Easter IV – 6th May 2007

Holy Eucharist – Address

Preached by Lay Leader David Fuller

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Collect for Easter IV
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In lieu of Old Testament lesson: Acts 11, Vv 1-18
In lieu of Epistle: Revelation 21, Vv 1-6
Holy Gospel: St John 13, Vv 31 - 35

If I was looking for a phrase to cover our Propers for this morning I think I could do no better than suggest, ‘changes to the old order.’ Let us spend a few minutes examining the readings that we have heard. On all of the Sundays from Easter to Pentecost, inclusive, in all three years of our common lectionary, a passage from the Acts of the Apostles is read in lieu of the more usual Old Testament lesson. Exceptionally, on both Easter Day and Whit Sunday, Old Testament lessons are given as alternatives. The church has always allowed some variability in its lections and if you examine the Propers in the Prayer Book, which span, of course, only one year, you will find that a passage from the Prophecy of Joel is read in lieu of the Epistle on Ash Wednesday, portions of Isaiah are found on the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week, and a reading from Jeremiah appears in the lections for what used to be called The Sunday Next Before Advent, which the church now keeps as the Feast of Christ the King. Among all the 27 books of the New Testament the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse (The Revelation of Saint John the Divine) stand out as being neither gospels nor epistles, and they have to get a hearing somewhere. So, today we are blessed by readings from both of these latter manuscripts.

   One of the problems that beset the early church, and the book of Acts provides a fundamental history of the church in the first half of the first century, was about how the Laws of Moses, those keystones of Judaic conformance, should apply to nascent Christian communities. This problem was exacerbated as more and more Gentiles joined the church and we can read something of these difficulties in the Epistles of Saint Paul. Regulations on ritual cleanliness and the preparation and eating of food were paramount to all members of the Jewish faith. Some of these food restrictions are still demanded by today’s Jews under the heading of ‘kosher’. Were Christian converts, especially Gentiles, to be bound by such rules? Saint Peter, a good Jew, obviously believed that they should. As we heard, he had been to Joppa. This was a town on the Mediterranean coast. It is now called Jaffa, is world-famous for its citrus fruits, and is a part of modern Tel Aviv. On his return to Jerusalem he was criticised for eating with the uncircumcised, that is, with non-Jews. He had, in fact, spent some time with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. As we heard, Peter explained the dream that he had had at Joppa, in which a sheet containing all sorts of living creatures had been lowered from heaven and he had been asked to kill and eat. He had, of course, refused. The exercise was repeated three times and finally he heard a voice that told him, ‘What God has called clean, you must not call profane’. We are told that the sheet contained four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the air.

   The Jews had an enormous number of laws governing food, its preparation and consumption. Some of the detail is given in the eleventh chapter of the Book called Leviticus. Jews could eat animals that were both cleft-footed and chewed the cud: thus they could not, for example, eat a hare because, while it chews the cud, does not have cloven feet. Sea creatures that had fins and scales were acceptable. Most birds could be eaten, except those specifically listed; which included: all birds of prey and, strangely enough, the ostrich. Rules about the consumption of insects are quite fascinating. None could be eaten except those, ‘that walk on all fours and have jointed legs which enable them to leap from the ground’. Saint Peter would have known and accepted all of these rules and obeyed them all his life. What was he to make of this dream? To give him full credit, he accepted what he saw as a new set of instructions from God. He would have remembered the time when he had walked through the corn fields with Jesus on the Sabbath and been allowed by the Master to eat the ears of corn, an action condemned by the Pharisaic law keepers. Peter was thus able to confound his critics and tell them that God’s gifts were to be given freely to Gentiles as well as Jews and that Jewish laws did not necessarily apply to Gentile converts. Thus, we have our first change to the old order, certainly for the Jews of that time.

   Our portion of scripture from Saint John’s Gospel came from the end of a very important chapter. Chapter thirteen is the Johannine parallel of the Last Supper narratives found in the Synoptic Gospels. Saint John does not give his readers details of what are called the Words of Institution; words used by Jesus when he rehearsed his disciples through the actions they were to take to have him with them always after his departure from this world; words we now know so well from the Eucharistic Prayer of Consecration. Instead John tells us of the actions that Jesus took to wash his disciples’ feet and the argument he had with Peter about this. Then we learn about the departure of Judas Iscariot on his dark deed of betrayal. It can be argued that the second half of this wonderful gospel starts with the words that we heard, beginning at verse thirty-one. The next few verses set the scene for what scholars call The Farewell Discourse, which occupies chapters 14, 15 and 16. Here we have another indication of changes to the old order. How does Jesus begin? ‘Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God has been glorified in him. God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.’ Jesus had spent these three or so years of his earthly ministry travelling the roads and lanes of Palestine, instructing the disciples, healing the sick and raising the dead to life. Now he began the final journey, a return to Jerusalem, to humiliation and betrayal, to a trumped-up trial on charges of treason and to the agonising death of crucifixion. All of this we learn about in chapters 18 and 19. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is always in control, always in charge of his life and those around him. He knows he must move on and he tells his closest friends, ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer.’ Then he gives them that final and all encompassing commandment, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ The chapter ends with Peter asking one of his usual, practical questions. ‘Lord, where are you going?’ The short discussion ends with Jesus’ prediction that Peter will deny him, three times before the cock crows. In these powerful words of Saint John we have yet another insight into changes that were taking place in the old order and an ushering in of the new.

   Many scholars accept that the John who wrote the Gospel and the three Epistles that bear his name was also the author of the closing book of the Bible, the Apocalypse. Its author, by his own admission, was incarcerated on the Greek island of Patmos because he had been spreading the word about Jesus. Other authorities believe that the John who wrote the Gospel, who may or may not have been John the Apostle, went to Ephesus where he became the first bishop of that Christian Church. None of this scholarship matters to us this morning. The Revelation begins with seven letters, written to the seven churches of Asia: the first of these was addressed to the church at Ephesus. We heard last Sunday about monsters, and mosquitoes as big as horses, in this fascinating book, but, if you read it through, you will find that it mostly concerns a series of sets of visions. After the seven letters there are references to the scroll with the seven seals, followed by details about seven trumpets. These are followed by the seven symbolic visions and writings about the contents of seven bowls. The book concludes with seven visions of the last things, the so-called eschatological commentary. As you will have gathered ‘seven’ is an important number in this book and, in Jewish thinking it was, of course, the perfect number – it was the number of days that God took in Creation, including the Sabbath, the seventh day of rest. The number was celebrated, for example, in the construction of the Jewish, seven-branch candlestick, the menorah. Here, in the penultimate chapter, we have the author’s vision of a new order, which most certainly fits neatly into our ideas on changes to the old order. ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw a New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.’ What a moving and powerful image! Is this perhaps John’s anticipation of what are commonly called ‘the last things’; what theologians refer to as eschatology? Jesus made it clear that the world would have an end. Matthew reports Jesus saying, ‘the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken.’ Is this vision of John’s another view, as it were, of this end-time event? It is most certainly an indication of serious changes to the old order.

   We are, today, in the middle of what the church calls The Great Forty Days of Easter. It is a period analogous to the preparatory forty days of Lent and it takes us to the glorious Feast of the Ascension. If any event was destined to bring about changes to the old order it was the appearance of Jesus Christ as a man on earth. From the moment of his Incarnation, through his earthly teaching ministry, and on to his passion and crucifixion, he was to challenge the old order: this never more so than in his most wonderful resurrection, when he defied death and declared it to be a non-event for all believers. This theme was amplified in our Epistle, when we heard, ‘Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

   There is no better time for us, now happily enjoying this post-resurrection, Easter-tide season, to pause and wonder again at what this all means. Let us call to mind the awesome transformations wrought by this Son of God and pray that we may always be ready to accept changes to the old order in keen and eager anticipation of our call to a place in the New Jerusalem.

Copyright © David Fuller 2007

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