Category: Christmas

Divine Christmas Blessings – Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2B (Ephesians 1)

Ephesians 1:3-14 New Revised Standard Version

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

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                It’s still Christmas, at least for a few more days. We still have Christmas carols that either haven’t been sung yet or need to be sung one more time before we move on to the next season. If we are being strict in our liturgical observance the magi won’t arrive until January 6, though since we have two Sundays in the Christmas season of 2020-2021 it’s perfectly okay in my mind to jump the gun a few days early and use the Sunday before Epiphany to celebrate the coming of the magi. However, if you wish to stick with the readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas, then the second reading from the lectionary takes us to Ephesians 1, which has parallels to the Gospel reading from the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18).  The reading from Ephesians 1 celebrates Jesus as the one through whom God pours out spiritual blessings on those whom God has adopted as children of God. These blessings are part of our inheritance as God’s children.

                You might notice some similarities between this reading and the reading from Galatians 4:4-7 that we encountered the previous week. Both passages speak of our adoption and the inheritance that we receive in Christ, though this reading from Ephesians 1 is much more expansive than the reading from Galatians. Thus, the message of a week earlier is being reinforced. The point then is that in Christ, we find union with God and that leads to our redemption in Christ.

                Whenever we come to the Ephesian letter, we have to acknowledge that there is disagreement as to the author. Is it Paul? Or is it not? I will confess that I haven’t made up my mind, so I leave it open (I did this in my participatory study guide on Ephesians and I’ll do the same here). One thing to take note of is that—whatever your view on authorship—is that this passage is all one sentence in Greek. In fact, this is the second-longest sentence in the New Testament. Fortunately, our English translations help us out by breaking this lengthy sentence into more digestible sentences!

                In this passage, if we were to read it as one long sentence, the subject is God the Father (vs. 3) while the verb is “chose” (vs. 4). The remainder of the passage is made up of relative clauses and prepositional phrases that expand on that declaration. Lynn Cohick notes that in Greek the “phrases, terms, and synonyms flow rhythmically and produce a ‘chantlike effect’” [The Letter to the Ephesians, NICNT, pp. 85-86]. With this rhythm working in the passage, we can hear the message of God’s work in time and space through Christ and in the Spirit. God is the primary actor. God blesses, chooses, adopts, redeems, and makes those chosen and adopted in Christ heirs of God. The God who does all of this is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, linking definitively Jesus as a son to the father. You can understand why this has certain Trinitarian resonance, especially since the inheritance is sealed in the Holy Spirit (vs. 13). 

                As in Galatians 4, this mystery has been revealed in the fullness of time so that God might gather up all things in [Christ] (Eph. 1:10). In other words, none of this is happenstance. God had a plan developed before the world was created. Now, in Christ, in the fullness of time, God has implemented that plan. God chooses to act at this moment in and through Christ according to God’s wisdom. Thus, according to Paul (I will speak of the author as Paul), “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” (Eph. 1:7-8a). When it comes to God choosing (remember that in Greek this is the primary verb in the sentence), we need to pause for a moment and consider what Paul has in mind. Is this a matter of God determining who is in and who is out of the kingdom, whether by way of single or double predestination? Or is Paul speaking of God’s choice to redeem us in Christ? The latter is my preference.

                Most importantly, it is God who does the choosing and the word we hear from Paul is that God chooses us in Christ. This act of choosing is rooted in love. By this act of choosing to redeem us in Christ, we receive forgiveness of our sins. As Karl Barth notes that “in love, God determined that we should be his children through Christ.” Thus, taking on the role of the electing God, God’s “act of electing must be understood as an entirely absolute action from beginning to end, is revealed in Jesus Christ as love” [The Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 100]. 

                What is the result of this act of revelation in Christ? God will “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and as a result gives us an inheritance in Christ. All of this is sealed by the mark of the Holy Spirit, which I take to be baptism. If we embrace our chosenness in Christ, which is sealed in baptism, we can now give glory to God our Creator. Is this not a Christmas blessing?

In the Fullness of Time – Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1B (Galatians 4)

Galatians 4:4-7 New Revised Standard Version

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

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                The Sunday that falls after Christmas Eve/Christmas Day often seems anti-climactic. Church attendance, even under the best of circumstances, is usually pretty low. Clergy who have been working hard preparing for those important Christmas services held a few days earlier often take the Sunday off or at the very least turn it into a congregational carol sing (not a wise thing to do in 2020). Nevertheless, the church gathers, even if with a substitute preacher and a smaller crowd. It’s in this context that we hear this word from Paul’s Galatian letter.

                Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’ origins. He doesn’t reveal whether he had any information about Jesus’ birthplace, the name of his parents, or whether he envisioned a virginal conception. This may be as close as we get to a word about those origins. What he does say is that in the “fullness of time . . . God sent his Son.” That suggests that God is Jesus’ father, but what does that mean? As for his mother, well, all we’re told is that he was born of a woman and under the law. The reference to the law could suggest Jesus’ Jewish heritage though he was also born under Roman jurisdiction. As for the woman’s name, no identification is made. No mention of Joseph is made either.

                If we take this at face value, God is Jesus’ father and his mother is an unnamed woman. Nevertheless, despite the absence of the kinds of details we’d all like to have—I might be pressing things a bit here, but it is Christmastime—Paul appears to be raising some significant Christological questions. Might we take this as Paul’s incipient acknowledgment of Jesus’ divinity (derived from the Father) as well as his humanity (taken from his mother)? I don’t want to suggest that Paul had a full-blown Chalcedonian Christology (Chalcedon was the 5th-century council at which the “orthodox” understanding of Jesus’ two natures was affirmed), but the reference is intriguing and seems to allow us to do a bit of speculative theologizing. Whatever Paul says here about parentage, he was still born in the same way as every other human being.  

                While Paul’s statement here raises questions about what he knew of Jesus’ origins, his major point here concerns our redemption, adoption, and inheritance. In other words, if in the fullness of time God sent his Son to be born of a woman, in Paul’s mind that has important implications for us. It’s useful to take into consideration that when Paul speaks of Jesus as God’s Son, he knows that the emperor claims to be the son of a god. Therefore, in making this declaration Paul could be offering Jesus as a rival to the emperor. But more to Paul’s point, not only did God send the Son but as the Son of God, Jesus redeems those who were under the law. Not only are they redeemed, but they are also adopted.  In other words, in Christ, we become God’s adopted children. As children of God, through the Spirit of the Son, we are empowered to declare before God: “Abba Father!” In this, there is a sense of intimacy. It’s not just an honorific. It’s true relationality.

                If we are God’s adopted children, then we are also heirs of God with Christ. Paul wrote something similar to the church in Rome:

15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

In both Galatians and Romans, belief in Jesus, more specifically trust in Jesus, becomes the foundation for our redemption from slavery. As for the nature of this slavery, for Paul, it is defined by sin. Nevertheless, now that we are in Christ that state no longer defines us. We are no longer slaves because we’ve been adopted out of slavery as children of God, which makes us heirs of the promise. If Paul was directing this word to Gentile Christians, then this word concerning adoption is likely linked to the promise of blessing given to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 12). As Kelley Nikondeha writes in her wonderful book about the spiritual dimensions of adoption as a sacrament of belonging, reflecting on Paul’s message to the Church in Rome that Abraham acted in faith before he was circumcised so that he was reckoned as righteous before being circumcised. She asks rhetorically why this was true? The answer she hears from Paul is that this happened “so that Abraham would become our common ancestor, the father to all who believe. He has uncircumcision in common with some, circumcision in common with others, but what holds this expanded family together is faith. According to Paul, we belong to each other, a family shaped by faith, not physical marks.” [Nikondeha, Adopted, p. 13]. Therefore, by faith, all of Abraham’s descendants share in the inheritance.

                Contextually, it’s always too good to remember that when we come to the Galatian letter, the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians is center stage. Paul wants the two parties to recognize each other as God’s children in Christ. Both are adopted and both are heirs, with or without circumcision. For Gentile Christians, Paul was making quite clear that they needn’t be circumcised to be adopted!

                Here is the thing about adoption, it is an act of grace. People don’t usually ask to be adopted, at least if they are infants or young children at the time of their adoption. They are simply adopted out of love. When adopted, they become new persons with new identities, because they are now part of a new family. The same true for us as we become part of the family of God through Christ. If we are adopted into the family, we have all the rights and privileges of the family. Therefore, as Kelley Nikondeha writes:

God’s family stretches beyond our smaller notions of biological or ethnic connection. The other is always  much closer to being our kin than we imagine. It’s the continual work of the prophets and the Spirit to open our eyes to this simple yet astounding truth: Anyone can be our family if we let them. With eyes opened, we realize we are a family so wide with welcome that enemy love is inevitable. Eventually, contrary to the current world order, even our enemy can become our flesh. [Adopted, p. 154].

               As we continue to reflect on the message of Christmas, a message that speaks of God’s presence with us through Jesus, the one born in Bethlehem, who would eventually die on a cross before being resurrected, we can embrace our adoption and our inheritance as children of Abraham and Sarah, and therefore as children of God, joint-heirs as it were with Jesus, our elder

A Call to Worship – A Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2A (Ephesians 1)

 
 
 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

 
A CALL TO WORSHIP
 

Although the identity of the author, as well as the destination of this letter, remains clouded in mystery, the letter itself has a strong liturgical sense to it. That is, it serves as a call to worship the God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing and who will ultimately gather up everything into God’s being. That is, in Christ God will be “all in all.” Whether the conversation in this letter is doctrinal or practical in nature, ultimately the letter serves as a call to worship.

 

                The author begins by offering a blessing to the God we know in Jesus Christ, the one who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In fact, verses 3-14 comprise one long sentence (in the Greek), celebrating the blessings God has poured out upon Christ’s body, the church. Then, in the concluding verses of the chapter, the author offers a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients of the letter, commending them to God for their faithfulness, and asking that they might truly experience the presence of the one who has been made head of the body, the one whom God has resurrected and exalted above all powers and authorities.

CHOSEN/DESTINED
 

The reader is told that God “chose us in Christ” to be holy and blameless, and God has “destined us for adoption” through Christ. The use of these two terms can be disconcerting for many Christians, especially those who come from traditions that stress human free will. How can we be free if God “chose us” before the foundation of the world and “destined us” for adoption? It is possible that our discomfort may stem from our own individualistic reading of the text. It is easy to read the text as if it is speaking to individual believers, speaking to and about our personal destinies, which appear to have already been written, and thus we have no choice in what happens in our lives. Such a reading has led theologians including Augustine and John Calvin to conclude that in God’s infinite wisdom, some who deserve condemnation will be damned and others will be redeemed, what is known as “double predestination.”

There is another way to look at this discussion of chosenness and destiny Instead of reading this in terms of one’s individual destiny, it might be better to read this in a corporate sense. It is, therefore, God’s decision/choice that humanity as a whole would experience holiness and adoption as God’s children through Christ. That is, God hasn’t chosen some from among us to experience salvation, but that God has chosen to bring redemption to humanity through Christ.

If the text should be read in a corporate rather than an individualistic manner, it can also be read eschatologically. A close reading of this chapter will show that the focus is on God’s final end for the universe. The author is looking out into the future to the time when all things belong to God. Therefore, this word isn’t meant to be read as a limitation on our choices, but it stands as a word of hope. It reminds us that no matter what happens God’s purpose for the universe will be fulfilled. Note that the focus of the passage is not limited to humanity, for the letter affirms that in Christ there will be a “restoration of all things,” which means that God has a broader vision than simply rescuing humanity. Instead, God is seeking to bring to wholeness all that is broken and alienated and fragmented. In this way, it is a word of hope and assurance—reminding us that God is good, faithful, and committed to redeeming, that is restoring to God’s purpose, the created order through Christ, who will reign over all authorities.

ADOPTION AND INHERITANCE
 

                There is an incipient Trinitarian structure to this passage. According to the author, we have been called upon to bless the God and Father of Jesus Christ, in whom we receive our adoption as God’s children and in whom we receive our inheritance, which is an adoption that is sealed with the Holy Spirit. With this Trinitarian structure in mind, we gain understanding of our place in God’s economy. We are introduced to Jesus in the role of the elder brother, the one who by rights receives the inheritance of the Father. Not only is Christ the elder brother, and therefore the rightful heir to the inheritance of the Father, but Christ has brought us into the family through adoption. Although we are adopted into the family, that doesn’t mean we have a share in the inheritance. It is at the discretion of the elder brother whether or not any other members of the family receive a portion of the inheritance. In this case, our elder brother, the one to whom the inheritance has been given, has chosen to share the inheritance with all members of the family of God, even those who come into the family by adoption.

The appropriate response to such a decision on the part of Christ can be found in the earlier Pauline letter to the Roman church. Led by the Spirit of God, the children of God are empowered to cry out to God “Abba! Father!” We may do this because, the Holy Spirit of God is bearing witness to the fact that we are now not only children of God, but “joint hears with Christ” of the things of God (Rom. 8:12-17).

IN CHRIST
 

                It is important to note the use of the phrases “in Christ” and “in Jesus Christ” throughout this text. It is a constant refrain, reminding us that God’s blessings, which include adoption and the inheritance, come to us “in Christ.” It is in the one whom God has raised far above all powers and authorities, that we receive the blessings. It is also a reminder to the recipients, who most likely are Gentile believers, that their place in God’s realm results from God’s work of redemption, which brings forgiveness, through the death of Christ.

SEALING/DOWN PAYMENT
 

Whether or not water baptism is present in the mind of the author, the use of both words/phrases is important to note. If the promised inheritance comes to us in Christ, this decision of God is sealed in us through the denouement of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). It is the presence of the Spirit in one’s life that reminds a person that he or she has been given the opportunity to share in the inheritance.

Note:  This reflection is drawn from chapter two of my book:  Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 14-17. The book is designed to be used by small groups or in personal study, and includes study questions and exercises.    

 

Growing Up in a Temple? – Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1C (1 Samuel 2)

Samuel in the Temple – David Wilkie (1839)
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
18 Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home.
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                Christmas has come, and in the minds of many, it’s time to move on to the next holiday. The stores will be clearing out extra merchandise, and unwelcome presents will be returned. Next up are the parades and games of New Year’s Day (and a new Dr. Who special). Liturgically, however, the Christmas season is not yet over. There is still time to sing some carols and hear Christmas related messages. The first Sunday after Christmas is usually low attendance, and my preachers (myself included) will be taking the week off. Nevertheless, liturgically we’re still in the midst of the Christmas season. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year C is Luke 2:41-52, which tells the story of Jesus’ visit to the Temple when he was twelve, so we’ve moved well beyond infancy. This is, however, the only reference to Jesus’ childhood to be found in the New Testament. There’s nothing spectacular going on here. Jesus’ doesn’t make clay pigeons fly, or anything like that. He does, however, pay a visit to the Temple, where he engages the religious teachers in deep theological discussions. You might say he’s a rather precocious lad! He also causes his parents a few worries, because he got separated from the family when their caravan headed back to Nazareth. I’ve always liked that story, not just the part about the theological discussions, but the troubles he caused his parents. Whatever moral perfection we grant Jesus, let’s remember he had to grow and mature. That he did!  As the Lukan story concludes we hear: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” In other words, he had stuff to learn along the way!
 
                The reading from 1 Samuel 2 offers a parallel of sorts to that of Jesus. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible for this Sunday, we might picture Samuel as a boy of about twelve. He’s ministering in the Temple in Shiloh, as an apprentice to Eli the priest. If we turn back to chapter 1, we will find Samuel’s mother, Hannah, pleading with God to take away the shame of being unable to conceive and bear a child, in the course of her prayers, she promised that if God provided her with a son, she would return the child to the Temple to serve God there. Lo and behold, she conceives and bears a child, whom she names Samuel. As she promised, at the appropriate time, she brought Samuel to the Temple to live with Eli and serve with him in the Temple. We might use this story as an opportunity on what it means to dedicate children to God. Whether we practice infant baptism or infant dedication, the ritual invites parents to commit themselves to raising children in the faith, and congregations pledge to assist. I’m not sure we always do a great job at this, but in both the story of Jesus and Samuel, children are dedicated to the Lord’s service.
In chapter 2 we find Hannah and her husband Elkanah making an annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Each time they make this trip, Hannah brings her son a new robe to wear in service in the Temple. After all, he’s a growing boy and will need new clothes on occasion. It also suggests that Hannah kept in contact with her son. Each time they visited the Temple, Eli would bless the couple, asking that God would bless them with more children.   
 
The lectionary omits verses 21-25, which tells us that Hannah had three more children, while Samuel grew up on the presence of the Lord,as well as about Eli’s own less-than-honorable sons. While it is understandable, the author of the story seemed to want to make the contrast between Samuel and the priest’s sons, all of whom would have been in line to succeed their father. You might even see in Eli’s blessing of Elkanah and Hannah a ruefulness, recognizing that their son was more committed to God than his own sons. In fact, as Melissa Browning notes: “These weren’t just preacher’s kids being mischievous at church; it was far worse. They were stealing the offering, sleeping around, and threatening violence—all within the sacred space of the Temple” (Connections, p. 114). You could understand if Eli didn’t wish that his own sons would be more like Samuel.  
 
The stories of Samuel and Jesus intersect in the Temples, where both demonstrate their faithfulness to God, and their wisdom. Samuel wears a linen ephod, a priestly vestment. Having served as an acolyte in the Episcopal church as a child, I can get a sense of what this might look like. I wore a black cassock with a white surplice. Properly dressed, I could assist the priest in consecrating the eucharistic elements. I would assume that Samuel had a similar responsibility, assisting Eli with the sacrifices, including those brought by his own parents. Jesus didn’t have the same responsibilities. He wasn’t an apprentice priest. Instead, he engaged in theological conversation with religious teachers, astounding his conversation partners with his understanding of deep topics (I wasn’t yet ready to do such things at age 12, believe me!).
There is another connector, and that is the description of their maturation process.  Of Samuel it is said that he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people” 1 Sam. 2:26). Witness the similar appellation given to Jesus in Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” What more could any parent desire than to receive report cards like these?
Not all children grow up to be prophets and messiahs. Many children will be more like Eli’s sons than either of these two. Parents love to brag about their kids. Facebook seems to be a common space for doting parents to tell stories of their precocious children, who can do know wrong, and who at age 5 seem to have the wisdom and knowledge of a PhD candidate. Other parents, reading such reports of wondrous children, may feel like Eli, wishing their children could be wiser and looked upon with divine and human favor. It’s easy to feel a bit like a failure as a parent, when you discover that other children are better behaved and smarter than your own.
Whatever our status as parents, we can recognize in these two parallel stories, very special children, who grow up to fulfill important callings. We should celebrate their faithfulness, and call their parents are blessed.  We should also recognize that in both cases the children grew in faith and wisdom. They were not born with the fullness of wisdom and knowledge. They were given the opportunity to develop their faith, either under the guidance of a religious leader in the case of Samuel or, we can presume, under the tutelage of parents (Jesus).
With these stories in mind, may we continue the Christmas journey toward Epiphany, and the full manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.