When I’m working on a sermon, I usually keep a couple of questions in my mind. One is, where’s the good news? If I can’t answer that, then none of my listeners will be able to either. The other is, can I sum this whole sermon up in one sentence? If it takes me a whole paragraph to explain my sermon, then it’s not focused, it’s too complicated, or too long.
Using that same principle, I’m wondering this morning how I would sum up the entire Acts of the Apostles into one sentence. How would I do that? There is a lot going on in Acts, but in a sense there is only one thing going on. Luke tells us at the end of his gospel, and he repeats it at the beginning of Acts. You are my witnesses Jesus says to the assembled disciples in the Upper Room on that first Easter, and again just before his Ascension. You will be my witnesses.[2
If that is Acts in one sentence, what about my other question? Where is the good news? We hear it repeatedly throughout Acts, and we hear it again today. The good news of Acts is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. That is the whole point of Acts, and it is certainly the whole point of the Council of Jerusalem which determined that it was good to the Holy Spirit and to [the Apostles and elders] to impose on [the Gentiles] no further burden than [certain] essentials. Had the decision been otherwise, in those days shortly after Pentecost, the tiny Christian community would have remained a small Jewish sect, probably being absorbed and finally disappearing into the dominant Jewish mainstream within a generation, and we would not be here. But this decision to impose no further burden than [certain] essentials breathed life into the Jesus movement in its earliest days.
As followers of Jesus, that remains our purpose, indeed it is the purpose of the Church, and the vocation of all the baptized: to be Christ’s witnesses. Part of our job as witnesses, is simply to state what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, and what we know to be true. After that, we need to back off, get out of the way, and impose no further burden than [these certain] essentials. In that way we allow the Spirit to do its work in bringing people into an encounter with the living Lord, rather than our personal and singular concept of God.
That, it seems to me, is the good news of Acts, and while we have been invited to join in the work of introducing people to an encounter with the living God, it is our real privilege and great joy to step back and watch God at work, in the lives of those whom we serve.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday in the Fifth Week of Easter, Year 1
 Luke 24: 48
 Acts 1: 8
 Acts 15: 28
 1 John 1: 1
If you feel you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, you have! No wonder, if you are shaking your head, and thinking, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that. Any number of people are thinking, did I miss something?
Our gospel today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is perhaps the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation, about water, being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
We’re familiar, perhaps especially in the gospels, with the kingdom of God, and thus by extension, God, being described in terms of the natural world. The kingdom of God is like yeast, a mustard seed, a catch of fish, or a costly pearl.
I often reflect on the fact that, for many North American Christians, the pages of Scripture are our primary place of encounter with nature. We are isolated from, and have domesticated nature, to such an extent, that we are not often aware of its power, and force, until we are faced with fire, flood, or storm, and property is damaged, or power lost. Then we discover again what our ancestors knew only too well, that nature is not God, but that in nature we can behold the power, the splendour, and the glory of God.
Our psalm appointed for today, Psalm 103, speaks of “our youth being renewed like an eagle’s.” The scriptures make reference to the eagle more than 30 times as an image of strength, deliverance, and protection. An eagle became the emblematic symbol for the Gospel according to John because of the eagles’ soaring into the skies pointing us to the heavens, from where “in the beginning” God abides and creates. And soar they do, with a wingspan upwards to 8 feet and extremely keen eyesight, eagles fly into the heavens from which they look upon earth, observing, then hunting with great speed and power. They also typically nest – they abide – high up in rocky ledges or in trees. In the scriptures, eagles appear as one face of the four mighty cherubim who attend the throne of God.[i]
Many centuries after the psalmist, the Prophet Isaiah would proclaim: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”[ii] The image of the eagle’s renewal of strength (and therefore our renewal of strength) is twofold: for one, eagles live to a relatively old age for birds, upwards to 30 years: the renewal of our strength in older age. And then, that eagles molt their feathers, so that they are freshly clothed, as it were, with a new garment of plumage, a seeming youthfulness and exuberance regardless of their age.
Several years ago, I found myself in a small, subterranean chapel within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. It had once been a cave. At some point, a modern church was built over it. The floor was littered with scraps of paper. On them people had written prayers, and then dropped them through a grille in the floor of the upper church, onto the floor of this cave chapel, where I stood with Sr Elspeth. Elspeth was an American. She had begun her religious life as a sister of the Order of Saint Anne, here in Arlington. The deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized it was to the contemplative life she was called. So, there she was, a Carmelite nun of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing me the cave, where tradition says, Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
Like many of the holy sites in Jerusalem, it is impossible to know if this is the place where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. None the less, this place has been hallowed by the memory of that occasion, as well as by the prayers of countless believers. Like this monastery chapel, the walls of that cave are soaked in prayer. You feel it the moment you enter.
Of all the prayers we pray, none is so universal, so loved, as the Lord’s Prayer. Wherever we go as Christians, we find others who love, and pray this prayer. We may be divided by language, culture, race, gender, economics, education, ecclesiology, or theology, but we are united by this prayer, and by praying it.
I don’t know about you, but this reading from Mark always strikes me as a bit of a scandal; to encounter Jesus with a very human prejudice on his lips. I’ve always found it a bit disturbing, especially to see a woman with a deep need coming to the incarnate Word of God, only to be met with an oddly human formation. Where’s the good news in this?—I often have to ask myself.
As I sat with this scandal of a reading for the past few days, I discerned three possible ways I think it might speak some good news to us, and might actually communicate some of the wideness of God’s mercy at play.
One of the things that speaks a word of good news is also one of the things that is most unsettling about this: we encounter a very human Jesus. A Jesus who has been formed by human communities with their own blind-spots, prejudices, and hatreds. Children verses dogs.
Do you remember what it feels like to be at the threshold of something new in your life?
Imagine you are a student preparing to go off to college. It’s new and exciting and full of possibilities – (what courses shall I take? will I meet someone and fall in love? will I make lifelong friends? how will these years shape my future?) You’re excited, but it’s also a bit daunting because you can’t fully imagine the challenges ahead (will I get along with my roommate? will I experience heartbreak or disappointments? will I fail?)
Or imagine a young couple awaiting the birth of their first child. They’re thrilled, of course, but they’re also wondering, “What will it be like to be responsible for this tiny human being? Will we be good parents?” They anticipate the joys and possibilities of parenthood, but they also know it won’t be easy, and there is at least a possibility that it won’t as go well as they hope it will.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Sharp like a scalpel, scripture cuts through our pride, confusion, and the made-up stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. Scripture convicts us, reveals what we lack, what we’re grasping and need to let go. Scripture points to our deep need and to God’s great love.
Jesus, the very Word of God, sees us as we are. Jesus looks with love. Jesus’ words may be surprising, confusing, or confounding; they “reveal the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Revealing, for we find ourselves “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
The past two evenings, our Evening Prayer lections from the second chapter of Mark have shown Jesus and the Temple authorities in conflict as to ritual observance of the Law. To the Pharisees and Scribes, it was a person’s moral duty to observe the Law with exact precision. To err, would render one ritually unclean, unable to enter the Temple, and make them a societal outcast. Over and over, Jesus challenged them as to their legalism, demonstrating to them what the Law looked like when seasoned with mercy.
Tonight’s reading from Mark turns up the heat in a way we have not yet seen. We might think this reading is about healing on the sabbath, but that is secondary to what has Jesus and the Pharisees staring at each other in silence. For the first time in these encounters we observe an emotional Jesus, seething with frustration. The gospel writer says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
I would say that this story is about identity. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson once said: “In the presence of Jesus mankind beholds not merely the power of God but the possibility of man; not only what God is in Himself but what God meant man to be.”[i] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.[ii]
The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth always captures my praying imagination.
I see an old, tough woman suffused with the giddy joy of a young girl, the kind that visits mothers, grandmothers, and aunts at wedding receptions. In squeals of laughter, flushed cheeks and bare feet on the dance floor, a youthful radiance gleams from the young at heart.
And I see a young girl, centered, purposeful, and wise beyond her years, with a confidence and vision that are usually the gifts of chronological maturity. She declares words of passion and purpose about the true order of things in a voice that does not quiver. It is a strange combination of purity and precociousness, the kind that we glimpse in the old souls of certain children.
The Spirit touches the first with a buoyant exuberance and a cry of joy that begins deep in the belly. The Spirit touches the second with anchored assurance and a song that echoes down the generations.