Monday, 11 March 2013

Reflections on Luke 24:45-49

Here are some of my recent reflections on Luke 24:45-49 which build upon my other recent posts on the Holy Spirit. I hope they may be of interest of others who are looking for answers to the current crisis facing Christianity in the UK in general and in Wales in particular.

First a fascinating quote from an article in The Times on Saturday 9th March given by Professor Mona Siddiqui, the first Muslim professor in Islamic and Interreligious Studies in Edinburgh. She quotes a line of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke in her advice to her 18-year old son:

"Live the questions." And added: "People are in such a rush to get the answers we don't live the questions. We don't dwell, we don't linger, we don't think."

It's a superb quote which really sums up today's Christian culture where we are so worried about decline and so concerned to find the answer that we are rushing headlong without pausing to consider what questions are being raised by the situation we are in, and possibly, what God Himself is asking. If pain is God's megaphone  to a deaf world - to quote C.S.Lewis - then maybe decline is God's megaphone to a deaf Church?

So it is in the interests of trying to "live the questions" that I want to look at Luke 24:45-53 and some of the final words and instructions of Jesus delivered to his disciples before his ascension back into heaven.

I came across this quote the other day given by Nicky Gumbel in a sermon which really struck me and has stayed with me ever since and which open up the passage from Luke 24 for us. He said:
“In the Holy Spirit you have all you need to change the world.”

That may well be the predominant thought that lies behind Jesus’ words in Luke 24:45-53 where he prepares them for the arrival of the Spirit - which he has described as the helper in John 14:16.
Here is what is written:

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Here are a few of my reflections on the passage:

1. Note verse 45 (and 25-27) “He opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures”.
Two things struck me here:
First, there is a level of understanding of the scriptures that requires supernatural assistance if we are to grasp what they say about the things of God. We all know that from 1 Corinthians 2:6ff. Here Paul talks about God’s “secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden”  (verse 7)  and which requires the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to reveal them to us. In verse 14: “The person without the Spirit does not accept” them “because they are spiritually discerned”.
Second, this opening is God’s sovereign action. “he opened their minds so they could understand”. That initiative seems to come from Jesus. Without his action here and on the road to Emmaus the disciples would have remained ignorant.
Third, does this mean there is nothing on our part that either we can do or is present which God looks for as he decides to help us understand?

This is where an obscure and difficult passage of the Old Testament may be of help in asking the question. It concerns Pharoah at the time of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt: "But the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses."(Exodus 9:12)

I have often wondered about the unfairness of that action by God when I read somewhere that it wasn't God taking a soft heart and hardening it, but rather God taking an already hardened heart, one that was already closed to God, and hardening it still more in order to achieve his purposes. How accurate that is - and it certainly makes sense to me - it can perhaps help us to understand Jesus' actions in verse 45. It was not that the minds of the disciples were closed and God had to force them open. It was that their minds were already open a little and Jesus opened them more so that they fully understand what the Scriptures said.!

2. verse 47 “...repentance and forgiveness of sins (based on Jesus’ death and resurrection) will be preached in his (Christ’s name) to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” 

The message is almost a one-liner and we find it reoccurring with monotonous regularity in Acts 2:22-38, 3:11-24; 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 10:34-43 and so on and later in Romans, 1 Corinthians 2:1-4 etc..

Is that where we are maybe dumbing down the message of the Gospel by playing too much to the 'audience'? In our anxiety to be accessible, relevant and up to date are we selling out what Jesus did and wants us to share?

Now don't get me wrong I believe that the Bible is always relevant and has something to say to every culture, but there is a whole lot of difference in 'translating' it into a language and culture which communicates and changing the message to suit the culture and the context. We are to preach a repentance and forgiveness of sins that is very much glued to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Any other context and we are stepping outside our remit.

Starting at Jerusalem. Why? Several possible reasons:
First, because that is where they were. You can only start where you are not where you think you should be. I am as guilty of anyone else thinking “if only we had a better well-heated church, better seating, more Christians, a better Sunday school etc.. But that is not where we are. We are 'here' - with all the various shortcomings that make a church welcoming and comfortable etc - not 'there' where all those things are not issues..
Second, that is what they were most familiar with. The people, language, surroundings etc.. You can learn to swim at the deep end but you can also get used to the water first and slide in gently. Jesus was asking them to start in familiar surroundings before striking off into the 'deep' of world mission.
Third, perhaps the most important thing of all. Jesus told them to "stay in the city” (verse 49)  As followers of Jesus obedience was/is paramount. And so is trust. It was not the time to ask questions - although the disciples did (Acts 1:6). Jesus had his reasons. Besides you can serve while waiting and refraining from the sort of hyperactivity that is surely a sign of a Church that has totally lost its confident and is fooling itself into thinking that doing something is always a sign of 'life'.

In fact I sense that this is somehow really important. It's one of those things that you feel is an essential part of what God is saying here but I can't yet formulate or discern why. It's like trying to recall a half-remembered phrase of a tune or folding your mind around a glimpse of a memory.

When I was considering the ministry and was fed up waiting all the time my Vicar Rev David Jenkins wisely quoted the blind poet Milton to me: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Was Milton thinking of Pentecost or this passage? Is it possible that there is real danger in our busy world that we only see “doing” and “activity” as godly work. Or does waiting—as with silence—have as much to teach us about going forward as actual work? Is it in stopping - as in questioning - that God is really able to work in us?

3. verse 48 “You are witnesses of these things”.  The word witness is ‘martyr’ and is someone who has seen something and is not afraid to tell the truth even if it means losing his/her life or reputation. That is an interesting idea as the thing Jesus has asked us to bear witness too is, to the world with its scientists and philosophers, “foolish” or nonsensical. (Paul’s encounter with philosophers in Athens Acts 17:16-34).

The phrase "these things" surely refers back to verse 46 Jesus' death and resurrection. But how can we be witnesses of "these things" today? First, I think, as an act of solidarity with the first Christians. Their truth is our truth and the tradition of their experience has been handed down to us over the years and is not made any less credible or truthful by the intervening centuries. Truth is truth. Second, Jesus' death and resurrection become, by faith, real to our own experience. Isn't that what Paul is referring to here in 1 Corinthians 4:10:
"We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body." And here in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." It's interesting to note therefore that the authenticity of Paul's witness to "these things" was never questioned either by believer or non-believer.

4. “stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  (verse 49)
Why "clothed with power" and not filled with the Holy Spirit? (See Ephesians 5:17-18 (3:19) Here is where a little Greek - and I don't mean Stavros- will help. The word for "clothed" or "endued" means
literally “sinking into a garment”. That is wearing clothes that you know are there—because you experience them—but also are so comfortable that they are part of you. I may be carrying this a little far but it seems to me that the idea is of being given something that will be part and parcel of everyday living - like the clothes you wear - rather than a once off occurrence. This is in contrast to the Old Testament prophets etc who were given the Spirit for one-off tasks like prophecy or creative work. Here Jesus is referring to the clothing of the Spirit as a daily experience which will become part of our normal living, day to day experience and will be as essential and necessary as clothing.

I am sure I have just touched the tip of the iceberg here and there is, no doubt, much more that could be said. However the upshot is the question: "How near are we to what Jesus commanded us to do and led us to expect to receive? Now that is one question we need to live for a little while.

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