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Fifth Sunday of Easter

A New Commandment

Abraham descendants were God’s chosen people, but they misunderstood the full meaning of their covenant. They added many human traditions to God Commandments, losing sight of how the Commandments were to impact their daily lives and conduct. Something was missing. The human traditions had watered down the Commandments to a set of rules that the religious leadership  would determine how to keep. The scribes and Pharisees imposed all of this on the people, while they, themselves, failed to follow them. Jesus continually pointed out their hypocrisy.

Jesus was the living example of keeping the Commandments of God. In his Sermon on the Mount he said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished”.   (Matthew 5:17-18)

His fulfilling the Law and the Prophets was done on a cruel cross. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus attempted to prepare his disciples of what would follow:

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”   (John 13:33-35)

This was the most important instruction that Jesus would give to his disciples before he faced the cross. “New” in the New Testament Greek Kainen (καινὴν) implies freshness, or the opposite of “outworn” rather than simply “recent” or “different.” Jesus had loved them without reservation and without limit. He wanted his disciples to do the same for others. His cross would illustrate the breath and depth of God’s love for us.

The Apostle Peter, as we see in today’s reading from Acts, gained a greater understanding of what Jesus was saying. Peter had gone to the home of Cornelius, who was centurion of the Italian regiment. Cornelius feared God, gave generous offerings to the people, and was a devout man of prayer. God was moved by Cornelius’ devotion. The Holy Spirit directed Peter to the house of Cornelius in an unusual way where a very extraordinary event took place. Peter shared the good new of the Gospel and Cornelius and his whole household believed on the Lord.

This brought repercussions, however. Reading from Acts:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”   (Acts 11:1-3)

Judaism of the day, even in the Early Church, required Gentiles to undergo a man-made conversion ritual of circumcision, baptism, and offering a sacrifice before he could be counted as being ‘saved’. Gentiles were considered unclean and it was unlawful to enter the house of Gentiles and eat with them. This, however, was not God’s law, but Jewish tradition.

In answering the circumcised believers. Peter had to justify what he had done:

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  (Acts 11:4-10)

Peter was unsure what the dream meant at first. The dream was not really about Jewish dietary laws. It was saying that God alone is the one who determines who or what is is clean or not. It had to do with how Jewish people looked upon Gentiles.

Peter went to the home of Cornelius. While he was preaching the Gospel, something remarkable happened. We read from Acts:

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  (Acts 11:15-18)

By a sovereign act of God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles made it clear that Gentiles were not unclean to him, even if they were not circumcised. This was radical Judaism. But it was not radical to God. This act was just a fresh understanding of God’s love for the Early Church leaders to witness. It reflected what Jesus was saying to his disciples on the night of his betrayal: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you.”

God’s love must always be new to us. It is doing extraordinary things right before our eyes. In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John heard this promise from God:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”   (Revelation 21:1-5)

Can we grasp what God is telling us today, or are we stuck in the old, determining what is clean and unclean? God wants to expand our understanding of his love. Our theology and church doctrine can often stand in the way if we are not careful. Let us meditate on the new commandment that Jesus has given us.

The Apostle Paul wrote:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.   (Romans 6:4)

Can we love others that way Jesus loves us? We can if we are able to let go of the old and embrace all the new that God is teaching and sharing with us.

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Saint Mark, Evangelist

saint-mark-1621Repent and Believe

The evangelist Mark was a traveling companion of Peter. He recorded Peter’s sermons and stories found in the Gospel of Mark. It is clear that Mark’s Gospel was written by a masterful storyteller. Though short, this Gospel has great impact and clarity. In the opening of his Gospel he gets right to the point:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  (Mark 1:9-15)

Notice that Mark’s Gospel is an action Gospel. It moves quickly and it asks us to move along with it.

Mark was an evangelist who got right to the point. The Apostle Paul gives us a perspective on the importance of evangelism when he lists God’s gifts to the Church:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.   (Ephesians 4:11-13)

The evangelist follows the apostles and prophets in importance. Often times they are thought of as shallow or not very sophisticated. For Mark, the Gospel was simple: Repent and believe. That was the message of John the Baptist. That was the message of Jesus on the earth. It is the starting point for every Christian and should be the essential message of the Church. Too many of today’s “seeker” churches have forgotten the repentance part of the message.

Mark was willing to risk everything for the sake of telling the Gospel message. Ultimately, he paid the price with his life. What are we willing to risk today? Jesus told His disciples:

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”  (Mark 16:15-20)

Are we prepared to join Mark? What will the Lord say about our feet?

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.   (Isaiah 52:7-10)

We are living in the last days. Evangelism is of paramount importance. There is little time for frills. At the very least we can earnestly pray for the rescue of all lost souls. The rescue of souls was Mark’s ministry because it is the ministry of Jesus, then and now.

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Tuesday in Holy Week

A Child of the Light

Holy Week reminds us of the contrast between darkness and light. Darkness was all around Jesus but He continued to radiate the light and love of God. The message that He wanted to convey to His disciples was that they should choose the light over darkness:

Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”  (John 12:35-36)

We have been called  by Jesus to walk as children of the light. Young children are often open and trusting, particularly if they are raised in a loving environment. When we get older we become more aware of our shortcomings and we may be tempted to hide them. We may want others to see through us because we know that we are not altogether pure. The Pharisees made it a practice of diverting the gaze of others from them by compounding rules that others would not be able to keep. They created darkness to obscure that fact that they were not walking in the light themselves.

While we have Jesus we should walk in Him. He extends His hand to us but we must grasp it. Though He warned the Pharisees they would not listen. All anyone can do without Jesus is a coverup. Yet darkness is only a temporary covering. Ultimately, it is no solution at all. Why should we depend upon deception when we can depend upon the truth of God? The truth of God is that he loves us and our sin has been covered by the blood of Jesus.

God’s light does not come by our good deeds. Our light is a gift and a promise which God made through the Prophet Isaiah:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”   (Isaiah 49:6)

Jesus was and is that light. Are we will to walk with as children of the light? The psalmist wrote:

For you are my hope, O Lord God,
my confidence since I was young.

I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother’s womb you have been my strength;
my praise shall be always of you.

I have become a portent to many;
but you are my refuge and my strength.

Let my mouth be full of your praise
and your glory all the day long.   (Psalm 71:5-8)

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Monday in Holy Week

How Priceless Is Your Love, O God!

The psalmist wrote:

How priceless is your love, O God!
your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

They feast upon the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the well of life,
and in your light we see light.   (Psalm 36:7-9)

At the beginning of Holy Week we have the example of love and devotion of Mary of Bethany, to the Lord Jesus. She was the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. She understood the priceless love of God:

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  (John 12:3-7)

Mary must have been spiritually aware of what was about to take place. Perhaps she had an awareness that many of the disciples of Jesus did not have. Judas wanted to distract others from what she was doing. That is a primary way in which the enemy operates.

We may do “good works” by giving to the poor, provided our motives are pure. (Judas Iscariot’s motives were not.) Nevertheless, our good works will not purify us. If we ignore the passion and purpose of Jesus we will greatly miss the mark.

We read in the Book of Hebrews:

When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.   (Hebrews 9:11-15)

Jesus offered himself to God on our behalf. What are we prepared to offer him? Mary offered her all.

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