Fr Leonard Doolan
The Jewish feast of Shavuot is the day when the first fruits of the land were offered in the Temple. On this day the Book of Ruth is read in synagogues, telling how the Moabite widow called Ruth, and her mother-in law, Naomi, meet the owner of the land, Boaz while they were out gleaning in the fields. Ruth later married Boaz.
Shavuot is also the day when, just seven weeks after the Hebrew people departed from Egypt on their 40 year long journey in the wilderness, recorded in the Book of Exodus, Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. Sinai was observed to be covered in smoke, because God had descended upon it like fire. Thunder and lightning filled the air
It was on this day, according to St. Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles, that the followers of Jesus, all Jewish, gathered in one place. The experience that follows is replete with graphic details. Sound, like a violent storm wind, tongues of fire leaping about. The wind-like sound fills the room, and the flames perch on each of them. This describes the Holy Spirit – this is the first experience for followers of Jesus of the Holy Spirit. This is the Christian Shavuot – not the law being given, but grace; this is the Christian Shavuot – not the first fruits from the harvest being presented, but the first fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Rooted in tradition, rich with bright images, resonant with the scriptures of the old dispensation, this is Christian Pentecost.
Fr Leonard Doolan
Sometimes in our Church calendar we have a season within a season. Today is the 7th Sunday of the Easter season, but also the Sunday after Ascension, referring backwards to Thursday of last week, the Feast of the Ascension.
Thanks to the chronology of St. Luke, the ascension of our Lord into heaven is recorded on the 40th day after the resurrection, anticipating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the 50th day, the feast we know as Pentecost. We should remember that Pentecost was an already existing Jewish Festival. Originally an agricultural festival, by the time of Jesus most Jews celebrated this feast as the annual celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
I am reminded of a church that had two stained glass windows side by side – on the left Moses holding the Ten Commandments, and on the right the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples – thus emphasizing the connection between the covenants, Old and New, yet also marking the departure of the believers of Jesus from the Old Dispensation into the Spirit-filled life of Grace in the Holy Spirit, the new Covenant or Promise.
Fr Leonard Doolan
In a previous sermon we reflected on Jesus the True Vine, and we ‘rested’ a little on the meaning of the word ‘abide’ and what it means to make our ‘home’ in Christ the True Vine.
The gospel this morning continues on from this image and we hear of ‘abiding together in love.’ This love between us as dwellers in the life of the True Vine, is likened to the love that Jesus abides in with the Father who sent him, and, by extension, we live in that shared love.
The message couldn’t be clearer from our Lord. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’. These words are reminiscent of what Jesus says to his disciples when they gather for the meal before his arrest and crucifixion.
Love is centre-stage in the message of Jesus. He conjoins his message about love with keeping his commandments. This is worth a few moments of reflection. What might those commandments be?
Our minds will automatically be led to the 10 Commandments given to Moses on the mountain of Sinai, those commandments that are at the heart of Jewish and Christian ethical practice, and indeed lie at the heart of the ethics of most developed countries throughout the world.
Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus refers to these well-known commandments, but when asked by a Scribe which is the first commandment, it is not a recitation of the 10 Commandments, the Decalogue, that Jesus offers him. ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You will love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these’. (Mark 12, 29ff)
This is known as the Shema from the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ or ‘listen to’. In Mark’s version of these words the Scribe immediately says, ‘you’re right’, but in St. Luke’s version the Scribe goes on to ask ‘Who is my neighbour?’ setting up the occasion for one of the best known of all the parables of Jesus, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
By telling of the response of the Samaritan, Jesus is offering an exegesis – and interpretation from the Old Testament text of the Shema. It is a parable of ‘love in action’.
It is to this nuanced character of love that Our Lord encourages us to inhabit – to abide in his love. It is love of God and love of neighbour that lie at the core of the Christian life.
As a scriptural theme, perhaps the best song about love is to be found in the correspondence between St. Paul and the squabbling early Christian community in Corinth. Taken from the first of his letters to them, his paean of praise for love is used in so many church contexts.
‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clashing cymbal’ (1 Cor 13, 1). I’m sure the rest of this well known text immediately comes to mind. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…’ 1 Cor 13 4) – words from a text that has decorated so many marriage ceremonies for countless decades. ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love’. (1 Cor 13, 13)
We could so easily set as parallel texts, side by side reading, the Ten Commandments, and the praise of love by St. Paul; the set of rules with divine love breathed into them; the divine love to be discovered in love-filled keeping of the Commandments. Jesus bids us to abide in his love and to abide in his commandments – the highest of which is that we love God and one another.
Fr Leonard Doolan
In today’s gospel reading Jesus says ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. This has given rise to a particular Sunday in the Easter season being called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. So I begin with an apology. I got the Sunday readings mixed up and we should have read today’s gospel last week. If you are confused by this, you can imagine how confused I am. Anyway, with all that clearly sorted out – back to the Good Shepherd.
Half of this chapter of John’s gospel is taken up with an extended pastoral metaphor. To begin, Jesus speaks of the sheepfold and how the sheep will know the voice of their shepherd, and not that of a stranger – and Jesus, by implication, is saying that he is the trustworthy Gatekeeper. St. John the gospel writers comments that Jesus uses this description as a ‘figure of speech’ (παροιμία).
As the word picture develops Jesus then goes on to say that ‘I am the Gate’ (John 10, 9). Thus far we are left understanding that Jesus is the Gatekeeper, and the Gate, and now he raises the image to its main point – ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.
This image is popular – but playing around with the image is not new, nor unique to Jesus. If we look to the Old Testament, and to the Prophecy of Ezekiel, (Ezek 34, 1ff) the prophet excoriates the spiritual leaders of the day for their bad practices as shepherds of God’s people. They are the ones directly responsible for scattering God’s sheep, with the implication that they have not been gatherers as a good shepherd would be.
Fr Leonard Doolan – St Paul’s Athens and on Zoom
The image of Jesus as the True Vine is one that is highly emotive and attractive. I have an icon in my small collection which is the True Vine, η άμπελος. It means a lot to me, not least because it was a gift from our daughter a few years ago.
In this bucolic image from St. John’s gospel God the Father, is referred to as the gardener, or the vine-dresser, ο γεώργος, from which we derive the highly popular first name Georgios in Greek, or George in English. It is for good reason that King George III was called ‘Farmer George’ with his agricultural interests, but also a clever play on words.
As the image is developed there is the invitation from our Lord for a healthy participation in the life of the vine, meaning a healthy participation in his life, a sort of organic synergy, an invitation to be included. The word used is rather beautifully translated as ‘abide’ – but the verb μένω is used still in modern Greek for ‘live’.
‘Abide’ is quite an old fashioned word in English now – as indeed the word for someone’s house or home as ‘an abode’ but it is perhaps its more sparing use that makes it all the more powerful when we are invited to ‘abide in Christ’.
One of the most well – known hymns begins with these words:
‘Abide with me; fast falls the eventide’. The last verse is perhaps the most powerful,
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies:
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!
Abiding in the life of Christ as a vine, is as challenging as it is comforting. The final verse of that hymn I just quoted talks of the cross – there can be no sharing in the life of Jesus, no participating in the life of Christ the True Vine, without the acceptance of the challenge of the cross.