The Third Sunday after Easter


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Almighty God, who shewest to them that be in error…
1 Peter 2:11-17
John 16:16-22

The predictions which all four Gospels put into the mouth of Jesus about his death and Resurrection, particularly in John, sit somewhat uneasily with the doctrine that, in being fully human and willingly surrendering his divine powers during his incarnate life, Jesus could only have known about his forthcoming death to the extent to which he was able to manipulate events and he could not have known anything about his Resurrection. No wonder his disciples were puzzled. They might have vaguely apprehended the idea that the death of Jesus would conform in some way to a Biblical pattern but any Messianic figure could not be expected to want to arrange his own death and even a Messianic figure would have experienced some difficulties arranging it. The point, as Richard Burridge puts it (John) is that John invariably depicts Jesus as “being in control”. At this last gathering before his Death Jesus knew that he was in deep trouble with the authorities for attacking them and preaching what amounted to heresy but the outcome was uncertain.

As for the Resurrection, the only doctrine they knew was the Pharisaic belief in Resurrection at the end of time; they could not have imagined the re-appearance of Jesus after his death in some sort of physical guise.

John’s motive in describing Jesus’ apparent riddle, was to provide a grounding for the promised transformation from sorrow to joy, that temporary and painful tribulation would be followed by everlasting reward. This was a message which required constant repetition by the 90s when Christianity was suffering its latest bout of persecution, this time under the Emperor Domitian. As has been pointed out before (cf First Sunday after Easter), the behaviour of the Roman state was radically different when John was writing from the late 50’s when Paul urged obedience to the civil powers. Peter appears to be writing primarily to Jews as he places them in antithesis to the Gentiles. We know that the Jews had a long-running problem with Rome (or any secular power), exacerbated by the imperial assumption of deity, which explains the trap set for Jesus in Matthew 22:15-21. The Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in 59, apparently out of short-term political considerations, but by the early 60s, just before this letter was written, Palestine was again in a state of foment which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. At the same time, Nero had begun to persecute the Christians in Rome and so, on both counts, Peter’s exhortation is particularly remarkable because he explicitly and emphatically requires obedience to the civil powers during a period of persecution.

The issue of Church and State and the Scriptural authority for rebellion (cf The Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany) was a live issue in the 16th Century because of ‘extremist’ theocratic sects like the Anabaptists. To England which had recently adopted explicitly ecclesiological authority, attempting to impose an exterior measure of religious uniformity (under pain of criminal proceedings) the issue of authority, particularly in the face of Papally backed Spanish Catholic belligerence and Puritan’ critique, was acute which explains the reaction in the Collect to the Readings. It does not talk about Christ but of “Christ’s religion” in which they must “follow all such things as are agreeable”, in this case to the monarch in Parliament. This was an age when people were tortured and killed by the state because their religious convictions ran counter to the orthodox and so, oddly in the context of a Eucharist, the Collect carries a threat as well as an encouragement. In view of Peter’s, perhaps naive, contrast between the faithful and the Gentiles, there is a sad irony in the spectacle of Christians killing Christians in defence of Christianity.

Setting aside the extreme case of persecution which so coloured John’s writing, the Gospel (borrowing the most often used and in many ways the tritest analogy from the Old Testament of the joy of birth after the pain of labour, which none of the authors can have experienced) is concerned to encourage fortitude. Most of us will never face the prospect of being called upon to die for our faith but, still, we are pilgrims and we can expect suffering as a consequence of steadfastness. Whereas the early church faced fanatically definite opposition our challenge is the contemporary tendency to hold any position tenuously and to abandon it at the first sign of trouble. At a more concrete level, in a world where medicine involves extended periods of poor health as well as rapid cures, we often require stamina rather than the instant courage of crisis; and who is to say that one is less or more exacting than the other. This message in John is, therefore, not a highly specific encouragement to the physically brave. We can all look forward to our everlasting reward as long as, paradoxically, we do not believe that our behaviour justifies it.

To be a pilgrim is to be permanently alert and committed, qualities which are difficult to sustain in our cacophonous world of constant competition for our attention and a sustained campaign by global corporations to persuade us to want what we do not need. The challenges to faithfulness are different in every generation but the message of hope is the same.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How difficult is it to reconcile the doctrine of the humanity of Jesus with statements in the Gospels about his forthcoming death and Resurrection?
  2. How different are the Gospel accounts of the trial and condemnation of Jesus compared with what we know about Jewish and Roman criminal procedure and, on this basis, was Jesus’ prediction of death justified?
  3. How different is Peter’s approach to Roman authority from Paul and John?
  4. Consider the implications of Peter’s statement that we must submit to authority even when it persecutes us
  5. Describe the trials of a contemporary pilgrim.

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