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Archive for April, 2012

By the end of the second century … the main standards of … Christianity became recognized:

  1. the agreement on the core books of the New Testament and on the necessity of retaining the Jewish scriptures (the canon)
  2. the development of short summaries of belief called creeds, which were used to instruct candidates for baptism (creed)
  3. the universal acceptance of the office of the bishop as the leader of the local Christian community (episcopacy)

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The church grew geographically and structurally.  Why?

 

 

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The mystery of the incarnation which we anticipate during the Advent season was made manifest in the birth of Jesus on that first Christmas.

This was the beginning of our faith – a wonderful rich faith.  God revealed Himself to us through His Son and  through the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Much of this was illuminated in succeeding centuries as individuals and groups struggled with some powerful ideas.

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Introduction

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Gospel, John 10:11-18  Whether or not they had anything to do with sheep, Jewish people identified with the shepherd image in which their tradition was so deeply grounded.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds.  Moses became a shepherd when he fled from Egypt to Midian.  David was a shepherd at the time he was anointed the future king by Samuel.  Matthew speaks of God’s appointed ruler who will “shepherd my people Israel” (2:6), the people needing direction for their lives “like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36), and the division of people at the end of time “as a shepherd separates sheep from goats” (25:32).  The parable of the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep is found in all three synoptic gospels.  John 10 reiterates a number of times that Jesus is the “Good Shepherd”. 

Who are the “sheep that do not belong to this fold” whom Jesus must also lead?  This is generally believed to refer to the Gentiles, people of non-Jewish race and religious background, who will hear Jesus’ voice through the proclamation of the gospel.

The last verses of this text indicate Jesus’ awareness and acceptance of his call.  Although deeply anxious about his impending death, indicated by the blood in his sweat during prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus chose to complete his mission in this world.  His sacrificial death was not forced upon him against his will.  Sometimes we are blessed to know that certain challenges placed before us in this life are part of God’s plan which will result in good for others and eternal blessings for ourselves.  Will we have the strength to say “yes” to God in such moments?

Reading 1, Acts 4:8-12  Following Peter’s healing the paralytic at the temple and giving witness that it happened by the power of Jesus’ name (last week’s first reading), Peter and John are arrested by the temple guards and jailed overnight.  This text is Peter’s defense when called before the Sanhedrin the next day.  It is clear to the reader, as it was to the Sanhedrin, that Peter had no fear standing before them.  In fact, he would welcome any punishment they might levy against as an opportunity to be more united with Jesus.  The Sanhedrin was further reluctant to exact any severe punishment since they realized Peter and John had a great deal of support, and any action against them would only make them martyrs in the minds of the people.  They, therefore, merely told them not to preach in Jesus’ name and released them. 

The Sanhedrin was the ruling council in Judea.  In addition to the current high priest, who was president of the council, the Sanhedrin numbered 70 members including the previous four high priests, representatives of the leading priestly and lay families, and scribes representing the Pharisee party.  The Romans preferred to rule through regional rulers whenever possible.   The logic of this approach is understandable today as the United States is cutting back on the number of American personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan and reducing antagonisms engendered by foreign control.  The Roman government had only replaced Herod’s son Archelaeus in Judea with a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, because Archelaeus had proved so unstable in his governance.  The Sanhedrin had a certain moral authority over all Jewish people wherever they might have settled.  Its civil authority was limited to Judea on all matters pertaining to Jewish law in that area.  They had their own police force and were allowed to try cases, pass sentence, and impose penalties.  It appears from the gospels that their authority did not extend to capital punishment, thus necessitating bringing Jesus before Pilate on civil charges of opposing Cesar after they had found him guilty on a religious charge of blasphemy. 

Reading II, 1 John 3:1-2  Being “children of God” has extra meaning if we consider Jewish inheritance laws.  The wife can either take a sum determined by a prenuptial agreement (ketubah) or live off her husband’s estate as long as she wishes.  Each unmarried daughter receives a dowry.  The remainder of the estate is divided among the sons with the eldest receiving a double portion.  Galatians 4:6-7 says that, as God’s children by adoption, we can call out, “Abba, Father…if you are a child then you are also an heir.”  The exact nature of our inheritance has not yet been revealed, but we can figure on something out of this world!

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Gospel, Luke 24:35-48  “How was Jesus’ resurrected body different from that same body prior to the resurrection?” I asked a group of grade school children this question.  “He didn’t need to come in through the door,” one student responded.  “He just  appeared,” said another.  “He had a glorified body,” said a third who had obviously paid good attention in class.  “Did he get hungry, thirsty or tired?” I asked.  “No, he only ate the fish to show them he was real,” another smart child answered. 

In paragraph 646, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches that “Christ’s resurrection was not a return to earthly life” as was the case with the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:42), the widow’s son (Luke 7:15), and Lazarus (John 11:44) who would all die again.  “In his risen body he [Christ] passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space.”  Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-7) tells us that the Son of God “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, coming in human likeness”.   While retaining the essence of the divine nature, he took on our human nature with its limited attributes.  In the resurrection, the divine attributes, which the Son of God had voluntarily set aside, were returned in a “glorified body”.   

During those days following his resurrection, Jesus “weaned” the apostles off their dependence on him being physically present.  He appeared to them only for brief visits.  On at least three instances, he had a different appearance and voice than what they were used to.  With the Ascension and coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples would come to understand that Jesus was still present to them, lacking his physical bodily presence but now without the spatial limitations of that human body.       

Whatever their initial reasons for following Jesus, his disciples never really grasped who he was or what his ministry was all about during his lifetime.  They were all caught off guard by his death.  Even with his resurrection, as much as their spirits were lifted and they rejoiced on seeing him alive, it would take some time for them to put the pieces together.  Even several weeks and a number of visits from Jesus after the resurrection, they were still puzzled as indicated by the text from Matthew 28:17 at the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven: “When they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted.”  Each post-resurrection appearance, each sharing of testimony as with the two disciples returning from Emmaus, Jesus’ scriptural explanation to  them and again in this gathering, each time of prayer and reviewing together everything Jesus had said and done, shed a bit more light. The greatest clarity would come with the Holy Spirit’s gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom at Pentecost. That would not be the end of the process.  They would continue to seek deeper understanding of the faith in which they had immersed themselves throughout the rest of their lives.  Is it not the same with us?  From the simple faith of a child to the challenging teen years, we go from believing because others have taught us to questioning and coming to believe because somehow it makes sense and seems right and true.  Questions, even doubts, will arise throughout our lives and, if honestly confronted with the help of the Holy Spirit, will result in an ever-deepening understanding and commitment to our faith. 

Reading 1, Acts 3:13-15, 17-19  This event takes place sometime after Pentecost.  The Christian community had been established and was meeting each day in the Court of the Gentiles in the temple of Jerusalem.  A man crippled from birth had his regular spot near one of the temple entrances where he begged alms from passersby. Seeing Peter and John enter the temple one day, he asked them for alms.  Peter gave the man something better…he healed him in Jesus’ name.  The man was exuberant and followed Peter and John into the temple leaping and shouting.  A crowd quickly gathered, at which Peter explained that the power was from Jesus Christ.  This reading is part of his explanation and invitation to believe in Jesus, not in opposition to but fulfillment of the Jewish heritage, and receive forgiveness in his name.

Reading II, 1 John 2:1-5a  There is a common saying in Spanish: “ Entre el dicho y el hecho hay mucho estrecho”.  It means that there is a big gap or stretch between saying you’re going to do something and actually doing it.  This letter touches on the relationship between words and deeds, indicating that words, without follow-through, are just a lie.  They lack integrity.  Elsewhere in the letter John writes: “If we say ‘we have fellowship with him’ while continuing to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth” (1:6)…“If we say ‘we are without sin’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8)…”Whoever says he is in the light yet hates his brother is still in the darkness” (2:9).  God calls us to be people of integrity in word and deed, in belief and follow-through.  Nevertheless, if we sin due to human weakness, God is always ready to forgive us when we have a truly repentant heart.

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Gospel, John 20:19-31  Jesus breathes on the Apostles, bestowing the Spirit of God upon them.  The Hebrew word for “spirit” also means breath.  With the Holy Spirit, God breathes life into us.  The Holy Spirit was already present in the lives of Jesus’ disciples, but he was here bestowing them with a greater outpouring of the Spirit in the new calling or mission with which they would soon be entrusted.    

Thomas is a Chaldean name meaning “twin”.  Didymus is the Greek translation.  Why does the gospel writer give the translation?  Recall that the name John never appears in this gospel in reference to John the apostle.  It is replaced with the phrase “the beloved disciple”.  This is no prideful boasting of being more beloved by Jesus than the other disciples.  It is, rather, a stylistic way of inviting the reader to place him or herself in the gospel narrative in John’s place as a beloved disciple of Jesus.  Reference to Thomas as the twin could be another literary way of inviting any reader who has had doubts or needed a little extra proof to stand in as Thomas’ twin.  Another possible interpretation is that many people in the Greek communities knew Thomas better as Didymus, just as (Hebrew) Simon became better known by the Greek name Peter.

Rather than focus on Thomas as a doubter, I think he should be held up as an outstanding example for Christians, especially young people in this day and age when it is so easy to be swayed by the influence and values of the world.  Thomas was willing to stand up against the pressure of all his friends, the other disciples,  telling him what to believe.  He had already shown himself to be a strong fearless individual in John 11:16, encouraging the others to put their fears aside and be willing to die with Jesus if need be.  Years later, when all the other apostles were ministering in the more familiar Greco-Roman world, Thomas would go east and bring the faith to India.  Would that we were all strong like Thomas in the face of societal and peer pressure.

With verses 30-31 ends what many scholars believe to have been the original ending of the gospel with verse 21 added on as an epilogue.  John indicates here why he wrote the gospel: that the reader might come to believe/put faith in Jesus as Son of God and have life in his name.  The rest of this gospel must be understood in this context.  What about our lives…could you describe what guides your life so succinctly, so similarly?  

Reading 1, Acts 4:32-35  This is the second summary of the life of the early Christian community at Jerusalem, the first being in Acts 2:42-47 shortly after Pentecost.  It seems to have been the general belief that Jesus’ would return in a very short time.  Those who joined the community of believers in Jerusalem, believing in Jesus’ imminent return, trusted that God would provide for their needs in the meantime.  They sold what they had and put the proceeds in the common pot.  As days passed into weeks, then months and years, funds often ran low and, along with them, people’s confidence in the faith to which they had committed themselves.  This text from Acts is followed by two personal stories of how faith and finances were intertwined.  A wealthy man named Joseph sells major landholdings and fills the pot back up to the brim with the proceeds, for which he is given the nickname Barnabas meaning “son of encouragement”.  He would go on to be a major figure in the early church.   We then read of Ananias and Sapphira who also sell their property but, not trusting completely in the Christian community experiment, sock a sizable portion of the proceeds away elsewhere just in case.  The outcome was not favorable in their regard.  It would be easy to cast a finger at them for their lack of faith, but their situation challenges us to consider how much we put our faith in God or, by contrast, in more worldly investments.

Reading II, 1 John 5:1-6  There are three particularly significant Greek words in this text.  The first is “pistis” which is translated as belief or faith.  I refer you to the gospel commentary for the 4th Sunday of Lent for a more detailed discussion of the challenges of accurately translating the depth of the Hebrew concept of faith as holistic rather than mere intellectual assent.  Wherever the words “faith” or “belief” appear in this text, as in the rest of the scriptures, understand them to mean “entrusting oneself completely to God in obedience and commitment”. 

The second word is “agape” (pronounced in three syllables ah-GAH-pay).  This refers to love rooted in the will…love by choosing to seek and do what is best for God and others.  It is contrasted in Greek to “philos”, love rooted in affection or emotions, and “eros”, love rooted in passion and desire.  Every use of the word love in this passage is agape love, the most perfect form of love which reflects the love of God for us. 

The third word is “nike”…just like the shoe company but pronounced “nee-kay”.  It means “victory” and, in its different forms is translated as “conquer”, “victory” and “victor”.  What does it mean to be victorious over the world? Who is the victor?  1 Corinthians 15:57 reads “thanks be to God who gave us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In John 16:33 Jesus tells his disciples, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.”  Jesus won the victory, but we are also victors because God, in whom we entrust our lives through faith, gives us the victory through Jesus.  In the gospel and letters of John, “world” represents the limitations of the physical world with all the attachments and temptations we experience as part of life in this world.  Our being victorious doesn’t mean that we defeat the world so much as we are successful against the challenges and allurements present in the world.

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