Category: Eastertide

True Love – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4B (1 John

1 John 3:16-24 New Revised Standard Version

1We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

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                We can sing with gusto “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” but if we pay attention
to the polls the world isn’t so sure about that. Instead, the polls say that we Christians are better known for narrowness, hypocrisy, nationalism, bigotry, etc. While I might wish this wasn’t true, it’s hard to ignore the evidence. Of course, Christianity isn’t monolithic. There are Christians who are loving, compassionate, open-minded, gracious. I’m hopeful that I am counted among those kinds of Christians. Yes, I hope that I’m known to be a Christian because of my love.

                When we come to the second reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a reading from 1 John 3, we’re told that Jesus shows us what it means to love others. According to John, Jesus expressed his love for others by laying down his life for us. As Mr. Spock told Jim Kirk, after going into the reactor room to save the ship at the cost of his own life, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Of course, in the next movie Spock is resurrected (do you see a pattern), but the point is well taken. That is what John would have us do as God’s children (1 John 3:1).

                John points us to the cross and tells us that Jesus’ death on the cross expresses God’s love for the world. But, in lifting up Jesus as our example, that doesn’t mean John envisions us all dying. Death is not the only way we can lay down our lives for others. What John wants us to hear is that to love is to concern ourselves with the needs of others. So, if we see someone in need, then love requires us to act. If we do this, then we demonstrate that God’s love abides
in us.

                John knows that it’s easy to say “I love you.” In fact, it’s easy to sing “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” but that doesn’t mean we have loved as Jesus would have us love. That is because love is more than words and feelings. As John puts it, love involves truth and actions. Love has something to do with truth and with action.

                When it comes to truth, we seem to be living in a post-truth era. Many have embraced the idea of “alternative facts.” As a result, many have embraced dangerous conspiracy theories. This is especially true for parts of the Christian community. If facts don’t matter then why bother checking things out. Just go to your favorite website or TV “news” host, and embrace their message. Unfortunately, this can have deadly ramifications, as we are seeing now with the anti-mask and anti-vax movements that have taken root within parts of the Christian community. As a result, the pandemic has spread more widely and more people die as a result—all in the name of faith.

                Love involves truth (not alternative facts or conspiracy theories). It also involves actions. As they way actions speak louder than words. Love is more than words; it involves investing our lives in the lives of others. So, for instance, I may not enjoy wearing a mask, but I wear it not only because it might protect me, but it also protects my neighbor, whom I called by God to love (Lev. 19:18). What John says here about love parallels what James says about faith. That is
because James believes faith without works is dead (James 2:14-17).

                So, how do we know if we truly love? John believes that our consciences will prove useful on this account. He writes that “if our hearts do not condemn us,” then we can have boldness before God. That clear conscience and boldness come as a result of our obedience to God’s commandments. It would seem that John envisions the relationship between God and God’s people as being reciprocal. In other words, it’s a real relationship that brings us together with God in a way that is transformative.

                As for God’s commands, we can really narrow things down to just two items. First, believe in the name of Jesus. That is, entrust your life to Jesus. It’s not simply believing the right things, though to believe does require content, it’s a commitment to following Jesus. We see this command laid out in Deuteronomy, where the people are told to love God with their entire being, body, soul, and spirit (Deut. 6:4-6). Secondly, we’re told in Leviticus to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:18). What Jesus did is bring the two commands together. There wasn’t anything new here, except the link between the two, which serves as the pathway to salvation (Mk. 12:28-31; Lk 10:25-28).  Here in the letter, we see John trying to keep belief and compassion together. We might think it’s possible to separate them, but in reality, they are inseparable. That’s because what we believe about Jesus says something about how and what we love. The opposite is also true. What we love is what we believe.

                So, to believe and to love in truth and action, as laid out here in 1 John, is to abide in Christ. This occurs by and through the work of the Holy Spirit.  As the hymn suggests: “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, God with me abide; when other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me” [Henry Lyte, 1847, Chalice Hymnal p. 636).  

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

Love is the Only Solution, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56342 [retrieved April 18, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/5653108193 – Thomas Hawk.

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.

Walking in the Light of God – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2B (1 John 1-2)

1 John 1:1-2:2  New Revised Standard Version

 

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him, there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.  

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

 

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                Jesus has risen from the dead. That is the good news we proclaimed once again on Easter Sunday. We will continue to celebrate that message until we reach Pentecost Sunday (though in reality, we should celebrate the resurrection every Sunday and not just during one season of the year). The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter takes us to the story of Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ. He won’t believe the message of the resurrection until he sees Jesus for himself. Thomas gets his wish. As for the rest of us, Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn. 20:19-31).

                As a reflection of what we read in the Gospel of John, the reading from 1 John, which accompanies the reading from the Gospel (the epistle readings for Year B come from 1 John—see my book The Letters of John: A Participatory Study Guide for more background on this letter). In this epistle, or perhaps better, this sermon, the author of 1 John writes: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1). This is the word to those of us, who, unlike Thomas, do not have the benefit of a personal visitation from the risen Christ. We might not have the opportunity to see or to touch him in the way Thomas is said to have experienced the resurrection. Nevertheless, we can receive this testimony offered by the author of John and in believing it, we can receive the eternal
life that God has for those who believe. Having received the testimony, the admonition is to walk in the light, as God is light.

                Regarding this letter that looks more like a sermon or an essay than a letter, we know not its author or the date of its creation. Tradition connects it with John, son of Zebedee. It is presumed by tradition to share its authorship with the author of the Gospel of John. It does have similarities in style and vocabulary. We cannot know any of this for sure, but it likely comes from the same community that produced the Gospel. 

                This is the message that the author wants to pass on to the community: “God is light and in him there is no
darkness at all” (vs. 5). Not only is God light, but “if we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (vs. 6). On the other hand, “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (vs. 7). John connects God’s identity as light to our walk of faith. Fellowship is dependent on walking in the light of Christ. As Charles Couser points out, that ‘light’ is not a cosmic or intellectual symbol but is clearly an ethical one.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 397]. We are called upon to walk in the light, but John is realistic. He understands that we are likely to sin and fall short of what it means to walk in the light. In fact, if we say we do not sin, then we lie. But, if While sin is likely to occur, they will be cleansed from sin through the blood of Jesus. John seems to understand that sin is likely to occur because he tells the reader that if we say we do not sin, we lie, but if we confess our sins, that is, we’re honest about who we are, then we will be forgiven.  

                When it comes to sin, John wants to encourage his readers to pursue a life without sin. That should be our goal, to live in perfect harmony with the will of God. However, sin is likely to persist. So, this call to live a life without sin is aspirational. Now, John, at least to this point in the sermon, hasn’t defined sin, but we can use our own definitions of sin to interpret the message here.

                Although John is realistic about our propensity to sin, he does offer a solution to our problem with sin. When it comes to the propensity to sin, we are told that we have an advocate, a defense attorney, who will speak on our behalf. The Greek word translated here as “advocate” is parakletos. It’s the same word that appears in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of the coming of the Spirit (Jn.16:7-11). In this case, the author of the letter uses parakletos to describe the work Jesus engages in as our advocate when charged with a propensity to sin. Not only does Jesus serve as our advocate, but he is also the atoning sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the entire world (1 Jn 2:1-2). Even as John doesn’t define what he means by sin, he doesn’t define atonement (Gk. Hilasmos). It’s unlikely that John has in mind here a form of penal substitution. Quite possibly he has in mind the idea that was prominent in Jewish literature of the era, in which the intercession of martyrs on behalf of the people might bring forgiveness (2 Maccabees 12:39-45). There is nothing here about the death of Jesus placating an angry God. What he does assume is that Jesus’ death on the cross mediates to us God’s forgiveness, doing so as our intercessor/advocate. He does this not for us only, but for the kosmos as well. Thanks be to God! And let us also walk in the light, even as God is light!

 

LeCompte, Rowan and Irene LeCompte. Christ shows himself to Thomas, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54879 [retrieved April 4, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maryannsolari/5119341372/.

                              

Give Your Anxiety to God — A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 7A (1 Peter 4-5)

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

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                Our journey through Easter is coming to a close. Pentecost is on the horizon. Preachers and congregations have choices this week. They can go with Ascension Sunday texts or they can continue with the Eastertide texts. If one chooses to stay with Eastertide, the Seventh Sunday of Easter offers us one final opportunity to engage with the letter we know as 1 Peter. Considering the moment in which we’re living, perhaps 1 Peter is a good text to stay with. Eastertide is supposed to be a season of triumph and glory. It offers us continuing opportunities to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection. The presence of the resurrection is not as evident as it is in other readings from 1 Peter, but Peter does point our attention towards the future when the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and the current moments of suffering will meet their match. 

 

When Peter talks about suffering and anxiety in this letter he has something specific in mind, even if we don’t know the full extent of what is going on. It’s clear that the community is facing some form of suffering, most likely harassment on the part of their neighbors. There is no evidence in the letter itself that this harassment is part of widespread imperial persecution. After all, Peter encourages them to honor the emperor and obey the governing authorities, who are authorized to punish those who do what is evil and Peter is insistent that if they suffer it should be on account of doing good and not doing evil (1 Pet. 2:11-14). Peter seems to have a bigger picture in mind here, one in which current suffering has to be endured so they can reach a larger reward, the salvation of their souls.

As we read 1 Peter, we may hear a different word that speaks to our moment in time. I’m reminded by Karl Barth that preaching is God’s word in the present, but it is a momentary word, not an enduring word. The enduring Word of God, which Peter speaks of earlier, if we follow Barth, the person of Christ. So in this moment, as we hear this word from 1 Peter as presented to us by the lectionary creators, we do so amid a global pandemic that has shut down much of daily life. There is a great deal of anxiety present in our communities, especially among those asked to go to work at this moment. While our anxieties might be different from those experienced by Peter’s audience in Asia Minor, they’re just as real. They can challenge our faith in God, whom Peter suggests we turn to and cast our anxieties on God who cares for us. Perhaps this will be for us at this moment a comforting word.

                The reading begins in chapter four with Peter suggesting that this “fiery ordeal” the Christians of Asia Minor were experiencing served as a test of their faith. That declaration may cause us a bit of discomfort. Is suffering a test to be endured? We have to hear this word with a degree of caution, but the truth is, being uncomfortable with the things of God isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Complacency can easily set in for us. We can rest on the promise that we’re saved by grace, and then go off and live dissolute lives believing that we’re free from all restrictions. Living in Christendom allowed Christians to become comfortable with their situation; something not possible for first-century Christians. In our day we can claim to be Christians and live lives that in no way reflect the way of Jesus. We can claim to be Christians and engage in racist and bigoted actions. We can turn our backs on those in need, even as we go to church and sing the songs of faith. So, Peter says to us, consider it an honor to suffer with Jesus. So, as Heidi Haverkamp writes “First Peter reminds us not to be surprised by adversity or tough times. Too often, we believe that to be ‘normal’ is to be happy, carefree, healthy, and successful. All of Scripture can witness this is not the case. To be normal is to struggle.” [Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Locations 10076-10078)].

                This week’s reading is divided into two sections. The first section is found in chapter 4, which contains the reference to the fiery ordeal with which faith is tested. Consider yourself blessed if you suffer for what is right, Peter says, because it is a sign that the Spirit is with you. The second section offers a word of comfort, but first, there is an admonishment. Be humble and let God lift you up. Then, “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” This word from Peter looks back to Psalm 55:22, which declares: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” Whether from the Psalmist or Peter, that’s a word for this moment in time. We all seem burdened by anxiety, due to the uncertainty of the moment.

                While there is a word of encouragement here, a word about releasing our burdens and anxieties to God, there is another word. That word is straightforward: “Discipline yourselves.” That too is a word for us at this moment, as we become increasingly restless at our situation. We may want to go out and push boundaries. No masks, no social distancing. After all, don’t I have my rights? But then Peter tells us to be disciplined and alert, because the adversary, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion. Resist the adversary. Stay focused. Be steadfast. Know that others among the faithful are also experiencing suffering. They’re not alone. This is standard procedure. But know this, Peter tells them, “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10). While this is a helpful word, reminding us that simply being a Christian doesn’t mean we’re free from suffering, there is danger in this admonition. As Luke Powery reminds us there are those who suggest that all suffering is redemptive. That is not the case. Allowing oneself to be subjected to unjust suffering, especially when that involves domestic abuse or racial injustice is not something to countenance. So, as Powery notes, “there are life lessons learned through pain, yet those in pain need to be ministered to and not left to drown in despair” (Preaching God’sTransforming Justice, p. 249).

                Peter is working here with an eschatological framework. He wants the church to know that temporal suffering will give way to eternal blessing. As Peter writes we can see that the early Christians are still working with the premise that time is short. The Parousia, the coming of Jesus in his glory is close at hand. Standing as we do two thousand years later, we may not be working with the same sense of time. Nevertheless, the call to stay alert might not be a bad one to embrace. As we do, we can celebrate the power of God forever which is revealed in the message of Easter.

               
New Growth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57419 [retrieved May 16, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mua_Mission_sculpture.JPG.

 

The Beautiful Ones and the Rainbow Children: Sixth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

The Beautiful Ones and the Rainbow Children: Sixth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 17, 2020

Read: I Corinthians 13:1-13

 

Reflection

 

You will usually hear 1 Corinthians 13 read at weddings.  While it is a nice passage to read to the wedding couple, the apostle Paul meant for a wider audience that relates more to our political and cultural climate today than to the nuptials of two people.

To understand 1 Corinthians 13, you have to look at chapter 12.  In chapter 12, Paul likens the church to the Body of Christ. Before we go to Paul’s understanding of the church as the body of Christ, a little more background.

The Corinthians were using their gifts as a status symbol.  Some gifts were deemed more important than others.  Paul tells the Corinthians that while people have different gifts, they all come from the same God for the common good.

This is where Paul starts to talk about a body and how different parts all work together with a common purpose.  Listen to what Paul says starting with verse 12:

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly, the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

-1 Corinthians 12: 12-21

Paul closes chapter 12 with verse 31 where he tells the Corinthians that there is a better way.  Chapter 12 has Paul saying that the Corinthians should not compare gifts with each other.  In chapter 13, he shows what we are to be doing as the body of Christ.

While 1 Corinthians 13 is used in the pacific scene of a wedding, Paul was writing it to a fractious church that needed to understand what grounds the church what holds it together.

As mentioned before, Corinth is a diverse church.  While we celebrate diversity today, we need to be reminded that diversity can also be a challenge.  The church was filled with Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free.  All of this caused division and weakened the church. But while diversity could cause problems, Paul was adamant in keeping Corinth diverse.  He believed this is what God wanted for this church even if it is difficult. Paul’s letter was a rallying cry: to not segregate, to love each other in spite of differences.

But again, this wasn’t the type of love displayed at a wedding ceremony. This was something that was far more challenging. As theologian Shivley Smith notes:  “The love Paul is talking about here is not passive and fluffy. This kind of love is an up at dawn, feet on the ground, tools in hand, working kind of love. It builds communities. It nurtures positive social interactions, and not just social networks (which many of us have come to prefer). “

Paul is noting that loving others, even in the confines of a church is challenging.  Love governs how to we talk to each other, how we break bread together, how we fellowship with each other.   Love in chapter 13 is a verb, it is active and it isn’t easy. For Paul, the measure of a faith community is not what it does, but it is about knowing each other face to face in the way that God knows us.

Paul talking about love is not an ode to a community that has accomplished love, but to one that is far away realizing it.  Which is why this can seem like an odd choice for a wedding ceremony. 

Unless…one look at it not from the day of the wedding, but months and years later, when the allure has worn off and there is a disagreement over money or some other issue.  If married couples and pastors looked at this not as celebrating the love present, but dealing with the relationship down the road when it will inevitably encounter challenges, then this passage can fit better in weddings.

Theologian Karoline Lewis wrote of a recent trip to the Middle East and how it can be hard to love the other:

“A couple of evenings ago on our trip, we had a presentation by the Parent’s Circle, a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones due to the conflict. The representatives who spoke to us were two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who had both lost daughters because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. We had a very honest discussion about the conflict and about life before and after the Separation Wall… They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. They could have chosen revenge to ease their pain but instead realized that the only way forward was to talk to each other.

In each other, they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” At stake for both fathers was peace. Simple as that. This is the gospel. This is love.”

In chapter 12, Paul was chastising the church for focusing on themselves.  Chapter 13 is a vision for the church, a place where people love each other, not focusing on their needs, but on the needs of others.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Faithful Living in Challenging Times – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6A (1 Peter 3)

 

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

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                How do we live faithfully in challenging times? In other words, how does our Christian faith guide our actions when we face challenges? As I write this we are experiencing a pandemic that has shut down most of the world’s economies. Most of us are sheltering-in-place to reduce the spread of a deadly virus because we lack an effective treatment or vaccine. There are those, of course, who in the name of religious freedom are declaring their immunity from all government requirements or advisements (such as not having in-person worship services). This is our situation as we read this passage from 1 Peter. The communities to which this letter is written (whether by Peter or someone using his name) are experiencing some form of distress or suffering. They may be struggling to find answers, but Peter wants them to stay strong, stay focused, and live faithfully.

                We pick up this reading from 1 Peter for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The reference in verses 21-22 speaks of resurrection and ascension, making this a truly Easter text. The reading as a whole continues a conversation about how one should behave as a Christian and how that behavior demonstrates the truth of one’s confession of faith in the risen Christ. As part of this conversation, Peter introduces what is known as the “household code.” In the first century, this code made complete sense. It reflected societal norms. Today we find them problematic at best. Nevertheless, Peter speaks to three forms of relationship: family life, slavery, and the relationship of the Christian to the state. Wives are encouraged to submit to their husbands (embracing patriarchy), Slaves are instructed to obey their masters (one would assume that a large number of early Christians were slaves, who are instructed to grin and bear their condition in the expectation of an eternal reward). Finally, Peter encourages the people to honor the emperor and submit to the governing authorities who are authorized to punish evil and praise what is good. This instruction suggests that widespread requirements to offer sacrifices to the emperor had yet to take full force. Nevertheless, the point here is related to Peter’s reminder that they are aliens and exiles. Therefore, he encourages them to ”conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Peter 2:11-12). It is also worth noting that these congregations likely were made up largely of people who were slaves whose masters were likely pagans and wives whose husbands might be pagans. So, be careful with how you live, because your life in Christ will set you apart.

While the lectionary creators may have omitted the “household codes,” they are an important part of the story. We needn’t embrace them, but it is helpful to take of them to understand their condition. They are already under suspicion, so don’t rock the boat any further than had to. Perhaps we can learn something from these instructions about living in ways that give a good witness to the gospel that reflect the changing dynamics of modern life.

                So, do what is right. Fear God (reverence God) but don’t fear human persecutors. If you suffer, then suffer for what is right and good. Then when asked, give a defense of your faith. Share why you are a follower of Jesus. I don’t think Peter has in mind a theological dissertation. He is not suggesting that one explain each of the finer points of the Nicene Creed or Paul’s letter to the Romans for that matter. Just be ready to share how your faith guides your life before God. Share what it means to be a true follower of Jesus and do so “with gentleness and reverence.” In living this way, one emulates Jesus, who suffered on our account, “the righteous one on behalf of the righteous. He did this to bring you into the presence of God” (1 Peter 3:18 CEB).

                What begins as a call to emulate Jesus moves off into a conversation about the fullness of Jesus’ vindication. Though Jesus suffered, that is not the final verdict. Before he is fully resurrected and has ascended into the heavens taking his rightful place at God’s right hand, he takes a major detour. As verse 19 suggests (this is an intriguing verse that can lead to several possible interpretations) Jesus preached to the spirits in prison, primarily those who had disobeyed at the time of Noah. This verse gave rise to the idea that in that interim between burial and resurrection, Jesus descended to Hades and preached there. This is called the “harrowing of hell.” It is a perspective that had wide usage in the ancient church. It’s one of those passages that is suggestive, but not conclusive. Though it did find its way into the Apostles Creed. The point that Peter makes here is that those who had disobeyed had an opportunity to repent and be restored to life in the resurrection. 

 

                Before moving to the resurrection, Peter uses the story of Noah and his family as a prefigurement of baptism. Just as they were saved from judgment through water, now we are saved through baptism, “not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). In other words, this isn’t a magical act. It is a turning to the risen Christ and finding salvation in his resurrection and ascension.

                This leads back to the beginning, which is the call to live faithfully in the face of suffering. There is a rather pragmatic view in place, which suggests that if we do what is right then a difficult situation might become less difficult, or at least not become more difficult than it already is. Regarding slaves and wives, if they are Christians and their masters/husbands are not, they could be in for a difficult situation. So, there is a degree of pragmatism at work here. As Scot McKnight puts it:

His optimistic hope about the value of doing good is tempered by a genuine realism, for in several places he suggests the likelihood of being persecuted. Thus, it is important that his pragmatic argument not be given too much weight in his overall strategy for living Christianly in the world. But the argument is nonetheless valid: If we assume (1) the similarity of human nature and (2) the general limitation of such an argument, then it becomes important to urge Christians who are being persecuted to live godly and good lives so that those who are against them might be more tolerant of them. That is, human beings in general do appreciate being respected, and when they are respected, they will be kinder. [McKnight, 1Peter (The NIV Application Commentary Book 17) (pp. 218-219). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.]

                Peter isn’t a radical. He’s pragmatic, but he is also faithful. So, as we read him, it’s important to remember that different contexts require different responses. Nevertheless, we are called to live faithfully, and so far as it is possible, we shouldn’t give offense to our neighbors. So, in the context in which we find ourselves right now, wearing a mask, use physical distancing, and follow the government guidelines is a good witness. It isn’t about my right to do as I please. It is about the call to love my neighbor by caring for their needs. By doing this we express our baptismal confession in the risen and ascended Christ.   

               
                  
Image attribution: Ermakova, Natalia. Noah’s Ark Icon, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56487 [retrieved May 9, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/4338027250/ – Jim Forest.

 

People of the Cross: Fifth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

People of the Cross: Fifth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 10, 2020

Read: Acts 18:1-4 and I Corinthians 1:10-18

 

Reflection

 

It was about 25 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, alongside a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with the congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

Paul faces a nascent church in Corinth that was split into various factions, with each one trying to undermine the other.  Paul tells them that they are to be united, to not have any divisions.  This didn’t mean that they didn’t disagree, but it was a problem when it began the threaten the health and mission of the church.  Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are a people of the cross, of a Jesus who lived and died for all, not just for a certain faction.

In the end,  it has to be about being the church- the Body of Christ. In my Disciples tradition, we place a lot of emphasis on the Table. It’s at the Lord’s Table that everyone is welcome and everyone is equal. Distinctions end when we come to God’s table. I tend to believe God isn’t asking for party affiliation when we come to have communion.

My Lutheran friends remind me that the Cross is also a great leveler. We are all sinners, all of us. We are all in need of grace and love. We are all damned by the cross, but it is also in the cross that we are saved and made whole.

So when we read or watch the latest “outrage” on Fox or MSNBC and you are ready to hit the “send” button and share your two cents on how bad the other party is, I want you to stop and think for a moment: how is this building up Christ’s body? How is it showing that we Christians are different? Do we really need to dress up our partisan leanings in God talk to make it look pretty? Can we find a way to remember the Table and Cross as much as we hold fast to Donkeys and Elephants?

Addendum: In 2014, blogger Scott Alexander wrote a post that became viral called, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.”  In it, Alexander writes about how political liberals relate to conservatives. Check it out and think about how it relates to the church.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

By His Wounds, We Are Healed – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4A (1 Peter 2:19-25)

1 Peter 2:19-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 

22 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 

23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

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                As I write this over two million people around the world are or have been suffering the effects of a novel coronavirus outbreak. Tens of thousands have died, with the numbers climbing every day. There is no vaccine and treatments that look promising seem to fall short on every front. Stores, schools, and faith communities are all shut down. Holy Week and Passover were observed in ways no one can remember. Now Muslims observe Ramadan in the same fashion. Daily life is not what it was, and whatever emerges after the worst is over will not be the same. We will not be the same. Some will be embittered by their experience, while others will be strengthened.

                In this passage from 1 Peter 2, Peter addresses the suffering experienced by his audience. He distinguishes between those who suffer justly and suffer unjustly. If you suffer for doing wrong, then you probably are getting what you deserve. But, for those who suffer unjustly, for righteousness, well that’s different. Getting back to the pandemic, we tend to distinguish between those who get the virus when flouting the recommendations from those who contract it and even die for no fault of their own. This is especially true for those front-line folks in hospitals, nursing homes, first responders, grocery workers, and others whose jobs have been deemed essential. The word here is that if you do what is right and endure in the midst of it, then you receive God’s approval.

                Peter then points to Jesus, not as a substitute but as an example. Therefore, he encourages his readers to follow in the steps of the one who “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth,” and when he suffered, as a result, he didn’t return abuse on his abusers. In making this statement Peter is drawing on Isaiah 53 and the vision of the suffering servant. The challenge posed by this passage is that it seems to suggest that there is redemptive value in suffering so that suffering is glorified. Contextually, the call to follow the lead of Jesus comes as part of a word given to slaves, who are told to obey their masters. The creators of the lectionary, however, have chosen to omit what is, in reality, the thesis statement of the passage. I understand why the lectionary creators chose to omit verses like this, but as Barbara Lundblad notes, the inclusion of the verse gives preachers “permission to talk about the need for biblical interpretation.” She suggests that it might give preachers and teachers to consider the impact of passages like this on persons who have suffered abuse and hear that they should endure the abuse as Christ endured abuse [Feasting on the Word, 437]. What was heard by Christians living in the first century when they were a religious minority, struggling to survive in a culture where slavery was a central part of the economic system, over which they had no control. That is different than a context such as antebellum North America where Christians were not a religious minority.

                When we approach texts like 1 Peter, which speaks of being servants of God and freedom in Christ, how do we as God’s free people we navigate a society that is not always conducive to our freedom? Verse 18, which is the lead-in to the lectionary reading, instructs slaves to obey their masters, not just those who are kind and gentle, but even the harsh ones. A verse like this was a powerful tool in antebellum America in efforts to justify slavery and oppress those who were slaves. Thus, we must speak against it. We can try to sugar coat it but to no avail. But what about Peter’s context? Why would he write such a word to the church?

When Peter speaks here of freedom, he was thinking of spiritual freedom. He didn’t have in mind, necessarily emancipation from slavery or an end to patriarchy. These were not within the realm of possibility, though manumission was common in the first century. Slavery wasn’t race-based nor was it necessarily permanent. When Peter appeals to the household codes he was drawing on the common cultural understandings, which suggests that Peter was telling the people to keep their heads down, be good citizens, and then perhaps they could be good witnesses for Christ’s kingdom. Thus, interpreting and applying a text like this takes a lot of wisdom.

While the creators of the lectionary decoupled Peter’s instruction to slaves, to make the passage more preachable (or at least more comfortable for preachers who could focus on Christology), we shouldn’t forget the context. If we take into consideration the larger context and disabuse ourselves of thinking that suffering is in itself redemptive, then perhaps we can hear word for today. In fact, we might hear a word of encouragement to persevere, to endure, in the midst of suffering, as we pursue the path that leads to the realm of God.

Peter doesn’t celebrate imperial authority, slavery, or patriarchy, he just assumes that this is the way things are in the world. That is not our context. We have long rejected slavery, and while we might apply some of this to employer-employee relations, even there we need to be careful. At least in my circles, we have set aside patriarchy (or are working on it). As for imperial authority, it is good to remember that in a democracy, the voice of the people is the final authority, not the president. Thus we need to find ways of hearing a word in a passage that contextually poses problems. Nevertheless, we might read a passage like this through a liberation lens. We can read it through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement, which persisted in nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow and segregation, despite facing violent responses. Consider the events that transpired on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This was suffering endured in a just cause, that eventually overturned injustice.

As for Jesus, he bore our sins that we might be healed. This as we, who “were going astray like sheep, . . . have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” We needn’t read this through the lens of “penal substitutionary atonement.” That is a temptation, but it’s not a necessary one (I don’t think Peter had worked out a distinct atonement theory here). Instead, we can hear in this word a reminder that we serve the crucified God who suffers with us, and as Bonhoeffer suggests, only such a God can bring healing.

 

An Imperishable Inheritance – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2A (1 Peter 1)

Jesus in Majesty  by Christoff Baron —  Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France
 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

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                We come to this reading from 1 Peter as God’s people who have found a living hope in the resurrection of Jesus.  At least that is my starting point. We also engage this passage during an ongoing pandemic that is taking lives and causing disruption of life as we had known it. We don’t know when things will change or what they’ll look like when we begin to reenter a more normal pattern of life. Most likely we will enter a new state of normality. The way we view the world, ourselves, and God likely will have changed. That which sustains me at this moment is my faith in the living hope rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, and in the imperishable inheritance that comes with that living hope.

                Easter, like Christmas, is accompanied by a plethora of activities and meanings that may not connect directly to the message of Jesus. Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, even the word Easter itself, likely has roots outside the Christian faith. The fact that at least in the northern hemisphere Easter follows the spring equinox is also suggestive that life emerges out of death. The timing of Easter is rooted in the Passover celebration, which is in modern Judaism a spring holy event. So, whatever the roots of the day, the Easter season is understood to be a celebration of life. In the resurrection, Jesus triumphs over death, bringing life to all who would embrace his message. In this reading from 1Peter, the resurrection is connected to an imperishable inheritance, which is the salvation of our souls.  

 

                Before we go too far with the discussion of this lectionary reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, I should say something about authorship and orientation of the letter, since we’ll be in 1 Peter for several weeks. According to the letter’s self-identification, the author is the Apostle Peter, who is writing to “exiles of the Dispersion” living in what is now Turkey (1 Pet. 1:1-2). The reference to the Dispersion or Diaspora could suggest that the audience for this letter is a community of Jewish Christians, though there are also hints in the letter that the audience was Gentile. While the audience is not easily defined, neither is the authorship. On the face of it, St. Peter is the author. If so, then this letter is rather early, as it is believed that Peter died during the reign of Nero, possibly in Rome, and near about the time that Paul was also executed. Nevertheless, there is other internal evidence that suggests that this is a much later document. Ultimately, we simply can’t say for sure, and the meaning of this passage isn’t dependent on identifying the author. So, for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the author as Peter.

Contextually, Peter seems to be concerned about the relationship of these early Christians to their culture. We see this in his use of household codes that make parts of the letter very problematic for us today. In terms of this particular passage, the reference to exile suggests a particular cultural context. It suggests that Christians, like Jews, live on the periphery of society. In many ways, this is a self-chosen reality, because, like Jews, Christians would have been perceived as anti-social. This is because they refused to participate in patriotic duties like honoring the Roman gods. The Romans were very tolerant of religious differences, as long as you honored their gods. You can be a devotee of Isis or Mithras, just don’t neglect to give allegiance to the official state religion. For Christians, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar cannot be lord. Thus, to confess faith in Christ led to exile/dispersion. While this is true, this letter is suggestive that Christians should keep their heads down and not call attention to themselves. All the while, Peter urges them to keep their focus on their heavenly destination. In other words, Peter presents us with an eschatological vision that is focused on the people of God bearing witness to their faith by being a holy people, even as they separate themselves from the Roman cultural and religious life.  

 

To follow Jesus was to take a “road less traveled.” But that road led to new birth in Christ, and thus a new beginning. It is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, who provides us with an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” This is, according to the promise of God our destiny. This is the inheritance given to us in Christ and kept for us in heaven. We have access to the inheritance, but not its fullness. We can taste some of its benefits, but not all of them, because of the resurrection of Jesus. You might say that our inheritance has been in a trust until such time as we are ready to receive it. While the inheritance is set aside for us, there is, apparently a few tests that need to be experienced. The genuineness of our faith is to be tested by fire so that our faith may lead to the praise, glory, and honor of Christ when he is revealed. In other words, being heirs with Christ does not mean we do not experience suffering or pain. This is part of life. Some endure more than others. But together we share in the inheritance, that is our salvation. Thus, this is not just an Easter message, it’s an eschatological one. Easter is the starting point of something that will eventuate in our own resurrection. May we, as we hear this word concerning our inheritance find hope in this moment.

This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on,
Time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
For by the life and death of Jesus, God’s mighty spirit, now as then,
Can make for us a world of difference, as faith and hope are born again.
                                —Brian Wren, Chalice Hymnal 518 (vs. 1-2)

 

The Power of Hymn-Singing — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 7C (Acts 16)

 
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

 

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 

 

 

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

 

 
 
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                It is the Seventh Sunday of Easter—although one could choose to observe the Day of Ascension (the reading for Ascension is Acts 1:1-11). The days of Jesus’ appearances is nearly complete. Pentecost is on the near horizon. The reading from Acts 1 for the Day of Ascension sets the foundation for what is to come. Jesus stands with the disciples, preparing to leave them. He gives them a commission, telling them that once the Spirit comes upon them, they are to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving out from there through Judea and Samaria, and then from there to the ends of the earth. In prior readings, we have seen how the gospel has been moving outward from Jerusalem in the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen the message taken to Samaria (Acts 8) and then to a Gentile community (Acts 11). We’ve witnessed the call of Paul (Acts 9) and then his crossing into Europe that results in the conversion of Lydia and her household in Philippi (Acts 16).
One thing you notice in reading the Book of Acts is that the way forward for the Gospel often requires those called to proclaim the Gospel to break through barriers. There is no easy pathway, and sometimes they have to be nudged along, so they can be in a position to proclaim the Gospel. If Paul is any indication, missionary work can be a bit complicated, filled with both setbacks and successes. In fact, Paul seems to get himself in trouble on a regular basis, and so it is with his visit to Philippi. In the reading from Acts 16 for this week, we pick up where we left off last week. Paul remains in Philippi, perhaps still residing at the home of Lydia. When the story picks up, Paul and Silas—and the rest of the mission team (note the use of the word we in verse 16)—are walking toward the place of prayer down by the riverside. As they make their way to the place of prayer, they are joined by another person. This person is a slave girl known for her prophetic powers. For some reason, she starts telling everyone that Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most High.” This reference to them being slaves of God is important because the one doing the preaching is a slave. The assumption then is that if one proclaims a divine message, one must be a slave to that god/power.  She is a slave, so they must be slaves as well. While she calls attention to them, apparently, it’s not the kind of attention that wanted. Since this happened several times over a period of days, we’re told that Paul was annoyed by her declarations. Paul stops and tells the spirit possessing her, the spirit that is proclaiming the message that they bring the word of salvation from the Most High, to leave. Such is what happens. The spirit that possessed her, the spirit that gave her the ability to reveal things about people, is now gone. That doesn’t make her owners happy. They have just lost their livelihood. This is a good example of the economic effects of religion. So, they are thrown into prison, without trial (something that is not allowed for citizens like Paul). This is the context in which we read the remainder of the story.
Note that Paul and Silas are imprisoned because they have infringed on the economic power of certain individuals. These people who are upset with Paul are concerned not about theology but about money. This woman, who was their slave, had earned them a lot of money. If she lost that power, she was of little or no worth to them. She was a commodity to her owners. Her message may have annoyed Paul, but she had revealed the truth, and that didn’t sit well with the rest of the community.
It is interesting that the charges laid against Paul and Silas is that they were Jews who were teaching things that weren’t appropriate for Romans. This represents in part the ongoing rejection and stigmatization of the Jews. In this case, the charge that they were Jews who taught things inappropriate for Romans may have been rooted in ignorance of Judaism. After all, there wasn’t a large enough community to start a synagogue. With the charges laid against them, the magistrates had them stripped, beaten, and thrown into the innermost jail cell (maximum security). Was it the religious component or the economic one? You be the judge.  
 
So, we find Paul and Silas in jail. They are not only in jail, but they have shackles on them. You would have thought they were mass murderers, but such is not the case. It’s here, in prison, that we witness the power of hymn-singing. As Paul and Silas sit there in their cell, they begin to sing hymns to God, and Luke tells us that the other prisoners were listening. They were paying attention to the songs. As Paul and Silas sang, an earthquake hit, opening the cells and knocking off the shackles. Everyone in the jail was now free to flee, but they didn’t. They stayed put. More about that later in this reflection, so we can stay with hymn-singing.
This word about hymn-singing is enticing to me. That’s because singing hymns has always been a powerful element in my worship experiences.  Whether new or old, as long as they are singable, they carry power. I don’t know what hymns Paul and Silas sang (I don’t think there were any Wesley or Brian Wren hymns in that hymnal), whatever they were singing had a powerful effect on their situation. Whatever they sang had a liberating effect. It seems to be the precursor to their freedom. Willie James Jennings connects worship, prayer, and singing to freedom and the concerns of those who have experienced torture and imprisonment.

Praying and singing join us to tortured and chained bodies, both past and present, and to the real pressure placed on disciples’ bodies as they look toward God. Praying and singing are acts of joining that weave our voices and words with the desperate of this world who cry out to God day and night. Each time we gather in the name of Jesus and lift our voices, this point of reference should shape our reverence and drive us to see and learn and know and change the situations of those who suffer especially in that holy name. Each time we pray and sing we are also joined to the shouts of joy and praise to a God who saves and delivers and invites us to take hold of divine power by faith. [Acts: Belief, p. 164].

In other words, worship should connect us to those around us who suffer. Paul and Silas’ experience of prison connected them to Jesus’ experiences as he approached death. They would be freed, but it was in the midst of suffering that they worshipped God and found liberation.
When the jailer made his way into the cells, he assumed that the prisoners would have escaped. That’s only natural. If you have the opportunity to be free, wouldn’t you take it? The implications for the jailer were much different. If his prisoners escaped, he would be held responsible. The better part of valor would be to take his own life. He was about to do so when Paul spoke up. Paul cried out to him, begging him not to harm himself, because everyone was still in the jail, including the other prisoners who had no reason to trust in the God of Paul, and yet they put themselves into Paul’s hands. All because of some hymn-singing.
Now, the jailer was over-joyed. Although he hadn’t heard the hymn-singing, he was drawn into this worship experience punctuated by an earthquake. That led to a sermon, as the jailer asked how he might be made whole (saved). With the question asked, Paul shared the gospel with him and his household, and the Philippian jailer responded positively. Paul baptized the jailer and his family, but notice that before the baptism takes place, the jailer tends to the wounds inflicted on Paul and Silas. These are the wounds inflicted by the magistrates, in response to Paul’s act of liberating a woman who had been turned into a lucrative economic tool. There was healing and liberation all around, and mixed in was a time of worship featuring hymn-singing. So, let us sing to God with boldness, and as we sing may we be woven into the healing work of God in the world.