Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 19 April 2015
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
3 EASTER, 2015 HIGH MASS
“Thus it is written, that the Christ is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
St. Luke’s two-volume work, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the clearest presentation of the church’s universal mission in the New Testament. He binds together the story of the early Church with the story of Jesus to show that the mission of the Church is rooted in the mission of Jesus. The common threads which link these two works help us to see how he understands mission.
In today’s Gospel, Luke’s final resurrection appearance story – and its echo in Acts 1: 3-8, “And you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8) – Luke gives a summary of his theology. It propels us from the Gospel into the follow-up account in Acts.
The risen Christ speaks of a ministry that the church will carry out only after he returns to the Father. Luke knows that the mission of the Church evolved. Jesus did not inaugurate a full-blown universal mission. The nature of that mission becomes clear only in the experience of the Church after Easter. In Acts, Luke shows this was not an instantaneous conviction of the church. Only gradually, even painfully, with a good deal of argument and disagreement, and only through the power of the Holy Spirit, would the apostles come to recognize and accept that call to go to “the end of the earth.”
But Luke still grounds that eventual universal mission in the history of Jesus. The risen Christ is the Jesus of the Gospel vindicated. His death is not some tragic disaster which ends hope. He comes to renew table fellowship with the ones he had chosen at the beginning of his ministry. Just as with Matthew’s “Great Commission,” the marching orders for the community’s mission come from the authority of Christ and will be carried out “in his name.” (Luke 24: 47; cf. Matt. 28: 19).
The heart of this mission is a call for conversion and a promise of forgiveness. The transforming power of the gospel is typical of Luke’s Jesus and of the apostles’ preaching in Acts. Through his words and acts of power, Jesus takes away pain, forgives sins, and transforms human life. Mission is about salvation and healing, about wholeness.
So the Gospel serves as a model, a pattern, for the church’s mission. Jesus’ prophetic ministry, his call for repentance and conversion, his acts of healing and exorcism, his boundary-breaking compassion, and his forming of a community – all give shape to that community’s own mission.
Luke looks forward but also back: to the scriptures and their fulfillment in Christ. The risen Lord says clearly “…everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” We see a similar view in Matthew. Luke, with the rest of the New Testament, believed that the person and ministry of Jesus fulfills God’s plan of salvation prophetically expressed in the Old Testament. Continuity is found with the heritage of Israel. From the beginning Israel is not called simply for its own benefit but to be a blessing to all peoples. Though the leaders of Israel reject Jesus and the mission of his Church, a bridge with the past is maintained. Even the scandalous events of the rejection and death of Jesus fits this pattern of God’s mysterious plan. The prophets, too, had been rejected.
Luke sees scripture being fulfilled, not only in the history of Jesus, but in the Church’s as well. All that Jesus speaks of in these verses, his death and resurrection, the worldwide proclamation of conversion and forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit to the witnessing community, come under the heading, “thus it is written.” God’s plan enunciated in the Scriptures will only be completed when “all flesh has seen the salvation of God.”
Luke teaches us that this correspondence between the promise of the Scriptures and the universal mission is not easily grasped. Only the power of the risen Christ and the direction of the Spirit enabled the Church and its apostolic leaders finally to understand. What was true then is just as true now. The Church still finds itself responding to the impulse of Jesus and the Spirit and to the requests of people who say, “Sir, we would see Jesus,” or ask, “What must we do?”
That mission is to be universal, “beginning at Jerusalem” and moving out to “all nations.”
Both ends of Luke’s vision are significant for his theology:
- the origin in the heart of Judaism;
- the worldwide goal.
The roots in Judaism are emphasized not just by the fulfillment of scripture but also by the place of Jerusalem for Luke. All his resurrection stories are set there, just as the infancy stories had begun and ended in the temple. Jesus’ dramatic journey to Jerusalem dominates the Gospel. Jesus, who fulfills the promise of the Old Testament, climaxes his messianic work in Jerusalem. Then, from Jerusalem flows out the Christian community and its mission.
The twelve apostles link old Israel and new by their “witness to these things.” The apostles have a unique role in Luke-Acts because, as the companions of Jesus and privileged observers of his ministry, they form a living link between the history of Jesus and the history of the church. Even though Luke gives us a more positive picture of the apostles than Mark does, but we still see a frail human group being used as the witnesses to Jesus Christ. Luke designates the apostles as “witnesses of these things.” This fragile group will become instruments of the mission once they have received the power of the Spirit. That should be of some encouragement to us when we contemplate our inadequacies for the task of mission. And we should ask ourselves what we are doing if we refuse that encouragement which the power of the Spirit brings.
Witness in Greek is of course martyron. Events in the Middle East and elsewhere remind us forcefully of the link between witness and martyrdom. Some of you may have seen Jane Corbin’s documentary about the plight of Christians in the Middle East on BBC television last week. One of the most moving parts was listening to an Iraqi Christian teenage girl. Her family had taken refuge in an ancient monastery, only a few miles from the Islamic State lines, defended by Kurdish Muslim fighters. She knew what her fate would be should she fall into Islamist hands – if she survived the initial violence, a life of sexual slavery and domestic subjugation, denied any possibility of education or career outside the narrow confines of the home. Yet she was quietly determined never to renounce her faith; a faith which led her to pray for her enemies.
While Luke pays homage to the Jewish origins of the Church, he also shows the boundary-breaking nature of its universal mission , foreshadowed in the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus. Even though Jesus’ mission is confined mainly to Israel, signs of universality break out in the Gospel story. Jesus’ birth is dated in relations to the emperor and his governor – this event has a universal significance reaching far beyond the small world in which it takes place. Simeon proclaims this child, not just a the glory of Israel, but “the light to lighten the nations.”
When Jesus preaches in his home town synagogue in Nazareth, and identifies himself with Isaiah’s Spirited-anointed one who has come to preach good news to the poor and outcast. He designates those on the periphery – the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, as the recipients of his ministry. He provocatively reminds his sceptical hearers, who think they know exactly who he is, that Elijah and Elisha were not sent just to Israel, but to Gentiles. Acts charts the breakout of the mission as it moves from “Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8).
Just Jesus’s ministry was inaugurated by the Spirit, so the Spirit will sustain and direct the Church’s mission. Beginning with Pentecost and throughout the story of Acts, Luke consistently links the ever-widening scope of mission with the work of the Spirit
Jesus exercises his mission in deeds as well as words: he welcomes outcasts and sinners to share the fellowship of the table with him. This was something those who saw preserving the purity of the community as vital to God’s plan could not come to terms with. This tension is with us still. How does the Church preserve its identity, yet be open to the outsider?
If we examined ourselves, we might conclude that whatever our pretty obvious failings in universal mission, we can at least tick the box on being rooted in the history of Israel and the Church. Ours is an age of what has been called “virtual amnesia” about the history of Christian communities, a forgetfulness of the fact that we are all the product of relationships and influences, even among some of their leaders. Loss of memory brings loss of direction and sense of identity. It brings too a lack of courage to live and write the next chapter of the story.
If we are dealing with history, we must beware the tendency in all of us to make it tell the story we want to hear. We create our own false memory syndromes; fantasy worlds in which to take refuge from unpleasant reality rather than be sent out to change the real world into a world which is real.
Most of us prefer comfort to challenge. But being true to our collective Christian memory challenges us to be “witnesses to these things;” to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the power of his Spirit to renew and direct lives, to turn them towards Jesus and with him towards others. And if we do not feel transformed, then we should turn again to Jesus and pray for his Spirit to encourage and guide us.