May: What is our mission to the world?
Fifth Sunday of Easter, 7 May 2023, John 14: 1-14
In the previous chapter, Jesus had announced to his disciples that he would be going away, and they could not come. This must have been a terrible shock to them because they had followed Jesus for the last three years, and they wouldn’t want him to leave now or ever.
So, understanding their dismay, Jesus reassured his disciples, who were upset at hearing the news of Jesus’ departure. “Do not let your heart be troubled. Believe in God; also believe in me”. A more straightforward way to say this would be, “Don’t worry…just trust me!”.
Jesus said this to the disciples, wanting them to understand that there is more beyond death on the cross, as if he says, “Trust me, there is something more!”.
Furthermore, like a parent who is going abroad to work for the family talking to their clinging children, Jesus wanted to give reassurance with a promising image and storyline, “I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come back to you and will take you to the place where I am going.” (vs 3,4).
Despite Jesus’ reassuring promise, the disciples found it hard to understand. Peter struggled with the idea of Jesus leaving; practical-minded Thomas questions Jesus about how to know ‘the way’ when they didn’t even know where Jesus was going; Philip wants to see God to be satisfied despite all those previous signs, healings, miracles and the fulfilment of words in the scripture which he had already seen, heard and been taught. Despite their personal experiences it was nevertheless difficult for the disciples to recognise God in the face of Jesus.
Indeed, the questions raised by the disciples are the same question we raise:
“How can we know the way to God?” and “How difficult is it to recognise God in the face of Jesus?”
Jesus gave a simple but memorable saying to explain who he is, and who we are to become in relation to him, with the “I am” statement. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life” ( vs 6 ). Jesus is saying that he is the path to get to life and wisdom.
Interestingly, the Chinese word for “ way” is “ Doh”道 “Way”, and it means the road on which people walk and the way to lead a moral life, like ‘the way’ that Jesus refers to here as the way to the Father in the person of Jesus.
Because the disciples still struggled with these words of Jesus, he reassured them that the Father had already come and was already present in the life and ministry of Jesus. And their knowledge of him would translate into knowledge of God.
The words of Stephen at the moment of death are another example of an Easter proclamation. “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Stephen said, for he had followed the ministry of Jesus all the way.
As we consider the texts in this week’s post-Easter lectionary readings we might need to ask ourselves, what would we say when Jesus asks us, “I know you; do you know me ?”
Sixth Sunday of Easter, 14 May 2023, John 14: 15- 21
Losing a loved one is one of the most painful experiences of life that Buddha identifies as one of the four sufferings which humans cannot avoid. And the disciples would be facing one of those situations soon.
Jesus offered pastoral assurance and promised that the disciples, who were anxious and shaken by the thought of the absence of Jesus, and, perhaps ultimately, the absence of God, would not be left alone.
Jesus repeatedly reminded them what established their relationship: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (vs 15, 21 and 23). In other words, he was saying, I know that you love me, and therefore you will do what I have told you: ‘ that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (John 13:34)
Jesus knew his absence would leave the disciples vulnerable, especially being without their teacher who had done great things, miracles, healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God. So he reassured them with a promise that he would ask God to send another helper, the Spirit of love and truth, who would not leave them but be with them forever.
Jesus also made a distinction concerning this Spirit, that the world cannot receive, see or know it, but the disciples will experience it, knowing the presence of this Spirit, for the Spirit abides with them and in them.
Jesus repeatedly stressed love and keeping the commandments, which is a natural response to love, as the way to reveal the abiding relationship between Jesus and God and between Jesus and the disciples.
In Australia, Aboriginal people have a deep appreciation of the close relationship with one another, their ancestors, the environment and even the whole universe. Aboriginal spirituality is deeply embedded in the relationship of every living thing and earth and sky, even with the rocks and this is expressed in rituals, songs and dance.
In the Preamble to the Constitution of The Uniting Church in Australia, we read, ‘The Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First People and gave them particular insights into God’s ways. ‘(Preamble to Constitution 3, 2009)
In John’s gospel, faith is a relationship with a living being, Jesus, the Spirit, and God. With the help of the abiding Spirit, we can continue Christ’s mission of revealing God’s love to the world.
In our world of division, war, disparity, loneliness and loss, the good news is that we are not left orphaned but know that we have a Helper to bring us together in the abiding presence of God.
Ascension of the Lord, 18 May 2023, Luke 24: 44- 53
In the protestant church tradition, Ascension is not celebrated like Christmas or Easter, although it is one of the oldest feasts celebrated by the church. We confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”.
Ascension is an important event as it marks the end of the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth. It gives us hope for the glorious and triumphant return of Christ one day after the interim period between promise and fulfilment.
The ascension of Jesus is also identified as an important marking of the interim period in our church’s confessional document, the Basis of Union. “The Church lives between Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things he will bring”. (BoU 3)
Luke 24:44-53 allows us to see the wonderment and anticipation in hope of those early days by detailing the last scenes of the risen Lord appearing to his disciples and others at various times for 40 days before he ascended to heaven.
Before he ascended, Jesus, for the last time, interpreted for his disciples everything written about him in the laws of Moses, the prophets and the psalms in the light of his suffering, death and resurrection. Then he assigned them with the mission to the nations, that they must preach the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name beginning in Jerusalem. He also reminded them to wait for what had been promised by God: the coming of the Holy Spirit, as we saw in the earlier reading.
There are more detailed descriptions of the Ascension in Acts 1:9: by the Mount of Olives near Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem, Luke records a description of the Ascension itself “He was taken up to heaven as they watched him and a cloud hid him from their sight”(Vs 9).
But the disciples’ responses at the ascension in Luke’s gospel are something to which we need to pay more attention. After Jesus was taken up into heaven, “The disciples worshipped him and went back to Jerusalem filled with great joy, and spent all their time in the temple, giving thanks to God.” (Vs 52 & 53).
They were no longer afraid of anyone, so they went back to Jerusalem. And they devoted their time to worshipping God. What a contrast to the time-conscious worship of today’s Christians who are anxious if the service is longer than an hour!
It is not rocket science to figure out that the vibrant church’s mission would not become a reality without the renewal of worship, which excites and invigorates the minds and hearts of people.
The Uniting Church is a multicultural church with people from the Pacific nations, Asia, Africa and South America. And one of the greatest gifts they are bringing to our Uniting Church is the richness of a variety of worship services which often go over an hour, but no one complains. On Ascension Day, let us ask what our mission is in the world and how we bear witness to it.
Seventh Sunday of Easter, 21 May 2023, John 17: 1-11
“Glory and honour ”
In his earthly ministry, Jesus prayed on numerous occasions: for healing, blessing, thanksgiving, and forgiveness for his disciples and himself.
This week’s lectionary reading on the last Sunday of Easter is the most extended prayer of Jesus recorded in the gospels.
This prayer is sometimes called the “High Priestly Prayer” because, in this prayer, we see Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, like the high priest who offers the sacrifice for the people’s sins.
The disciples were confused, frightened, and troubled at the prediction of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day. So Jesus offered a prayer for their protection, solidarity, and steadfast future, knowing that they belonged to God, obeyed God’s word and knew that Jesus came from God and that God had sent him.
But interestingly, Jesus begins by praying for himself before he prays for his disciples.
Jesus probably needed confirmation concerning what he had done and was about to do. So he asked God to glorify him. “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your Son, so that the Son may give glory to you.” (Vs 1)
The word ‘Glory’ or ‘glorify’ is not a word in everyday use for us, so let’s borrow a word close to the meaning of ‘glory’. We might use ‘honour’ instead. So we can rewrite verse 1 as ‘Father, the hour has come; honour your Son so that the Son can honour you.’
It might be helpful to understand the prayer of Jesus seeking honour from God by gaining an understanding of honour as it is emphasised in different cultural contexts.
Honour is regarded as the most important quality of people’s lives in many parts of the world, especially in Pakistan.
عزت ( Izzat ) is an Urdu word for ‘honour’ and is deeply embedded in Pakistani culture. Unlike the West, where people must earn honour through their merit, the Izzat(honour) of the person in Pakistan is affected by their actions and the behaviour of their family members or community members. “Honour killing’ is widely practised in Pakistan as a way of restoring honour by killing the member of the family who brought dishonour upon the family or community.
Seeing honour as one’s public reputation, we can understand Jesus as asking God to honour him so that others would also honour him. And in doing so, others would be made aware of the God who honours him just as Izzat is perceived as a communal concept in Pakistan.
We, the readers of the gospel, the followers of Jesus, are also assured by God’s protection which is extended to the community of believers.
Day of Pentecost, 28 May 2023, Acts 2: 1-21
Giinegay, Namaste, Salam alaikum, Ni hao ma, Pepe Ha ke, Kamusta ka , Oa mai oe , Kia Ora, Hola, Voghju’yn, Budyeri kamaru and An Nyung Ha Sae Yo !
On the Feast of Weeks (the day of the First Fruits, Shavuot or Pentecost)in the first century AD, devout Jews celebrated the holy gift of the Law, ‘Torah ‘ at Mt. Sinai as well as the spring harvest. At this time there were many Jews and migrants from all over the place in Jerusalem. ( Acts 2: 1)
About one hundred twenty followers of Jesus (Acts 1:15) were gathered in one place and there they experienced the most indescribable manifestation of the Spirit. They shared the rush of a violent wind filling the house where they were sitting, like divided tongues of fire descending on them. Then, they began to speak in other languages enabled by the Spirit.
Both devout Jews and other residents of Jerusalem were bewildered to hear them speaking in the native languages of each. It must have been an amazing situation for an entire group to become multi-lingual speakers.
When I say to people that I speak four languages, people often become amazed. But when people from one of those four countries hear me speaking in their language, they immediately open up to me as if I were their long-lost sister. Language is a vital means of communication, and a foundation for establishing relationship, if not the most important.
There are 24 language groups in the Uniting Church as well as many other Aboriginal language groups. Whatever circumstances have led them to journey within the Uniting Church; it is a clear sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Uniting Church.
Like the people in Jerusalem, after witnessing the manifestation of the Spirit, asking each other ‘what does this mean?” we might need to ask the same question ‘what does it mean to have more than 24 different language groups among us in Uniting church?’
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enabled them to speak in many languages so that they could proclaim what extraordinary things God had done in all those languages. The list of names of places: Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia, indicate that people from every part of the world was included here! And this signifies that the believers are empowered to bear witness to everyone everywhere as it says “To the end of the earth”.
Just as God breathed life into Adam, the risen Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples to empower them to carry out the ministry of reconciliation.
This is the mission we in 2023 are to carry out when facing the brokenness in our world. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we work for reconciliation by removing the barriers created by religion, race, culture, gender, and even age.
So we can confidently say: “Come Holy Spirit, renew us, revive our church, and restore our world’s brokenness”.
Myung Hwa Park is a former Moderator of NSW and ACT Synod