Monday, April 16, 2018

Preacher’s Study – Easter 7B

The Preacher’s Study

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B

John W.B. Hill

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 
Psalm 1; 
1 John 5:9-13;
John 17:6-19.

The first reading for this Sunday takes us back to that moment just after the Ascension of the Lord, when the truth that was only hinted at in the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) has finally sunk in: now, and until he comes in glory, the presence of the risen Christ is the presence of his witnesses.[1]  Now they realize that they are the ones God has sent into the world.  Theirs is the responsibility of ensuring that the world does not forget what God has done through his Anointed One.  As Jesus prays in the gospel for this Sunday, “now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you...As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”


It is clear that the horrifying scandal of Judas’ defection, and his role in the arrest of Jesus, had reverberated through the earliest company of disciples with a shock-wave of dismay, for we hear echoes of this tragic betrayal in two of this Sunday’s readings.  It is a sombre reminder of the earth-shaking repercussions of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, and a warning not to betray his trust in us, even when the world hates us.  Psalm 1 is an ancient piece of wisdom about the danger of making such a mistake.

But the most important aspect of the reading from Acts is the focus it gives to the critical role of the twelve apostles — so critical that the number of them had to be filled out again!  Why were they so important?  Peter gives the answer when he spells out the necessary qualifications of any candidate for that office: the person must “have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning with the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

The Gospel reading takes us even deeper into the secret of the formation of these apostles.  John 17 is the evangelist’s exploration of the mind of Christ about his disciples, cast in the form of a prayer for them and for what they will be, once he is risen from the dead and they have been restored in their loyalty to him.  When that day comes, they will not only be witnesses to what happened; they will have been formed by Jesus’ word of truth because they will have finally received that word and will be keeping it, for they will “know in truth that I came from you.”  They will have been sanctified (consecrated) by Jesus’ own sanctification (his self-sacrifice).  “For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they may be sanctified in truth.”  As the second reading puts it, they will “have the testimony in their hearts.”

In later centuries, the Church would insist that the ‘apostolic succession’ of its bishops attested the authenticity of the Church; yet it is clearly impossible for any bishop to meet the qualifications spelled out by Peter!  The apostolic witness in Peter’s sense will come from someone who was there.  Of greater importance than all our subsequent orders of ministry is the apostolic witness itself which is now mediated to us through the writings of the New Testament, for its account of Christ and its interpretation of Christ was validated by people who had known the apostolic witness firsthand.

Thus the foremost responsibility of the ordained is to sustain the Church’s dialogue with that apostolic witness (the holy scriptures) and to order the Church’s life accordingly.  What we call ‘the apostolic succession’ is simply an acknowledgement that we are not making this up; we are custodians of a tradition “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20)  Apostolic succession is not the foundation of the Church; Christ is the foundation.  Apostolic succession is also not the defining identity of the Church; baptism into Christ is the defining identity.

New disciples need to be assured, therefore, that their calling to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood” is a real calling.  In a Church that is still deeply clericalized, they may be tempted to think their calling is to support the calling of the clergy.  But all disciples are called to be witnesses to the resurrection of the Lord (with the support and guidance of the clergy).  The Church is not an organization of Professional Christians and their patrons.  We are called to be the living presence of the risen Lord by becoming the story we tell.  We must be formed as witnesses by hearing the word of truth and receiving it.  Then we too will have the testimony in our hearts, thanks to the witness of those apostles of old and the indwelling Spirit of Jesus.  That is the gift of Pentecost for which we wait, constantly devoting ourselves to prayer (Acts 1:12-14).

John W. B. Hill, an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada, is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice. He will be one of the featured speakers at this summer’s conference co-sponsored by APLM and Journey to Baptismal Living: NAAC

“Supper at Emmaus,” by Francis Newton Souza.

“The Ascension,” by Peter Rogers.

“The Ascension of Jesus,” by Miki de Goodaboom

[1] “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (verses 30-32)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Preacher’s Study - Ascension of the Lord, ABC

The Preacher’s Study

The Ascension of the Lord

John W.B. Hill

Acts 1:1-11; 
Psalm 47 or Psalm 93;
Ephesians 1:15-23;
Luke 24:44-53.

The exaltation of Jesus “to God’s right hand”, and the outpouring of the Spirit upon his followers are both essential parts of the paschal mystery.  But only the Acts of the Apostles assigns these particular elements of the gospel to particular days, following the day of resurrection.  Paul makes no temporal distinction amongst them, and John’s version of the gospel assigns both Jesus’ ascent to the Father and his gift of the Holy Spirit to Easter Day itself.

However the chronology of Acts has been so illuminating that it has shaped the Church’s calendar for most of church history.  It has helped us to recognize that Jesus’ resurrection, his exaltation, and our participation in his Spirit are not synonymous!  They are not just three metaphors for the same reality (even though they are integrally related); their meaning cannot be reduced to ‘the enduring influence of Jesus of Nazareth.’  That is not the gospel; for Jesus is risen, and Jesus is Lord, and the Spirit of Jesus is “his own first gift for those who believe.”

This, together with Luke’s insistence that the events of this gospel can only be understood as the fulfilment of “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (Luke 24:44), was especially important for Gentile believers who might have been tempted to interpret the good news of ‘Jesus and the Resurrection’ (Acts 17:18) through a Greek or pagan lens.  It is just as important today for believers who might be tempted to interpret the gospel through a “new age” lens.

What, then, is the significance of the fortieth day (Ascension Day)?  Pentecost (meaning ‘fiftieth’) was originally the fiftieth day after Passover, a day to celebrate the gift of the Law through Moses, and thus also an appropriate day for followers of Jesus to celebrate the gift of the Spirit. So too, the fortieth day might evoke the memory of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, that interlude between two epochs: their subjugation in Egypt, and their settlement in the Promised Land. 

Thus, in the book of Acts, the forty days are the interlude between the time the disciples spent with Jesus until his arrest and crucifixion, and the beginning of their apostolate.  During this interlude, Jesus “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God”.

Today, people who respond to the good news of Jesus and the Resurrection by accepting baptism also need the benefit of such an interlude, a time to be guided toward a fuller recognition of their calling.  They need to be grounded in the mystery of Christ “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21).  As a medieval hymn observes, “angels wonder when they see how changed is our humanity” (O Lord Most High, Eternal King).  For his dignity is now our dignity, too.

Thus, as the second reading spells out, we are being given “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with your eyes enlightened, you may know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:17-19).  In short, we are inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

At the same time, we need to be grounded in the humble spirit of trusting agnosticism, confident in the one essential role we must play in the coming of that kingdom: “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses...” (Acts 1:7-8). 

This is the primary vocation of the baptized: put simply, to be the witnesses to what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord!  This is what Jesus had consistently taught, before his death: “you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.  This will give you an opportunity to testify!  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:12-15).  “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me...” (John 15:26-27).

Such inspired testimony is no guarantee that those who oppose us will be convinced by our witness, or that the charges brought against us will be dropped!  Rather, our witness is simply God’s way of convicting the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).  The followers of Jesus conquered their accuser “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Revelation 12:10-11).

John W. B. Hill, an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada, is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice. He will be one of the featured speakers at this summer’s conference co-sponsored by APLM and Journey to Baptismal Living: NAAC

“Ascension,” “Baptism,” and “The Apostles,” by Ivan Filichev.
Available through

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Preacher’s Study – Easter 6B

The Preacher’s Study

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

John W.B. Hill

Acts 10:44-48; 
Psalm 98; 
1 John 5:1-6;
John 15:9-17

The readings for this Sunday amplify what we heard last Sunday: that God is glorified when disciples of Jesus bear much fruit.  And that fruit is the love that binds us together in Christ. 

What was God’s purpose in creating the universe?  Love!  What is the purpose of our life in union with Christ? Fruitfulness, so that God’s love may be known and enjoyed ever more widely!  How is this possible?  Through the initiative of the Spirit who propels us into a reality we cannot yet imagine, if we are open to it. 

The purpose of this long Easter season (longer than the season of Lent!) is strengthening us in the knowledge of the astounding generosity and power of God’s love for the world.

The first reading brings to completion the story of Peter’s visit to the home of Cornelius.  Peter could not imagine why he had been requested to pay this visit, but he was persuaded to go by the arresting visions he had just experienced (Acts 10:9-23).  What resulted from the visit was not just the conversion of Cornelius’ entire household and social network, but the conversion of Peter and his friends.  This was, in fact, merely the beginning of the conversion of the messianic community into a covenant people beyond national boundaries.  Up to this point, the people of the covenant were, by definition, cultural Israelites.  This had been God’s doing, and any other definition was unimaginable.  How could other peoples with their utterly foreign and disreputable cultures (including their culinary customs) be part of the same covenant community?

So Peter and his companions were understandably shocked to witness these foreigners experiencing the same energies of the Spirit that they had experienced on the Day of Pentecost (verses 45-46).  What they were seeing challenged everything they thought they knew about God’s covenant partnership with Israel, and yet it was undeniably real!

In our time, when most Christians have succumbed to the post-Enlightenment view of ‘religion’ (that faith is a personal, private or domestic affair), Peter’s reservations about Cornelius’ conversion may seem to us narrow-minded.  But that is because we have jumped to the conclusion that Cornelius had simply adopted the beliefs of the messianic community.  How could that be a problem?

But the Spirit was instigating something more radical than the spread of a new religious belief.  The second reading challenges us to take more seriously the reality of being ‘born of God’.  “Everyone who loves the parent loves the child” (whoever loves the begetter loves the begotten).  

Disciples of Jesus share a blood-bond, for it is through his body broken and blood spilled that we have come to participate in his life. “We, being many, are one body, for we all share in one bread.”  The images of this communal bond are many, for the reality is deep!  And the way we live this reality is by obeying God’s commandments, which “are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.”  It is of the greatest significance, then, that Peter and his friends agreed to stay in Cornelius home for several days.
Conquering the world involves learning to love those whose foundational culture is totally foreign to us.  This may seem burdensome, but it promises to relieve us of the burden of our racism, nationalism, and sectarianism, which keep dragging the world into conflict, subjugation, exploitation, and suffering.  When we learn to recognize one another as members of one body, one indivisible but polychromatic human race, brought to new birth from the wounded side of the crucified Redeemer, then our lived faith will become an unmistakable sign of the world’s promised future as the kingdom of a gracious and generous God. 

This may seem an idle fantasy, since we don’t know how such a conversion could ever come about.  But the real question is not how it will happen but whether we are ready to let the Spirit propel us into this global community of faithful love.  Peter could not know how the conversion of the messianic community would happen, but he didn’t need to know, for the Spirit would lead the way.

The Gospel reading assures us that the foundations for this ongoing conversion have already been laid.  The character of this love which will bind us together has been defined: it consists in being ready “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” just as Jesus himself did for us.  

The nature of our agency has also been defined: it consists in being Jesus’ friends (not merely his servants) — friends who are on the same wavelength, because Jesus has shared with us all that he has learned from ‘his Father’.  We therefore know what to pray for because we know exactly what Jesus is up to and can count on God’s full support: “I appointed you to go and bear that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”  

And the reward has also been defined: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  

To share in this communal bond of love for the sake of the world God loves is a joy that transcends all other rewards, just as it did for Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

John W. B. Hill, an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada, is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice. He will be one of the featured speakers at this summer’s conference co-sponsored by APLM and Journey to Baptismal Living: NAAC

“The Coming of the Holy Spirit,” by Soichi Watanabe (1996)

“Eucharist,” by Daniel Bonnell.

“Endless Road,” by Margret Hofheinz-Doring