Category: Epiphany

No Solid Food For You – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5A (1 Corinthians 3)

1 Corinthians 3:1-9  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

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                When a child is born, they are given milk at first (whether a mother’s milk or formula). Later, pureed foods are added. Finally, when their systems are ready, and teeth have arrived they will be introduced to solid food. You can’t introduce solid food until a child has the ability to chew. What is true for a human child is true for us as spiritual children. You don’t hand a volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics or Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is to a new believer. You might want to give them something more easily digested. As we see in this third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has concluded that the Corinthians aren’t quite ready to move on to solid food. They’re still infants needing to be fed a more appropriate diet. Paul comes to this conclusion as he deals with the vexing problem of divisions within the congregation. The quarreling and jealousy that is present in the congregation is evidence that they remain infants in Christ. They’re not ready to receive the deeper truths Paul would like to share with them. They don’t have any spiritual teeth with which to chew this food.

                In this chapter, the nature of the divisions introduced in chapter one seems to become clearer in chapter three. We know that there is a party spirit present in the congregation. Paul had mentioned in chapter 1 that some were claiming to follow Apollos, others Cephas, some Paul, and some simply identified with Jesus. Or perhaps the division is a bit narrower. Perhaps it centers on partisans for Paul and partisans for Apollos. Whatever the nature of this division, Paul refers to it as an expression of the flesh. When Paul refers to the flesh here, he doesn’t have the body in mind. His is a very embodied theology, so what he has in mind here is a sinful predisposition that has its grip on this congregation. To say that the congregation is divided over their loyalty to Paul or Apollos, doesn’t mean that either man intended for this to happen. Nevertheless, the Corinthians, being spiritual infants who are not ready for solid food, have fallen into this trap that is so common in our world. Just look at the way politics often works, especially right now.  

 

 Regarding the person known as Apollos, the only place besides 1 Corinthians that he’s mentioned in any detail is the Book of Acts (he is mentioned in Titus 3:13, where he appears to have been in Crete and may have served as a courier for the letter to Titus). According to the Book of Acts, Apollos arrived in Corinth around the time that Paul was leaving the city. He had come from Ephesus, which was where Paul was heading. In Ephesus, he had met Priscilla and Aquila, who instructed him more fully in “the Way.” It is said there that he had some knowledge of Jesus but had experienced only the Baptism of John. It would seem that Priscilla and Aquila gave him his graduate education in the Christian faith possibly baptized him before he left for Greece, where he ended up in Corinth (Acts 18:24-19:1). We’re told he was well-educated, probably in the art of rhetoric. Thus, he was an effective teacher of the faith. When he arrived in Corinth, it seems that Apollos, being an effective speaker and having the appropriate instruction, became part of the leadership in the Corinthian church. Perhaps there were those who embraced him at the expense of Paul, the founder of the church in Corinth.

I’m wondering, though I can’t prove it, whether Apollos had attempted to introduce the congregation to “solid food” before they were ready. Sometimes, immediately after finishing seminary, new pastors, flush with knowledge want to share what they know with their congregation. Some in the congregation might have been ready for it but were impressed by his erudition. Could it be that they were excited about receiving “deeper knowledge” than what Paul had shared with them?

If we read between the lines, it seems that Apollos was a much more impressive figure than Paul. If he was a rhetorician, he knew how to communicate effectively. He probably sounded a lot like the teachers that populated the town square. His message might have been different from theirs, but he might have shared their eloquence. So, it’s no wonder that he developed a following in Corinth. However, not everyone was as impressed. There were those who preferred Paul’s message. After all, he was the founding pastor. He had laid the groundwork. When Paul heard all this he wanted to straighten things out. He wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t about Apollos or him. Both had their place, but ultimately this was about God. Or, as Paul puts it here, switching metaphors from babies to agriculture, he had planted the seeds that Apollos watered, but ultimately God is the one who brings the growth.

What happened in Corinth is not a unique occurrence. History is filled with examples of division, quarreling, and jealousy. As a preacher, I’ve experienced I’ve known jealousy! So, I know what Paul is talking about.

The causes of division are many. They could be rooted in theological differences, but quite often what looks like a theological issue is really a personal one. Sometimes the messenger’s personality gets in the way of an effective conversation. It’s been suggested that the Nestorian controversy was rooted as much in Nestorius’ gruff personality as it was his theological views. We know that Cyril of Alexandria was a brilliant theologian, but he got himself caught up in some rather distasteful and violent affairs that shook the Alexandrian church during his tenure. The Donatist controversy wasn’t so much about theology as it was cultural differences. My own denomination is part of a larger movement that had as one of its reasons for existing the pursuit of Christian unity, and yet we’ve divided several times. Some elements of this division might be theological, but not all of them. As in Corinth, it probably involves a lot of fleshiness.

It’s worth remembering that the Corinthian church probably wasn’t much more than five years old. It was populated largely by converts. Even Apollos hadn’t been at this very long. So, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that this congregation might be experiencing growing pains. Can the same be said for the church today? After all, we’ve been at it for nearly two thousand years. Yet, the flesh is still with us. We are still captive to the ways of the world. Division is common. Fear is common, and it can lead, as it seems to be doing today, to circling the wagons. There are attempts to protect privileges that are rooted not in the teachings of Jesus, but human sinfulness.

The question is, are we ready for some solid food?  In other words, are ready to take up our calling to be God’s servants who work together in God’s field (or building)? Or do we still require spiritual formula?

Picture attribution: Blommers, B. J. (Bernardus Johannes), 1845-1914. A Peasant Meal, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51140 [retrieved February 9, 2020]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

The Foolishness of God – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4A (1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Lucas Cranach – Chicago Institute of Art
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

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

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

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

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

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                “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” How do you read that statement? We might reply, yes, God’s thoughts are greater than ours but is that what Paul had in mind? Paul makes this statement in connection to his proclamation of the cross, which both Jew and Greek see as foolishness. Why would anyone think it wise to follow someone who was crucified? Yet, that is what Paul preached. He even takes note of the fact that those who answered the call to follow the crucified one weren’t considered wise by human standards. They weren’t powerful people or of noble birth. They were the kind of people who might be considered fools by those who thought of themselves as being wise by human standards. That may be true, but who really wants to be considered a fool?

                When I read this passage, I have to wonder what Paul has in mind. Might a message like this even be counterproductive in an age where growing numbers of our fellow citizens are rejecting expertise as elitism. Is Paul, in making this statement, giving license to Christian anti-intellectualism? I hope not, but I can see it being read that way. There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism within the Christian tradition. Years ago, Mark Noll, a leading Evangelical historian wrote a book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book, he addressed the presence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical movement (as signified by ideologies such as young-earth creationism). So, what do we make of this?

When Paul declares: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” does this mean that there is no place for instruction or expertise in the religious world? We might want to start our reflection by remembering that Paul was confronting a congregation that was divided into factions that seem to be centered around specific teachers. Might there be those arguing against making the cross a centerpiece of the message, suggesting that this would look foolish to those who think of themselves as being wise? There is a tendency to tailor the message to the audience. Consider Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Paul knew about the cultured despisers who seemed to reject the message of the cross.  

 

In making the case that the cross is the center of his message, Paul is arguing that human wisdom won’t lead you to God. You can’t study your way to a crucified messiah. It just will never make sense. It is something we take by faith. We look at Jesus on the cross and we see a different way of being. In the companion reading from Micah 6, we’re reminded that what God desires is justice, loving-kindness, and humility. The cross is a sign of humility and it is also a witness to justice, especially in light of the resurrection, which is God’s no to Rome’s act of condemnation. The cross is foolishness to those who cannot see God present in that moment, but it offers a different way of being, one that human wisdom can never discern.

If we can grant this premise, then we can address the other question, and that concerns the role of wisdom in the path of faith. I’m assuming that we still want physicians and our surgeons to be well qualified, though we seem less open to the possibility that the conclusions of the majority of climate scientists are correct. We seem, at times, to be impressed with our own observations, which we attribute to “common sense.” What comes to our religious teachers, should we expect a bit of knowledge and instruction? I understand that Jesus didn’t go to seminary, but Paul was rather well educated. In the Philippian letter he claimed as his religious heritage descent from the tribe of Benjamin, he was circumcised on the eighth day, and he was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he would have had significant religious training. There is even the suggestion that he had been a disciple of the famed Rabbi Gamaliel. But according to Paul, none of this mattered to him in relation to his position in Christ (Phil 3:1-11). He could brag if he needed to, but he considered this to be foolishness. That might be true, but Paul was still a rather well-educated person, as demonstrated by his letters.   

 

                So, when Paul speaks here of God’s foolishness and the foolishness of the cross, when he speaks of God destroying the wisdom of the wise, I don’t believe he is embracing anti-intellectualism. We don’t have to check our brains at the entrance to the church, but Paul makes it clear that human wisdom will not get you to the cross and thus to Jesus. He’s making it clear that following Jesus won’t make you respectable in the eyes of the world. Then again, when it comes to the message of salvation, God is willing to look foolish. St. Francis of Assisi was willing to be considered a Holy Fool for God. The question is, am I willing to be a Holy Fool? Am I willing to embrace God’s foolishness rather than seek salvation through human wisdom?       

               

 

Unity in the Power of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

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

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                When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Church, he called them saints (1 Cor. 1:2). That might have been a more aspirational than descriptive statement, as we quickly discover when coming to the Second Reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany. This reading follows the previous week’s reading which didn’t hint at problems, but it’s clear from this passage that this was a divided people. It seems that Paul, who had helped found the Corinthian congregation, had received word from a number of sources, including Chloe’s people, that the Corinthian saints were quarreling. Factions had developed, and they seem to have been dividing up according to allegiances. Some claimed to be followers of Paul, and some Cephas (Peter), and others Apollos. Then there might have been another group, who stand out for their claim to follow Christ.

I especially like that last grouping, the one that claimed to follow Christ. You see, I’m part of a denominational tradition that prides itself on its non-sectarian name. We’re “Disciples of Christ” and one of our Movement’s favorite slogans is “We’re not the only Christians, but we’re Christians only.” Yes, we’re Disciples of Christ and we wear that title proudly. So, take that Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Why don’t you get with the program? For some reason, I don’t think Paul would appreciate this attempt to portray our movement as holier than others because we claim to follow Jesus and not a later leader or form of church government. After all, as Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided?” Paul’s point is that the church shouldn’t be divided. It doesn’t matter how you define yourselves, be of one mind and purpose. In other words, remember your calling.  

 

                Paul’s call for the Corinthians to be of one mind and one purpose, with no divisions among them, appeals to me. Things ecumenical stir my passions. That may be due in part to my own denominationally diverse background, but I have longed to the followers of Jesus united. At the same time, as a historian, I know that unity that is coerced, often by governmental decree, doesn’t honor the one whom Christians claim to follow. In many ways, Christian unity is more aspirational than practical, especially as the “church” has expanded across the globe. Besides, it’s difficult to let go of beliefs and practices that have been embraced over time. Sometimes it’s just the way we organize ourselves that stands in the way of unity.

Nevertheless, unity might be difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. But unity needs to find its path in ways that honor our diversity in doctrine, practices, and governance. Since Paul mentions baptism here, we might think of our differences with regard to baptism. There isn’t just one way that Christians baptize. We’ve been arguing about it for centuries. I have embraced a particular form of baptism as my own, but I understand why others have embraced a different view. In Paul’s context, it may have been a question not of form or even doctrine, but the person who baptized a particular person. Paul responds to this problem, by downplaying his own participation in the baptism of members of the Corinthian Church. He goes so far as suggesting that his calling involved preaching the Gospel not baptizing people. Now that claim might get him in trouble in certain circles of my tradition. It might even get you fired from your post as a theology professor. since some in the broader tradition of which I’m a member believe that baptism is essential for salvation (and by baptism, I mean immersion for the remission of sins on the basis of an informed confession of faith). Baptism is, in my mind, an important element of the Christian faith, but fighting over it does nothing to further the message of God’s realm.

Rather than focus on who baptizes whom, Paul wants to focus on the cross of Jesus, which is itself rather scandalous. Paul says that it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, it is the power of God. We might struggle with Paul’s statement regarding salvation, but his point is clear, the gospel is revealed in the cross, which to Jew and Gentile was scandalous. In our day much of the scandal of the cross has dissipated. We wear the cross as jewelry, with no thought to its original use. In other words, what was once scandalous has been domesticated.

          The arguments that were dividing the Corinthian community had to do with power and influence. That’s why Paul put his focus on the cross in all its foolishness. There in the cross, one would find the power of God, and not in the eloquence of a preacher. Paul felt called to preach the gospel, but he was concerned about those who put an emphasis on eloquence. It’s possible that some in Corinth didn’t think much of his preaching, but that didn’t really matter to him. He might not be the best preacher in the realm, but he knew what his calling was. It’s probably useful to remember that in his day there were those who studied rhetoric so they could be professional speakers. To be eloquent, was to have power. As for Paul, whether he was a good preacher or not, his focus was on the cross, lest it lose its power. He didn’t want to get in the way of the gospel, which is rooted in the cross of Christ. It’s a temptation that is as prevalent today as it was in the first century. There is a desire within all of us to be admired, but when that desire gets in the way of the gospel then it’s a problem. It’s not that preachers ought not to give attention to their craft, they just need to keep things in perspective. As a preacher, I try to do my best to offer something worth hearing, but in the end, it shouldn’t be about me (or any preacher, even the most eloquent of preachers).

            Now those who claimed to be of Christ rather than Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, were on the right track, but perhaps for the wrong reason. We should be about Christ in the church, but if we use that claim as a way of holding ourselves over others then we’ve defeated the purpose of our identification with Jesus. So, even though the cross seems to be a foolish place to center ourselves, that’s where Paul puts the focus. Not his eloquence. Not his prowess as a baptizer. No, it’s the cross of Jesus that matters.  Whatever unity was to be had in the Christian community would come in terms of the cross, which may seem like a rather foolish idea—Why would one want to find unity in a method of execution that emphasized humiliation? —but it is the way of Jesus (and Paul).        

 

Lacking No Spiritual Gifts – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2A (1 Corinthians 1)

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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                Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church is one of the best reminders that there never was a Christian Golden Age that we might seek to restore. In this letter we encounter a church that is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. Here in 1 Corinthians, we find a church that is divided and conflicted. There is evidence of sexual indiscretions, marriage problems, concerns about social inequality, and much more. If you are looking for a model church this is not it, and yet despite the many problems facing the congregation, it is also a congregation that is truly gifted. So, there are things we can learn from them that can enhance life in the modern church—just not the conflicts.

                This reading from 1 Corinthians doesn’t reveal the problems present in the congregation. Paul addresses them as a community that is sanctified in Christ Jesus. In fact, he calls them saints. In fact, Paul gives thanks to God for them, and he does so always. He might be frustrated with them at times, but he seems to have great affection for this community, which he helped launch. He will address the problems that are presenting themselves as the letter proceeds, but he doesn’t start out by taking them behind the woodshed. While the appellation of saints might be more aspirational than descriptive, this is the way he wishes to them. They may have their problems, but they still are part of the body of Christ.

                Because I am deeply interested in matters relating to spiritual gifts (see my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening), Paul’s statement in verse 7, where he gives thanks that they’re not lacking in any spiritual gift (charismata), stood out to me. Of course, it is here in 1 Corinthians that Paul devotes the greatest amount of space to spiritual gifts, but here he gives us a hint of what is to come. He commends them for their giftedness, and he couches this statement in eschatological language. He notes that they don’t lack any spiritual gift as they “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

 

                This word about the revealing of Jesus fits well into the context of Epiphany. At this point in the liturgical year, we are supposed to be looking for those signs that God is present, those moments of divine revealing. The Spirit is the one who does the revealing, and who empowers the church to bear witness to that revealing, as we await the day when Jesus returns. The expectation is that when this day arrives we will be found blameless.    

 

                Unlike with Paul’s greeting to the Roman Church, in this case, Paul is quite familiar with the community to which he writes. This is a congregation (likely a collection of house churches) that he founded. These are his people, his congregation. As we discover as we read further, Paul uses this letter to answer queries from members of the congregation. His responses are meant to get them back on track. One would assume that when he left, he had some confidence that they were ready to go out on their own. Perhaps that confidence was unwarranted. The reading ends in verse 9, but verses 10 through 17, suggest that there is significant division in the church. This is not what Paul desires. He appeals for unity. He asks that they would be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10).  

 

Among the points of division in the congregation is the matter of these spiritual gifts, which the congregation is not lacking. They have gifts aplenty, but not a come sense of purpose as to their use. When we get to chapters 12 and 14, we discover that this is a congregation that prizes spiritual things and spiritual experiences. They understand these spiritualities in very individualistic ways. They appear to have ranked the gifts and desire to possess the most spectacular of the gifts. The one that seems to be prized the most is this ability to speak in tongues. Instead of seeking gifts that enhance one’s own stature, Paul encourages them to pursue gifts that build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12).

                As I noted earlier, Paul sets this conversation in a context of expectation. There is a high level of concern in this community as to the return of Christ. The conversation in chapter seven about marriage is evidence of this, as is the discussion of the resurrection in chapter fifteen. It might be that this eschatological fervor created a sense of anxiety that led to some of the problems present in the congregation. This spiritual anxiety might help explain why they seemed to embrace a rather individualistic spirituality. Paul addresses that anxiety, while also pointing them toward gifts that will benefit the community. Thus, while the body of Christ has many members, no one member stands on her or his own. Therefore, there should be no divisions. After all, there is no lack of gifts in the congregation. They simply need to be affirmed. The good news is that “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 

No Partiality – A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 10)

No Partiality – A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 10)

Acts 10:34-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

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                Christmas and Epiphany have come and gone. It’s time for the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood to give way to the beginning of his ministry. On this first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. This baptismal event at the hands of John, which took place in the Jordan, marks the point at which God claimed Jesus as beloved Son. With that, after spending time in the wilderness, Jesus began his earthly ministry. As Matthew, and other Gospels, tell it, at the moment of his baptism the heavens opened, and God claimed him as God’s Son, the beloved (Mt. 3:13-17). Baptism of Jesus Sunday often serves as an opportunity for modern followers of Jesus to reaffirm their baptismal vows and renew their vision of ministry.  

 

If the Gospel reading from Matthew 3 invites us to join Jesus at the Jordan, the Second Reading, which normally is drawn from one of the epistles, takes us to the Book of Acts. Contextually, we find ourselves at the home of Cornelius, a Gentile Centurion, who has summoned Peter to share with the household something about Jesus. At this point in the story, as told in the book of Acts, Peter’s focus has been on the ministry to those Jews who might be open to the message of Jesus, although the ministry of Philip had opened the mission to the Samaritans. But things are about to change because Peter has discerned through a vision that God might be opening the circle a little wider. Maybe, that circle could be drawn to include not only Jews and Samaritans but Gentiles as well. The connecting tissue linking this reading from Acts 10 to the aforementioned baptism of Jesus, is the reference to God anointing Jesus, perhaps through the aforementioned baptism of John, “with the Holy Spirit and with power.” As the reading for today speaks of John’s Baptism and suggests that Jesus might have experienced that baptism, we have another element of background information to interpret this passage and the message Peter wants to deliver to Cornelius’ household. Since this is a Sunday in which so many reaffirm their baptisms, it’s appropriate to note that before Peter gets too far into his sermon the Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household, which leads Peter to decide that there is nothing stopping them from being baptized themselves.

 

In this excerpt from the longer story that takes up chapters 10 and 11 of the Book of Acts, Peter’s gospel preaching begins with Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit in the aftermath of John’s baptism. He notes that Jesus traveled the countryside doing good things, including offering to heal to those oppressed by the devil (exorcism). He notes that he was a witness to all that Jesus said and did, including his death and resurrection. He also notes that God appointed Jesus to the position of judge over the living and the dead. All of this took place as revealed by the prophets, so that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43 CEB). As for Peter, he was a witness to all of this.

 

                While Luke records Peter’s stump speech, what stands out is Peter’s declaration that he has learned that God doesn’t show partiality to any one group of people. We need to be careful here so that we don’t take an anti-Jewish step. This could involve the suggestion that Jews are Christ-killers (“they hung him on a tree”). We also need to be careful not to suggest that what Peter is doing here offers Jesus as a replacement for Judaism. Peter is saying, however, that while God may have chosen Israel and continues to treasure Israel, God ultimately shows no partiality to any specific group. This may seem contradictory, but I think God can hold things into tension. The message that Peter heard in his vision and he shares now is that in Christ all are welcome. God may have chosen Israel, but that doesn’t exclude Gentiles from enjoying the blessings of God’s realm.

 

                If we can remove any possible taint of anti-Semitism from this statement, then we get to what I think is the core message here, and that is God welcomes everyone into the family. The criteria we often use to exclude have no standing here. In the case of Cornelius, Peter may have in mind his Gentile status. He might also have been concerned about Cornelius’ military career. But, apparently, none of this matters to God.  

 

                Now, this moment has been coming for some time. It would seem to be rooted in the call to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That could have been simply a call to minister to the diaspora, but even the Gospel of Luke there are hints that Jesus has other things in mind. Eventually, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles will take center stage, but not quite yet. It’s actually Peter who gets the first honor of breaking down the wall of separation. Again, we need to be careful not to cast Jews in a negative light. There were degrees of welcome in Judaism of the first century and earlier, just as there have been degrees of welcome within the Christian community toward those who have lived outside the circle.

 

                The context for hearing this message is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, which inaugurates his ministry. The context of the passage is a different baptism, but one that marks a transitional moment in the life of the church. Paul will be the lead person in the Gentile mission, but Peter is the one who takes the first step. That’s appropriate. He was, it seems, Jesus’ closest companion. He was the leader of the church. Whatever decision he made in a situation like this set the parameters for what would come later.

 

                The sermon he preaches to Cornelius’ household occurs only because Peter had already experienced conversion through the vision in which God reminded him that he should not declare unclean what God had declared clean. Now that part of the story isn’t mentioned here, but it’s the context. We wouldn’t be here without that vision.

 

                So, what does Peter’s declaration that God shows no partiality mean for the 21st-century Christian community? After all, our churches remain largely segregated according to ethnicity/race. Some of this is cultural and some of it has to do with comfort level. But it also to do with the fact that many of us in the White Christian community has not yet made peace with our complicity in the suppression/oppression of minority communities. Then there is the church’s relationship to those who make up the LBTQ community, which itself is not monolithic. The church as a whole has been largely hostile to this community, to everyone’s detriment. The story that we find in Acts 10 and 11 has proven to be an important piece in my own journey to welcoming fully my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. The Spirit moves as the Spirit moves!  

 

                Regarding the question of Partiality, I appreciate this word from Matthew Skinner:

A God who “shows no partiality” is not politically neutral or aloof; the expression in this context indicates God’s active concern for all humanity. Peter would have already known this from Jewish scriptural traditions, but he sees it coming to pass now in an unexpected way, with old boundaries passing away and new solidarity and fellowship springing into being, sealed by the Holy Spirit. If God shows this kind of impartiality, so should God’s people. [Connections, Kindle Edition].

Boundaries are difficult to let go of, but as Peter discovered in his encounter with Cornelius, it’s possible. It’s just a matter of flowing with the Spirit. So, what about our boundaries and barriers? What needs to go so that God’s inclusive love might be made known to the world? Since this is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, how does such a concern relate to our understanding of baptism?

 

There’s Always Next Year: Lent 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

There’s Always Next Year: Lent 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 31, 2019

Read Matthew 25:1-13 (CEB)

Reflection

coors-field-4045017_1280My partner in crime at the blog, Bob Cornwall has a blog post from 2014 where he reflects on this very text.  In it, he talks about the Chicago Cubs and how most Cubs fans always say at the end of the season, “there’s always next year.”  For well over century, the Cub fans believed that someday and someday soon, the Cubs would make it back to the World Series and win, which they last did in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt was President. They had not even been to the World Series since 1945. Bob said in his commentary, “After all, most Cub fans have never seen a World Series played at Wrigley Field.  Perhaps they never will.”

Oh, ye of little faith. 

What Bob didn’t know writing in 2014 is that two years later, the Cubs would do the impossible: winning the World Series in 7 games.  What fans had been waiting for finally happened, but as Bob’s post shows, we didn’t know when.

Think about it this: there were generations of people who never saw the Cubs win the world series.  You have to believe that each person until their dying day believed that the next year would be the year for the Cubs. “There’s always next year.”

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is one of those stories that leaves both scared and mad.  Jesus is in the middle of telling several tales about the coming judgment when God returns. Next week we will hear about the Sheep and the Goats, but this week we hear the story of ten virgins. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven (which usually means God) is like ten virgins waiting at a wedding, waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. When he arrived at the house, the bridesmaids would greet him and escort the gentleman to the house of the bride where there would be feasting. We hear this story about the ten virgins and learn that five brought extra oil for their lamps and five didn’t do that.  Why didn’t the wise virgins share their oil with the foolish ones?  Why did the groom not welcome let the foolish virgins in after they purchased extra oil?

The temptation here is to get lost in the weeds and make this a story about the selfish virgins that didn’t share.  But that’s not the point of the parable.  The point of the parable is readiness, a kind of alert waiting for something, even when we don’t know when it will happen.

I remember as a kid that we had to go through fire drills.  The thing is, you never knew when the drill would take place. It could happen when we are studying math or taking a quiz.  Whenever it happened, we had to stop what we were doing and quietly leave the room and head out of the building.

But in the meantime, you had to learn arithmetic.  You need to read Shakespeare.  You have to do all the things you had to do at school.

As Christians, we await when Christ returns. We believe as the Apostles Creed says that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Until that day comes, we wait and you know what it means to wait? It means to live our lives.  It means we gather with other Christ followers at church and where we take part in the Lord’s Supper.  It means caring for the least of these around us.  We wait, by living, aware that God is present and that God will return.

It took a long time for the Cubs to win a world series.  But people just kept going to ballgames at Wrigley Field telling themselves at the end of every season, “there’s always next year.” Hopefully, the Cubs will win before 2124, but even if that is the case, there will be people waiting until next year. May it be with us as followers of Jesus.  We live and we wait, because who knows what will happen “next year.”

 

Notes:

 

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

Dressed for the Occasion: Lent 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Dressed for the Occasion: Lent 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 24, 2019

Read Matthew 22:1-14 (CEB)

Reflection

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Photo by Ibrahim Asad from Pexels

In 1978 when I was around 8 years old, I participated in my first wedding.  Well, it wasn’t a real wedding, it was a Tom Thumb wedding. If you are familiar with the practice this is a play wedding where are the participants, the pastor, the bride, the groom, the best man, the bridesmaid, everyone is a child.  I was part of the groom’s party and I remember having to dress in a tux. I remember having to go to a tuxedo rental place to find a tux that would fit me.

The day came for the wedding.  We had the event and then got in cars and drove around the neighborhood in our pretend procession for our pretend wedding.

What I remember from that occasion was that all of the kids were dressed to the nines.  Of course, we had to be, it was a wedding. Well, that and our parents kind of made us dress up for the event.

It’s funny that even though we had to have the proper attire for the event, adults don’t always dress up for the occasion.  I know that we are a more casual culture these days, but I think at times we’ve gone overboard.  I’m always looking at how people dress when they go to weddings and there is always someone that looks like they literally came off the street.  I’ll be honest, I’m not always a fan of dressing to the nines, but I know there are certain events, weddings, and funerals, where it just makes sense to dress up- not to look good, but to show that this event means something, that it isn’t every day.

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is one that is confusing and disturbing.  It’s disturbing that people didn’t want to go to a wedding and they didn’t want to do it so badly that they were willing to kill for it, which is what the king did when some servants were killed by ungrateful subjects.

The king then asks his servants to go and find people on the streets and invite them to the banquet.  This should be where the parable ends, with the king or God inviting the poor to take part in the banquet. Kind of a nice picture isn’t it?

But the tale doesn’t end there. There is still part two.

The banquet is taking place, people are enjoying themselves and the king then notices there is one person that is not wearing wedding clothes.  The king asks, “Friend, where are your wedding clothes?”  The man is speechless. The king angrily demands his servants cast the man out of the banquet and into the darkness.

It’s that odd act of casting out the man who didn’t wear wedding clothes.  It seems mean.

But let’s look at this from another viewpoint. It’s important to remember that this is talking about the end of the time. Salvation is offered to all. Some hear and accept and others don’t.  Some see their salvation and live in wonder. But others take their salvation for granted. Living in wonder and thankfulness is like wearing your fancy duds.  If you take it for granted, it’s like wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Not wearing the clothes of grace is not accepted at the banquet.  It was an offense, so the man was cast out. One note, nothing says the man wasn’t allowed back in if he got the proper clothes.

There is such a thing as cheap grace which means understanding you are forgiven, but not really making any changes in your life because of what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

I can imagine 8-year-old me was happy to get out of that tux at the Tom Thumb wedding.  I was eight years old after all. But I never did forget to make sure I dressed for the occasion.  And may we not forget that as well.

This is an excerpt from a Bible Study from the Chronicles of God series. You can learn more by going to the Chronicles of God website.

Notes:

 

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

Transmogrify!: Transfiguration

Transmogrify!: Transfiguration

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 3, 2019

Reflection

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The late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is rumored to have said that when Jesus calls us to follow him, bids us to come and die.  To be a disciple is to be a person that makes decisions that cause people to die.  It is about denying ourselves, living just for us and being willing to take up our crosses. Most of the time the dying or the cross is figurative; sometimes it is literal.  Indeed, Bonhoeffer stood against Hitler and Fascism.  Because he stood up to evil, he was imprisoned and later executed- all in the name of Christ.

Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and countless others are Christians who felt called to follow Jesus, even when the road was uncomfortable, even when it meant their lives.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we are all going to die.  But being a disciple does change us, or at least it should.  Like Jesus on the mountain, we are going to be changed.  It means that daily we will deny ourselves and take up the crosses in our lives. The reason we go to church is to gather as a community of disciples, to be reminded who we are and whose we are.  Peter is like most of us, we want to follow Jesus, but we don’t want to change-we want to stay on the mountain.

But to be a Christ follower means being changed.  

 Based on the events that took place in Selma, Alabama in February and March of 1965, the 2015 movie Selma is not just a story about civil rights, it is an example of discipleship.  The base of operations for the protest was an African Methodist Episcopal congregation.  A white Unitarian minister, James Reeb, came down to participate in the protests. He was beaten by white supremacists and later died from his injuries.  Then there is Amelia Boyton Robinson.  She was a civil rights activist who died in 2015 at the age of 103. . She was involved in the protests especially during “Bloody Sunday” a day when the police beat the protestors who were crossing the bridge. She was among those injured.  She believed in nonviolent protests and the call to love the enemy.  She even went to the funeral of the sheriff in Selma, the one who led the charge against the protestors.  That’s discipleship: to follow Jesus even to the point of loving someone who really hurt you.

This is an excerpt from a Bible Study from the Chronicles of God series. You can learn more by going to the Chronicles of God website.

Notes:

 

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

Loaves Abound!: Epiphany 6

Loaves Abound!: Epiphany 6

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 24, 2019

Reflection

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A modern interpretation of the feeding of the 5000 as a parable about sharing.  That take says that when Jesus uses the bread and fish that the disciples found, others who had brought food, felt safe to bring their it out and share it with others.  The reasons behind seeing this story as one about sharing is that it doesn’t put it all in God’s hands.  We are also called to feed the poor among us. An example of this comes from Episcopal author Barbara Brown Taylor who explains that she has a problem with miracles:

“Miracles,” she writes, “ let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all. But in this story,” she writes, “God tells us, out of God’s own deep pain and sadness for the world, ‘Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.” 1

On the other hand, theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that we have lost the language to explain miracles.  He writes:

“Those of us who dwell in the time called modernity do not easily recognize miracles because we have lost any sense of the miracle of life. Wendell Berry suggests that we cannot recognize the miracle of life because we use the wrong language to speak of the world and its creatures. We use the analytic language that gives power to experts and fails to designate what is being described. As a result, the world has been reclassified from creature to machine, making us strangers to our own lives.” 2

Which one makes sense?  The focus on sharing seems plausible and reasonable.  But looking at Barbara Brown Taylor’s quote, it seems to tell us that God doesn’t intervene into our lives, but tells us to figure it out ourselves. When God does seem to get involved, it seems like it focuses on morals than it is focused on God. A pastor responds that for him the greater miracle was Jesus getting people to share than it is having Jesus feeding 5000 with the loaves and fish.  The pastor’s belief is that the point of this story is for us to learn to share, to be moral people. Jesus does want the disciples to feed the crowd, but he has to show them how that happens.

If you see this story alone then, you could see this as a moral tale, but this story is linked to how God feeds the Israelites as they traveled in the desert. The people had to rely on God to feed them daily.  It also looks towards the church where bread and wine remind us of Christ’s work on the cross.

Some have a hard time coming to terms with Jesus performing a miracle.  The sharing story just makes more sense than taking a little food and feeding it to 5000 people.  At the end of the day, how we look at the story depends on who is the focus of the story, the disciples or us or God? The answer will lead us down one path or another.

Notes:

  1. http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2014/080314.html
  2.  Hauerwas, S. (2006). Matthew (p. 140). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

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

God Provides, Reconciles, and Redeems – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 7C (Genesis 45)

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Genesis 45:3-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

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If you grew up learning the stories of the Bible you will have heard the stories of Joseph and his brothers. You would know that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, for he was the first-born child of Jacob’s favorite wife (Rachel). You may know that Joseph was a bit arrogant, especially after his father gave him a coat of many colors. In his arrogance he told his brothers that they would bow down to him and serve him. This arrogance on Joseph’s part so angered his older brothers, that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Once in Egypt he made his mark and rose in stature, but then ended up in prison after Potiphar’s wife tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce him, and subsequently crying attempted rape. Joseph was arrogant, but not a rapist. His ability to interpret dreams got him freed from prison and eventually brought to the attention of Pharaoh, who had a dream he couldn’t understand. Joseph interpreted the dream, telling Pharaoh that a famine was coming, and that Pharaoh should plan for that eventuality. Pharaoh decided that it would be wise to give responsibility for this project to the one who interpreted the dream. Thus, Joseph moved from slavery to prison to chief minister. Not bad for an arrogant brat! Then again, his father was something of a trickster who always seemed to come out on top!

Joseph fulfilled his responsibilities, and provision was made for the time when famine arrived, not only in Egypt but as far away as Canaan, the land of his father and mother. When Jacob heard that there was food to be had in Egypt, he sent his sons to purchase supplies. This they did, not knowing that the one who would provide for them was their long-lost brother. They may not have recognized him, but he recognized them. So he played a trick on them, to test them. He had a silver cup he used for divination (yes Joseph practiced divination) placed in Benjamin’s belongings, and then sent his guards after them. That episode, leads to the reading for the seventh Sunday of Epiphany. It’s rare to make it seven Sundays in Epiphany, but here we are with this encounter between estranged brothers, which serves as another manifestation of God’s presence.

In the chapter prior, Joseph sets up a test (trap) to see, apparently, where the heart of their brothers was? Had they changed over the many years of separation. And, what would they do about their brother Benjamin? Would they ransom him or not? Judah does so. He pleads for his brother’s life. This leads to the moment of revelation.

When Joseph could no longer keep up the act, having been satisfied that his brothers had changed, and wanting to provide for his long-lost father, he identifies himself as their brother. Now, you can just imagine the first thoughts of his older brothers. Here was the brother they first tried to kill, then sold into slavery. They figured he was dead by now. Instead, he had risen to be the second most important person in the land. He could easily have them killed. So, what would he do to them?

Joseph, who desired to be reconciled, quickly let them know they had nothing to fear. They may have meant him harm many years before, but things sometimes have a way of working out for the benefit of all, even when they are entered into with the wrong motives. There is a bit of a theological challenge here. Joseph, in trying to allay their fears, tells them that while they meant him harm, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” This episode raises a question that is worth exploring. Does God cause bad things to happen, so good can come of it? Or, does God work with us to bring good out of bad situations? In other words, did God orchestrate all of this, or did God partner with Joseph to bring a blessing out of a difficult situation? As for me, I affirm the second position.

Tom Oord takes up this episode in his book God Can’t. He suggests that “God took what God didn’t want and squeezed good from it. God brought good from bad, positive from negative, health from hate. God redeemed.” God did this in Joseph’s situation. The brothers may have intended harm for Joseph, but God didn’t. Nevertheless, God did bring good out of bad. [God’ Can’t, p. 115].

Having revealed himself to his brothers and suggesting that God had brought good out of bad, he invited his brothers to bring their father to Egypt so they could settle in Goshen and enjoy the bounty that was God’s provision. They do so. They gather their father and settle in Goshen. And all is good, or so it seems.

It’s interesting that the brothers remain suspicious of Joseph’s motives. Once their father has passed from the scene, they begin to worry. Maybe Joseph hasn’t really forgiven but didn’t want to his father. Now that the father is dead, well Joseph might decide to exact revenge. Joseph, who was good at reading things, realized his brothers were worried, so he reassured them. He told them, “Do not be afraid!” He assured them that “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50:15-21).

What we see in this final episode of Genesis is a reminder that God is committed to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. God will continue to be with them, even when a time will come when there will arise in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. (Exodus 1:8). This new Pharaoh grew frightened of this “foreign presence” in the land. But that’s another story, except that it too is part of the covenant story. God will not forget God’s people. God is always on the lookout for partners, whether Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, or Moses.

As for the relationship of estranged brothers, Joseph’s actions presaged the words of Jesus as recorded in Luke regarding loving one’ enemies:

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38 NIV).

And the covenant people kissed, wept, and made up—though it took more than once before everyone was truly convinced! This is a good reminder that forgiveness is not easy. Sure, Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn. Forgive, and we’ll be forgiven. Yet, we know the difficulties involved. Joseph learned some important lessons during his sojourn in Egypt. It took some time for him to come to the point of forgiveness. It took longer for his brothers to believe him. Reconciliation is not easy. But it is possible, when we join with God in the act of redemption. This act of reconciliation that took place here is one small part of a larger story or redemption, which we are invited to share in. Thanks be to God!

Picture Attribution: Bourgeois, Leon Pierre Urbain. Joseph recognized by his brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55355 [retrieved February 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers.jpg.