No Service at Heinz Chapel November 30th

There will be no service at Heinz Chapel on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, November 30th. The following Sunday, December 7th, is the last Sunday of the semester, and the service that day will be the last till 2015.

Heinz Chapel will be closed for construction for the whole of the Spring 2015 semester, and there will be no Sunday services. Episcopal Students are welcome to attend the Lutheran services at the Lutheran University Center, 4515 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15238, time tba. Check http://lucpgh.com/ for details. In addition, we hope to have a weekly Bible study for Episcopal students; details will be available here before the end of the fall semester.

Fall Semester 2014: Sunday at Heinz Chapel, 11 am

This semester we’re trying out a shared Sunday service with the Lutherans, and the Lutheran and Episcopal chaplains will take turns preaching and administering Communion. We begin on Sunday August 24th, when the Lutheran chaplain, Brian Bennett, will preach, and the Episcopal chaplain (me) will celebrate Communion. The Episcopal service will probably be a lot more relaxed and informal than you’re used to—come and check it out! The Lutheran service may be more traditional—we’ll find out when it’s their turn… We’re also eager for student participation; if you’d like to read one of the Scripture passages, or help with Communion, or play an instrument or sing, let me know!

We’ll also have a Wednesday lunch time Bible study in the Chaplains’ room on the 9th floor of the Wm Pitt Union; we’ll be reading Luke’s gospel, as well as talking about what it means to have the Word of God in writing. All welcome—bring your roommate, regardless of denomination or even religion. God’s word is for everyone!

Have a wonderful summer!

Congratulations to all who graduated, and God bless you in your future endeavors; and for those still enrolled, we wish you a wonderful summer, and look forward to seeing you at our first service of the fall semester, at 11 am on Sunday August 24th, in Heinz Chapel.

For more information about our Sunday service, and a map showing the whereabouts of Heinz Chapel, click on the ‘Our Sunday Service’ tab above.

God bless you!

No Sunday Service March 9th

Christ CrucifiedBecause of Spring Break, there will be no Sunday Service at Heinz Chapel on March 9th. There will be a service of Holy Communion on March 16th (11 am). Hope to see you there!

Student Service at Heinz Chapel Resumes January 12th

Heinz Memorial ChapelThe weekly Student Service at Heinz Chapel begins at 11 am on Sunday January 12th. Students of all denominations and of none are invited to come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth His praise, to hear and reflect on His holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

Sermon December 8th: the Resurrection

Well here we are at the last Sunday of the Semester, and the last chapter of Mark! I must admit that we could have used a couple more Sundays, but I don’t think we’ve done actual violence to Mark’s gospel, and I hope those of you have been here regularly have found this survey helpful—I must say it’s opened my eyes to a few things I hadn’t paid enough attention to before!

All four gospels end with an account of the resurrection, but Mark’s has important differences from the other three. Some scholars consider that Mark’s text originally ended at v 8, and all that comes after was added by someone else. This is because some early manuscripts of Mark end at v 8, and because vv 9–20 are written in a very different style than the rest of the gospel. This is impossible to see in the English translation, of course, but some people who have great familiarity with Ancient Greek say it’s easy to see in the original. And it is the case that some manuscripts that don’t end at v 8 have different endings. Some add one part of vv 9–20, some another, and both parts make sense as independent endings for the gospel. Other mss add all the verses. So the idea that Mark’s contribution ends at v 8 has become very widely accepted. That does not, of course, mean that it is true. The list of falsehoods that have been widely accepted as true at one time or another is an extremely long one. It’s true that a few early copies of Mark’s gospel don’t have vv 9–20, but it’s also true that most early copies do, and whether the ones that don’t are more reliable than those that do is a matter of opinion. The earliest mss we have of Mark’s gospel are from around 200 AD, although we know it was written earlier than that because people are quoting it or referring to it a century earlier. And some of these people quote the disputed verses, so we know they were in mss older than any we now have. We can also say that who wrote them is less important than the fact that the earliest Christians recognised their content as consistent with the apostolic witness to the teaching of Jesus, and that’s how I treat them. If you want to know more about the debate about Mark’s ending, there’s plenty of material to read in the Pitt library.

Which means I have to say something about vv 17f, where Jesus says these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them. And you probably know that there are some churches where a couple of times a year, they will bring poisonous snakes into the service and people can demonstrate their faith by picking one up. Every once in a while you read about someone being bitten, but not often. But that may not be what Jesus is getting at here. Notice that Jesus’s command to preach the gospel is put differently by Mark—or by Peter, remember, whom Mark is actually quoting—than by the other gospel writers; in v 15 Jesus says, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Not just to all people, but to the whole creation. The Greek word used means the entire created universe, stars and planets, angels and men, animals and plants, rocks and water, earth, wind and fire—everything. When man first disobeyed God, it didn’t just affect Adam, it didn’t just affect all mankind, it affected the whole creation. That’s why the New Testament says that the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God—once all people have been restored to their right relationship with God, the whole creation will be renewed, and snakes won’t be dangerous, and that’s what will be the sign that the gospel has been fully preached: not that you can handle a snake and get away with it, but that snakes will no longer think of humans as the enemy, and no longer be feared by us as a symbol of Satan— we’ll all be living together in peace, the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den, as we heard Isaiah say. So this verse is not really about what we can do today, but what life will be like when Jesus’s purpose is fulfilled.

But back to the resurrection. Mark’s account begins with three women arriving at the tomb in which Jesus’s body had been placed when it had been taken down from the cross. They are coming to the tomb because in those days it was part of a woman’s rôle in the family to prepare bodies for burial. They didn’t have undertakers; every family had to bury its own dead, and it was the women of the family who usually took care of that. Jesus was taken down from the cross late on Friday afternoon, and the Sabbath began at dusk on Friday, and they weren’t allowed to have anything to do with a dead body on the Sabbath; now it’s Sunday morning, beginning of a new week, and so they come at daybreak to pay their last respects in the time-honored way. They were expecting a problem; in v 3 they are wondering how they will be able to move the stone that blocks the entrance to the tomb. But when they get there, they find the stone already moved, and someone sitting inside, but the slab where the body should have been was empty. The person sitting there looked like a young man dressed in white. And in v 6 this person says to them, Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. Just as He told you. Everything will be just as He said it would be. Well, it’s all very well to say ‘don’t be alarmed,’ but they were alarmed, and they stayed alarmed, and actually ran away, trembling with astonishment.

We can understand that easily enough, I think. These were the women who had waited at the cross till Jesus finally breathed his last; look back at 15.40 and you’ll see the same three names. As far as we know only one of the male disciples who had sworn never to leave Jesus had come anywhere near the cross. These women had seen with their own eyes Jesus’s lifeless body taken down and put in that tomb, they knew better than anyone that Jesus was truly dead. They are the ideal witnesses to His resurrection because they also witnessed His death. This young man in white must either be a member of some gang of grave-robbers, which would have been scary enough, or he was telling the truth, which in many ways is even scarier. People just don’t come back to life once they’re dead, it just doesn’t happen, and even the thought that it might have happened to someone you know would be enough to put the wind up anyone. V 8 tells us that they fled, they ran for their lives. I think I’d have done the same.

V 8 also tells us they were are afraid to tell the other disciples that Jesus is risen and will see them in Galilee. They were afraid of being thought crazy, hysterical. Who could possibly believe them? Verses 10 and 11 tell us that after a while the women found the courage to tell the others, but their fears were confirmed, because the others didn’t believe them. Verses 12f tell us that two other disciples out walking in the country also saw Jesus alive, and they went back and told the rest about it, but they wouldn’t believe them either. And that doesn’t surprise us. It’s a story that we know is hard to believe, and that we can expect people to challenge. But that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to tell it. We are told to share it just as the women were. In v. 15, Jesus tells His followers, even the ones with hearts too hard to believe in the resurrection, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. The whole purpose of the church is to tell people that Jesus isn’t in the tomb, He is risen. We’re to tell this story to others, even if we’re sure they won’t believe it.

People can find lots of good-sounding reasons not to believe it. Sometimes people refuse to believe the Gospel accounts because they’re not all identical. That doesn’t make much sense. If the stories from different witnesses are all identical, you can bet the people telling the story got together to agree about what they would say! Eye-witness accounts always differ in detail, but usually agree in the main elements. The eye-witness accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are exactly like that; the differences over unimportant details are to me one of the most powerful arguments for the truth of the main elements. So we can tell the truth confidently, admitting that it’s hard to believe, but stressing that it really is true. That’s what the first Christians did. Twice in John’s account, he interrupts his story to say something along the lines of “I know it’s hard to believe, but I saw this with my own eyes, I’m telling you the truth”.  Peter often accompanied his telling of the story with variations of the same statement, and so did Paul. The New Testament was written by people who know it’s hard to believe, who didn’t expect their readers to be gullible, but who really wanted their readers to know that they were telling the truth. Paul says it is crucial: he wrote if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are wasting our time this morning if this is just a pretty story. If it isn’t literally true, then Christ is of no significance, and the world outside the church might as well go on ignoring Him and His teachings.

But if what these eye-witnesses are telling us so urgently is true, then what? What does the resurrection mean, if it is true? What it means, of course, is just what the young man in white says: everything will be just as Jesus said it would be—not just that He would rise again on the third day, but everything else He said, too. Of all the things that He could have been wrong about, rising from the dead was the most likely; if He was right about that, He’ll be right about the rest.

Jesus claimed to be the only Son of God, and He claimed that He was the one whom God had appointed to decide how every human being would spend for ever, whether they would live in eternal bliss or eternal emptiness. Those who trusted Him would live in eternal bliss, those who rejected Him would go the other way. Now if Jesus is dead, all these claims about Himself can be ignored. But if Jesus really did rise from the dead, if He really is still alive today, then He can’t be ignored. Everything will be just as He said. Jesus said that He came to earth that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). If He were dead now, His claim to give us life would be meaningless. If He can’t give Himself life, what can He do for us? But if He has proved that life is so much His to give, that it cannot be taken away from Him, then His offer of abundant life now, and eternal life to come, is not an empty offer. It means exactly what it says, and Jesus has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that He can give what He offers. Everything will be just as He said. He said that if we trust in Him our lives will be more than we ever dreamed possible, abundant life. In Mark’s account, those women are still telling the story; they’re telling us, today. This good news is for us. Everything will be just as He said. We can trust Him. Our lives are fulfilled when we put them in His hands. Let’s do it, and let’s never let anyone persuade us to take them back.

Sermon December 1: Mark’s Passion Narrative

Mark’s account of what is often referred to as Jesus’s passion takes up all of chapters 14 and 15. Peter’s ‘passion narrative’—remember how we saw at the beginning that it is Peter’s account of Jesus’s life and ministry that Mark has written down—begins with the incident with the ointment at Bethany, and continues through the last supper, Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, His betrayal by Judas and His capture in the garden, His trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter’s denial of Jesus, His appearance before the Roman governor, and finally His crucifixion, death and burial. I want to think about all of this by focussing on his trial, which begins in 14.53.

Jesus has been taken captive, and in v 53, He is brought to the High Priest’s house. What is waiting for Him there, according to v 55, is a gathering of members of the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish priests and elders that governed the Jewish people. It was also the contemporary Jewish version of the Supreme Court, the place where all the most important legal issues were ultimately decided. What Jesus faces at the High Priest’s house is not an official sitting of that court, because it’s the middle of the night. But some members of the Sanhedrin have been looking for a way to get rid of Jesus for quite some time. Remember back in chapter 3, The Pharisees… held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Both the religious and political arms of the government had determined to put Him out of the way, and the High Priest, the one responsible to the Romans for the good behaviour of the Jewish people, has obviously joined this group. It was the High Priest’s people who had taken Him from Gethsemane, and the leading members of the Council gather at the High Priest’s house to see if they can find an accusation that will stick.

According to v 55, they interview as many witnesses as they can find. Mark calls them ‘false witnesses’ because what they testify is not the truth; but in all probability they are not simply lying. What they say, v 58 says, is that they heard Jesus say I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands. There is an incident that they could be referring to, one described by John in his gospel, where Jesus is asked to prove He has the authority He claims to have, and He says Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. He didn’t say He would destroy it, He said that if they could destroy it, He could raise it again in three days. What the witnesses report seems a garbled version of that; and the fact that the various witnesses interviewed all tell a different story—their testimony did not agree, v 59—suggests they weren’t lying. If they were going to lie they’d have agreed on a story. So they find no cause to put Him to death, v 55 says.

So they try to get Jesus to incriminate Himself: What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus says nothing, literally not a word—until the High Priest brings up the issue that is the real cause of their anger against Him: Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One? Christ is Greek for Messiah, and the ‘blessed One’ was a common phrase the Rabbis used for God; ‘Are you the Messiah? are you the Son of God?’ Then at last Jesus speaks; He says, I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven. From their point of view, this is the jackpot—a confession. He’s claimed not just to be the Messiah, but to be God Himself. He couldn’t have incriminated Himself more completely. The High Priest turns to the rest and says What further witnesses do we need? You have heard His blasphemy. What is your decision? The kangaroo court is complete: they are not only prosecutors, judge and jury, but star witnesses as well!

It’s no surprise after what we saw in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that Jesus says exactly what is necessary to make sure that His purpose, to give his life as a ransom for many (10.45) would be achieved. What is your decision?  And they all condemned Him as deserving death. And some began to spit on Him and to cover His face and to strike Him.

It’s very important to understand why the religious establishment was so eager to get Him out of the way. Jesus makes it clear that everything that happens is inevitable, let the Scriptures be fulfilled, but that doesn’t mean that the people involved aren’t making real choices. Why did the religious leadership make this choice? After all, they all believed that a Messiah was coming one day; why, when Jesus announced Himself as that Messiah, did they not rejoice and join in His work?

One reason would be the fact that the coming of the Messiah would mean the end of the political power of the High Priest. In Old Testament times the High Priest had been a symbolic office without much in the way of earthly power; it was only under the Romans that this office had become one of real Government and power. When the Messiah came, every Jew believed he would exercise that power, and the High Priest, and those who had a place in the system he headed, would have gone back to what they had been before. So it was in their interest to dismiss messianic claims; political pressures trumped the claims of faith. A common enough event; I could give an example from much closer to home from just last week, but I won’t.

There was also the fact that there had been so many who had made this claim before. We know from other evidence that ever since the end of Jewish independence in the 6th century BC, people had appeared claiming to be the Messiah. It’s not surprising if, after so many false claims, their reaction was ‘oh, no, not another one’.

So at first sight, their reaction may seem understandable. But remember that this claimant was so different from any who had appeared before. All the others had been more or less the same thing: a tough fighting man who had gathered other fighting men around him, and was convinced God would help him drive out the hated foreigner and then put him in charge. The High Priest could always say ‘God bless you, we’ll be ready to serve you after you’ve won your victory,’ and then wait for the inevitable news that they were all dead. ‘Martyrdom operations’, as they are called today, are nothing new in the Middle East. But this Messiah was utterly unlike that. He had drawn no sword, had taught His followers to turn the other cheek when attacked, offered no resistance when armed men came to arrest Him, and had even acted as witness for the prosecution in the case against Himself. Why did none of this give the religious leaders of the people a moment’s pause?

The reason is told us in Acts 13:27. Paul is preaching the gospel in the Jewish synagogue in Antioch, and he says, Those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers—that’s the chief priests—because they did not recognize Him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning Him. The religious leaders of the people, the clergy and theologians, did not recognize that Jesus really was the Messiah because they did not think through the scriptures they read in the synagogue week after week. Jesus could see a level of meaning in the messianic prophecies that was not at all what had been traditionally thought. All the passages in Isaiah, for instance, that talk about someone suffering for the sins of others, like the one we heard from Isaiah—he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed… the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all—those had not been thought of as applying to the Messiah, but to the Jewish people as a suffering nation, and the hope of most people was that the Messiah would end this suffering. Jesus had read more carefully, and seen that these passages are for the Messiah as well as the people, and knew that the Messiah would suffer more than all of them, and suffer for the sake of God’s people. Isaiah 53.8, he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people—the people were not stricken for the transgression of the people, the whole point is one suffering for the sake of the many. Jesus had acted that out for the disciples that same night through the bread and the wine: here’s the bread, He said at the opening ceremony of the Passover meal He had shared with them, and this is my body, He told them. His words at the wine focus that more closely: this wine is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. The phrase ‘blood poured out’ almost always represents death; we’ve even combined them into a single word for death and slaughter, ‘bloodshed’. Jesus is again making it clear that He is going to die, and reminding them why—for the covenant God made with His people to forgive their sins. At the last supper, Jesus proclaimed His death to the disciples, and gave them a way to respond in faith, just as the woman with the ointment had already responded: ‘I understand,’ she said by her act of anointing, ‘and I thank you for what you are doing for me.’ When the disciples received that bread and drank that wine, it was their opportunity to say ‘I understand, and I accept what You are doing for me, Lord.’ And so it remains; when we receive that bread and wine next week, it will be our opportunity to accept Christ’s death for our salvation.

But the priests had not read the scriptures as carefully as Jesus, and would not listen to His teaching about them, and so they fulfilled the prophecies in the way they would least have wanted to. Instead of anointing Him as Messiah, they are the instruments of His oppression and judgment, cutting Him off out of the land of the living. He is anointed as Messiah not by the High Priest, but by a woman in Bethany.

If it was political considerations that motivated the religious authorities, it is ironic that the thing they sought to prevent by handing Him over to the Romans happened anyway: the Romans destroyed the Temple, and ended the power of the High Priesthood. Within a century of Jesus’s death there was no more High Priest, no more chief priests. And all because they wouldn’t read the scriptures with open minds. Or wouldn’t re-read them, to be accurate; they’d read those scriptures many times, so many that they were satisfied they had nothing more to learn from them, and so they became just words.  By their very familiarity the scriptures lost their power to open their eyes to God at work.

Let me suggest to you that this was not a unique event. That the scriptures still become so familiar, sometimes, to religious people, that we can no longer hear the voice of God in them, shining His light into our hearts and showing us the truth about ourselves that we’d rather not know. God’s word is fully analysed, labelled and put away, and as a result everything is tidy, and under control.

And yet, for all the tidiness, for all our alleged control, so often there seems something missing in our lives, a level of satisfaction that escapes us. If any of you ever feel like that, will you try giving the scriptures another look? Just go back and see if there’s something you haven’t fully understood, the way the High Priest didn’t fully understand those passages in Isaiah? Give God the chance to speak to you afresh, to take you deeper into the truth than you’ve been?

There are legends that say many of the actors in this drama did that. There’s a legend that Pilate, years after Jesus’s death, finally understood who Jesus was, and put his faith in Him. The movie about Barabbas, based on a book by a Swedish writer, speculates that Barabbas did the same thing. Nikos Kazantsakis did the same thing with Judas. I like to speculate that perhaps the High Priest did that too, and that the fulfillment of the priesthood, when it unknowingly offered the final sacrifice, offering the Son of God for the sins of the world, was its own salvation. That’s only speculation, of course; what is not speculation, but even more certain than death and taxes, is that the death of the Messiah is the means of salvation for all who put their trust in Him. It’s what Jesus came for, it’s what He accomplished, and the fruits of it are freely available still to anyone who needs new life, new hope.

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