Monday, May 17, 2010

In The World You Will Have Trouble, But Take Courage: I Have Conquered The World.

Monday of the Seventh Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 19:1-8
While Apollos was in Corinth,
Paul traveled through the interior of the country
and down to Ephesus
where he found some disciples.
He said to them,
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit
when you became believers?”
They answered him,
“We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
He said, “How were you baptized?”
They replied, “With the baptism of John.”
Paul then said,
“John baptized with a baptism of repentance,
telling the people to believe
in the one who was to come after him,
that is, in Jesus.”
When they heard this,
they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
And when Paul laid his hands on them,
the Holy Spirit came upon them,
and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
Altogether there were about twelve men.
He entered the synagogue,
and for three months debated boldly
with persuasive arguments about the Kingdom of God.
We are still with the Third Missionary Journey of Paul.

Apollos (to whom we were introduced last Saturday) has now left Ephesus for Corinth at the invitation of the Christians there. Later, he will return to Ephesus while Paul is still in the city. Meanwhile, Paul himself now reaches Ephesus. We are told that he travelled “through the interior of the country”. This means that he did not follow the lower and more direct route down the Lycus and Meander valleys but followed the upper route through Phrygia (where he had evangelised before) thus approaching Ephesus from the north.

Today Ephesus is only a heap of ruins but in its day it was one of the great cities of the region. The ruins of its great temple dedicated to the goddess Diana are still standing. The city was regarded, with Alexandria, as one of the finest cities in the empire, a religious, political and commercial centre of mixed population.

One of the finest letters in the Pauline canon is addressed to the Christians here. (Although it certainly reflects his thinking, its personal authorship by Paul is in some doubt and it is also thought to have been a kind of encyclical letter sent to a number of church centres, of which Ephesus was one.) It is also thought that, during his stay in the city, Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, the Galatians and, probably, the Philippians.

On arriving in Ephesus, Paul came across a number of disciples. As they are called ‘disciples’ they seem to have been followers of Jesus but only indirectly through John the Baptist or some of his followers. Or perhaps they had received their teaching from Apollos himself in his earlier state of partial understanding and so, like Apollos, had only a limited understanding of the Gospel.

On asking them if they had received the Holy Spirit, they replied that they had never even heard of a Holy Spirit and that they had been baptised with the baptism of John the Baptist. They were unaware, not that the Spirit existed (which would be evident from the Old Testament to even the most casual reader) but that the messianic promises had already been fulfilled and the Spirit was being poured out in abundance (cf. Acts 2:17-18,33).

Paul pointed out to them that John’s baptism was only a ritual of sorrow for sin. It was preparatory and provisional, stressing man’s sinfulness and thus creating a sense of need for the Gospel. John’s baptism looked forward to Jesus, who by his death would make possible the full forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Baptism in the Holy Spirit involved faith in and total commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

After they were baptised in the name of Jesus and Paul had laid hands on them they immediately began to speak in tongues and to prophesy - a sure sign that the Spirit had come down on them. This was exactly the same experience the disciples had at Pentecost (2:4,11) and Cornelius and his household had in Caesarea (10:45-46).

We now pick up again the narrative of Paul’s mission which had been interrupted by the words about Apollos and the disciples who had only had the baptism of John. For three months, Paul preached the Gospel in the local synagogue. We are told that he “debated boldly with persuasive arguments about the Kingdom of God”. The establishment of the Kingdom on earth is the focal point of the Gospel message. It was the beginning, too, of the establishment of a vigorous Christian community Church in Ephesus. And Paul was again following his usual approach - Jews first and then Gentile Greeks.

In our own times, some Christians speak of being “born again”. They had gone through the ritual of baptism, perhaps as infants, and may have grown up with very little faith in their lives. Then they “discover” Christ through personal contact or participation in an active Christian group and they feel as though they have been “reborn”. Their baptism, which had lain dormant for such a long time, begins to exercise its effects.

It is an indication how the sacraments can never be separated from close contact with and involvement in a living community.

All of us, at whatever stage of commitment we find ourselves, can deepen our unity with Jesus and the way of life he invites us to follow. We can renew the pledges that we made (or that were made for us) when we were baptised. We might even make those pledges consciously for the first time!
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Psalm 68
Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth.
God arises; his enemies are scattered,
and those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so are they driven;
as wax melts before the fire.
Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth.
But the just rejoice and exult before God;
they are glad and rejoice.
Sing to God, chant praise to his name;
whose name is the LORD.
Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth.
The father of orphans and the defender of widows
is God in his holy dwelling.
God gives a home to the forsaken;
he leads forth prisoners to prosperity.
Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth.
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John 16:29-33
The disciples said to Jesus,
“Now you are talking plainly,
and not in any figure of speech.
Now we realize that you know everything
and that you do not need
to have anyone question you.
Because of this we believe
that you came from God.”
Jesus answered them,
“Do you believe now?
Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived
when each of you will be scattered
to his own home
and you will leave me alone.
But I am not alone,
because the Father is with me.
I have told you this
so that you might have peace in me.
In the world you will have trouble,
but take courage,
I have conquered the world.”
The disciples now claim to understand exactly what Jesus is talking about, although it is doubtful that they really do. It will not be until later on that the full meaning of Jesus’ words will be grasped by them.

They are impressed that Jesus can answer their questions even before they are formulated. “Because of this we believe that you came from God.” Yet, perhaps they are speaking too soon.

Jesus questions the depth of their belief. Very soon, in spite of their protestations now, they will be scattered in all directions and leave Jesus alone and abandoned. Of course, Jesus will not be alone; the Father is always with him even at the lowest depths of his humiliation. Even when he himself will cry out: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

He tells them all this, not to discourage them, but so that they can find peace. There will be many troubles facing them in the coming days and indeed in the years ahead. They are not to worry: Jesus has conquered the world, not in any political or economic sense but in overcoming the evil of the world. His disciples can share in that victory, as long as they stay close to him and walk his Way.

These words obviously have meaning for us especially if we are experiencing difficulties of any kind in our lives. The peace we seek is available if we put ourselves into Jesus’ hands. He knows; he has been through more than anything we are ever likely to have to experience.

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