Category: come sunday

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.

Awake, Awake, the Son of Man is Coming – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (Mark 13)

Mark 13:24-37 New
Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
24 “But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
 
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
 
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
 
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[b] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
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                The
ancient hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
(4th Century) sets a penitential tone for the season of Advent, which is an appropriate stance as we begin the journey of a new liturgical year:
               
Let all mortal flesh keep
silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
                Ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand Christ our God to earth descendeth,
                our full homage to demand.
                Advent is a penitential season.  It is a time to take stock of one’s life in preparation for the great festival to be held in the coming weeks.  It is a season of hope and expectation.  It is also a season where we begin to look at how faith is related to the facts of life and whether judgment is in store for us.  In other words, Advent is an eschatological season.
Mark 13, the gospel reading before us, is known as “The Little Apocalypse,” because of its similarity in tone to Revelation.  There is the sense that the coming of the Lord demands of us a certain fear and trembling. It requires that we be cognizant of our own resistance to the things of God.  It is a reminder that too often we fail to pay attention.  This first Sunday in Advent is, therefore, with Mark’s Gospel in hand, a wake-up call.  Yes, the Messiah is coming and not in a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.  So be prepared.
The reading begins ominously. The sun is darkened. The moon fails to give off light.  The stars are falling.  The moment before the coming of the Lord is one of pure darkness.  As I prepare this meditation I’m mindful of events that took place the evening prior, under the cover of darkness. A prosecutor chose to make an announcement that a grand jury voted no indictment on a police officer who shot and killed a young African American man.  We don’t know all the details.  They are fuzzy.  The way they have been set out is meant to keep things fuzzy.  The announcement stirred anger in the crowd, and some chose violence as a way to respond.  This is nothing new.  Violence is always an option.  Others chose nonviolent protests.  The choice of timing, of course, seems to many, myself included, to be craven.  The verdict could have been just easily read at 8 AM as at 8 PM.  But the prosecutor chose to issue the report at night when such a response could be predicted.  Why do we never learn?  Why do we try to hide under the cover of darkness?  With regard to Ferguson and Michael Brown, I, as a white, middle class, pastor, must first listen to the voices calling out for justice.  I may want to understand, but in many ways, I cannot.  So what is required of me is solidarity with those who grieve and mourn and suffer.
Apocalyptic texts like this one emerge out of similar feelings.  Mark writes either right before or soon after the great Jewish War that led to the
destruction of Jerusalem. Could it be that the reference to a time of suffering has in mind that reality?  Where is hope to be found in the midst of all of this destruction and grief?
               In this gospel reading Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man, an image that is lifted from Daniel 7:13.  The image is one of the Messiah coming riding on the clouds. We know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” as a self-appellation. The question is whether this mean to speak simply of his humanity, which he shares with us, or does it speak of something more?   Is this not a recognition that the people are crying out for a redeemer, one who will rescue them from the time of trial?  At the same time, Jesus speaks of this apocalyptic moment as one of a final verdict.  The Son of Man will come and gather the elect, the chosen ones, from the far winds.  Yes, this speaks of a final moment of gathering, much like the judgment scene spoken of in Matthew 25, the reading for Christ the King Sunday, just a week earlier.
                The greatest threat to justice and mercy is complacency.  We become immune to the cries of those suffering. We might not even hear them or understand the nature of the cry.  We fall asleep.  Our oil goes out.  We miss the sign of the fig tree, whose changing leaves signal a new day.  The signs suggest the time of deliverance and judgment is near at hand.  So will we be prepared?
There is only one problem – even if the signs are there, we don’t know the exact time and place of this coming of the Son of Man.  Not even the Son himself knows the exact time of this event.  If you know the exact time it is easy to be prepared.  Just set out your clothes, pack your bag, and set the alarm.  Then you can go to sleep knowing that when day breaks you will be ready.  But in the apocalyptic world, things don’t work that way.  You can’t predict time and place, even if certain figures have made a fortune on trying to make the prediction.  It makes for best-selling fiction, but in the end, proves unhelpful.  Why?  For one thing, it leads to disappointment.  The followers of William Miller found that out the hard way in the 1840s.  Besides, we can get hung up on details and miss the big picture.  So don’t get
caught trying to figure out what only God knows for sure.
In our context, it is better to see this as a call to always be ready for the Day of the Lord. I realize that this is not easy. It’s difficult to stay on high alert always.  It’s a ready recipe for burn out. You can do it for a while, but then you have to get some sleep.
Recognizing the challenges of remaining awake and alert, the word remains present with us – Don’t be found asleep when the day comes.  Don’t get complacent.  Don’t get too comfortable with your surroundings.  Instead, keep ready by being engaged in the word of God in the World. Seek justice and mercy wherever you go.  Listen for the cries of the suffering. This is our calling in the interim.  We all have our assignments, our callings, and it is to this work that we have been elected.
In hope we will continue to sing as the body of Christ:
O come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear.
                Rejoice, rejoice!
                Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!    

Belonging to the Daylight – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24A (1 Thessalonians 5)

 

 

 

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version

 

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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                The Day of the Lord, when Christ returns (Parousia), for his people (1 Thess.4:13-18), will come without warning, just like a thief in the night. The analogy Paul uses here of the thief coming in the night is well-known in
certain circles that insist that we are living in the last days. The reference has apocalyptic elements, which were developed for full effect in a movie by that title made back in the 1970s with the title A Thief in the Night that proved rather popular (strangely enough, I don’t remember seeing it).

                Paul uses this image of a thief coming in the night because it catches one’s eye. We understand the implications. If you know when the thief is going to strike, you will be ready. Of course, thieves don’t give warnings. They don’t call ahead to tell us the time and location they intend to make their entry. They also don’t generally come during the day (bank robbers are not in view here), because they could easily be seen. At night, they can wear dark clothing and skulk about in the shadows. When they find a weak spot, they can get in and out without anyone knowing the difference (unless you have a very effective security system that wasn’t available in the first century). At least that’s how it works in the movies! The image, therefore, underscores the unexpected nature of Jesus’ return.

                What we read here is a continuation of the message Paul delivered in 1Thessalonians 4:13-18. In that reading, Paul gives us a few details about what the moment of Christ’s return would look like. On that day, Jesus will return in the clouds and the dead in Christ will rise first, after which the believers who are alive will join them for the grand procession. Paul offered that message as a word of encouragement to a community worried about those who had died before the Day of the Lord. While Jesus might come as a thief in the night, without warning, Paul wants the Thessalonian believers to be ready when that moment comes.

                One must be ready  for the sudden appearance of Jesus, like in the thief in the night, but believers should live in the light as children of the day and not the night. The assumption here is that evil takes place under the cover of darkness when things go bump in the night. Keep in mind that the action in most horror movies under the cover of darkness. There is a clear dualism at work here, with light and darkness, day and night, contrasted. Thus, daylight is when we are awake, but we sleep at night. Here, we’re not supposed to sleep. The night is also the time when people get drunk. Believers, on the other hand, are supposed to be sober,
not drunk.   

                What Paul is doing here is reinforcing the apocalyptic message he had earlier delivered. He has offered them a word of encouragement concerning the dead in Christ (they will rise first). However, Paul is concerned that in the interim, they might grow complacent. If this happens then they could easily fall back into old Gentile habits (living in the night). That concern is revealed in Paul’s reference to those who speak of “peace and security,” a watchword of the Empire, which placed those words on some of its coins. This may be the message of the Empire, but Paul warns against taking it to heart because to do so leads to destruction. Paul uses the metaphor here of a pregnant woman whose labor pains come without warning. When they begin, there is no going back. The same is true of the coming of the Lord. So, don’t get complacent. Be ready!

                All of this is rooted in Jewish apocalyptic though, which offers a dualism of light and darkness, earthly realm versus the heavenly realm. As George Parsenios notes, “the hostility between the two realms is most obvious in Paul’s use of the imagery of armor in verse 8. This armor, though, is also the basis of the Thessalonians escape from judgment because the helmet that arms them is the ‘hope of salvation.’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 305]. The reference to armor is similar, but not as developed as that found in Ephesians 6:10-17. It should be noted that this armor is not something we choose, but is something received. In any case, Paul is preparing them for spiritual warfare that includes salvation that is received through Christ who died for us. As we hear this message of spiritual warfare, it’s worth noting that, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write: “Given the fervor for supporting national wars that sometimes uncritically sweeps through Christian communities, it is worth noting that the breastplate and helmet are to protect the wearer and are not instruments of killing” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 101].

                While the Day of the Lord will come, according to Paul, the Thessalonians, if they keep alert and stay in relationship with Jesus, they will receive the gift of salvation. They will not be subject to God’s wrath, God’s judgment. It is good to remember as Allen and Williamson remind us, this apocalyptic message isn’t a “pie in the sky” sentiment. For Apocalyptic theologians, like Paul, the Day of the Lord was understood to be the means by which “God would set things right for people who had been denied blessing in the present evil age—for example, the poor, the enslaved, those who suffered injustice and violence” [Preaching the Letters, p. 101]. We might not embrace a full apocalyptic vision, but we must recognize the need for God to set things right, lest we not take seriously the realities of our age. For those of us who have universalist tendencies, we need to be careful that we don’t deny the possibility of God’s judgment. To do so might lead to the belief that there are no ultimate consequences of our actions.  

                Even as the previous reading from chapter 4 concluded with a call to encourage one another with this message, so does this portion. Paul wants them to encourage one another and build each other up with this message that believers are not destined for wrath but for salvation in Christ who died for us. With that, we can know that whether awake or asleep we will ultimately live with him, for as we learned in chapter 4, Jesus will gather us up. The challenge here, especially for Christians living in the United States, we must be careful not to receive

The Crown of Glory – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22A (1 Thessalonians 2)

 

1 Thessalonians 2:9-20  New Revised Standard Version

9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus, they have
constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has
overtaken them at last.

17 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Yes, you are our glory and joy!

 

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                Paul speaks to the Thessalonians as a father speaks to his children (vs. 11). What we are tasked by the Lectionary to read/reflect upon here (vs. 9-13) is a continuation of the reading from the previous week, where Paul revealed that God had entrusted the gospel to them (Paul and companions). Thus, the reading here reinforces the earlier message concerning their mission in Thessalonica and beyond. Paul affirms their being witnesses, along with God, of the diligence with which Paul and his companions proclaimed the Gospel in Thessalonica. As noted in the opening verses of the chapter, Paul reminded them that he and his companions hadn’t proclaimed the gospel with false motives or out of concern for financial gain. They didn’t even take advantage of their rights as apostles (vs. 5-7). In other words, they weren’t hirelings. They were servants of God’s mission in the world.  

                As noted, the Revised Common Lectionary limits the reading for the week to verses 9-13. It’s understandable that verses 14-16 are omitted (there are unfortunate words regarding the Jews), but it seemed to be important to take a look at the remainder of the chapter to better understand Paul’s words here in verses 9-13.

The centerpiece of this week’s reading is the nature of the Gospel proclamation. Paul commends the Thessalonians for receiving their message not as a human word, but as the word of God. In describing their message as a divine rather than human word, Paul isn’t implying that their message was somehow inerrant or infallible (these categories are rather modern and thus not something Paul would have even considered). Rather they were speaking to their belief that God’s word had been made known in Thessalonica through their ministry. In other words, God speaks through human voices and words. There is good news here. The word has been heard and embraced by some (that’s the locus of the selected reading), but there is also opposition (the remainder of the chapter). Both exist and must be addressed. In the end, however, Paul commends them as being his crown when Jesus returns.

                The concept of the “word of God” is problematic. That’s because too often this phrase is applied solely to Scripture, when in fact the phrase is used in multiple ways. First and foremost, the term Word (Gk. Logos) is used in reference to Jesus, who is understood to be the Word (Logos) of God incarnate (Jn.1:1-14). In several places in the Book of Acts, the phrase is used in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel. That is the case here, where Paul has in mind the act of preaching/proclamation. The variety of ways this phrased is used has led me to embrace Karl Barth’s well-known articulation of the principle of the “three-fold Word of God.” As I’ve noted in a book on this question, Barth has proven very helpful in my own theological journey. Barth writes in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics

Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together. [Church Dogmatics, 1:1:52].

Of course, Barth, and I assume Paul would agree, recognizes that not all preaching reflects God’s message. However, both men recognize that God can speak through human messengers, and thus preaching can be a conduit of God’s word.  

                Having made this clear, speaking as a father to his children, Paul urges the readers to live lives worthy of God, “who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (vs. 12). This is a good place to pause and note that while Paul places great emphasis on God’s grace received by faith, he is also concerned about conduct (behavior), which might be understood as works. Therefore, he gives thanks that the Thessalonians received their word as the word of God and that this word is at work in their midst.

                Having taken note of this gracious word on Paul’s part, we now must take note of a most problematic word concerning the Jews. In verses 14-16 Paul commends them for being imitators of the churches in Judea who had suffered persecution from “the Jews,” even as they were suffering similarly.  We need to remember that contextually Paul understands his message being directed at reaching Gentiles. He finds any interference in that work problematic (at the very least). This leads to an unfortunate rebuke of his fellow Jews, who had opposed the Churches in Judea and had done the same in Thessalonica. If we remember that this letter was written several decades before the Book of Acts, we might want to take note of Acts 17, where Luke tells us of Paul and Silas’ visit to Thessalonica. In that passage, Paul is said to go and preach in the synagogue concerning Jesus. While some followed Paul, along with devout Greeks and leading women, “the Jews became jealous,” and along with some ruffians in the community attacked Jason for hosting them. That led Paul to head off to Berea and then Athens. This might be what Paul is referring to, but we can’t be certain.

                Living in a post-Shoah world, where the murder of millions of Jews along with others, has forced the church to be attentive to texts that have been and can be used to justify persecution and even murder of Jews. In a sidebar in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we read this reminder: “These verses present a succinct summary of classical Christian anti-Judaism: the Jews killed Jesus, persecuted his followers, and threw them out of the synagogues; they are xenophobic and sinners, and God has rejected and punished them. The harshness of these words raises questions about Paul’s attitude toward his fellow Jews” [Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 374].

There have been suggestions among scholars that this sounds less like Paul and more like a later Gentile scribal insertion. While that makes some sense, especially since it doesn’t fit well with what Paul writes in Romans 9-11, where he affirms that God has not rejected the Jewish people. The problem with this suggestion is that there is no textual support for such a conclusion. In any case, whether these are Paul’s words or not, unfortunately, the damage has been done and the passage can be and has been used to justify anti-Jewish views and behavior. It would seem that Paul is trying to encourage his spiritual children to persevere in the face of
opposition and even persecution. Contextually, this might be understandable when one is in a minority position. However, in a different context, when Jews are the minority voice, this can be dangerous.

                Having commended them for hearing and embracing their message as God’s word to them, and having encouraged them as they experience persecution, the chapter closes with Paul letting the community know that he wants to visit them. Unfortunately, Satan had blocked their way time and again. The reference to Satan’s interference reminds us that Paul viewed the world in supernaturalist/apocalyptic terms.  As John Byron notes: “Although Paul does not explain what Satan did to hinder him, he has an acute sense that his freedom of movement was curtailed, and viewing the situation on a supernatural level, determined that Satan was interfering with the seen world.” [Benjamin E. Reynolds. The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (p. 249). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition]. Despite the supernatural interference (however that transpired), Paul celebrates their faith. They are his hope and joy, and the “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming.” That is, when Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, Paul can stand before Jesus and point to them as being his crown of glory and joy!  

Turning from Idols to Serve God – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A (1 Thessalonians 1)

 

Statue of Jupiter-Germanicus’ Tomb – Ashmolean

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the
Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

 

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                The ancient Greco-Roman World offered many religious options. Gods were plentiful, and the people indulged in serving them. Jews were a peculiar people since they only worshiped one God, considering all others to be mere idols. The Jesus movement, which was rooted in Judaism, embraced the same view of the many religious options present in their world. That made them rather peculiar as well. The difference between the two was the Jesus Movement was more assertive in its outreach to their Gentile neighbors. Over time that would cause problems for them. When we open Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, we’re taken back to the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. It is the consensus view that this is Paul’s earliest letter, making it the earliest book in the New Testament. If, as is likely, it was written from Corinth around 50 or 51 CE, we are within two decades of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem and subsequent birth of the church on Pentecost. As we know, Paul made Gentiles the focus of his ministry. He might go first to the synagogue, but he was more interested in spreading the gospel to those outside the Jewish community. That of course, led to some conflict between those who embraced the message of Jesus and those who didn’t.

                In these opening lines of Paul’s letter, we hear a word of commendation and encouragement to people who have embraced the message of Jesus as delivered by Paul. They have even become known for their commitment to this message. As for the letter itself, it is written by Paul, together with his companions Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy. The mention made here of Silas is a clue that this was written after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) when Silas replaced Barnabas as Paul’s companion.  As he often does, Paul writes that he always gives thanks for them in his prayers. These are his people, and he cares about them. Paul also records that they had received a Gospel message that came not only in words but also in the power of the Holy Spirit. He also notes that their reception of the Gospel was due to have been chosen by God. For Paul, conversion always begins with God’s initiative. That doesn’t require some form of predestination, only God’s initiative. Regarding the role of the Spirit, what he has in mind here isn’t clear but suggests that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. 

                The church to whom the letter was written inhabited a major Roman city situated in the province of Macedonia. Thessalonica served as the capital of the province and was a port city, making it not only a governmental center but also a commercial center. Thus, like Corinth, Thessalonica was quite cosmopolitan, drawing residents from across the empire and beyond. It was also a city that was known for its many religious options, including the imperial cult (it was a Roman colony after all), along with Egyptian gods, as well as the cult of Cabrius. This figure supposedly had died and had risen from the dead, which sounds a lot like Jesus. Thus, as William Brosend notes, “when Paul praises the addresses for ‘how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess. 1:9), he knew that they had made a choice with many alternatives” [Preacher’sBible Handbook, p. 302]. That reality may explain much that goes on in our reading.

                Paul commends them for their steadfastness in faith and for imitating him, as well as his companions, along with the Lord. He speaks of them joyfully receiving the message as inspired by the Holy Spirit so that the “word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia,” as well as every place their faith had been made known. This despite facing persecution. Though the persecution they were facing probably wasn’t legal or violent but entailed resistance to the message. What is clear from the letter as a whole, that it has an overtly eschatological feel. It’s not as prominent here in this first chapter, but as one moves into the letter it gets stronger. He writes with the presumption that Christ should be returning at any moment, and because they had received the word of God, Jesus would rescue them from the “wrath to come.”

                Getting back to their reception of the Gospel message, it seems apparent that the audience of Paul’s letter was a community largely made up of Gentile Christians. Although Paul had begun his ministry in Thessalonica in the synagogue (Acts 17:1-9), it appears from Acts that Paul didn’t get a very positive reception there. Evidence that the community was largely Gentile Christians is revealed in verse nine, where Paul commends them for having “turned to God from idols.” This isn’t something that Paul would have said to Jewish Christians but would make sense when applied to converts from a pagan context. As noted above, Thessalonica offered many religious options for them to choose from. As for them, they had chosen to “serve the true and living God.” Now, they await the coming of the Son of the true and living God, who is coming from heaven (the eschatological dimension), and whom the true and living God raised from the dead. This Jesus rescues the believer from the wrath to come (judgment day). As Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring note, this message represents the “traditional Jewish missionary message of the one God over against pagan idols, the God whose ethical seriousness is manifest in that he will bring all human beings to a final judgment.” They also note that the Jewish monotheistic message attractive to many in the Hellenistic world. As for the Christian proclamation, rooted in this Jewish message, “the living God is the one definitively manifest in Jesus, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the one through whom God saves at the final judgment.” [People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 639]. While in the modern era, the idea of judgment along with the wrath of God is not well received, this message does make clear the power of an ethical message that insists humans will be held accountable. 

                While the reading ends with the word wrath, the message is one of joy because God has provided a new way of living that is rooted in Jesus rather than dead idols. He commends them for the way they have embodied the message of Jesus so that all of Macedonia and Achaea has heard the message. 

                As we attend to this word from Paul, what is its message for us? If we hear in this a call to turn from idols to God, what idols might we contend with? What is it that we worship instead of God? How does serving these idols affect our relationships with one another and with creation itself? To whom or to what do I give my allegiance? Is it my whiteness? My economic situation? Is it a particular politician or political party (this is election season after all)? What about my being a citizen of the United States? In asking that question, I’m glad I am a citizen of the United States, but does it have the ultimate claim on my life? I wrote a book on the Lord’s Prayer that I titled Ultimate Allegiance because I believe that this prayer repeated by Christians around the globe is itself a pledge of allegiance to God and God’s realm. Whatever I give allegiance to rather than to God and God’s realm, then that becomes my idol. May we join with the Thessalonian believers and turn from our idols and serve the true and living God.

                 

               

Proper Confidence – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18A (Philippians 3)

4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:4b-14 New Revised Standard Version

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                When we read this passage, it is good to remember that Paul is in prison and that he’s already comfortable with the possibility of his death. “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21 KJV). Nevertheless, he believes that it is right for him to go on living for the sake of the beloved community. So, status means nothing to him, or so it seems. To further ground that sentiment, Paul has made it clear that the way of Christ requires humility, for Christ, though in the form of God, thought it not necessary to hold on to that status, but instead took human form and died on the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). Nevertheless, no matter what happens to him, he holds on to the promise of resurrection, which is expressed in the hymn of praise to Christ, whom God exalted (Phil. 2:9-11). Whether alive or dead, what matters most is the gospel. In fact, Paul has made it clear that his current predicament (imprisonment) has helped spread the gospel (Phil. 1:12). Therefore, Paul has asked his readers to live lives worthy of the Gospel (Phil. 1:27).

Having made it clear that living for Jesus in a way that manifests the gospel is his greatest concern, Paul now moves on to the goal of life, and that would be the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). I titled this reflection “Proper Confidence,” because Paul makes it clear where he puts his confidence.  Right at the beginning of the letter, Paul declares: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Here Paul follows his exposition of the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 but revealing the status he is willing to let go of to be a follower of Jesus. He puts no confidence in the flesh, or markers on the flesh, including circumcision (and he has been circumcised). He has the right to put his confidence in the flesh. After all, he can claim to have been circumcised on the eighth day, is a member of the nation of Israel, and more specifically the tribe of Benjamin. He’s a Hebrews of Hebrews. When it comes to the law, he’s a Pharisee. When it comes to zeal, he was a persecutor of the church. Not only is he a Pharisee when it comes to the law, but regarding the law he’s blameless. I take that to mean that he follows it closely.  But, apparently, none of that matters to him now because he has found rest for his soul (to borrow a bit from Augustine) in Christ his Lord. In fact, that is all that matters to him, for in Christ Paul has found the culmination of the covenant promises that go back through Moses to Abraham.  

                In chapter 2, Paul broaches the concept of kenosis (emptying). Now, it appears that just as Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives, Paul is doing the same concerning his own status as a Hebrew among Hebrews in the cause of Christ. Though he’s ready to give up these symbols of his status as a Jew, that doesn’t mean he’s rejecting his origins or the covenant promises that are embedded in Judaism. Rather, he no longer puts his confidence in these identity markers. Thus, he lives by faith not by law, for his confidence is placed in Christ and not in his religious affiliations.

                When we read a passage like this, it ought to cause us to examine our search for status. Paul has given up all the status markers that he had inherited and earned. What are mine—My education? My ordination? My gender? My race?  My American citizenship? Here’s the thing, society accredits to me a certain status because I am a White male. That is true as well of my American citizenship. Then there’s my education and ordination. Letting go of these markers of status is not easy. Some of these markers are the accident of birth—my race and gender. Other markers are earned (education and ordination). However, if I understand Paul’s message here, none of that matters. I needn’t feel bad about my identity. I don’t have to reject or diminish my identity. However, in the end, what matters is Christ. He defines who I am as a human being.

That being said, I must add the caveat, because gender and my Whiteness do accrue to me certain benefits. I can try to let go of them, but because they are so rooted in systems, I will still be accorded benefits that persons are not White or male will not be automatically accorded. In other words, I don’t have to worry about being pulled over by the police simply because of race. So, to put it bluntly, while I can put my hope in the heavenly call of God, here on earth, I must acknowledge that all lives will not matter until Black lives matter.

That leads us back to Paul’s proper confidence, which he places in Christ, who is the hope of his own resurrection. He can let go of his privileges because he knows that he is alive in Christ. So, the hope of the resurrection defines his identity. But wait a minute, notice the way Paul phrases his declaration. He uses athletic imagery. He’s pressing forward, like a runner (I’d suggest a long-distance runner rather than a sprinter) in pursuit of the prize. The fact is, to be a good athlete one must make sacrifices. One has to train, and that means giving up certain things. Paul also understands that one cannot rest until the race is over. Thus, as John Chrysostom suggests:

Thus too we should act, we should forget our successes, and throw them behind us. For the runner reckons not up how many circuits he hath finished, but how many are left. We too should reckon up, not how far we are advanced in virtue, but how much remains for us. For what doth that which is finished profit us, when that which is deficient is not added?”

 [John Chrysostom, “Homily XII,” NPNF]  

Image attribution: Resurrection of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56588 [retrieved September 27, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0000_Mosaics_of_Resurrection_of_Christ.JPG – Eugenio Hansen, OFS.

God’s Irrevocable Covenant – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11A (Romans 11)

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion — Art Institute of Chicago


Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 New Revised Standard Version

11 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.  

29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

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One of the many stains on Christian history is the ongoing presence of anti-Judaism. I use this term instead of anti-Semitism because this term has racial connotations that are modern in origin. Over the years I’ve become increasingly sensitized to the legacy of anti-Jewish views in the church. We can argue whether this is rooted in the New Testament itself or its interpretation through the ages, the fact is, it continues to be present in our churches, even in scholarly efforts. The readings from Romans 9-11 allow us to reflect on this legacy. That is especially true of this reading from Romans 11, which, in my mind, makes clear that Christianity has not replaced Judaism and that God’s covenant with Judaism continues unabated. Therefore, we must repent of this legacy and seek to do everything we can to change the way we relate to the Jewish community.
In the reading from Romans 9, which we examined earlier, Paul expressed his anguish that his Jewish siblings had not embraced the message of Jesus. Even as he preached the Gospel to Gentiles, he hoped that Jews would join him. That reading can give us the impression that God had dissolved the covenant with Israel, but in today’s reading, we discover that this is a wrong impression. Paul might have wished that all Jews took up the cause of Jesus, as he had, but in the end, he must admit that God has not rejected God’s people Israel. This, Romans 11 is an important witness to God’s commitment to the covenant made first with Abraham and later with Moses.
The lectionary provides us with two excerpts from Romans 11. The first excerpt encompasses the opening verses of the chapter. Paul asks a rhetorical question: “has God rejected his people?” He answers that question in the negative by noting his own relationship to Judaism. God hasn’t rejected him, so God hasn’t rejected Israel. He lays claim to the covenant promise as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, and more specifically as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. In other words, he has done his genealogical work. He lays claim to this heritage. So, whatever happened on the road to Damascus, Paul didn’t convert from Judaism to Christianity (Christianity didn’t exist yet as a separate entity). He was a Jew both before and after that encounter with Jesus. If Paul was already intent on converting Gentiles to his vision of God, then what changed out there on the road to Damascus was his understanding of the path Gentiles would take in experiencing salvation. While Paul sees himself tasked with preaching to Gentiles, no doubt he was hoping that both Jews and Gentiles would be found in this newly emerging Jesus community. The issue isn’t whether the Torah has value. The question is whether adherence to aspects of Torah, such as circumcision was necessary for Gentile believers.
When we read Paul’s letters, we discover his dilemma. He wanted to reach Gentiles and draw them into the new community. He seems to have understood that circumcision may have impeded full conversion. So, he set it aside, though not everyone in the community agreed. Thus, in his attempts to defend himself he gave the impression that he had rejected Judaism. While there are mixed messages in his letters, Paul makes it clear in this passage that he was not rejecting his Jewish heritage. Perhaps the problem isn’t with Paul but in the way his later interpreters have read him?
As we drop down to the second part of the reading, verses 29-32, the message that Paul brings is that God’s covenant promises are irrevocable. It can’t be any clearer. That’s a message we need to hold tightly to. We should step back one verse, though to get a true sense of what Paul is doing here. In verse 28 he writes:   As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; . . . .” This word comes after Paul has already declared in verse 26 that all Israel will be saved. So, what does Paul mean here? Sarah Heaner Lancaster puts her finger on the issue at hand, pointing out that Israel can be God’s enemy and God’s beloved at the same time, because in “refusing to acknowledge the way God is working in Jesus Christ, Israel does not give honor to God, and so they are ‘enemies’ of God.”  But, because, as we read in verse 29, God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable, “God honors the covenant with the patriarchs. The chosen people have always been and always will be beloved. Although God used their refusal for the sake of the Gentiles, God will not forsake Israel” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 198]. It may seem rather complicated, but God will be faithful to the covenant, even if the rejection of Jesus by a majority of Jews spurred on Paul’s mission, God will stay true to the covenant.
The good news is that Gentiles get to share in the salvation of God. We also (speaking as a Gentile) have been included in the covenant people through Jesus. So, even if we stray or become disobedient, God is merciful and gracious. That might not always sit well with us, any more than it sat well with Paul’s opponents. But that is the way of God who has been revealed to us in and through Jesus.
The lectionary reading ends with verse 32, but as Sarah Heaner Lancaster points out, the verses that follow contain a hymn that celebrates the difference between our ways and God’s ways. Thus, “the grandness of God exceeds anything that we may know, and we are not in a position to understand the mind of God or the ways God achieves God’s purposes. The richness of God is the genuine mystery” [Lancaster, Romans, pp. 199-200]. So, I close with that hymn:

  O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?” 

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.  (Rom. 11:33-36).

 

Room for Doubt — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10A (Matthew 14)

Matthew 14:22-33 —New Revised Standard Version

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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Our reading this week from the Gospel of Matthew is one that would have caught the attention of David Hume. Hume was a skeptic. He didn’t trust anything he hadn’t experienced himself or had it on good authority of someone he trusted having a particular experience. He was open to new truths, they just had to be provable. Therefore, he would have had trouble with a story about someone walking on water. He would ask us to consider the likelihood of someone walking on water. Have you either walked on water yourself or seen someone walk on water? No, he didn’t trust the testimony of a two-thousand-year-old book.

So, if you’ve never seen someone walk on water then how can you believe that either Jesus or Peter did so? Now, Hume might agree that in their fear the disciples could have projected an image of Jesus walking on the water, but would that be enough to get Peter, who had never walked on water (assuming that humans don’t walk on water), out of the boat on trying to walk himself? Surely, if he tried, as soon as he put his foot outside the boat he would have sunk. Therefore, Hume would conclude this was all a myth. It might have metaphorical value but not historical value.

 This story is one of the best known in the Gospels. It has permeated our cultural mindset so that when too much is asked of us, we ask why people think we can walk on water. After all, we’re not divine beings (and Hume was skeptical about the existence of divine beings), so why should we be expected to walk on water? Of course, some, less skeptical types, have used the text to beat folks over the head for their lack of faith and unwillingness to “get out of the boat.” Years ago, when I was teaching theology at a bible college in Kansas, this story seemed to be a “favorite” of our chapel speakers. These speakers tended to be youth ministers who appealed to the story to call on the students, (and I suppose, we professors as well) to get out of the boat. Don’t doubt, don’t resist God, but get out of the boat and join me in whatever it is I think is the most important concern at the moment.

                Of the two options above, I’d probably side with Hume. After all, isn’t there a place for a little doubt and even skepticism in the life of faith? So, granting that I’ve never seen anyone walk on water, and thus can’t prove the validity of the story, how might we receive this story? We might start by remembering that in the ancient world the sea was often symbolic of chaos and danger (note the storm that shook even this group full of experienced fishermen). Jesus comes to them as the one who has power over the chaos (walks on the waters) and then calms them. Though fearful at first, once Peter recognizes Jesus, he wants to get out of the boat and join Jesus on the water. It’s true, Peter could be impulsive, but at least for a moment, his faith overcame his fear.

                After Peter got out of the boat, he began to sense the power of the wind whipping around him. At that moment, he forgot he was actually walking on water. With his focus now on the wind, he lost his focus on Jesus and began to sink. How often is this true for us? We begin to focus on the noise around us, get distracted by it, and lose our focus on Jesus.

                Yes, Peter began to have his doubts. I expect given the situation, I would have my doubts. I might act impulsively at first, and then realize I hadn’t thought this thing through. I probably would sink as well.

               So, Peter had his doubts, which leads Jesus to ask him why he had so little faith? I think Jesus might have been a little harsh with him, but the question is a good one for us. How much faith is enough? Is a little faith sufficient? If we are saved, that is made whole, through grace, which we receive through faith, how much do we need? Perhaps the good news here is not whether Peter had enough faith, but whether Jesus is willing to embrace us no matter the level of our faith. Remember that Jesus doesn’t leave Peter floundering in the water. He pulls him up and into the boat. If the waves and the winds of this story represent the challenges of our lives, it’s possible that we will step out on faith, flounder, and require a little help from the one who is present with us by the Spirit and calms the waters of life.

                Do we all experience a bit of doubt in life? Do we lose focus? Do we have questions that require answers? Yes to all of these questions, which are important ones. In the end, the question is not whether we doubt, but whether it causes debilitating injury to our souls. When that happens, we need the salvific healing presence of God, which comes to us, Paul says in confessing Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9).  As for the disciples who stayed in the boat, once Jesus calmed the waters and joined them, they bowed in worship and confess “Truly you are the Son of God.”

                Perhaps we can hear in this story a reminder that despite the possibility of doubt, we can step out in faith. We can take some risks. We may sink, but Jesus is there to catch us. At this moment when the winds of change are whipping around us, a bit of doubt-filled risk-taking might be needed. So, maybe those impetuous youth ministers who liked this story were on to something!

Picture attribution: Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937. Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55904 [retrieved August 5, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ossawa_Tanner,_The_Disciples_See_Christ_Walking_on_the_Water,_c._1907.jpg.

 

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.