4th Sunday after Easter
Psalms 129, 130 and 131, Deuteronomy 8: 1 – 20 and John 15: 14 – 16: 4
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. Deuteronomy 8: 2
You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. John 15: 14 and 15
Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing that thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter
Looking through our readings for this Sunday, I was again struck by how relevant the historic scriptures are to our contemporary experiences. The past year of uncertainty, with a palpable fear of infection and the shocking number of deaths, has left people reeling and wondering how ‘normal’ life will ever be in the future. So, it was interesting to read Deuteronomy 8, which forms part of a long discourse delivered by Moses shortly before the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. We have to remember that Moses would not live to cross into this new land, having reached the age of 120. (God had other plans: see the final chapter of Deuteronomy to read of the completion of Moses’ eventful life and the verdict on his achievements: ‘Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face’ (34: 10)).
It is the theme of relationship and life-training (and the patience that goes with that) which I want to think about now. Our verse quoted from Deuteronomy 8: 2 asks the people to remember the long way that God had led them through the past forty years. Moses reminds them that much of this delay in reaching the promised destination was due to their disobedience, but the other element was the need for training in humility and trust. We cannot succeed in this life in our own strength, although sometimes we try to prove God wrong by our own futile exertions, and often we need to be taught the lessons of faith, obedience and patience. The past year does not equal the forty years in the wilderness (even if it feels like it), but it has been a time of testing. As our Collect describes it, the sundry and manifold changes of the world have left many of us struggling, and the denial of being able to worship, pray or study together for much of the time has been something of an ordeal. We can be thankful for all the enterprising and imaginative ways in which modern technology has been used to offer online worship and teaching, but our prayer is that we will emerge from this time of trial stronger in faith and with renewed commitment. We need to remember the long way and learn from it.
We turn to the teaching Jesus gave in the upper room to the disciples shortly before his death. As we proceed through this period before the Ascension, we remember the way in which Jesus was preparing the disciples for their new roles as apostles of the faith. The point in John 15 I want to mention is a change in relationship with Jesus. The disciples were no longer to be considered as servants, even though in chapter 13 Jesus had just given them the ultimate lesson in servanthood by washing their feet. Servanthood was doing what the master commanded, but they were being promoted to friends of Jesus if they continued to obey his commandments (conditional, like so many of the promises in the Old Testament). The disciples were not promised an easy life. Jesus candidly told them they would be ostracised and opposed by the very religious institutions who had been watching for the Messiah, but had failed to recognise Jesus. It would be an uphill struggle to establish the new faith, but there was an important ingredient still awaited. When Jesus left the earth at the Ascension, the Holy Spirit would then come to show them the truth (as we were thinking last week) and testify for them – in other words give them the courage, words and wisdom to share the gospel even (or especially) in the face of opposition. The Master would no longer be with them physically, but they would have the Holy Spirit. We enjoy that same relationship of being friends of Jesus, of being sons and daughters of God, if we entrust our lives to him in penitence and faith. Walking the sometimes-difficult path of discipleship, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12: 2). Heaven is our destination, even if it seems a long road, and we will be sustained in the race to the finishing line if we trust the promise of Jesus to be with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28: 20).
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord. Psalm 130: 5 and 6
Kevin Boak, Lay Reader