Sunday, April 30, 2017

Preacher's Study - Easter 4A (2017)

The Preacher’s Study
First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s Sermon
4th Sunday of Easter, Year A

John W.B. Hill

Acts 2: 42-47; 
Psalm 23; 
1 Peter 2: 19-25;
John 10: 1-10

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2: 42).  That is how the first reading describes the earliest community of disciples of the risen Christ.  And that is the calling we accepted, in our baptismal covenant.  But there is more; that first community of disciples apparently adopted, quite spontaneously, an entirely new social order and economy.  Once liberated from the economy of anxiously defended personal security, they freely supported one another in love, in a shared life of adequate abundance and treasure in heaven. 

According to the Gospel reading, they could do this because they trusted their shepherd.  The risen Christ shapes our communal life not by compulsion but by winning our trust as he pioneers a new way of life for us.

Sheep played two important symbolic roles in the life of Israel: (a) sheep were a recurring metaphor for the people of Israel themselves (as in the Psalm); and (b) sheep were essential to the cult, as sacrificial offerings.  In the synoptic versions of the gospel, we hear Jesus frequently taking up the metaphor of God’s people as sheep, but it is only in John’s version that the cultic role of sheep comes to expression:
· Jesus is ”the Lamb of God” (John 1: 29, 36);
· Jesus is slaughtered on the same day the Passover lambs are slaughtered (John 18: 28; 19:31), not on the day after, as in the synoptic accounts (Mark 14: 12; Luke 22: 7-8);
· in the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ (John 2: 15), Jesus drives out cattle and sheep (in addition to overthrowing the tables of the money changers, as recounted by the synoptics);
· John provides the only New Testament reference to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem (John 5: 2), the gate he refers to again in this parable (John 10: 1-6), through which animals for sacrifice were brought to the Temple. 

And so, the great irony of Jesus’ parable of the shepherd is that we are invited to think of Jerusalem as the sheepfold; yet this fold is not a place of safety but a place of slaughter!

Israel’s prophets had often drawn a contrast between good shepherds and bad ones.  David would be the king in whom God took delight because he had been a shepherd boy (1 Samuel 16: 11-13; 2 Samuel 5: 1).  Jeremiah (Jeremiah 21: 1-4) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34) castigated the ‘shepherds’ of Israel who exploited the sheep and scattered them, and promised that, one day, God would be their shepherd.  The Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah is compared to a lamb led to slaughter for the sake of the sheep who have gone astray (Isaiah 53: 6-7).

Jesus’ parable then sharpens this prophetic vision by contrasting the shepherd who enters by the gate and the false shepherds who climb in by another way (“thieves and bandits”).  The true shepherd lives among the sheep, going ahead to lead them, in contrast to the false shepherds who are imposed on them (and then slaughter them!)  That is how the sheep learn to trust the true shepherd, for he is one of them, not an outsider who takes advantage of them.  (Compare this with the economy of major corporations today: when hiring a new CEO, they no longer raise up someone from within the company, but bring in an outsider whose job will be ensuring corporate success, not promoting the security of the employees.)

But the key to the parable is that the true shepherd shares with the sheep their fateful passage through the sheep gate!  Sheep brought to Jerusalem were doomed to suffer for the sins of others, but the true shepherd shares their suffering and death, and changes for ever the meaning of their suffering and death.

This is precisely the message of the second reading.  “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2: 20-21).  We who have been baptized into Christ’s death (who have entered the kingdom of God through ‘Jesus the gate’ (John 10: 7-10)) have been set free from the competitive and retributive norms of the secular culture.  We are now free to support one another in love.

In its context, however, Peter’s message is addressed to slaves!  Are slaves who follow the way of Jesus called to passively submit to abusive structures?

The earliest Christians — a tiny minority — could not yet imagine a social revolution capable of challenging the economy of slavery in the Roman Empire.  Anti-slavery doctrines only began to appear in Christian theology after the decline of Rome.  Even today, there are tens of millions of slaves around the world.  How then can slaves possibly follow the way of Jesus?

If, as today’s second reading insists, Christ has left an example for us to follow, it is not just the example of his patience in suffering.  What he suffered for was his fearless indictment of the false shepherds who exploited the sheep of God’s fold!  If it is left to slaves alone to resist the evil of slavery, and they are just sent to the salt mines and replaced by newly enslaved people, the evil is only compounded.  It is those of us who are not enslaved who must follow Christ’s example of resisting this evil on their behalf.  This is the real meaning of “supporting one another in love”.

The Church in which we have become members by our baptism into Christ may wear the face of a tradition-bound institution, functioning in a way similar to other corporate institutions.  But that is not really who we are.  We trust the risen Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12: 2); this is what holds us together in the bonds of love, in a shared life of adequate abundance and treasure in heaven.

John W.B. Hill is a presbyter serving in Toronto. A Council member of APLM, he is the author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.

The Good Shepherd (Original Oil Painting on Sculptural Base), by Bette Anne Wygant, available from

“I Am the Good Shepherd,” by Lee Hodges

Monday, April 24, 2017

Preacher’s Study – Easter 3A 2017

The Preacher’s Study
First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s Sermon
3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A

John W.B. Hill

Acts 2: 14a, 36-41; 
Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17 (NRSV: 1-4, 12-19); 
1 Peter 1: 17-23; 
Luke 24: 13-35

During the Great Three Days the Church throughout the world was busy making disciples, baptizing them into the mystery of Christ dead and risen.  We all participated in this mystery, renewing our own baptismal identity, our calling to “remember his death, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood.”  In the first reading (which brings to a climax last Sunday’s first reading) we are reminded of the original purpose of the sacrament of baptism: “Repent, and be baptized . . . so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you . . . and for all . . . whom the Lord our God calls . . . Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”  Baptism was the way to enter the Reign of God, the realm of mercy and forgiveness, the experience of communion in the Spirit: it meant inheriting the ancient promise, and disentangling from a culture of delusion and violence.  “The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow.  Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray you, save my life.’” (Psalm 116: 2-3).

It is essential to note the context of this first celebration of Christian Baptism: Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the company of Jesus’ disciples, is addressing the festival crowd on the Day of Pentecost who are flummoxed by the suddenly spirited behaviour of these disciples.  So Peter, emboldened by the Spirit, dares to name the ‘elephant in the room’: just fifty days ago, this people had officially rejected their own long-awaited Messiah!  Yet, in a final apocalyptic act of divine judgement and faithful mercy, God raised up the crucified victim, making him both Lord and Messiah, and pouring out his Spirit on all flesh.  These are indeed the  “last days” that Joel foresaw.

We today must never again make the categorical mistake of holding ‘the Jews’ responsible for the death of Jesus.  But, as Gil Baillie has written, “The Cross became the revelation it is largely because it occurred in a Jewish setting . . . It was Jews who rejected and reviled Jesus; it was Jews whose lives were transformed by him; and it was a Jew who was reviled and revered in each case.”  And, we might add, it was as the Jewish Messiah that Jesus became the Saviour of the world.  Today’s gospel reading (Luke 24: 13-35) makes clear that the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection can only be recognized for what it is in the light of “Moses and all the prophets”.  So Peter’s speech positions the story of Jesus in the context of God’s messianic promises to Israel and offers repentance and baptism even to those who rejected him so that they too can know forgiveness and inherit those promises.

However, the context in which we celebrate baptism today is vastly different.  We no longer think of ourselves as grafted onto the vine God brought out of Egypt (Psalm 80:8ff; cf. Romans 11: 17ff).  We tend to see baptism as a blessing bestowed by a religious institution, and a mark of identity distinguishing us from Hindus, Jews, Muslims, etc. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that adults or older children who have been baptized at Easter in a rich and daunting ceremony, enacted with such lavish and powerful symbols, should experience something of an anti-climax by this point in time.  So much was promised; so little has changed.  They may even recognize themselves in the two disciples wending their way home to Emmaus: people who had spent time listening to the prophet from Nazareth, “mighty in deed and in word before God and all the people”; people who were dumbfounded by his shameful execution; people who had even heard the implausible report about an empty tomb and an angel saying he was alive.  But what was it all about?  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” 

However, their state of disillusionment was not a bad place to be.  Although they didn’t know it, the dead and risen Christ was humbly walking beside them, hearing their agonized recollections of all that they had seen.  But they had seen it only through the lens of their limited expectations.  They could not recognize him because he was so far beyond the scope of their expectations.  So that is what he began to address, with infinite patience, “interpreting to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”  And their hearts burned within them!

That is the kind of humble encouragement and deeper perspective that we need to provide for the newly baptized.  The Sunday liturgy was designed to do this, but we need to open it up for them, aware of their limited expectations, until they begin to long for an ever deeper experience of Christ’s sufferings and an ever clearer vision of his glory (see Philippians 3: 10-11).  Then their eyes too will be opened, and he will be made known to them, Sunday by Sunday, in the breaking of the bread.  “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord; I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” (Psalm 116: 10-12)

If we can learn to preach in this way, new Christians will be able to hear themselves addressed in the words of the second reading (1 Peter 1: 17-23): “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors . . . with the precious blood of Christ . . . revealed at the end of the ages for your sake . . . Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory . . . Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart..."

APLM Council member John Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.  

'The Road to Emmaus,' by Daniel Bonnell.

'On the Road to Emmaus,' by Carole Foret.

'Road to Emmaus,' by John Dunne.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Preacher’s Study – Easter 2A 2017

The Preacher’s Study
First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s Sermon
2nd Sunday of Easter, Year A

John W. B. Hill

Acts 2: 14a, 22-32; 
Psalm 16; 
1 Peter 1: 3-9; 
John 20: 19-31.

The Easter Season is a gift of grace: seven weeks to explore the implications of what God has done in raising up the one we crucified; seven weeks for it to sink in that we are the risen body of Christ, the living sacrament of his saving presence to the world.

The entire apostolic witness, the whole New Testament, is founded upon the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; we would never even have heard of him if that had not happened.  St Paul has provided our earliest written witness to this stupendous reality, but it was left to the four evangelists to fill out the meaning of ‘resurrection’.  Only they make it clear that resurrection means an empty tomb!  Only they make it clear that the company of Jesus’ disciples is now the visible manifestation of his invisible presence! 

But what is the significance of an empty tomb?  It tells us that God’s purposes for the world could not be defeated by destroying the one God sent to redeem it.  God gathered up the torn and disfigured corpse of his dear Son and transfigured it into the first fully redeemed human life (body and soul) — a definitive sign of God’s intention for us all.  Bodies matter to God: flesh and bones, feathers and fur, indeed the entire biosphere that graces the surface of this rocky planet hurtling through space.  All will be redeemed, in God’s good time.  Redeemed, not abandoned for something better.

Here may lie the clue to Thomas’ reluctance to accept what the other disciples were telling him (John 20: 24-25).  “We have seen the Lord,” they said.  But if they were trying to tell him that Jesus was still alive in spite of having died — that his crucifixion was just another random piece of meaningless violence in a world beyond hope — then, as far as Thomas was concerned, Jesus’ appearance to them was not good news at all.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Thomas could not just dismiss the memory of Jesus’ shameful and horrific execution, and he needed to know that God could not dismiss it either.

If God is going to triumph over the evil that defaces this good creation and truly redeem the world, then even the world’s catastrophes must be redeemed; they must ultimately come to be recognized as critical moments in the historic drama of “the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it” (John 1: 1-5).  It was the catastrophe of Jesus’ crucifixion that revealed the darkness of our world, and it was the crucifixion of Jesus that revealed the immensity of God’s mercy — mercy which holds the world in being and is its only hope of healing.  Thus the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands are the crowning perfection of his risen body.  Likewise, a redeemed world will bear the marks of our folly and destruction, for these wounds too are part of the drama of its salvation.  But the wounds will be healed.

The second reading for this day (1 Peter 1: 3-9) sounds like an address to people who have just emerged from the waters of baptism.  The Easter Season is a time when we remember our baptism into Christ’s death.  The life we inherited from our death-dealing culture was buried with Christ in his tomb, to rise with him into a new culture of eternal life, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us, who are being protected by the power of God through faith in a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”  It is not a salvation out of this world; it is the salvation of the world, in which we participate through hope.  Because of this hope we are able to experience even our suffering and loss as a participation in Christ’s sufferings, and therefore as part of that great cosmic drama.  “In this we rejoice, even if now for a little while we have to suffer trials, so that the genuineness of our faith . . . may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed . . . Even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  

Notice that the world’s eventual salvation is something we “are receiving” — something we are experiencing now, already!  The immediate “outcome of our faith” is living a life of eternal significance (“the salvation of our souls”), for as the death and rising of our Lord are replicated in us, we participate in this historic drama of redemption.  This is what it means to belong to the company of the baptized, disciples of the risen Christ.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada

"Resurrection," by Donna Holdsworth, available at