Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
There is a very interesting detail in the Acts, when presenting the life of the early church after Easter. The apostles make many signs and wonders among the people. Trial after trial, imprisonment after imprisonment. ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ This is Peter’s answer to the high priest who try to suppress the movement. ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.’ And the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly!
The interesting detail is this. ‘And a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.’ We can presume that these priests played a crucial role in shaping the heart of the Christian liturgy. Coming from the tradition of the Temple sacrifice, I think, it was through them that, in fact, it was Christianity which preserved the heart of Jewish religion at the time. After the destruction of the Temple, in Judaism, the ‘word’, understanding God’s Torah, replaced the role of the Temple-sacrifice. A totally new direction of development forked off.
We should really ponder this precious continuity. In our Eucharist, the whole story of the Temple is there. There is a profound connection with the Old Testament salvation history. The Christian sacrifice is bloodless, and we remember Jesus’ redeeming work in the Spirit. The heritage of those early priest convert is that they were obedient to the faith. To the new spirit of Sacrifice. (Indeed, a good news for our Anglo-Catholic sacramental tradition – being so biblical!)
Easter is a time of self-knowledge. Its penetrating Light allows individuals and communities to understand who they are, and where they are. Walking in the light of Christ, we understand, that time is so precious… we should utilise it well.
We need to tell our story to Jesus day by day
In our story, it is not accidental, that Jesus asks, ‘What things?’ And they said to him: those about Jesus, the Nazarene... And Jesus report the entire story of Jesus to Jesus himself. It was just what Jesus wanted. Namely, that they (we) should express themselves fully. When we start telling who He is for us, our story telling, actually our prayer, enables Jesus to clear up the very things that are so dark and perplexing to us. This happened to the disciples.
− These two disciples were chosen because they could testify to all what Jesus was telling them about how the Scripture prophecies were fulfilled regarding his death and Resurrection.
Desire for Redemption
The two disciples are important markers indicators what a healthy faith is. What made them capable of becoming messangers? Their role is pivotal in the birth of Christian faith. It was their account which convinced the disciples that the previous reports of Jesus’ resurrection are true!
− It is so moving to see that there was a genuine yearning for redemption in them. ‘But we were hoping that he was the one about to ransom Israel…’
− With a genuine hope, they yearned for deliverance from sin, for deliverance from all danger and evils.
− This desire in our heart is a good sign, that ‘our soul is still alive’…
− It means that we want to work on our love, to become a permanent love, which is always offered to our beloved ones…. Our love, in order to be renewed, needs this ‘deliverance from all danger and evils.’
• If we are aware that we need the support of the Messiah, than Jesus can add his Presence, his full friendship.
− On occasions, Jesus rebukes us for our unbelief. Let us accept, just like the disciples, that we should now the Scriptures better… we should pray more often and with a proper focus….
• Today’s Eucharist, really wants to go deep in us. Today Jesus touches the human heart. That heart, which is the seat of our personality. When we pray in the Mass, ‘Lift up your hearts’, it is about joining the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
− We lift up our hearts, the centre of our thinking, feelings, and our willing. And we will see, with the disciples, what our true personality desires…
• ‘And their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.’
− The strange fact is that Jesus did not act as a guest, but as the host. And this is the point of our Easter journey. When Jesus is at home, in full control in our lives, and not merely a passing visitor.
− In the act of giving the bread and the chalice over to them, their eyes were opened.
− Let us ask for this grace…. Let us ask for this gift: to have a seeing eye…. And a burning heart.
• Today we pray for a burning heart not only for ourselves, but for the church of St Augustine’s.
Our passage recalls Moses’ request, and its refusal, to enter the promised Land. ‘I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. … But the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more of this matter. Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan.’
There is an important symbolic meaning of these lines. Do we belong to a past, transitory world, brought down by ‘sin’ − or do we belong to the world of the Resurrection? The world of Easter is in stark contrast with the world of inertia, idleness and dead-ends.
Peter’s speech in the Temple speaks on behalf of this liberating Easter. He asks for the decision of faith. ‘The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead.’
Indeed, our world is entrapped in a Beckettian ‘Endgame’. We are caught up in the past which manifest itself in a weightless, formless present. There is no exit. The past cannot be accessed, the present cannot be transformed, and the future cannot be shaped.
Unless a miracle pushes us to the tipping point of Easter faith − that leads to a new and irreversible development. Exactly this is what happens to part of his audience. ‘And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next day…. Howbeit man of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.’
The big question is, do people today have a sense of the dignity of their soul? Or there is a collective fainting into oblivion when the responsibility for one’s immortal soul is forgotten? As Julia Kristeva in her New Maladies of the Soul puts it, ‘do people still have a soul’? Perhaps, this lack is the situation of the ‘man lame from his mother’s womb’ whose request for something less then the dignity of the soul triggered out Peter’s liberating speech.
Bearing in mind the above tipping point, indeed, who still has a soul?
Deuteronomy records how the Israelites gradually took possession of the promised Land. It is a story of practical moves (avoiding conflict and actual military engagement). All these nations and people, the one time inhabitants of the land, has long disappeared in the sand(storms) of history. ‘Rise ye up, take your journey, and pass over the river Arnon: behold, I have given into thine hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land: begin to possess it, and contend with him in battle.’ (Deuteronomy 2,24) These individual lives and cultures became nameless victims, forever doomed to oblivion.
It is not quite the case. In the miracle of the tongues at Pentecost, this forgotten story burst into surface. ‘And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where thy were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ It is our privilege as Christians to see that this miracle has to do not only with the ‘above’ but with the ‘below’. This Holy Spirit penetrates history to its forgotten depths.
The very fact that that the disciples speak in the historical languages of the region, is profoundly symbolic. ‘And they were amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our toungues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?’ (Acts 2,7-13)
Indeed, what does this mean? This is the genius of Cranmer’s lectionary (BCP), that with the Old Testament reading we can see salvation history as a layered reality. The Spirit of Pentecost is the icon of the God of History. This fiery Presence reveals God’s compassion that embraces the whole of history. These historical languages are a remembrance of the languages once spoken by people in the times that Deuteronomy recorded. God’s Shekinah (divine Glory) embraces and remembers all. The sudden cacophony of languages is total joy. (Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.) This joy is mingled with the joy of angels. And this is a hidden scene of Pentecost which one must not overlook. It is itself God’s joy over the life of the nameless victims of the past. Pentecost tells us, and warns us, that all are fully alive − will be fully alive.
This explains the apocalyptic undertone of Peter’s speech at Pentecost. ‘I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: and I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come: and it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’(Acts 2,17-21) Pentecost is not a narcissistic joy of the present moment. Pentecost, as a Christian feast, is the feast of our responsibility in front of the Lord of history. Can we see in our Easter joy the derailed moments of our present? Those victims who are there in the wake of new arm races, new wars, new economic growths − our present victories?
‘The Lord our God spake unto us in Horeb, saying, ye have dwelt long enough in this mount: turn you, and take your journey…’(Deuteronomy 1,6-7) This is a blueprint for mission. This proclaiming of Jesus is like the systole – diastole rhythm of the heart when pumping blood. We are recharged in the Eucharistic presence. And then, we become emissionaries of the Eucharistic table.
‘Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.’ Before this arrival, the life in the desert is also an important part of our missionary plan. The hardships the Israelites experienced in it are a reminder of the task that we must honestly face reality. Today, the desert becomes the symbol of real efforts in preparing the above journey. The desert is the place where our sense of the ‘Real’ is being born. Here we learn to perceive the reality of grace and God’s Glory. Thus, the desert, as the symbol of the real, is the ‘antidote’ to the constraints of the cyber-realities, which seem to be our new place of the Biblical ‘exile of the Jews’. We really should take seriously how a ‘mediated reality’, in which we choose to live, affects our sense of the reality of God.
‘…The Lord your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.’ This is genuine diversity: the beauty of God and the beauty of the fellowship he creates! I just wonder to what extent the flickering multiplicity offered by our screen-worlds are genuine options. Is a life unmarked by prayer a real life? Are we gravitating to the real – or merely to our death?
The Gospels can be in terms of this yearning for the real. ‘Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom of Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me’. This is the power to regain our real life. When life is defined again as the reality of love.
‘And when Jesus had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.’ Again, this vertical, which cuts across human history, is our sole real direction. His return to the Father connects us with the ‘Real’, the house of Love. Are falling apart, uncontrollable pluralities (this is wounded human history), can be hold together again in view of this Centre of centres.
What is most strikingly beautiful, however, is this sentence: ‘And they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.’ This is the ‘upper room of understanding’, the upper room of the Eucharist. The birthplace of the real.
The appearances of Jesus after his resurrection puzzle us. To be more precise, it is the behaviour of the disciples which is a puzzlement for us. Often, they don’t recognise Jesus. On the road to Emmaus, they speak to him, and have no clue who he is. They recognise only for a moment in the breaking of the bread, but again, already when he departed. At the tomb, a woman called Mary, was puzzled. She was crying and took Jesus to be the gardener. Then again, when Jesus meets them at the lake of Galilee and invites them to eat fish with him, they did not there to ask him who he was, as they ‘knew’ that it was Jesus.
How shall we understand this ‘upsidaisy’ period? The disciples needed time to process what has happened. They needed time to accommodate to the new presence of Jesus. They had to learn to communicate with Jesus – again!
Also, this period, when faith was in ‘fermentation’, they had to reflect on themselves too. They needed assurance that not only it is the same Jesus, but it is their same life, the same discipleship. When Jesus return a week later, it is to assure Thomas that there is complete continuity between the Lord who called him, the Lord who died on the cross, and the Lord who stands before him, inviting him to touch his wounds. Jesus’ encouragement can be translated as this: ‘Be not unbelieving but believing!’ (Jn 20.28) It suggests an ongoing state rather than a momentary decision. Indeed, we need continually ‘evaluate’ how close we are to Jesus. He appears among us on every Sunday…and ‘speaks to the Thomas in us’. Touch me in the Eucharist, when I put my body in your palm of hand, when you drink me, when you eat me… when I sing in you, when you pray to me. Jesus wants to re-focus our life on Him.
My second thought is about this re-adjustment. There is a further answer about how from gradually the disciples arrive to a settled faith in Jesus. In these early days, they do not seem to celebrate the Eucharist among themselves. It was their ‘remembering’ and repeating the breaking of the bread in the Last Supper which made their vision clear. Celebrating the Eucharist is crucial element of our faith. It renews our faith, it re-connects us with the Risen Lord. It nourishes our sense of fellowship in the local church.
Since one of our parishioners has raised the puzzling question, what is ‘kosher food for the Jews’, I have been trying to answer that question ever since. One should not forget that this Easter period of the appearances of Jesus is also the ‘forging’ or the completion of the New Covenant which he established in the Last Supper.
The function of the kosher food in Jewish life is also very helpful in understanding our Christian identity. You know the saying, ‘you are what you eat.’ The Jewish people say that the intellect and religious emotions of a person is a direct outcome of the ‘intake’. They eat kosher food, given by divine instruction, that they feel and think in a refined way, spiritually. In their understanding, kosher and non-kosher food affects their sensitivity or di-sensitisation of their spirituality. If they don’t eat properly, as they say, it causes ‘the closing up of the spiritual arteries to matters of godliness’. To live a higher spiritual existence, to fulfill the special mission to be the light of the nations, it requires a special diet.
This is precisely the function of the Eucharistic meal which we share when we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. As Christians, we do not have the obligation of a ‘kosher meal’ as our daily diet. It is the Sunday Eucharist, our Sunday liturgical meal, which is our kosher food! We eat it for the same reasons: to remain spiritually alive; to remain morally healthy; and to preserve our unique, different identity. Without this weekly gesture of the doubting Thomas (doubting in the sense that he news renewal and rebirth), we disappear in a faceless and drifting sea. Receiving our Lord, we feel, think, and live like him: full of life, facing Life.
We are the family of God. ‘I will be the God of all the families of Israel’. This is a good news and a task. God − his grace − wants to be present in our families. In other words, he wants to interact with ‘what and who we are in our week-days’. Our God-image is to be sought after in the community, in our relationship with others. God sanctifies us as ‘we’. The ‘I’ exist only if it is also a ‘we’ in the presence of God.
‘Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee. Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel.’ This reveals that our most beautiful capacity is love. God’s active love towards us confirms this most precious ‘ability’. ‘I will build thee’: it adds to this recognition a further important element. Rebirth in God is a life-time process; for both the individual and the local Christian community.
‘Behold, I will bring them forth the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth.’ Retruning to God, that is, letting him to gather us, is the core of Christian identity. This ‘letting’ results in growth and rebirth, and a genuine community.
In John’s Gospel, there is a hidden icon of the Father who ‘gathers us together.’ The raising of Lazarus, re-read after Easter, attains a special meaning. It shows us the Father at work, who ‘saves his people, the remnant of Israel’.
‘I am the resurrection, and the life…He groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, and said, Where have ye laid him?...Jesus wept.’ Jesus’ compassion for Lazarus becomes the icon of the Father’s compassion for us. Actually, even more, as it is a double-portrait. The way in which Jesus is moved by the loss of his friend also portrays the Father’s compassion for the dead Son on Good Friday. Let us listen to the Father’s inaudible voice, underlying Jesus’ voice. This inaudible voice governs the whole of salvation history.
Engaging with this hidden voice is the very source of all renewal and growth of faith and community life.
‘And Elisha called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunammite. So he called her. And when she was come in unto him, he said, Take up thy son.’ (2 Kings, 4,36-37) We must realise the gifts of God in our life daily − and appreciate it.
Luke’s Gospel also depicts the icon of gratitude. We are called to imagine and contemplate the mother’s thanksgiving.‘And Jesus said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.’(Luke 7,14-15) And there is a further fact worth contemplating here. ‘He delivered him to his mother.’ It is impossible to miss the very same gesture with which he entrusted John, the beloved disciple, to Mary. ‘Woman, behold your son!’ (John 19,26)
Jairus, the leader of a synagogue, asks Jesus: ‘My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed’. (Mk 5,23) This reading, from the Book of Common Prayer, in the Octave of Easer, is an important reminder. Easter is a special time for prayer. The Resurrection has opened us up to realising our most important needs. What are the most important requests underlying our lives? What relationships should be healed, nourished, or renewed? There are crucial issues, like the healing of the daughter of Jairus, or the healing touch for the woman ‘who had an issue of blood twelve years’. Easter must penetrate the underworld of our unresolved issues. Let us make use of our becoming transparent in the light of Easter.
Both of today’s readings show God as a tireless labourer. All this is against the inertia of human history. ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…’ ‘And they shall build the old wasters, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.’ (Isaiah 61,1.4.)
The wild nature (wilderness) of human history is turned into ‘culture’, cultivated nature. We tend to forget that the blueprint and very source of this creation is God. Easter manifests our tireless creator. ‘For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown init to spring forth; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise the spring forth before all the nations.’ (Isaiah 61,11)
The Gospel appearances show our Easter Lord as this tireless Redeemer. ‘Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find.’ It is worth observing how the resurrected Jesus touches our tangible reality and the realm of hope at the same time. He nourishes the body and the disciples’ hope. ‘Come and dine…Jesus then taketh the bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.’ (John 21,13)
The event of Easter can be compared to the burning bush. The stories of Jesus’ appearances are like a continuous fire. The Lord, in his full glory, dwells with us, without consuming the facts of our lives, which he completely absorbs. Rashi, when comments the scene of the burning bush, renders the words b’labat esh by b’shal hevet shel esh, libo shel esh. Thus, ‘in a flame of fire’ means ‘the heart of fire’. Thus, the message of God is to be found in the ‘heart of fire’, i.e., in the earnest and sincere inwardness of the heart, where the fiery embers of Godliness abide. (Nissan Mindel, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, A Biography, Kehot Publication Society, p.46.) What can be the message of this exegetical insight? The Gospel aims at burning these visions into our hearts. Then, our witness and conviction comes indeed from our heart as our Easter. Can we contemplate this sentence, as our Easter burning bush itself? ‘This is now the third time that Jesus shewed himself to his disciples, after that he was risen from the dead.’(John 21,14)
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..