Category: come sunday

To Be a Child of God – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3B (1 John 3)

 

 

1 John 3:1-10

 

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 

4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10 The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters

 

 

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                This Easter season we find ourselves in 1 John. While this letter/sermon is well known for reminding us that God is love, therefore we should love one another (1 Jn 4:7). As with the Gospel, the letter also reminds us that God is light. The first word we heard (last week) is that since God is light those who fellowship with God will also walk in the light (1 Jn. 1:5-7). One of John’s concerns is sin. At one level, John is realistic. Everyone sins, though they shouldn’t. However, since we do sin, God has provided us with an advocate to argue our  case before God. That advocate is Jesus, who also serves as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn 2:1-2). While John understands that sin is with us, he also challenges the community to live without sin. That is the issue that gets raised here in chapter 3, where John speaks to us as children of God (in contrast to those who are children of the devil).

                While John doesn’t give precise definitions of sin in the letter, we know he is concerned about schism and the denial that Jesus is the Christ. Thus, he is concerned about those persons, the antichrists, who walk in darkness and will, if they can, lead people astray. So, he spends much of chapter 2 warning against the influence of antichrists who are attempting to deceive them with their lies. These lies if embraced will lead to schism. John wants to prevent that from happening. With that as the background, we come to chapter 3 of 1 John.

             While the lectionary reading begins in verse 1 of chapter 3 and ends with verse 7, we would be well served to begin with 1 John 2:29, which declares: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.” With that statement, we come to John’s word to the reader, whom he addresses as those who should be called children of God because of the love that the Father has given us. Our status as children, as those born of God, is rooted in God’s love. Of course, John has much more to say about love than what appears in this passage. If we might want to begin with 1 John 2:29, we might want to continue through at least verse 8, if not verse 10, where John contrasts the children of God with their opposites, the children of the devil. Part of his message here is that as children we will reflect our parentage in how we live our lives. If we are righteous, we reflect God as our parent. If not, then we demonstrate that the devil is our parent.

                I understand why the creators of the lectionary might want to stop in verse 7. It offers a more uplifting message. But, especially in this day and age, we need to address the other side of the coin. We moderns might find conversations about the devil problematic. History shows how references to the devil and the devil’s disciples have led to tragedy (think Salem witch trials). Nevertheless, the presence of evil in our world does suggest that we are facing spiritual problems that require spiritual answers. Perhaps John can help us with finding those answers.  

                When it comes to being a child of God (to be born of God) that will be reflected in a life that is not marred by sin. That is because, as we read in verse 9, God’s seed abides in those who are born of God. Thus, those born of God cannot sin. Another way of putting this is to say that because we are to be like Jesus, the Son of God, who does not sin, then the same should be true of us. On the other hand, if you’re a child of the devil, you’ll be like the devil. Since the devil has been sinning from the beginning, if you’re a child of the devil you will engage in sin. That is, instead of being righteous you will be devilish. his is stated in contrast to its opposite, that is, to be a child of the devil. If the latter, we will act in accordance with that identity.

                When we get to verse 8, John has something important to say about the mission of the Son of God (Jesus). He writes that the Son of God (Jesus) has been revealed to destroy the works of the devil. If we turn to the Gospels, we learn that Jesus was an exorcist. Yes, he cast out demons. That was the way he often healed. As Richard Beck points out not only did Jesus go around doing good, but he healed those who were under the power of the devil. In other words, his good works “are consistently described as spiritual warfare, as a battle he was waging with Satan.” Then Beck points us to this verse. [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 31].  I appreciate the word Beck brings to the conversation, as one who struggles with this idea of a devil/Satan. He urges us not to snip out (ala Thomas Jefferson) the stories of Jesus the exorcist. He writes that “We prefer to see Jesus as a moral teacher, especially when he calls out corrupt religious, political, and economic institutions. But if you excise the dramatic clash between Jesus and the Devil you eliminate the narrative glue that holds the Gospels together as a coherent story. If we want to understand what Jesus was up to in the world, we’ve got to confront his conflict with Satan and acknowledge how central that plotline is to the story being told in the Gospels” [Reviving Old Scratch, pp. 33-34]. 

                John is speaking here of spiritual warfare. There are those who oppose Jesus. They are the antichrists who, if successful, will destroy the community. John does not want that to happen. We live in challenging times. We are being pushed to accommodate ourselves to the world. It might be a message of America First. It might be a message of consumerism. It is that which divides and conquers, which takes on many different guises, all of which are at their base spiritual in origin.

                We read this passage during Eastertide as a reflection on the message of the resurrection of Jesus. If Good Friday is a sign of resistance to the righteousness of God as embodied by Jesus, his resurrection stands as a sign that those spiritual forces that resist God’s vision for the cosmos have been defeated. That is, the children of the devil may have their day, but in the end, they will succeed. Ultimately love will win. So, as we continue our celebration of Easter and with it the Resurrection, we’re invited to see the Resurrection of Jesus as the turning point in what can be described as spiritual warfare. As the Easter hymn declares: “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!”  Yes, “the powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions has dispersed: let shouts of holy joy outburst. Alleluia!” (Latin, 1695; tr. Francis Pott, 1861). Oh, I understand the
resistance continues, but the battle has been won!  

    

Note: For more on 1 John, I suggest my book  The Letters of John: A Participatory Guide (Energion Publications, 2019).         

 

   Christ Cares for All, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57827 [retrieved April 10, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NatividadChurchjf8794_07.JPG.

From Glory to Glory by Way of the Cross – Lectionary Reading for Passion Sunday (Philippians 2)

Philippians 2:5-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

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                The Sunday before Easter presents the church with two choices when it comes to the lectionary. Should we go with the Palms or the Passion? As there is no established second reading for Palm Sunday, the choice has been made for us by the creators of the lectionary. That’s because I’m currently working through the second reading in this cycle. Therefore, the reading comes from the Passion Sunday selections. As a result, I am essentially resharing last year’s reflection. As with 2020, we remain caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year we were still in the early stages of the pandemic. In-person worship was largely canceled. Churches are starting to open up, but many congregations still are being careful and are limiting the number of participants. So, choirs and palm processions remain problematic.
The appointed Gospel reading comes from Matthew 27:11-54, which takes us from Jesus’ appearance before Pilate through the crucifixion to the Centurion’s declaration “Truly this was God’s Son!” (As a side note, I can’t read this without hearing John Wayne intone those words in The Greatest Story Ever Told – a 1960s Jesus movie starring Max Von Sydow as Jesus). Here in Philippians 2, we hear a word about the incarnation of the one who was in the form of God but did not exploit his equality with God but chose to empty himself of his pre-existent heavenly state, become human, and face death on a cross, all of which leads to his exaltation to the position of ruler of the cosmos. Paul offers this Jesus to us as an example, so that we might find unity as the body of Christ by becoming servants to one another and thus being of one mind. If we read between the lines, the Philippian church, which Paul founded, was experiencing a time of conflict.  Thus, Paul tells them to take on the mind of Christ, as revealed in this ancient hymn that Paul has appropriated for this purpose. The hymn reminds us that Jesus endured humiliation for our benefit and was vindicated by God as a result. The one who was crucified was then exalted by God so that he might move from humility to glory.
                When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church, he was sitting in a jail cell (Phil. 1:12-17). Where he was being detained is unknown to us. Paul doesn’t identify the location though he does mention the Praetorian guard. That would suggest a cell in Rome. It’s a clue but not proof. That he is in prison, suggests confinement at best and perhaps a degree of suffering as well. That is his situation. The letter suggests that the congregation was facing its own sets of difficulties. While Paul was the founding pastor of this congregation, he could only reach out to them virtually, offering guidance by way of a letter.
 Regarding the internal concerns, he asks that they exhibit unity. He asks them to make his joy complete by having the same mind, love, and unity. He asks that they not do anything out of selfishness or conceit. Instead, he asks that they have the same mind as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5). That request leads to what many scholars (and I tend to agree) consider an early Christian hymn that takes note of Jesus’ pre-existence with God (his divine status), his self-emptying (humility) that leads to the cross, and finally, his exaltation by God, thus vindicating Jesus by establishing him as ruler of the cosmos. Thus, to fully embody God’s realm, one should embrace the way of Jesus, which has the promise of exaltation.
                The hymn takes note of three distinct phases of the Christ event. We begin with an affirmation of Christ’s pre-existence. The hymn states unequivocally that “though he was in the form of God . . . but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This isn’t quite the same wording as John’s prologue (John 1:1-18), but it’s close. The second phase is Christ’s self-emptying of himself of divinity so that he might become human and face death on a cross. Finally, the second half of the hymn celebrates God’s vindication of Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos [Ronald J. Allen, Connections, Kindle loc 4177-4192].
                For those of us who affirm the divinity of Christ, this is one of the most direct statements (along with John 1) in support of that position. Pre-existence doesn’t prove divinity, but it suggests that in Paul’s estimation that Jesus has a status that is ultimately different from us, even if he experienced life as being fully human. Karl Barth writes that “this equality of Christ with God is, so to speak, the fixed, ultimate background from which his road sets out to which he returns” [Epistle to the Philippians, p. 61]. This is the starting point for a movement from heaven to earth and back, so to speak. But the point here is not his equality with God, but what he does with it that is the point. That leads to the emptying of himself of his stature as the Father’s equal so that he might become a human and ultimately face death on a cross. Thus, his humanity fully covers his divinity, and this was of his own doing, his own choosing, and yet it was an act of obedience. This is the point of Passion Sunday, the willingness to go to the cross, to experience death, and not just any death, but the most humiliating of deaths. He descended to the depths in his self-emptying and bore upon himself the brokenness of the old age.
                This is not the final word in the story. The second part of the hymn (verse 2) reveals that God vindicated Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos. This exaltation is revealed in the name given to him, which stands above every name, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” As I read this, I can’t help but think about the context in which it is revealed. Caesar is the exalted one, to whom every knee would bow, and whose name would be confessed as Lord. In this confession, Paul (or the hymn writer) reveals that Jesus, the one whom Rome crucified, had been exalted above Caesar. Thus, Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. While Caesar might rule an empire, Jesus ruled the cosmos and that to the glory of God.
  
                Paul opens up this reading by asking that we be like Christ, who emptied himself of his glory so as to taste life as we live it, even to the point of death, as a result, God vindicated him by raising him to a position of glory. If this is true for Jesus, as those who are his people, might we participate in what is his by nature? As we ponder this question, I leave you with this word from one of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Orations:

Let us become like Christ, since Christ also became like us; let us become gods because of him, since he also because of us became human. He assumed what is worse that he might give what is better. He became poor that we through his poverty might become rich. He took the form of a slave, that we might regain freedom. He descended that we might be lifted up, he was tempted that we might be victorious, he was dishonored to glorify us, he died to save us, he ascended to draw to himself us who lay below in the Fall of sin. Let us give everything, offer everything, to the one who gave himself as a ransom and an exchange for us. But one can give nothing comparable to oneself, understanding the mystery and becoming because of him everything that he became because of us. [Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations, p. 59].

                As we begin a Holy Week that will continue to be different from “normal years,” may we take up the mantle of Jesus, and find in him a path of obedience that leads to salvation.
                  
                 

High Priestly Duties – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B (Hebrews 5)

Hebrews 5:5-10 New Revised Standard Version

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

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                In 1 Peter 2, we’re told that to be in Christ is to be part of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). That revelation led to the doctrine, especially prominent among Protestants, of the “priesthood of all believers.” The document that guides the ordering of ministry in my denomination—The Theological Foundations for the Ordering of Ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—speaks directly to this understanding of priesthood: “In Christ the individual becomes a member of ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own possession’ (1Peter 2:9). Thus it has been common to speak of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ —the persons who live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the church and in the world. This language highlights the sacramentality of the work of the laity through whose witness and service the grace of God is made manifest.” If we are all part of this royal priesthood, who is the high priest? In the Book of Hebrews, we are told that Jesus is the high priest. Of course, there is a caveat here, and we’ll need to address it. That caveat has to do with the qualifications for being a priest and whether Jesus actually qualifies.

                In ancient Israel, the priesthood was limited to the tribe of Levi, while the high priests were to be lineal descendants of Aaron. As for Jesus, he was neither a Levite nor a descendant of Aaron. So, how might he be our high priest? According to the genealogies in Matthew and Luke Jesus was a descendant of David, which made him a member of the tribe of Judah. That seeming barrier does stop the author of Hebrews from creating a workaround so that Jesus might qualify. While Jesus might not be a descendant of Aaron, Hebrews simply calls Jesus a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

                Before we get to this mysterious Order of Melchizedek, we would be wise to begin with the question of Jesus’ appointment to the office of high priest. Then we can turn to Melchizedek and the implications of this passage for our Lenten journey.  The reading from Hebrews 5:5-10 is part of a larger section of the letter that begins in verse 14 of chapter 4. In the opening lines of the section, the author of Hebrews (Hebrews is anonymous) writes that “since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” We’re also told that this high priest can sympathize with our weaknesses. He was “tested as we are” and yet he did not sin. Therefore, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).  

                Having learned about this high priest who was tested and yet without sin, when we come to verses 5-6 of chapter 5, we are told that when appointed to this position, Jesus did not glorify himself but was appointed to the position by God. Thus, the author draws upon the Psalms to describe the qualifications of this high priest. First, God says of this high priest, “you are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). So, the main qualification here is that Jesus is the Son of God. Then, we learn that Jesus is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).  

                The author of Hebrews makes it clear that one does not appoint oneself to the position of high priest. In the verse prior to our passage, we read that “one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb. 5:4). As noted above, Jesus did not descend from the priestly line, so Hebrews links him to the mysterious Melchizedek, who appears in Genesis as the priest-king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham and blesses him (Gen. 14:17-20). This figure suddenly appears and then disappears from the story. But, the author of Hebrews discovers in this mysterious figure the means to unlock Jesus’ high priestly calling. He might not have an Aaronic pedigree, but he has something else, something rooted in mystery. Interestingly, it’s only in Hebrews that Jesus is connected to Melchizedek. But the identification of the too is intriguing.   

                Having been appointed to this position as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek by God, in large part because of his status as Son of God, Jesus takes up his priestly duties. During his earthly life, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” Here is a reference to Jesus’ priestly duties taken up, it would appear, while on the cross. He was heard because of his submission to the one who appointed him to this role. He was heard because of his submission. Though he held the status as Son of God, in words reminiscent of what Paul said of Jesus in Philippians 2—he “learned obedience through what he suffered.” It was in this suffering that he was perfected and became the source of our salvation. Nothing is said here about being a substitute sacrificed for our sins. The point simply is that his pathway to this priesthood of Melchizedek included the suffering of the cross.  

                Back in Hebrews 4, the author reveals that Jesus is not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He too has been tested and yet did not sin (Heb 4:15-17). That testing includes suffering. Jesus can understand our struggles, our sufferings, because he also suffered. This is the foundation of his priesthood. You might say that he graduated from the school of hard knocks. This is true even though he was the Son of God. That status did not prevent him from experiencing human realities, therefore, we can put our trust in him. In this, we find good news.

The Rich Mercy of God – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4B (Ephesians 2)

Ephesians 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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                As the Lenten journey continues, we are continually invited to engage in self-examination. That can be challenging. If we look too deeply, we might find things buried inside that we’d rather not see the light of day. We all have those secret things that we wrestle with, and that we work hard at keeping them at bay, so they don’t define our lives. Here in the Ephesian letter, we read a word likely spoken to Gentiles, whom the author of the letter suggests had been children of wrath. That is, they once lived in bondage to a spiritual power that kept them separated from their Creator. But there is good news here. God’s mercy reigns. There will be liberation from the bondage. Once they were children of wrath, but that is no longer true, so now they can embrace the good works God has prepared from them.

                Before we get to the heart of the matter, I need to address the question of authorship. While traditionally authorship has been assigned to Paul. After all, the letter begins with a greeting from the Apostle (Eph. 1:1). Nevertheless, many scholars have questioned that claim, believing that the letter comes from a later time. As for the identity of the author, I tend not to take sides. When I wrote my study guide on Ephesians, I left the question of authorship open. There are good arguments on both sides, but I’m not sure that authorship is going to make too much of a difference to our interpretation of this passage. However, in the pursuit of brevity, I’m going to use Paul’s name in this meditation. As I do so, I hold this ascription very lightly!

                What I discern here in Ephesians 2 is a reminder that there is a spiritual realm that influences/affects our lives. According to Paul (remember for our purposes I’m using the traditional author) there are powers, both good and evil present in the universe. We would be wise to keep that in mind as we attend to our Lenten journey. Concerning this spiritual realm, Richard Beck has done a marvelous job in explaining how things work in his book Reviving Old Scratch. Just to be clear, “Old Scratch” is another name for the devil. He writes: “I’d love to have a Christianity full of rainbows and daisies, full of love and inclusion. But there are forces working against love and inclusion in the world, and some of those forces are at work in my own heart and mind. We call those forces hate and exclusion, to say nothing about everything else that is tearing the world to shreds, pushing the loving and gracious rule of God out of the world” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 10]. So, have you noticed those forces at work of late? I have and sometimes they’ve been at work in me.

                Might this be what Paul has in mind when speaking of the ruler of the power of the air? The Enlightenment mindset sought to eliminate the spiritual/supernatural realm. Science or at least reason was expected to explain everything (I’m not anti-science here, just to be clear). In this modern view of things, there was no room for the devil. While there might not be a “personal” devil out there, I do believe there are malignant spiritual forces that entrap us and keep us in bondage. Lent gives us the opportunity to pause and check to see if any of these forces have taken hold of our lives. If so, we can give thanks for God’s mercy that can recalibrate our lives, so we live in tune with God’s vision for creation. Although these spiritual forces continually seek to push God out of the picture, God isn’t going anywhere.

                The good news that comes to us from the Ephesian letter is that God is “rich in mercy.” In fact, God loved us even when we were caught up in this web of wrath and because of that, God has been providing us a way out of the morass through faith in Christ. As we consider how Jesus does this, we might want to keep in mind that the Gospel writers regularly picture Jesus engaging in exorcisms. It was one of the ways in which he healed people. He did so as an expression of God’s mercy and grace. So, it is by this grace that we are saved, we are healed.  We receive the healing by faith, but it is the work of God that provides the healing/salvation. In doing this, God raises us up with Christ so that we might be seated with him in the heavenly places.

                In this passage, the emphasis is on grace. We can’t work our way into the heavenly places? We don’t earn the right to sit with Jesus. That’s a gift of grace. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to do. In fact, God has prepared works for us to do. These works also come as gifts of grace. So, who we are now is not the same as who we were before the divine encounter with Jesus, and so we live accordingly. Once we were dead in our sins, now we are alive in Christ! That is because, due to the rich mercy of God, the prince of the power of the air no longer holds sway in our lives! That is good truly news.   

The Foolishness of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3B (1 Corinthians 1)

 

The Crucifixion — Taddeo di Bartolo (Art Institute of Chicago)

 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New Revised Standard Version

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, 

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended, 

that mortal judgment that on thee descended?

By foes derided, by the world rejected, O most afflicted! 

—Johannn Heerman (Chalice Hymnal, 210).

                The scandal of the Gospel is that it is centered in a message about a crucified  messiah. What is it about a figure who suffered a humiliating death on one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised that would attract anyone? Truly it would be foolishness to embrace such a one as Jesus of Nazareth, who met his death on a Roman cross outside a city in a backwater part of the Roman Empire.

                The cross continues to be a scandal. For some within the Christian community, the way in which Jesus is often portrayed as a means of satisfying the demands for blood on the part of a wrathful God causes angst.  This is because some forms of atonement theory can look a lot like divine child abuse. Thus, for some, it seems as if it would be better if we eschew the message of Good Friday and simply skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, from one triumph to another. Of course, there are others who worry that a religious leader who dies on a cross might look like a loser. Who wants to be associated with a loser. Maybe we can photoshop out the cross and simply focus on a Jesus sitting on a throne.  Nevertheless, Paul makes it clear to critics, both Jewish and Greek, ancient and modern, that he is going to “proclaim Christ crucified.” Just so you know, Paul’s not afraid of being associated with someone the world might consider a loser.

               It’s appropriate to situate this word about the cross in an imperial context. The Romans valued power. They ruled a vast empire on the basis of their military might. They built roads that made commerce efficient, but just like our modern interstates, these roads had a military purpose. In fact, it was the Roman legions who built the roads so they could move quickly across the empire. The religions of the empire tended to emphasize power as well. The mystery religions promised their adherents access to power that was intoxicating. So, it’s not surprising that these young Christians in Corinth would have expected something similar from their religious tradition. Some of them might have been embarrassed by Paul’s preaching a gospel that placed the cross at the center.

                We encounter this word from Paul as we journey through Lent, a season that invites us to let go of things that impede our relationship with Jesus. It invites us to consider how the cross of Jesus defines our faith. Perhaps it’s the desire for power that we need to let go of so that we might share in a different kind of power. This is the kind of power that emerges from humility. It’s a very different message from the one proclaimed by imperial Rome. Is it not different from the message we hear in our culture? Who wants to be a loser or aligned with a loser?

                Here is how Paul defined the way of the cross. He informed his readers that God wasn’t interested in hanging out with the rich and powerful of this world. Instead, God had chosen the “low and despised in the world” to identify with. This is the message revealed in Jesus’s death on a cross. What we see in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is evidence of class-based division. Most likely a large portion of this Christian community was poor. Many might have been slaves. There were, of course, wealthier members, who seemed intent on having power over the poor and the despised. Paul responds to this division by reminding the people that Jesus had died on a cross, despised by those who were in power and those who prized power.

                Paul emphasized God’s identification with the ones the world considered to be expendable and losers, recognizing that for many it appeared that Rome’s power reigned supreme. Was not Jesus’ death an expression of weakness? If so, is this not foolishness? Now, Paul understood that there was more to the story than simply Jesus’ death. Paul knew that his proclamation of this message of the cross included the resurrection. It might appear that Rome won, but did it really? That is a question we need to wrestle with in our day. What does it mean to win?

                Ever since Constantine decided to make Christianity a recognized religion, we’ve tended to rethink the message of the cross. For Constantine, it was a symbol of conquest. He would not be the last to conquer in the name of the cross. What was once a symbol of weakness has been transformed into a symbol of political and military power. Many Christians today have found the promise of gaining power over others, of using the premise of religious liberty to discriminate, rather intoxicating. In fact, it appears that quite a number of Christians have given their allegiance to a figure who promised them power in exchange for loyalty. They have given themselves over to his vision of dominance over others. Lest we think ourselves immune from the intoxicating allure of political power, we might want to heed Paul’s words here. We might want to remember that we are called to live in a relationship with one whose death on a cross was deemed foolish.

                It might help us gain perspective on our place in the world if we remember that this message Paul delivers to the Corinthians is rooted in an eschatological vision of reality. Rome represented the old age, while Jesus represents the new age. We have a choice. We can stay with Rome, which promises victory. Or we can embrace Jesus, who also offers a vision of victory, but of a very different kind. Yes, it might appear that Rome has won, but if dive below the surface of our reality, we will discover that the crucified Jesus is risen and has set in motion a new way of living before God. That is a message worth considering during this Lenten season.    

Reckoned as Righteous – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2B (Romans 4)

Romans 4:13-25  New
Revised Standard Version

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

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                How might a person be reckoned as righteous? Is it by faith or by keeping the law? Is it even possible to keep the law so as to be judged righteous before God? And what does being so reckoned lead to? According to Paul, it may have something to do with the inheritance given to Abraham and his descendants. What would that be? According to Paul, that inheritance given to Abraham and his heirs is the world (Rom. 4:13). To suggest that it is through the law, again according to Paul, would make faith null and void. Therefore, the inheritance must be an act of grace received through faith. That sounds like a message Martin Luther would embrace! The idea that we are justified by faith has been a central part of the Christian confession, but like everything in life, things are more complicated than what might be revealed in a simple slogan like sola fide, sola gratia (faith alone, grace alone).

                Here in Romans 4, Paul focuses our attention on Abraham our Ancestor, who believed God and therefore was reckoned or counted as righteous (Rom. 4:1-3; Gen. 15:6). The premise of chapter 4 is that Abraham’s relationship with God rested in God’s
grace and did not depend on his adherence to the law. If by law, one means Torah, then he would not have had that available to him, as it was revealed at Sinai. What Paul is getting at here is that Abraham’s relationship with God, a relationship that declared him righteous, which made him the recipient of God’s promise, rests on God’s grace, which Abraham received by faith. It is through faith that he and his descendants shall receive the inheritance (vs. 13). The promise that is spoken of here is summarized in a word given to Abraham by the Angel of the Lord: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). Interestingly enough, in Genesis 22, the blessing is pronounced after Abraham showed his willingness to offer Isaac, the chosen one, as a sacrifice in response to God’s request.   

                Regarding the Law, in this chapter, Paul seems rather negative. But, I wonder whether Paul should be seen as rejecting the Law. It seems to me that Paul wants to broaden the possibilities by which one is included in the covenant community. He’s concerned that the requirement to be circumcised would be a stumbling block to Gentiles (Rom 4:9-10). In Paul’s mind, Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. Circumcision was not a requirement for this declaration, but it did seal the relationship, much like baptism seals the commitment Christians make to follow Jesus. Now, it’s true that Paul did say that the law brings wrath and if there is no law there is no violation, but isn’t that a technicality? It’s like saying, if we don’t get tested for COVID-19 then we don’t have COVID. 

                If we look closely at Paul’s message, we’ll see that if received by faith, the promise is extended both to those who are adherents of the Law (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles) (Rom. 4:16). Perhaps that is the key for Paul. He is emphasizing a broader view of what it means to be a descendant of Abraham. As Paul reminds us, Abraham is not only the father of Israel but is the father of many nations. Therefore, while Israel is included in the inheritance, others are as well. That is true for both those who are adherents of the Law and those who are not. As Karl Barth writes:

Since the heirs are what they are not through the law by of faith, not as a consequence of moral and historical status but according to grace, it follows as a matter of course that participation in that company cannot be confined to those who have been made children of Abraham according to the law, cannot be limited to the historical Israel, or to those who accept a particular and definite and historical tradition and doctrine, or to those who are members of some particular ‘movement.’ Such limitation in the number heirs makes the inheritance itself more than insecure (iv. 14, 15). As the recipient of the promise, Abraham stands outside every historical and particular company of men; similarly his true seed, being the race of believers, likewise stand outside. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, pp. 138-139].  

I might be taking this a bit farther than Barth might, but it does seem to make sense that if inclusion in the family is by grace, then we might see this as broadening out beyond believers in Jesus. It is worth pondering for a moment that Muslims understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham through Ishmael. So, what does it mean for Abraham to be the father of many nations?

                I sense that Paul might take a narrower view of who is included among the heirs than I just suggested, but it’s worth pondering. For Paul, Abraham is understood to be the ancestor of those who believe and walk in faith. For Paul that involves who
“believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24-25).  Thus, in Paul’s mind, circumcision isn’t a requirement when it comes to being judged righteous (justification). Only faith is necessary. It is worth noting here that the lectionary reading from Genesis 17, stipulated for this Sunday, excludes the verses that refer to circumcision as the seal of the covenant. While the lectionary creators set aside reference to circumcision, it’s there in Genesis 17 (Gen. 17:9-14). Paul is aware of this and acknowledges it (Rom 4:11). Of course, all of this takes place before the Law is instituted at Sinai, but circumcision was instituted long before Sinai.

                Paul draws on the promise of God made to Abraham and Sarah as a foundation for the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. He suggests, again just before our reading, that Abraham is the “ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (vs. 11). While Paul doesn’t seem to have a problem with the Law as it applies to Jews, he does not see the Law as the appropriate means through which Gentiles will be included in the blessing promised to Abraham. After all, Abraham received God’s call by faith, believing that though he and Sarah didn’t have children of their own, somehow God would take care of that problem. In other words, they trusted God’s promise.

                Now, if you follow the story of Abraham, you know that Abraham did try on occasion to take matters into his own hands. Nevertheless, Paul wants to claim that the promise made to Abraham was an act of grace. Therefore, those who are considered heirs with Abraham, are recipients of the same grace. That means that Gentiles enter the covenant community that is rooted in the promise made to Abraham through faith in Jesus.

                If we read Paul here through the lens of the covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah, which is a covenant of blessing (Gen. 12, 17), then it seems right that we should embrace our place in the family with humility. After all, it is not by biological descent that we Gentiles trace our heritage back to Abraham. Rather it is through an adoption that Jesus engineered on our behalf. For that, we give thanks that by God’s grace we’ve been added to the family that inherits the earth.

Let the Light Shine Bright — Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday, Year B (2 Corinthians 4)

2 Corinthians 4:3-6   New Revised Standard Version

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

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            On Transfiguration Sunday we join with Jesus as he climbs the mountain with three of his disciples. When they arrived on that mountain top Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, the lawgiver and the prophet. While these three conversed, Jesus was transfigured. Then a voice from heaven called out “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:2-10). The heavenly message was essentially the same as the one heard by Jesus at his baptism. Mark’s description is of course spare in detail, but we have enough to get a sense of the experience. And from Peter’s response to the event, it’s clear that something dramatic has occurred. If we use Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians as a guide, then what we have before us is an unveiling of the light of God present in Jesus. As Vladimir Lossky notes, “In so far as God reveals Himself, communicates himself and is able to be known, He is Light. The divine light is not an allegorical or abstract thing; it is given in mystical experience” [Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 220]. Might the transfiguration be a moment of mystical experience where the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” is revealed to these three witnesses?

            In the story of the transfiguration event, we see the veil that kept the three disciples from fully perceiving that light is lifted for a moment. However, according to Paul, the veil continues to cover the eyes of those who to this point fail to see the light of Christ’s glory. For Paul, that veil will be lifted as we come to understand the things of God as they are revealed in Christ. So, if we participate in the life of Christ, we can see the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, and thus experience transformation through the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:12-18). What we see here in 2 Corinthians 4 is rooted in the conversation that begins in chapter 3 that takes into consideration the revelation of God’s presence to Moses.

            This brief reading for Transfiguration Sunday stands as part of a larger conversation about Paul’s ministry. Some have challenged his ministry and he seeks to defend that ministry by speaking to the spiritual realities of his day. Part of his defense includes a word about the “god of this world” who blinds the eyes of the unbelievers. We moderns struggle with the idea that there are spiritual forces that resist the ways of God. While we may have explanations unavailable to the ancients about how the world works, it’s also possible that we are susceptible to spiritual reductionism. We may have taken the process of demythologizing too far and have thus clouded our minds from seeing deeper things. Perhaps it is time to reimagine the spiritual realm. If so, might not the story of the transfiguration be a good place to start? As we do this, we can ask the question, what are the “things” that cause this veil to stay in place and how might it be lifted? We know from Paul’s letters that there was all manner of issues present in the Corinthian church that got in the way of their ability to experience the full presence of God. So, what are the issues present in the modern context?

            A word of caution is necessary as we approach this passage. The contrast present in this letter of Paul that seems to pit Moses against Jesus lends itself to a supersessionist interpretation. As Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, in our context, “the proclamation of Christ’s light does not require the debasement of Moses’s light. Those who are being transformed by God’s shining presence can find far better ways to witness to what they see in Jesus’ face.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 451]. So, be careful if you attempt to contrast law and gospel. 

            While the glory of God that Jesus embodies might be veiled to some, however, that veiling is understood, there are moments when the veil is lifted. That is part of the message of the Transfiguration. Something happens on the mountain, and the disciples of Jesus see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  As Jesus and his disciples gather on the mountain top with Moses and Elijah, the disciples (Peter, James, and John) appear to have a mystical experience in which the veil that covers Jesus in his humanity is removed for a moment and they see Jesus in the fulness of his glory. They see his divinity shine through for a moment.

            Gregory Palamas, a medieval Orthodox theologian, writes of the Transfiguration: 

The light of the Lord’s transfiguration does not come into being or cease to be, nor is it circumscribed or         perceptible to the senses, even though for a short time on the narrow mountain top it was seen by human eyes. Rather, at that moment the initiated disciples of the Lord “passed,” as we have been taught, “from flesh to spirit” by the transformation of their senses, which the Spirit wrought in them, and so they saw that  ineffable light, when and as much as the Holy Spirit’s power granted them to do so. [Gregory Palamas, The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas (p. 43). Mount Thabor Publishing. Kindle Edition].

Gregory speaks of such mystical encounters coming as a result of contemplation: 

Those who behold God in divine contemplation need no other light, for He alone is the light of those who live forever. What need is there for a second light when they have the greatest light of all? Thus, while He was praying, He became radiant and revealed this ineffable light in an indescribable way to the chosen disciples in the presence of the most excellent of the prophets, that He might show us that it is prayer which procures this blessed vision, and we might learn that this brilliance comes about and shines forth when we draw near to God through the virtues, and our minds are united with Him. It is given to all who unceasingly reach up towards God by means of perfect good works and fervent prayer, and is visible to them. Everything about the blessed divine nature is truly beautiful and desirable, and is visible only to those whose minds have been purified. Anyone who gazes at its brilliant rays and its graces, partakes of it to some extent, as though his own face were touched by dazzling light That is why Moses’ countenance was glorified when he spoke with God (Exod. 34:29).  [The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas (p. 44). Kindle Edition].

According to Gregory, to have this experience one must put oneself in a position to encounter the unveiled Christ so that we too might behold his glory. Something similar is true for Paul as well, the light that shines in the darkness is Christ as one beholds the face of Jesus.

            Transfiguration Sunday serves as an invitation to see Jesus with unveiled faces, to set aside the distractions of this world, and to see, if only for a moment, a glimpse of Jesus’ full  divinity. As we do so we can participate in the divine energies, moving us toward union with God in Christ. As Athanasius declared, God became human so that humans might be God—not in the sense that we share the divine essence, but through mystical experience of God’s light, we can experience union with God. In this, may the light shine bright, bringing hope to our world.    

                          

 Image Attribution: Latimore, Kelly. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57114 [retrieved February 6, 2021]. Original source: https://kellylatimoreicons.com/contact/.

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

Time to Rejoice – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3B (1 Thessalonians 5)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 New Revised Standard Version

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

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                It’s the third Sunday of Advent and it’s time to light the Joy Candle. That’s the rose-colored one. This reading is fitting for this Sunday, if for no other reason that the word rejoice is present in it. We hear the word from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is also by most estimates the earliest Pauline letter. That would make it the oldest document in the New Testament. In this reading, Paul brings the letter to the Thessalonian congregation to a close. The lectionary cuts things off a bit early (there are another four verses to go), but we get the idea. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.” Again, these words make for a reading fit for Gaudete Sunday as we light the Joy candle.

                As I write this reflection on the reading from the Epistles for the Third  Sunday of Advent, the world is anything but joyful. We’re beginning the tenth month of this COVID-inspired exile that continues to surge, at least in the Northern Hemisphere as we head into the winter months. So where is the reason for joy? There is a reason for hope, of course. We just have to survive the next few months before a vaccine is readily available for the bulk of the population. In the meantime, we’re tired and lonely and frustrated and anxious. We might even be a bit fearful. If the pandemic weren’t enough to take make us all Grinches, we’re also dealing with political turmoil in the United States. An election has been held and the votes counted. We know who won, at least if you accept the certification of votes by the states. Unfortunately, a large swath of the population hasn’t accepted the results, at least when it comes to the presidential results. So, perhaps it’s a bit premature or maybe naïve to talk about joy, even if the season is supposed to be filled with joy.

                 All of the above may be true, but Paul won’t let us off the hook. Remember he doesn’t tell us to rejoice only when things are going well or when it feels good. No, he tells us to rejoice always. I will confess that I find this a hard directive to live into. Nevertheless, the directive is there for us to ponder. Now, Paul doesn’t just tell us to rejoice, he also calls on us to pray unceasingly (and by that Paul isn’t suggesting that we all go off into the mountains and spend every waking hour on our knees talking to God). When Paul talks about praying unceasingly, he’s encouraging us to live with God in our hearts always. In this, we will find joy. Then Paul adds gratitude to the list. As William Brosend notes, the focus here is on wholeness. This is, Brosend suggests “at the foundation of Paul’s understanding of the Good Life.” He adds: “The shape of the Christian life is not contoured in measured apportionment—one part work to one part prayer, or some other recipe for spiritual fulfillment—but in unreserved and all-consuming self-giving” [Feasting on the Word, p. 64].  Thus, joy, prayer, and gratitude all go together as a sign of wholeness.

                That sounds like a good place to stop, but Paul isn’t finished. He has a lot on his mind as he brings this letter to a close. What we’ve heard so far might suffice for the third Sunday of Advent that is focused on Joy, but Paul has practical concerns to deal with before he seals the letter. He wants to address the role of the Spirit in the community. Paul tells the Thessalonians not to quench the Spirit or despise the words of the prophets in their midst. We moderns tend to think in institutional terms when it comes to church. We have our constitutions and by-laws. We have governing boards. Everything is done decently and in order (at least if we follow the rules). As for the Spirit, well, what does the Spirit have to do with church? In these early days of the church, the Spirit was moving and that led to the prophetic. While Paul was open to the work of the Spirit, and even encouraged prophetic ministry. He understood the need for boundaries. This word may concern a problem in the community. There is a sense that under the guise of prophecy some may have confused the congregation concerning the coming Parousia (the return of Christ) so that many in the church were suspicious of those claiming to speak for God. That’s understandable. Paul doesn’t want to quench the Spirit, but he understands the challenge posed by rogue prophets. So, he encourages the congregation to test what they were hearing. Only embrace what is good and stay away from what is evil. If we turn to 1 Corinthians, we find guidance there concerning the proper place of prophetic ministry within the church. He even gives guidance to how women who are gifted in this way should comport themselves, which I find intriguing since a few chapters later Paul tells women not to speak. So, which is it?  (1 Cor. 11:5). Nevertheless, he tells the Corinthian church that the purpose of prophecy is to build up, encourage, and console (1 Cor.14:3). Therefore, they should listen to the prophets with great discernment. In fact, some of them should pray to receive the gift of discernment. The point here, in the Corinthian letter, is guidance for orderly worship (1 Cor.14:26-33). Paul gives this word of guidance in the Thessalonian letter because he knew that not everyone claiming to have a word from God was a true prophet. After all, there were plenty of false prophets making the rounds, as we can see not only in the Corinthian letter but also in 2 Peter and 1 John.

                Although not directly related to the word about prophecy, the encouragement to test what we hear speaks to concerns of the moment in our world. We are living at a time that has come to be known as a “post-truth” era. Both religious and political leaders spout “alternative truth” as if it is fact. With the expansion of
24-hour news channels and social media, we are bombarded by messages, all claiming to represent truth, but often it is nothing more than rumor, innuendo, or speculation. So, how do we know what is true and what is not?  This might not be the kind of topic that is welcome on Joy Sunday in the season of Advent, but it is timely, nonetheless. It is therefore important that we heed this word to us, that we hold fast to what is good and resist evil, wherever we encounter it.

                All of this is couched in a larger conversation about the future. The message Paul has preached to this community suggests that Jesus would be returning soon to inaugurate the second Advent. It’s possible that the false prophets have been upsetting the people with claims that contradict what Paul has been teaching. We know that some in the community were worried about whether those who died before the Parousia would be included in the great gathering up of the people at Jesus’ return. Paul had given them assurances that the dead in Christ would rise first (1 Thess. 4:13-18). In these concluding verses, Paul reaffirms that premise, encouraging them to remain faithful, because the “God of peace” would sanctify them, making them holy and therefore be blameless when Jesus returned. 

                This is the word of joy we hear on this third Sunday of Advent. Rejoice, pray, give thanks, because this is the will of God for us. It is worth remembering that when Paul writes these words he addresses not just individuals, but a community. It is in the community that we can stand for what is right and resist evil so that we might rejoice in the Lord always!  We can also rejoice in the knowledge that “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” That is a message that is deeply rooted in the biblical story. God’s steadfast love will endure forever! There is joy in that word.

God’s Patience Is a Blessing — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (2 Peter 3)

João Marques de Oliveira, Waiting for the Boats

2 Peter 3:8-15a New Revised Standard Version

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

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                They say patience is a virtue. When it comes to God’s patience it’s not only a virtue, it’s a blessing. You see God has God’s own timeline, which is different from ours. Thank the Lord for that! Humans are not very patient, especially those of us living in the modern age. We have embraced microwaves, computers, and fast food. We are also rather impatient drivers, some more so than others. Yes, and count me among them! Such is not the case when it comes to the way God works in the world. God is more tortoise than hare.  

                When we read the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, we see a community that assumed that the Day of the Lord was close at hand. Paul encouraged people not to marry if they could control themselves because the days were short. As Paul put it, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:25-31). We see a similar message across the New Testament, but there is also another voice present in the text. While the Pauline letters give evidence that he believed the Parousia, the second coming, was near at hand, the letters that came later often call for patience on the part of the people. Such is the case here in 2 Peter, which suggests that it dates to a second or third generation period in church history. There is still an apocalyptic element to the message, but there’s less urgency and more caution.

                We come to this reading from 2 Peter, one of only two readings from the letter stipulated by the Revised Common Lectionary on the Second Sunday of Advent. This Advent season easily gets buried in the rush to Christmas. While that rush is both understandable and very enticing, if we set aside Advent we will miss something important. We will miss the message that we live not only after the first Advent, but we live between two Advents. One has occurred with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, the second advent is yet to come. Each year as we undertake this liturgical cycle that begins with Advent and ends with Christ the King Sunday, we’re reminded of this fact. While Paul, and even the author of 2 Peter, may have thought the second advent would have occurred already, two millennia later, we’re still living in the “between times.” For the most part, we live our daily lives as if things will go on as they have been for the foreseeable future. So, “we plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,” with the expectation that the harvest will come once again, just like it comes each year. Those who are prudent will plan for the future. Because we don’t know how long we’ll live, we put make plans for tomorrow. If we’re able, we put away funds for our retirement years. We may purchase extended warrantees for goods we expect to use over the long term. Experience and history suggest that this is a wise move. However, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring! So, stay alert!

                Although written in the name of the Apostle Simeon Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), most scholars believe that this document is rather late. It could date to the middle of the second century, though more likely it’s the late first century. At the very least, it was written by a second-generation follower of Jesus, who probably was a member of what some call the Petrine circle. While this letter has a strong eschatological vision, it also reflects a changing understanding of what that looks like. Here, in this letter, we hear a call for patience. Though it is cast in the form of a letter, the scholarly consensus is that this is a farewell address, a genre that tends to be pseudonymous. 

                One of the arguments against Petrine authorship is that it would appear that the author is highly literate. This author appears to be well-versed in Hellenistic terminology. As Duane Watson notes, the author “was skilled in the art of Greco-Roman rhetoric, especially Asiatic rhetoric, a flowery, verbose, and excessive rhetoric popular in the late first-century CE.” Besides, the author’s knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, suggests that “he was a strongly Hellenized Jewish Christian” [Watson, “The Second Letter of Peter,” New Interpreter’s Bible, 12:324]. That probably wasn’t St. Peter, the fisherman from Galilee. Nevertheless, it likely originated from a community that was committed to Peter’s vision of the Gospel.

                Knowing this context can help us better understand the message we find here. The apocalyptic element remains present in the letter, with the author speaking of the Lord coming “like a thief.” The author also suggests that the heavens will pass away and everything done on earth will be disclosed. There will be no hiding from the one who judges all. Despite the specificity of this message, the author also reveals that we don’t know when this will take place. After all, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years just a day in the eyes of God. This declaration reflects the words of the Psalmist who writes in Psalm 90: For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4). So, God isn’t slow, as some might suspect. Instead, God is patient, hoping that none will perish, and all will come to repentance.

                This word about God’s hope regarding the possibility that all will come to repentance is intriguing. Theologically, it is suggestive that God expects that all will come to the point of repentance and thus not perish. This message concerning God’s slowness to inaugurate the Day of the Lord, of course, stands in contrast to other texts for Advent that suggest immediacy. Consider the Gospel reading from Mark 1, which takes note of John the Baptists preaching a message of preparation for the coming of the one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. There is urgency in John’s message (Mk. 1:1-8). There is much less urgency here. Nevertheless, the author does call on the members of the community to lead holy and godly lives as they wait for and even hasten the coming day of the Lord. When that day comes, “the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved and the elements will melt with fire” (2 Peter 3:11-12). While this is suggestive of the idea that God’s creation will be annihilated rather than transformed, one need not embrace the annihilationist part of the message to embrace the word concerning God’s patience when it comes to the Day of the Lord.

                In fact, God desires that it’s better to wait if more people will be drawn into the realm of God than to jump the gun and leave lots of people on the outside looking in. What that looks like, the author doesn’t tell us. However, passages like this, even with the apocalyptic elements present, are suggestive of a possible universalistic reading. If God is patient in the hopes that all will return to God, then is that not good news? If we take a universalistic approach to the passage that doesn’t eliminate the call for repentance, it just extends the time for that to take place. What God desires is reconciliation.

                So, let us wait patiently, living our lives with holiness, in preparation for the Day of the Lord. The author fully expects that to happen but is aware that God’s timing is not ours. In the meantime, while we wait, the author encourages us to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or wrinkle, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Pet. 3:14-15b). Since we stand some two millennia after this was written, we should take comfort in God’s patience. In fact, God may need to be patient for a good deal longer!  

Image attribution: Marques de Oliveira, João. Waiting for the Boats, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56327 [retrieved November 28, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waiting_for_the_boats_(1892)_-_Marques_de_Oliveira_(1853-1927)_(16215690116).jpg.