The Sea of Galilee is a medium-size lake but it is surrounded by long, narrow valleys that are like wind tunnels funneling the winds into it. When winds arise in these valleys, they sweep into the Sea of Galilee with concentrated force, quickly whipping it into a frenzy. The drama of our Gospel was played out in one of these storms. After having calmed the storm, Jesus turned to his disciples with a rebuke, "Why are you afraid?" He asked. "Have you no faith?" (v40). This is the issue in any kind of crisis: whether we trust God's love and power. As sinful people, we do not possess this kind of faith. In crises, like the disciples we cry out in fear, wondering if we can be confident in God's promises. Jesus uses His power to calm our fears. He gives us faith. Jesus gives us faith through his word, He keeps us from panic. We are not helpless. God is in the storms as well as the calm. No matter what happens, we are in His hands. The disciples began with fear because they lacked faith. They ended with another kind of fear, the consequence of faith. They were filled with awe of Jesus and His power over wind and sea. This is a different kind of fear. We stand in awe and fear of God's being with us, however little we can understand of his workings. The Greek word for fear, phobos, is the root of our word, phobia. In the Gospel for this Sunday, the disciples go through two kinds of fear: first, they are frightened by the storm; and second, they are "filled with awe" of "frightened with a great fear," as the Greek says (v41) because they do not understand who Jesus is that He can still the storm. Later, after the cross and resurrection, a new kind of fear will grip them: the fear of God that goes with faith. This is the fear Luther speaks of in his explanation of the First Commandment: "We are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.
One of the most striking features of the teaching of Jesus is his use of parables. He told down-to-earth stories that had the ring of real life and made his points in a memorable way. What are the parables? Some points about interpreting parables can be made. First, a parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a story in which every item stands for something else. Second, the parables are not illustrations of a general truth. Such generalized truths are usually trite, and rarely applicable. Third, parables should be placed in the context of Jesus' ministry. Much information is now available on the times in which Jesus lived. This kind of information provides important help in the interpretation of His parables. Fourth, we must be careful with the usual introductory formulas to the parables, which usually go as follows: "The kingdom of God is like…" The temptation is to identify God's kingdom with the first object mentioned in the story. But the comparison may be in the conclusion, or in the contrast between the first item and a later one. Fifth, if we understand the parable in its own context, it will find its own authentic way to speak freshly and forcefully to our situation. Using these principles of interpretation, how would you interpret the main thrust of the first parable in our Gospel? The key to the first parable is the coming of the harvest. "You may only see a few signs of the kingdom." It is as if Jesus says, "But when your eyes are truly opened, you will see that the kingdom is ready and that I will bring in the harvest." The parable encourages us to confidently grasp the sickle and reap the harvest. It is not up to us to sow the seed of the gospel, as if without us it would not be in the world. Our task is to claim for God what he has already prepared. What is the central point of the mustard seed parable, then? It relates to the humble appearance of Jesus and his disciples. Like mustard seeds, they are small. "But don't judge by appearances," it is as if Jesus says. "Rather, judge by results."
It is said that no words of Jesus have caused more anguish and misunderstanding than these words about the unpardonable sin. What is this sin? Can I know whether I have committed it? An important step toward answering this question is understanding what sin is, according to the Scriptures. We tend to think of sins in the plural as individual acts. The Bible speaks of sin in the singular as a state of mind or a way of being. It is enmity with God. All sins as individual acts can be forgiven, Jesus says. But when, in enmity toward God, we definitely rely on ourselves and reject God completely, there is no forgiveness possible. Wondering and worrying about this sin, therefore, is probably the best sign that it has not happened to us. The unforgiveable sin is a paradox: On the one hand, it is not a passive sin; it requires a specific intentional action. So if you're not worried about having committed it, then you probably haven't. On the other hand, it is a sin that requires a total emotional and spiritual disconnection from God and everything that is important to God. So if you are worried about having committed it, then you probably haven't. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes us aware of our sinfulness, who makes us thirst for forgiveness, and who announces the gift of forgiveness to us in God's word. Even our worries and anxieties can be signs of the fact that he is at work in us.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God." (v. 3) Nicodemus responds --"How can a man be born when he is old?" Jesus answered, "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (vv. 5-6) In these words, Jesus made the conditions for entering the kingdom clear. The kingdom of God is not entered by anything we do, but through a transformation brought about by God. We do not enter the Spirit's realm through our own efforts. We enter the realm of God's Spirit through the water of Baptism and the Holy Spirit's efforts. Baptism is the washing of regeneration -- rebirth. Through it, the Spirit adopts us as his own, bringing us under his dominion. Jesus offered Nicodemus and us the key to understanding. What is "heavenly" has come to earth: "the Son of man" (v.13). In the Son, God has come to earth and opened his heart and will to us. Perishing in spiritual confusion and death, we have only to look to Jesus to find life, as the smitten children of Israel looked to the bronze serpent erected by Moses as a sign of God's grace. Then the text leads naturally to the best loved passage of Scripture, John 3:16-17, the heart of the gospel. The Spirit of God is seeking you out to make you his own. The Greek word "anothen" (v.3) has a double meaning -- "anew" or "from above." Tragically, the "born again" movement of the 1960's interpreted "anothen" as "born again." The word "again" is used to describe how one can be accepted into the Kingdom without being baptized. However, according to the New Testament and this passage in particular, Jesus describes salvation as a gift of God's Spirit given through the "water and Spirit" of baptism alone and does not imply any "decision," or "will" on our part. This text is for Trinity Sunday because it declares God to "be one". As our Father, He is behind all the good that occurs. As the Son, He is the revelation of love. As the Spirit, He is bringing us a new and eternal life in His Kingdom.
(15:26-27) The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The mission of the Spirit is not to bear witness to himself, but to the resurrection of the Son. (16:4b-15) Christ comforts his disciples before his death by promising to send them the Holy Spirit who will guide them into a deeper understanding of Christ's role in God's mission. Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit. It is not easy to answer the question, who is the Holy Spirit? We seldom ask, who is the Holy Spirit?—and that tells us something about our understanding of the Spirit. The Spirit is usually associated with something rather vague, unseen, and unfelt. Our minds, it seems, are unable to connect the Spirit with anything but unreality. God the Father is not hard for us to understand and even to picture; we know what a father is like. God the Son is easier to picture. We have thousands of representations of Jesus Christ the man from Nazareth, as a baby, as a man, teaching, healing, praying, suffering, dying, rising, reigning. But the Spirit is a challenge. How do you portray a Spirit? As a bird perhaps, but that is obviously little more than a simple illustration. We describe “who” the Holy Spirit is by describing what he does. The primary work of the Holy Spirit is that he calls us to the Gospel; gathers us in Christian community; enlightens us to the work of the Triune God; makes us holy (set aside) for Christ’s mission of reconciliation; and, preserves our faith in Christ throughout our earthly pilgrimage.
The hour of Christ’s departure had come. In this hectic, tragic moment the disciples may well have wished to find some escape from their fears and tensions. It was all over for them, their dreams of glory were ended. But Jesus did not ask for this kind of escape. “I do not ask that you take them out of this world,” he prayed. He expected his disciples to remain in the world, not only because he had work for them to do but because remaining in the world would help them reach maturity in their own personal sanctification. In a limited way, the disciples were to take up where Christ left off—spreading the word of salvation in the world. This world is to be saturated by the Word of God. As it is, the world offers lies and darkness. The Word is light and truth. Armed with God’s Word, they would stand distinct from the world and because of this distinction, be pursued by the world’s inevitable hatred. That is our position, too. As followers of Christ we cannot remove ourselves from the world. Rather, we are to be “in the world” but not “of it,” as Jesus said. His goal all along, had been in nurturing them for the time when they would be sent out into the world, mature in their relationship to God, and thereby be equipped to minister to others. And so he prays. For them. For us. Not that we might spiritualize ourselves out of this world and out of our responsibilities of discipleship in this world, but that we might be enabled to immerse ourselves in those daily concerns of life in this world, even as Jesus did. At this important and challenging moment of discipleship, we are invited to join with our Lord in prayer and trusting that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:15).
Our Gospel for this week stresses the priority of love in every kind of situation. What is love? Love is called agape in the Greek of the New Testament. It is the unconditional, unlimited, undeserved love given by God as a sheer gift. Though John 15:13 refers to human love, it also describes the kind of love God has for us: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Jesus does not present his love as a model to be imitated but as life that must continue in his disciples. We realize that Jesus has given us an example, a very good example, and that we must try to repeat what he has done. But the baptism that we have received has placed us in a different state: it has united us to his person and has turned us into members of his body. He is the one, not us, who continues to live and act in us; he loves, he cures, he comforts, he helps the poor, he wipes away the tears of the widow and the orphan. By observing what kind of lives we lead, others must be able to recognize the Risen Lord still present among them. We will find happiness and peace not in selfishness and pleasure but in love, in self-giving, in the search for what is good for others and of what brings joy to others. Jesus does not speak of universal love that embraces all, friends and enemies. Jesus talks directly to the members of the Christian communities and recommends unity among them and love for each other. It is a limitation, but it contains a very important lesson: before speaking of love for and peace with others, it is necessary to practice love and peace in oneself. How can a community whose members do not experience a deep feeling of mutual acceptance and service spread love to others?
God owns the vineyard--Jesus is the vine--we are the branches. All three are necessary if there is to be fruit. Vineyards don't just grow on their own. Someone has to plant them. Someone has to tend the vines. That person is the vine grower. Jesus says that the Father--meaning God--is the vine grower. The vine is the plant itself. Without any vines, there would obviously be no vineyard--no wine. Jesus says that he is the vine. But then Jesus tells his disciples--and we are his disciples--"You are the branches." The branches grow from the vine and, are where the grapes grow. Jesus says to us, "You are the branches." Without branches, there would be no fruit. But it is also true that, without the vine grower (God), there would be no fruit. And without the vine (Jesus) there would be no fruit. The Father, the Son, and the Son's disciples work hand in hand to make a fruitful vineyard. Jesus positions himself in the middle--between us and God. He says, "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me." In other words, if we as Christians are to live spiritually productive lives, we must maintain a spiritual connection to Jesus. Without that connection, we will never produce any spiritual fruit. Without that connection, our lives will come and go without ever meaning anything significant.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is called "Good Shepherd Sunday" because all three years of the Liturgical cycle offer us readings from Chapter 10 of the gospel of John, where the Good Shepherd is described. When we think of Jesus "the Good Shepherd," we always link this image to his meek and sympathetic behavior towards those who went wrong in life. But the "Good Shepherd" of today's gospel is completely different. For the evangelist John, the shepherd is not one who caresses tenderly the wounded sheep, but the fierce protector, the fighter who, at the risk of his own life, stands up to anybody who threatens his flock. The passage begins with Jesus saying: "The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep" (11). "Good" does not stand here for sentimental, sweet, tender, not hurting anybody. It stands for "the true shepherd," "the authentic one." Jesus is the true shepherd not because he cuddles and caresses his sheep, but because he loves them so much that he is ready to lay down his life for them. Count how many times the expression "lay down his life" is used in the text. To bring out even better the image of the true shepherd, the text goes on to contrast it with the figure of the "hired man," the "mercenary" (12-13). The mercenary is hired for money. A hired man's contract did not demand that he should lay down his life for the sheep. He was allowed to run away, since, after all, he was not concerned with the flock but with the money, his salary. All Christians should be good shepherds. Whoever wants to be a disciple of Christ must portray the generosity of his master. He should not start measuring how far or much he can love his brother or sister. He must be led entirely by love. If a Christian is satisfied with obeying a law, or doing the minimum, he or she has not understood what true love is. If we love our brothers and sisters or serve our communities in the hope of getting some advantage here in the form of gratitude and prestige or even a reward in heaven, we do not really follow Christ's way. The expression "to lay down one's life" is found five times in the text.
In the Gospel of Luke the Easter story tells us how the women discover the empty tomb and receive a message from two angels. However, the apostles refused to believe their story (Lk 24:1-12). Two other disciples also experience Jesus on their way to Emmaus as they listen to him explaining the Scriptures and finally recognize him in the breaking of bread (Lk 24:13-35). After his resurrection, Jesus rarely showed himself to individuals. He usually made himself known to them when his disciples were gathered together as a community. One thing the disciples did when they gathered together after the death of Jesus was to read the Scriptures again and to try to understand the meaning of what had happened to Jesus and how they should go on when Jesus was no longer with them. The disciples on their way to Emmaus discovered Jesus as a stranger who helped them understand the Scriptures and, later on as he broke bread (Lk 24:25-32). It was through the Scriptures and the celebration of the Eucharist that "their eyes were opened" (Lk 24:31). Again in this week's Gospel, Jesus first eats with them and then explains the Scriptures to them. He opens their minds to understand that all that had happened to him was part of God's plan. Through this new understanding of what had happened to Jesus, they begin to understand that he is now present among them in a different way. The disciples experienced Jesus as the one who helped them understand the Scriptures. We too can experience the risen Jesus when we share the Scriptures and celebrate the Sacraments. That is why bible-sharing is at the heart of our Christian communities. When we invite Jesus to open our minds, he is truly present among us.