Saturday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

John 21:1-25

Do You Love Me More Than These?

The disciples have left Jerusalem for Galilee as the angels and Jesus had directed them on that Easter morn.  We do not know how much time has elapsed since Jesus revealed himself to the disciples at the end of the festival of Unleavened Bread, the visit that elicited the confession of divinity from the lips of doubting Thomas, a week after Jesus’ first visit the evening of his resurrection.  At any rate, the disciples have had time enough to repair to Galilee to the Sea of Tiberias.  We may assume that they are waiting for Jesus to appear as he said he would to the women (Matthew 28:10).  While they are waiting, they decide to go fishing.

There are some who make much over this detail, the idea being that the men who are to be sent out by Jesus to be witnesses of his resurrection (as he had already informed them they would be, John 20:21), were returning to their old trade.  I don’t know that this is fair; I tend to think the men just decided to go fishing.  Perhaps they needed food for the group of disciples who may have accompanied them to Galilee.  The important point is that Jesus meets them here, just as he said he would, but not when they thought he would.  We must be aware that the Lord meets us when we are not expecting him – through his word, through a person in need, through wonderful times and trying times – our Lord meets us and we need to be able to recognize him.  Only a thorough knowledge and acquaintance with Scripture and a practice of listening to him and ministering to others in need can make us sensitive to hear his voice.

After they discover that the man calling to them from the shore is Jesus, through a miracle they had seen before (Luke 5:8), they return to shore with a whopping catch of fish.  Of course, the important matter is the discussion between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus asks him, not once, not twice, but three times, if he loved him “more than these.”  Are “these” the fish (his former profession), the other disciples, or an assertion that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did, an arrogant statement he learned to regret (Mark 14:29)?  Perhaps Jesus meant all three of them.  We learn in Exodus 34:14 that the LORD is a jealous God.  Jesus himself said as much when he said that anyone who loves even family members more than him is not worthy to be his disciple (Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26).  The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New.  At any rate, asking Peter three times if he “loved him more than these” was meant to sting, and Peter felt it.  Sometimes the Lord has to sting us so that we never forget how faithless we can be, left to ourselves, so that we will always be humble before the Lord.  Peter answers all three times that he loved him.  Again people make much over Jesus’ use of a certain Greek word for “love,” agapao, the first two times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and Peter’s use of another Greek word, phileo, in response all three times. (Jesus also used phileo the third time.)  People think that the former Greek word is a higher kind of love than the latter and thus Peter was not meeting Jesus’ use of the word, “love.”  I agree with more recent scholarship that does not think that this is the case.  Why would Jesus switch to phileo the third time?  To meet Peter “where he was?”  I don’t think Jesus would sacrifice a particular understanding of love (especially if it were a “better” kind) just to suit Peter.

So why this discussion with Peter?  To reinstate him as a disciple, and soon to be apostle.  Peter had to know he was forgiven so that he could “strengthen his brothers” when the time came to do so (Luke 22:32).  And the Book of Acts indicates that he was the leader of the apostolic band much of the time; every apostolic list in the Bible places his name first.  Our God works to reinstate us, to reconcile us, to forgive us, to restore us.  Sometimes this is painful as we are reminded of sins we wish we could forget.  And some will say we should forget them.  I’m uncertain of that.  I think Peter understood he was forgiven well enough, but I also believe he never forgot that sin, that act of treachery, which served the purpose of  always keeping him humble, that always made him check his tongue, which was so quick to speak in the Gospels.  God may forget our sins, but (and I know that I am in the minority here) we shouldn’t.  Our sins may fill us with grief, but they also soften our hearts towards others and towards God.  Jesus informed Peter that he would one day honor him in an even greater way than he denied him.  At the same time he reminded Peter to mind his own business and “follow me,” good words for any Christian.

Finally, John, the beloved disciple, informs us that he is the one who wrote this Gospel, which we already knew.  And yes, we know his testimony is true because the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that these are the words of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God.  Naturally, there is so much the Son of God did that John can’t imagine recording everything on such a short scroll.  And when we think of what he did for us through his life, death, and resurrection, then the world would never hold all the praise and adoration we should render unto him.

Friday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-31

So That You May Believe

John plainly tells us the purpose of his Gospel: “But these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).  Indeed, this is the purpose for which Jesus came, to die for the sins of those who would repent and believe, and rise again for their justification (Romans 4:25).

But it was this part about believing that was so hard for the disciples to come by.  All four Gospels testify that the eleven men who had spent three years of their lives with Jesus, who had been taught of him, and expressly told that he would die and rise again – these did not believe.  It was not until Jesus showed himself to all the disciples at one time (minus Thomas) that they finally would believe.  And what was it that they would not believe?  Put simply, that a man could rise from the dead, that Jesus could rise from the dead.  And so what did Jesus do to convince them?  Well for starters, he just appeared in their midst without going through the door.  Because of this, they assumed that he was a spirit.  But then Jesus showed them his hands and his feet, and invited them to touch him and see that he had flesh and bones.  He even ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence.

Now this is important.  The Bible explicitly tells us and the Church has always taught that our Lord rose bodily from the grave.  Granted, that body had special properties as it could just appear out of thin air, but it was still that body that was on the cross and that body that was in the tomb which then came out of it.  To say that Jesus rose spiritually from the dead is to say nothing; I mean, certainly he did, but we say that about everybody.  But Jesus is the only one who has ever risen bodily from the grave.  (Matthew 27:52-53 mentions some who rose from the dead and appeared to many after Jesus’ resurrection, probably Old Testament saints who looked forward to the promise of the resurrection.  But their resurrection was made possible by Christ’s, just as ours will be.)  It is this non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith that the disciples, turned apostles, preached to the ancient, pagan world, the good news for which Paul was laughed at (Acts 17:22-34) and the Church persecuted.  After all, pagans already believed in the immortality of the soul; it was the resurrection of the body that scandalized them. And it was the resurrection that proved Jesus is God; just ask Thomas.

Our Lord was born of woman, and lived, died, and rose a man from the grave.  And he did all of this for us that we may live, die, and rise with him.

Addendum

I fear this devotion may go too long but there are other matters from this passage which simply cannot be overlooked.  I will enumerate them.

1) Luke says that the risen Lord “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”  After he did that, he explained to them from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms how the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations.”  His disciples, who would soon be his apostles (Greek for, “sent ones”), would be his witnesses to these things.  Is it not significant that he first “opened their minds” before he explained all of this to them?  It was this whole thing about the Christ suffering and rising from the dead that they could not grasp.  It was this that Jesus enabled them to understand.  And the important point for us is that we too would neither understand nor believe had not Jesus through his Holy Spirit opened our minds that we may do so.

2) John mentions that Jesus “breathed on them,” saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  As the event which Luke and John describe is the same event, I believe that Luke’s, “opening their minds” and John’s “breathing on them to receive the Spirit” are the same thing.  But whereas Luke connects Christ’s opening their minds with understanding the Scriptures, John connects breathing on them the Spirit with a church’s authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins from her members.  Now what does this mean?  May a church do this arbitrarily?  Of course not.  It is God who forgives.  But the local church is required as the body of Christ to hold the members of her body accountable through the sincere application of God’s word.  To put this another way, a church cannot withhold forgiveness from one who repents, but neither can she forgive one who persists in sin.  Ultimately, a church only pronounces from God’s word what God has already revealed about repentance and forgiveness.  Thus, a church remains faithful to God’s word by holding her members accountable.  It’s not an option.

3) Finally, John writes that when Jesus breathed on them, he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  But we ask, “Then what happened on the Day of Pentecost?  I thought that was the day the disciples received the Spirit.”  As I have already said, it seems reasonable to me that Luke’s “opened their minds” and John’s, “breathed on them” are equivalent expressions (but I’ve been wrong before).  In other words, I believe that Christ breathed on them so that the Spirit would open their minds to understand the Scriptures – which is the Holy Spirit’s task – and rightly apply them for church discipline.  So the disciples’ receiving of the Spirit that evening was not the same as the fullness and baptism of the Spirit they experienced some fifty days later.

Thursday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:13-35

And Beginning with Moses…

Luke gives us an account that the other gospels do not (though Mark alludes to it), and as I have said before, isn’t it wonderful that God blesses us with four Gospels to give us a complete picture of our Lord’s sojourn in this vale of tears.  Two of the disciples (the word “disciple” was not reserved for the eleven only) were walking along the road to Emmaus talking about all that had happened over the past three days, sorrowful and dejected.  The risen Lord comes and joins them, asking what they are talking about.  Scripture tells us that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” meaning that it was not of their own accord but a divine work.  This question for a moment leaves the two men dumbstruck until Cleopas answers, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  The Lord responds, “What things,” allowing Cleopas to relate everything that had happened between Friday and Sunday.  The whirlwind of events of the past three days left the men confused and bewildered, at one point saying, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The response of Jesus to the men is one for the Christian to remember: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  And then the passage says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Oh how I wish I could have been a bird circling overhead!  What a Bible lesson that must have been – to hear Jesus explain the Scriptures from beginning to end!  I focus on two things: first, that all of the Old Testament preaches Christ, not only those specific passages like Isaiah 53, but the whole thing.  From the blood of Abel to Abraham to the Passover to the Judges to David to the Exile and Restoration – the entire Bible preaches Christ.  He is there in types like Isaac almost sacrificed by his father, like Joseph who redeems his treacherous brothers, like the Passover lamb slaughtered the night before Israel’s liberation, like Moses interceding for the people, like King David ruling in righteousness, like all of the prophets slain for the word of God.  The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.  Read the Old Testament in the light of Christ.  And secondly, Jesus asked, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  Did you hear?  Necessary.  Granted, God didn’t have to save us, but when He did so decide, it was necessary that Christ should suffer – to redeem a people such as us.

Wednesday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

Matthew 28:9-12; Mark 16:9-11; Luke 24:9-12; John 20:1-18

The Heart of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was a lover, the best kind of lover.  No, not the “lover” we think of in our day, be it husband and wife caressing in their chaste bed, or conversely two other people wallowing in their filthy sty.  Mary Magdalene was a lover of, was deeply in love with, her Lord and Master Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures say that he cast seven demons out of her (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2), and some traditions identify her with the “sinful woman” who “wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head,” kissing and anointing them – the one whom Jesus said, “loved much.”  And though we have no word from Scripture that identifies her as such, nor any other source that would verify the tradition, yet it seems to fit her, for she was obviously a woman who loved Jesus very much.

With the other women who went to the tomb early that morning, she too saw the angels and heard their proclamation that Jesus had risen.  She as well as the others was told to deliver this news to the disciples, which they did.  But Mary was still not satisfied.  She ran back to the tomb with Peter and John while the other women departed another way.  She could have stayed and tried to convince the men who thought her words were an idle tale or she could have followed the other women to wherever they went rejoicing and praising God.  But no, she had to run back to the tomb, and when she did not find his body, the floodgates opened.  Angels notwithstanding, Mary had to see her Lord, and nothing else would suit her – such was her love for him.

It seems by that time, she was practically beside herself.  She took no notice of two angels sitting in, of all places, the tomb, asking her why she was weeping.  She did not recognize Jesus the first time he spoke to her.  The idea that she could carry off the body of Jesus if someone would only tell her where it was strikes us as improbable.  But none of that mattered: Mary was sick with love: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave,” describes Mary perfectly as that love concerned her Lord (Song of Solomon 2:5; 5:8; 8:6).

Compare this with the chief priests and the Roman soldiers who fabricate their cover-up.  To them, Mary was just a pathetic grief-stricken woman.  How sad it is to live such lives – lives saturated with fear and self-preservation.  There was no room in their hardened hearts for love.  In short, they were consumed with themselves; Mary was consumed with him.

Addendum

Each of the four gospels tells its own story about what happened that first Easter morning.  As I have said before, the fact that they diverge in some details only speaks to their integrity and authenticity.  They each speak of angel(s), who tell the women the good news, and then tell them to inform the disciples.  On these most important details, they agree.  As to where the angels were sitting or standing, there are some differences but then perhaps the angels did not stay in one place while they delivered the wonderful news.

However, there is one detail that merits attention and that is the women who came to the tomb – not the number or their names, but what happened after they left the tomb.  The verses which pose the “problem” are in Matthew 28:9-10 where we are led to believe that Jesus met the women leaving the tomb while on their way to tell the disciples.  However, Luke and John seem to indicate that the women went directly to the disciples without meeting Jesus; indeed, John records that Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb with Peter and John, and remained at the tomb after they had left weeping bitterly that she did not know where the Lord’s body was.  Surely she would not have done this had she met the Lord along the way to tell the disciples of his resurrection.  The best reconstruction seems to be: 1) The women left the tomb to tell the disciples of the resurrection per the angels’ instructions; 2) They arrived where the disciples were hiding and told them the news; 3) Peter and John then ran to the tomb to verify what the women had said while Mary Magdalene ran behind; 4) The other women did not accompany Mary Magdalene on this, her second visit to the tomb; 5) Mary weeps at the tomb because even though the angels had told her the news of Jesus’ rising from the dead, she still could not fully understand what that meant, for they had run to tell the disciples with fear and trembling, and yes, with “great joy,” but perhaps that description fit the other women better than Mary who felt his loss more keenly; 6) While Mary had run with Peter and John to the tomb, the other women left the house going someplace else and met Jesus along the way (as described in Matthew 28:9-10), but without Mary Magdalene; 7) Finally, though Matthew employs language that seems to indicate that the women met Jesus leaving the tomb on their way to tell the disciples, it is not uncommon for the Bible to “collapse” time, meaning that it sometimes does not include a passage of time between events, an example being Luke 24:50-51 in which Luke seems to suggest that Jesus ascended into heaven shortly after rising, but who then tells us in his Acts of the Apostles that there was a forty-day interval between Jesus’ rising from the dead and his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:3).  In other words, the very same author of two different books of the Bible illustrates for us this collapsing of time in those books.  Perhaps this is not a big deal to you, but if it is, here is a possible solution.

Tuesday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-8; John 20:1

He Is Not Here, for He Has Risen

This is what the angels announced on the morning of the first day of the new world.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything.  The story of the world had been a tragedy; now it becomes a comedy, a divine comedy with the most wonderful ending of all.  Sinful man could be saved from the worldly mess he had made.  He now could become a citizen of the celestial city in which a righteous King reigned.  And he himself was changed as well from sinner to saint, a priest called to offer up spiritual sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to his Lord.  Though he was born in the mire and muck of this world, he was now reborn a citizen of heaven, just waiting for his graduation.  Yes, the Christian life is a comedy.

And how is this?  What turned the tragedy into a comedy?  The resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We seem to spend most of our time with his passion, and certainly that is important.  But his passion means nothing if he does not rise from the dead.  The Apostle Paul would have us understand that everything rides on his resurrection, for “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).  The passion does not open heaven’s gate; the resurrection does.  If Christ is still in the grave, then we shall rot in ours and our souls will die with us.  For it is not only the resurrection of our bodies but the immortality of our souls as well which depend on this most important event in world history, the centerpiece of the Christian faith.

The women who were at the cross went to anoint the body early in the morning on the first day of the week, Sunday, the third day in which Jesus lay in the grave.  The angels appear in dazzling white apparel and inform them of the wonderful news while reminding them that Jesus had said as much.  They even invite them to look inside the tomb.  Then they tell them to go tell the disciples what they have seen.  Mark’s Gospel adds the wonderful directive that they were to especially inform Peter.  Remember that Mark was Peter’s assistant, implying that much of Mark’s Gospel is probably Peter’s Gospel.  Perhaps Peter wanted us to know that if Christ could forgive him of his treachery, he can forgive us of ours.

Those immortal words, “He is not here; he has risen,” mean that our lives will end happily ever after.  And do remember, it’s not a generic story in which “love conquers hate,” but a specific story of a specific Conqueror who saves a specific people from certain death.  A comedy indeed!

Monday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

Matthew 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42

Low in the Grave He Lay

“He was crucified, dead, and buried.”  This is a line from the Apostles’ Creed, the oldest creed we have that is accepted by nearly every church communion in the world.  He not only died a real death but was really buried, which in this case was inside a tomb with a stone rolled in place.  Joseph, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, who is described as a good and righteous man, looking for the Kingdom of God, who followed Jesus but secretly out of fear, took courage and asked Pilate for the body.  Even Nicodemus, also of the Sanhedrin, who went to Jesus by night, took courage to bring what was necessary to anoint the body.  Joseph saw to the linen and laid Jesus in his own new tomb where no one had ever yet been laid, the women looking on.  Moreover, we read in Matthew’s Gospel that the next day Roman soldiers were sent with the governor’s blessing to make certain that no one entered the tomb with the purpose of stealing the body and fabricating a story about a resurrection, and this at the insistence of the chief priests and Pharisees who remembered something or other of Jesus saying he would rise after three days.  And I write all of this only to say that Jesus was dead; no one thought otherwise.

It must have been crushing for the disciples.  Although Jesus had told them on at least three occasions that this would happen, they still couldn’t conceive of it.  At times, they had dreamt of a kingdom, with themselves in charge.  At others, they thought themselves willing martyrs ready to give their lives for his. Nothing that they had hoped for came to pass, and now they were hiding, fearing that they would be next.  Of course, matters would change on the third day, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit, they would be turned into different men.  But for now, they are as distraught as any men ever were, and have no idea what they will do next.

I speak of the utter disillusionment that these men felt, knowing that we have felt such as well: shattered dreams, broken promises, unfulfilled expectations.  These are the things that crush us.  We may even wonder if life is worth living anymore.  But hear this: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18 KJV).  Christians hurt like everyone else, but we must remember that we live in this world only to prepare for the next, the whole reason why Christ came for us.  Please do not despair.  Christians have a real and lasting hope, not a dream.  As Mary Magdalene did on that Resurrection morn, cling to Christ, and let what may happen come.

The Last Sunday of Ordinary Time: Christ the King

Psalms 2; 72; Luke 1:26-33; Revelation 1:1-20; 19:11-16

Christ the King

In those churches that follow the Church Calendar very closely, this day is called the “Feast of Christ the King.”  It is a feast of very recent origin (1925) and was not followed with regularity until 1970.  I include it because it seems fitting to me that the last Sunday of the Church Year should pay special honor to our Savior who, though he came in humility, shall one day return in majesty as King of kings and Lord of lords.  (I say, “last Sunday of the Church Year,” as next Sunday shall begin the Season of Advent, the beginning of the new Church Year.)

Each one of the passages above deserves consideration on its own terms, but I shall focus on Luke and the “Annunciation.”  It’s a favorite passage of mine because of the profound mystery it unfolds, that our Savior was “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4).  But even though God ordains that Jesus be born to parents of no reputation in a town with a poor reputation (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46), the angel, Gabriel, makes clear that this baby is royalty: “He shall be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

An unbeliever might wonder if the angel had the wrong house, for we see nothing in the gospels that indicates that Jesus fit the description of the angel at all.  And yet he was all the angel said he was.  Indeed, the believer responds that Jesus did fit the description; after all, whoever spoke such words that have changed the lives of billions over the centuries turning thieves and murderers into saints?  Whoever performed such miraculous signs?  Whoever raised the dead?  And most important, whoever rose from the dead?  The Jews and Romans were right: he is a king, but of a different kingdom.  And he reigns now from heaven over the hearts of his people.  Oh, he rules the world through his unseen providence and care; but one day, what the believer only sees now by faith, everyone shall see then see by sight.  In Psalm 89:3-4, God says, “I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”  This is what the angel announced, this was the prophecy that was fulfilled, this is the One who will one day gather us together into a kingdom which shall have no end, where we shall behold the beauty of the Lord and worship the King in the splendor of holiness (Psalms 27:4; 29:2).