Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Father And I Are One.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 11:19-26
Those who had been scattered
by the persecution
that arose because of Stephen
went as far as
Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch,
preaching the word to no one but Jews.
There were some Cypriots
and Cyrenians among them, however,
who came to Antioch
and began to speak to the Greeks as well,
proclaiming the Lord Jesus.
The hand of the Lord was with them
and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
The news about them reached
the ears of the Church in Jerusalem,
and they sent Barnabas to go to Antioch.
When he arrived and saw the grace of God,
he rejoiced and encouraged them all
to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart,
for he was a good man,
filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.
And a large number of people
was added to the Lord.
Then he went to Tarsus to look for Saul,
and when he had found him
he brought him to Antioch.
For a whole year they met with the Church
and taught a large number of people,
and it was in Antioch that the disciples
were first called Christians.
The results of the early persecution were to scatter the Jewish Christians to places like Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.

Phoenicia was a country about 15 miles wide and 120 miles long stretching along the north-eastern Mediterranean coast (corresponding to the modern Lebanon). Its important cities were Tyre and Sidon, which are mentioned in the gospels. The Phoenicians were legendary seafarers.

Cyprus is an island in the north-eastern Mediterranean and was the home of Barnabas the Apostle. Antioch, on the river Orontes, was the capital of the Roman province of Syria and the third city of the empire after Rome and Alexandria. It was 25 km (15 miles) inland from the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. The first mainly Gentile local church was located here. In many ways, it would become the headquarters for the mission to the Gentiles and from here Paul would launch his three missionary journeys. More about them later.

Today we have the story of the Church being founded in Antioch in Syria. It strictly speaking was an immediate sequel to the martyrdom of Stephen and the savage persecution which followed and scattered the Jerusalem Christians in many directions. However, in between we have been looking at the work of the deacon Philip and Peter’s involvement with the Gentiles. We also saw the conversion of Saul, which is presumed to have already taken place.

At first the refugees only evangelised their fellow-Jews. But then Jewish Christians from places like Cyprus and Cyrene, on the north coast of Africa, who were used to more pluralistic societies, also began to approach “Greeks”, people were not circumcised, in other words, non-Jews. These responded very well and many became disciples of the Lord Jesus.

They used the term “Lord Jesus” rather than “Christ”, which was a title more suited to Jewish audiences with messianic expectations. To the non-Jews Jesus was more usually called “Lord”. He is “Lord” because, elevated to God’s right hand, he now rules over the Kingdom which he inaugurated.

And the Lord’s hand was with the evangelisers, indicating God’s approval and blessing on their work, sometimes indicated by signs and wonders. It was the beginning of the “Church at Antioch”, one of many “churches” to be set up in the following years.

When all this came to the ears of the people in Jerusalem, who were still thinking primarily in terms of Christians only as Jews, they sent Barnabas to investigate. Jerusalem, where the apostles were centred, had a right of supervision over other churches. And so the sending of Barnabas was in keeping with Jerusalem’s policy of sending leaders to check on new ministries coming to their attention. As a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus Barnabas was an obvious choice for this mission.

It is clear that Barnabas was very happy with what he came across. “He saw the grace of God… and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord.” He saw clearly that the Gentile converts were very genuine and encouraged the local church to continue what it was doing. And Luke comments, “He was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith”, words also used to describe Stephen.

Then, Barnabas went off to Tarsus, a city in the province of Cilicia, in what is now the south-eastern corner of Turkey, and brought Saul back to Antioch. (Saul had been forced to leave after his conversion because the Christians would not believe the genuineness of his conversion. They thought he was simply trying to infiltrate the Christian communities with the intention of destroying them). All of this resulted in great numbers joining the Church community under the leadership and formation of Saul and Barnabas, who stayed on for a whole year in the city.again we see innovation and new ground coming from the fringe rather than from the centre and how, after discernment, it is seen to be a valid development. In our Church today, it is still the fringe which pioneers, while the role of Rome is to consolidate.

It is also an example of the phrase: “The world writes the agenda for the Church.”. It was the influence of a local situation which led to new insights seen as a valid development of the Christian vision.

It was here, too, we are told that the “disciples”, that is, the followers of Jesus’ Way, were first given the nickname “Christians”. (It indicates that those who coined it took “Christ” to be a personal name rather than a title.) It is not certain whether the followers adopted the name themselves or whether it was used by enemies as a term of contempt. In either case, it is a fitting title for those who attach themselves to Jesus and his Way. We too should be proud of this nickname. It is not something we should hide nor, on the other hand, is it a name that we should dishonour by our behavior -- and still less wear lightly.
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Psalm 87
All you nations, praise the Lord.
His foundation upon the holy mountains
the LORD loves:
The gates of Zion,
more than any dwelling of Jacob.
Glorious things are said of you,
O city of God!
All you nations, praise the Lord.
I tell of Egypt and Babylon
among those who know the LORD;
Of Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia:
“This man was born there.”
And of Zion they shall say:
“One and all were born in her;
And he who has established her
is the Most High LORD.”
All you nations, praise the Lord.
They shall note, when the peoples are enrolled:
“This man was born there.”
And all shall sing, in their festive dance:
“My home is within you.”
All you nations, praise the Lord.
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John 1-:22-30
The feast of the Dedication
was taking place in Jerusalem.
It was winter.
And Jesus walked about in the temple area
on the Portico of Solomon.
So the Jews gathered around him
and said to him,
“How long are you going to keep us in suspense?
If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered them,
“I told you and you do not believe.
The works I do
in my Father’s name testify to me.
But you do not believe,
because you are not among my sheep.
My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life,
and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me,
is greater than all,
and no one can take them
out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”
We continue the image of Jesus as the Shepherd. “It is winter” and the scene is Solomon’s portico on the east side of the Temple during the winter festival of Dedication or Hanukkah. This feast is the commemoration of the dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus in December 165 BC after it had been desecrated by the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes. It was the last great act of liberation which the Jews had experienced.

We are told that Jesus was walking in the temple area on the Portico of Solomon. This was a roofed-in structure not unlike the ‘stoa’ of the Greeks. It was commonly believed to date back to the time of Solomon (who built the original temple) but this was not the case.

Again Jesus is questioned very directly about his true identity. “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” The question indicates that they had understood the meaning behind many of the things he said and did. On the other hand, it was not a question that could simply be answered with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ because of the many divergent ideas and expectations concerning the Messiah which were current at the time. And certainly none of them corresponded to the kind of Messiah that Jesus would turn out to be.

Once again Jesus says that he has already told them but they refuse to believe. Previous statements made it clear that he spoke as one with a mission from God. Perhaps he had not explicitly said he was the Messiah (except to the Samaritan Woman) but it should have been clear either from his statements or from the evidence of his whole way of life, including the signs he had given - all clearly done in his Father’s name.

The works he has done are a consistent testimony of his true origins "But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep."

He then lists the characteristics of true sheep or followers:
      » they hear my voice
      » I know them
      » they follow me.

And, as we have said elsewhere, to “hear” in the Gospel means:
      » to listen
      » to understand
      » to assimilate fully into one’s own thinking
      » to carry out what one hears.

To these disciples Jesus gives “eternal life”. The security of the sheep is in the power of the Shepherd and no one will snatch them from his hand. And that is because they have been given to him by the Father, whose power is greater than any enemy.

Finally, in a clear and unequivocal answer to their original challenge, he tells his questioners: “The Father and I are one.” The power that the Son has is the same as the Father’s. This is not an unequivocal statement of divinity but points in that direction. And Jesus’ listeners hear it in that way.

Significantly, the Greek that is translated "The Father and I are one" is in the neuter gender. In contrast, if someone had said, "The one who is preaching in the Temple is the carpenter from Nazareth", the words "the one" would be in the masculine gender.  The message is: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in nature, but they are three distinct Persons.

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