Monday, April 12, 2010

As They Prayed, They Were Filled With The Holy Spirit, And Spoke The Word of God With Boldness.

Monday of the Second Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 4:23-31
After their release Peter and John went back to their own people
and reported what the chief priests and elders had told them.
And when they heard it,
they raised their voices to God with one accord
and said,
“Sovereign Lord, maker of heaven and earth
and the sea and all that is in them,
you said by the Holy Spirit
through the mouth of our father David, your servant:

Why did the Gentiles rage
and the peoples entertain folly?
The kings of the earth took their stand
and the princes gathered together
against the Lord and against his anointed.

Indeed they gathered in this city
against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed,
Herod and Pontius Pilate,
together with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,
to do what your hand and your will
had long ago planned to take place.
And now, Lord, take note of their threats,
and enable your servants to speak your word
with all boldness, as you stretch forth your hand to heal,
and signs and wonders are done
through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook,
and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
After they had been released by the Jewish leaders following their arrest and interrogation and had been given strict warnings not to continue what they were doing, Peter and John went back to their community and related all about their experience. This was possibly the same ‘upper room’ where the apostles had met before and where the community may have continued to assemble.

The whole community then prayed. They recalled the words of the psalmist who asks why the Gentiles and the princes of the world conspire against the Lord and his anointed. Here we see in the unbelieving Romans the ‘Gentiles’ and Herod and Pilate represented by the ‘kings’ and ‘princes’. They have gathered against the Lord and his anointed. ‘Anointed’ in Greek is ‘Christ’ (christos, cristos). The Herod in question is Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to AD 39. He was the one who executed John the Baptist and before whom Jesus appeared during his trial. Acts will later describe his rather painful death. Pontius Pilate, of course, was the same Roman procurator who had Jesus crucified.

Yet they recognise that all of this had been foreseen by God. “They [that is, Jesus' enemies] have brought about the very things which in your powerful providence you planned long ago.” It was not that God forced them to act as they did but that their freely chosen decisions were foreseen by God and would become part of his plan of salvation.

They beg the Lord as persecution is extended to them, too, that God will be with them through “cures and signs and wonders to be worked in the name of Jesus, your holy Servant”.

It is good for us too to be aware that, when, as individuals or communities, we are true to the living of our Christian faith, we can expect to face criticism, opposition, abuse and ridicule. Then it is for us, too, to pray for the Lord’s assurance, protection and guidance. We do not necessarily expect those against us to change their minds but that we may have the strength to continue being faithful to our convictions and the search for truth and goodness.

Then, suddenly, the place they are in shakes and they are filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and Jesus. Their prayer for strength and courage has been heard. “Ask and it shall be given to you…” “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will grant…” It is a mini-Pentecost and enables them to go out and proclaim the Good News with renewed confidence, unafraid of the threats and dangers that await them.
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Psalm 2
Blessed are all who take refuge in the Lord.
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples utter folly?
The kings of the earth rise up,
and the princes conspire together
against the LORD and against his anointed:
“Let us break their fetters
and cast their bonds from us!”
Blessed are all who take refuge in the Lord.
He who is throned in heaven laughs;
the LORD derides them.
Then in anger he speaks to them;
he terrifies them in his wrath:
“I myself have set up my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I will proclaim the decree of the LORD.
Blessed are all who take refuge in the Lord.
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
this day I have begotten you.
Ask of me and I will give you
the nations for an inheritance
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
You shall rule them with an iron rod;
you shall shatter them like an earthen dish.”
Blessed are all who take refuge in the Lord.
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John 3:1-8

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus,
a ruler of the Jews.
He came to Jesus at night and said to him,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher
who has come from God,
for no one can do
these signs that you are doing
unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless one is born from above,
he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him,
“How can a man once grown old be born again?
Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb
and be born again, can he?”
Jesus answered,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless one is born of water and Spirit
he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
What is born of flesh is flesh
and what is born of spirit is spirit.
Do not be amazed that I told you,
‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills,
and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know
where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Today we go back to the early part of John’s gospel and begin reading chapter 3. In the coming Easter weeks we will be going through John’s gospel more or less in order.

Today we see the encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee who was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing council of the Jews. He was, then, a very highly placed official.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. This, on the one hand, indicates his fear of being seen by others but, on the other, probably also has a symbolic meaning. Religious man though he was, when he came to Jesus he was in a kind of spiritual darkness. His virtue is that he comes to seek light. Jesus, of course, is the Light of the World. (On the other hand, in the following chapter, the Samaritan woman will meet Jesus in the full blaze of the midday sun.)

Nicodemus begins by praising Jesus. No man, he says, could do the things that Jesus did if he did not come from God. (Given the fact that at this stage of John’s gospel Jesus has hardly begun his public life, it is odd that Nicodemus can make this statement. But it shows that the events described in this gospel are not to be taken with a strict chronology. This gospel is rather a set of themes about the role of Jesus for us and the world.)

Nicodemus sees in Jesus a prophet, a man of God but has yet to recognise the full identity of Jesus. Jesus counters by saying that no one can see the rule, the kingdom, of God unless “he is born from above” (or “born again” - both readings are possible and the meaning is basically the same). Though very common in the other gospels, the term ‘Kingdom of God’ is only used here in John (vv. 3 and 5). Its equivalent in the rest of John’s gospel is ‘life’. To be truly in the Kingdom of God, to be fully integrated in the Reign or Rule of God is to be fully alive.

Nicodemus hears Jesus literally. “How can a man be born again when he is old? Is he to return to his mother’s womb and start life all over again?” His misunderstanding gives Jesus the opportunity to lead Nicodemus to a deeper understanding. To be born again is to be born of “water and the Spirit”, a clear reference to Christian baptism. Flesh only produces flesh (as in natural birth) but the Spirit gives birth to spirit and that is the second birth we all need to undergo.

“You must all be begotten from above.” A statement directed to all and not just to Nicodemus.

And, once we are reborn in the Spirit, we let ourselves be led to where God wishes. “The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes but you do not know where it comes from, or where it goes.” The ‘wind’, ‘breath’ of the Holy Spirit is the sole Guide for our lives. He brings about our renewal in his own way. The word for “wind” here is a word which also means “breath” and “spirit” [Greek, pneuma].

Once we are guided by the Spirit we have put ourselves totally in God’s hands ready to be led wherever God wants us to go. This is the message which is being given to Nicodemus. He must be ready to move in a different direction from that which has guided his life up to this. This readiness will lead him to see in Jesus the Word of God.

We, too, wherever we happen to be right now must ever be ready for God, through his Spirit, to call us in a new direction and to follow his lead.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

Nicodemus as a Pharisee and leader of the Jews is in the tradition of Moses and Aaron, so I find it interesting that Our Lord says at one point 'no one can see the Kingdom of God', and then 'no one can enter the Kingdom of God'. Moses SAW the Promised Land, but could not ENTER it because of what happened at Meribah, when he and Aaron decided to demonstrate their own authority to the people, rather than God's holiness.

Nicodemus can see the Kingdom of God, because he knows that God is with Jesus. But will Nicodemus enter the Kingdom? To do this he needs to believe and proclaim Jesus' holiness to the people he leads.

The Spirit is blowing Nicodemus in an unfamiliar direction. Jesus, as the Word, is the meaning and purpose of this action by the Spirit. Nicodemus must decide now whether to proclaim Christ's authority, or try to preserve his own - whether to enter the light, or stay in the dark.

Perhaps this movement from darkness to light can be seen as a kind of birth process, like the baby leaving the dark womb for the bright outside world.