; 34:22 and Deuteronomy 16: 10-12.

Traditionally though, according to B. Shabbat 86b-88a (Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud), the Ten Commandments were given on the 6th of Sivan and so Shavuot is known as z’man mattan torateynu, meaning “season of the giving of our Torah”. It is therefore customary for Jews to study the Torah all night. There is an interesting legend about this practice which says that on that night at Sinai, the Israelites were sleeping so soundly they had to be awakened with thunder and lightning. The more practical reason for the all-night study is celebration of God’s guidance revealed in the Torah.

On Sunday, Christians observe the Day of Pentecost – the Greek term derived from fifty days after Easter. According to the First Reading from Acts 2: 1-21, “When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting”. The disciples must have experienced what their ancestors experienced at Sinai!

But what is most significant for both Jews and Christians is God’s revelation and guidance in the Torah and the Holy Spirit. In the Collect we pray “to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort”. There is every reason to celebrate and rejoice, in the Torah and in the Holy Spirit.

On this z’man mattan torateynu, and Day of Pentecost, reflect on why you should celebrate, why you should rejoice and be happy in God’s revelation.

Peter going fishing is everyone’s story

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In the Church Calendar the Easter Season lasts 50 days – seven Sundays – and during the forty days from his resurrection to ascension, Jesus appeared to his disciples several times in what we call post-resurrection appearances. I find the stories in these appearances quite intriguing at times – in addition to being fascinating.

One such occurrence is recorded in John 21: 1- 14 which we read on Friday of the First Week of Easter and on the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C).

Some things have happened as the text begins with, “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias…” If we follow the sequence from chapter 20 we see that “these things” relate to Jesus’ resurrection and the post- Easter appearances. First, Jesus rose from the dead. This is huge! Everybody knows that – as N. T. Wright puts it in his book Surprised by Scripture,people who die remain dead”.

Mary Magdalene had brought the news, then Jesus had appeared to the disciples while behind locked doors. Incredible news as it is, the disciples have seen with their own eyes, the Risen Christ. Yet, in this reading Peter says to the other disciples, “I am going fishing” and they respond, “We will go with you”.

These disciples were fishermen before Jesus called them.  Fishing was their family business. It was what they were used to, what made them comfortable, what they knew inside out from one generation to the next. They were simply going back to what they were used to, in spite of the recent world-changing events. But why?

What is beautiful about reading scripture is how those stories become our story. It is easy and comforting to revert to what is familiar, the world of the past. There may be moments in life when we wake up to something new and life-changing – may be a casual testimony about reducing stress, or an idea about a new direction out of a present unsatisfactory situation and we are so excited and fired up; but then a few days later we are back with the old ways and ideas.

In addition to reverting to what was familiar, Peter may also have remembered that he betrayed Jesus which might have killed any motivation he had. The past – especially failures – can hold us back so powerfully. It is not only the reel that plays in mind: how not qualified, not educated for this, too many failures, victim mentality, and so on, but also the same reel that society plays: “You cannot do that, it is not for you and so on.

So, does Jesus’ resurrection bring a new beginning in life or simply the comfort of the past?

Why then are we divided?

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“Why then are we divided?” That was a question I overheard a retreat participant ask the person sitting next to him. In fact the question was raised as I was trying to articulate the significance of the soul over the body, or personality.

There is no doubt that western society devotes disproportionate attention to the body and personality and very little to the soul. Think of the enormous investment in healthcare. In terms of mindset too, think about education. We emphasize medicine, engineering, computer science, finance and the like, but we have no hesitancy to support the defunding of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The larger questions those in the retreat were asking themselves were: One, how is scripture speaking to you and two, how are you responding?

Those questions reminded me of two stories from a Christian health center where I served as a volunteer chaplain. My initial call at the center was to lead devotions and prayers for the medical staff. Marsha came to me one day asking my opinion about her daughter.

“She was raised Catholic”, she said. “Now she describes herself as a “none”. Sounds familiar? “She will have nothing to do with church”, she continued. “But she is the finest human being you will ever meet and she immerses herself in anything spiritual”. In the course of our discussion I found out that Marsha’s daughter is alienated from the church because, one she sees an authoritarian institution, and second, the institution does not let her think for herself.

I hope you are not hearing this for the first time.

After several discussions about her daughter’s spirituality and lack of church affiliation I asked Marsha about her home church.

“I don’t belong to a church”, she said, “but I am spiritual”. Another familiar expression, isn’t it? “But I grew up Catholic”, she continued, “Italian Catholic”. And why no church now? The same complaints around alienation! I did not have any doubts about Marsha’s spirituality.

I also remembered Edna, a social worker at the health center who always referred her patients to me. She was fully convinced that healing mental and behavioral issues go hand in hand with healing the soul. But she never came to our morning devotions.

So, one day I asked her about her home church.

“I don’t have a church”, she said. “I don’t like church. My husband is Catholic and if I were to have a church it would not be Catholic”. Curiosity led me to make further inquiries. “Why is that?’

She gave a short answer: “I don’t like the way they treat women!”

Spirituality affirms the unity of humanity. Scriptures too affirm that, for example when Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28). And in the case of Marsha and her daughter and Edna, they are, in my judgment, as  Christian as any Christian could be, but they are not in a church.

The Catholic Church may have the unfortunate burden of bearing all religions’ ill-treatment of women – and may atone for that too – but there are many churches where Paul’s claims of gender equality are far from near reality. Nevertheless, spirituality has no gender; and spirituality unites.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

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Jesus did not call his followers into the comfort of cathedrals and ornate church buildings. Actually he did not call us  to congregate every so often – Sundays, for example – feel good about ourselves, disperse then come back the following Sunday.

In his prayer for his disciples in the Gospel Reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (John 17: 6-19) Jesus prayed, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world”. It is tempting, on Sundays, to savor an “out of this world” experience, to be in heaven. But that is not it.

In the Epistle Reading for this Sunday from Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26, the disciples chose Matthias as Judas Iscariot’s replacement to “become a witness with us to his (Jesus’) resurrection”. It is a lot easier and comforting to witness to our own within the walls of a church. Yet Jesus prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17: 18). Jesus sends us out into the world to witness to his resurrection.

But of course we come into fellowship with one another, to worship, and – yes – to be encouraged and affirmed. We need that; whether it is bible study, Sunday school or Eucharist, we receive nourishment and we need it. But that is not the end of it. The real purpose of the nourishment and affirmation is to go out into the world to witness to Jesus’ resurrection.

Now, that can be very discomforting outside the church walls. Going out into the streets and alleys, being a witness in both word and deed, to the rich and the poor equally, advocating for justice and peace and being a voice for the voiceless – these are not tasks that would make us at ease.

Our comfort comes from knowing that Jesus prays for us: “Holy Father, protect them …” (John 17: 11). Whatever obstacles and hardships we encounter in our witness, he is there by our side and he is interceding on our behalf.

So, let us, with comfort and reassurance, step out of the church walls into the streets and alleys, into towns and villages, being witnesses of the Risen Christ.