Tuesday in Whitsun Week


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God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts…
For the Epistle
Acts 8:14-17
John 10:1-10

In order to appreciate the chronological development of the theology of the Spirit’s role in sacrament it would have been better if the readings from Acts for yesterday and today had been given the other way round. In today’s passage we see that the spirit’s invocation through the laying on of hands is already well recognised but that her presence in Baptism is not. It was this chronological ordering of water and then the Spirit which was to lead to the later development of Confirmation and its radical chronological separation from Baptism. The reverse order also takes us back from the conversion of Gentiles to the conversion of Samaritans closer to home; it is therefore fascinating to consider how it was that Samaritans were baptised without the knowledge of the elders in Jerusalem, unless it was the baptism of John. As is often the case, the Jews (or, more accurately, Judeans), disliked their cousins the Samaritans even more than complete outsiders. The dispute was both political and religious: the Samaritans were the rump of the Northern Kingdom of Israel which had rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12) setting up their own kingdom under the notorious Jeroboam; and the rift was given new impetus on the Maccabean period Jerusalem Jews, on the other hand (cf Whitsunday), had no problem with its own Diaspora whose religious observance was necessarily more sketchy than their own.

The Gospel is not concerned with who can be counted orthodox but who is fit to lead. Jesus uses the image of the sheep fold which was a protected paddock where a number of small flocks would overnight under watch. Each shepherd would call his own flock and it would form behind him to be led out into the open. Jesus is referring to Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34 which accuse the religious leadership of being unfaithful. In this case the image is startling because Jesus is not saying that the sheep might transfer their loyalty from the Jewish leaders to him, he is saying that he is the automatic and proper shepherd and that the authorities are like thieves, climbing the wall of the fold, to harm the sheep. Even taking into account the kind of rhetoric and polemic which frequently characterised public religious utterance at the time, this is extremely wounding, calculated to upset the religious leadership. This reminds us of how radical were the claims which Jesus made. We are accustomed to seeing events in the considerable hindsight of the Gospels continually extended in the life of the Church. As time goes by, the Jewish leaders look more wrong and hopeless but at the time nobody knew what would happen. False Messiahs were not unusual (Acts 5:34-41) and for all anybody knew Jesus was just another leader in the Maccabean mould. There was a long tradition of prophets attacking religious leaders without wishing to overthrow their religion but Jesus seemed to be threatening just that. The nearest contemporary equivalent is to think of somebody claiming to be the fourth person of the Godhead.

Behind both readings there is just a hint of the origins of the new order of the episcopacy. Clearly there was a division of labour between those who baptised and those who laid on hands, even in the pre Pauline church, which temporarily disappeared in the unified office of the city-based bishop before appearing again as dioceses contained larger flocks; and the metaphor which most represents the office of bishop is that of shepherd. It is sad, then, that the contemporary trend has pushed them ever further into diocesan administration, obscuring the essential simplicity and sympathy of the role. Jesus did not say that he was the good scribe, the good official or the good steward.

Two further themes, membership and ministry, also run through the two readings. Both are radical shifts from the Judaism. People are born into Judaism and so it has no concept of voluntary membership; mixed marriage, which might introduce new blood, was (and by many Jews still is) forbidden; and conversion is still rare. Likewise, there was no tradition of voluntary priesthood; the tribe of Levi had a monopoly. Yet within a decade of Jesus’ death the apparently conservative Christian leaders had developed a view of mission which was based on a voluntary turning to Christ both in Baptism and in the laying on of hands.

In our own Church there has always been a missionary imperative but for many Christians the hereditary tradition and infant baptism have tended to blunt any feeling of voluntarism. As for the monopoly of ministry, it was never entrenched even though the higher levels of church and monastic hierarchies were class based until the Reformation when they were broken both by the expansion of printing and the democratisation of education on the one hand and by the revival of congregational affirmation, as opposed to Episcopal appointment, on the other.

Of course it does not matter how good our Bishops are and how clearly they call if we are not listening. One of the foundational principles of Protestantism which was largely discarded because of humanity’s inherent tendency towards hierarchy and organisation, was the redundancy of intermediate clergy between people and their God. Today there is a similar trend based on the hegemony of the individual as consumer. That self image makes the ovine metaphor uncomfortable which is no bad thing if it brings us to a more realistic assessment of our selves and our relationship with God.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Trace the history of the rift between the Judeans and Samaritans
  2. What are the arguments for and against a consolidated or sequential initiation of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation?
  3. Is there any future for Confirmation is Christians receive their First Communion before it?
  4. Is your Bishop like a shepherd?
  5. How like a sheep are you?

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